Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya

If you’ve been following my blog since it started, you’ll know of my deep and abiding love for the literary works of Rudolfo Anaya. A native of my home state of New Mexico, he was one of the first writers to gain national and worldwide attention for his books set here in the Land of Enchantment. His writings embody the experience of growing up Hispanic in New Mexico, growing up in a small town with not very much money, growing up in a world that is rapidly changing from agricultural to industrial, growing up in a world that straddles both the corporeal and the spiritual.

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Rio Grande Fall walks this line between the material world and that of the spirits that surround us here in our beautiful, dysfunctional but always magical state of New Mexico. The second in a series of four books by Anaya titled on the seasons of the year and all following the story of Elfego “Sonny” Baca, a private investigator with quite the track record of cracking cases and hooking up with women, this book continues the story from the first book Zia Summer, in which Sonny is tracking a cult leader and murderer called Raven, who is what we call a brujo here – a witch working dark magic.

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The charm of these books is that they exemplify life in New Mexico as told from the point of view of a native resident, not a transplant, and that’s why I can relate so much to the books of Anaya. He doesn’t promote the same tired literary tropes about the Southwest that so many non-native writers do. I love our Native American culture but my God, it’s been done to death in books and TV and movies. I like the focus on the other people who make up the beautiful and varied tapestry that is the people of our state – this Hispanics who are descended from Spanish soldiers and indigenous women of Mexico whose whose unique history, genetics, religion and culture have made us the hard-working, fun-loving, resilient, difficult and amazing raza we are today.

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Sonny Baca lives in the North Valley in Albuquerque, in the shadow of massive cottonwood trees, in proximity to his beloved elderly neighbor Don Eliseo and Don Eliseo’s friends Don Toto and Doña Concha. For those of you not familiar with New Mexico culture, the title of “Don” or “Doña” is honorary, given to an elder whose knowledge, influence and connections made he or she a powerful member of the community. Similar to how Vito Corleone was referred to as “Don Corleone” in the Godfather books and movies, so here you have that same concept.

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Don Eliseo is a powerful influence in Sonny’s life, representing the light side of his soul as Raven represents the dark, negative energy that is also part of Sonny’s makeup. And Sonny’s connection with his elderly neighbors also emphasizes the respect, love and honor the majority of New Mexico Hispanics hold for their senior citizens. They are the ones with our history, our story, and our souls and when they are gone, a major piece of our cultural identity goes with them.

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This scene is classic New Mexico in the autumn, when people are roasting green chile outside, drinking beer or wine, and essentially turning it into a party.

Don Eliseo and his two friends were busy in the front yard when Sonny drove up. He and Doña Concha and Don Toto were roasting a basketful of green chile that Don Eliseo grew in his field by the house. Don Eliseo slowly and methodically placed the shapely green peppers on the grill, turned each one with care, and when the thin skin was brown and roasted, he picked up the chile and tossed it in a pan. Don Toto’s job was to make sure the just-roasted chiles were kept covered with a wet towel and steaming, thus making the skin easier to peel off. He also kept the wineglasses full of his own vintage, a North Valley wine that came from vines his family had cultivated since the seventeenth century.

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Fall is chile season here in New Mexico, and the smell of it roasting at farmers markets, growers markets and grocery stores is an integral part of the changing of the season. In fact, October is also when the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place, so oftentimes you’ll be out walking or opening your door to greet the morning, and be hit with a gorgeous scent of roasting green chile while watching hot-air balloons float serenely overhead against a backdrop of the stunningly blue New Mexico sky……..and you will know that autumn has arrived. Green chile is marvelously versatile, and I thought I’d make a classic fall dish of chicken pot pie and add that spicy twist of roasted green chile and other traditional fall vegetables, in homage to Sonny Baca and Don Eliseo, who would surely approve.

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INGREDIENTS
Two good-quality, store-bought pie crusts (you can make your own but why give yourself more work?)
5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter
1 green zucchini, cubed
1 red bell pepper, deseeded and cubed
1 can corn, drained and rinsed
2 generous tablespoons dried garlic powder
5 New Mexico green chile peppers, preferably Big Jim
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup full-fat milk
1/2 cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F, and poach the chicken thighs in water or store-bought chicken broth, then cool and shred. Set aside.

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In a large skillet, heat the oil and butter, sprinkle over the garlic powder, and saute the squash and bell pepper about 10 minutes.

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Add the corn and stir until warm, then pour into the bowl with the shredded chicken and mix well. Set aside and save the oil in the skillet.

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If you have a gas stove, turn on the two front hobs and lay two chiles on top of each. The idea is to roast and blister them on each side, turning frequently until the entire chile is blackened and roasted. Use tongs so you don’t burn your fingers. NOTE: this is a very old-school method of roasting green chile. Most people do it in the oven under the broiler, on an outdoor grill, or in a toaster oven, but I like to live dangerously and do it the way my grandfather taught me – stovetop!

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Turn the chiles as you roast them, so that each side gets blackened and that spicy smell wafts out at you. Put into a large plastic bag, seal it and cover with a tea towel. The idea here is that the skins will steam off. Leave for up to 20 minutes.

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Remove the chile from the plastic bag, slide off the skins, then cut off the stems and remove as many seeds as possible.

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Chop up the roasted chile, season with salt and garlic powder, and mix with the chicken and vegetables. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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Heat some butter in the same skillet you used for the vegetables, and when melted, add the flour and stir until it melts into the butter and browns a bit. Gradually add the milk and keep whisking, to form a roux. Simmer over medium heat until it thickens.

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Lay out one of the pie crusts and add in the chicken-vegetable-chile mixture, then pour over the hot roux.

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Cover with the other pie crust, crimping the edges to sea, and cutting some slits in the top for steam to escape.

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Bake for 30 minutes, until the pie crust gets golden brown and you can smell all those wonderful savory scents. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes before cutting into it and enjoying your slice of New Mexico heaven on a plate!

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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Sometimes a girl just needs an escape, and this book provided one hell of one! It’s probably one of the most fun, and possibly my favorite, of all sci-fi and fantasy novels, The Anubis Gates is a wild and imaginative romp through time, space, and history. Basically, a literature professor by the name of Brendan Doyle chosen to go back in time at the behest of an extremely wealthy and eccentric millionaire to hear a famous lecture by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Victorian England. He gets left behind – of course – in the past with no money or resources except his knowledge of the time period, and that’s when shit gets real.

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Throw in gates of time throughout the world and history, a murderous, deformed clown on stilts, tiny homunculi with knives, ancient Egyptian magicians who can also move through time, a body-jumping werewolf, a twist of romance, some Victorian steampunk elements, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly entertaining read. Doyle’s specialty is the Victorian poet William Ashbless, whom he intends to meet while in the past, and how this meeting comes about is one of the twistiest and surprising parts of the book, but it’s the premise on which the entire book hinges, so pay attention to the references to Ashbless.

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As with any kind of time travel book, pay attention to the smaller details, as they seemingly have no connection to anything, yet prove to be monumentally important later on. I personally loved the freaky clown on stilts, though in real life I despise clowns with a passion. Hello,  Pennywise! Otherwise,  Doyle’s grasp of history serves him well, and part of why I love this book is because you feel the Victorian environment of London so well, but without that dreary, depressing Dickensian vibe. And when Doyle is down and out and spends his last bit of money on street food, you feel his intense hunger.

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Returning to Thames Street, Doyle expended half his fortune on a plate of vegetable soup and a trowelful of mashed potatoes. It tasted wonderful, but left him at least as hungry as before, so he spent his last three cents on another order of the same.

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To me, vegetables and mashed potatoes translate naturally into one thing -shepherd’s pie. I mean, a gorgeous panful of delicious meat mixed with vegetables and topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes. Hello, heaven on a plate! Of course, depending on who you talk to, it’s either a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie. I personally don’t give a damn what it’s called, just that is is soooo good. This method was based on the awesome recipe at Life in Lofthouse, is an excellent way to get rid of any random vegetables hanging around in your refrigerator, land is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day dish. Ideal for  soaking up all the green beer, Irish whiskey and whatever else booze you chose to indulge in.

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INGREDIENTS
4 large russet potatoes
1 stick softened butter
1 cup warmed milk
2 lbs ground beef
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 turnip, cut into cubes
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup baby carrots, cut in half
1 onion
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine
1/2 cup beef broth

METHOD
Butter a large glass or metal baking pan and heat the oven to 375.

Cut the potatoes in half and cook in boiling water until a fork pierces them easily, about 25 minutes. Remember if there are hard parts still in your potatoes, those will translate to lumps in your mashed potatoes. Drain and let cool slightly.

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Dry-saute the mushrooms with only a bit of salt. This is a trick I got from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and holy crap, it really works!

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Put the sauteed mushrooms into a large bowl and add the frozen corn. The heat of the ‘shrooms will soften and thaw the corn.

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While the potatoes are boiling, finely chop the onion and garlic and cook with olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes.

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Add the ground beef, some salt, and the Worchestershire sauce, and cook until the meat is nicely browned. Drain the meat and add back to the hot pan.

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In the boiling potato water, cook the turnip, peas, and carrots until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain and add to the mushrooms and corn.

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Sprinkle over the flour on the meat, and cook again over low heat for about 10 minutes, to ensure the floury taste is gone.

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Add the red wine, tomato paste, and beef broth to the floured meat in the pan, stirring until everything is well mixed and warmed through well.

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Mash the potatoes in a potato ricer, add the butter and milk, and some salt, and stir. The potato ricer is a totally badass kitchen gadget because it negates the need to peel the potatoes. I personally loathe and despise peeling potatoes, so it makes me happy to bust out the potato ricer.

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Mix the cooked meat with the cooked vegetables, stir to mix well, and spread into the glass pan.

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Spread over the mashed potatoes. Doesn’t that look so yum?

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Bake for 35 minutes, until the potato topping has browned slightly and you can smell all the juices of the meat and vegetables and you’re drooling. Let cool slightly before serving, although having said that, it’s much better after a few hours in the refrigerator, eaten tipsily at midnight in the company of a handsome man after an evening out at the St. Patrick’s Day Blarney Bash. 🙂

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Ghost Story by Peter Straub

“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done? I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…..the most dreadful thing.” That’s how Ghost Story begins, with The Chowder Society telling terrifying tales. The Chowder Society sounds like a cooking club, doesn’t it? Not in this book, though. To close out Halloween and usher in the holiday season, I decided to finish off my spooky books with this perennial favorite of mine.

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The Chowder Society is a group of four elderly men in Milburn, Connecticut who get together one evening per month and tell ghost stories. That is the simple beginning, but these four men share a past and a secret and that secret has come back from dead to haunt them all. The nephew of one of the Society, Don Waverley, has also come into contact with this horror returned from the grave, and how this specter has come into being and how it/she returns to haunt them all is quite a story.

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This book is what I would call a “slow burn” type of book. It’s not fast-paced. The terror grows slowly and with subtlety. You can see the homage to so many other books of this genre – ‘Salem’s Lot, The Turn of The Screw, The Haunting of Hill House, and so on. It jumps from narrator to narrator, and parts of it can be confusing. However, if you can do the ol’ suspension of disbelief and go along for the ride, you’ll enjoy it.

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With a group called The Chowder Society, and this being the season of spirits, it made sense to whip up a tasty ham and corn chowder in their honor, and in honor of my dear friend Chris’ 50th birthday. I served it with roasted broccoli flavored with garlic and lemon zest, and a deliriously good German chocolate cake. The ghosts were optional.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
medium yellow onion, diced
6 baby carrots
3 celery ribs, diced
6 ham steaks, cubed
1 carton chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
10 small potatoes, cubed. I used a variety of colors
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons garlic powder
3-4 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups frozen corn kernels
1 cup milk
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups heavy cream

METHOD
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the carrot, onion and celery, and cook until tender, about 10-12 minutes.

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Pour in the chicken broth and add the potatoes, thyme, garlic powder and bay leaf. The idea is to cook the potatoes so they soften up. Cover and simmer on low for roughly half an hour.

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Add the ham and corn and stir together.

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In another saucepan, melt the other tablespoon of butter, whisk in the flour, and gently add the milk. Continue whisking for 10 minutes, until the mixture forms a roux. Pour the roux into the chowder mixture, and whisk again to make sure the roux breaks down and thickens the soup.

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Pour in the heavy cream, stir and heat another 5 minutes. Decant into bowls and devour with greed.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Photography by me.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I never liked Death Comes for the Archbishop, probably because it was required reading when I was in the 6th grade. Anything forced is never something I want to do, even when it comes to reading. Isn’t it amazing, though, how different it can be when you go back and read something as an adult? I found depths of character and beauty in this book that were never apparent to my ignorant, youthful self.

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Though of course, reading as a grown-up, I also saw nuances and subtleties I didn’t clue into as a kid, such as the racism that is fairly inherent in the main characters. Well, since it was written before cultural sensitivity training, it makes sense. But there are passages that talk about the Mexican and Native American populations that made up such a large group of the  Father’s parishioners, and they are both called barbarians by a Spanish priest. So it’s quite timely for today, when there is so much racism against people of so many backgrounds, ethnicities, and faiths.

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The story is a fictionalized account of Bishop Lamy, a French Jesuit priest who came to New Mexico in the mid-1800s to help minister to the growing frontier population in northern New Mexico, and whose greatest accomplishment was building the stunningly beautiful Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. In the book, the character’s name is Father Jean-Marie Latour, and he spends over 40 years in the Santa Fe region. He lives a rather lonely existence, though he makes great friends with other priests such as Father Martinez, who has a lovely singing baritone, and the Olivares. Mrs. Olivares, in particular, seems to garner much admiration from Father Latour, and if you read between the lines, she might be someone he’d have fallen in love with, if that were permissible to a Catholic priest.

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Though various dinners and feasts are sprinkled through the book, my favorite was this passage that details one of the stories told to Father Latour by one of his fellow priests, about Father Baltazar of Acoma Pueblo, who by all accounts, was a horrible tyrant and who took all the choicest fruits and vegetables of the Native Americans he was supposed to care for. (Though he did get his just desserts in the end…..hah!) Father Baltazar was an obese man who thought nothing of working the poor Acoma Indians as slaves to ensure he had the best food and service at his home.

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Friar Baltazar was one of the most ambitious and exacting. It was his belief that the pueblo of Acoma existed chiefly to support its fine church, and that this should be the pride of the Indians as it was his. He took the best of their corn and beans and squashes for his table, and selected the choicest portions when they slaughtered a sheep…………

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Squash and corn together make up a dish called calabacitas, which is truly food for the gods. I grew up eating this dish, as a side for enchiladas or tacos, and later on as an adult, in more creative New Mexican dishes like tamales. It’s pretty much one of the most divine dishes you can eat on this earth. But I’m not at all biased.

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A traditional New Mexico dish, the simplicity is enhanced by using fresh ingredients, like any other recipe. Fortunately, fresh zucchini squash is easy to find in the grocery story and at farmers markets. Fresh corn is a bit harder when not in season, so use good-quality corn kernels from a can. The only thing that is requisite for good calabacitas is green chile. You want a bite to offset the sweetness of the corn and the green crunch of the squash, but if you’re feeding wimpy types, leave it out. Just don’t bring them to my house, because I will turn them away sneeringly.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s recipe which I remember so well from childhood. I do add my own tweaks, in the form of chicken bouillon granules, red onion instead of white, and cheese, which melts so gooily and deliciously over the hot vegetables. But cheese is not required, so omit if you so desire.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 green squashes
2 large cans of corn, drained
1 large red onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon pollo de caldo chicken bouillon powder
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 cup roasted green chile, finely chopped
Optional – 1 cup grated sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese

METHOD
In a large saucepan, melt the olive oil and butter together. This creates great flavor, and also keeps the butter from burning.

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Peel the onion and slice into thin half-moons. Remove the stem ends of the green squash, and cut into cubes.

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Drain and rinse the corn, and then peel and thinly slice the garlic cloves.

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Add the onions to the saucepan, and spoon in the chicken bouillon granules. Stir and cook about 10 minutes. Then toss in the garlic and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the squash, and season with salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat for another 10 minutes. You don’t want the squash soggy, so test the texture with a fork. Tender-crisp is what you want.

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Add the drained corn. Stir well to mix and cook another 10 minutes.

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This is where you will add the green chile. The smell is divine!

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Turn the heat to low, cover, and let cook for another 10 minutes, to heat through. Sprinkle over the cheese while still hot, so it melts and oozes nicely over the calabacitas.

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Serve as a side dish with enchiladas and rice, as a side for any other chicken dish, or just eat a huge bowl of it on its own. ¡Delicioso!

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