The $@#&!^* Joy of Cooking

Okay.  I get it.  Cooking truly is an art form.  It requires patience, creativity, and talent.  Lacking two of those three means I am struggling in the kitchen, but pressing on nonetheless.  My creativity in other areas does not transfer well.  I know that is a confidence thing, and it will come eventually.   Thank goodness my husband enjoys to cook, otherwise we would starve during the time it takes me to recover from a single meal prep.

What I lack in patience and talent, I more than make up for with my curiosity and love of learning.  I want to soak up as many experiences as possible while I am living here, and that includes learning about new ingredients, new foods, and new ways to prepare them- -myself.  So I research, pin on a special “current obsession” Pinterest board, and write recipes in a brand new spiral bound notebook.  I cannot tell you how much I enjoy this part!

thumbnailRecently, armed with a grocery list (for quite possibly the first time in my life), I headed to our local Ley grocery store.  After a long internal debate about whether or not I should buy tomatillos in their husks or out, I opted for out.  Although I had no earthly idea what a ripe tomatillo was supposed to look like.  I received a short lesson on how to select the perfect lemon from a very kind expert.  I am slowly learning to tell the difference between the five gazillion varieties of peppers available.  And no laughing please, but I had absolutely no idea that tomato bouillon was a thing!  In fact, I was a little worried that I would not be able to find it.  I had to ask where to find the vinegar.  (A side benefit of this cooking thing is an improvement in my Spanish speaking skills.)

By the time I was finished, almost everything in my cart had come from the produce department.  I loved how it looked!  Upon arriving home, I took a picture of everything because it looked so pretty.  That was the extent of my kitchen time the rest of the day.

I woke up early the next day to soak my beans and make the marinade for carne asadathumbnail-2 before I went to Spanish class.  I got right back at it once I returned home, cooking the beans and whipping up a little salsa verde.  I really loved this recipe because it did not require a lot of slicing and dicing.  I just threw everything into our little smoothie maker and in seconds I had delicious salsa.  Without a doubt, the tomatillo is quite possibly the greatest thing on this planet (ripe or not).

Nearly everything on my menu called for garlic.  We never used a lot of it back in Indiana.  Who am I kidding?  My husband did because I found TWO garlic presses in our kitchen utensil drawer.  Who knew that garlic is a lot like an onion?  Never mind.  Probably all of you.  Well, I was amazed by all the layers of skin I had to peel off to get to the good stuff.  And it now makes perfect sense why one of our small, independent grocers sells fresh garlic already peeled.

I have a new appreciation for the Rachel Rays, Paula Deans, and everyone else who can cook and joke around, chat, or watch Ellen at the same time.  I was over focused, consumed by what was in front of me.  I would check my recipe and then forget what I had just read minutes later.  I felt frantic and incredibly anxious.  At one point I actually had to lie down and practice my breathing.  Take out would have been so much easier…

Truth be told it was a good thing I rested.  While my husband was grilling the flank steak, I was racing around the kitchen like a mad woman finishing up the rice and the beans.  Part of the problem is that our gas stovetop seems to have two settings- – high and higher.  Before I had time to chop my carrots, the rice was boiling.  I had no chance of keeping liquid in the bean pot; the juice evaporated instantly.  And I never even had time to slice onions or lemons for the carne asada because I was stirring two pots at the same time to prevent burning.

thumbnail-1I let Steve taste everything first.  Once it was evident that he was not going to have a food reaction, I tried dinner myself.  The rice was incredible- -it is now my specialty (read “the easiest”), and I make it at least once a week.  The beans tasted somewhat bland, which I was not expecting at all.  It was explained later that I had failed to add the “tube of lard” (available at Ley) to the bean pot.  Um, no.  Until I figure it out, I will just mix them in with the rice.  And I will be doing that for a while considering that even though I halved the recipe, I have beans for days.  Thankfully, it is pretty hard to screw up carne asada, even without onions and lemon!

Up next machaca, tacos al pastor, charro beans, and pozole.  I figured pre-calculus out the week before the final exam.  I can surely master the kitchen.  (But I am keeping a few restaurants on my speed dial until then.)

Today’s Menu Choices: A Wing and A Prayer

So I went grocery shopping yesterday.  And I experienced extreme grocery cart envy.  I was in the produce section marveling at a gentleman who was filling plastic bags to the brim with tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, lemons, potatoes, peppers, and corn.  My cart looked pretty basic.  I had bananas, apples, two pineapples, and carrots.  In fact, the only item that may have caused my cart to look a little different than it did when I was shopping in Fort Wayne, Indiana was the jícama.

My feelings of food choice inadequacy grew greater with each aisle I covered.  “Why are you putting Pop Tarts in this cart?  Put them back on the shelf now!” (I did not.)  I was seriously bummed to discover that there was absolutely no white cheddar popcorn to be found anywhere in the store.  Thank goodness the freezer shelves that occasionally house the Red Barron frozen pizzas were empty.  It was after I added the jar of Prego spaghetti sauce to the cart I truly knew I had a problem.

In an earlier posting, I shared the deep, dark secret that I do not really like to cook.  However, I like even less letting an incredible opportunity pass me by.  Here I am living in Mexico, eating like a gringa; an unhealthy one at that.  (In the event that my mom is reading this, the Pop Tarts were for Steve, and I do eat a lot of salads.)  As I placed my items on the conveyor belt, shaking my head at the pathetic display, I vowed that things were going to be different from this point on.

thumbnailOn the way home I stopped at Santa Rosa’s, the small, local grocery store for some coyotas and Flor de Jamaica.  After unloading the car, I warmed my breakfast cookie in the microwave and began brewing a batch of aqua de Jamaica.  I fired up my computer and started the search for Sonoran recipes.  Three hours later, I had the budding promise of culinary disaster…er…change.

I made a new grocery list.  I do, however, draw the line at one major grocery trip per day.  So in the meantime, I am psyching myself up by breathing real heavy like a boxer before the fight, hopping around the house on my toes, jabbing the air left and right, and shouting into the mirror, “Who rules the kitchen?  That’s right!  You do!”  There may or may not be some growling involved.

And if all else fails, at least coyotas and aqua de Jamaica beat Pop Tarts and Coca Cola!

 

Agua de Jamaica

8 oz. dried Jamaica flowers

16 cups water

sugar to taste

ice

Wash the flowers in a strainer.  Put them in a pot with the water and heat until the water boils.  Remove from heat, cover, and let stand 24 hours.  Pour through a strainer to remove the flowers.  Once the water is in its serving container, add sugar to taste.

Chamoy Apples: Welcoming Fall, Mexico Style

Lately, I am reading a lot of fun posts on social media from friends in Indiana who are beginning to celebrate fall.  Cooler temperatures, changing colors, football games, and trips to orchards or corn mazes are just a few of the signs of the approaching season up north.  The only reason I am aware of fall’s coming in San Carlos is my calendar.  That and a very odd, out-of-place fall display at the Guaymas Walmart.  The temperatures remain warm and the sky a brilliant blue.  With rainy season just past us, rich hues of green cover the surrounding mountains.  Late blooming flowers boast vibrant shades of purples and pinks.  On weekends, boaters, jet skiers, and swimmers still enjoy the warm water of the Sea of Cortez.

Last year, some friends and I decided to bring a little Indiana fall to Mexico with a twist on the traditional caramel apple.  The idea of making this treat came to us in the middle of a downtown shopping trip when my friend described a delicious apple she had eaten over the weekend at a baseball game.  Having no internet access for a quick recipe look up, we relied on helpful shopkeepers to direct us to what we would need.  As a result, we ended up with a pouch of tamarind paste, a bag of tajín seasoning, and a bottle of chamoy sauce.   And we had absolutely no idea what exactly to do with any of them.

I spent the rest of that afternoon searching for recipes on-line – -recipes that matched the ingredients we had already purchased that is.  It seems there are much easier ways to make Chamoy Apples, as tamarind is sold in fruit roll up form, ready to be pressed around the apples.  After nearly depleting the battery in my phone, I found (a much more involved) recipe that would work.   Ah, what were a few more steps between friends anyway?

thumbnailWe started our apple making over breakfast by translating the steps of the recipe.  Yes, the recipe that best suited our purchases was in Spanish.  Confident that we understood what to do, we began making one of the biggest messes I have ever seen in a kitchen.  Tamarind paste is not easy to work with.  It stuck to the package it came in, the stove, the pan, the spoon, the counter, our hands, the cute little cupcake liners, the wooden sticks… The “professionals” in the YouTube videos made it look effortless – – and clean!  It took longer to wash the pan than it did to cover all of our apples.  And if tajín was glitter, I would have been ready for a night of clubbing.

Was it worth it?  You better believe it!  One bite and an explosion of flavors filled my mouth.  The fall treat was a perfect coming together of sweet, sour, and spicy.  I put on a sweatshirt, turned the air conditioner down, and gazed at the September/October pages in my National Parks calendar while eating my apple.  And once I was done, I slipped on my bathing suit and high tailed it over to the pool.

If you need help translating the recipe, leave me a note in the comments. ¡Disfrutan!

Buen Provecho

Admittedly, I am not much of a cook.  It is not that I cannot; I just do not enjoy it.  I consider myself to be a creative person- -everywhere but the kitchen.  Following a recipe stresses me out.  Slicing and dicing is not mindless or therapeutic.  I need exact measurements and do not understand the concept of a pinch of this or a dash of that.  Do I really need to put onions, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes in cute little prep bowls?  And the dishes!  Ugh!

But a cooking class combined with the history of Mexico?  I could not sign up fast enough.  Ruth and her husband, Rudy, have a passion for food and Mexico.  They made a mid-life career change and opened a bakery in San Carlos.   They added a classroom and offer cooking classes several times throughout year.  In addition,  Ruth and Rudy organize and lead tours throughout Sonora and other states in Mexico.  They also make the best chocolate eclairs I have ever eaten.

IMG_1899While they rest of my classmates oohed and aahed over the fresh ingredients and delicious smells, I was busy writing every single thing Ruth said about the origins of Mexican food and its changes over time, the influence of the Spanish in popular dishes, Aztec celebrations and how they evolved with the introduction of Catholicism, and incredibly interesting facts about the food itself in my “Taco ‘Bout Awesome” journal.  After just one class, cooking was something I believed I could get excited about after all.  Knowing the story behind the recipes even made eating more enjoyable.

When I returned home after each class, my husband wanted to know about the food.  While he sampled the leftovers I always brought with me, I bombarded him with all the incredible things I was learning.  Yes, I shamelessly took advantage of my hungry audience.  For example:

  • It was the Aztecs who introduced the turkey as we know it today to the Spanish.
  • The main meal of Montezuma, the ninth Aztec Emperor, included more than 300 dishes every day.
  • The dishes for each of these meals were only used once.
  • One of Montezuma’s favorite meals was shrimp.  A recipe we prepared (Shrimp in Guava sauce with Morita chile) was rescued from precolonial times.
  • Aztecs steamed or baked their food until the Spanish introduced them to oil.
  • Mole sauce originated in the town of Puebla during the 15th century.  It was served during a welcoming ceremony for the second viceroy from Spain.
  • Rice was introduced by the Spanish.
  • Chocolate was eaten exclusively by priests and the upper class prior to the Spanish arrival.
  • A true punch is made from at least five ingredients.
  • If chiles are pointing down on the plant, they are domesticated.

Going to the grocery store used to rank up there with cooking as one of my least favorite things to do.   Oh how I loved going after classes and searching for the items Ruth had used in her recipes.  It seemed exotic to be able to find corn husks, tomatillos, tamarind, jamaica petals (that is huh-my-ka, as in the orchid, not the island), guavas, piloncillos, and tejocotes.  I discovered the best place to buy tortillas and masa for tamales.  On weekends I drug Steve from one tianguis (open air market) to another searching for cazuelas (clay pots).IMG_4138

Finally, it was time for me to test my own skills in the kitchen.  I had avoided it long enough.  Ruth and Rudy had prepared me well.  I could do this.  I started with one of the easier recipes.  (I may have known where to buy masa, but I was no way near ready to attempt tamales on my own yet.)  I handled the chopping.  I didn’t need the little prep bowls.  I had exact measurements for each of the ingredients.  The Coastal Style rice was just as delicious as it had been when we made it in class.  While we ate, I told Steve again about the Spanish bringing rice and oil to the Aztecs.  I added that the Spanish liked to cook in copper pots.  I mentioned a little town three hours up the road that sold them.  He listened closely and nodded at all the appropriate moments.  And he even did the dishes!

Arroz al estilo Costeño

2 cups long grain white rice

1/4 onion

3 cloves garlic

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup oil

1 1/2 cups chopped carrots

4 cups hot water

2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn

2 cups coarsely chopped cabbage

Soak the rice in warm water for 5 minutes to remove the starch, rinse well, and drain.  In a blender, puree the onion, garlic, and 1/2 cup water.  Set aside.  Heat 1/2 cup of oil in a large skillet, add the rice, and sauté, stirring lightly.  Once the grains separate and become translucent (about 5 minutes), pour off the excess oil.

Add the carrots and stir for 2 minutes.  Add the pureed onion and stir for 2 minutes.  Add the hot water and salt.  When the water comes to a boil, add the corn and cabbage.  Stir.  Cover the skillet and cook over a medium to low hear for 20-30 minutes (water is absorbed and rice is tender).

Serves 6