Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Food We Eat,

Save the bones for Henry Jones

...Cause Henry don't eat no meat

I love soup. I love to make it, eat it and serve it. It  pleases me to dice carrots and potatoes just so. To fry bacon at the start of a chowder.  The aroma of bay simmering with celery, tasting for salt, to find the one addition that takes it home. I have powerful, indelible memories of the way in which a soup has returned me to life. 

Once I was caught in a unseasonable blizzard, high in the Cascade mountains. We struggled through the snow for hours, dressed  for July. (For a year I had almost no feeling in the tips of my fingers and toes.) Finally, after huddling together overnight, we were led down the mountain to the safety of a large, warm barn. Someone fed us tomato soup and saltines. At the time, it seemed as if I were literally thawing. That soup is forever with me.

It is hard for me to believe how perfectly delicious reconstituted bouillon is after weeks of NPO, nil per os - nothing by mouth. Yet it is certainly true, even lukewarm from a plastic mug. 
The word, 'restaurant' originally named a cheap, strong soup available at street stands in France. It meant "that which restores." Soup recharges us, it can give us virtually everything we need to survive. When those of us have enough, we give soup to those who do not.

We have been eating soup for 20,000 years. In the beginning we cooked with hot stones. Pits in the earth, rocks with natural hollows and bags made of animal skins were filled with water and meat. Stones were teased from a fire to the mix and renewed until the soup came into being.

Ah, yes. The feet.

Soup is a metaphor for community, family and home. An ultimate soup would be built with what each neighbor brought to the pot. Animal, vegetable and mineral. Anything that is edible. It warms us, fills us, fuels us. Cool soups even refresh us in the heat. Soup does, in fact, restore us.

clam or cod?

"But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt." Moby Dick, supper in Nantucket. 

Every culture has a soup at its heart. Vietnam has Phở, pot-au-feu for France (technically a stew but served with its glorious broth), here in the Yucatan it's sopa de lima, Portugal has caldo verde, bean soup, minestrone, avgolemono, cock-a-leekie, hot and sour, miso, borst, dal and schi. I don't recall much soup in Hawaii but they probably do something with pineapple and spam.

I think I love soup so much because of way it blooms and concentrates flavor. I'm just going to say this once...canned soup is less than the shadow on the wall. I am not above using some but my expectations are very low. Sometimes, we do have a Proustian moment with chicken noodle or tomato soup (yes, from the red and white cans.) Still, not much truly good comes from a can.

stop talking

The pace of cooking soup is forgiving. It is best on low heat for a long time. I am referring to meat based broths for the most part because, to me, they seem the most restorative. Over time the collagen and gelatin in meat, fat and connective tissue melt and leach from the bones into the soup. It isn't just flavor, as these thicken the liquid and soften it to silk. As the soup deepens the aroma begins the meal as it fills the house with anticipation. Chicken broth, in the later stages begins to smell like honey. There is nothing like it.

B was feeling under the weather which is rare but always sends me to the soup pot, such as it is. We are leasing a furnished house and the cramped and awkward kitchen is barely "equipped." Instead of a nice stock pot I have a smallish stew pot. This presents a problem. It is tedious but I make the broth in layers.

one doesn't share soup. sorry.
The first layer is the meat. I like to use more than one sort, this one included beef shank (a nice inexpensive cut with bone, fat and gristle), the remains of a roast chicken and three flanken-cut pork ribs (cut across, rather than in between, the bones.) There isn't room for many vegetables so I squeeze in half of an onion. garlic cloves, slices of ginger and whole pepper corns all covered in water.  I hold this at a slow simmer for about 3 or 4 hours or until the meats are very tender.

When I can easily push the point of a knife into the meat I take it all out of the broth. As the meat cools enough for me to handle, I add the vegetables to the pot. Carrots, celery and more onions. If I have them I might add turnip, rutabaga, fennel, even radishes (which taste like turnips when cooked) When the meat has cooled, I slide it off the bone and set it aside. All of the bones, sinew, skin and gristle goes back in the pot for another few hours.

Foot note?

Well, actually...a note about feet. Because hocks (sort of like ankles) and feet need to be the most flexible part of an animal's anatomy, they are full of small bones, gristle, tendons and skin. These, as I have said, are good things in a stock. As the collagen breaks down it forms gelatin. It was once common to serve calves foot jelly as a dish both both sweet and savory. Gelatin itself has no flavor, only structure. The jellied broth was also considered nutritious and often served to the ill to help them regain strength.

One reward of gelatin is a miracle of Chinese cuisine: Shanghai or, soup dumplings. A strong and flavorful stock is chilled until solid and cut into cubes. These are added to the stuffing in pasta purses. When the sealed purses are boiled, the gelatin melts and reforms the broth. I use the technique to make sure pot pies remain juicy.

Basta for the feet! Trust me, throw in a couple of chicken feet or a pig trotter. Your soup will be better...hands down.

So,,,back to B's soup: When I feel as though I've gotten everything out of the carrot and bones (a couple of hours, I strain it through a colander into a large bowl. Because we only have the one pot I wash it and put it back on the stove. Next I strain the soup again back into the pot, this time with a wire mesh strainer.

There will be a layer of fat on the surface. If I have the time, I let it cool and shove it in the fridge. The next day it is set like jello and the fat will have formed a layer that I scrape off. If I'd rather not wait, I have three more options. If there isn't a lot of fat, you can actually blot it off with a paper towel. Or, there are fat separators: cups that have a spout which pours from beneath (I don't know why, but I have never owned one).

More commonly I skim the fat with a cooking spoon. Placing the pot mostly (but not completely) off the fire helps. When the soup begins to boil the fat collects opposite the heat and it's easier to skim. If I have not allowed the stock to boil but kept it to a lazy simmer, it will be clear.*

Soooo, I now have a rich broth which can be seasoned with salt and pepper to taste and drunk or spooned from a mug. It is more likely that I will begin adding freshly diced vegetables (almost anything), herbs and a starch (rice, beans, corn, potatoes or pasta.) Occasionally the vegetables I've used to make the soup will still have flavor and texture and those go back. And greens are wonderful additions.

I trim the meats that I have set aside and add them. As an extra treat I often shred the pork and beef with my fingers and fry them in a bit of oil until crisp and chewy. If I have made a bean soup (worth a devoted posting, some day) I might brown some flavorful sausage to add.

And when it has become soup, it helps B to feel better, to feel and be nurtured. That is exactly what I like to do.



* There is another way to produce a clear broth. It is a method used for Phở (truly one of the great soups of the world). Before you begin the broth, place the meat and bones in the pot and cover with cold water. Gradually bring to the boil, then drain and discard the liquid, rinse everything off. Then start again with fresh water and add the vegetables and herbs. This blanching does not weaken the final broth.

I never salt my broth until it's reached the final strength.

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying-pan on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half of the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising.He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a spoonful from the plate. 'Chrise,' Nick said, 'Geezus Chrise,' he said happily." 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Too important to be taken seriously

An anatomy of craving

Here's the thing: we have limited time. Joseph Conrad understood, "We live in the flicker..." Furthermore not only is life brief but it includes pain, want and privation.  This is not a complaint, it's just what is.*

Within our flicker we are moved by instinct, need and desire. Instinct is our animal nature and culture generally rules that it should be suppressed and controlled. Personally, I'm not entirely persuaded that animal nature is the bad part.

turn your back to temptation

If we exercise enough discipline over and with our instinct we stay out of jail, We then spend the bulk of our time levering need and desire. Religion and politics tend to obstruct our path to desire and forbid one pleasure or another. They understand nothing about balance.

I know (at first hand) that the discipline of abstinence, control and suppression is hard. Survival is not enough, we should get prizes. This is were I come in. I am all about rewarding us for the effort that is life. Our senses are like gods who leave us in peace if only we placate them. So, help yourselves out:

it's your favorite

Indulge one another

That is to say: seek and provide the unnecessary, over and above that which is required. An indulgence is a special pleasure that we cannot always have. Food is the fundamental reward. Here is a formula you might consider: subtract everything about food that one needs for survival and whatever is left is the indulgence. A meal provides sustenance and delight. Additionally, good food rewards the entire being. Beside eating there is only one other activity that so thoroughly involves each and all of the senses.

boom, boom and boom

I know I can be tiresome on the subject but, to cook with knowledge, time and skill is an amazing thing. Cooks get to live by a principal: to feed someone well is the whole point. I can pull the taro from the ground and hand it to you. Or, I can dig it, bake it, peel it and pound the hell out of it first and then give it to you as poi. (Assuming that you like that glop.)

the aforementioned pineapple

This is all about why the time and effort required to make something special is worthwile. I think about the level of indulgence that I am creating as I properly trim a pineapple, arrange carrots on my quiche or peel poblanos for rajas in crema.

I should be clear; this is not altruism. It is about treating myself well. It is about feeding my cravings which are all over the map. To make myself a strawberry cake would be an extreme indulgence. If I make it for you, I am a saint who eats well. A saint with cravings.

knew you were coming, baked a tart

I aim my efforts straight at strong desire, craving. Sometimes, I simply must have something, as they say in New Orleans, "...a little sump'n, sump'n."

My cravings change: I must have cookies, crispy chicken skin, ice cream, fois gras, pizza and chocolate (of all kinds, particularly dark but also very, very good Swiss milk chocolate.) Sweet, meaty shrimp. Juicy, just to the pink side of red beef; potatoes in any form. Ripe, chilled strawberries. Pie crust, caramelized anything, caramel itself, fatty pork and apples, deep, healing and round bodied chicken soup. Capers, anchovies and olives. Pot roast with lots of carrots and red wine, one day to cook and a day to age and deepen. Coffee. Cream. Butter. Cheese...god, how I love cheese. I could go on.
L>A>Burdick's, the best

As you might guess, I do not take well to being denied. I have some experience with the many forms of denial and, while I understand its utility I prefer the flip side. If I am jonesing for crispy fried chicken, chocolate or curry and cannot have it, I petulate (it should be a word.)

Sadly, I can not always have Burdick's chocolates or the green chili chicken enchiladas that Heather Hannon makes. There is not always a Trader Joe's around the corner. These are hard things but I have learned to accept them. Apparently it is true, you can't always get what you want. As it happens the thrill is the thrill and I can get my jolt with something else (it helps to like almost every edible.) But I do not ignore it when I crave, I need something.

give me some of that...I will love you                           Brigid Burns

I have learned much about desire and its fulfillment from Mookie. She speaks for herself. Just look. Such absorption. Perfect focus. Pure performance art. She's a dog equally stubborn and smart. Also cute, spoiled and a fan of all food but, particularly the food on my plate. Like me and virtually everyone I know, she believes that treats are the best part of the day.

I try to be prepared at all times for the crave. There are two things in my fridge right now that can soothe the cravening beast: those rajas in crema and a simple pastry dough.

waiting to be burned

The poblanos are our current house rage. It's such a simple idea: pepper strips (rajas is Spanish for rags) stewed in cream. Poblanos have a gorgeous deep green, near black color. They are mostly mild but occasionally, and unpredictbly, some will be pretty hot. You have to taste them to find out but it's a clean, dry heat that is particularly good nestled in the cream. When they are allowed to ripen further, they all develop some heat. When dried they are chiles ancho.

Char the peppers in an open flame until they are uniformly black and blistered. When they are all finished put them in a paper bag or a lidded container so that the heat can continue to loosen the skin. Scrape and peel, slit them open and remove seeds and ribs. Slice them into strips and stew them gently for about 15 minutes in crema with a bit of salt. I use a dash of cumin.

(Crema is a Mexican cultured cream that is like a very slightly sweet and pour-able creme fraische. If you can't find it use any unflavored cultured creme thing from yogurt to Icelandic skyr. You do wanted it to be liquid so you might want to thin it with cream or milk. It is one of my favorite things about Mexico.)

The lovely smokey flavor, the heat and the fruitiness steeps in the cream. We love them as a side dish and as a layer in sandwiches or tacos. A good spoonful stirred a chicken soup is the bomb, I tell you, the bomb! The soup takes on a chowdery richness that is stellar. In fact, it has joined the list of dishes that we crave.

charred and ready

Some nights when I am unable to sleep, you might find me in the kitchen blanching almonds or toasting and mixing seeds and spices for dukkah (I'll explain another time.) I could be found rubbing butter into flour for a new batch of pastry dough or pickling mustard seeds, straining yoghurt for labneh or salting lemons. When my larder is stocked I am at peace and ready for guests or my own cravings. Life is good.

Keep coming back and I will talk about the pastry dough.

Cheers for now


 *About the trials of living, since I am almost 70 I've had my share of nasty times. I calculate that I have had about 750 miserable days out of more than 25,000, roughly .03%. Not bad. I can expect about 11 bad days this next year. I can do this                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cloudy, with a chance of tacos

"My Brain is Cloudy, My Soul is Upside Down." 

It isn't so much that I get writer's block, but language is my rabbit hole. I have always known that written communication is walking a rope with no net. Sharing knowledge, feeling, thought and experience stretches between rocks and hard places. Second guessing always sabotages first drafts.

Much of what I believe about language I learned from reading Wittgenstein. The master of the brain worm.

thanks a lot, Ludwig

“ All I know is what I have words for.”

"Language disguises thought..."

"What can be shown; cannot be said"

"Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself"

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language "

"Someone who knows too much finds it hard not to lie"

I'm so dizzy

As if these mind invaders were not enough, contemporary language (and therefore thought) has become Oxy-cleansed. Between the rock of the politically correct and the blare of the marketplace it has become difficult to convey much at all. Superlatives are diminished to the point of uselessness. I can no longer believe 'awesome' or 'brilliant' as I read and, therefore, cannot use the words. Do I sound frustrated? brain is cloudy with nattering. It's taken years of louche profligacy to achieve this level of cognitive dissonance.

But I must write, I must. And so how do I fight my way out of the verbal slough of despond and right my soul? Oddly, Ludwig knew the answer:

“What is more important than the meal? Doesn't the least observant man-about-town look upon the implementation and ritual progress of a meal as a liturgical prescription? Isn't all of civilization apparent in these careful preparations, which consecrate the spirit’s triumph over a raging appetite"

spaghetti with milk and coffee?

And so I turn to dinner. For comfort, for stability and purpose; for good, orderly direction. Food ought to be safe territory for me. A place where I can sort it all out.

Of course cooking for others is also dependent on shared expectations. Cooking and talking. It is not as simple as my delicious versus your disgusting, oppositions abound: clear, muddled; too much, not enough; plain, spicy; authentic, revisionist; pure, tainted; exciting, boring; overheated, raw; comforting, challenging. Flavors, textures, irony, meanings, syntax, seasoning and mood, reference, metaphor, simile, color: the alchemy of the palate. Once again, where do I start?...

For today, how to beguine?...

I say, when in doubt, try something grilled

Cut through everything and light the fire. The streets all around are alive with the smell of asado. Various grills are turning meats into antojitos...little cravings. Street carts. Front rooms turned into diners. Meat smoke drifts through the humidity. Smoky kitchens. The parks at dusk are redolent. My sweetest childhood memories are of backyards and camp sites with open flames and glowing coals.

Greek, 17 century B.C,

We have been working at grills for a long time.

A few years back, British primatologist Richard Wrangham broadcast his theory of anthropology...culinary evolution. Essentially, the leap from beast to brahmin required cooked food. The arguments are compelling. I have taken the principle to heart as you can see below (keep in mind the Irishism that no truth is so fine that it cannot be improved):

First we ate rocks. Plenty of minerals. Gave us those flat molars. Our ancestors who survived the rock age moved on to plants and, so superior was the plant diet, that the rock gnosh mostly disappeared. I say mostly because one can still find edible rocks, in the form of dried clay, sold for consumption (occasionally blessed by the,...really.) Still most of our time was spent chewing raw leaves, stems, roots, fruit and seeds. Also, most of this food passed all  the way through us. Cellulose and too much fiber.

the jealous gods' payback

And then along came Prometheus. Fire: protection from beasts, warmth and cooking! Cooking raw food made it more tender and therefore, nutritionally available. We learned to hunt and gathered together around the fire to make up stories and gods to explain why grilled meat tastes so good. When fat drips onto the embers it turns into enticement. The lovely smoke rises and perfumes the meat above (and those gods.)

Since I am a gringo I dream often of the hamburger, the king of the grill. We believe that we have invented the burger. We didn't but we did make it wonderful. I have actually eaten the thing they make in Hamburg (kind of a meatball with white sauce, it's not even a good idea.) Sadly, once we perfected the burger, we created its nadir. What worked for Henry Ford as the assembly line turned the burger thin and tasteless for Ray Kroc's Mcdonalds.

Long before us the Romans minced meat, added pepper corns, pine nuts, garum (holy roman fish sauce!) It seems they baked the dish, Isicia Omentata, and sauced it with a wine gravy. They needed another millennium to get the tomato (from Mexico) to make my ketchup.

chevaline a la Genghis Khan

There was a historic gap until the Mongol horde carried a new approach across the steppes to Russia. They were in a hurry and, rather than stop to make camp they ate in the saddle, from the saddle. Placing strips of horsemeat between those saddles and their unbutchered horses. The meat was trotted into a paste and cooked at 100 degrees (horse heat.) The Russians cleaned it up and passed steak tartare to the Germans who turned it into Hamburger sausage which they then shipped to the new world because we already had ketchup (another interesting history for another day.)

Ah. The burger. Nothing like it. Fixings at your option. Cheese, of course. Big juice. Bacon? Sure. I can build a satisfying week around a good burger. They make a pretty good one at Hennessey's Irish Pub on the Pasejo Montejo. (The ketchup is wrong, too vinegary and not sweet enough; they claim that it's a bbq sauce [it isn't]). They use big fat beef and will grill it medium rare, just gone from red to pink. If you pick it up for the third bite, you cannot put it down without its disintegration. Which is ok. Grab a fork.

Into any really good burger feed the juices of everything merge: grilly beef fat, mayonnaise, pickle juice, ketchup, mustard, special sauce, cheese goo. An appetite for these elements separately is a vice but together...completely acceptable, understandable, laudable. Perfectly edible. Toward the end there may not be any meat left, but...if you have a piece of the bun left to swipe the soup from the plate...nirvana.

slow down, food is here

Mexico is one of the world capitols of street food and there are hamburguesas everywhere. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that the best hamburgers are not street food. But there is so much beyond the burger that is stellar (or, perhaps estelar.) Although small soft wheat rolls and pita (pan arabe) are available it helps to like corn in every conceivable form: tacos thin and soft, crispy or thick, folded around, stuffed or topped with a staggering variety of meats and vegetables.

Take a day trip anywhere. As you drive through villages and slow for the topes (speed bumps), vendors offer bags of cut fruit and jicama with chili powder, salt and lime, Cocos frios, juices, peeled oranges, cactus fruit both green or ripe red. Today I saw the persimmon red of mamey and its cousin white sapote along a city boulevard. And always, grills smoke along the street.

Except for the burgers, it's all good. I am not alone in loving one of these cravings above the rest. Tacos al pastor.

on the one hand

Not just another taco. This is one worth writing home about.

Tacos al Pastor (in the style of shepherds) is the Mexican version (and refinement) of a dish brought over the sea from Lebanon. Spin grill a roast at a broiler to a turn (ahem) until the edges crisp and caramelize. At your command, the patron de pastor will slice it thinly onto a taco, or first into the juices that accumulate below and then on a taco. Add some chopped onion and you are there.

These roasts are composed of slices of pork stacked in a great pile and run through with a spear. The meat has been marinated with pineapple which provides tenderizing and flavor. Here in the Yucatan, the meat is rubbed with recado rojo, a spice mix that dates to the early Maya culture. It now includes black pepper and cloves, neither of which are native to the western hemisphere and must have been added after the Spanish arrived.


However it has developed this great food serves Mexico the way that the burger serves us North of the Border. To say that tacos al pastor is important to the culture here is an understatement. From time to time they go overboard for a good cause. I can only imagine the animal that produced this roast.

So that's the story today. I cannot help but weave words which often launch me into uncontrollable fugues. When I cannot save myself from the run-on sentence my salvation is a meal. It doesn't matter whether I feed myself or cook for you. Cuisine stops everything for a moment. It ends whichever madness the day holds at least for that one moment. At the very best...grand elements join: cultural mores, history and the principle of nurture: this is why we are who we are and this is how we care for you. Often, particularly here in Mexico, grills flame the center of life on the nearest street corner.

Cheers (as always),


*Bob Wills, thanks unitstructure

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The cages are open...

Los pajaros estan en su lugar
 (The birds are where they belong)

Valladolid is a lovely, provincial town in the Yucatan. I spent a night there about a dozen years ago with a group including several of us from Asheville, some ex-patriot Americans living in Merida and one Meridano. We stayed at a hotel, El Meson del Marques, which has a lovely restaurant surrounding a fountain and garden. Hanging from one wall is a line of empty birdcages and a proverb painted on bamboo (my heading today, above.) Our Meridano friend, Samuel, translated the proverb for those of us whose Spanish was inadequate. The cages are open and the birds are free to choose their place, to choose where they belong.

The proverb struck me since I have spent my life moving from place to place. It's a common issue for the children of the military, "where do I belong?" I have always thought myself fortunate to be raised in the US Coast Guard. Our duty stations have been in extraordinary places including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Seattle, the San Francisco area (Palo Alto) and after I left home at 18, I have spent extended periods in Germany, Scotland and Vietnam. Whether or not I have felt at home, each place taught me more about who I am and how to adapt.

I am visiting Merida again, and happy to be back in the Yucatan with its dense history and rich culture. By the way, my Spanish still sucks and I hope to change that (learning will help me stave off dementia.)  Merida is the "White City" and the capitol of the state.  I want to use my time here to understand more of the region and to deepen my ability to feel less other in the world.

Merida was founded in 1542 by three conquistadors (each of whom were named Francisco de Montejo, plus nicknames.) The early city was built of a local white stone and some of the structures and particularly churches date to the 17th Century. The Maya occupied the same location for many centuries and Merida is considered the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas. The population is 60% Mayan, making it the city in Mexico with the greatest portion of indigenous citizens.

Across the street from the second floor balcony; the neighborhood is San Sebastian

Today, the mix of houses on a given quarto (block) can be surprising. The street face is typically of high, thick walls. Ceilings in the old houses are very high to keep the rooms as cool as possible. Behind these walls are beautifully and traditionally restored spaces; high design, entirely contemporary interiors; modest (and less) dwellings and businesses; as well as abandoned ruins. The city is very proud of its beauty and often, from the street, it is impossible to tell what lies behind the walls.

The original popsicle was invented byAmerican, Frank Epperson, about 1909. I think
 Mexico has improved on the model.
Colonias, or neighborhoods, often spread around a principal church that fronts a plaza with large trees and fountains. Many areas have lots of trees and others simply bake in the sun. Sundays, large sections of streets are closed to traffic and throngs of locals and a small number of tourists walk, enjoy their city, shop and dine. As is the case throughout Mexico, there is an abundance of street food, fruit drinks, shaved ice with syrups, wonderful fresh juice popsicles called paletas and savories of all sorts. (Those of you in Asheville should visit Yuzu Patisserie in the Cotton Mill studios and try Cynthia's versions, seriously.)

It will be no surprise to you who have read a bit of this blog, that food, cooking and hospitality are at the top of my list of things to explore. Everywhere in Mexico, food plays a huge roll, Merida is no exception. The food in Merida is a major part of the culture and has combined Mayan tradition and native ingredients with a variety of European sources. Some of the food is incendiary beyond my comfort level but for the most part, the fire is offered separately as sauce. They love both serranos and habaneros, up there on the Scoville scale, the habaneros are from twice to six times hotter than tabasco.
Habeneros are native to the Yucatan and are inescapable

You cannot imagine the excitement I feel seeing all of the vegetables, fruit, cuts of meat, herbs and spices about which I have no idea. Just this morning I tried a guaya for the first time. They are in season and abundantly carpeted the patio of a new friend. (To call this wide, shaded and walled paradise just a patio seems insulting.)


Guaya are related to lychee and rambutan but with a less floral, more tart flavor. The flesh has the texture of peeled grape and I found them delicious and refreshing but a bit of work. Once peeled, there is a small amount of the juicy flesh that fastens, stubbornly, around a large stone. I popped the whole, peeled fruit in my mouth and ate the meat off the pit. I assumed the pits are inedible, as in lychee. Our friend's beautiful big dogs love them and have the skill to delicately peel the fruits before slurping them down.

I will need a mentor, and better Spanish. Much of what I see I recognize: guava, mangoes, abundant citrus including a wonderful, distinct variety of lime, pineapple, cactus pears ("tunas" in Mexico)  eaten both hard and green and ripe and juicy, huge papayas and bananas. There are at least a dozen varieties in markets that I don't recognize. 

Texas style enchiladas with green chili 
The Mexican food that is available in most of the U.S. has been sad. I was raised eating food prepared for the Yankee palate, which is to say, dumbed down, at least in most of the north. Truthfully, I  love many varieties of border state interpretations, New Mexican style, Tex-Mex, Arizona-Mex, Mississippi and Louisiana tamales. 40 plus years ago I was taken by an old friend to a San Francisco restaurant that offered "California Viejo" food that simply replaced corn tacos with spoon bread made from masa harina. I thought it wonderful but I am unable to track down any current reference to this subset. It might have been a dream. At least it was a good one.

As the U.S. palate has shifted in the direction of greater sophistication and authenticity (I suppose we need to thank the Food Network), it is now possible to get much better Mexican food in the States but the spectrum is limited. The foods I have eaten in my brief trips to Mexico have been a revelation, both in quality and variety. I have known this for years, from the terrific books of Diana Kennedy and, more recently Rick Bayless.  I have expected great food and I have not been disappointed down here.
There is, however, one issue. Let me tell you what you probably already know: it's hot here. In two months, we will begin a four month span in which the average temperature dips below 90 Fahrenheit. Yes, there are hotter places one can live, but... It is also humid, from May to October, the word is oppressive. It does cool off in the evening and nights can be very pleasant outside; inside, it stays pretty warm. Utilities are very expensive and our friends advise that one turns on the AC only when one goes to bed. The units here are split-system, the cooling device is indoors and the compressor (which actually generates heat) Is placed outdoors. 
 This is a split, it cools the bedroom quickly and
I love it, deeply

I tell you this because it affects my normal desire to turn on the stove. I do it but I might need to examine my head. Still, cooking is my life force and I will adapt. The first real cooking I have done is a made up sopa de lima, we will have it again tonight. We had gone to a Mexican superstore: furniture and appliances, clothing, groceries, pharmacy and so forth. Without thinking, we bought a chicken with celery, carrots, garlic and onions, thinking to make stock. I added a leek because it looked so good.

For a few days that chicken weighed on my mind. Do I really want to turn it into poached chicken and broth, simmering it for hours, heating up the kitchen. I couldn't throw it away and we need room in the freezer for ice, lots of ice. Two nights ago I woke up at 5 in the morning, a couple of hours earlier than normal. I knew it would be cool outside and I hobbled downstairs (I hobble a bit nowadays, but I can get around.) This was my chance! 

I put the chicken in a stock pot with the feet, neck, gizzard and heart and covered it with water. When it began to simmer and release its foam, I skimmed it and added a big carrot, scrubbed and chunked, two stalks of celery, washed and left whole, a quartered red onion, a head of garlic, sliced in half at its equator, and a small hand full of peppercorns. Back to the simmer and an hour later I fished out the chicken, let it cool enough to handle (about a half hour), and pulled  the meat off and threw the bones back in the pot until noon and then shut off the flame. 

In the evening, I strained the stock and tossed all the solids except the celery, which still had flavor. That evening, after everything had cooled, I sliced the celery into small moons, cleaned and sliced the leek and put them both in the fridge along with the stock itself. The next morning, I scooped out the fat and added the leeks and celery. When it came back to a simmer, I seasoned the broth and with oregano and bay and added the leek and celery.
Not mine, but this is how it looks (needs tortilla strips)

I began to salt the soup, a little bit at a time, tasting until the balance was right. I believe the salt balance is the single most important aspect of a dish. I aim for the fullest possible flavor which does not actually taste salty. The single most important tool one has is the act of tasting. After an hour or so, I added some of the chicken, the juice of a whole lime and a bit of excellent, even though canned, Salsa Casera (home style.) Meridanos would shred the chicken, roughly, into bite size pieces; I cubed it.

The lime juice upset the balance of flavors with a touch too much sour. More salt restored the balance. I served it with, not very crispy, taco strips and sprigs of cilantro. Our avocado was not yet ripe but it would have been a lovely addition, floating in the soup. Either way, it was rich and satisfying.

Tomorrow easier choice: gazpacho.



Lagniappe: Juicing a lime is more thorough with a reamer but when I don't have one, the butt of a chef's knife handle works admirably (Be Careful!)