Friday, February 24, 2012

Tough Tortillas

Right now I’m reading Carol Counihan’s book “Life is Like a Tortilla” which comes from this great statement by one of the interviewees: Monica Marquez Taylor, of Antonito, Colorado. (greater New Mexico)

"My great-aunts used to say that a tortilla is like life. Nothing is ever going to be exactly the way you want it to be. However life is, that is how your tortilla comes out. So however you rolled out your tortilla, maybe it wasn't quite round, but you ate it because you made it."

This speaks to me on so many levels. The easiest one to talk about is “maybe it wasn’t quite round, but you ate it because you made it.”

Although, in my opinion, you are allowed to share them with the chickens (who will never find fault in your tortilla-making abilities)

This suits my cooking philosophy perfectly: if you make tough tortillas, then you eat tough tortillas. Otherwise your tortillas will never get better. If you throw the tortillas away, then you’re saying “I tried that once: I couldn’t do it.” If you eat them, then you’re saying “that was my first tortilla and it was a little tough. Let’s see how my next tortilla is.”

(My sister adds that you should smother them in plenty of real butter, so that even the imperfect ones will be tasty.)

Also, once you start making your own tortillas, you’ll never go back! For one thing, I usually think the flour tortillas from the store taste bitter from too much baking powder. And the corn tortillas! We are fortunate that we can buy fresh corn masa (nixtamal) at the corner store (Mi Tierra), or at the La Finca Tortillería, or organic from the Berkeley farmer’s market. We have one tortilla rule in our house: too many tortilleras spoil the tortilla. One person needs to be in charge of rolling/pressing the tortillas and cooking them. Again, so you can improve. If you finally get the tortilla to the right thickness so that it doesn’t tear, and then I flip it before the first side is cooked, I’m interfering in your tortillera learning process. If you finally got the grill to the right temperature (not too hot, warmed for a long time) and then I press it with the cloth napkin and make it stick to the griddle, well, it’s going to be a long night. I love Luz’s tortillas and I love my tortillas. I love corn and I love whole wheat. I want to work on amaranth again soon. What Luz’s students taught me is that you have to master corn tortillas before you try amaranth. You can’t go from flour to amaranth.

(Fresh corn tortillas make Gluten-Free February a whole lot more pleasurable!)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shrove Tuesday

I’m giving up Facebook for Lent.

One think I want to accomplish this Lent is to go back to writing: to journaling every day. When I get in the habit, I can be really productive, and in the writing, I push my ideas further. But one of my sayings is “Life ain’t nothing but a habit.” Our habits are not just our quirks: they are the structure and substance of our lives. So if I want to write, I have to build the habit of writing. Different kinds of writing: journaling, blogging, critical, fiction, poetry…

One of the hardest things about blogging was finding the time. Luz would sometimes ask me to blog something, and I would feel overwhelmed at the commitment that called for. I would draft entries and read them over and over, editing for hours before I would post. Facebook, by comparison was easy: think it, type it, send it out. Try to avoid proofreading, because the point is to get it right out there, not to get it out there right. I hadn’t blogged regularly since spring 2010.

Blogging seems so much more self-involved than facebook. On facebook, I’m acknowledging the posts, the shares, the ideas of all my friends. On the blog it’s just me sharing my thoughts, which also means asserting that they’re significant enough to be published even in this limited way.

Maya pointed out that if I’m going ahead with giving up something (facebook) for Lent, I should go whole-hog today by facebooking to beat the band, à la carnaval. or at least the fb equivalent of butter-drenched pancakes.

Obligatory farming content: In November and December, our egg production all but dried up. Our five hens were producing a maximum of one egg for the whole flock: more often those eggs were few and far between. I remember when I was studying Russian in grad school (geek for the revolution), learning about the Lenten practices and how seasonally, Lent was tied to the End of Winter, which also meant, the last of the winter supplies. Did people give up eggs for lent for the pragmatic reason that their hens had all gone off their laying?

I remember in northern New Mexico we often had late winter storms: the latest snow I recall was on my sister’s birthday: May 13. The Lenten foods of New Mexico don’t really signify bare cupboards. I’m thinking of the verdolagas and quelites of spring, the tortas de huevo with dried camarón. (clearly their gallinas were still laying!)

Speaking of northern New Mexican religiosity, Occupy Oakland has given me a new appreciation for the old prayers and alabados. In January, I participated in an OO march to a zillionaire’s home in Piedmont, protesting the zillionaire’s new vacation home to be built on Rattlesnake Island land sacred to the Elem Pomo. The indigenous presence on the march was very strong, and the crowd was way more diverse than many OO actions. The march seemed like it was uphill the whole way. I spent a lot of time sweating and gasping for breath and trying to appreciate the sage smoke without succumbing to an asthma attack, which would make me conspicuous. Fortunately, I had my marvelous Chihuahua with me (Nopalito), who deflected all attention away from me. Unfortunately he didn’t like hills any better than I did and it seemed like I carried him most of the way up.

But what that taught me was to appreciate the alabados of my father’s people. These are long Spanish religious ballads with dozens of verses depicting the pain and suffering of the way of the cross. They have names like “Ven, Pecador, y Verás” (Come Sinner, and See) or Madre de Dolores (which relives the mother’s pain at seeing her son suffering so). But when you’re on pilgrimage during Lent in northern New Mexico, you are walking these long highways or small dirt roads. Las viejitas come out as you pass their trailers, and join in the procession. And you can sing those alabados (and the rosaries, and the litanies) while walking all day long. 

And I came to appreciate that when I was marching with Occupy Oakland, because the chants that the young men were chanting into their bullhorns were written for people standing still, not people walking, and certainly not people “of a certain age” walking uphill. At one point I started singing alabados under my breath (one of the less gruesome ones, Salve Santa Rita). And when I did, I could breathe again, and I could keep in step, and I could keep pace. Because that’s what those songs were written for.

And I’m doing that all the time now, which is good, because often the action seems less like a “march” and more like a pilgrimage. And I imagine all those viejitas coming out to join us, as we walk and breathe and sing.

Obligatory Food Content: I’m not eating buttery pancakes today, because we’re still in Gluten-Free February. But on Sunday night we talked about our Decolonize your Diet project at the East-West Salon (tertulia?) hosted by Irina and Nico, and so Luz prepared enchiladas stuffed with jamaica, jícama, and carrots, and topped with quick-pickled carrots, red onions and radishes. (and queso cotija for the non-vegans). And Luz also prepared their famous frijoles, which are so good I want them to be my last meal. Luz shared the recipe on the facebook page for Luz’s Decolonial Cooking Club.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chuparosas and Chihuahuas

We in the compound never really expected to have any dogs--much less two--running around. Yeah, Luz and I had joked about getting a Chihuahua for oh, about six years.

Then Jenn decided to get a dog to strengthen the soul. She chose a rescue dog named Herbie, whom we originally thought was a small lab, but since have tentatively identified as a Jindo Gae, native to the Korean island of Jindo, a hunting dog whose prey includes raccoons(“Hurray!” squawk the chickens! “Our hero!”). Like many Jindos, Herbie is extremely reserved with anyone outside his immediate family (i.e. Jenn). He is good-natured, mellow, and slow-moving, except during a jog or when he has slipped the leash and is running up the street, laughing at us.

It wasn’t long after this that my pining for a dog became quite vocal. I even tried that old ploy of declaring “I want to have a baby!” Luz, of course, was not deceived.

But then on fourth of July, our day started out very hard and seemed to just get harder. After a long day out, Luz went into the garden to relax and encountered…a chihuahua! A very sweet whitish girl with wavy hair and big brown eyes. She had fleas and very long nails. And she was clearly very frightened. Of course, in our hood, fourth of july means firecrackers starting from late june and going through mid-july. So all the dogs and cats tend to go into hiding, or, like this little lady, looking for an escape.

I kept declaring “God sent us this Chihuahua!”

In the first hour that we found her, she encountered every single cat in the compound--which is itself notable, since Siren the cat is not fond of our company--and the cats and the dog showed a mellow lack of interest in one another.

Luz liked her, but insisted that if she was coming into the house she had to be bathed immediately for fleas. We bathed her in dr. bronner’s castile soap and toweled her dry. I ran out to the grocery store fifteen minutes before it closed, and came home with a couple of cans of Mighty Dog. She slept in our bed with us that night, snuggled with us, and went outside in the morning "to do her business"

The next day I took her to the lesbian-owned pet store while my friend A* was visiting. We were all on the down-low, because I was afraid someone there would recognize the dog and I would be forced to give her up. So with all the stealth of a professional dognapper, I avoided all the questions about how old she was and how long I’d had her.

One funny thing is that Paws & Claws was in its new location and was also changing over from their old “punch card” reward system, to a new, automatic computer frequent buyer program. So when they asked me for my name, phone number, and name of my pet. I fibbed a little and gave them the name of our oldest cat.

So, lovely queer purple harness for the perrita. A* held her while I clipped her nails. She was pretty patient with the process.

Now, left to myself, I would’ve hidden the dog in the house forever, because, after all “God sent me this dog,” therefore, obviously, I am intended to keep her. However, Luz convinced me that the right thing for us to do would be to put up ads around the neighborhood with “found: small white dog” with our phone number. Because this dog was obviously NOT a stray: she was too well behaved and expected only good things from us. Luz posted to the neighborhood list, and printed out the flyers and I tacked them up on the telephone poles, including the one next to Mr. McDaniels house.

The next day I happily took the doggy on a walk around the block, wearing her new purple harness and sporting one of our old leashes (from back in the day when we used to co-parent Saffy the border collie mix in New Mexico). The little dog really enjoyed running back down the hill to our house. But as I paused to unlock the security door, I noticed a big bronze continental slowing down to take a look. At the dog. My first impulse was to get the damn door open and hide my dog away and never walk her on this block again. But I finally took a deep breath and walked over the car, asking the driver (Mr. McDaniels) if he recognized the dog. He was happy to have her back and I reluctantly let her go. I only glimpsed her a couple more times before Mr. McDaniels moved away, and he was careful not to let her escape again.

That Chihuahua had come to us on a particularly hard day, and brought us a lot of joy and comfort. And as a result of that experience, Luz decided we were indeed ready to get our own dog. The next week we went to Oakland Animal Services and adopted a little male pup, whom we named Nopalito. But that is another story.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Luz's Garden to be featured on this year's Bay Friendly Garden Tours

Luz's garden will be featured on this year's Bay Friendly Garden Tour, Sunday May 15. Come on by, y'all!

Oregano memories

Luz has been working on hir film and incorporating many fragments from the old blog into the narration. That’s got me thinking about our queer rancho blog, which (like many a blog) was eaten by facebook.

I’m inspired to write today about oregano. My good friend Gabriela posted that chimichurri sauce made her rethink her aversion to oregano.

Aversion to oregano? that’s one I can’t get my head around.

Oregano has at times been my only spice. When we were little, my Grandma Lupe would make menudo, and my favorite part was that your bowl was like your witches cauldron, and you got to put in all the stuff you liked best: oregano, cebolla, cilantro, lime, chile pequín... In fact, I think mi abuela used to set aside for me a pot of white broth instead of red, because my little girl mouth was too tender for chile. menudo was served with warm corn tortillas with salt.

So crushing the oregano in my hands was like magic to me. It still is.

In northern New Mexico, in the 1980s, Esperanza Córdoba Weber showed me how to recognize oregano's purple flowers growing on the hillside. Like other hierbas, she said, it was best to gather it on El Día de la Virgen.

In the 1990s, the first two dishes I really learned to cook for myself were green chile stew and pozole. (by then I was vegetarian and needed fill the niche previously filled by menudo). Oregano was the handful of magic that made it work.

My dad Alfonso, sent us a big spray of dried oregano in the mail. He always provides these raro but amazing tastes of New Mexico for us here in the Bay Area. Like the time he sent us the fresh Hatch chile so hot it “knocks your block off.” That New Mexican oregano was the stuff you use to call back the ancestors! So good.

Here in our barrio rancho, the heart of the garden is Luz’s herb spiral. Everything else has grown out from there. And in hir research on traditional foods, zie found that most of oregano seed is for Italian or Greek oregano. It’s very good, but it doesn’t smell like a memory. Luz was determined and found a source for Mexican oregano, which struggled the first year, but has come back hardy. The smell for me acts like white smoke from sage: cleansing, purifying, beyond the realm of mere food.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Luz’s carrot crop has been most impressive. Zie only started harvesting a couple of weeks ago. Zie pulled on a clump of greens and all of a sudden this enormous fat carrot appeared!

Our neighbor Jenn had her two year-old nephew over for a visit last weekend. He watches Curious George videos and so knows a lot about gardening, including compost! His favorite game when visiting is to toss the compost with his aunties. So during his visit, Luz pulled some carrots to show him. He happily carried a miniature carrot around, with the long green stem dragging behind him like Linus’s blanket.

I have happily chomped down several of these carrots. I have always loved carrots because they’re sweet and you can crunch them hard.

Starting in 1977, I went through a spell of reading and re-reading all the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House. books. See I was a farmwife in training, but didn’t know it. My sister had read them all before. I read everything in sight, and, I think, especially liked reading books my sister had read.

Aside: The books are quite frankly racist, with lots of anti-Indian sentiments freely expressed, including that native peoples have no rights to land and should be displaced to make more room for white homesteaders, and that there’s no such thing as a “good Indian.” Ma expresses the worst of these, as well as some less-than-charming anti-immigrant snap judgments. but then Pa actually performs in blackface in a minstrel show, the retelling of which includes a lot of repetition of “darkies.” These unpleasantries are whitewashed away in the nostalgia with which these books are enshrined.

The third novel in the series, Farmer Boy, focuses on the boyhood of Almanzo Wilder (Ingall’s future husband) on his family’s extensive farm in New York. In addition to the livestock they sell, they are wholly self-sufficient. White sugar is one of the few things they have to purchase. They shear their sheep and the women spin the wool and the weave it into cloth for clothing. So they also happen to grow a lot of crops in sufficient abundance that they use them as feed crops for the cattle, carrots being one of them. And the young boy, chomping on carrots while training his young oxen, observes that the outer ring of the carrot is sweeter and can be snapped off, while the inner core has a sharper taste. Luz’s carrots were like that to the nth degree.

Luz had made carrot ginger soup, and carrots are included in many of Luz’s recipes. (Zie likes to see how many servings of vegetables can be incorporated into one delicious meal.) Still, the longer they stay in the ground, the bigger the carrots grow. As I said, I enjoy snacking on them raw. Luz and our neighbor Jenn are already starting their winter plantings, now, so they’re pulling out the summer crops that are done. Luz wanted to open the space currently occupied by the carrots.

So, given our brand-new skill of canning vegetables, a fond remembrance of Sandy Der’s fermentation class, and some ingenuity on Luz’s part, and zie came up with the perfect solution: escabeche. Pickled jalapeños with carrots and onions. A tiny serving of which is the norm at tacquerias throughout Califas, at least.

We’d made refrigerator pickles last year, with the radishes. They were yummy. But the difference this time is that not only would we pickle them with vinegar, but we would then can the escabeche in jars.

As usual, I researched all the safety precautions about canning vinegar pickles, and was happy to see that a lot of leeway is allowed with pickles. So I printed out four different recipes: some with sweetener, some with olive oil. It looked to me like as long as we used at least equal parts water and vinegar, it should be pretty safe. So Luz sent me to the Mexican market on the corner (Mi Tierra) for pickling spice and jalapeños. Right after that, though, before we started pickling, Maria and Gabriela gave us some red and green jalapeños from their barrio ranchito. So we used those instead. Their barrio rancho was the inspiration for ours: they have so many beautiful fruit trees and all kinds of veggies.

Luz reminded me that the jars left over from canning the apples would need to be washed and scalded again, since the water they’d been sitting in had gone cold. I did the rest of the prep, Luz cooked up her pot of escabeche, and then filled all our remaining jars with the chilies, carrots, and pickling liquid.

Although we were out of canning jars, we had one jar in the house where we could put the remaining escabeche and keep in the fridge for snacking.

Well, that was the plan. We ate escabeche with our neighbor Jenn on the deck last night as an appetizer. Luz planned tonight’s dinner around the escabeche. fava-bean burgers in flat bread with avocado and escabeche. (like a variation on a Mexican torta). Super yum.

That one jar of escabeche though is all used up, and it’s barely been twenty-four hours. How long can we hold out?

The dried apple rings didn’t make it even that long. They were done this afternoon and gone by dinner. yummy.

Canning, Part Deux: Apples

We are not apple connossieurs. Luz doesn’t like the crunch or the peel. Catriona only likes sour (granny smith) apples, peeled. When we were juicing big time, though, apples were a staple in our house. We bought them by the box from Berkeley bowl, just so we could keep up with our favorite apple-lime-carrot-ginger juice.

Luz did some juicing a couple of weeks back, as a cleansing before the start of hir school year. Zie juiced something fierce for several days, not only our old standbys but also vampiros using beets from hir garden. Hir carrots from the garden are absolutely the best carrots I have eaten.

When the limpia was over we still had lots of apples left. They weren’t real flavorful for eating out of hand. And it was starting to look like they would quietly go bad while we averted our eyes.

But as you know, we got a canning book and canning supplies last week, and that changed our whole perspective. While lots of people can the fruits of the garden, lots more buy bags and boxes of what’s in season so they can enjoy them later. I know Mrs. Surmani, who used to live next door to us, used to put up all kinds of fruit.

So, what the heck! let’s give apples a shot! First we were thinking apple chunks or apple butter. Catriona got a new canning book this week, Stocking Up, which is especially attractive because its jam & jelly recipes use only honey. We also have big concerns about sugar. Old-time canning recipes call for major sugar, and with diabetes being such an ominous specter on the Latin@ health horizon right now, we are not interested in preparing anything full of sugar.

When we first moved into the neighborhood, Mr. Surmani gave us a lesson on the membrillo (English: quince) which I consider the Troll or Ogre of apples: It’s big, lumpy, misshape, and kind of fuzzy. It’s too tart for out of hand eating, but bakes up a beautiful rose color, very fragrant and delicious. Membrillo (english: marmalade) was the first jelly, because the fruit has a naturally high fruit pectin content. Luz had produced some beautiful membrillo paste in years past, but really the sugar content of the recipes is frightening: 2 cups fruit to 2 cups sugar. Luz tried to decrease the sugar this year, planning to just cook it down, but it never set.

But then, our oven broke. (this hardly sounds like a happy story, so far).

We could still use the gas burners on top, but that was it. After a week of wrestling with the idea, we went shopping for a new stove, and picked a nice one which will support Luz’s MasterChef experimentation. And it has some features we will never use, like “perfect turkey.” And a couple of others that we found very exciting. Namely “bread proof” and “dehydrate.”

My family is not new to food dehydration. We moved from L.A. to northern New Mexico in the late 1970s. There were many aspects of rural life at which we did not succeed. We were complete failures with farm animals, due in large part to our displaced urban German Shepherd, who lacked the breeds herding instincts, in place of which he had a double measure of kill instinct. I need elaborate no further.

However, my dad excelled at gardening and dried foods. He made beef jerky every year with lots of salt and pepper. Some times he put even more pepper so that it would last longer. I’d always liked beef jerky as a kid, although all the jerky I’d ever seen had been encased in plastic. My mom, as a young woman, had a memorable experience working in a jerky factory which seemed to have cured her of any liking for the processed beef product. My dad’s jerky, on the other hand, was something special. legendary. All our relations who came out to visit us in New Mexico will remember eating Alfonso/Uncle Pony’s beef jerky. yum.

I think he strung clotheslines in the attic of the old adobe on our property in Ledoux, and hung the strips of beef like socks on the clothesline. The attic had screened windows on either end to keep out the birds and rodents, and seemed to provide ideal drying conditions. (We were at 7500 feet).

He later expanded his dehydrating repertoire to include apples and green chile. He and my nephews Steven and Cisco used to slice apples, lay them out on paper towels on the car’s dashboard, then lock up the car in the sun to dry out the apples. They would send them to me in California, and I enjoyed them tremendously.

I don’t know how he prepared the green chile. He gave me these when I was living in Colorado, and they were pure magic. When I moved to Colorado was the first time I realized that New Mexico green chile was not widely available (and when all those childhood memories of smuggling sacks of green chile across the California border began to make sense). In northern New Mexico you can buy as much as you want, fresh in season, or frozen, next to the green beans, year round. In Colorado the closest thing I could find were the canned ortega chiles, a big disappointment. But with my dad’s dried green chile, I could sprinkle them into a pot of otherwise potato-tomato stew and make something fabulous. I learned the hard way that these would not keep indefinitely in Colorado or California they way they had back home.

Luz and I still want to learn how to dry the green chile, which has assumed almost mythical status in our imaginations.

But back to the membrillo that didn’t set. And the apples.

So our new stove arrived and Luz cooked several amazing dinners on it and then began to eye the dehydrate function. Zie thought of that membrillo which had never fully set, and the proverbial light bulb lit. After surveying all of our baking pans, zie decided on using the pizza stone as a dehydration tray. Zie spread the membrillo thickly on the stone, popped it in the oven on “dehydrate” and let ‘er rip. the next day, zie had a beautiful membrillo fruit leather. I hope to get a taste of this soon, but it is currently hiding in the fridge, safely hidden from my hungry eyes by a wrapping of waxed paper.

So here we are with these apples about to go bad, and we have this new canning for passion AND a new oven. The result: 7 jars canned apples and some dried apple rings.

Luz cooked the apples with agave syrup, 1/4 cinnamon stick, and filtered water. Zie cooked them for five minutes (as instructed by our canning book). I did the prep, which is filling the canning pot with water, to a depth of 2 inches higher than the jars are tall, heating it to boiling. Washing and scalding the jars, putting the lids and jars in a pot of water and heating that till just before simmering. Luz filled the jars with hot fruit, topped them off with the liquid in which they’d been cooked (being careful to leave headroom so the jars don’t burst). I pressed on the lids, screwed on the rings, lowered the jars into the boiling water, and cooked them for 15 minutes. Then I removed them from the pot, put them in boxes to protect them from drafts (but not too close to one another, so they would cool quickly) and set them on top of our washer/dryer to cool. (we weren’t running the w/d. If we had been, it wouldn’t have been very cool up there.)

The next day (today) I unscrewed the rings so I could check the seals. This consists of lifting the jar by it’s sealed lid. If it didn’t “seal” then the jar will fall down and you will feel like a failure (but you still have a chance to save it). All of our jars are tightly vacuumed sealed. they look good enough to eat.

I took charge of the apple rings. I washed, peeled, and cored the apples, sliced them in into rings about 1/2” thick, dipped the slices in lemon juice, and stacked them while I went on to the next apple. when they were all done, I wiped them with paper towels, put them on our big pizza tray (which has lots of holes in it, thus speeding the drying process) and set them in the oven on dehydrate. They’re done today, and in all likelihood we will eat them all in the next few days. apples are super yummy with lemon juice.