Posts Tagged ‘chile’

Cooking again, home sweet home

January 16, 2008

I had all this stuff I planned to write about, even video footage of bulgogi bubbling away on a copper grill at Sariwon, but nothing made me want to write until I tasted the pasilla chile-honey sauce on the seared pork I made last night. Rick Bayless calls it “Borrego (o Puerco) al Pasilla Enmielado.” The Spanish syllables just roll off your tongue as smooth as the sauce, no? Be sure to roll the double “r” in “borrego.”

I’d been easing my way back into cooking. One of the first things I did when I got back was to sign up for a new shift at the Park Slope Food Coop so I could get back into the store—I am now “food prep,” which I am told secretly means “cheese taster.” I made a trip to Koreatown to stock up on Korean groceries, including a daikon radish the size of my calf that I plan to turn into kimchi. But I started with cooking just one-plate meals, feeling sort of overwhelmed by how busy life is when you actually have to work.

Soon, though, I felt sort of itchy but also scared. I needed other people to eat what I cooked, but I needed them to be people I could treat as guinea pigs without fearing the loss of their friendship. My original supper club of Brooklyn friends was perfect, appreciative yet forgiving.

They raved about the tomatillo-avocado guacamole, which was really excellent, with a subtle but lingering kick from the roasted serrano chiles. They didn’t say anything about the jicama sticks with chile powder, lime juice and salt, but they ate almost all of them. Magda said the Mexican white rice was cooked perfectly, and truly it was, baked according to Bayless’s precise directions. The black beans were not so exciting, despite the epazote I went all the way to Sunset Park to find, but it wasn’t a total waste of trip since I got to practice speaking Spanish. I’ll have to keep trying and find out. The homemade tortillas were similarly, at best, an inspiration to keep trying, they were so sad and small. But the chocolate pound cake was a hit with the birthday girl, whose husband had tipped me off to her favorite flavor.

The star of the table, though, was the seared pork and sweet potatoes in pasilla-honey sauce. It was worth every little thing I had to do to get in on the table:

1) Scrub my cast iron griddle with steel wool and reseason it after my sublettor left it rusty.
2) Take the R train to Sunset Park on a Sunday morning to find flexible, fresh pasilla chiles.
3) Slice open the chiles to remove the seeds and stems.
4) Lay them flat and toast them on the griddle one at a time, pressing on each side for a few seconds.
5) Rehydrate them in warm water for 30 minutes.
6) Put them through the food processor with roasted garlic, a bit of cumin, freshly ground pepper, and Mexican oregano.
7) Sear chunks of pork in batches.
8) Add the chile sauce, fry, and then simmer with beef broth for 30 minutes.
9) Add the sweet potatoes and simmer for another 30 minutes.
10) Add just enough honey for an “edge” of sweetness (Bayless’s very precise wording) and salt to round it out.

Seriously, it was worth it. (For the full recipe, buy his book, “Mexican Kitchen,” as the man deserves every cent of his royalties.) The pasilla chiles had a bitter flavor that tasted almost like ash when I first ground it up into a paste. It had me considering a last-minute pizza delivery order. But it magically took on an amazingly smoky, rich flavor as it cooked and absorbed the flavors of the meat and the broth. Even before I added the honey, it tasted insane—I had been crazy to consider pizza. When I added the honey, my head exploded. It was like Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry, except it was pork.

Decorated with slices of white onion and cilantro, it looked quite pretty, too.

Along the way, this blog became a travel food log, with little amateur assessments of empanadas on the streets of Oaxaca, tripe stew in Barcelona’s La Boqueria market, and the Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul, but I’m so happy to be reminded that what I love best, what really makes me glad I’ve come home, is cooking for people I love.

Super spicy potato chips

July 31, 2007

You gotta love a country that differentiates between serrano and habanero flavored potato chips.

My last Patty post

June 28, 2007

On Sunday, I’m moving to my new apartment. I’m looking forward to living alone again and excited about how my understanding of Mexican food might deepen in my own kitchen, but I’m going to miss my Mexican family. Obviously, the immersion was great for my Spanish, but it’s been meaningful in ways I never anticipated. Every week, I would come home and find not only the five people who live in my house, but also a sister, brother-in-law, aunt, uncle, nieces, all of them speaking Spanish at the same time. None of them were ever flummoxed by the sight of a tall Asian woman in their house, who spoke Spanish haltingly, and would simply include me in whatever was going on. On one Sunday, while I sipped banana liqueur, the aunt sitting next to me repeatedly patted my arm and said, “¡Mira!” (“Look” or “You see”), as she told me and the rest of the family about the terrible car accident her daughter had been in. They reminded me a lot of my large Korean family. They made me miss my own family.

Not surprisingly, the cultural immersion I appreciated the most was the chance to eat homemade Mexican food. I got to see what I love most about food, how it can center family and friends and nourish more than our bodies. Given the enthusiasm with which most Oaxacans I’ve met talk about food, I can tell food is a valued part of their history and tradition, but Patty, I think, is uniquely spectacular. She and her family would give me tips on where to find good street food, the kind that’s “muy limpia” or “very clean,” or tell me which is the most authoritative cookbook on Oaxacan cooking. In the 29 days I spent with them, I ate 28 different dishes. We joked that she should write a cookbook herself, except it wasn’t really a joke, she really should. Eating with her, I not only learned words like “ajonjolí” (sesame) and “canela” (cinnamon), but also “tresoro” (treasure) and “herencia” (inheritance).

In addition to the tamales that I loved so much upon my arrival, my favorite torta, and the coloradito mole that made my toes tingle, there have been a couple of other real standouts.

Isn’t it magnificent? They’re fried taquitos filled with chicken and beans, and then drowned in Patty’s awesome salsa verde, finished off with a drizzle of crema, queso, and lettuce. She had also made some guacamole that day, thinner and more sharply acidic than the American dip, and I happily put some of that on as well. I wanted to stop at three, but I just couldn’t and I ate all them.

This is what I ate for lunch a week later, chicken estofada with rice and a bit of black bean puree, and tortillas, of course. I started with a soup that I would be thrilled to make for myself and serve to guests, so simple but so bright in its flavors. I didn’t even have to ask for the recipe, it just declared itself: chicken broth with rice, hierba santa, and then finely chopped white onion, parsley, jalapeno peppers, and limes to squeeze right before eating.

And then I ate the estofada, which according to Patty requires you to toast sesame seeds and almonds, and then grind them up with tomatoes and “muchas muchas spices.” Like a fine wine, it had such incredible depth of flavor. And like moles, it was obviously fatty because a sauce doesn’t get that smooth without fat, but it didn’t taste greasy at all. It’s not a spicy sauce, for once, and I have a strong suspicion that it must have some Moroccan origin, via Spain, because sesame seeds and almonds just don’t seem very Mesoamerican. This is my favorite kind of globalization.

And more recently, I dined on this fine chile relleno. I’ve never been a big fan of chiles rellenos, probably because I don’t really like green peppers. I just don’t see the point—you have your delicious sweet red and yellow peppers, and you have your fantastic range of hot peppers, so why would you ever eat a pepper that just tastes like crunchy grass?

I have to admit, I didn’t adore the Oaxacan chile relleno I had with Patty, but I think I would have loved it if the pepper had been hotter, maybe a chile de agua, which is lighter in color but stronger in power. It had a much more interesting filling than the chile rellenos I’ve had in the U.S., shredded chicken made saucy with tomatoes, raisins, and almonds, all wrapped in the smooth and crunchy exterior of the fried pepper.

Finally, the crème de la crème, Patty’s mole negro. Look how shiny it is in its darkness. I love how “the” dish of Oaxaca can vary so much from restaurant to restaurant, home to home. Hers is a little sweeter than mole I’ve had elsewhere, maybe a little smokier. It’s such a fine balancing act, the bitterness and the sweetness. Jane, the student who’s been staying in the apartment out back, requested the dish for lunch the Friday her husband came to town. He and I got into a discussion on immigration reform that nearly boiled over, but Oaxaca must have changed me, because I managed to keep my temper and enjoy every bite of my mole negro.

And it wasn’t only the main dishes that were so impressive. I had multiple kinds of rice, all cooked to be fluffy and flavorful. I ate every spoonful of every soup, whether it was chicken broth with precisely chopped vegetables or a soup tinged with tomato and filled with pasta. There were days that I ate more than I wanted to, but my desire not to explode was clearly overcome by greater desires.

I’m happy to know that Patty and her family will always remember me as the Korean girl who ate everything.


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