"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Happy Holidays

Haku and Paloma enjoying a little couch time while we watch Christmas movies. 

Paloma with her cousin Selah lighting Hanukkah candles last week. 

Whatever holiday you celebrate this winter season, may you enjoy good cheer with your loved ones. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What is Guacamole, Anyway?

Let's get one thing out of the way: there's no such thing as one "right" way to make guacamole. There are not even one hundred "right" ways to make guacamole. There are as many "right" ways to make guacamole as there are abuelitas in Mexico. 

I'd like to be a fly on the wall listening to a hundred Mexican abuelitas argue about how to make guacamole. There will no doubt be virulent partisans: for or against the inclusion of tomatoes; the chunky tribe versus the smooth; those who advocate garlic and those to whom garlic is a barbarian adulterant. 

If we turn to etymology, as I always do in times of doubt, we find that "guacamole" is a compound word made up of the Nahuatl words for "avocado" and "sauce." (Well, okay if you want to get technical the Nahuatl word "ahuahacatl" actually means "testicle" but that's only an interesting aside. Avocados grow in pairs. Picture it.) Therefore, guacamole is simply a sauce made with avocados. Quite likely, for the prehispanic residents of Mexico, guacamole may have consisted of no more than mashed avocados and salt, perhaps with chiles. 

I don't know enough about regional Mexican cuisine to pinpoint a cook's origin by her guacamole recipe, but I know how they do it in Oaxaca - or, okay, at least how my husband's family does it. In Oaxaca, guacamole contains tomatillos. When Homero and I were getting married, my mom hired some great caterers and told her we wanted a Mexican buffet. They worked up a sample menu and invited us to taste it. It was fantastic - the food is what everyone remembers about my wedding - but Homero had a problem with the guacamole. They had made a chunky style guacamole with tomatoes - like a pico de gallo suspended in a mousse of whipped avocado. Homero barely recognized it as guacamole - he wanted something looser, soupier, more liquid. In Oaxaca this is achieved by blending the avocados with soft simmered tomatillos, fresh raw chiles, onion, and cilantro. Oaxacan guacamole is smooth, of variable spiciness, and most often used as one of several garnishes on tacos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, or what have you. It isn't a "dip," per se. 

Over the years, I've developed what I consider to be my own ur-guacamole recipe, meaning the list of ingredients without which I cannot make guacamole, but in practice, I seldom make guacamole the same way twice. That list is:

- avocados (of course)
- chile (much preferred fresh but I'll use cayenne powder if I have to)

Onion is nearly as essential but I don't include it because  if I didn't have an onion (the horror!) I wouldn't let it stop me from making guacamole if I had all the other ingredients. 

In Mexico, avocados are cheap. Even in the states, in some areas, avocados used to be ubiquitous and inexpensive. In fact, they used to be called "poor man's butter" in Florida. Alas, no longer. Even in season, avocados these days are pretty dear. So I'm often looking for avocado-extenders. 
If I happen to have them, I'll use tomatillos. I like to use them raw, however, instead of simmered. For one thing, who is going to make guacamole if it involves actual cooking? For another, I like the fresh, slightly citrusy acidity of raw tomatillos and am not a fan of the soft, almost slimy texture of cooked tomatillos. 

Other extenders I've come up with are decidedly less traditional. I have used sour cream, yogurt, and even 

(Dum Dum DUM....) 


I started one time throwing in plain, tangy yogurt not as an extender, but because I was looking for a way to make the guacamole less calorically dense. I decided I liked it. The acidity of good yogurt is a nice balance to the creaminess of avocado. 

Personally, I like the texture that the addition of dairy products brings to guacamole. Avocado is so creamy and rich, and it seems to me that extending it with other creamy and rich products like sour cream or mayonnaise preserves that quality.  That creaminess always needs to be balanced by the acidity of lime. I might extend that to include lemon, but in my mind citrus is the only possible source of acidity. I have occasionally heard of people using vinegar and while I would never do such a thing, I'm not going to tell anybody else what to do. 

Which brings me to my main point. Any given dish made by any given cook has a story, a history. That history interacts with the tastes and the resources of the cook to produce a new dish - the actual dish that the cook is putting on his or her table on any given evening. "Authenticity" is a moving target, not a static Platonic ideal enshrined in any particular place or time. I am a good cook - I'm both respectful of tradition and inventive and innovative. I use everything I have at my disposal - the knowledge imparted to me by my mother and mother-in-law; the skills I have developed through trial and error; the ingredients unique to this farmstead, this time and place; and the feedback from my husband and children, my "customers." 

The food that I place on my family's table night after night is the unique and personal expression of the covergence  of multiple factors. That makes it "authentic." My guacamole is authentic. Is it authentic Oaxacan? No. Is it authentic Oaxacan-American? Yes.

Is it delicious? Hell to the yeah. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

December Doings

Spiced candied pecans. Made these today to send out in small pretty parcels to my family and close friends. A good friend and neighbor of mine has a relative who owns a large organic pecan farm in Texas, and every year that relative sends her a couple of big boxes of shelled organic pecan halves. Her kids sell them at a very good price to bolster their own Christmas funds. This year I got five pounds. They are the best pecans I've ever tasted, hands down. And they aren't made worse by candying them. Here's how I do it: 

Preheat the oven to 275.
For each pound of pecans:
Whip 1 egg white with one tablespoon water until frothy. Set aside. 
Mix 1 cup sugar with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cayenne, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. You could vary the spice mixture to your taste. One year I made curried pecans. 
In a large bowl, pour egg whites over pecans and mix well to coat. Then add sugar mixture and turn well. Pour out onto a baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes, stirring the pecans well every 15 minutes. They should be almost dry at the end, and toasty but not very browned. 

I'm going to have to keep these pecans under lock and key until I get them packaged up and out the door. 

This year's advent calendar of events. This is the third year in a row I've done this. Some of the events include public festivals like tree lighting ceremonies and free Christmas concerts; some are family traditions like baking cookies and decorating the altar; and some are church events like helping decorate Zion for Christmas and going to the annual Carols by Candlelight evening. A few days just say "redeem this ticket for a piece of Christmas candy." 

Truthfully the kids are getting a little old for this - Hope is 14 and Paloma is 12. Every year I think "this might be the last year I can convince them to sit down and cut out snowflakes with me!" But so far, they have been excited to turn over the tags every evening before bed and happy doing the activities with me. Yesterday we put up Christmas lights, and tomorrow we are going to make cards, to mail out along with the pecans. 

Beautiful frosty December mornings. The mountains have snow on them, and the porch is icy enough to go skating on. 
Time to check the front closet and go over our supply of gloves and hats, and to get out the door a few minutes early to give the cat time to warm up and to defrost the windshield. 

All is well on the farm and we are ready for winter. We have hay, we have a freezer full of beef, we have propane and we have extra quilts. We are snug as bugs in rugs.