REPOST: Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

The news of the death of Rudolfo Anaya hit today. He was not only a world-renowned author, he was also a dear and cherished friend, mentor, and counselor. I was fortunate to have met him 20 years ago and we developed a wonderful friendship. He encouraged my writing, persuaded me to attend graduate school, and was overall one of the most wonderful, generous and kind humans in this world. I will miss you, dear Rudy. Que descansa en paz. I repost this blog in your honor.

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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Episode 6 of “Cooking the Books” Podcast Now Available!

The latest episode of my food podcast “Cooking the Books” has dropped if you want to give it a listen! We’re talking the late, great Anthony Bourdain and his legacy of food, foul language and being feisty, so please enjoy.

https://anchor.fm/cookingthebooks/episodes/Kitchen-Confidential-and-the-Fcking-Brilliance-of-Yellowfin-Tuna-efh0g3

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

In desperate need of something new to read and some cooking inspiration during this ongoing pandemic, I did a Google search for best foodie literature and actually got several unexpected suggestions. Two were books that extolled the virtues of various alcoholic beverages and cocktails, and I was immediately intrigued. I am not one to say no to anything liquor-based, and in fact have blogged previously about various drinks, including the mint julep, the Aperol spritz, the Campari cocktail, the Sazerac cocktail, and my personal favorite, the Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster.

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So I decided this latest novel, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, was worthy of a read. And I’m glad I did! The premise of the book is thus: Bailey Chen is fresh out of college and seeking that elusive first job with a degree that we all went through when the ink was still wet on our university diplomas. She gets a part-time job bartending with her old high school buddy Zane, who had a massive crush on her back in the day and has now leveled up his own game with his new wardrobe, nice Chicago apartment and partial ownership of his uncle’s bar. One night, Bailey is on her way home after having mixed herself a rather unusual and strong cocktail and is shocked to see monsters stalking people in the greater Chicago downtown area. The cocktail – a screwdriver – is made with magical liquor in just the right amounts and allows Bailey not only to see these monsters but also imbues her with super-hero powers.

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That’s the idea of the book – liquor gives you superpowers. Well, hell! I could have told you that! After a few glasses of wine, I am the world’s greatest singer! 🙂 Anyway, Bailey has uncovered an entire world of bartenders who know the secrets of different cocktails and the various powers they give when made correctly. A screwdriver gives you extreme strength and speed. A tequila slammer gives the ability to create protective force fields. A Tom Collins allows you to breathe underwater. A White Russian and you can walk on air. A Martini lets you turn to glass. Irish coffee lets you create illusions in the minds of others. And so on.

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One of the most fun aspects of this book is reading the cocktail recipes that precede each chapter. Taken from The Devil’s Water Dictionary, each cocktail recipe is spelled out with the specific ingredients and garnishes needed, the precise measurements for each, the type of glass necessary to activate the magic in the cocktail, and then each ingredient is described in detail as to its origin, history, and how it came to be associated with the drink itself. It’s nothing heavy, this book, and that was what made it so much fun to read. It’s also set in the various cool neighborhoods in Chicago, one of my favorite cities, so it was really cool to jump around with the characters as they roam the streets of the Windy City hunting and killing nasty-ass monsters and getting shitfaced drunk in order to do it. Works for me!

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Not being much for hard liquor, I quite enjoyed reading about the powers of the Mojito cocktail. Now, I like a good Mojito because I love mint and lime together. Rum took me awhile to get behind because Captain Morgan and I had a really bad night together many years ago and it turned me off rum for years, but an ex-boyfriend who was an accomplished bartender made me a killer Mojito many years ago that changed my mind. And then there was this book passage:

Mint leaves, sugar, lime juice. Concentrating on details always helped…….She had spent her preshift Saturday drinking coffee and staying as alert as possible; now that she was up next for patrol, she was making herself a mojito – her ex-coworker Trina’s favorite, which would give her the power to manipulate ambient water to her will……..

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INGREDIENTS
6 mint leaves
2 sugar cubes or 1 tablespoon of sugar
1 lime
2 ounces white rum
Soda water
Crushed ice

METHOD
Drop 6 mint leaves, the sugar cubes, and the juice of one lime into a glass.

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Muddle the mint leaves until they are bruised and the sugar has dissolved.

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Add the 2 ounces of rum and a splash of soda water.

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Fill the glass with crushed ice, garnish with a mint sprig and a slice of lime, and serve. Knocks the wind back into your sails, this one does. After drinking it, you might very well feel that you can fly or at very least, manipulate ambient water like in the book. Don’t try it, though.

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REPOST – Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

I originally posted this blog in May 2017.  Today marks two years from the date that my idol Anthony Bourdain died. One of my biggest culinary influences, as well as someone who changed my worldview in general, I loved, respected and honored his work and who he was as a human being. I hope you enjoy this repost. 

Original posting: May 2017: Oh, that damn Monday fish. Anthony Bourdain, to whom I refer affectionately as “my future ex-husband,” is never going to live that down. I didn’t eat a Monday fish special at a restaurant for  five years after reading Kitchen Confidential. Of course, in his updated version of that classic foodie memoir, he recants in his inimitable style by saying “eat the fucking fish on Monday, already!”

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Bourdain is as snarky and smart-assy as they come. God, I love him. His attitude of irreverence, particularly within an industry that traditionally holds male chefs on very high pedestals, is refreshing. Though he is somewhat of a hypocrite in how he has previously mocked celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray whilst simultaneously pursuing his own brand of foul-mouthed celebrity, I can’t help but like the guy. He’s funnier than hell, can cook like an angel, curse like a devil, drink like a sailor, and is one of those men that just get more handsome and sexy with age. He’s welcome to eat crackers in bed with me anytime.

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What sets him apart is that he doesn’t take himself seriously, either in his writing or his cooking. He’s a good chef and he knows it, but he regularly mocks himself, and I like that in a person. We none of us should take ourselves so seriously in life, because we are all going to screw up eventually. I also like that he doesn’t have any arrogance toward his staff and he gives credit where credit is due – to the hardworking cooks, sous-chefs, servers, bakers, prep cooks, dishwashers and all the unseen migrant men and women behind the scenes who make the food.

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Without these workers, restaurants would shut down. They are the true backbone of the service industry, and I say this having worked for several years in the restaurant business myself; as a table busser, a hostess, a waitress, and a cashier at a well-known Mexican restaurant; and as a cocktail waitress at a couple of dive bars while in college.

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It was fun, but physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I got yelled at by customers and dropped numerous glasses of water working in the restaurant business; I got my butt pinched so often as a cocktail waitress that I think it’s permanently bruised; and for years after I left the Mexican restaurant I could not look at a bowl of salsa and basket of tortilla chips without gagging. I respect the hell out of people in the service industry, and Bourdain respects them, too.

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Well, my dear future ex-husband, I am going off the rails a little bit and making this dish in your honor ON A MONDAY! I’m taking you on, baby, and making that yellowfin tuna in a braised fennel, confit tomato, and saffron sauce. Except, with my usual recipe edits. This is the method that worked for me, based on this New York Times tasty recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
For the tomato confit:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
3 tablespoons fresh thyme and parsley
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

For the tuna:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, cut in thin slices
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 small tuna steaks, 5 oz. each
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup of seafood stock
1/ 2 teaspoon saffron threads

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small slit across the bottom of each cherry tomato. Put the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves in the boiling water for 30 seconds.

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Drain in ice-cold water to blanch, then remove the peels from each tomato. This will probably take a good 20 minutes.

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Put the tomatoes and garlic in a baking pan, submerge in olive oil, add the dried and fresh herbs, sea salt, and pepper. Cover in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool thoroughly, peel the garlic cloves and mash, mix with the tomatoes, then store in a jar.

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In a small pan, heat the seafood stock to just boiling. Add the saffron threads, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir together, and let simmer.

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Heat a cast-iron stovetop grill to high. Salt and pepper the tuna steaks, oil them lightly on both sides, and sear them each for 30 seconds per side.

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Place the tuna steaks on top of the shallot, garlic and fennel. Grate over the lemon zest.

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Pour over the seafood stock, check for taste and seasoning, cover and cook on low for another 5-7 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Don’t let it overcook!

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Plate and garnish with the gorgeously red tomato confit, and maybe some black rice. It makes a stunning presentation on a plate, and better  yet, tastes delicious. Anthony, I think I did you proud!

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Episode 5 of “Cooking the Books” Podcast Now Available!

Latest episode of my podcast “Cooking the Books” is has dropped, so give it a listen at the link below, or on Spotify!

 

https://anchor.fm/cookingthebooks/episodes/The-Name-of-the-Rose-and-the-Ungodly-Goodness-of-Fried-Cheese-in-Batter-ees6n0