Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Thin Place


This season of Halloween is said to be the time when the skin between worlds is thin and sensitive souls just might be segueing and sashaying back and forth over the line. It really is the new year to us northerners, should be thanksgiving, with harvest in and lots of food that needs to be eaten – to fatten up before the long winter fast. That thin place between the worlds lasts for awhile, at least until the winter solstice – there’s no more beautiful and spooky light than that of December when the sun is low over the guts of the universe.

...while the ghouls come...

I may have been testing that thin space between the worlds when I foolishly made tortillas in black bean sauce – or enfrijoladas – on Friday evening, starting them before the small monsters started knocking on the door and finishing them up after the bulk of them had visited and I’d turned out the porch light and blown out the candle in the pumpkin.
There was one perfect little spook who came in and hovered over the candy bowl until suddenly he fell to his knees and then rocked back onto his butt. “Oh no, honey,” I said, “you don’t have to worship it, just stand up and take what you want. Maybe an apple?”
“Got to poop,” the little spook said. In scant moments I had his costume off – thank god his father was standing right there – and said, “there, Daddy will take you right through there to the bathroom.” I’m trying to think then, what’s in the bathroom, loose, waiting to frighten a little guy who was overwhelmed already by the occasion. After a long time, they came out, and I gave him a lollypop that a friend had made. He grabbed it gratefully, took a bite of the soft thing, and spat it out on the hearth.
Halloween can be a trial for some of us.

...local mexican...

The worst thing about Mexican cooking is the scrim of grease that covers everything afterward – of lard if you have your authenticity and taste wits about you, or of canola if you prefer manmade crankcase oil to healthy animal fat. You wonder how the fastidious Dame Diana Kennedy – whose recipe this is – could stand having her beautiful Mexican kitchen all scummed up with grease, but her housemaid probably didn’t mind cleaning it. I don’t have one, though, and Leo was home with every flu symptom possible and touchy as a bear with an ingrown toenail. I felt like slinging the comal through the ventana.

The Tortillas in Bean Sauce – “enfrijoladas means,” says Dame Diana, “that the tortillas are immersed in a puree of beans,” but I say they are actually a kind of enchilada – were worth it, though. I wolfed them down, while Leo was merely satiated. Too bad for him!

You know, I love Mexican food but I guess it was the technique of it that made it so hard for me to follow Dame Diana’s or Rick Bayless’ recipes, as well as the terminology. That’s why Peter McGann’s Mexican cooking classes at the Co-op were invaluable. Once I saw him fry the tortillas lightly, then slide them through the sauce and fold them into enchiladas, my world of Mexican cooking brightened, as though that scrim of lard had been scrubbed off.

In “The Tortilla Book” Dame Diana explains how to make a tortilla, of course, that flat circle of yellow or white, limestone-slaked, ground corn that is the flatbread underpinning of so much of Mexican food, though most of us will buy them frozen. For those of you who are as ignorant as I was of what is meant by the various forms of tortilla, here is a short synthesis. Quotes are Lady Diana’s.

When a tortilla is “fried almost crisp and piled high with lots of shredded meat, lettuce, cheese, or whatever you have around,” it’s called a tostada. It’s like a little plate – you lift it up and eat it, and that’s why you don’t want it too crisp, or you’ll be eating the filling out of your hand. A taco, in Mexico, is a “fresh, hot tortilla rolled around some shredded meat or mashed beans and liberally doused with any one of the endless variety of sauces for which Mexico is justly famed.” Our frozen ones must be defrosted and fried gently and briefly to soften them before rolling. Or steamed.

Tortillas are sometimes cut into strips, fried almost crisp, and put into soups, or ground up when stale and formed into balls to make dumplings, after which you may call them gordas – little fat balls – kind of like my little Halloween guy. Dry soups are made by stacking tortillas and cheese and other fillings in layers in a casserole, covering with broth and baking. Chilaquiles are, in their simplest form, stale tortillas cut into wedges and cooked in a picante sauce. Sometimes served with breakfast eggs (literally, chilaquile means broken-up old sombrero). A Quesadilla is a simple snack made by folding a fresh (or flexible) tortilla around a simple filling – cheddar cheese, for instance – and griddling or frying until golden. Chalupa means “small canoe,” an oval tortilla pinched up to make a boat and filled, then fried. An enchilada is a tortilla wilted in hot fat, dipped into a cooked sauce, filled and rolled – sometimes they’re dipped into the sauce and then fried.
Dame Diana does not extend herself to explain burritos, perhaps because, as WIKI says, they’re made from a flour tortilla, not corn, that is rolled around a filling.”

But that, in a nutshell, is the simple explanation of what these things are.

For these enfrijoladas you may look on page 34 of Dame Diana’s The Art of Mexican Cooking for the original recipe, but here is my version. You’ll need 4 to 6 tortillas per person, the black bean sauce, and for garnish some shredded cheese such as Jack, Cheddar, or Feta, chopped onion, and chopped cilantro.
Take the tortillas
out of the freezer and lay them out on a towel or the counter in a single thickness to let them thaw while you make the black bean sauce.

I had already cooked up a vast batch of dried black beans, but you could use canned. Mine were not old beans, and they were Vermont-grown, so I did as Lady Diana suggested, cooked them without soaking, and without any additions except plenty of water to cover. They took about an hour to cook. I added a good amount of salt – to taste – towards the end, then let them cool in the liquid before I packed what I wouldn’t use immediately in quart freezer bags and froze them.

To make the black bean sauce, melt 1/3 cup of lard (or a gasp, gag, tasteless vegetable oil) in a large heavy frying pan, preferably with rather high sides to contain splatters. When that’s hot, add all at once 3 cups of black beans and their cooking liquid. Begin to mash the beans with a potato masher or mallet or any heavy, broad, flat utensil. Think Brick here. If you lack that utensil you may put the beans and liquid into the blender and chop them before adding to the hot fat, but you won’t get the nice bean texture that way. Cook the beans over medium heat, scraping the bottom so they don’t burn, and mashing as you go. In the meantime, chop half a white onion, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, a handful of cilantro (add a stem or two of epazote if you can get it. I can’t, and dearly want it – hint, hint), and a small hot pepper out of which you’ve scraped the seeds and membrane. I used a dried Serrano from the intense crop I grew this summer, and Dame Diana uses chiles de arbol, which I did not have. Stir this chopped mixture into the beans, and continue to cook, stir, scrape, and mash until the mixture is becoming quite dry. Add enough water, maybe a cup, maybe two, to make the mixture saucy enough to be able to dip the tortillas into it and have it coat them. Taste for salt and remedy. Turn the heat very low while you fry the tortillas.

Bring enough lard or oil to hot but not boiling in another frying pan – a medium heat will do well. If it’s too hot the tortillas will crisp, which doesn’t work, and if it’s not hot enough they’ll get soggy with grease. Fry the tortillas one by one for a few seconds on each side, until cooked but not at all crisp – indeed, they should be as flabby as one of those rubber things you use to take off bottle caps – using a wide slotted spatula to turn them, then let them drain on paper towels or a newspaper while you fry the rest.

One by one, drag the tortillas gently through the hot sauce, or place one on top of the sauce, smudge it around a bit, spoon some sauce on the top side and smear that around, and when the tortilla is nicely coated, fold in half and then half again, and place on a plate or a wide soup bowl, garnish, and serve. With a fork. Delicious. Sumptuous. Earthy. Greasy – I’m still Orange-Plussing my kitchen.

Dame Diana also calls for “a small bunch of tender avocado leaves,” which are not a local delicacy. Good luck. Perhaps if I get to somewhere they DO grow this winter, I’ll try Dame Diana’s original recipe. Loca-Voca-Do! Then I couldn’t resist using slices of avocado in the garnish!

...book party...

My friend Betty Ann Lockhart will be at Annie’s Book Stop on November 15th , at 1PM, to introduce her new book, Sugarin’ in Vermont: A Sweet History. Betty Ann’s a maple sugar sweetie, an excellent story-teller, and no-one but no-one knows what that woman knows about sugaring, its history, its sweet offspring, and its perpetrators. She was one of my sleuthing partners when I wrote about sugaring season in one of my first Twice Bittens, and helped me track down the origin of the concoction known as Maple Syrup Grandfather, or Grandperes au Sirop d’Erable. Looks like an early trip to the Winter Farmers’ Market that day, and then a stop at Annie’s!

...oh, that winter farmers’ market...

Last Saturday was the first day of the indoor market back behind the Co-op, and the place was as medieval-festive as ever. More so, in fact, because the vendors have more confidence that this is a done-deal this year and have really spiffed up their booths. There are a few new vendors – notably, we want to welcome Sarah Seward who offered a potpourri of small quiches and Cinderella pumpkins and apple pies and the absolutely best scones I have ever had the pleasure of putting my tongue to. Flaky, crumbly, handmade Maple/walnut fudge! She was there one Saturday last winter, but she says she’ll be a permanent fixture this year. The Kilpatrick brothers are back with an incredible array of vegetables – they have a fascinating story behind them that I’ll have to delve into to tell you one day. On the Edge Farm is back this winter, with assorted meats and the occasional small batch of, say, a sour cherry jam made with a little almond flavoring, that’s offered for as long as it lasts, maybe only one market day. This week I bought their Chinese spiced sausage. Lovely subtle tastes.

Many of our best summer market vendors are there – Paul Horton with his gorgeous greens and root crops – prettiest carrots I’ve ever seen, and sweet fall parsnips; Greg Cox, the genius behind the winter market, with produce, and chickens, et al – when it comes to spinach Paul and Greg will have to duke it out, or we all just have to buy from both. What a luxury.

Ann Tiplady from Red Houses Farm is there with beef and mutton, some of the best I’ve ever had. The wine guy, Ray Knutsen, is there, offering his delicious tasting-tipples of his Montcalm Reisling, as well as bottles of that and a very nice red, and a new rose. The folks from Consider Bardwell and Blue Ledge Farm segued between worlds with their magnificent goat cheeses.

Dutchess Farm will be joining us with their excellent produce soon (and to join in the spinach joust), as will Charlie Brown with his apples and cider. Pour la nonce – during fine weather, which Saturday was, sunny but chill – they continue to set up at Depot Park with a few other vendors.
The Winter Farmers’ Market. So fabulous it’s almost spooky!

...choice between two worlds...

I’ve been ignoring this fact as well as I can, but the day this column appears is election day – talk about thin places. If we are treated, hopefully not transiently, to a person, or persons who can talk intelligently and get things done and unite us, a smart human person who doesn’t rely on the politics of fear or bullying, but of reason, it will prove to be a thin place between that and the eight years of big lies and raping the American citizenry that preceded it. I have my fingers crossed, and I’m sure you do, too! And of course I know YOU will vote!

I’m indebted for the title to this column to Kathryn Davis who wrote an incredible novel entitled The Thin Place.
Twice Bitten columns are archived at www.thriceshy.blogspot.com Thanks for your comments and questions, emails and calls. They reach me at the Rutland Herald, P.O. Box 668, Rutland, 05702 or by email at snimtz@gmail.com
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