More Fun with Fresh Xoconostle

Our local market again had xoconostle, the super sour prickly pears that are loaded with good nutrition and are a hoot to cook with. 


If the light in my kitchen looks angelic, it's because it is! A foggy morning makes my photos look as if a professional took them. 

These are the xoconostle roasting on a clay comal (pan). You can see that the pan has a slip of cal on it to protect the clay. This is handiest for making tortillas but I have a dedicated comal to tortillas, another for vegetables and another for chiles. I'm a little obsessive and I love my toys.


It takes a while for the fruit to roast, even on a moderate heat. They should be soft and hissing as they release some of their juices, but not burnt. 

Cut them in half and scoop out the seeds and center pulp. I put them in a pitcher with some honey and water and in about a week I should have some mead. 


I had company this morning. 

My friends in Hidalgo use the skins in their salsa and I've started doing the same. I was in a rush this morning, so I threw the xoconostle in a blender with some onions, garlic and fermented serrano chiles I'd made earlier, with a splash of water. 


The resulting salsa is plenty sour so there's no need for limes. I have pork chops in the fridge for tonight and I think they have a date with this salsa. 

Gearing Up for the Superbowl: Beans and Chili

We've all heard it, particularly from our friends in Texas: There is no place for beans in chili. Chili con carne means chile with meat. 

I was living in Milano and an American friend had given me a copy of the chili bible, A Bowl of Red by Frank Tolbert along with some chili powder. Even though I had never made chili in my life, the book made me homesick and inspired me to make my first pot. It was heaven and as much as I loved Northern Italian food, this was an essential part of me I didn't even know I had. 

Tolbert is of the no beans school and after making his chili, I was too. Then I started a bean company! 


I'll be honest, I'm not in love with thick, stodgy chili where you can stand a fork upright, although as a young fellow, this canned goo made a great nachos topping. Lately however I have been experimenting with beans in chili and I think it's not quite the sin purists claim. In a pot, a cup or two adds interest and really, the bean broth mixed in with the chile sauce is magic. But they star must always be the chiles, not the meat, the beans or anything else. I don't even like to put tomatoes in it. I love pure chile flavor and the tomatoes take it somewhere else. 

Chili purists claim you must not mess with tradition but they seem to look the other way when heaping melted Velveeta over an enchilada. It's not to my liking but if it's your thing, go for it. Just don't pretend that food isn't an evolving, creative thing. I used to care, and care deeply, about these kinds of things. Now I think we should all relax a little and learn as much as we can from each other. Except when it comes to martinis. Everyone knows they should be gin and stirred and any variation should be strictly forbidden and punished by firing squad. There are limits to what we can change, you know. 

Goat Cheese and Beans

I'm a little late coming to goat cheese. It was everywhere at one point and I always liked it but didn't quite the fuss. Why should I be in love with it all these years later? 


I think it was a trip to Costco and buying Laura Chenel goat cheese and needing to use it before the expiration date. I made tamales, I made sauces but the best was a simple taco with refried beans, a smoodge of cheese and some chopped, pickled chiles. What a swell dinner this was! 

I love heavy duty refried beans made with lard and onions but really, you can just mash some in a sauce pan, especially for a dish with other ingredients, and have a fine time. 


Ouch. Our Insanely Hot DeArbol Chiles.

I didn't know I could hit such high notes! I wasn't singing. I was screaming. 


This year's crop of De Arbol chiles is insanely hot. The seeds come from Jalisco and have been grown in California by one of of our bean farmers since the 1970s. 


After chopping off the stems and casually shaking out as many seeds as possible, I pan roasted the chiles for a few minutes on a clay comal. I heard my children coughing and sneezing in the next room and I shrugged, thinking they were such delicate little creatures, until I took a deep breath myself. Why hadn't I opened the windows and turned on the fan? 


I also roasted two cloves of garlic and two spoonfuls of Mexican oregano. I blended all this with about half a cup of water, salt and three splashes of fruit vinegar and blended well. 


Listen, I've got nothing to prove when it comes to heat. I like it hot as long as it's flavorful. This tasted great but goodness, it was searing. I added a little more vinegar and it was painful, but in a good way. Normally De Arbol chiles are hot but this is like something else. I can't wait for more. 

De Arbol Chiles at Rancho Gordo. 

In Praise of the Tortilla

As a longtime fan of Mexican food, you can imagine it's a little funny and a little irritating watching the great chefs of the world discover Mexican food, and the taco in particular. For years, many places have been making do with mediocre or bad tortillas, beans and chiles. It seems everyone, especially those in New York, have got religion all at once. I hope it lasts. 


But loving tacos without having a broader understanding or passion for Mexican food and ingredients is like loving car door handles while ignoring the rest of the vehicle. And obsessing over tacos without a love of tortillas, the process of nixtamalization or experimenting with different corns, is just nuts.

Before the great chefs go out on a limb and declare this the golden age of tacos, I'd suggest they make an insanley fresh tortilla from insanely fresh masa and add maybe a wee bit of cheese, salt and salsa and be happy with that before they dig any deeper. 

I may sound defensive and like a crabby old fart (and for sure, I'm the latter), but we've been importing heirloom corn from small farmers for years and the interest in it has been almost zilch. Again, let's hope this sticks. We'll all eat better.

We make our own tortillas for sale here in the Bay Area, available at our stores in Napa and the ferry building in San Francisco and many food shops. 

Piloncillo Shortbread Cookies

I recently bought some fun cookie stamps. Why, I'm not really sure. I don't love baking the way I love cooking but these were so much fun and so easy that I may change my mind. 
Piloncillo isn't as sweet as refined sugar, which may be a problem for some but I found these sandy discs to be perfectly sweetened. 

Next I think I would sub some of the flour for ground nuts or our pinole. Maybe. These really were perfect as they were and the staff here at Rancho Gordo (and let's face it, they can be picky) gobbled them up. 


Piloncillo Shortbread Cookies

1 cup butter
3/4 cup Rancho Gordo piloncillo
1 teaspoon Rancho Gordo Pure Vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups undifted All Purpose Flour

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream the piloncillo with the butter until well mixed. Add the vanilla and then the flour. Beat at a low speed until very well mixed. 

Form the dough into one inch balls. Place then on an ungreased cookie sheet 2 inches apart. Smash with the bottom of a juice glass or use a cookie stamp. Bake for about 10 minutes. They should be cooked but not brown as they'll continue cooking for a while after you take them out of the oven. 

Allow to cook thoroughly. 

Adapted from a recipe by Rycraft Cookie Stamps. 


White Large Limas with Salsa Macha

I've mentioned how great this year's crop of Lima beans are and this was a wild and easy way to enjoy them. 
Start with a spoonful of Salsa Macha. 


There are many variations. I just found this one from Pati's Mexican Table

Add it to a bowlful of cooked Large Limas with some of their bean stock. The salsa makes a wonderful sauce and all is right with the world. 


An Experiment with Blue Corn Pinole

Yunuen from Xoxoc has told me that the pinole could be used as a sort of breading on cutlets. It sounded weird but what the heck, right? 


I thought it kept the turkey breast pretty juicy but I wasn't in love with the flavor. It was O.K. and different but not something I'd pursue. My 15 year old loved it and asked me to make it again. Go know. 

I think next time I'll make it more like a traditional schnitzel and do the flour, egg and then pinole dips. 

Heirloom blue corn pinole at Rancho Gordo.