Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, Última was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called Última who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and Última’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that Última teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.

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I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Última prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal. I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caldo de pollo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

METHOD
Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

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Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This book, Little Women, has an incredibly special place in my heart, for many reasons. The first is that my edition, shown here, was bought for me by my father David, for my 12th birthday many years ago, in which he wrote me a deeply loving message, which I still read when I am feeling down, as I have been lately.

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The other reason I love this book is because it reminded me so much of me and my sisters growing up. My oldest sister was so much like Meg in the sense of being motherly/bossy and always directing what we should do. I was Jo, the bookworm who preferred solitude and writing and the company of animals. My younger sister always reminded me of Amy, pretty, outgoing, somewhat spoiled but with a heart of gold.

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The language is somewhat outdated, but I remember suspending my disbelief, so words I didn’t understand were transformed as part of the larger emotional narrative. My heart broke when – spoiler alert! – Beth died. In fact, I just watched that episode of “Friends” when Rachel has Joey reading Little Women, and when he comes to the part where Beth dies, he has to put the book in the freezer. Hilarious! That episode is hilarious, to be clear, not Beth dying.

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Though there are numerous food segments to choose from, the one with Jo putting salt on the strawberries being a personal favorite – and not just because I made that very mistake myself once upon a time when trying to impress a man….hahahaha! – I love the chapter when Jo and Laurie become friends after she comes to cheer him up with a visit, complete with Beth’s kittens in one hand and a delicious sweet treat in the other.

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“Here I am, bag and baggage,” she said briskly. “Mother sent her love and was glad if I could do something for you. Meg wanted me to bring some of her blanc-mange; she makes it very nicely, and Beth thought her cats would be comforting.”

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Blancmange is a white custard dessert flavored with vanilla, similar to Italian panna cotta. I love almond, so I tweaked to give a more almond taste.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole-fat milk
2 tablespoons vanilla (clear if possible)
1 tablespoon almond extract

METHOD
Mix together the cornstarch, sugar, and salt with 1/2 cup of the milk. Set aside.

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In a small, heavy-bottomed pan or double boiler, heat the rest of the milk over low heat. Don’t let boil, but when you see tiny bubbles forming at the edges, you’re ready.

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Whisk in the cornstarch, sugar and milk mixture, stirring constantly. The whisking and stirring will get rid of the cornstarch flavor and also keep the sugar from burning, and will assist in thickening.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about an hour. Add in the vanilla, stir together, then cover and chill in the refrigerator.

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I served mine in individual ramekins, and decorated with red edible glitter because I live to bling. It is delicious, light and smooth and comforting, but with those flavors of vanilla and almond complementing each other so well.

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The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

There are three celebrity cooks  – Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Emeril Lagasse – whom I love, but who are as much shrewd self-marketers as they are cooks. Then there are the three honest-to-God gourmet chefs whose writings have heavily influenced my own cooking and writing. Julia Child, the Goddess; Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame and an amazing food historian as she is a chef; and last but not least, my dearly beloved Jacques Pépin, who I remember watching on PBS as a little girl and being fascinated by how easy he made it all look.

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Jacques Pépin is my hero, for many reasons. He has had more than his share of trials and tribulations, and had to relearn many skills and reinvent himself many times. He survived a terrible car crash that could have permanently taken away his arm movement, and thus, his ability to cook. He has persevered to become the Grand Master of chefs in the world, and he continues to cook and learn and share.

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Many of his family memories and anecdotal stories are those that we can all relate to. He and his brothers learned to cook very early, working in their mother’s cafe, which served hearty buffet-style meals at what would be the equivalent of $1 today. I can’t even imagine having such deliciousness as a steak with frites for that amount!

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My favorite of his stories is when he goes to visit the late, great James Beard (of the Beard Foundation and one of the world’s great chefs) and is nearly kicked out for bringing him salmon baked in a rich, buttery sauce. Beard is in the hospital for angina, and so of course, what better for the heart than some butter! I laughed out loud reading this section.

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This beautiful crystal bowl was a Christmas gift from my dear and wonderful friend Richard. Had to show it off!

Peppered throughout the books are recipes that all have special meaning for Pepin, including his mother’s cheese souffle, her apple tart, a salad of dandelion greens, and what sounded to me like a plate of heaven – Ed Giobbi’s Primavera Pasta. Now, this recipe should by rights be made in the late summer when home-grown tomatoes are deeply red and ripe and bursting with flavor. But I figured, to hell with it. I found as good of quality tomatoes as I possibly could, let them ripen a few more days, and made this in the winter. And it was delicious, simple, and full of flavor.

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This gorgeous glass cutting board was another Christmas gift, this time from my beloved Aunt Sandy. Guess I was a good girl to get such great gifts! 

INGREDIENTS
5 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes
Handful of fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil (my flavor addition)
1 tablespoon finely grated garlic
1 pound farfalle (bowtie) pasta
Abundant boiling and salted water

METHOD
Heat the water to boiling point, add a generous handful of salt, and cook the farfalle for 8 minutes, or until al dente, just cooked but still with a hint of firmness. Reserve a cupful of the pasta cooking water and set aside.

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Slice the tomatoes lengthwise and deseed them. Put them in a large bowl and add the salt and pepper. Stir and leave a few minutes.

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Add the garlic, then the chopped basil, and stir again to mix the flavors. Pour in the lemon olive oil, and give another good stir.

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Add the cooked pasta to the tomatoes in the bowl, stir, and then add in a bit of the hot cooking water. This helps the starches in the pasta emulsify and helps make a sauce.

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Serve hot, with generous handfuls of shaved Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese. It’s truly delicious, strongly flavored but light and fragrant. I can imagine eating this in the south of France with a glass of rose wine with Chef Pepin himself. Wonderful!

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Watching Glass Shatter by James J. Cudney

Written by fellow blogger James J. Cudney, whose awesome blog This Is My Truth Now is among my favorite sites,  Watching Glass Shatter was a lengthy and awesome read about family secrets, family dysfunction, and ultimately, family bonds and love that keep people connected, even during some of the worst times.

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The premise of the story is thus: Ben Glass, the patriarch of the family, has just died. His widow Olivia – who I totally picture as Helen Mirren – learns of a potentially devastating family secret Ben kept from her. You learn one of the secrets early on in the book, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t reveal it. However, it is the impetus for Olivia to get to know all five of her sons in more depth, and as a result, learns that they each have secrets of their own.

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I like the analogy of glass shattering as representing the calm family facade that Ben and Olivia maintained throughout their marriage and the play on the word as it is also the family surname. Olivia reminded me a great deal of my own grandmother, very stoic and calm, sometimes cold in her manners, but with this smooth facade hiding lots of emotion and love.

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Each of the sons – Teddy, Matt, Caleb, Zach, and Ethan – have their own distinctive personalities and voices that come through very clearly, sometimes irritatingly so, because they are far from perfect. Yet, as I kept reading, I started understanding and even relating to each of them in their quest to maintain that Glass family facade. I liked Ethan the best because he is so close to his mother and seems initially to be the only son that truly cares for her well-being.

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In one early pivotal scene, Olivia’s sister Diane serves them both breakfast after the funeral, in Olivia’s elegant, calm, and beautifully decorated dining room. The room is very much like Olivia – almost untouchable in its exquisitely detailed beauty, and the appropriately elegant breakfast of gourmet coffee, juice and quiche that is described so delectably made me salivate just reading this scene.

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Grabbing a quiche out of the refrigerator, she sliced two giant wedges and put them in the broiler to warm up. While the coffee dripped, Diane set two places at the breakfast nook in the corner, her favorite spot in her sister’s house……..She checked the quiche, savoring the golden-brown crust and bubbling Gruyere, her nose tempted by the comfort it offered.

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Quiche Lorraine is that classic French dish that combines Gruyere cheese, eggs, and bacon into something heavenly that angels could eat happily.  I had some caramelized onions leftover, so I added those to the mix. And yes, I used, premade Marie Callender pie crust instead of making it from scratch. Don’t judge.

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INGREDIENTS
2 premade pie crusts (or go all out and make your own!)
6 eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
8 slices of bacon
1 cup caramelized onions
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and prick the crusts in the center with a for, then blind-bake them for 10 minutes. Let cool.

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Cook the bacon, and when slightly cooled, crumble and sprinkle into the bottom of the piecrusts.

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Add a layer of onions on top of the bacon in the crusts.

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Beat the eggs together with the cream, the Gruyere, and the nutmeg, and add salt and pepper. The Gruyere is salty, so don’t go overboard with the salt.

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Pour the egg mixture on top of the bacon and onions in the piecrusts, and bake for 25 minutes. Check for texture and remove from the oven if it’s not wobbly anymore. If it’s still a bit wobbly, leave another 2-3 minutes.

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Let cool and serve. I personally think quiche is the most perfect dish in the world, and this recipe hasn’t changed my mind. DELISH!

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In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Happy New Year! To start off 2018, I take us back to Venice, dear readers. But it’s not the Venice of dreams and watery, lyrical descriptions. This 16th-century Venice, elegantly depicted In The Company of the Courtesan, is a hard, rough place, stinking of rotten canal water and fish, and is as often the deathplace of dreams as it is the making of them.

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I’ve always found stories of the Venetian courtesans fascinating since I saw the marvelous film Dangerous Beauty, based on the biography The Honest Courtesan, which details the life and literary ambitions of Veronica Franco, a poet and courtesan in the late 1500s. This book, also about a courtesan in Venice, is told from the point of view of Bucino, an endearingly grumpy and intelligent dwarf who is the servant, companion, household capo, and most importantly, friend of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini, whose beauty, intelligence and charm are sharply contrasted by Bucino’s looks.

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After Fiammetta and Bucino arrive in Venice, wounded in body and spirit after the brutal Sack of Rome, they find her mother dead, and the evil housekeeper skimming the till. Fiammetta befriends Elena Crusichi, also called “La Draga,” who is a healer and beautician of some repute. Bucino sells some of their hidden gemstones to get them back on their feet and one afternoon, he thinks to buy some sugared fruit for Fiammetta, to cheer her up. In one of the most charming passages in the book, they reminisce about the kinds of foods they most wish for and miss from their heady days in Rome, when Fiammetta had hired one of Rome’s best chefs for her courtesan’s kitchen.

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“You know what I miss most of all, Bucino? The food. I am so hungry for taste every day that if I were still intact, I would sell my virginity for a good dish of sardines fried in orange and sugar. Or veal with morello cherry sauce and squash baked with cinnamon and nutmeg.”  “No, not veal, wild boar. With honey and juniper. And a salad of endives, herbs and caper flowers. And for dessert…” “Ricotta tart with quinces and apples.” “Peaches in grappa.” “Marzipan cakes.” “Ending with sugared fruits.” “Oh, oh.” And we are laughing now. “Help me. I am drooling here.” I pull a grimy paper from my pocket and uncover the remains of the sugared pears I bought in the piazza. “Here. Try this.” I say. And I lift it up to her. “Here’s to the best whore and the best cook under the same roof again.”

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Sugared pears –  also known as candied pears or caramelized pears – are a classic Italian recipe, and can be eaten as a dessert, or with a strong Gorgonzola cheese. This is the method that worked for me, based on Chuck Hughes’ recipe. With, of course, my own flavor tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
2 red pears
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup regular sugar or brown sugar
1/3 cup Pinot Noir red wine
Zest and juice of 1 lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, and slice the pears into lengthwise quarters, removing the seeds and stems. Add the pears to the butter in the pan.

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Gently cook, turning occasionally, for about 5-6 minutes, until they start browning a bit. The smell will indicate they are cooking, too.

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Sprinkle over the sugar and continue cooking until the sugar starts to caramelize.

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Pour over the red wine and let bubble up for another 5 minutes.

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Remove the pears to a plate to cool,and add the lemon juice to the red wine and sugar in the pan. Increase the heat to high, and reduce the liquid, so it thickens and becomes somewhat syrupy, approximately 7 minutes.

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Pour over the pears, grate over the lemon zest, and enjoy either with vanilla ice cream or with a nice wedge of strong blue cheese. It is so delicious, and a perfect sweet start to the new year.

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