The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

At last, we are in New Mexico! My home state is written about beautifully in this classic, The Milagro Beanfield War. Set in the mythical village of Milagro (there is actually a Milagro, NM, but the real town is nothing like the book’s version), it’s the story of Joe Mondragón and his fight for water rights, against big business, and in essence, it’s the story of the little guy fighting the system and – for once – winning.

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I loved the story of one man against the system – the whole David and Goliath theme – and could certainly relate it to much of what has gone on here in my state. New Mexico seems to fighting a battle of two clashing cultures – the culture of the heritage and history of the original families who settled here over 400 years ago, and the ongoing culture of the rest of America that continues to come here and make small but significant changes to a way of life that has been consistent for hundreds of years.

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I am all for progress and innovation, but it would be nice to have that without losing so much of our cultural heritage that is found increasingly in the small towns of the state. This book gave me a new appreciation for places and things that I’d grown up around and taken for granted.

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The movie version of this book was filmed in the Northern New Mexico, in a little town called Truchas, which was originally part of a larger Spanish land grant and in fact, because it is unincorporated, still operates under the same land grant laws that were in effect 300 years ago. You still see horses and cows on the streets and roadways, sharing the space with cars, tractors and bicycles.

2016-09-04 17.53.34_resized.jpg It’s a true slice of New Mexican history, a beautiful small village tucked against mountain ranges, and for me, epitomizes what is so very special about my home state.

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but I never learned to cook the New Mexico classics growing up. My grandmother, Nana Jean, who raised me for the most part, was a fantastic cook and the greatest maternal influence on my life and my cooking. But when I was young, I associated cooking with drudgery and obligation. You HAD to cook for your family and kids – not out of fun, out of requirement. As a result, I flat-out refused to learn to cook until I hit my early 30s and discovered Nigella Lawson, who made it look not only easy but glamorous and fun. From her, I learned to cook simple things and gradually moved into more complex dishes and flavors, and developed the palate that influences my cooking today.

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When my Nana Jean died a few years ago, she took much of my heart with her. It was only when I came out of the worst of my grieving that I was able to look at the homey cookbook she’d put together for all of her grandchildren, written in her own words and each with a handwritten dedication to each of us.

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When I started to read the recipes and methods I’d grown up with, I realized that I was ready to embrace her spirit and start making these dishes. And it’s appropriate that her spirit is what encourages me to continue doing what I’m doing, in honor not just of my love of books and cooking, but also, my love of my home state of New Mexico.

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In the book, the character Herbie Platt comes to Milagro to conduct scientific research, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amarante Cordova, an elderly man who believes in all the saints, and regularly leaves them offerings of tamales. It was an interesting juxtaposition of science and progress meeting tradition and history, and showing how they can indeed compliment one another. Herbie ends up falling for Stephanie, a local woman who runs a nursery school and has befriended him.  In one scene, while he is pondering his love for her, she shows up with a traditional New Mexico meal for him and ensures his devotion to the death, something we New Mexico women are good at doing with our cooking.

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“By this time Herbie loved her so much it hurt. Whereupon Stephanie appeared – miraculously! – with steaming enchiladas, a bottle of homemade beer, freshly baked bread, and locally grown grapes. They ate while a church bell languidly rang the Angelus.”

This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s classic recipe for green chile chicken enchiladas, with my own added twist.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached in chicken broth and shredded
12 corn tortillas. I used white, but yellow is just fine, too.
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
1 small onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup of milk
1 carton of mushrooms – my twist and a darn good one, I must say
1.5 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses
1 cup roasted and peeled New Mexico green chile

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METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F, and sauté the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

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Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water makes it sizzle and pop. Fry each corn tortilla for 5 seconds on each side, just to soften them and make them a bit more pliable.

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Layer the corn tortillas in a casserole dish. I used my Nana’s old Pyrex dish that I remember her using for enchiladas, and mix the shredded chicken with the sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

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In a separate bowl, combine the two cans of soup with the milk, stir together, then add to the chicken and mushroom mixture. Stir, then mix in the chile in with the rest of the ingredients.

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Spoon a layer of the mixture over the corn tortillas. Add some of the shredded cheese. Layer more tortillas on top of that layer, then add another layer of the chicken mixture. Top with another generous layer of cheese.

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Bake for 30 minutes and savor the rapturous scent of chicken, mushrooms, cheese and green chile cooking together. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then eat. They are so delicious, rich and creamy and spicy! I do think my Nana would be proud!

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Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest by José Griego y Maestas and Rudolfo Anaya

I’d consider this book of short stories, Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest, one of the pivotal books of my childhood. I’ve mentioned my father and his love of reading, and there were always books around him. In his car, in his house, you name it. As well, being a very strong proponent of civil rights, human rights, and a member of the Brown Berets on the campus of the University of New Mexico, he was also a proud Hispanic who liked to promote the work of his fellow Hispanic/Latino/Chicano educators, artists and writers, and José Griego y Maestas and Rudolfo Anaya exemplify all of these.

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Cuentos is Spanish for “stories” and these particular tales will resonate with any lover of folklore and fairy tales. Many traditional elements of fairy/folk stories are present in all these short stories – the elements, God and religion, true love, unrequited love, fathers and sons, talking animals who teach a lesson, humans who can transform into animals, and witchcraft. There is a strong Roman Catholic theme running throughout the book, which mirrors the faith of the Catholic conquistadores who came from Spain in the 1500s; but the influence of the Native American tribes and their belief in the afterlife is also very present.

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The Spanish versions of the stories are wonderful because Griego y Maestas retained most of the original language as possible, as many of these tales have their origins in the oral traditions of New Mexico’s founding families, most of whom came from Spain by way of Mexico and intermarried with the Native American tribes of what is now the state of New Mexico. The stories feature many words that are old-fashioned, even archaic. but just add depth and beauty to the stories. Rudolfo Anaya, who translated the  English versions, is my favorite writer in the world, and whom I know personally, as a mentor and a friend.

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Possibly my favorite out of all 23 of these short stories is Doña Sebastiana, which tells the tale of a poor woodcutter who meets Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Death herself one night when he is eating a chicken roasted on a spit and cooked with traditional New Mexico spices. Jesus and Mary both ask to share his meal, and he turns them both down because they ignore the poor people in the world and give much to the rich. However, when Death – Doña Sebastiana, personified as a skeleton old woman in traditional Hispanic culture – shows up and asks to eat, he happily shares his food because she treats everyone equally in death. And for this, she grants him a life-changing wish.

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“Buenas noches,” the woodcutter answered, trembling at the sight of the old hag in front of him. “Who are you?” “I am Death,” Doña Sebastiana answered as she slowly got down from her cart. “Will you share your meal with me?” “I never realized Death was so thin!” the woodcutter said as he looked at the skeleton in front of him……….”No, you treat us all equally. Sit down and share my meal.” After they had finished eating the roasted chicken Doña Sebastiana was very pleased, so she told the woodcutter to ask for any favor he wished and it would be granted.

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Chicken with New Mexico spices sounded both delicious and challenging, because there are so many spices considered traditional and that are used in many recipes. Garlic and cilantro are used in numerous recipes, and of course, a dish can’t be considered truly New Mexican unless it has chile on it. So, pondering this, I decided on some grilled chicken thighs marinated in garlic and green chile sauce and baked with with roasted green chile and cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat
1 cup green chile sauce
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
4 large Anaheim green chiles
2 cups Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses, shredded

METHOD
Put the chicken pieces into two plastic bags and pour over the chile sauce.

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Add the lime juice, the fresh chopped cilantro, and the salt and pepper. Smoosh around with your hands, and leave to marinate for up to an hour.

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Heat the oven broiler and line a baking pan with foil. Lay the green chiles on the foil and roast under the broiler for 20 minutes, flipping them after 10 minutes so both sides get blistered.

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Remove from the oven and put into a sealeable plastic bag. Leave for up to 30 minutes. The skins will steam off and this makes them much easier to peel.

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Rub olive oil into your hands, like putting on lotion. Trust me on this. The oil acts as a barrier from the seeds, which, if gotten into eyes, is not at all a pleasant experience. Then, remove the stems, peel off the skins, remove the seeds, and slice the chile into strips.

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Heat the oven to 400F, and heat a stovetop grill pan at medium high heat on the stove. Remove the chicken from the marinade, and grill each chicken piece for 5 minutes per side, so those nice, black grill marks are on both sides.

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Place the chicken thighs in a baking pan, and top each one with 1-2 strips of roasted green chile.

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Sprinkle over the cheese, and bake for 30 minutes. The cheese will melt in a golden crust of deliciousness and the smoky scent of roasting green chile is truly perfume for the senses.

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Then, just eat, happily. A meal that Death herself would surely approve of.

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