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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The Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya

Thanks to TB for the photography.

Welcome to December, and a month of holiday-themed books and food!

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Those who know me know my great and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. He’s called the Godfather of Chicano literature for a reason, and it’s his novel Bless Me, Ultima, that catapulted him and our beloved home state of New Mexico, to global fame. He brought the life and times of New Mexicans to a worldwide stage, and showed that, no matter our background, heritage, race, gender, religion or beliefs, we all share the same hopes, fears, desires and hurts. Rudy is also a personal friend, an amazing humanitarian and human being, and as I always say jokingly, had I met him 40 years ago and were we closer in age, I would have married him.

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He writes in a mild, gentle manner that hides a voice of power and strength. He promotes love, standing up for yourself and those weaker than you, spirituality, passion, sensuality, and self-awareness. He is a poet, an educator, a shaman of words, and I adore the man, what can I say?

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Me and my idol.

One of his books I love reading around the holidays is The Farolitos of Christmas. The story is simple, a little girl named Luz, which means “light” in Spanish, is getting ready for Christmas in her small town of San Juan in Northern New Mexico, during WWII. She lives with her mother and her grandfather, with whom she is very close. Her grandfather, every year since before Luz was born, made the traditional farolitos, little woodpiles lit to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and also to light the way of the children acting in the annual Nativity play called “Las Posadas.” Luz’s grandfather is recovering from the flu and is not strong enough to cut all the wood needed for the farolitos, so one day, while buying sugar for her mother’s biscochito cookies, Luz comes up with the ingenious method of pouring sand into paper bags, putting a candle inside each bag, and lighting it. That way, the wind cannot put out the light, the way is lit for the Christ Child, and Christmas can be celebrated at last.

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Side note: if you ever want to see two New Mexicans argue, ask them which word is correct: luminaria or farolito. Then sit back and enjoy the drama.

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Aside from being such a wonderful children’s book, this story is close to my heart because it portrays things that I have grown up around and been part of since childhood. The concept of farolitos, or luminarias, has been part of my heritage and culture always. It would not be Christmas in our family, in our state of New Mexico, and indeed in our Hispanic New Mexican culture, if we didn’t have the traditional holiday dishes of posole, tamales and biscochitos. And then, of course the theme of Luz’s closeness to her grandfather resonated powerfully, as I was raised by my Nana and was closer to her than perhaps any other person on earth. I miss her so very much.

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My beautiful Nana Jean

My Nana made the best biscochitos, though I’d guess every New Mexican says that about their grandmother. Being so close to my own, making her traditional Christmas cookie made me feel close to her. She was always the one who made Christmas special, decorating, making her holiday candy and cookies, putting up her lavish Nativity scene, decorating the tree with all the wonderful homemade ornaments she’d made over the years.

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With her gone, the heart has somewhat gone out of Christmas for me, though I try every year to rekindle that holiday spirit. I am particularly down this year, for a variety of reasons both personal and political, but what keeps me going is the reminder that, despite and because of everything, life does indeed go on. And so I reconnect with my own life force by doing the thing that always brings me joy – cooking for others. Though I do admit to shedding some tears as I read her recipe and got started. But that is life, is it not? Joy and pain, sometimes at the same time.

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This is the method that I used. It’s my Nana’s recipe, unaltered with the exception of the addition of 1/3 cup of amaretto, and only because I love the almond taste. But other than that, it’s our traditional family recipe. Because how can you improve on perfection?

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups Crisco
1 cup lard
3 large eggs, room temperature

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2 cups sugar
3 teaspoons anise flavoring
1 teaspoon vanilla
10 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder

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1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup whiskey
1/3 cup Amaretto
Sugar and cinnamon mixed together

METHOD
Cream the lard and shortening together.

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Add the eggs and sugar. Cream again.

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Add in the anise and vanilla. Mix together again.

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Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl. Gradually incorporate it to the lard/egg mixture, slowly mixing together.

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Slowly pour in the whiskey and the Amaretto to the forming-dough, continuing to mix slowly until you have a nice, round ball of dough.

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Wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least an hour. When ready to bake, take out the dough, and heat the oven to 400F. Dust a counter or other surface with flour and start rolling out the dough.

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Cut out shapes with cookie cutters or with a coffee cup.

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Dip each cookie shape into the sugar-cinnamon mixture.

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Lay out on cookie sheets, and bake for 10 minutes, or until the cookies are golden-brown.

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Allow to cool, and enjoy. Or you could do what my Nana always did, and share generously with family and friends. ‘Tis the season, after all! These are delicious as snacks, served to guests with some tea, eaten with early-morning coffee, or eaten Italian-style dipped in red wine. Really, they are good at anytime of the day. But it’s not a New Mexico Christmas without homemade biscochitos.

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Here’s to my Nana Jean. Merry Christmas!

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