Saturday, July 21, 2018
Meatballs in red sauce
I love to cook, but cooking here presents some, ahem, challenges..
We are staying at my mother-in-law’s house and that means I am cooking in her kitchen. Which, I will say, is pretty well equipped. Four burner gas stove with a cast iron comal; functional fridge and freezer. Decent selection of cookware, by which I mean there is a small skillet and a large skillet, stockpots of various sizes, cutting boards, and a full range of implements like spatulas and strainers. A pretty good blender.
But most of the equipment is.... not of a quality I would buy at home. Pots and pans are aluminum, or whatever that sheet metal-covered-in-blue-enamel camping ware is. They are warped and don’t sit flat on the burner. Knives are cheap, dull, and plastic handled. There is theoretically an oven but it hasn’t been used since we lived here five years ago and is crammed with stuff I wouldn’t attempt to remove and find other space for.
Then there’s my mother-in-law’s organization system, or lack thereof. Now, I’m no neat freak and I know my own kitchen falls far below the standards of those of many people. So I’m not being judgemental, I’m just explaining why I have a hard time sometimes.
Mamá keeps everything in plastic bags, usually opaque ones, twisted shut, knitted at the top, and thrown into the cupboard. There are probably a hundred such bags, and I can’t tell what’s in any of them. There are big bags, small bags, bags that crackle when you pick them up, as if stuffed with dried twigs, and bags that are heavy and solid enough to be full of sand. The knots are so tight I can never undo them, and I don’t want to tear open the bag to see what’s in it.
The fridge is the same, as is the freezer. So of course I just buy my own food. I brought home a bag of rice and a bag of beans and mama says “No no no! Why did you buy rice! We have lots of rice!” Yeah - probably eighteen separate bags of rice, but which ones?
And next time I look for the rice, or the beans, or the yogurt, or the cheese I brought home, it’s disappeared into little opaque bags. Some of her kitchen habits leave me mystified. I bought a loaf of sliced bread for sandwiches, and when I went to look for it, she had put it in the freezer and it was frozen solid.
Mealtimes are also different here than at home. A fairly hearty breakfast whenever we stumble downstairs (we are not early risers), prepared by Mamá, who does not believe us when we say we prefer to eat lightly in the mornings. At home, we have coffee when we wake up, and then lunch a few hours later. Here, we are presented with tamales or quesadillas or chicken in mole or beans and rice with scrambled eggs first thing.
Dinner is late, usually sometime between 8 and 9. If I want to cook - which I often do, both because I like to and because the children ask me to - I have to work with what I can find. Within walking distance, there are only very small stores in people’s homes that carry a quite basic supply of ingredients: rice, black beans, a few canned goods like tuna and evaporated milk, and a small selection of fresh produce. And a decidedly wider selection of junk food, mostly Bimbo products.
Cooking Mexican food would not present much of a problem, obviously, as long as I stuck to simple recipes. But Mamá does all those dishes so much better than me that I prefer to leave them to her, and my kids often ask for dishes I make at home. So I improvise.
Hope asked me for chicken and vegetables in Thai peanut sauce like I make at home. I told her I’d do my best.
Chicken: no problem. It’s tough free-range ranch chicken, but it tastes good. So I boiled the heck out of it with garlic, onion, clove, allspice, and salt and pepper and shredded it, saving the broth. The corner store had green cabbage and green beans, so those were the vegetables.
The peanut sauce was the tough part. I had to wait until Friday, when they hold the neighborhood tianguis (street market) to get ginger. There was a bottle of soy sauce in the fridge that I’m pretty sure I bought myself two years ago.
The hardest thing to figure out was fish sauce. If there’s no fish sauce, it’s not Thai peanut sauce, full stop. Finally I had a brain wave.
These are dried anchovies, or charolitos, as they are called here. They’re super tiny, less than an inch long, and dried crisp. I got them at the tianguis. Six or eight of them reproduced the flavor of fish sauce, at least somewhat. The tianguis also provided a young coconut, skillfully removed from its husk in one piece, with the water still inside, like a perfect snowball. The man does it with a machete.
Mamás blender was not up to the task of turning roasted peanuts into a smooth paste, even with the admixture of chicken broth and coconut milk, so the resulting peanut sauce was a bit gritty, but it had the right flavor profile. Hope was happy.
Today I had a craving for spaghetti and meatballs. The carnicería right next door was closed, but I was determined to have meat balls so I took a mototaxi up to the big butcher about a half mile away. I asked for three-quarters of a kilo of ground beef. The butcher hacked off a few pieces of very lean meat - I have no clue what part of the animal it was, but there was zero visible fat - and ground it for me. I would have preferred a coarser grind as well as a piece with a little fat on it, but oh well.
Back at home I mixed the meat with a couple of eggs and some very fine bread crumbs (Mamá had bought a bag of bread crumbs to fry fish the other night) and salt and pepper. I looked in the spice drawer, saw twenty or thirty little plastic bags of various colors, and sent Paloma next door for three pesos worth of oregano.
No olive oil, so I fried the meatballs in vegetable oil.
Making a red sauce was fairly straightforward except for the lack of olive oil. Garlic, onion, more oregano, whizz up some lovely ripe tomatoes in the blender.
When we went to the big grocery store last week (it’s accross town always) I had been delighted to see Parmesan cheese in the green can, just like at home. I bought it, and set it on top of the fridge, but since then it has disappeared into the depths of some cupboard or another and I couldn’t find it. So I used the cheese I have, which is quesillo. It’s basically mozerella, but stringier. It’s basically string cheese. It melted into the red sauce in a lovely gooey way.
I’m looking forward to seeing how my improvisation turned out.
Friday, July 13, 2018
Of all Mexico’s thirty-some states, Oaxaca is the one with the most indigenous groups and the most indigenous languages surviving. There are at least sixteen distinct peoples with at least sixteen different living languages, with speakers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
As everywhere, indigenous culture and language is under threat from the tide of global monoculture, but more than in most places, Native culture is still vibrant here. And one of the main ways that Oaxacans show pride and maintain their indigenous heritage is through the Gueleguetza.
The entire month of July is given over to parades, music, dancing, and displays of craftsmanship. On any given evening, you can sit on a bench in the zócalo or on the stone steps of an ancient church along main pedestrian avenue downtown and listen to a choral group singing traditional songs, or watch ladies in gorgeous embroidered costumes twirl to the sound of drums and trumpets.
Today, Paloma and I were wasting a few hours downtownnwhile Mamá was at her danzón class, and we ran smack into a calenda. That’s a parade of musicians and dancers attended by giant puppets and huge paper mache figures.
The Guelaguetza culminates in two day-long performances by dancers and musicians from each of Oaxaca’s indigenous groups, at a beautiful amphitheater high on a hill above the city. People come from all over Mexico and indeed all over the world to see the pageantry and feel the pride.
The work that goes into the Guelaguetza is mind boggling. All over the state, children take classes of baile folklórico; women weave and embroider and sew fantastic costumes; artisans create all the enormous and breathtaking accoutrements: fireworks, castles made of straw, fifteen foot tall dancing puppets.
Yes, there’s an element of tourism. Yes, there are financial incentives. Of course there are. But the Guelaguetza, which is a word that literally means “cooperation” or “mutual support,” or even “an offering” is a tradition that is much older than the modern tourism industry in Oaxaca. Tribes have been gathering on el Cerro de Fortín for a summer festival of trade and celebration since colonial times. In its opulence and ostentation, the Guelaguetza has something in common with our more familiar Potlatch.
But the concept of Guelaguetza is much deeper and much more embedded in Mexican indigenous culture than any one festival could be. It refers to those beautiful, complicated webs of mutual aid and obligation that are formalized through the compadre/comadre system. Whenever a baby is baptized in Mexico, or a couple is married, or a grandfather is buried - whenever any kind of rite is performed or celebration held - this web gets activated.
Someone buys the baby’s christening gown. An offering. Someone pays for the engraved glasses that guests take home as souvenirs. An offering. Someone puts a bottle of mezcal on every table at the wedding reception. An offering. Someone brings the flowers to decorate the church for the quinceañera’s mass.
And at the next christening or wedding or funeral, everything is shuffled and everyone reciprocates and somehow, all these offerings - even offerings of tacky plastic doodads and orange soda and tarps to cover the street in case of rain - somehow all these offerings add up to an extremely durable and flexible and beautiful system of mutual dependence and friendship.
Sunday, July 1, 2018
The cherries are just getting ripe. Paloma and I went out and picked this basket of cherries in about four minutes flat, off of one of our three cherry trees. These cherries are perfectly ripe right now - but the Ranier and the other dark cherry (Lapin? Sam? Stella? I can’t remember) still have a few days to go.
Homero is leaving for Mexico in the truck day after tomorrow; the girls and I are flying down a week later. We can gorge ourselves on cherries before we go, but there isn’t time for me to do any processing. It’s eat ‘em now or forever hold your peace.
At least we get to enjoy the cherries before we go. This is shaping up to be a great year for the orchard, and we will miss out on some of my favorites. I’m especially mourning the loss of the greengage plums. That tree is finally starting to bear a respectable crop, after years of me wondering what was wrong with it. I guess it just needed time. Right now the branches are loaded with hard little green balls, which will ripen in August into luscious, sweet, golden orbs bursting with juice. And we will not get to enjoy any of them.
Nor the raspberries. All of raspberry season will pass with us far away, and so we will not have raspberry smoothies this winter. I hope we will be home in time for the Italian prunes - that tree is absolutely jam-packed with little green plums. I adore Italian prunes, all ways - fresh, stewed, dried. This year I was thinking to make wine again. It was delicious last time. But unless the weather is extraordinarily cooperative, we will miss Italian prune season as well.
Blackberries are more hopeful. We will be home the first week in September. If the rains hold off, there will probably be blackberries still, although the best of the season will be ending.
Apples and pears. Hooray! Apple cider season will take place as scheduled. The Comice pears will be perfect for eating out of hand, inshallah, and of course there will still be the farmers market and its late season bounty of tomatoes and squash.
And of course let’s not forget that I am traveling to the land of cheap and exquisite fruit. Mangoes. Tunas (cactus fruit, not fish). Watermelons. Avocados. Passion fruit. Papaya.