Thursday, September 10, 2015

Red or Green?

The Boeing 737 slipped out from towering columns of cumulus clouds revealing an almost verdant desert floor.  Mesas and arroyos both were dotted with a spotty green mat that resembled a 'ChiaPet-landscape.'  Unusually constant rainfall this summer affected a lushness not seen in decades.
'New Mexico?' I thought to myself, 'I got on the right plane, didn't I?'

The only thing I ever recall being really green on a regular, seasonal basis in the Land of Enchantment were the chile pods grown from Santa Fe to Las Cruces with names like Big Jim, Sandia and Anaheim.

It had been 25 years since my last visit and the occasion of a first ever high school reunion had me excited to see old friends.  Truth be told, there was some apprehension, anticipation, nervousness and a dose of good old self-doubt.  Travelling into a time-warp is a little scary and three questions haunted me for months ahead of time:

  • How have I changed?
  • How have they changed?
  • Will we still like to be around each other?  
Granted, some of us are a few pounds heavier and greying certainly, but, what about those other friends: plates of enchiladas and huevos rancheros; have they stood the test of time or have they 'evolved' as well...?

The plane's wheels chirped as we touched down and the engines revved as the brakes were applied.
'Red or Green chile,' I pondered, 'What will be my first meal with New Mexico Chile?...will it taste as good as I remember...?'

Food and meals have this spiritual quality about them; our olfactory, the sense of smell and taste, have this unique ability to bring us to a particular spot, a specific instant in time with just a fleeting taste or wisp of aroma. With one bite, we are at a friends house, grandma's table or with a romantic interest.

New Mexico chile at my first Christmas party after moving from California in high school, is in a pot on a back burner at Jean Brackett's house.  She worked for my uncle in the turquoise jewelry business and had our family over one dark, December night.  Her posole was made with red chile, roast pork and hominy corn.  It was brothy and had a thin layer of fat that came together and receded with every slow bubble popping on a delicate simmer.  A ladle hung in the pot and a stack of bowls resided nearby.  This thin stew possessed a rich, mild heat.  The corn was tender and the chunks of pork fell apart with the slightest pressure.  It was perfect and I was hooked!

In college at NMSU in Las Cruces, weekend mornings started late, but, usually consisted of huevos rancheros or stacked enchiladas at some local diner.  Lightly fried corn tortillas were dipped in red chile sauce and layered flat with rice, beans, cheese and either beef or chicken.  Two over easy eggs crowned this feat.  If this didn't cure what ailed you, nothing could save you.  My buddy Ralph, a local Messkin, would pump his folded arm like a chicken and give out a crow when he finished, indicating he was cured and good to go.

The memories and people associated with chile are as vivid today as they were 25 or 35 years ago. My hope was that both people and New Mexico Chile would welcome me and satisfy me as in the past.

"Red or Green?" the lady asked me, as for the type of chile I wanted with my Huevos Rancheros.

"Green,"  I stated with confidence and finality, snapping my menu shut and handing it to her.
High school football buddies, Clark and Dave, took me to this nondescript breakfast hang-out in one of a ga-jillion strip malls to ward off the effects of another night of 2 a.m. bedtimes.

The waitress had high cheek bones and a round, smiling face; her long cheeks crowded her eyes and mouth; pueblo Indian for sure, I thought.  Her name was 'Jana' which was the clincher, since no local Latino would name their child after a white movie star or film character.  Jana must be either Zia, Cochiti or Santo Domingo pueblo Indian, the closest reservations to this part of town.  Regardless, she was as sweet as honey on a fresh sopaipilla, the airy, fried dough pillows served with every meal in New Mexico.   

"Red or Green?" she asked again

"Green," called my buddy Clark for his Huevos Rancheros, slipping his reading glasses off his nose to hang on the fine cord around his neck and onto his chest.  Clark pushed back from the table, crossed his arms and settled back into his seat, ready for another conversation thread.
Clark and I knocked heads at opposing positions in football for three years, yet, remained best of friends.  We drank beer, chased girls, double-dated, shaved our heads one football season in solidarity and even worked the oil rigs of Oklahoma together.  He filmed our wedding in 1990 and that was the last we saw of each other.  A damned shame that will not be repeated.

"Red or Green?" was asked one more time for Huevos Rancheros.

"Red and Green," said Dave

Whoa, whoa, WHOA, I thought to myself.  Has this boy learned something we don't know?  Has Dave entered the cauldron of a volcano and been divined some secret knowledge?  The word is "or" not "and."  Like all great discoverers, he had gone against convention and charted new culinary territory.  Good on ye!

"OK, Christmas for you and Green for you two then?" asked Jana, confirming our order.

"Yep!" in unison.

Our breakfast arrived in little time and I just sat there taking it all in.
"Yes, yes, yes," I thought, "...this is the other reason I came here.  To immerse myself in the healing properties of New Mexico Chile...washing away my sins of ever leaving and entering the domaine of the divine."
I took great care in cutting up my dish, piece by succulent piece, one at a time, arranging it on my cheap, diner fork and consuming every last morsel, every last grain of rice and every diced piece of roasted green chile.

I was cured, sated and at peace with the cosmos.

"Red or Green?"

It's a phrase that can immediately identify you as having spent at least one year living in New Mexico.  Those three words put you in a time and place; "you've been there and know what I'm talkin' about!"  Chile is not just a vegetable or condiment for a forgotten southwestern state, it is a way of life.  It defines who you are and where you come from.  "CHEE-lay" is what the locals have called it for 400 years.  It brings heat to winter pork or chicken stews.  Chile is what you smell on street corners rotating in cylindrical Bingo baskets in September and October with propane burners charring the outer skins.  Dumped into paper grocery bags, it surpasses the best of any car-freshener for the drive home.

"Red or Green?"

The words invite you to join together with friends over a great meal without care for TV shows, phones, social media or the latest anything.
New Mexico Chile puts us in a space: a time and place without a clock, only each other and the love between us.

New Mexico Green Chile Stew: serves 12

3 lbs.    Pork Shoulder, boneless (Butt), 1" cubes
1/2 C.   Cooking oil
2           Onions, cut to fork sized pieces
2 ribs    Celery ribs, diced
2 Tbls   Garlic, diced
1 Tbls   Oregano, Mexican (if available, regular if not)
4 Qts.    Chicken stock, water if stock isn't available
10          Red potatoes, the size of the palm of your hand, cut fork sized
6 pods   Green chiles, roasted, peeled and diced (to your heat liking)
to taste  Salt

In a cast iron skillet (go to a thrift store or yard sale and buy a Wagner or Griswold, it has soul!), saute' the pork cubes in canola oil.  It will render more fat, so, that's a good thing.  Once crispy, place meat in a 8 qt. stock pot as you go.  Once all the meat is seared, saute' the onions and celery in the cast iron.  When the onions are transparent, add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes or so.  Get a little color on the garlic. Then, dump the veggies in the pot. Scrape the cast iron with a whisk and a cup of water to get all the yummy bits and add to the pot. If you don't, an old French chef will arise from his grave and haunt you for all eternity!  Add oregano and stock/water; bring to a boil.  Add potatoes and green chiles, bring back to a boil, cover, and reduce to a simmer.  Give it three hours for the pork to become super tender.  No need to agitate the stew as the potatoes will break down and turn to mush. Not good.  Add salt as you like; start with about 2 Tbls to get going then, tweek it to your taste.
When ready, serve with a chunk of stout bread and a weekend football game with people that you genuinely care for.  Don't waste it on wimps; this is too good for 'boneless, skinless, chicken breast only' people.  Is this better the next day...?  Hay-uhlll yeah!

Lastly, I want to thank the many people who were huge pieces of my life as a teenager in Albuquerque. Their affection, admiration, companionship, humor and friendship are as vivid today as it was 36 years ago.  We have lived entire lives separately, raising families in far off communities, but, there remains a core of friendship that has been re-discovered.  It is a font to which I hope we can return. The Gang is still as solid as ever.

I love you all: Karin, Annie, Kate, Shelly, Pat, Clark, Dave, Scott, Kim, Jeff,
And to all the spouses:  Thanks for the Hall Pass.
Seeing you made my summer, no my year, no, my whatever!

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"


Monday, June 29, 2015

Ground Pork and Making Adjustments

"Ground beef is FOUR DOLLARS a POUND!" exclaimed my Loverlu as she crossed the front door threshold, plastic bags of groceries tugging on both arms in vain attempts to dislocate her shoulders.

"D'ya believe it?!  Never thought I'd see the day when buck-eighty-nine beef broke the 3-dollar barrier, let alone four bucks!  This is messed-UP!  I mean seriously, it's 75%/25% ground what-EVER meat!"  She let out a huff at the kitchen table, dropped her bags and called for the boys to porter the goods from the minivan to the kitchen counter.

My girl loves few things more than provisioning the household, but, there are days when I pray for a good deal.  Beef prices have been a sore spot for the last 6 months-plus.  Good golly, cuts that were for slow-cooking and cheap, now command a premium price.  WTF (why the face)?!  The premium cuts like ribeye, NY, and filet are laughable.  And I'll be go-to-hell if I pay over ten bucks a pound for a steak.  That just ain't right, it ain't flippin' right.


...what is more affordable?  What does provide good value for your protein dollar?  It must've been a 90's ad campaign that coined the phrase:

"Pork, the Other White Meat!"

Lisa had picked up a boneless pork shoulder (about 8 lbs) for less than $2.00 per pound and we cut it up into two-pound pieces for freezing.  One piece was left out for Dad to run through the grinder for a pasta dish ($4 in meat).  I saute'd the meat, onions, celery and fresh minced garlic (get the fresh heads or already peeled cloves) in, yes, left-over bacon fat.  If you wanna see young men act like flies in the kitchen, do this.  Seriously, they resurrect from their basement catacombs as aromas somehow waft downward.  The aromas carry outside as well from our hood fan.  Rhonda, the lady next-door in a motorized wheelchair was watering her yard when I ducked out for just a second to empty the kitchen garbage can.

"Dennis, I don't know what Lisa is cooking, but, it smells real good!"  She had a garden hose in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
"You know, she is very talented.  You're a lucky man..." she continued as she re-oriented her HoverRound to spray another patch of grass.

Rhonda has called me Dennis since she moved in about four years ago.  We never wanted to embarrass her, so, we let it go.  When Walt, the retired hippy across the street who won't mow his grass because it might kill honey bees, tried to correct her, we told her 'Dennis' was my middle name and that only "close family and folks from church" call me 'Dennis.'  That made her happy knowing that she was part of a pseudo-Catholic secret, like the Knights Templar or Opus Dei.

Anyhoo, so upon return,  I bumped the ground pork, onions, celery and garlic with a splash of balsamic vinegar, reduced it, and slugged it with canned tomatoes/puree'.  From there, I added a couple tablespoons of Italian seasonings and of course, 2 tablespoons of ground, toasted fennel seeds.

Lisa had Liam's 'Bullet Blender' out and was processing some fresh basil.
"What the Hell ya doin', babe?" I asked her.

"If we garnish with fresh basil, Siobhan won't eat it.  She's going through that phase of 'No Green Stuff."

"Mother o' Jesus," I said, "The same basil she planted with you, she won't eat.  Fer the luv o' Mike!"

No sooner than Lisa's basil puree was ready, so too were the pasta shells.  She combined the meat sauce with the basil, tossed it with the pasta and 'POOF!", dinner was ready.

We sat outside with a MicroPlane grater and a chunk of Romano Pecorino at the center of the table.

A blessing was said.

If you're ever feeling down about your cooking, invite a herd of young men to your home for dinner. You can keep the girls. Teen aged girls are a pain in the arse that will not talk about food until you leave.  Usually, it's not complimentary and they tend to critique, unable to enjoy the moment.  Go figure.

Boys love food and wax profane about really good food.  Lisa and I said, 'Thank You' as much as we said, 'Watch your language, watch your language.'

As market prices of beef and chicken soar, look around at what is available and how you can use it.

Flexibility is key in shopping, cooking and friendships.  Just don't call me 'Dennis.'

Pasta with Meat Sauce and Goodness:  Serves 8.

Ground Pork.......2 lbs
Onion, diced.......2 C.
Celery, diced.......1 C.
Garlic, minced.....1/4 C.
Oil, whatever........1/2 C.
Balsamic Vinegar..1/2 C.
Basil, fresh............1 bunch, blasted with oil in the processor for a paste
Italian Seasoning..2T
Toasted Fennel......2T
Tomato Puree'.......2 qts. taste
Pasta.....................2 lbs.

Break up ground pork and saute' in oil on MH (medium-high) heat.  When meat is cooked, add onions, celery and garlic.  Cook till onions are transparent.  Add balsamic, Italian seasoning and ground toasted fennel seeds.  When vinegar is reduced by half, add tomato product, fresh basil puree', bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
Cook 2 pounds of pasta and figure on left overs.  Combine pasta with sauce and serve with generous amounts of Pecorino cheese.  Keep the grater and cheese on the table; everyone LOVES to do their own!

Take care, God bless and remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends, 
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Young Men and Skirts

I've always been a fan of skirts.  Gosh, it must've been early childhood that I really took notice of the allure and versatility of a nice skirt.  It could go anywhere, wasn't expensive and impressed everyone that came in contact with it!

Wait a second, I'm not talking about a 'Bruce/Caitlin Jenner' experience, I'm referring to a delectable cut of meat known as the diaphragm muscle used in carne asada or to most of us, the skirt steak.
My dad introduced it to us as kids when he would throw it on the grill, char the outside and leave the interior a still cool, pulsating red.  Since it is a cut with a distinctive grain to it, improper orientation of the slicing resulted in a fatigue of jaw muscles and frustration for an 8 year old boy.

The flavor was great, but, hells bells, I couldn't chew the bloody thing!  Making matters worse, when Mom would ask for the meat to be cooked to a more done temperature, we were brow-beaten into a medium rare.
"Men eat their meat rare!" he would bellow.  Yeah, CAVE-men, I thought.  If you can't chew it, you can't swallow it.  If you can't swallow it, either you choke in a futile attempt to follow orders or you spit it into your napkin and nest it in your lap for a dump into the garbage.

I went for the napkin route and found great success until I was discovered and told to eat what I had dumped.
Not fun and a pointless exercise that diminished my enjoyment of grilled meat.

Flash forward 45 years...

"Hey, old man, wazz cookin', brazh?!"  It was Liam just in from a run and sniffing around my 16" saute' pan on the back deck.  Had the crab boiler burner hooked up and sliced onions were doing somersaults in a blend of canola oil and bacon fat; colors turning from opaque to transparent and finally a sweet, caramel brown.
"So, what's on the menu?" he asked, sweat dripping down his nose and into the onions as he hovered over the pan inhaling the savory vapors.

"Skirt steaks, saute'd onions, pico de gallo, avocados and choice of tortillas," I followed, taking a deserved draw from a pint of IPA, "I think you're gonna like it."

"Hell YEEAHH!" he puffed, "Ima take a shower, back in 10," he said and off he went.

Once Brendan and Liam were up, each was tasked with several duties and the outside table was set in no-time.  I like to put each prepared item on a nice dish for outside meals using painted Mexican earthenware, Italian DeLucca and a catering piece or two.  Brendan had pint glasses with water and ice poured, a glass of white wine for Mom and lemonade for Siobhan.

A blessing was said.

I cut the skirt steaks into 3-4 inch lengths for the saute' pan, knowing that they will be sliced against the grain for consumption.  To do so otherwise is to condemn your guests to a chewing workout and possible TMJ lawsuit.

"We need one of those things that spins," offered Liam, "you know, like in the Chinese restaurants."
"Yeah," Brendan chimed, "it makes it look fancy and we don't have to keep asking each other to pass stuff around..."  Brendan is at the 17 year old boy 'eat everything in sight' stage.

"Excellent...this is flippin' sweeet, Dad!"  Liam had juices running from his wrist to his elbow as each over-filled tortilla ran remnant juices towards the table.  Brendan took his time assembling three corn tortillas on his plate, spaced equi-distant from each other with condiments strategically aligned along the diameter for perfect flavor on every, last bite.

"Nice, Pop!" he finally commented, "The meat has almost a liver-y flavor, but, the lime juice cuts the fat well..."

We chatted about school, work and activities, then the girls went inside for reading and a bath.
Brendan, who usually eats and runs, stuck around as Liam was on a roll about everything from a drummer in Modest Mouse to how we should crush ISIS.  We laughed, discussed seriously, then laughed some more: Prom, bands, rock history, high school teachers that were cool, rear brakes on a '95 Acura, firearm ballistics, muzzle loaders and finally girls.

As we were clearing the table and blowing out candles, each of them remarked,
"The meat was great.  Nice job, I love that skirt steak."

Why is it, conversations with men, young and old, always seem to start and finish with "The Skirts?"

 Grilled Skirt Steak  serves 6 (with some left-overs for snacks...boys!)

3 lb.....skirt steaks.  Get the thick ones not the thin ones.  Same prep, more meat.
3 Tbs...Kosher salt
2...........Limes, halved


Each steak can be up to 24" long and 4" wide.  Peel any outer membrane from the steaks if the butcher has not done so already.  Cut into 4" sections for grilling or sauteing.
Sprinkle with salt on both sides and let stand on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes allowing the salt to penetrate and 'juice up.'
Place steaks on a medium grill or in a pan and cook to desired doneness.  They will plump as the protein sets and you can poke them with a knife to relieve the juices and color.  Each steak should take about 15 minutes for medium temperature.
Remove and let stand for 10 minutes before slicing against the grain of the meat.  Squeeze with fresh lime and serve.

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things."