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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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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Homme Fatal by Paul Mayersberg

Photography by me.

While digging through my bookshelves the other day, I came across Homme Fatal, a pop fiction novel I’d bought years ago and held onto because the story was so fascinating.  Though quite a smutty novel, I primarily held onto it because the story, told about the same events from two viewpoints, had a sleazy, 1940’s film noir vibe to it, which I always like. Kind of Raymond Chandler meets Hugh Hefner.

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The premise is simple: a man named Mason becomes sexually obsessed with a woman he sees dragging a dead body down a hotel corridor. The woman, named Ursula, ends up coming to work for him in his office, and his obsession with her grows. But…….who is truly the one obsessed here? When did the obsession start? Which of them is more obsessed?

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What’s so great about this book is that Mason and Ursula both tell their sides of the same story, and you see exactly how twisted this obsession is on both their parts. I personally have always found the concept of obsession fascinating, particularly when you observe it in people who are otherwise very controlled and intellectual, because they are the last ones you’d ever think would be controlled by something so emotion-based. Obsession is a fascinating thing to study in others. Just beware that you don’t find yourself becoming obsessed, too!

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One of the other reasons I like this book, aside from its trashy noir style, is the fact that it begins and ends here in my home state. It is primarily set in Los Angeles, and all the sordid glamour of that town is well described. But the hotel where Mason first sees Ursula is in Artesia, New Mexico, a tiny, dusty town in the southern part of the state, not known for much other than oil fields and refineries; and the book ends in the Sandia Mountains, the beautiful, rose-colored mountain vista that frames my hometown of Albuquerque directly to the east.

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And taking place mainly in Los Angeles, there were of course several great foodie references. The one I enjoyed the most is the part where Mason is secretly following Ursula, and she meets Laszlo, her astrologist (how L.A. can you get, right?) in a cheesy Mexican restaurant. They both down margaritas and Ursula, in nervous hunger, wolfs down guacamole and chips.

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Now, guacamole is probably the easiest thing to make in the world, and this is really more of a method than anything else. There are many different ways of making it, though, and depending on who you talk to, it can have jalapeños, cayenne, lemon, lime, tomatoes, etc. Nigella Lawson, whom I worship as the Goddess that she is, made a version with blue cheese. I realize this is the season of excess, but that’s a bit too much for me. And of course, being from New Mexico and with the New Mexico references in the book, I had to make my grandmother’s guacamole with Hatch green chile.

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This is the method that works for me, every single time. I am kind of embarrassed to be presenting it here because it is so simple, but what the hell, I already divulged my secret love for trashy fiction above, so I’m sure my literary reputation is already down the tubes. FYI that I made this for a party I had on New Year’s Day, so the amounts are large. Feel free to scale down as needed.

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INGREDIENTS
10 large, ripe avocadoes
1 cup of lime juice, either fresh or bottled
3-4 tablespoons sea salt

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1 generous cup of New Mexico green chile, roasted and chopped.
12 grape tomatoes
6 garlic cloves and a generous handful of fresh cilantro

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METHOD
Halve the avocadoes by laying them on a cutting board and slicing in a circular method. Don’t go against your grandmother’s advice and hold up the avocado in your hand and slice it in a circle, because THIS will happen. Yes, Nana, I know. I know.

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In a large bowl, scoop out the green flesh of the avocadoes.

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Mash up the avocadoes. I use a potato masher because it’s easiest. I once tried using the food processor. Very bad idea. I won’t say what it looked like, but think of the pea soup scene with Regan in The Exorcist and you’ll get the gist.

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Dissolve the salt in the lime juice in a measuring cup. This is a great trick because it ensures the salt is mixed up in all the avocadoes. Note: Don’t get salt or lime in your sliced-up finger. Your neighbors won’t like the screams.

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Pour over the salty lime juice on the avocadoes. Mix together.

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Add in the green chile and mix again.

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Mince in the garlic cloves and mix again.

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Slice the grape tomatoes into small circles, and toss them into the mix. Stir, and taste for seasoning. This is the point where you can add more lime or more salt. Avocadoes soak up flavor, so even if you think you’ve added plenty of salt or lime, you may find you need to add more. I usually do.

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Chop up the cilantro, and add most of it to the guacamole. Stir together so that the cilantro is well mixed.

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Garnish the top of the guacamole with the remaining cilantro and serve with tortilla chips, or with anything you want. It’s great with taquitos, with chicken, with anything savory. If you have any leftover, it’s delicious on toast with a fried egg on the side, as a post-party breakfast.

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Happy New Year! Here’s to 2017 and to contentment, happiness, prosperity and peace of mind for us all.