Welcome! If you’re just coming aboard now, I’ve been doing a three-part series on end-of-summer harvest recipes. This is the third installment, and perhaps the easiest. But it’s my annual staple. It’s the one item I aim to make every late summer because, come January, nothing rivals the summery freshness locked into a simple garden harvest sauce.
We planted six or seven varieties of tomatoes this summer in all shapes, colors and sizes. They’re still coming. Some are super-sweet, others are prettier than they are flavorful. I took a big bowl of them all (my bad: I didn’t measure; probably, roughly, 16 cups?). The point is: you want as many summer sweet tomatoes as you can find. More will never hurt you, in this recipe.
Now, before we begin, remember two things about this sauce: 1) It’s quick and easy to make, and that’s the key. This isn’t your simmer-for-hours sauce that eats into your entire weekend. This is your get-those-tomatoes-processed-now sauce, which still tastes great whenever you open the jar. 2) This is not meant to be a thick, hearty spaghetti-style sauce. This is a BASE sauce aimed at bringing summer flavor to your winter meals. Use it in tomato-based soups, stews, pasta dishes or whatever you want. It will be thin in consistency, but big in flavor.
Take all your cleaned tomatoes and put them in a food processor. Purée. Set aside.
Heat a little olive oil in a saucepan and sauté a thinly sliced red onion (or 2 or 3, depending on size and the number of tomatoes you have and your liking of onion). When the onion is nicely browned but not burnt or bitter, add a few minced garlic cloves. Stir and remove soon from the heat. Do not burn the garlic or it will turn bitter. You want no bitterness in this sauce.
Mix together the tomatoes, garlic and onion. Add salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Heat on the stovetop until the sauce just begins to simmer for a minute or two at most. Control the heat. Remove. That’s it. Use immediately, freeze or can. If you choose the latter, try this in winter when all thoughts of summer are far away. As I said, the sauce will be thin; mix with whatever other ingredients you prefer. But the tomato-ey flavor should take you right back to the garden in September.
I LOVE sweet peppers. We have a variety of hot things growing in our garden right now, and a few small sweet items as well. But I wanted more—enough to make a healthy batch of this rich pepper spread. So I visited Old Town Farm in Albuquerque where customers pick their own. Rows and rows of peppers—and grasshoppers eager to beat you to the goods. Get in there soon!
I came home with a big bowlful of the radiant red beauties pictured above. Key to this recipe is the mingling of sweet and smokey flavors… with garlic. When the in-laws visited several weeks ago, they left us a giant garlic ristra straight from the origins: Gilroy, California. (They live just a few miles away in Morgan Hill. Some days, when the wind blows, garlic scents permeate the home, inside and out.)
The recipe is really quite simple:
Sweet Red Pepper-Pine Nut Spread
12 (approximately) large sweet red peppers, or a medley of your choosing
1 head of garlic
1 (or more) cup pine nuts
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
Salt, pepper and hot Hungarian paprika to taste
Rinse the peppers and place them on a hot grill along with the whole head of garlic. You want to char the peppers so the flesh inside turns tender and juicy. Grill the garlic until the skin is charred and crispy and the cloves are softened but not burnt.
Meanwhile, sauté the pine nuts on the stovetop, stirring constantly. You want them nicely golden, not burnt, not bitter. Quickly remove from heat as soon as they start to brown.
Next, sauté the onion in a bit of oil until it is nicely softened. Set aside.
Remove the garlic and peppers from the grill when finished. Allow the peppers to cool, then remove the skins (which should slide off relatively easily). Remove stems (and seeds if you desire), and chop peppers roughly. Place into a bowl or food processor along with 3-4 of the roasted garlic cloves (more if the head is small) and the onion. Add the toasted pine nuts.
Purée until creamy. Add salt, pepper and paprika to taste.
Serve with crackers, vegetables or anything you desire.
That’s the way I feel lately. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this, about the way time expands and contracts depending on who we are, where we are and what we’re doing. Our perceptions of time depend on all the factors that define us as individuals. (There’s some great science reporting exploring the nuances of time, if you’re interested in listening.)
When we’re young, the world is new and every minute is filled with the possibility of a whole new landscape that we can map and create in our minds. We’re just beginning to sort it all out. The more we focus on the “new,” the slower we perceive time to be. Remember how summer lasted forever when we were kids? To a healthy child, every moment of every day brings yet another way to experience the world. The same happens when we travel, I think—and that’s a big part of the appeal to me.
I can spend a week at home, plodding through mundane tasks (transcribing notes?!? ever tried it?!? ugh) and time passes into obscurity. A week later, I barely recall what I did or ate or saw in the hours before. A week of nothing much new feels seven times faster than a week on the road or in the field where I’m learning new things every step of the way. Routine seems to speed up our perception of time. How to slow it down? Experts say do new things, see new sights, bring newness into your world—every day.
I think that’s what most of us want: to savor our moments. To preserve the time we have. To make it count.
It occurred to me: that’s not so different from the hopes we have for our gardens. The seasons are changing, geese are honking overhead. It is time to harvest, to put our summer yields into pots and pans, jars and bins.
This is a reward: the ability to stop time in its tracks. To capture the sweetness of a summer tomato or the freshness of bell pepper by cooking it into a sauce and preserving it for future times—colder, darker times when summer light is long gone, and so is its flavor. But then, we can pull that jar from the freezer and taste the fruits of an earlier time.
Here, I’ll offer up three garden harvest recipes in a three-part series. Today: ratatouille. Next week: sweet pepper-pine nut spread. And finally: simple tomato sauce.
Now, I make no claims to French authenticity in this recipe—but I’ve tested it on friends with French roots, and ooh la la, this dish pleased. And anyway, I’m not so much about authenticity as I am about whatever works.
A couple of keys, I’ve found: recipes vary tremendously on the suggested herbs. Some merely call for a bit of oregano or basil. But I’ve been using a hearty mixture based on this recipe. And I’ve been using fresh from the garden—because it’s here, it’s abundant, and why not? The herbs make this dish what it is.
Also: this is a use-what-you-have recipe, so there are no hard-and-fast rules about amounts. You might have one eggplant or you might have 3. You might have a pound of tomatoes, or six. Below are the amounts I used most recently.
Ratatouille (a personalized version)
4 medium-sized eggplants
2 yellow onions
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 large zucchini and squash (green and yellow; I also had pattypan)
6-7 medium or large tomatoes
4 bell peppers
A few glugs of red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for sautéing
1 handful fresh basil
1 handful fresh oregano
1 handful fresh rosemary
1 handful fresh summer savory
1 handful fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried fennel
Key to ratatouille is sautéing each vegetable separately before combining and cooking in the oven. First, prepare each vegetable by chopping into small cubes or slices.
Heat a bit of the olive oil and sauté the onions until slightly browned. Remove.
Add more oil to the pan and repeat the above step separately for each remaining vegetable—peppers, eggplant, squash—except the tomatoes. Leave those for later.
Heat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, prepare the herb mixture. Place all of the herbs along with salt and fennel into a food processor (or mince with a knife) until you have a fine, aromatic mixture.
Pour all of the cooked vegetables into an oven-safe dish (I used a cast iron Dutch oven), add a glug of oil, a few glugs of red wine. Stir well. Add the herb mixture and stir. Add the garlic, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Stir. If the vegetables are very dry, add just a tiny bit of water. Cover and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Taste. The flavors should blend well, and the juices should not be too runny. If you want a creamier texture, add a bit of butter and enjoy.
Stay tuned for next week: sweet red pepper-pine nut sauce.
The first time we traveled to Bario, there were no roads in or out. We flew into this remote little outpost in the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysian Borneo. The only other option at that time (2006) was a terribly long trek (weeks) through the mountains over difficult, possibly dangerous terrain.
Things change. There is a logging road now (although airplane is still a common mode of transportation). There are cell phones. There are trucks in Bario town. And now, for the first time in the history of the Kelabit people, there are machines for farming rice.
I recently wrote about this shift for the NPR site, The Salt. Here, I wanted to share a few more images (they’re Jerry’s) and insights into the story of this one little community’s tilt toward modernization—and what it means.
This is a region where locals have always farmed, foraged, hunted and/or fished their own food. The Kelabits, longtime rice-growers, have always planted and harvested by hand. Their rice, a medium-grain variety noted for its sweetness, has a reputation among connoisseurs: it’s good, darn good. So good, the Italy-based Slow Food Foundation supported it through its Presidia program for several years.
And then things started to change. (Actually, they’ve been changing for a long while.) Farmers are abandoning their fields. Villagers are buying more imported rice. Others are farming with chemicals, as they never used to do. In 2011, Bario rice lost its Slow Food designation (although the Foundation still lists it as a noteworthy traditional crop worthy of preservation).
Bario—while remote and lovely, filled with birdsong and pure air—has few jobs and little incentive for many youngsters to stay. And so they go—to Miri (on the coast) or Kuala Lumpur or Australia or the United States.
Still, many of the elders want to stay. They grew up in the Kelabit Highlands; it’s home. They have no use for city life. So they persist—often alone, into older age, when depression sets in. When the bones start creaking and humidity pains the joints. When the prospects of bending for hours beneath the hot afternoon sun just doesn’t hold much appeal.
Then along came a company called Ceria. It’s an agricultural group that struck a deal with the local community and Sarawak state government to bring mechanized rice farming to Bario. Individual villagers have differing arrangements with the company, but in most cases, Ceria does the work and keeps a (significant) percentage of the yield. Meanwhile, the landowner keeps the land and takes the remaining percentage of the yield.
It’s a years-long process to make this shift. It means irrigation pipes, heavy machinery, access roads to individual farms and the equipment needed to level and restructure abandoned paddies that had filled with weeds.
Is this good? Is this bad? Do we mourn the loss of traditional hand-planted rice? Or do we celebrate the benefits of technology?
There are no easy answers here—there seldom are, when it comes to cultural change. I spoke with several villagers for, and villagers against. I spoke with elders who think the soul of their culture is shifting with this new style of rice. I spoke with other elders who welcome the chance to eat rice grown on their own property—without their own hard labor.
It’s a particularly interesting case, I think, because it shows the complexity of modern-day food movements. As a Westerner with a background of privilege, it’s easy to embrace the buzzwords of these food-minded times: organic, local, artisanal, traditional. These are concepts we aim to bring back to our own food systems here in the United States… right? We fight the mechanization that has, along with it, brought disease and antibiotic resistance, soil depletion and superweeds, runoff and contamination. We don’t want others in the world to repeat the mistakes we’ve made… right?
What about the widows of Bario who are happy to eat Ceria rice grown (yes, with machines and chemicals) on the land they’ve always known?
No easy answers at all. But stories like these continually remind me of that hallmark lesson in anthropology: cultures change. People change. They always have, they always do. We cannot understand changes to our food systems on a global scale without understanding the people who change with them.
There are always stories behind stories. When we write an article for publication, there are characters we edit out, anecdotes we omit, details we cut for brevity or clarity. Much is left in the notebook for another day, another place… or never at all and nowhere to be seen. Only a smidgen of all we encounter as writers makes it from notes to narrative.
In between is everything else: the getting here and going there; the packing and unpacking, checking in and checking out, waiting for this and that.
On our most recent trip to Cambodia, Jerry and I followed in the footsteps of the 19th century French explorer Henri Mouhot. He is most famous for his visits to the Angkor temples. (And many have erroneously claimed he “discovered” these monuments. Nonsense. Cambodians always knew these temples and never forgot their ancestors who built them.) Mouhot kept detailed diaries of his journeys through Southeast Asia, and his insights still hold weight today. If you’re interested in Mouhot’s adventures through Asia more than 150 years ago, you can follow along in our story this weekend, in The New York Times. But if you want to know about some of the back matter—the in-between—about the food we encountered along the way, keep reading.
Almost nothing of food made it into that article, yet eating played a central role to the many days we spent criss-crossing the country. Of course, I took notes. I scribbled down my impressions of markets and fish. We sampled high-end dining and scrubby little cafés. So here, I offer a few (edited) tasting notes from our quest to find Mouhot in Cambodia:
We dine at Cuisine Wat Damnak and each order the 6-course tasting menu labeled #1 But first, we begin with cocktails: a basil mojito and a turmeric iced martini with just a hint of dustiness in the flavor, as well as lemon. I like.
The menu is extraordinarily delicious. I love the strong cinnamon flavor combined with peanut in the Mekong langoustine curry (though Jerry is right – it needs salt and I’d say chile).
The fish atop dry Vietnamese soup has all the sweet/tart flavors of an actual soup but little liquid. There are cubes of tiny veggies; melon that melts in the mouth with the sopped-up flavor of that liquid-less “soup.” The fish is charred ever so slightly on the outside – perfect.
The black sticky rice porridge with rich slices of duck tempered with spring onion: it’s an entrée as heavy as can be in Khmer cuisine. This porridge has acquired a consistency akin to thick gravy.
We sit upstairs in the open-air dining room with high ceilings. Downstairs is air-conditioned. We are at first seated in the back corner, beside a closed window. Why? Why do staff ever seat customers in “Siberia” when so many other seats are available? We move to a table near an open window. I later see more open tables in the front room, with much bigger windows and airiness. No one sits there all evening, though the tables are set.
At the very end of the meal is a tray of sour, mouth-puckering fruits served with a cocaine line of salt, chile, kaffir lime (or whatever you decide to call it these days) and a bit of sugar (almost imperceptible). What a fabulous idea, what immense flavors – the salt, the chile, the lime pounded so finely together, with just a tiny sweetness. It surprises the tongue. That lime leaf! Volumes of aroma.
We tour the Angkor temples, rising early, dodging crowds, climbing towers well into the afternoon heat. We’re famished. Our driver, Visal, stops his tuk-tuk by a tourmada stall by the Bayon where a few Khmers sit on flimsy chairs and a woman directs us to her grill: charcoal burning in biscuit tins propped on stumps. Her fish is finished but she has pork skewers (bacon in cubes, really) and chicken: whole birds, splayed on sticks, $15. Or legs and pieces, $2 each.
She serves us rice on red plastic plates. Then the chicken comes – grilled with crispy skin but not charred, greasy but not too much, dark meat and light meat. This was no fat, fleshy chicken. This chicken ran around. This chicken’s legs taste of muscle. You can tell. There is something in the consistency – a tautness, a stretchiness. It’s not just a mound of flesh. I think of the interviews I did years ago with villagers in Laos who told me: you want a chicken with legs that moved. A sedentary chicken is no good to eat, they said. She serves it with little dishes of tangy sauce – thinly sliced red onion/shallot in lime, fish sauce, sugar, big oblong cloves of garlic and chile. Yum.
The guava juice is such a luscious green, the color of a rice paddy in full growth. We linger over breakfast. There is a wide buffet of European pastries, congee, ham, cheese, salad, fruit, yogurt, cereal. Strong coffee. A menu of Asian noodles – pad thai, fried Chinese-style, kouey teau, nam banh chok. The description of the latter is so Eglish-ized I barely recognize it: Cambodian soft rice noodle in fish broth with mixed vegetable. But I’m delighted to see it’s the real thing; just needs a pinch of chile and dash of fish sauce.
Searching one night for a seafood dinner….
We find a pink corner spot called Hong Hout. It has the menu I want and remember from years past: hole-in-the-wall Khmer restaurants with pages upon pages of everything from the land and sea. Hong Hout has it – a page each for shrimp and fish dishes, half a page of squid options. Dozens of soups, noodles and stir fries. This goes way beyond the typical 10-item tourist menu with standard fried rice and noodles; basic pork, chicken and beef; maybe a shrimp, maybe a fish. Those menus do not offer an array of sour soups and traditional curries, and seafood and fish with “ripe” and “unripe” pepper as we find here at Hong Hout.
We order fish steamed with “lemon taste” and shrimp curry. The fish is large, a sea fish, with a cartoon-drawing rack of bones. The lemon is preserved – a tangy taste with a bit of soy. The shrimp are small, mixed with green Khmer kreung and lots of lemongrass in the flavor. Green pepper and onion, all on a plate. Rice. Hot jasmine tea. $6 total plus two free mangoes as sweet as the day is hot.
We order many things, but this dish — this dish — sticks: Curried Indian chilled & pureed zucchini soup with goat cheese = what to do next with summer squash! I’m inspired. It’s creamy. It’s curried. It’s yellow.
The standout: thin slices of eggplant in rice flour batter around minced pork with black beans, lots of thin sliced ginger strips, soup Knorr (could use fish sauce instead, I think), curry, green onion.
Flavors that work….
From around the country, a selection of intense pairings that should not be forgotten in the kitchen:
-grilled pork wrapped around onion
-kaffir lime/chile/salt/sugar pounded together
-rice wine infused with orange and green tea
Mouhot didn’t write a ton about what he ate. I hope, before he met his unfortunate end in Laos at the age of 35, he sampled and savored these flavors we have been so fortunate to eat.
It is. It is both. It’s a few dozen acres of dense and diverse tropical growth in the hills along the San Pedro Columbia River, where the early Maya made their home. Here, among the ancient stones that formed the city of Lubaantun, Eladio grows food for his wife and 15 kids.
But he doesn’t mimic the many industrial farms in Belize—acre upon acre upon acre of oranges or other single crops. Instead, Eladio says, he sees himself as a caretaker of the land (not an owner), and he works to maintain it in its natural state: lots and lots and lots of plants, edible species, with insects and animals that share this ecosystem with him.
Modern monocrop farming—which puts all resources into a single yield—leaves a lasting environmental footprint. It is typically harsh on the ground, requiring more and more fertilizers and pesticides as the soil depletes and pests abound. There is pollution, runoff and erosion….
Insects are treated as problems, not helpers. And in places like Belize, the indigenous rainforest is destroyed—slashed and burned, razed and graded—to make room for single crops. This happens in industrial agriculture. It happens in subsistence agriculture, too.
Gone is the lush forest canopy—and so is the panoply of species it inspires.
It’s not just Belize; this happens across the globe. As populations grow, more land is cleared. When there is no more land to clear, fallow periods diminish, putting more pressure on the soil. Yields fall. Insects invade. Farmers use more fertilizers and pesticides—and the cycle continues. In the past year of reporting, I have heard this story time and again in interviews with farmers in Belize, Rwanda and Myanmar. It is a widespread predicament.
But monocrop agriculture is not only a threat to the environment. It’s a threat to farmers and food security. Especially family farmers. When a flood or drought or infestation strikes, monocrop farmers have just one chance—just one egg in their baskets, so to speak. But farmers like Eladio have an abundance of opportunity. If one species fails, he has dozens of others that might not. Diversified farming is, in essence, insurance.
It’s also good for the belly. The typical diet in southern Belize is corn and beans—and sometimes little else. Or sometimes just corn and chile. In other parts of the world where one crop dominates, many of the poorest farmers rely on that one crop for the bulk of their food. Often, they don’t have access to other foods—it’s too expensive or there is no market. Or they simply don’t know the nutritional requirements of a balanced diet. Today, in rich countries and in poor, malnutrition is not just the result of too little food. It’s often the result of too much, with too little variety.
Not so for the farmers in southern Belize who practice agroforestry—growing dozens, even hundreds, of foods in and among the forests.Our latest video for SciDev.Net tells the story of Eladio and others who practice agroforestry in this one, small pocket of the world.
More than 1,000 years ago when the city of Lubaantun flourished, it supported far more people than live in these hills today. The early Maya gardeners took plants from the jungle and grew them in their own gardens. They worked within the forest—not against it. And the forest fed them.
This is Peace. She lives in a packed-earth home in Kashunika Village, Nyagatare District, in the far northeastern corner of Rwanda*….
… and these are some of Peace’s bananas. They’re important. These bananas have given her new hope. A while back, Peace was ill with a condition that cost her both time and money. She used to have a goat, but she had to sell it to pay her bills. Peace has recovered now—she has the strength to work again, which is a good thing. Her neighbor gave her a banana tree, which she planted in the small yard surrounding her home. And then she planted more. And more—until her whole yard filled with bananas, which she eats every day.
Peace says life is improving; she can care for herself. But she could still use another goat.
This is Jackline. She lives in eastern Rwanda in a village called Ubwiza. She and her husband, Gakoza, belong to a local farmers co-op, growing maize and beans for their family and for sale.
Jackline also has a project of her own. That’s her, below, with her cow.
Jackline is part of a community health program that allows neighbors to keep tabs on villagers’ health (and refer ailing neighbors to a clinic if necessary). The program also helps the needy—often widows—feed themselves and their families. Jackline received this cow from a neighbor. The cow had a calf, and now it’s Jackline’s turn to pass it on to another neighbor. Each adult cow produces milk for the family, and sometimes a surplus for sale. One by one, these women are helping each other secure a future free of worry about food.
Sunday is International Women’s Day, which is why I’m telling you these things. This year’s theme is “Make it Happen.” To me, Peace and Jackline represent so many of the women I have met around the world: strong women who grow their own food. Diligent women who feed their own families. Courageous women who help each other survive. And unwavering women who struggle through the hard times to do what must be done. To make it happen.
Women produce more than half the world’s food. They are “the backbone of rural societies,” according to Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Women are also critical to solving the problems that impoverished families face.
Yet, compared with men, women have far less access to everything they need in order to grow and thrive—education, health care, business skills and benefits, technologies, land rights, equality. This reality has a profound effect on global hunger. According to the World Food Programme, if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people in the world could drop by 150 million.
I could say much more. Instead, I will leave those who are interested in the plight of women farmers in the developing world with a few resources:
I’m already missing my morning tree tomato. As some of you know, I spent much of February in Uganda and Rwanda as part of an international reporting fellowship through IWMF, the fabulous group heading up this ambitious initiative. I’ll have much more to share about what we did and where we went and the people we met, so stay tuned. But right now, let’s start with breakfast.
In Kigali, the Hotel Chez Lando offered an ample morning buffet with typical Western staples (toast, jam, cereal, eggs), plus a vast spread of plate-filling potatoes, hot vegetables, beans, stewed meat, ham and cheese, fresh fruits, juices, coffee and tea (both black and African—milky, with spices).
The one thing I reached for each morning was the tamarillo.
This luscious fruit can look like a mango, perhaps a tomato, maybe even an apricot. Sometimes it’s red, sometimes it’s yellow. It has the tang of passionfruit and the deep, dark juice of a runny beet (with a bit of that earthiness too). Slice it open, scoop out the seeds and eat them in a syrupy clump. Or blend the whole fruit with banana and make a ruby-red shake.
The tamarillo is also known as the tree tomato and is, in fact, a cousin to that other beloved fruit. It comes from the same family that gives us eggplants, potatoes and peppers. Unlike those crops, low to the ground, the tamarillo grows on trees that can reach 15 feet or more.
I first encountered the tamarillo in Nagaland, in the far northeastern reaches of India, several years ago on my journey to find the world’s hottest peppers. High in the Naga mountains, tamarillo is cooked in ash and eaten as a savory vegetable in curries, chutneys and “pickles.” The fruit is eaten when it’s tart, more akin to a slightly green tomato than a pomegranate bursting with juice. You can find a recipe here (if you don’t have tamarillo, substitute tart tomato). And—throwback—if you’re interested in the story of my Nagaland journey, visit this page and scroll down to a PDF of “The red hot chile peppers.”
We spent the weeks before the holidays in the far southern tip of Belize. The little town of Punta Gorda sits on the water, and every day travelers and migrants arrive by boat from Honduras and Guatemala. PG, as it is called, is the capital of the country’s wettest region, known as Toledo. It’s also the poorest and the most rural, sometimes called “the forgotten district.” But it’s full of life.
As in most places, the local market is a good spot for flavor. The town’s permanent market is under renovation, so vendors are temporarily settting up shop next door, along a one-lane road right on the Gulf of Honduras. This market has few rivals in backdrop – lapping waters and sea birds swooping behind makeshift wooden stalls.
The clientele reflects the ethnic mix that is Belize: Mopan and Kekchi Maya, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, Mestizo, Rastafarian and more. Mennonites with suspender-clad pants and long red beards are the area’s primary suppliers of dairy, chicken and produce. They often roam village to village, selling melons from horse-drawn carriages. But they’re here at the market, too.
Chinese shoppers carry bags with Chinese characters. Short Maya women in pretty flowered dresses stand behind their tables of beans, cilantro, culantro, chile powder and cacao. Some sell clay necklaces, embroideries and baskets. Most the vendors are women, a few are men. The offerings are a stunning array of color on this slate-gray day: oranges, bananas, habaneros, plantains, cabbages, cantaloupes, gingers, tubers, tiny tomatoes, watermelon seeds and sapodillas.
Some Maya women sell tamales from big plastic buckets. We buy two for breakfast. I’ve eaten a lot of tamales in my life, but never one quite like this.
This tamale is enormous – whole chicken legs smothered in a thick white pouch of masa, double wrapped in heliconia leaves. The chicken and the surrounding masa are a beautiful amber-red color, from recado rojo, or achiote paste made with annatto and spices. It’s peppery on the lips but not tongue-scorching hot. Whole oregano leaves are baked right into the spongy corn. The leaves smell smoky and damp. It’s a salty, spicy, filling mound of breakfast, and I feel my girth expand as the tamale settles in my belly.
Typically, the rains begin to cease this time of year, but our weeks in country are wet, wet, wet. It sprinkles, then pours on many market days. But when the sun does shine, the water sparkles and the streets move. The noisy storefronts up the road blare their speakers with music and sales announcements. Shoppers come to town from villages far away. Fish traders do a lively business in a dim concrete room against the pier where fishers unload their catch. The floor inside is slippery with seafood and feet. The air outside is thick and rich, perfumed equally by rainforest and sea.
Here in New Mexico, posole is the centerpiece of many holiday meals. This hearty hominy stew is ubiquitous on Christmas and New Year’s, shared with family and friends, eaten for good luck in the upcoming year. Key to the dish are large dried corn kernels, simmered for hours until they pop and split, imparting rich flavors with a unique texture—a little bit chewy, but firm and nutty. You can make posole from canned hominy, but that wonderful consistency will never be the same as posole made from scratch.
This dish dates to ancient Mesoamerica. The corn is soaked in slaked lime (limestone and water, or calcium hydroxide), which helps preserve the corn, makes it easier to digest and far more nutritious, as the lime reacts with the corn to make niacin available for the body to use. This process, called nixtamalization, is also used in making masa for tortillas. Untreated corn will not bind with water to form a dough. Soaking the corn in ash also has the same effect, and that is how early New Mexicans prepared their corn.
For us this year, it seemed especially fitting to make Christmas posole. We’ve just returned from a reporting trip to Belize, where we spent the bulk of our time in wet, wet, WET rainforests and Maya villages, where locals grow all their own corn and do all their own processing by hand. We ate the most wonderful thick tortillas, made daily on the family comal. And I did not tire of corn!
Infinite variations of posole exist. Every home cook has her own little twists, her own secret ingredients for that perfect bowl. Here in New Mexico, pork is common—but you don’t have to make it that way. You can use dried posole kernels (which have been treated and dried again) or, as I did this time, frozen treated posole readily available here through Albuquerque’s Bueno Foods. Please avoid canned hominy, unless it’s your only option. The flavor and texture fall far short of what posole is meant to be.
Equally important to your corn selection is chile. Many recipes call for the whole dried New Mexican chiles often found on pretty hanging ristras like these:
I used red chile sauce, a portion of the monstrous batch I’d made (and frozen) a few weeks before, in the prime of autumn. It’s a bit of an annual tradition here: replacing last year’s front-porch ristra with a bright new string of this year’s crop. (Read through to the end for recipe.) If you use dried chiles, you can prepare the sauce while the posole is cooking.
If you haven’t already planned your New Year’s menu, there’s still time. Try a pot of posole for good luck in 2015. Enjoy – and happy holidays to all.
New Mexican Posole (a personalized version)
2 pounds of frozen, treated posole (or dried equivalent)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
7 large garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots peeled and chopped into small cubes
15 allspice berries crushed
A glug of red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pork stew meat
1 1/2 cups soup stock or water
4 1/2 cups water
Pinch of dried sage
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon safflower (optional)
2 cups ristra chile sauce (recipe below)
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
Possible toppings: sour cream or Mexican crema, chopped green onions, cilantro, fresh lime
Rinse the posole and place in a large pot. If using dried posole, soak overnight and drain first. Cover with water and boil until the kernels pop and begin to soften and split. Cooking time can vary dramatically depending on type of posole, elevation, etc., but expect this part to take at least an hour if using frozen posole (four hours or more, possibly, for dried). Do not let the kernels turn thoroughly mushy. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, brown the pork in its own fat in a well-seasoned skillet. Add to cooked posole, then use the same skillet to saute garlic, onion, carrots, allspice and glug of red wine, salt and pepper. Add to posole, then deglaze the skillet with a bit of water; add the liquid to posole.
Return posole and other ingredients to heat, add stock and/or water, and bring to a simmer. Add sage, bay leaves, cumin, oregano and safflower. Continue to simmer until posole kernels are thoroughly cooked and stew flavors are blended, at least another hour. Toward the end of cooking, add chile and mix well. Add butter if desired, for a little extra richness. Serve with toppings of your choice.
Just like posole, red chile sauce has as many variations as cooks. Several New Mexican recipes call for flour, but I avoid wheat. Some use garlic, some use onion, some use an array of Southwest spices. Here’s the version I created:
Pods of 1 large ristra (about 40 on mine; vary amounts of other ingredients accordingly), cleaned, sorted and broken open (instructions follow)
Boiling water to cover pods
1 small head of garlic, cloves chopped
2 yellow onions, chopped
Oil or butter for frying
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground sage
Salt and pepper
A bit of vinegar, wine or citrus if tanginess is desired
The hardest part about making ristra chile sauce is the cleaning and sorting. Before you begin, put on those rubber gloves! Trust me, even if you have hands of steel, the heat in these pods will eat its way through your senses and your skin will burn after handling a whole ristra.
Every pod is tied with string or twine. You’ll need to remove each pod individually, and carefully check it over (especially if it’s been hanging outside for a while). Crack each one open, remove the seeds and discard any pods with mold, bugs or other undesirables inside. See the middle photo above? We found many pods with tiny insects burrowed inside, as well as a few cocoons. You don’t want those in your sauce. Retain all good portions of the pods. Rinse with tap water (to remove dust, dirt and cobwebs), then cover with boiling water in a heat-proof bowl. This will soften the pods.
Meanwhile, saute garlic and onions in oil until softened. Set aside.
When chiles are softened, drain and retain the liquid. Put chiles, garlic and onions in food processor along with a portion of the liquid. Blend until smooth, adding more liquid until the mixture becomes the desired consistency. Heat the sauce at a simmer for about 20 minutes, along with spices, adding more liquid if the sauce is thicker than you prefer. Taste before finishing: chile sauce is a personal thing. Add more of any ingredient you feel necessary. Sometimes I find the sauce would benefit from a bit of tanginess and I add a splash of red wine or apple cider. I’ve also used fresh orange for a sweeter variation. Remember, it’s your chile sauce and you can make it taste any which way you please! Serve with tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chips… or anything you think needs a dash of red, flavorful heat.