Heather was probably just under a year old when she fell in love with the flavors traditionally referred to as “Mexican”. It was nothing complex…just pinto beans, refried…but that first solid food, fed to her by her parents on a regular jaunt south-of-the-border would stay with her for the rest of her life.
She doesn’t really remember when or how she came to leave San Diego to live in the Midwest…Michigan to be exact. What she does remember is that connection to an earlier time, a time when strolling over the border was not an offense punishable by shooting or imprisonment. It’s held strong inside her for all these years. She remembers a time in elementary school when she discovered that the old couple who lived next door to one of her friends were Mexican…or Latino of some descent (Tejano maybe??)…this beautiful, brown-skinned little lady would place a tortilla, warm and comforting into her small hands…feet ready to take off running around the cool, blue pool in their courtyard. These tortillas were made from wheat flour instead of the corn flour that she was accustomed to. Although, she contemplates quietly, many of the Northern Mexican states do make “flour” tortillas quite often. Either way, those tortillas are never far back in her mind as her now-adult sized hands knead that familiar mixture of flour, fat, and water.
As she rolls out the dough and toasts it up on her own well-loved comal…and places a tortilla in the small, waiting hands of her own children.
Surely it was inevitable that she would marry a man from Mexico. Destiny, perhaps? A seed planted that day some 34 years ago. The universe works in mysterious ways. However it came to be, she always knew that a kitchen filled with the deep, earthy scent of dried chiles, toasted, ground corn and the steam from a pot of beans simmering on the back of the stove was In the cards for her. She reveled in the scent of garlic, fresh and sticky on her fingers from smashing a half a head and rubbing it together with salt to form a pungent paste that would be stirred in with the creamy avocados that her husband stopped to pick up from the Mexican market on his way home from work…and the brightly colored ingredients laid out on the counter in front of her…juicy, dripping chunks of summer-fresh tomatoes, small-diced jalapeño squares…bright and green, slivers of white onions that had inevitably made tears fall down her face only moments ago, and fresh, tangy lime juice just waiting to bring everything together.
Life is a funny thing, Heather thought. Funny that her favorite restaurant throughout high school had been a Mexican restaurant. Funny that her favorite celebrity chef specialized in Mexican cuisine. Funny that she learned so much of what she knows and incorporates into her own cooking from that chef…who happens to be an American with a deep connection to Mexican food, culture, and tradition…just like her. Funny that even these many years after she finished culinary school, where she studied the cuisines of many different countries and cultures, she still cherishes those same flavors that she has for as long as she can remember…
Smiling as she watches her husband and kids soaping, scrubbing, and hosing down their car on this clear sunny day…a basket of fresh radishes, lettuce, avocados, and limes at her feet from her recent return from the market, her mind wanders effortlessly to the jar of hominy that she cooked and put in the refrigerator the day before yesterday. And to the mulato chiles in her pantry…the ones that are still pliable with tacky insides that will surely stick to her fingers as she pries out the seeds and ribs on the inside. As sure as she’s sitting there, her soul is already in the kitchen…gathering, prepping, simmering the ingredients that will turn into an earthy, comforting bowl of Pozolé…she can almost feel the heat creeping up her face after she scoops up a big bite with a broken piece of tostada…the cooling garnishes giving the ultimate in contrast of flavors and textures.
Heather thought she could still smell the scent of garlic on her fingertips and Pozolé lingering lazily in the air tonight as she pushed through the gate to Lillian’s restaurant for the cooking class that she was starting tonight…a gift form her husband. She loved how he always thought of her and supported her insatiable search for knowledge and love of food.Erica Bauermeister's novel The School of Essential Ingredients. This is our current Cook the Books selection...one that I easily became lost in...a part of. The School of Essential Ingredients is a cooking class held in Lillian's restaurant...a class where people of all different backgrounds and life experience come together and learn not only the "essential" ingredients in the kitchen, but unexpectedly in their lives outside of the kitchen, as well. Each "chapter" is titled with a different character's name and proceeds to tell the story of each person as it relates to their character. Each person's story drew me in further; I felt as if I actually was an active member of Lillian's class...as if I was gaining insight on those new people I shared one night per week with. For me...and many of you, I suspect...life and food are connected in almost every aspect. This is how Bauermeister writes...with passion, hunger and respect for the nuances of life. I didn't want the journey into any characters past or present to end...I didn't want to break my connection with them. Bauermeister speaks to how our experiences shape who we are in every aspect of our lives in the present. What memories certain foods conjure up...which foods make us joyful, which foods make us weep, which foods make us remember and which foods make us lovers, friends, neighbors, bosses, employees...which foods make us utterly contemplate our humanity. I wanted to place myself smack dab in the middle of Lillian's class...so, that's exactly what I did.
from the kitchen of girlichef
3 mulato chiles, seeded & stemmed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
3 garlic cloves, smashed
~1 Tbs. olive oil
6 c. homemade chicken stock
~3 c. cooked, shredded chicken
~3 c. cooked hominy
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
garnish (NOT optional):
shredded Romaine lettuce
dried Mexican Oregano
piquin chile powder
Pour boiling water over mulato chiles in small bowl and let sit ~20 minutes to soften. Place chiles in blender with onion, tomato, and garlic. Add ~1/2 c. of the chile soaking liquid and blend until smooth, adding more liquid if needed to make blender run smoothly.
Heat olive oil in large pot, add pureé and cook, stirring for ~10 minutes, until thickened a bit. Whisk in cumin and then stock and bring to a boil. Add hominy and chicken, bring back to a boil. Cook for another 10 minutes or so on a lazy bubble. Add 1/2 tsp. of salt and taste. Add more if needed. Otherwise, ladle the Pozolé into serving bowls.
Add garnishes...first the lettuce, avocado, and radish. Next, crumble the oregano in your hands to release the oils and sprinkle it over the bowl. Add a pinch of chile powder. Squeeze some lime juice over it. Scoop it all up with some broken up tostadas. Taste the deep, earthy, comforting flavors...
If you haven't read this book yet, please do so and join us over at Cook the Books...food, books, books, food...you know, the finer things in life.
I am sharing this post with: