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November 2007

Queso Fundido and Knowing You Are Really Happy

Can you tell I enjoy being on the road? I also really love my life here and I know I'm the luckiest guy on the planet in that I get to make a living doing what I'm passionate about, but there's nothing quite like a ticket and passport.


How many times have I had Queso Fundido? Countless. How many tequilas have I consumed? How many times have I heard a mariachi band play Jesusita in Chihuahua? It seems  like the answer would be "plenty" and but when it all comes together, there's nothing quite like  it.


In Guanajuato there's a bar called Luna.  Half of it is indoors, with old movie posters from the golden age of Mexican cinema and the other half is outdoors. It's on the Jardin de la Union and the park is chock a block full of musicians, all eager to play and collect your pesos. I was with my friend Christopher Ann, who can only be described as the ideal traveling companion, and we were listening to mariachi, drinking a bandera (one shot each of tequila, sangrita and lime juice), snacking on queso fundido and it struck me: I was happy. Maybe I'm cynical or negative but happiness doesn't often register in the moment for me. But as I felt the warmth of the tequila and heard the hooting and hollering of neighboring tables, I knew I was where I wanted to be.


As I noted my own happiness, I noticed Chris had the look that women get when they're dancing with a man who actually knows how to lead. It's almost a stupid but triumphant smile, if that makes any sense. We raised our glasses and toasted the large party across from us who were sporting for the music and they smiled and raised their glasses back. A gentleman at another table let out a hoot and a holler as the band got hotter and hotter. Once the violins started their pizzicato, I started to well up. Not wanting to actually cry, I started to eat.


So I was either a complete romantic trainwreck or this queso fundido was really that good. I asked Chris and she felt the same way. But why? It seemed to be cheese melted under a salamander or broiler, chorizo and mushrooms. What was the big deal? We asked the waiter and he came back with word from the kitchen that the cheese was gouda. I've seen recipes that called for gouda but it's usually written as "gouda, or another good melting cheese". I don't think I've bought gouda since 1975, but that will change.

When it was Chris' turn to request a song, she chose the classic Noche de Ronda, but this was a very modern band and instead of memorizing the lyrics, the lead singer whipped out his Blackberry while serenading my friend. It was the perfect finale to a perfect afternoon.



On this last trip south, I became a little obsessed with the sour prickly pear called xoconostle. They're mostly used for sauces but I had them candied and even in a syrup.


They look almost exactly like a prickly pear, or tuna, until you cut them open.


I was collecting seeds, thinking it might be a gas to grow them here in Napa. Unlike a tuna, the seeds are conveniently all in one handy spot.


This silly little strainer has traveled with all over the world with me. You never know when you'll come across something worth saving. After scooping out the pits, I rinsed them and strained them and finally let them dry overnight. Then they're simply scooped into kraft paper coin envelopes (that also travel with me on every trip) and the rest is history.


I used to germinate and start them myself but I've discovered I'm too inconsistent and now my plan is to take them to my friend Rose of Morningsun Herb Farm and let her do what she does best.

Rancho Gordo in Gourmet

Wow.  A customer at the farmers market asked me about Gourmet magazine and I smiled and didn't understand what she was talking about. Then another customer mentioned seeing the beans in Gourmet, and then another. Was it true? Guess what? Yes!


"Delicious bites of history." I couldn't have said it better myself. Clearly I'm proud, but it's even more gratifying that people "get" what we're doing with the heritage beans and indigenous foods. I can only tell you what is was like in the beginning, going to farmers markets by myself, sometimes doing six a week and having to explain over and over that these were heirloom beans, not fancy nuts. And yes, you need to cook them. A lot of people, including friends, thought I was insane for doing this but I knew deep inside this was the right thing once I figured out how to tell the story. Having my friend Joan Taramasso come on board, at first to just help bag beans, and now running Operations, initially  seemed like an indulgence (we laugh a lot, eat well and listen to good music here at the warehouse) but now I see it's been one of the essential reasons for the success.

We had no idea this was coming. What's even wilder is the press we're supposed to be getting in January, followed by the release of my book on beans next fall. Really, how lucky can you get?

Black Calypsos with Pancetta and Sage, plus a little Slow Food Nation News

I had some pancetta from The Fatted Calf recently. What a treat to have access to such a great product. It reminded me of one of my favorite ways to prepare Black Calypso beans.


Fry a piece or two of good pancetta. When cooked, remove and reserve the meat but sauté some onions and garlic in the pot, using the pancetta fat.  When the vegetables are soft, add a few sage leaves and some pre-soaked beans. Cover with water by about an inch and bring to a hard boil. Allow to boil for about five minutes and then reduce to a very low simmer. When the beans are soft, add salt to taste and cook for another 20 minutes. Just before serving, chop up the reserved pancetta and add it to the beans.
You can substitute bacon for pancetta, if you like.

Slow Food Nation Update:
I'm too close to the fire to be objective, but I find this whole new situation a little creepy. Locals in Livingston, Montana are fighting a proposed gated community project that is donating $500,000 to produce the San Francisco Slow Food Nation event, via Alice Waters. I guess Neiman-Marcus is selling the lots and their advertisement says, "Your home site comes with a private gourmet dinner prepared by Alice Waters, using locally grown and sustainably raised ingredients." Yuck. Read the story at Ethicurean after you bookmark the site. It should be part of your daily reading.

Dia de Muertos in Guanajuato (and a wee bit of politics)

There's a popular book on Mexico out that starts out with the assumption that Mexicans are essentially different than Americans and in order to understand them, you need to assume this to be true. Razzberries, says I. Yes, there are differences but it seems to me so many of our problems come from obsessing about them rather than enjoying the things we have in common.


Children get greedy about their candy, they dress up in spooky costumes and collect sweets at different houses. Would that be Dias de los Muertos or Halloween? Of course, it's both.


In Leon, the main square was covered with booths selling sweets and sugar skulls.


At the Casa de la Cultura in Leon, there was a wonderful tribute to the singer Jose Alfredo Jiminez with lots of details about his life and music.


In Guanajato, every nook and cranny in the small city seemed filled with sugar vendors. The quality seemed a little more artistic, even if Sponge Bob seemed to be everywhere.




Choosing the correct sugar skull is very serious buisiness!


I don't like to get on a soapbox too often but I think it's amazing how little we know about our neighbors just south of us. The little news we get makes it seem as if they're a completely different race and we'd better hurry up and build a cement wall to keep them out because they're coming and they want to take what we have. My travels have proven to me the opposite is true. There are some very poor people who who are desperate for work and are trying to cross the border but most Mexicans I've met love Mexico and are very proud of it and want to stay and make it a better place, despite a lot of problems, which sounds a lot like the U.S.A. that I know.

I wonder if all the money being spent on this wall were spent investing in Mexico in a way that would benefit both countries wouldn't be smarter.

"I wonder if you wonder" - Barbara Stanwick in Double Indemnity.


Huevos Estilo Jalapa

Talk about having a good morning! This breakfast will put you in a good mood for the rest of the day. This recipe serves six but you can you can make up the tomato "caldo" in one big batch and then enjoy the eggs all week if you're cooking for yourself.

Adapted from The Mexican Gourmet by Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal and Shelton Wiseman. I think despite the stupid name, this is one of the best books on Mexican cooking. Unfortunately it seems to be out of print.


Huevos Estilo Jalapa

For the sauce:
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 onion, peeled and coarsly chopped
2 serrano chiles (the orginal calls for jalapeños)
1 1/3 pounds tomatoes, coarsly chopped (I used canned)
2 tablespoons oil
salt to taste
1 cup water
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

For the eggs:
2 tablespoons oil
12 eggs, lightly beaten
salt to taste

1. Puree the garlic, onion, chiles and tomatoes in a blender. Heat the oil in a large pot (I used a clay cazuela) and strain the sauce into the oil. Simmer over medium heat until thickened, about 10 minutes. Add the salt and the water and simmer over very low heat another 15 minutes.
(N.B. The original recipe calls for a bundle of cilantro that is  cooked with the sauce for five minutes and then removed. I just sprinkled the chopped cilantro over the finished dish.)

2. Heat oil in a frying pan and scramble the eggs, seasoning with salt. Divide the eggs among 6 earthenware pots or soup bowls. Fill each with about 1/2 cup of the tomato caldo, sprinkle each with cilantro and serve immediately with fresh corn tortillas and bowls of your favorite beans.

Speaking of beans, I mentioned a few weeks back that we have these great new cranberry beans in the Colombian style now in and ready to sell and then I forgot to add it to the website.


I fixed that and now the Cargamantos are available online. They'd be great with these eggs.

My Clever Chickens

The chicks that arrived in the mail this Spring have now come blossomed into a flock of very lovely ladies and one extremely lucky rooster, if you know what I mean and I think you do. They started laying eggs awhile back and while I've been kept in eggs quite nicely, I haven't experienced the abundance you'd think with 16 hens.


As I let the gang out of the henhouse this morning to play and frolic in their pen, I heard a noise underneath the wood ramp inside the henhouse.

As you can see in the photo, the red box is where they lay their eggs. The two boxes on top were intended for laying but they never use them.


I ripped up the ramp, which had been nailed down and look what I found!


And underneath the chicken?


It's going to be flan tonight!
Actually, I assume the eggs are fertile and maybe I'll leave some to see what nature has in store for them.
In the meantime, there were still eggs in the red box this morning so I made Huevos Estilo Jalapa. What a glorious way to start the day. I'll have the recipe here on Friday.


In other news...
One of my best customers is the cafe at Della Fattoria bakery in Petaluma. Chef Kay Baumhefner has left to offer her own cooking classes.  For more information on her Come Home to Cooking classes, send her an email.

Street of Beans

In Guanajuato, a lot of the pretty, painted talavera pottery comes from Dolores Hidalgo. For me, the thrill was the street that seemed almost dedicated to beans.


Right in the middle of a somewhat busy street are about a dozen bean vendors. I felt all warm and fuzzy as I saw the pounds and pounds of beans for sale.


They all seemed to have the same types of beans and many of them we can get here in the U.S. but I'm always tickled to find what may be my favorite bean of the moment, Rosa de Castilla, for sale.


At one point, I noticed some lurid yellow beans, somewhat like Peruanos but even brighter. The vendor said they were in fact Peruanos, but then sneered slightly as he explained they were from Sinaloa and of a much lower quality than the local variety.


I had to do some fast talking at the airport to explain why I shouldn't have to spend $50 on excess luggage charges for $4 worth of beans.

Clay Bean Pots from San Felipe

The state of Guanajuato is in the center of Mexico and sadly, here in the states it's probably best known for the town of San Miguel de Allende, which has a population of ex-pat "artists" and retirees among the locals. I'm sure it's nice but I didn't come to Mexico to see that scene. Instead, I spent the bulk of my time in the town of Guanajuato with trips to Silao, Dolores Hidalgo and San Felipe. Along with seeing the sights, I was interested in learning more about farming cactus paddles and clay bean pots.

It took some time, but we finally hit pay dirt in San Felipe with the pots. We found this sweet little family that specialized in ollas and cazuelas and there's a chance we'll be importing them soon for sale through Rancho Gordo.


I loved this shape but it probably won't be the one that makes it back.