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.

img_4021
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.

img_4022
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.

IMG_1751
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.

img_4034
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.”

img_3826
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.

img_38291
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.

img_3828

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.

img_3986
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.

img_39871
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.

Making Tepache: How Did They Figure that Out?

At the end of the trip, I asked a friend about whether I could buy some. He pointed to a table by the side of the road with filled plastic bottles, recycled for this purpose. “There’s some. Want me to stop?,” he asked. Uh, no.

I often ask myself how humans ever came up with some of the food we eat. Like bread. What happened there, with the yeast and the grinding up a grain that didn’t really seem like food for people? Who thought, I’m gonna mash this stuff up and let it sit around and then put it over the fire? Or noodles. Who thought boiling up a paste pulled into thin strips might be a good idea? We are inventive, we humans!

img_3884
I made pasta recently. Isn’t that dough lovely?

And then there’s alcohol. Did people just let things hang around long enough and then think, I’m gonna drink this anyway, even though it smells a bit off? I am fascinated by the human propensity to try out.

One of the great things about traveling is that you are going to try out quite a bit. The willingness to try really enhances one’s experience of a place. When I take students with me, they are often a bit reluctant to try the more unfamiliar tastes. In Oaxaca, one is truly compelled to eat insects, for example. Eating chapulines, a little grasshopper commonly cooked and seasoned, guarantees your return to the state, and once there, you will want to return.

chapulines
Ready to sprinkle on a taco.     Photo: Lora Adams

Most people at least try it. I heartily encouraged my students to do so. My husband, though, embraced this culinary pleasure with vigor and we bought several varieties.

chapulines market
We got the garlic and the chile flavors. So many to try!

One of my unexpected pleasures while in Oaxaca was tepache. I was served a glass at a lunch on one trip. They told us that it was mildly alcoholic and made on the premises of the restaurant. Well, I admit that this statement struck a little fear into my heart. Like, what does “mildly” mean? And I’ve got a full day ahead of me and it’s a bit hot. And homemade alcohol is kind of a thing I’ve been warned about, and I’m avoiding raw vegetables and ice in Mexico, so this drink does not fall into my cautious eating plan.

But this is how it looked.

tepache
Chile on the rim. So pretty.     Photo: Lora Adams

So you know I had to drink it. Oh, so refreshing. A bit sweet. Where had this drink been all my life?

Over the course of that trip, I was served a glass occasionally, but I never saw it on a menu. At the end of the trip, I asked a friend about whether I could buy some. He pointed to a table by the side of the road with filled plastic bottles, recycled for this purpose. “There’s some. Want me to stop?,” he asked. Uh, no.

After I returned home, I researched it a bit and found that it really is something that people brew for themselves. And it turns out that tepache also makes me wonder how anyone figured this out. It is made from the rinds of pineapple. The rinds. Of pineapple. Which have naturally occurring yeast on them. What?! People talk about tepache a bit like they do about kombucha. You ferment it on the counter. I am not 100% certain that it actually is alcoholic. More about this later.

I gathered up my courage and attempted it myself. It came out delicious, and about a week has passed and I have suffered no ill consequences. I feel safe passing it along to you.

My Recipe for Tepache

Start by getting a pineapple, a nice ripe one. Rinse it well. Cut off the leaves and discard. Cut off the rind and put in a large bowl. Cut out the tough core and throw that in the bowl too. Now cut up that tasty pineapple to eat later and put it in the fridge.

Now, most recipes have you just cover the rinds with water and stir in some sugar, but I didn’t do that. I don’t know what got sprayed on that pineapple coming to my store. And a lot of fruit goes through a quick heating and cooling process when it comes into this country (like mangos and avocados). So I figured my natural yeast might have been cooked already.

I brought 8 cups of water to a boil with 1 cup of turbinado sugar and one cup of brown sugar. It’s what I had on hand, but most recipes call for piloncillo, a hard, dark sugar chunk you can buy in Mexican groceries. Add 2 sticks of cinnamon and a few whole cloves. Let boil for just one minute to dissolve the sugar. Throw in the pineapple rinds and core and turn off the heat.

img_3881
It’s not fancy at my house.

It will already smell great in your house. You can transfer to a glass pitcher, but I just left mine in the pot. Once it cools, I sprinkled a little yeast on top. Just a little. Just in case that other yeast was cooked. I covered it for 2-3 days. It gets a white foam on top. This is the yeast going to work. Do not freak out. This is what needs to happen. After about two days, strain it into a pitcher, discarding everything but the liquid. Store in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation.

A note on alcoholic content: I have no idea. I drank about an 8-ounce glass that first day after fermentation, over ice, and I loved it. I really didn’t notice any alcoholic effects. Then I made a wonderful cocktail of my own invention with it the next day, and it didn’t impact me at all. A couple days later, I made the same cocktail and I felt it. I don’t know if I was a little dehydrated or if the alcohol had gotten stronger.

Tepache Solstice (or just a Solstice at our house)

img_3923
Drink up the flavor of summer.

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add one shot of dark rum and three drops of Angostura bitters. Top up with tepache and a slice of lemon. Finish by marveling at how some human figured all this flavor out.

 

Taming the Cholla: One Woman’s Battle to Confront the Cactus that Haunts Her

The Tohono O’odham people have the desert food game down.

I love the desert. I first fell in love with the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, and later the Sonoran Desert worked it’s magic on me. I know that people love the cool mountains or the beach, and I do too, but sometimes a view in the desert can make my heart sing like no other landscape.

 

IMG_2046
View of part of the Tohono O’odham Nation     Photo: Brett Hill

I felt that way from the first time I visited. I couldn’t wait to get back to that sky, that earth, and those gorgeous rocks.

I admit, though, that the plants intimidated me. Let’s take the cholla cactus, shall we? The cholla grows throughout both the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, and has at least 30 different species. Its flowers are often a brilliant fuchsia, sometimes a yellow, and it is often a bit spindly-looking. It has been known to hide, blending in when not blooming. And that sucker is mean.

IMG_2105
Don’t let those pretty flowers fool you.

It’s mean, I tell you! One summer when I was working on an archaeological survey project, I ever so gently brushed one with my hand. I was quickly alerted to my terrible error by the pain in my knuckle. I looked down, expecting to see a spine but it was the whole segment of the cactus. A chunk of cactus leapt out at me and grabbed my hand. Heaven forbid you try to use your other hand to get it off you. No! Gravity is not enough either because the spines are barbed. They want to stay in you. I did eventually get it off, but a tiny piece stayed under the skin in my knuckle for years. Years. I learned my lesson and gave that variety of cactus a wide berth.

Living in the southwestern U.S., one quickly becomes aware that people eat some kinds of cactus. For example, prickly pear jelly is pretty widely available, and if you haven’t tried nopales on your tacos yet, you’d better get on that. Made from the pads of the prickly pear, but without the skin or spines, nopales can be pickled or just grilled. So delicious!

IMG_2043
We brought this beauty all the way from Arizona to plant in the yard.

But the Tohono O’odham people have the desert food game down. The Tohono O’odham Nation actually crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. Obviously, their ancestors were living on that land long before that border existed.

IMG_1998
I promise you a cholla is in this picture.     Photo: Brett Hill

People in this region speak English, Spanish, and O’odham proudly. And, yes, you did just hear about a Border Patrol agent hitting a member of this community with his car.

I have been delighted to get to know this tribe and their food traditions better, thanks to my husband’s collaborations there for the last several years. They make use of agave (yay!), mesquite beans, saguaro, and, yes, even cholla buds.

IMG_1992
Look at all that food!     Photo: Brett Hill

One thing that is important to know about the Tohono O’odham use of these desert plants is that they respect traditional preparations but are happy to embrace new recipes. The recipe I will share today comes from a wonderful book, From I’itoi‘s Garden. You should definitely get this book!

img_3905
Those are Tohono O’odham baskets.

You can also order the cholla buds, called ciolim in O’odham, if you don’t happen to live in Arizona. I like Native Seeds/SEARCH as a source. Many people compare the taste of the buds to asparagus, and I would add that dried ones have a lovely smoky flavor as well.

Cholla Bud Antipasto Salad

Start with one cup of dried cholla buds.

img_3906
Now they look cute.

To prepare them, cover them with twice as much water and bring to a boil. Reduce the water until the buds are poking out. Then cover the pot, reduce heat, and simmer until they are tender, maybe an hour or so.

Drain them and set aside. Saute 1/2 cup of red onion in about a tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Add the buds and 1 tsp. oregano and continue to cook about 3-5 more minutes.

img_3912
Smelling so good.

Remove from  heat and let cool slightly. Chop 1/4 cup roasted red peppers and 1/4 cup kalamata olives. Add to a serving bowl with one clove of finely chopped garlic. Add the cholla bud-onion mix to the bowl, letting the heat work on that raw garlic. Toss with 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Add freshly ground pepper to taste. You could add salt, but I didn’t.

img_3918

I let this delicious mixture marinate, covered, at room temperature.  You could refrigerate, but the buds will absorb the flavors better on the counter.

One tiny warning: you may find spines. I usually see them while sauteing. Be alert!

 

img_39141
Your 10-year-old will not want these.

Serve next to your favorite cactus! Actually, I serve this on toasted French bread like bruschetta, allowing the bread to soak up the marinade. We also like to spread a little goat cheese on the bread and put the salad on top sometimes. I think it could be great with a crumble of feta cheese as well. You decide!

 

 

A Cocktail to Make You Weep

Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did!

When my daughter was about two years old, we visited some good friends in Phoenix. She was sitting on their low garden wall, entranced by their elusive (to her) cat. She reached out for him and toppled backwards, right onto a small cactus. It wasn’t until we pulled her up that we saw the cut under her eye, sliced ever so neatly by the spine of a nearby agave. She cried bitterly as we pulled the cactus spines out of her back. Fortunately, her pain drew that little cat to her; he wove around her legs and let her pet him, finally, which stopped the tears. She still has a thin scar under her eye all these years later. She has had a thousand cuts and scrapes over the years. None of the others left a permanent mark.

img_2123

Anyone who has spent any time in the Sonoran Desert knows the agave plant, though hopefully not in such a bloody manner. In fact, their range extends much farther than the Sonoran Desert, reaching north into Utah, throughout Mexico, and even down into parts of South America. Though I lived in Arizona for years, it wasn’t until I spent some time in Oaxaca, Mexico that I fully came to appreciate agave and all it has to offer.

Did your mind jump to mezcal? Of course it did! Before you leave this post already, let me reassure you that I was not a big drinker of mezcal before going to Oaxaca. My prior exposure to mezcal and tequila always seemed to be hearing about people wanting to get drunk quickly and then regretting that decision rather fervently. That is not what this post is about, I promise!

Agave flavors everything in Oaxaca in some sense. It has been cultivated for thousands of years across its growing region. People decorated pottery with agave designs. They stored it in caves. They used different varieties for needles, cloth, thatched roofs, paper, food, and for both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Recently, archaeologists Paul and Suzanne Fish of the University of Arizona (and others) have argued that agave wasn’t merely planted widely in the ancient U.S. Southwest, it was domesticated. That means that they see evidence of techniques used to make these plants more beneficial for those farming it. Indeed, we may need to speak of a fourth “sister” crop, complementing corn, beans, and squash, when considering its importance to indigenous people.

agave cultivation
Agave field in Oaxaca       Photo: Lora Adams

While I was in Oaxaca, I saw fields of multiple varieties of agave. I was also delighted to sample pickled agave flower buds. I might have eaten more than my share of those little honeys.

IMG_2086
Blooming agave with saguaros in Arizona

I was fortunate enough to meet with a shaman, or traditional healer, on one visit. A group of students and I participated in a temazcal. A temazcal is a kind of sweat lodge, and we used several plants during the sweat – coffee, mango, bouquets of basil, and definitely mezcal. Before the temazcal itself, the healer worked on two or three members of our group. Mezcal was used as a substance to purify both healer and the person in need of healing. At one point, our host filled his mouth with it and sprayed it vigorously all over the patient. It was offered many times throughout our visit, and he explained repeatedly that it was very pure. It could not give you a hangover, he said, because it was nothing but agave. The intention was never to get someone drunk, but to cure.

shamans table
Shaman’s Tools      Photo: Lora Adams

Our group was still shy about mezcal at this point. The idea of drinking early in the day, and right before sweating profusely, didn’t entice us.

Later in this trip, we visited a mezcal producer. Now, if you visit Oaxaca, you can take many tours of palenques for mezcal. They are made for tourists and export, and have numerous flavors and types available. That wasn’t where we went. On our way to Juchitán, a community on the coast, our wonderful guide took us by his favorite producer of mezcal. No one was around that day, and we were intimidated (okay, I was intimidated) by the family of turkeys roaming the site protectively.

IMG_2797.JPG
They are bigger than you think.

Happily, we returned in a few days to find Telésforo Martinez and his sons available to show us their excellent mezcal. They produced every aspect of the spirit. They harvested the plants, keeping different varieties separate; they roasted the piñas, or hearts of the plants; and they distilled the alcohol.

agave for mezcal
Piñas ready for roasting

To give us samples, they put a rubber tube into a cask and sucked until it began to flow into a small dried gourd. We then passed around gourd after gourd of mezcal, trying each type. This one is small and grown in the wild, this one is aged for so long, this one is the most popular. To take some with you, you simply paid for the amount you wanted and transferred it into a bottle that you brought with you.

Our kind and encouraging guide assured me that we would have no trouble getting them through U.S. customs. I just couldn’t believe him, so I bought labels at a store in town and decorated them to fool the agents.

img_3821

Don’t laugh. That is totally convincing. Also, they didn’t stop any of us or question it at all.

One night in the city of Oaxaca, we ate at a wonderful restaurant called Zandunga. I had their fantastic red mole, but the highlight was truly my cocktail, La Llorona (The Weeping  Woman), made with local mezcal. People in Mexico and the United States tell many versions of the story of La Llorona. Always, she drowns her children and is doomed to cry for them forever. In some places, the tale contains elements of class inequality (she was poor but her love was a wealthy man who scorned her after she bore him children), in other places she is a warning to women (she was a neglectful mother who prefers the attention of men to caring for her young children). Some of you may know the gorgeous Mexican folk song of the same name, which originates in Oaxaca. Check out Lila Downs’ version if you are feeling weepy. (When the song came on as I watched the movie Coco with my daughter, I totally burst into tears.)

I approximated my own version of the cocktail when I got home. I swear I get a little teary with nostalgia for Oaxaca when I drink it.

La Llorona

You have to begin by making jamaica, a sweet drink from hibiscus flowers. You can find the flowers in any Mexican grocery.

img_3822
Lovely jamaica flowers

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil and then add 2 cups of dried jamaica flowers and 3/4 cup sugar. Boil for one minute. If you are using a non-corrosive pot, leave it there to steep for about 2 hours, or transfer to another container you can’t stain. After it has steeped, pour the liquid through a sieve over a pitcher to strain out the flowers. Push out all that liquid! Check for intensity. Sometimes I need to dilute the strength with cold water.

img_3820
It gets pretty strong.

Enjoy over ice and keep in the fridge for a refreshing drink on its own.

For the cocktail, fill a tall glass with ice. Combine 2 shots of pineapple juice, 1/2 shot simple syrup, and 1 shot of mezcal. Top with jamaica. Add some freshly grated ginger to taste. I also sometimes throw in some Penzey’s crystallized ginger for extra fun. Stir and enjoy! I make this without alcohol as a special treat for my daughter.

img_3824
Isn’t it beautiful?

If you aren’t listening to Lila Downs right now, I need to know the reason why. And before you ask, it is NOT just as good with tequila.

The Terrifying Truth about Pesto

Before I share my recipe with you, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

I have seldom been more outraged than when someone stole my basil plant off my apartment porch in Tempe, Arizona. I had raised that little baby from a seed – from a seed – and some monster came and took it from me. Can you imagine? I think it was the same person who stole the tire off my thrift store bike that I used to ride to school there. I mean, why? It was not a great tire. Are you just mean? Anyway.

Pretty much since I’ve been settled anywhere, I’ve tried to keep a little garden and I ALWAYS have basil. When I lived in Tucson, I once brushed off my hands after planting some seeds and a plant sprouted in the well of my orange tree. The regular irrigation and sunshine produced the most enormous basil plant I’ve ever grown, big enough that my husband became worried about the survival of the citrus tree. I ended up lopping off big branches and taking them to trade with our neighborhood Italian restaurant, Fiorito’s, which is now closed. They gave me meals in exchange for it, I had so much. (As a side note, their lasagna was the best ever. If anyone out there knows the former chef, please oh please get me that recipe. I am serious.)

In my garden right now, I have three sweet basil plants growing. I also am confident that I will have volunteer Thai basil come back, as it does each year. I have three plants because I just like to be certain that I will have enough basil for my family’s pesto needs. Our needs are significant, y’all. We also like caprese salads a lot, so I simply can’t mess around when it comes to having sufficient basil.

img_3858

I am a reader of recipes. When I make a dish, I generally like to consult several cookbooks in advance. Then, I concoct one of my own based on multiple recipes and my own tastes. Happily, this method appears to be what Italians like too. They’ve been gleefully mashing up garlic and pine nuts with olive oil for millennia, apparently, and about 150 years ago started adding basil to the recipe. When we spent a little time in Italy, I tried several varieties of pesto. We had a favorite local delicatessen in Arezzo that carried their fresh version that we brought home regularly. The worst version came from one in which the chef added cashews, incapacitating three unsuspecting allergic diners, including my daughter. I say this not to point fingers, though it was somewhat terrifying, but to show that Italians like to experiment with ingredients too, even with things that are “traditional.”

Ultimately, I came up with my own version that was worthy of writing down, and it’s what I have used and shared for years. Before I share it with you, though, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

Terrifying Truth #1: Using the Mortar and Pestle Makes Significantly Better Pesto

img_3863

I’m sorry. I didn’t want that to be true! I love the food processor and it is what I have used for years and years. Also, when you use the food processor, you get a greater volume of pesto, which means you can save half for the winter months. And that is fabulous! I know all of this, and you can continue to use the food processor. I get it. But ever since we started using the old fashioned method with a mortar and pestle, we haven’t been able to go back. The taste of the pesto is so much better that it is worth the effort for us. And it’s a group effort – we all take turns mashing up the basil and garlic. The reason it is better is because of another terrifying truth.

Terrifying Truth #2: The Basil Screams When You Mash It

Okay, that may be a small stretch of what you would call “truth,” but work with me. Did you know that when plants get munched on by bugs or mammals, they cry out?  Read this amazing story for more detailed info: https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2014/04/29/307981803/plants-talk-plants-listen-here-s-how

The summary is that plants can send chemical signals to other plants or even to predator bugs and those plants and bugs respond. Some even send signals underground or through ultrasonic clicks. I love this science!

So, I am using that science to say that smashed basil releases different chemicals than cut basil. And it releases its beautiful and fragrant oils in a different way. So the metaphorical screams of the basil make for better eating. It makes me slightly sad and also puts me in mind of A Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But purge the idea of sentient plants from your thoughts and pound that basil up, friends! Here’s how:

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil, well packed
4 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted and cooled if you feel fancy
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (or less) olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Romano cheese

Pesto is completely dependent on the quality of your ingredients. Do not use some crappy olive oil. Get the good stuff. Your garlic matters. Your cheese matters. GET THE GOOD STUFF.

In the food processor, process the first three ingredients until finely chopped. Then gradually add the oil and salt until blended. Add the cheeses and pulse a few times until blended. Voila!

By hand (mostly): Put the garlic with the salt in the mortar. Smash that stuff up until it looks more like mayonnaise than garlic. There should be no shape to your pieces. Now add the basil a little at a time and pound the heck out of it. It will start releasing a scent that will make you need to burst into song, so you should plan ahead. I like to listen to Mariza about now. Yes, she’s singing in Portuguese but her gusto matches this phase of pesto preparation very well, I think.

Now, I do use a mini food processor for the pine nuts. Others use the mortar for this too, but I am usually out of room.  I scrape my smashed glory into the processor with the already chopped nuts and add the oil and blend briefly. I use less oil for this version, because it is so juicy. Like even half as much oil as with the food processor version. And when I say scrape, you better do that. I want all the juices. That basil will not have screamed in vain, I tell you. Then add your cheese and pulse briefly until combined. Taste for salt and cry just a little at how good it is.

To serve, put a cup of either version in a large bowl for 1 pound of pasta. Actually, we’ve been loving gnocchi with pesto, so give that a try some time. While your pasta cooks, stir about 1/4 cup of light cream into the pesto and give a few twists to a pepper grinder. Drain the pasta briefly and then toss it into the bowl with the sauce and give it a stir. Serve nice and hot!

Also, you can freeze any prepared pesto easily. I freeze it in one-cup portions for easy winter meals. And yes, the cheese freezes up just fine. Don’t stress about it. Enjoy!

img_3864

Summer Begins, Or Anne Struggles to Keep Up with Berries

I know you came here for the cake.

img_3816

I am really a terrible gardener. The only thing I can do well is put things in the ground. It’s pretty easy for me to decide that I want a plant to grow close to me. Most of my decisions about plants are motivated by the potential for eating them, or at least smelling them. My daughter will pick things solely for how they look, and I’m grateful for her perspective but I don’t understand it. Me, I want to put them in my mouth.

My husband is generally very supportive of my poor gardening, in that he does nothing to criticize or discourage me. He does occasionally suggest plants, and blueberry bushes were at the top of his list. I quickly followed those with raspberry and blackberry canes, given to me by a friend when his bushes spread. Now I have a nice little patch. and I get this every few days.

img_38501

Faced with this abundance, I have to act fast. I freeze, I snack, but I also make desserts, which brings me to this beautiful cake. I know you came here for the cake.

img_38543

While I am definitely bad at gardening, I am a decent cook. Okay, I’m a good cook. I know you are eyeing that very homemade-looking cake and you are doubting me. My food may not always look gorgeous, but it tastes amazing. I think you should probably try making this cake and see what you think.

I got the original recipe from the August 2001 issue of Bon Appétit, and they got it from Thymes Two Catering out of San Francisco. Don’t you think those chefs lie a little bit when they give out their recipes? I mean, I probably would. But I’m not going to lie to YOU. I made this cake just a little different. Some would say better, but let’s just assume that they were lying about the real recipe and I somehow accidentally discovered it. I have restored it to its previous glory!

Lemon-Blueberry Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

2 cups plus 6 tablespoons cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon Penzey’s double strength vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon Penzey’s lemon extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1.5 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter and flour three 9-inch cake pans, and  line with parchment paper. Sift cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a small bowl. Take one tablespoon of flour mixture and toss with fresh berries until coated in separate bowl.

Stir together the milk, lemon zest, vanilla, and lemon extract in small bowl. Beat the butter and  sugar together in a mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Alternate adding flour and milk mixtures, about a third at a time, until blended.

Divide the batter between the three pans. (I honestly think you could use two pans if you wanted thicker layers, but then you get less frosting per slice, so I’m going to leave that up to you.) Sprinkle on the blueberries evenly over the batter. I use my fingers to lightly swirl the batter over the blueberries. You could just mix in the berries, but I like a more even distribution and I don’t want them all stuck on the bottom.

Bake cakes for about 25 minutes, until golden brown and the tester comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on racks for about 10 minutes and then turn out onto the racks to cool to room temperature. Now make the frosting!

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature
¾ cup (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon Penzey’s lemon extract
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Penzey’s double strength vanilla extract

Beat the cream cheese and butter together using a mixer. Gradually add the powdered sugar, followed by the lemon juice, vanilla, and extract. Taste for lemon! I like mine strong. Refrigerate until cool enough to spread easily, about an hour.

Assemble your layers, covering each with about 3/4 cups of frosting. I always have frosting left over, no matter how much I slather on, so be generous. Use some of your other berries to decorate the top. I have tons of raspberries, so I like those, but any berry would be fun. Or leave it plain or add some lemon peel curls.

Eat and enjoy! Let me know how it turns out for you. I store mine in the refrigerator because Arkansas is hot this time of year!

IMG_3856.jpg