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 night...an 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!)