Month of February: “Truly Mexican” Recipes: Carnitas and Frijoles Simples

“What happens in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It’s not by accident that I am working from the Mexican cookbook this month. Abby spent a few Februarys over the years with her family in Isla Mujeres and the Yucatan. One year she invited me to join them and for reasons I cannot remember now, I was unable to pull it off.

Abby and I met while traveling and we had many adventures together within the US but never overseas. As far as I know, Abby traveled to Canada, Ecuador, Columbia, Jamaica, and Mexico on the Gulf and Caribbean side. I went to Mexico on the Pacific side, Canada, England, Bermuda, Scotland, Ireland, India, Belize and Puerto Rico. Looking over this list, I see that North America was our geographical common denominator.

When we first met we fantasized about traveling to Africa. At that time I remember having a crush on a physician I met in Rochester in between my visits to my hometown and back to Wisconsin. He wrote me a letter from Monrovia, Liberia where he had set up a medical clinic in the bush. Abby found that quite amusing and was plotting and planning ways we could get ourselves there. In an email from 2016 she wrote, “When I was young I saw myself as a strong woman living alone, going on grand adventures, exploring, doing research in remote places, flying airplanes, writing about my adventures. I thought you would be there too. We should have gone to Africa. Damn HIV for ruining my life!” Keep in mind this was the early 80’s she is referring to.

Looking back on all those younger years, there are regrets, no doubt, that we did not explore more on our own terms when we had the opportunity. In our last years before Abby’s death, we had tons of ideas for future trips since our children were launched and independent. These plans never came to fruition and we never will make it to Africa. But our friendship, with all its ups and downs is a rich lasting legacy, not loaded with shared passport stamps but chock full of precious meaningful memories. In the end those memories are what I will remember and hold near and dear to my heart until my last day traveling in this body on this earth.

Frijole Simples (basic beans)

Ingredients: 1 pound dried black or pinto beans, 9 cups of water, 1/2 cup chopped white onion, 3 garlic cloves peeled, 1 teaspoon fine salt.

Put all ingredients except salt in a 3-4 quart heavy pot and bring water to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 1.5 hours until beans are tender. Cooking time may take longer if beans have been sitting on grocery shelf for a long time. Add more water as needed. Stir in the salt.

Carnitas (braised and fried pork)

Ingredients: 4 pounds fatty prok shoulder cut up into 2 inch pieces, 3 cups water, 1 medium white onion, thinly sliced, 1/2 orange cut in 2 pieces, 1/4 cup pork lard or vegetable oil, 8 garlic cloves, 3 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk, 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano, 2 teaspoons fine salt or 4 teaspoons of kosher salt.

Put all ingredients in a wide 6-7 quart heavy pot and bring water to boil. Don’t worry if pork is not completely covered. Bring to a boil and skim as necessary. Lower the heat and simmer vigorously, stirring occasionally until liquid has completely evaporated, about 1.5 to 2 hours. Discard the orange pieces and bay leaves. Preheat oven to 450F. Transfer the pork and fat to an ovenproof dish and brown the pork, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes. No need to stir.

Serve with corn tortillas and salsa.

Abby and family at Ek Balam, an archeological site in the Yukatan, Mexico

Month of February: “Truly Mexican” Recipe: Classic Guacamole

“Love is an attempt at penetrating another human being, but it can only succeed if the surrender is mutual.” Octavio Paz

2/2/2020 is a palindrome, which I learned today years old. It means a word, phrase or sequence that reads the same backward as forward. Auspicious! It won’t happen again for like a thousand years. So tickled this phenomenon is occurring during the same year as my blog. It is also the month we will explore one of Abby’s and my favorite ethnic cuisines. Mexican! This cookbook, gifted to me by my son Sean, is written by Roberto Santibanez, a native of Mexico City and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He is the chef/owner of Fonda, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. His book specializes in the sauces: salsas, guacamoles, adobos, moles and pipianes. My goal is to savor each one of these recipes I create and share them with whomever’s love for Mexican food is as mutual as Abby’s was and still is for me.

The secret to a great guacamole is in the chili paste. Most of us just throw in chopped onion and cilantro. However, creating a paste of these ingredients FIRST enables the tasty concoction to cling to the avocado for maximum flavor. I read it’s best to use a porous mortar and pestle (molcajete and tejolote) but Roberto agrees that it’s fine to mince and mash with a large knife and fork. Also, traditional guacamole is meant to be chunky, not smooth.

Abby in Isla Mujeres

Ingredients: 2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion, 1 tablespoon minced fresh serrano or jalapeno chile (more or less depending on your desire for heat), 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt of 1/4 teaspoon ofsea salt, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro divided, 1 large or 2 small Mexican Hass avocados, squeeze of lime.

1.Mash the onion, chile, salt and half of the cilantro into a paste in a molcajete (traditional Mexican mortar and pestle). You can also use a large knife and fork together on a cutting board and then transfer the paste to a bowl.

2. Remove the avocado pit. Score the flesh in the avocado halves in a crosshatch pattern although not through the skin with a knife and scoop into a bowl. Toss well and add the rest of the cilantro and paste and coarsely mash with a fork. Season to taste with salt or lime. Serve with corn tortilla chips. YUM! Never gets old! NEVER!!

Month of January: “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” Recipe: Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup

“I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life.” Arthur Miller

Lately, I’ve been obsessing over the idea of wasted/wasting life and what it means to me personally. Abby’s death was the impetus behind this uncontrollable driving force I now find myself in. I wake up each day with a gnawing sense of urgency. Nothing seems more critical to me now than making the remainder of my days meaningful to me. Nothing seems more essential than getting clear as to what I want to be doing. Each day I open my eyes for the first time is an opportunity to get closer to figuring it out.

Waste is unavoidable, I get that. I have to spend time working, pumping gas, paying bills, grocery shopping, washing dishes and all those monotonous activities of daily life. There are chunks of time that are forgettable in my memory because they were nothing more than routine and each one blends into the next. This is the human condition, so what?

What makes this feel different is the new understanding I have of myself. Even though I rebelled, being an individual was not celebrated in my early life. Emotional separation was threatening to my mother and its effect has come bump, bump, bumping along everywhere I traveled. It affected every decision and choice I made along the way. It caused me to be careless with the preciousness of time because I wasn’t only not fully aware of my inner voice, I was also not connected to it. Somehow other people’s energies always threw me off course in a game of swirl and reaction. Now I see things as they truly were and I am ready to break loose and explore this new frontier.

So in the spirit of being aware of waste, I dug not only deep into my inner world, I also dug deep into my refrigerator, freezer and pantry. I found a green cabbage patiently waiting for me as well as stock and arborio rice. I took those things and instead of letting the cabbage rot and the stock freezer burn and the rice grow stale…I transformed them into a glorious Venetian soup!

Ingredients: cabbage, meat or beef or vegetable stock, arborio rice, onion, garlic, olive oil, butter, parmigianno-reggiano grated cheese, salt, freshly ground pepper.

  1. Make the smothered (called Venetian style) cabbage. Finely shred the cabbage, do not use the core. Heat on medium heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a saute pan and add 1/2 cup chopped onion and saute until golden. Add 1 tablespoon minced garlic and give a quick stir. Add the cabbage and stir to coat, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add 1 tablespoon of wine vinegar and stir until nicely coated with the oil. Cover with a tight sealing lid and allow to cook on low heat for 1.5 hours. The cabbage will caramelize into sweetness.
  2. Heat 3 cups of meat stock or beef stock or whatever stock you like. Bring to a boil. Add 2/3 cup Arborio rice and cook with lid off for about 20 minutes. When rice is done, add the cabbage and stir well. Before turning off heat, add 2 tablespoons of butter and 1/3 cup of parmigianno-reggiano cheese and stir. Taste and re-season. Ladle into bowls.

Month of January: “Essentials of Italian Cooking” Recipe: Polenta cake with raisins, dried fig and pine nuts

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver

Today is my birthday. January 29th. For some strange reason everything today has gone awry. WordPress is posting that it’s January 30th and I can’t seem to figure out why? It is not January 30th!!! I wanted to make a dessert from this cookbook instead of my never fail favorite coconut layer cake with custard cream and meringue frosting. I drove to 3 stores to get the ingredients for this endeavor. Trader Joe’s always has pine nuts and I mean ALWAYS but not today. The co-op parking lot never is full at 10 am, even on a weekend, but on this particular morn, there was nowhere to park. They always have cornmeal but none when I went looking for it. Can I just say that trying to make this cake for my birthday has been a very weird experience from beginning to end? It’s like this cake just did not want to be made. And now I know why. It just sucked as a birthday cake. Should have made the coconut. Live and learn. Live and learn.

Month of January: “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: Recipe: Risotto with mushroom

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” W.B. Yeats

Patience has never been one of my virtues. I have been told this more than once. Risotto takes patience. Unlike basmati rice or any other grain where water is added to the pot and is left to simmer quietly on its own; risotto requires attention and action. A small amount of hot liquid is stirred into the risotto until the liquid evaporates. Then more is added in stages until it becomes tender and creamy. It’s one of those things, like a pudding where you just have to commit to stirring, stirring and more stirring.

My grief for Abby these days is kind of like cooking grains. Some days it quietly simmers and some days it needs stirring. Regardless, it is still quite present within this vessel and tonight I am impatient with it. I wonder how long this will be? Damn it’s been going on for a long time!! I feel lonely for her voice so many days. Still wanting to pick up the phone and call or shoot an email, anxiously waiting to not only share my inner world but to hear hers. Now all I hear is silence and the most annoying ringing in my ear.

It’s January, it’s dark, it’s cold and the inner landscape is ripe for this kind of stirring, stirring, stirring. Deep breath, deep breath. “Be patient Rebecca, be patient. You are sharpening your senses.”

Ingredients: 5 cups basic homemade meat broth or 1 cup canned beef broth diluted with 4 cups of water, 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion, 2 cups Arborio rice, 1 ounce of dried porcini mushrooms or small amount of fresh (I used shitake), black pepper, 1/3 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, salt.

  1. Bring broth to a simmer in a pan.
  2. Put tablespoon of butter and chopped onion into a broad sturdy pot and turn on heat to medium high. Cook and stir the onion until it becomes translucent, then add the rice. Stir quickly until the grains are coated well.
  3. Add 1/2 cup of simmering broth and cook, stirring constantly until all the liquid evaporates. Keep doing this 1/2 cup at a time for 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms. Stir. Keep adding the liquid 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until all the liquid evaporates. It should take about 20 minutes. Taste the rice. It should be tender but firm. When finished, add few grindings of black pepper, another tablespoon of butter and the cheese. Stir to mix well, taste for salt. Add to a platter and serve with additional cheese on the side and minced parsley.

Month of January: “Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” Recipe: Potato Gnocchi and Tomato Sauce with Onion

“The explanation is that I consider cooking to be an act of love. I do enjoy the craft of cooking, of course, otherwise I would not have done so much of it, but that is a very small part of the pleasure it brings me. What I love is to cook for someone. To put a freshly made meal on the table, even if it is something very plain and simple as long as it tastes good and is not a ready-to-eat something bought at the store, is a sincere expression of affection, it is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart. And while other passions in your life may at some point begin to bank their fires, the shared happiness of good homemade food can last as long as we do.”
― Marcella Hazen

This quote sums up the biggest gift my family of origin gave me that I treasure to this day. Cooking and baking was an act of love. For this I am eternally grateful and daily satisfied (as well as everyone who lives with me.)

Potato Gnocchi

Ingredients: 1.5 pounds boiling potatoes, 1.5 cups all purpose flour

Boil potatoes in their skins in a large pot of water until tender. Remove, cool and peel. Puree through a food mill into a pile on your working space. Add flour and work the flour into the potato until soft and smooth but slightly sticky. Flour work space, cut dough in half and form into 1 inch snakes with your hands while rolling the dough back and forth. Cut into 3/4 inch pieces. Here is the trickiest part; shaping the gnocchi. For this I am just going to advise you to watch a video online. It’s just too hard to explain! Boil at least 4-6 quarts of water, add salt and then throw in 2-3 gnocchi to test. Once they float to the top it takes about 10-15 seconds to cook. Drain with slotted spoon to a bowl and continue until completed. (I won’t kid you gnocchis are tricky but I am quite pleased with my first try!!)

Tomato Sauce with Onion

Ingredients: 2 cups Italian plum tomatoes with juices, 1/2 onion, peeled and cut in half, 5 tablespoons of butter.

Put all ingredients in a pan and cook for 45 minutes on a low simmer. Discard onion after cooking and add salt to taste. I used the food mill and my home made canned tomatoes to make a smoother sauce. It was easy and delicious.

Add parmesan cheese and be prepared for a lotta love.

5 generations

Month of January: “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” Recipe: Minestrone alla Romagnola

“Our doubts are traitors.” William Shakespeare

Last night as the meat broth was chilling and forming a rising layer of fat, I learned something vitally important about my relationship with my mother. I realized that in order for her to keep me perpetually emotionally close (out of her own fear of being alone), she baked me with self doubt….for as far back as I can remember. How my brain responded to that was with confusion, anger, anxiety and panic. Empathy for her early injuries kept me in the ring. Her pain somehow seemed greater and more tragic than mine, her losses unthinkable. However, at some point it became necessary (the grief of Abby’s death?) to choose an authentic life of my own. I needed to distance myself from my parents’ stories and look deeply at my own. It’s not just feeling the feels but recognizing and labeling the dance between us so that I can unlearn the learned reactions into a response that works for me. It really is like walking on a razor’s edge. To understand my reality has been to straddle ambiguity.

KA-BOOM!!!!

“Doubt can only be removed by action.” Goethe

Ingredients: 1 pound zucchini, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons butter, 1 cup onion thinly sliced, 1 cup diced carrots, 1 cup diced celery, 2 cups peeled and diced potatoes, 1/4 pound diced fresh green beans, 3 cups shredded cabbage, 1.5 cups cannellini beans, 6 cups homemade meat broth, 2/3 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes with juice, salt, 1/3 cup parmigianno-reggiano cheese

Soak the zucchini in a large bowl of cold water for at least 20 minutes and then rinse clean. Apparently zucchini is thin skinned and soil easily penetrates it. Trim both ends and dice. Put butter and oil in a large stockpot and heat to medium low. Cook onion until pale gold. Add the diced carrots and cook 2 minutes. Then add celery and cook for another 2 minutes. Add potatoes and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the green beans, cook 2 minutes, add the zucchini, cook for a few minutes, add shredded cabbage and cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the broth and tomatoes and salt and cook at a slow steady simmer for 2.5 hours. Lastly add cannellini beans and cook for another half hour. The soup should be fairly dense, never thin and watery. When the soup is done, just before you turn off the heat, swirl in grated cheese and taste for salt.