Biscuits, My Mom, and Edna Lewis

If I had to choose a single page in a single cookbook that was the most precious to me, I would choose this one.

If I had to choose a single page in a single cookbook that was the most precious to me, I would choose this one: the recipes for cornbread and biscuits, written in my mother’s own hand, in a spiral bound composition notebook.

Stained from countless uses, it doesn’t actually have any instructions for the biscuits, save the temperature and how long to bake them. That knowledge didn’t need recording on paper for me. My mom wrote just five pages of recipes in this little notebook she gave me some time after I graduated from college. She later gave me a larger three-ring binder of Xeroxed recipes, also written in her own hand, from her own composition notebook with many more recipes that she’s felt the need to record over the years. It used to have a colorful collage she made glued on the front, but that has since been torn off from the number of times I pulled it off my cookbook shelf. I do have the black-and-white copy of that image on the first page in that notebook, along with her inscription to me.

That inscription bears a strong resemblance to the one she wrote in Edna Lewis’s classic cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking. There she wrote:

My Big Queen

Have a wonderful time with this book – I have.

Love Mom

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, but neither side of my family was recently from the south. My maternal grandmother grew up in Memphis, but my mom had been raised in Kansas and New England, and my dad’s family was firmly from New York, having immigrated from Eastern Europe as Jews fleeing the pogroms and persecution at the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, my childhood memories of food are tied to the south, in large part because of my mom’s love of food and what food could tell you about a place. I recall a drive we made once, a rather significant drive in my memory, to a place that sold Lebanese food in rural Virginia. I tasted zaatar for the first time there, and remember the taste of their feta, so unlike what we bought in the grocery store.

We made a pilgrimage to Freetown, Virginia, as well. It was a good two hours from where we lived (it’s faster today with improved roads and someone who is not my mom driving) but it was the childhood home of Edna Lewis, the descendent of formerly enslaved people who founded the town once they secured their freedom. She wrote the recipe Mom used for biscuits, stewed blackberries, and a wide range of other dishes. The community wasn’t much to look at then. Mostly a post office and fields, really. Most folks had moved away. Indeed, Edna Lewis wrote in her introduction that after reminiscing with her siblings about gathering and preparing food:

I realized how much of the bond that held us had to do with food. Since we were the last of the original families, with no children to remember and carry on, I decided I wanted to write down just exactly how we did things when I was growing up in Freetown that seemed to make life so rewarding.

She wrote to preserve that connection to her ancestors, to the people who taught her about food and family and place. Her book is filled with stories, not just recipes. And the recipes reflect just who her people were in times of celebration. This is a book of Black joy if there ever was one.

Emancipation Day Feast

While I was a kid, my mom’s work on voting rights, restitution for forced sterilizations, and abolishing the death penalty had opened my eyes pretty young (for a white girl) to the depths of racism and anti-Blackness in Virginia. Her love of food and culture, though, shared the other side of the coin too. Her work allowed us to violate the apartheid of the south in the 1970s and 80s, and so I saw celebration and everyday living. And I learned about biscuits.

In my south, biscuits need to be right. They need to be able to be opened without a knife, just by pulling apart while still warm. They need to be pillowy on the inside and a little crispy on the outside. They often call for lard in the recipe, though I use butter today. My mom made a sign she hung in her kitchen in the early 80s that read: “Everything cooked in real Butter unless Lard is more appropriate.” I must note that my mom has also had long stretches of eating vegan in her life, so this sign is not truly representative of her today. But you get the picture.

Like Edna Lewis, food ties my family together. My brother shares my tastes and food memories, and our favorite dishes come from our mom’s handwritten notebook. This morning as she ate these biscuits, my daughter sighed and said, “I have eaten some good food in my life.” For her, biscuits will have to be right too. Cornbread as well, which we only eat with butter and molasses. It’s almost not worth eating them without the molasses in our household. Biscuits should be served with butter and local honey or homemade jam. Today’s jam came from our neighbor, who made it with the figs from the tree of our neighbor on the other side.

Fig Preserves, with oranges
With honey, my favorite

I should note that the biscuit recipe that I love, that ties me to my mom, differs from the one that appears in Edna Lewis’s book. Perhaps I have a different version than my mom had. You’ll also see that my mom has many versions of it based on the size of your crowd. I’ll write the instructions for the one scaled for a family of four. Of course, mine is a family of three, so I cut them to come out with nine biscuits, for fairness. You’ll do what is best for you.

The last one is always odd

The way I make the biscuits has changed over time. My mom used to make them without any kneading, just dropping them into a pie dish, where they rose in the oven to touch their sides together. Now we both knead them three times and cut them. I use a drinking glass, though I own biscuit cutters, because I like them a certain size. Flour that glass, people! No matter how many times I’ve made these, I always think of my mom as I do it. Same with pie crusts. I learned how to make food right from her. I got my tongue from her – my tastes are her tastes. My sense of scale with cooking belongs to her – too much is always better than not enough. People at your table should feel like they can eat as much as they want. And my style of appreciation of food came from her too. One should exclaim – often – about the food we eat. If people aren’t raving, it’s probably not good. (This one is not especially a good lesson, I admit. Don’t follow this one! But I can’t be truly friends with someone who hasn’t been ecstatic about my cooking at some point. It’s a character flaw on my part, I know, but you can blame my mom.)

As I pass this recipe along to you, I’m passing along my love of my mom. Biscuits are love transformed into nourishment. They are particular, they are personal, they are place that can be carried with you when you move. Don’t thank me for this recipe, thank my mom and Edna Lewis.

Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons cream of tartar (find this with the spices in your grocery store)

1/2 cup unsalted butter or lard

3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients; then cut in the lard or butter until well combined and the flour looks a bit like cornmeal. I use a food processor these days. Add the buttermilk until just mixed (I do 11-13 pulses with the food processor). Turn out onto a floured surface and knead about three times. Flatten the dough gently with your hand until it is about ¾ inch thick. Cut out with a floured biscuit or a drinking glass. You should have about 8-9 biscuits. Place on an ungreased pan and bake for about 13 minutes until golden brown. Serve hot with butter, honey, and jam.

Green Chile Casserole – Stay for the Story

I want to share this recipe with you but I want to share Maribeth with you, too.

You can almost smell it, can’t you?

Not everyone is lucky when it comes to mother-in-laws, but I am. I got Maribeth Hill. We both remember our first meeting with perfect clarity. She remembers exactly what we were both wearing, down to our shoes, because that is one of her superpowers. I remember where we ate for dinner.

When we met, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get along. In some ways – ways that are easy to see – we are quite different. Maribeth seldom emerges from her bedroom without lipstick. She always wears jewelry to match her outfit, and had standing nail and hair appointments. I’m not very careful about my appearance, to be honest. She was raised in Enid, Oklahoma, while I came from the East Coast. We were, of course, from different generations. But it turned out that we were very similar in some less visible ways: we both love learning about new people, we can recall details about people’s lives without needing reminding, and we love to explore new foods.

Maribeth and I are quite different kinds of cooks. I like to read four or five recipes and combine them to make what I had in mind. Maribeth once told me, “I’m not sure why that dish didn’t come out – I followed the recipe exactly. I mean, if it tells me I have to stand on my head and chop the onions with my feet, I’m going to do it!” She loved eating what I cooked, though, and always made me feel so good about myself. That’s one of her superpowers too – the ability to make everyone feel seen and valued and interesting.

One of my biggest cooking disasters came quite early in our relationship. I was making Dutch babies (see Dutch Babies and Other Delights) for breakfast, which are cooked at high heat. I forgot that the day before I had cleaned some candlesticks by heating them slightly in the oven. I didn’t realize that some of the wax had dripped into the oven itself. While we were visiting over coffee, I casually glanced at the oven only to see flames leaping inside! I raced in, scooped out the wax, and hoped that no one noticed. Dutch babies remained one of Maribeth’s favorites for me to cook her, enough so that she bought a special pan for them that she kept at her home for when I visited.

That’s another favorite thing about Maribeth: she often planned ahead for my visits. I would get to her house and discover that she had the ingredients all ready for something I had made on a previous trip. It might be Dutch babies, it might be a quinoa salad, or a cocktail or delicious romesco sauce or bleu cheese and kalamata olive spread. I loved cooking for her.

We also went to the grocery store together more times than I can count. On those trips, away from everyone else in the house, we sometimes had our most intimate conversations. We talked about the things that were bothering us or worrying us while we drove to the store and back. We could read each other pretty well and are both gentle about pulling out what the other one needed to talk about. I love that those conversations happened in the most mundane space, the trip to the store.

At home, Maribeth was always moving. Cooking, setting the table with her dishes that delighted her, cleaning up after me. Planning the next meal, thinking about who would be coming over for dinner or a drink. Even when I cooked, she was completely engaged and active. She watched and prepped and suggested. She told me I was working too hard.

We liked going to restaurants together too. She loved to go out for breakfast and when we lived in Arizona, we enjoyed taking her and my father-in-law to fancy brunches at the resorts outside Tucson and Phoenix. They both loved going to places they would never think to try, like to a Mexican seafood spot in Guadalupe or the Cuban tapas place downtown. One of our favorite memories, though, was the time she and I went down to the bar at the hotel where we were staying for her oldest granddaughter’s wedding. The two of us ordered appetizers and cocktails and talked for hours, long after everyone else went to bed. She could tell you what we were wearing.

All of these small moments in food can tell you the story of our friendship, and about the person that she is, and was. Maribeth loved food as she loved life – with curiosity and vigor. She is at the end of that beautiful life now, suffering from terminal lung cancer. I have cooked my last meals for her. When we went for a visit in December, I made her a cherry pie although she had a failing appetite. She had told me that she always asked for the same birthday meal as a child: fried oysters, French fries, and cherry pie. And she ate that pie. When we couldn’t tempt her with anything else, she would agree to the pie. She agreed to several French 75s as well. She likes a fancy cocktail. Now, as she is fading, we – her family – take comfort in what she has decided to eat each day. The burrito bowl day was a good day. The day she sampled each flavor of ice cream offered reassured us.

On that visit in December, I asked her what dishes she thought she was most known for among her family and friends. She immediately said chile relleno casserole and her guacamole. Later, she told me that she’d have to add Yummy Potatoes to that list also. Last night, my 13-year-old daughter made her MeMe’s chile relleno casserole for our family for dinner. I’ll share that recipe below.

Z and MeMe

I wanted to share this recipe with you but I want to share Maribeth with you too, and my love for her. When people complain about having to scroll down to a buried recipe, they forget that sharing stories of food, sharing food experiences, is the motivation for most women who write food blogs. We write the story because the story is the point. The relationship is the point. The experience and the learning and creativity is the point. Food is culture, people, and always made in community. And every time I eat this chile relleno casserole, I will think of my beautiful, warm, fun-loving, and loving mother-in-law, Maribeth Hill. She is the reason I’m sharing this with you.

Chile Relleno Casserole

  • 1 27-oz. can of whole green chiles (if you can get fresh roasted, do it!)
  • 1 lb Monterrey jack cheese (we used queso fresco last night)
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 ¼ cup milk
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Dash of fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 cups (1 lb.) grated mild cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drain the can if you are using canned green chiles. Slit the green chiles lengthwise and remove seeds. Slice the Monterrey jack or queso fresco into ¼ inch thick slices and place inside the chiles, laying them in a 13×9 inch ungreased pan. Mix the eggs, milk, flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Pour over chiles. Sprinkle the top evenly with the cheddar cheese. Bake for 45 minutes until browned.

A Recipe, with Love

If I’ve made this dish for you, I loved you.

Today I am going to give you a recipe that is filled up with love. I’ve been on the internet too much today and there has been a whole lot of not-love out there. I mean, just way too much of things that are anti-love. And this dish is going to help. It’s going to fill your belly and your heart. It’s the recipe I have been asked for more than any other dish I make, hands down.

I got this recipe from Deborah Madison, my favorite cookbook author, from her book, The Savory Way. My very favorite cookbook is another one of hers, but this was my first and the spine is broken right on the recipe.

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Evidence of love

This was the first dish I made for my now-husband and it may still be his favorite thing I make, which is saying something. I’ve made it for dozens of students over the years at our annual party. If I’ve made it for you, I loved you. I hate to tell you, but if you’ve eaten this served from my kitchen, you might already love me back and have not fully realized that yet. It’s okay to admit it now.

I made this recently because at this time of year my garden and yard are overtaken by cilantro. I have so much I’ve been giving it away to friends. I have even bartered with it!

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That is free-range cilantro among my rose bushes.

I know some of you don’t care for cilantro because of your genetics. I still love you. You might still like this dish, as some have claimed, because it is so fresh and good. But maybe they just said that because they loved me. I don’t know.

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All good things

I have had to change the recipe because my daughter is allergic to sesame. I have added things, like cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas. I usually make it gluten free with tamari and rice noodles because I have a friend who can’t tolerate the gluten. It’s vegan, too, so all your friends can enjoy this in some form. I’m going to give you my simplified version below, because I love you.

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The Sauce of Love

Peanut Sauce (from Deborah Madison’s Savory Way)

6 large cloves of garlic
1.5 ounces of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped (about 2 Tbs)
1 large bunch cilantro, large stems removed

1/2 c natural peanut butter
1/3 c soy sauce (or tamari)
1 Tbs peanut oil
1 Tbs dark sesame oil
1 Tbs hot chile oil (I just use olive oil and mix in a little cayenne)
3 Tbs rice wine vinegar
3 Tbs sugar

Blend all but the last two ingredients in food processor or blender. Add the last two, adjusting to taste. And if you don’t have the fancy oils, just use olive oil. No one complains.

I serve this over cold noodles (even ramen work great) with chopped tomatoes, sliced green onion, ½ c cilantro, and tofu. Toss 1 lb of noodles with 2 tablespoons of peanut or sesame oil.

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Before sauce

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Properly dressed

I know I usually give you a little anthropology in these posts. But today, I feel kind of spent. I also am just motivated to put something good out in the world. That’s all I’ve got.

Grateful Cake

The combined loveliness of two acts of friendship seemed to cry out for a celebration.

In May and June of 2014, I took a group of college students on a study trip along the U.S.-Mexico border. They had all taken a course with me about cultures of the borderlands, and they were an amazing group of young women. Today, they are scattered around the country, but they keep in touch with me and with each other. As we read about the border in the news over the years, we all recall what we learned together.

This week, I got a present from one of them. She lives in Tucson now, working with refugees. She sent me a bag of mesquite flour made from beans she collected by the Santa Cruz river, and a jar of olives, also collected around town and cured herself. In this time of relative deprivation due to COVID-19 – deprived of friendship and of easy access to food – her gift felt like a little miracle. Both products took effort and planning, making wild plants into precious food. In both, the gratification from collection to consumption is quite delayed, but is all the more delightful because of the wait.

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Mesquite pods ripening.  Photo Credit: Elissa McDavid

On our trip in 2014, the students tasted and ground the flour themselves for the first time. We sought the shade of a mesquite to do the work, and touched the flour to our lips cautiously. I recall what a pleasure it was to see their astonishment at how very sweet the beans are.

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Anna grinds beans while we hide in the shade

We looked for mesquite trees for their shade often on that trip, relishing the cool they bring to the desert.

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A lovely old one

Almost on the same day, a friend bought me wheat flour and yeast at the grocery store because she knew I had been unable to find either for weeks. I brought her a bouquet of flowers from my yard and a bunch of cilantro that I could easily spare. We made the trade in her driveway, keeping our distance. First, she put her goods on her car and retreated; then I approached and took hers and left mine. We sat about 15 feet apart and talked for a few minutes in the sun. Seeing each other’s living face, unmediated by a machine. I’m so grateful for that moment and for my former student, now friend, who thought of me in this dark time.

The combined loveliness of these two acts of friendship seemed to cry out for a celebration. I turned, of course, to From I’itoi’s Garden, a cookbook I have written about before. I knew the Tohono O’odham would have some good ideas about how to use mesquite flour. The Tohono O’odham people ate mesquite beans as a snack off the tree, or ground them into flour. The flour could be made into a porridge or into balls by mixing with water and drying in the sun to save for later. Today, the flour is used for all kinds of goodies with recipes in this great cookbook. I’m sharing their unaltered recipe here for the cake, though I modified it by making a layer cake and using an orange buttercream frosting. That was all me.

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The decoration was also me

Almond Mesquite Cake

2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup mesquite flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/3 cups milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix dry ingredients together in a small bowl. Cream sugar, butter and eggs, and almond extract in a mixer.  Alternate adding dry mixture with milk  to the butter mixture in three additions each. Pour batter into two buttered and floured (and I used parchment paper) 9″ cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes.

Orange Buttercream Frosting

1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
Zest of one orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons orange extract
3-4 tablespoons fresh orange juice

Slivered almonds, toasted

Beat together butter and  orange zest. Gradually beat in sugar until blended. Add liquids and beat. Taste for orange. I like it tangy.

Frost the cake and decorate with toasted slivered almonds. I put on a lemon blossom for prettiness.

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We ate this sucker up.

Enjoy while thinking of your generous and glorious friends.

 

On the Importance of Growing Herbs

There’s a reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need.

I love traveling, as you know, and as I have grown older I’ve found that I like having a home base in a new country. I like being able to stay a week or so somewhere and rent a house or apartment for that time. I like having my own little kitchen, to be able to make coffee without having to get dressed and fix my hair in some fashion (you would understand this if you saw my hair in the morning), just to eat a little something with my coffee. You could save money this way too, by cooking for yourself instead of going to a restaurant. I find, though, that I seldom cook real meals while in these places.

Of course, one of the reasons for this is that I travel to eat local food. Honestly, it’s one of the things I like best about a new place – trying new food. Sharing food is a great way to connect with other people (please read How to Eat Like a Costa Rican), allowing them to teach you through offering what they value most. Certainly, eating the food introduces you to so much about a culture and environment. So cooking at home loses some of it’s allure for me when traveling.

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Local cheeses, sampled outside Bellagio, Italy

But there’s another reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need. Is there a little known law prohibiting sharp knives in rental places? There must be! All pots must be dented and thin, and non-stick pans must be dangerously peeling. In one house in Costa Rica, there was no more than a single example of any given drinking vessel, meaning that each person’s cocktail or coffee was a radically different experience. There will be a colander, but it will be located in a dubious spot, like the laundry room or the bathroom, giving you pause about using it for your pasta.

Staple foods may or may not be there. Sugar is a big maybe, cooking oil may not be the freshest if it’s there at all. Anything other than that, salt, pepper, and some mysterious hot sauce in the fridge, is going to be absent.

I can handle that. I don’t mind buying oil at a market and leaving the remains behind for whoever cleans the place to take home. I like shopping at foreign markets, so this is fun too. But my cooking just doesn’t taste as good in a strange kitchen, and I know why: I depend on fresh herbs.

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Parsley, garlic, thyme, oregano, and cilantro, all from my garden

I want you to start growing some herbs. When I lived in apartments, I kept herbs in pots on the window sill. When I rented a room in someone’s house in New Mexico, I begged to start a little garden in their back yard and they let me. I immediately put in some perennial herbs, like thyme and mint and oregano. When we were in Italy for a month, I bought a basil plant and kept it on the window sill and it’s the only reason I cooked at home. I grew a little basil plant in my first apartment in Arizona, and someone stole it off my porch and I cried some bitter tears, I tell you. (I may have written about this trauma elsewhere (The Terrifying Truth about Pesto), but I repeat it here because it was so cruel. If I live to be 100, I’ll be telling this story.)

The first garden I planted in my extremely ample yard, which was entirely grass when we move in, was devoted to herbs. My quart-sized rosemary has grown to a behemoth that shelters small animals, probably six feet in diameter today. My thyme and oregano have migrated around the garden, dying in one area and establishing themselves in another. The lemon balm may have been a terrible error, but I just can’t bring myself to eradicate it completely because it smells so good. I read a book years ago whose title and plot has entirely faded from my memory. My only recollection of it is a character who always planted gardens that were more than visually pleasing – they had to have a scent or a taste to accompany the leaves and flowers. My lemon balm reminds me of that book.

There is nothing I love more than running out to my garden, even after dark or in the snow, to fetch an herb I need for a recipe.

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I shook the snow off these . . .

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To add to this beautiful dish

Obviously, not everyone has the time or space or resources for a garden, but you might have it for your window sill.

If you do have room for a little herb garden, then I want to tell you about my pollinators. My herbs are a huge draw for a wide variety of bees, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars. In this age of insect decline, I am delighted to create a tiny, healthy environment for insects. I’ve watched swallowtail caterpillars decimate my parsley and fennel (they grew back), and seen little bees and wasps in my plants that I see nowhere else in town. Observing that one type of wasp come back every year to my leeks is a reward only matched by the beauty of their flowers.

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A leek ready to bloom

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Monarch butterfly and friends in the lavender

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Pollinators amongst the rosemary, basil, Thai basil, and lemon balm

I’m writing this on a cold, dreary day in January, but my rosemary has tiny blooms on it, as it often does this time of year. My parsley is coming back and the cilantro volunteers are popping up all over the garden. My oregano is leafing out again under the dead and dried blooms of late summer. These three herbs – parsley, cilantro, and oregano – are the backbone for my chimichurri sauce, a recipe I’ve come up with from trial and error. We serve it on grilled meats and vegetables. Our favorite is on grilled chicken or steak, with chopped avocado, rolled in a warm tortilla. I am going to reward you with my special recipe, which is not at all “authentic” to Argentina, where chimichurri originates. It is tasty, though, and another excellent reason to grow your own herbs.

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Add some fresh tomato if you like

Anne’s Chimichurri

¼ cup fresh parsley
¼ cup fresh cilantro
¼ cup fresh oregano
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
½ cup of olive oil
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 shallot (about ¼ cup), chopped

Combine all ingredients in a food processor (or use an immersion blender as I do in a mixing cup) and blend until smooth. Taste for salt and enjoy on grilled veggies or meat.

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My mouth is watering just looking at you, chimichurri

 

 

How to Eat Like a Costa Rican

Back at home now, I can’t help but think about what eating like a Costa Rican can teach us. Use fewer chemicals and more whole foods. Eat what is fresh now. But most of all, share, even when it feels like you don’t have enough. 

I just returned from three weeks in Costa Rica where I was conducting research on aging with a small team of three undergraduate students and another professor. Costa Rica is known for healthy living in general, with a life expectancy slightly greater than that of the United States. One region in particular is known for extreme longevity, and we went to investigate factors related to that pattern. We were not looking at diet, because so much has already been studied regarding what people eat, but people often brought up food when talking about what was different when they were children.

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Costa Rican lunch with pork ribs, potato, beet salad, rice, black beans, green salad, yuca, and watermelon juice to drink, at Rancho Doña Elena in Hojancha

They talked about how they ate what they grew – rice, beans, corn, vegetables, fruit. They talked about how what they grew had no chemicals or pollutants, and how all that is different now, even for farm animals. They talked about collecting food in the forest, and hunting for wild animals to eat. They talked about how life was hard then, but how it was also beautiful. One woman spoke longingly about the land she was raised on – un ranchito – that her father sold when alcohol landed him in trouble with money. She described the little stream there, the plants, the animals that they raised for food, the beauty of the fields. She said, “Now it is all gone and we can never return.” She cleans luxury houses for people from Canada and France, and some Costa Ricans too. And she can cook.

One afternoon, she had come to our place for our interview and to clean (walking over an hour up steep hills as she did not own a car or motorcycle). Since she was killing time before she went home, she rummaged around in the fridge and cupboard, pulling out chicken and rice and a plantain. She asked us if we would mind if she cooked for us. She walked outside and grabbed some wild herbs and cooked up an incredibly savory but simple feast for us. We were bowled over by how tasty it was, but also by her generosity. She, like so many Costa Ricans, had found a way to share with us.

I had warned my students that people would want to share food with us, and that they would have things ready for us to eat when we arrived. Even though I knew this, I am still startled by how much people give, particularly when they often have so little.

It started with mangos. Mangos were ripe and mango trees are big. We were sent home with bags and bags of mangos.

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Emma with so many mangos. Photo: Becky Sherman

It might be easy to see this gesture as getting rid of what you have too much of, but this pattern repeated constantly. One day, we had just met a woman when a guy came in her office with a bag of small fruit for her, which she purchased from him. I inquired about what it was, and she insisted on giving all of us some to try. They were nances, a small, yellow fruit that tasted like nothing else I knew. When we interviewed her at her home later in the week, we could see how very little she had to share, yet she didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Another woman had prepared atol for us. The version we received was a light purple color from the corn she had used and was solid and sweet, like a pudding. She pulled out two big bowls and watched with pleasure as we consumed them. When we returned in three days to pick up some materials from her, she had prepared chicha for us to try, and sent us home with a two-liter bottle. Made from the same corn as the atol, she let the corn-water mixture ferment until it was alcoholic. She was also sucking on a small fruit to help with her sore throat. When I asked what it was, she pulled out a bag and insisted that we take a sack with us. They were mamón, and I just couldn’t bring myself to take more from her, as she was using them to help cure her cold while she was working.

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Beautiful mamón

When we walked out of her house, we were happy to see another woman we had enjoyed interviewing earlier that week. She was visiting a relative across the street and called out to us. Just as she did, another woman came down the lane on a bicycle with the basket filled with homemade bread, pan casero. Our friend quickly bought some for us – the best kind, filled with papaya jam – and insisted that we take it and try it since we had not had the chance yet.

Let me emphasize: no one had money to spare. No one was free of worry about getting enough work. One woman we met with talked of borrowing enough money when she was truly desperate to make atol to sell on the street. Her resourcefulness allowed her family to eat. Her home had chickens running through it, and fruit trees outside as some security from hunger.

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Street view of a home in Sardinal

But everyone shared, all the time. And I started making more coffee when I knew people would come by, and serving whatever we might have in the house.

Eating like a Costa Rican means being ready to feed other people. Eating like a Costa Rican means valuing the flavor of the fruit or the vegetable, and appreciating how it was grown. The food I miss the most are the naturales, the drinks made from putting fresh fruit in a blender with water or milk. They vary daily, because the fruit you have varies.

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This is how you look when you drink naturales de guanábana.

Back at home now, I can’t help but think about what eating like a Costa Rican can teach us. Use fewer chemicals and more whole foods. Eat what is fresh now. But most of all, share, even when it feels like you don’t have enough.  Take pleasure in trying something new and sharing something that a guest has never tried.  I can’t promise it will make you live longer, but I can promise it will make you live better.

 

Recipe Bonus: Watermelon Juice!

Fill your blender with fresh watermelon. Don’t worry about the seeds. Add enough water to make the blender go and puree. Pour the blended watermelon through a strainer into a pitcher to refrigerate. The strainer will remove the seeds and some of the pulp so you don’t have to worry about it. Sometimes I like to add mint. Enjoy the most refreshing drink of summer!

Dutch Babies and Other Delights

If your guests are not crowing about it’s loveliness, then you need new friends or to coach them in better manners.

Today is my daughter’s birthday, so she planned the menu. I’m surprised that each year she has a new request for her birthday dessert, and a different dinner meal as well. Last year was chicken enchiladas with a chocolate cake that had a thick layer of mint frosting in the center and chocolate ganache on top.

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I invented this one!

Other years it is spaghetti with key lime pie. I’ve had to invent a fair number of the desserts, including the cake just mentioned and a s’mores cake. This year her dessert and dinner are easy: snacky dinner (basically a French themed antipasto) and sopapilla cheesecake.

Her requested breakfast, though, has been pretty consistent. First of all, there has to be sausage. My girl loves her some breakfast meat, and link sausages are at the top of the list. And I think I’m not bad at delicious breakfasts, so she really has a list to choose from. My husband, for example, always goes for sourdough pancakes with our fresh blueberries.  My kid, though, always picks a Dutch baby.

Dutch babies are kind of a hit with guests, too. They look very impressive, I think, and they are incredibly simple to make. I use a recipe from James McNair’s book, Breakfast, which I highly recommend.

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Smell the butter . . .

I don’t think they are terrible for you, until you put some goodies on top. Which we like to do. The traditional topping for a Dutch baby is lemon juice and powdered sugar. That’s nice, but that is not what we do. We like to have another family favorite with the Dutch baby: stewed blackberries.

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Stewing in their own juices

These are so good. If you can convince yourself to freeze some of those berries you picked in the summer, this dish is a wonderful use for them. Of course, you can buy frozen berries at the grocery store too. These also are not so bad for you, so we feel the need to add cream and put lemon curd on the Dutch baby. I mean, that’s a little over the top, I know, but it’s just who I am.

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Cream is almost always the right choice.

This trait is probably why you like me, if we are both honest.

Dutch Baby

4 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

lemon zest

8 ounces unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 475ºF. That’s going to be a while, so get to mixing! Beat the eggs until they are frothy and then gradually add the milk while beating. Gradually add the flour while beating as well. Mix in the vanilla. Zest your lemon into the batter.

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Zesty!

By now the oven should be close. Using a cast iron skillet (mine is 11 inches) or other oven safe skillet, put your stick of butter in the pan. Add the pan with the butter to the oven to melt the butter. Watch it closely, because it will go fast! Remove when just melted and pour in the batter. Don’t freak out about the butter. You won’t eat it all. It just keeps things from sticking and it seasons your pan beautifully. Cook for 10-12 minutes, keeping an eye on the baby. It’s going to puff up a lot!

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So beautiful!

Take it out to the admiration of friends and family. If they are not crowing about it’s loveliness, then you need new friends or to coach them in better manners. Serve immediately.

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Stewed Blackberries

Boil 1/2 cup water with 1/4 cup sugar and a cinnamon stick for about 5 minutes. Add 4 cups of frozen blackberries (or a 16 oz. bag) and cover. After it simmers, reduce the heat to low and stir occasionally. You want the boil to be gentle.

Serve with the Dutch baby. My husband likes to coat the Dutch baby with lemon curd and then add a little blackberry juice on there for good measure. Others just keep it separate. Both ways are correct.

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It looks fancy, but it is truly a breeze to make both of these. You should try it!

Summer. Isn’t. Over.

My garden wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much.

I’ve heard you all talking. I’ve heard the comments about getting back to school, about Labor Day, about not wearing white. I’ve seen you looking longingly at your sweaters. You’ve been thinking about making a casserole or baking some muffins, admit it. Just give you one cool morning and this is where we wind up.

My garden heard you too, and she is having none of it. She sent me here to correct these false rumors. First, she wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much. Second, she wants to emphasize that the equinox is just a formality anyway. Haven’t you noticed these nice warm days persist into October? Like, most years? She is going to make the most of it, and she suggests you do it too.

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I made a sauce with these to go with grilled salmon tonight.

Actually, she’s been getting a little forceful about this point. Every time I go inside, I feel her saying, “Don’t you turn your back on me! Do you see these okra? When you get back they are going to be enormous and too tough to eat! I had better see you out here EVERY DAY until I say so!”

Those okra. I’ve had actual dreams of going to the garden and the okra had grown into small trees, taller than my head. You have got to watch those suckers every minute.

My tomatoes are a bit more gentle about it. They stop setting fruit when it gets too hot, but they are only too happy to start up again once things get reasonable again. My cherry tomatoes are ripe again and my slicing tomatoes are setting. That means we’ll have fresh tomatoes until the frost comes, which in Arkansas can be into November. And even then you can harvest and fry up the green ones. Such a good idea!

And this is the time when my basil just gets out of control. I have to harvest so much. So much. Basil goes in everything this time of year. The fact that you can eat basil every day is just proof that it is summer.

Summer eating is simple eating, in my opinion. The flavors of ripe veggies and herbs just want to be appreciated. You don’t really want complex sauces this time of year. You want corn that is barely cooked, with salt and butter. You want a caprese salad. You want green beans cooked just so. Summer cooking doesn’t really need a recipe, does it?

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Keeping It Simple

But perhaps you aren’t sure about the green beans. Or how long to cook the corn. For you, I will write some not-recipes. Just in case you wanted them because you did not grow up with someone who made them. These are for you.

Green Beans, Just So

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It is all so perfect.

First, snap the beans. That means you just snap off both ends of the green bean. Don’t worry about where and don’t cut them. Snapping, by bending until it breaks, helps you get beans that are fresh. Ideally, you can snap right to the edge. But if they don’t snap until you get close to the middle, you are better off with less of that bean. Flexible, bendy beans are not fresh. You want ’em snappy!

Bring some salted water to boil. Add the beans and boil only until they turn bright green, about 4-5 minutes. Meanwhile, get out a bowl to put those beans in. Crush a clove of fresh garlic and add a dollop of mayo to the bowl. When the beans are bright green, drain them and put them immediately, steaming hot, into the bowl. The heat of the beans will release the scent and flavor of the garlic and make a sauce of the mayo. Add fresh ground pepper and salt to taste.

Now, don’t freak out about the mayo. (I use Duke’s, by the way.) Mayo is oil and eggs. It’s not weird or some kind of chemical. The French make it. Just call it aioli. And if you just can’t abide it, toss with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. You might want the lemon even if you use the mayo.

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So tasty with mayo

Corn on the Cob (Not a Real Recipe)

Seriously, I know you can’t believe you are reading this, but you might want it. First of all, get the corn in the husk and don’t put it in the fridge. I try to use corn the same day I get it. I think that’s the key to having really sweet corn because the cold starts working on the sugars. Husk that corn when you are ready to cook it. Boil enough water that the corn could submerge. Bring to a boil and add the corn. Return to a boil and let boil for one minute. You heard me. Turn the heat off and cover the pot for five minutes. Now it is done. Take it out of the pot and slather with butter and salt. The end.

And for dessert? Maybe you would like a fig.

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You probably would like a fig.

So don’t rush into fall! It will get here soon enough and we will revel in winter squashes and persimmons. Just enjoy the now. If you don’t, I’m gonna hear about it from my garden.

Let’s Get Regional

Authentic is the bane of an anthropologist’s existence. Authentic implies one way; it implies the truth and the past. It ignores change and innovation, which all people are allowed.

I do love traveling, don’t you? I’ve been going back to some home places this last month, revisiting favorite parts of the country and, of course, favorite dishes. My journey began with a stop in New Mexico, a state I lived and worked in for a few years. I have to tell you, I love the food in New Mexico. When I was pregnant in Arkansas, all I wanted was ground lamb-stuffed sopapillas with red sauce from Angelina’s in Española, New Mexico. I actually shed tears about this craving. Bitter, bitter tears.

Honestly, Angelina’s is home to a few fabulous dishes, including their chile rellenos.

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I am drooling right now.

Some people think that New Mexican food is not “real” Mexican food. Here is a thing I want to tell you about “Mexican food”: It’s not one way. There is not a right way. There can be a way you like, for sure, but do not come at me with “authentic.”

Authentic is the bane of an anthropologist’s existence. Authentic implies one way; it implies the truth and the past. It ignores change and innovation, which all people are allowed. Now, anthropologists would like for people to be allowed change on their own terms and at their own pace, but cultural mixing and trying new things are truly features of being human.

Let’s take tortillas, shall we? I can’t tell you how many times that people in the U.S. have told me that corn tortillas are “authentic” and that flour tortillas are for gringos. In many parts of Mexico, people mostly make corn tortillas for themselves and they grow lots of corn. Lots of it, every spare place, like by the mailbox and in the backyard. Corn really is the thing. “Sin maíz, no hay país,” (without corn, there is no nation) as Francisco Toledo likes to say in his campaign against genetically modified corn in Oaxaca.

Yet in Sonora, a northern state in Mexico bordering Arizona, wheat has been cultivated from early Spanish colonial times. Wheat can be grown in winter and spring, times when corn cannot be grown there, allowing for two productive crops in a year. Indigenous farmers welcomed the introduction of this crop in the 16th century. Today, a specialty of Sonora, and also of the O’odham people, are tortillas sobaqueras. These flour tortillas are huge, stretching nearly from the hand to the armpit (or sobaco). I had these for the first time in Agua Prieta, Sonora, where they were served with local pride. And as a side note, when a Mexican friend ordered a chimichanga in front of me long ago in Nogales, Sonora, I asked naively, “But, are those really Mexican?” She said, “Well, people argue over whether they were invented in Sonora or Tucson, so I don’t know, but I love them.”

When someone at a restaurant asks me what kind of tortillas I want, I always ask, “Do you make either of them here?” And if they do, that’s the one I get. Homemade is always better. When I was working in Douglas, Arizona, right on the border, I interviewed a Mexican-American woman in her 80s. When I left her house, she sent me home with a dozen of her freshly-made flour tortillas. When her daughter heard, she was jealous almost to the point of anger. “Those are gold,” she told me fiercely, “They are like gold.”

My point here is not that flour tortillas are the best. I just want people to be open to difference, and to realize that difference may have it’s own “authentic” history. We had a favorite Mexican place in Little Rock that has closed. The Yelp reviews were full of complaints about how it wasn’t like what the reviewers had in San Diego or Dallas. If you asked the owners, they would proudly tell you what state in Mexico they were from and how their dishes were from that region. Many people claim that they know “authentic” Mexican, and dismiss what is in front of them, without realizing that Mexican cuisine is hugely regional.  Embrace the local versions! Sure, some restaurants cater to Anglo tastes. I always ask what the waiter likes the best, though, and try that. Figure out what they do well and stop pretending that a chile relleno will be, or should be, the same everywhere you go.

In New Mexico, the green chile is king. Okay, someone is going to be mad that I wrote that because red chile sauce is also king. All you have to do is look at the ristras strung up on peoples’ porches and doors to know that. But, the smell of roasting green chile all over the state beginning in August is quite something. Grocery stores have giant drums set up for roasting, so you can get yours fresh. And you should definitely do that.

I’m just going to admit that the way I like chile rellenos best is the way they do it in New Mexico. I don’t even order them in other states anymore and I don’t make them myself. I know what I want when I ask for a chile relleno. I want them a little crispy. I want them with green chile on top. I want the chile itself a little al dente, with some chew to it.

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Sopapillas, and some good tamales

And I want sopapillas to come with them. Big ones, with honey. Hot.

Do you know how this is? I don’t order certain things in restaurants. I am always disappointed with gazpacho because it is not MY gazpacho. I like it the way I make it. I would never order chicken piccata in a restaurant. Mine is better, and also, chicken? Why would I get chicken if I could have something else? That better be some special chicken. Life is short, friends.

My strategy, again, is to get regional. Order what they are good at where you are. Get the huevos with the plantains and posole on the side and piñon-atole pancakes.

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I mean, hypothetically, because that would be a lot of food.

My father-in-law was born and raised in New Mexico, though he has lived in Colorado for many years now. He is completely particular about his Mexican food. For him, real Mexican food comes from New Mexico. He drives to a certain farm stand in northern New Mexico to buy his fresh and dried chiles. He is not compromising on this issue.

He makes a chile verde, which I will share with you, that is sometimes insanely hot and other times not so insanely hot, depending on the chile. It is what it is. He will serve it to you with corn or flour tortillas, rolled or flat. It’s not the presentation, it is the chile verde that matters.

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Rolled with a flour tortilla

He got this recipe from a guy he knew, now passed away, named Jesus. It was a family recipe and he was given it on the condition that he never change it. So don’t mess with it, or Jesus in Heaven will be mad. (You can blame my father-in-law for that one!) He says that, but my husband has an ancient hand-written recipe for chile verde from his dad that is substantially different from the version that his dad put in the fundraiser cookbook for the local ski club. What stays the same are the ingredients – the ratios vary with your taste and the heat of the chiles. So, for god’s sake do not put onions in while you cook the sauce, but you can sprinkle on raw onions when you serve and if you don’t (I don’t) people think there might be something wrong with you. I’m going to share the fancy typed version of the recipe with notes, because I think he has refined his technique over the years. He has also become more fond of a very hot version, and that’s just fine. Pretty much everyone who has this dish wants it again, so I think you’ll like it.

Jim’s New Mexico-Style Chile Verde

4-5 lb pork butt (old recipe says 3-4 lb)

20-25 whole roasted green chiles, a mix of medium and hot (old recipe says “green chiles”)

5-6 cloves of garlic, minced (old recipe says 3)

1 16-oz can of stewed diced tomatoes (old recipe says 28-oz can diced)

Roast the pork butt at 300 degrees for about 3 hours until done (old recipe says 325°). Cool enough that you can remove the hard fat and cut into 1-inch chunks, but reserve the juices. While the pork is roasting, remove the skin and seeds from the chiles and dice them (old recipe says put them in a blender). Don’t wash them too much with water or you will remove some of the heat and flavor. Combine all ingredients, along with salt and pepper to taste, in a large pot on the stove. Add enough water to get things boiling, but you will want to end with a fairly thick consistency. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 6 hours, adding more water as necessary.

You cannot eat these without beans. Jim makes them from dried pinto beans and he adds bacon or salt pork to them while they cook.

To serve, you can make stacked enchiladas with corn tortillas. Put down a heated tortilla, add beans and chile verde and cheese, and diced, raw onions, add another tortilla and repeat with chile verde and cheese. You could fix this up in a casserole to serve the family. You can also roll up the beans, chile verde, cheese, and onions in a heated flour tortilla and make burritos. Or you can put the beans in a bowl, add chile verde, and top with cheese and onions, and eat with a tortilla on the side. It’s how you like it!

As you can see, the ratios adjust the heat of the chiles. Cooking this will require tasting. If it’s too hot, you can add more tomatoes. Too mild, add some more roasted chiles. And remember, this recipe won’t be like the other chile verde you have had. It’s a regional dish. Enjoy!

Fourth of July Mezze

Toward the end of night, about twenty small plates in, our waiter set a dish down and looked at me knowingly. “This one is really special, ” he said. “You are going to love it.” It was liver.

My family makes a meal plan each week. We sit down and talk about who has meetings or practices in the evenings and then we decide what we will make for each night. We get a list together and go shopping. That seems so organized, doesn’t it? It took me until my first sabbatical to figure out that this would be a good idea. I was 42 – and I had time off from work – before I could come to this conclusion. Before then, we’d just start gnashing our teeth and pulling our hair around midweek and decide we needed to go out to dinner, and then feel dissatisfied with our options and grump around for a while. Meal planning is better.

So this week during meal planning, I told my husband that I would make a mezze for the Fourth of July. He said, “You sure have a funny idea about the Fourth.”

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Typical mezze at my  house: spicy chickpea dip, tabbouli, babaganoush, dolmades, olives

Okay. That may be true. But maybe I want to be independent today! Also, maybe I like the peoples of the Middle East and feel they should be celebrated instead of foolishly banned from entry into the U.S. because of Islamophobia. There’s that. Also, it is very hot and this is the kind of food I want to eat when I’m hot.

And the food of the Middle East is so easy to love and yet so undervalued. My experience of food in the Middle East and Mediterranean has been transcendent at times. I also love the way people in the region cherish their food.

I grew up in a household where it was expected that you rave about your meals. You roll your eyes back and moan. You ask about spices and ingredients. You fight to scrape the dish it was cooked in. If you said, “That’s really good,” everyone knew that dish was a failure. Ecstasy, and nothing less, marked a meal as a success. My husband has had to adjust to these expectations. My closest friends generally meet these guidelines.

For example, once I gave my friend Jenn a Luxardo cherry in a cocktail I made her (Mr. Fancy – you  will meet him in another post). Jenn said, “Oh my god! These taste like what cherries hope they will be when they grow up!” See, that’s my kind of girl. Enthusiasm.

Most of the people I met in the Middle East have been like this. My husband worked for several years on and off in Jordan. I was visiting him and he wanted to take me for a really good shawarma. We got a taxi and Brett directed the driver to take us to Third Circle (Amman is organized around large traffic circles). We drove around and Brett looked for the place but didn’t see it. The driver looked at us questioningly. Where should he stop? He then overheard Brett say the word “shawarma” to me and all was clear. He turned around in his seat and said, emphatically, “Shawarma! Second Circle!” He drove straight to the spot without discussion and dropped us right in front. I recall him being pretty confident he was getting a good tip.

A favorite restaurant in Amman served only two dishes: ful medames (made with fava beans) and hummus bi tahini. That’s it. It was packed, always. That spot was very humble and we loved it, but Brett took me and a friend one night to a very fancy restaurant. We ordered a mezze for three people, and we let the chefs pick the dishes.

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Hummus in the style of The Diplomat in Amman, with sauteed pine nuts on top

Now, a mezze is usually understood as a starter, not the main course. You can have hot and cold dishes, generally small tastes, with meat and without. A good mezze will provide a mix of tastes. Claudia Roden, whose cookbooks I enjoy, tells me that the word derives from t’mazza, meaning “to savor in little bites” in Arabic. Think about tapas or antipasto platters. A mezze is the Middle Eastern or Mediterranean version of that. There are pickled things, and little pastries, and dips. Bright, fresh flavors and colors.

This restaurant we went to was really fancy. It had white tablecloths and about five people assigned to our table, including one who refilled my water glass after every sip. They brought the dishes a few at a time. Remember who I am now. I started exclaiming. I rolled my eyes. I insisted my dining companions try each dish and marvel at it with me. The waiter liked this display. He began to bring each dish with a bit more flourish. Toward the end of night, about twenty small plates in, he set one down and looked at me knowingly. “This one is really special, ” he said. “You are going to love it.”

It was liver. Fortunately, I DO really like liver, so we were in the clear. But my god, we rolled out of that place. It was one of the best meals of my life.

That meal was prepared in a Lebanese style, with a Lebanese chef. All throughout the Middle East, Lebanese cooking is highly praised. But, sadly, if you look up information on Lebanon – let’s say on Wikipedia – it will say nothing about the cuisine. This omission is a crime. I mean, the entry will mention cinema, for goodness sake, but nowhere does it note the intense admiration for the food throughout the region.

And that brings me to another point. I’ve been talking about “Middle Eastern food” as if it is one thing. It certainly is not. There is wonderful variation, to the degree that you can’t really find some common dishes across international boundaries. Koshari is all over Egypt, but I never saw it in Jordan. Mansaf of Jordan is pretty much only found there. Eating in Turkey is not the same as in Greece, and neither are just like Cyprus. I’m not even touching Iranian food! But all share the mezze concept, and all have inspired me at home.

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When we lived in Tempe, I never made Middle Eastern food. I didn’t need to. We had Lebanese and Israeli and Palestinian all within walking distance of our apartment. Since moving to Conway, I’ve had to learn. I love that a Jewish girl from Virginia can’t live without her mezze.

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Fried haloumi, as I ate every day for six weeks in Cyprus

Typically, I make a few types of hummus, babaganoush, and tabbouli. I buy dolmades and olives, usually some feta cheese too. Tonight, I mixed it up by frying some haloumi cheese, using some basil in one hummus, and baking my own pita. There was quite a bit of exclamation at our table. My family knows how to do it.

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Homemade pita is better

Anne’s Babaganoush

Take a large eggplant and stab it a few times with a knife. Place it on a pretty hot grill and rotate it about every 10 minutes. After about 30-40 minutes, it should be collapsing and blackened on the outside. Bring it inside and let cool slightly in a colander. Cut off the top and discard. Peel off the blackened skin and discard, leaving the flesh in the colander to drain. Peeling should be pretty easy with just your fingers. After the bitter juices have drained out of the flesh, transfer to a food processor. Add 1-2 cloves of garlic smashed in a press, 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, the juice of half a large lemon, 2 tablespoons of tahini, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Process until smooth and taste for salt, lemon, and tahini. This recipe must adjust for the size of your ingredients, so tasting is crucial. Serve with warm pita bread.

Spicy Herbed Chickpea Dip

(based on a recipe by Deborah Madison)

Drain and rinse one can of garbanzo beans. Place in a food processor with 1/4 cup warm water. Add 1-2 cloves of garlic put through a press. Blend briefly. Then add 1/2 cup fresh cilantro (or I used basil tonight), juice of one lemon, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon coriander, 1/4 teaspoon crushed fennel (I use a mortar and pestle), and a dash of cayenne. Process until smooth. Serve with more  warm pita bread.