jude’s culinary journey

Hit or miss

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 5/26/22

I like cooking for people. Presenting folks with food is something I have always done. I give a part of myself, an important one, something that is in my heart.

At times I offer food that is a …

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jude’s culinary journey

Hit or miss

Posted

I like cooking for people. Presenting folks with food is something I have always done. I give a part of myself, an important one, something that is in my heart.

At times I offer food that is a comfort because it is known to the recipient. Sometimes I introduce new and unfamiliar flavors that I hope will awaken a spark. And this past winter, while spending five months in Oaxaca, Mexico, I realized that receiving food from others worked both ways for me, sometimes providing comfort, and other times turning out to be alien and a stretch for my taste buds.

My sister Janet and I arrived in Oaxaca in mid-November 2021 and spent time at two hotels during our lengthy stay. In each we had studios complete with kitchens. Each included a full-size fridge and either a two-burner or four-burner stovetop.

Hotel studios are never furnished with an oven, but Janet and I decided to spring for a small toaster oven in case we got a craving for a tuna melt or a small casserole, such as queso fundido (cheese and crumbled chorizo sausage baked until the cheese is bubbling, then scraped into small tortillas, topped with condiments such as salsa and cilantro, then rolled into a cigar shape and scarfed down).

Casa Abuelos is owned by three siblings, all pleasant, friendly and accommodating. Some evenings I would whip up cocktails—which they welcomed—or I’d offer a sampling of a dish I’d cooked. Rosa, the oldest, was the most enthusiastic about my offerings. Though she couldn’t speak English and my Spanish is beyond lousy, she was expressive and often put her fingers to her lips and made a kissing, smacking sound to indicate she thought my gift a delight. Luckily, some Spanish words are close enough to English that I understood perfectly when she announced, “Muy delicioso!” or “Fantastico!”

Rosa generously brought edibles she prepared to me and Janet (as well as some other hotel guests). One was a strange, traditional concoction – a murky-looking “drink” called chilacayote. It is a cold, slightly sweet liquid made of stringy squash and pineapple pulp, usually sweetened with honey and cinnamon. I wasn’t positive if I liked it, but it was refreshing, exotic and different from anything I’d ever tasted.

Another time she made a large batch of chiles rellenos, which are roasted peppers stuffed with cheese or minced meat, coated with an egg batter, rolled in flour, and deep-fried until golden. Poblano peppers are the most commonly used for this dish, but others, such as the more piquante (spicy in Spanish) chile de agua is used as well. Whichever she used, Janet and I were grateful to have brought our portion to our studio to reheat before chowing down because they were so blisteringly hot we couldn’t eat them. I tried scraping out the filling, but even that had been infused with the heat from the chiles.

At an indoor market I frequented, there were many produce vendors alongside stalls selling cuts of beef, pork and chickens, their tabletops stacked with splayed yellow birds waiting to be chopped into pieces. I ordered eight skinless and boneless thighs and watched as the man in the booth quickly and expertly skinned and deboned a growing pile of thigh meat. Back at the hotel I marinated overnight the thighs in soy sauce, hoisin sauce, honey, ginger and garlic. The following day I pan-fried them for our lunch, along with sauteed sweet plantains and a cucumber salad. I brought Rosa a couple of leftover thighs, saying only, “Japanese” and I was shocked when she raved about them. Surely they were unlike anything she had ever eaten. What a pleasure it was to have an enthusiastic and open-minded recipient of my gifts of food.

We moved to Hotel Las Mariposas in mid-February. We had stayed there for part of the year before, during the pandemic, and had grown closer with the staff. I had cooked for them one Saturday, preparing picadillo (spiced ground meat mixed with tomatoes, raisins, capers and olives and eaten over rice or as a filling for tacos) for eight. They were grateful for the change in venue from their usual fare and recognized the spices and familiar flavors, but even after I doubled the amount of chiles they didn’t find the dish particularly piquante. I wondered if they had asbestos tongues.

This time around, rather than provide entrees for eight, which was difficult for me in my makeshift kitchen, I offered side dishes a few times to go along with their comida, or midday meal, eaten around 3:00 pm. For some reason I had become obsessed with making potato salad after seeing tiny, pale gold new potatoes at the produce market. Janet and I don’t particularly like or ever eat potato salad, but I’d tried a sample bestowed upon me by my cousin Marylin and I found it exceptional.

When I handpicked the potatoes and paid for them I neglected to ask how much the bag had weighed and ended up making too much of the creamy, tangy vinaigrette which I dumped over the cooked potatoes without realizing they would be wetter than wanted. I served them to the staff anyway and later asked my friend and the office manager of the hotel what she thought of them. “I’ve never tasted those flavors before and I think the potatoes were a little hard,” she replied honestly. Some of the others thanked me for my effort, but in the past I had more than once been asked for a recipe by a couple of the older staff members, and the request was glaringly missing this time. I later found out from Cristel that in their culture it would be considered rude to admit they had disliked a gift of food, but she understood I wanted the truth.

Next I made a platter of jicama (a slightly sweet, crunchy root vegetable). It’s best served simply, cut into logs and sprinkled with fresh lime juice, sea salt, cracked black pepper and a little chili powder. It’s refreshing and a great side dish for just about anything. This went over well.  

My next faux pas was trying to introduce these people to yet another dish that could not have been further from their imaginations, though the main ingredient was one they were all familiar with, the zucchini-like summer squash called calabaza. But a cold, creamy pureed soup seasoned with curry powder and garnished with slivered, toasted almonds was beyond the pale, though the mother-and-daughter hotel owners, who most likely had more sophisticated palates, adored it.

I was alienating these people I cared for with my weird concoctions and eventually righted my thoughtless attempts at adding diversity to their daily meals. I next presented them with a plate of garlicky sauteed bell and spicy poblano peppers, cooked until charred, then brightened with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a handful of tiny capers. This and a big bowl of pureed black bean dip made with black beans, lime juice, cilantro, pickled jalapenos and spices, served with crisp tortilla chips, were their favorites.

We return to Las Mariposas this coming October and this time will spend our entire six-month stay there. I’ll have the opportunity to redeem myself—to banish soupy potato salad and cold vegetable soup from their memories. I’ll cook Mexican food my way, knowing it has to resemble Mexican food their way, as well.

Black Bean Dip

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced or grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • One 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 cup tightly packed chopped cilantro leaves, plus a couple of leaves for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 teaspoons chopped pickled jalapeno peppers
  • 2 tablespoons crumbled cotija or feta cheese (optional) for garnish

Combine garlic, cumin, oregano, black beans, cilantro, lime juice, jalapenos and salt in the bowl of a small food processor. Add 1/8 to 1/4 cup warm water and puree until smooth. Taste for seasoning. Serve as is, or warm up in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, or heat in a microwave for 30 seconds. Let cool for 5 minutes, then garnish with cilantro leaves and cotija cheese, if using, and serve with tortilla chips.

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