Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Independencia" Dinner: The Conclusion

"Still Life with Parrot and Flag" by Frida Kahlo (1951)

[Note: You can read the first part of this culinary adventure in my previous post.]

When it comes to my memories of "authentic" Mexican cooking, I don't have much to pull on. From my childhood trips to Mexico, I remember mostly delicious homemade soup and restaurant food (including a Christmas Eve dinner of El Pollo Loco).

During the holidays, my mother would sometimes pull out all the stops, slaving over dishes like chiles rellenos with red sauce, bacalao (salted cod), romeritos (a rosemary-like herb) in mole, and flan napolitano. I would invariably reject these dishes (well, except the flan), wishing my Mama would make a roast or ham or some other nice, normal American dish. Now I wish I'd been able to appreciate it more.

We still sometimes do the "traditional" Mexican-American Christmas dishes of tamales and pozole (pork and hominy soup), but time and taste has keep these old-world dishes off the holiday table for years.

So, it was with a real sense of adventure that I embarked on my mole-making quest. I'd rejected the 25-ingredient black mole recipe from Frida's Fiestas, figuring the red mole would be a little more manageable.

A quick note about mole: it is not "Mexican chocolate sauce." Almost all mole recipes are chili-based, with a mish-mash of ingredients that can include a bit of chocolate. This red mole recipe didn't incorporate chocolate at all, instead relying on cinnamon, allspice, and cloves for its spice, and roasted tomatoes and plantain for its base. It also included boiled pork loin, along with some potatoes and masa-based dumplings.

It was a deceptively complex recipe, full of roasting, blending, straining, and stirring. In other words, a lot of steps that I could mess up. I soaked the dried chilies for 20 seconds, not 20 minutes. The dumplings dissolved completely into the sauce. I even burned the sauce, leaving chunks of blackened potato at the bottom of the pot (we transferred pots, though, so it didn't completely ruin the mole).

The results:

Okay, mole doesn't photograph well at all. Just image the scent of roasted chilies, pork, tomatoes, spice...yum. I'll admit, all the little errors added up to a dish that didn't quite blow my mind, but it was definitely not a failed meal...

...especially when it ended with delicious flan.

Even after dessert, there was still one last thing to do to make our Independencia celebration complete: we had to hear the Grito de Dolores.
It's not a song, but a speech that is made every year on the eve of Independence. It's the battle-cry that the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave in Dolores in 1810, to rally the people to rebel against their Spanish colonial government. This rebellion became the start of the full-on war for independence. Or so the story goes.
The Mexican president makes the speech from the National Palace in Mexico City, with thousands of people coming out to hear. This year's was extra-special, being the bicentennial, and was followed with an incredible fireworks display. Even if you don't speak Spanish, take a peek and see what I'm talking about:

I have to admit, I got a bit misty-eyed. Even sitting in my Bay Area apartment, with only a few loved ones, and even a day later, I felt a deep connection to my birth-country like I haven't in a long, long time. I suddenly wasn't worried about making "perfect" mole or representing my culture "correctly." I wasn't thinking about immigration reform in the US, or the drug wars ravaging Mexico. For one moment, I was just another Mexican, proud and free. It was...powerful.

So, all in all, it was a successful celebration. Mama has promised to show me how to make better mole when I come home for Christmas, and I think I may try some simpler dishes from the cookbook before then. It should be fun.

I hope ya'll enjoyed my culinary adventure/history lesson/trip down memory lane. Food is famous for bringing up feelings and memories, and this meal was no exception!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Viva Mexico! Viva la Independencia!

I was born in Mexico, to a Mexican mother and an American father. We came to the States to stay when I was around one year old, so I've spent over 99% of my life in the USA [EDIT: My husband the professor informed me it's more like 97%]. We only went back to visit Mexico a handful of times, and I remember my motherland with a sort of fuzzy nostalgia.

It's definitely not the Mexico of today that you see on the news. My Mexico is a child's Mexico, with bright bugambilia flowers and tissue paper kites, rope swings in the summer and exquisite Christmas lights in the winter. It smells of bollios warm from the oven, car exhaust, and my grandmother's powdery perfume. It's making your cousins cry because you broke the Christmas pinata on your first swing, since you didn't realize it was made of clay and not paper mache. It's being chased by your aunt's posse of viscious poodles in your uncle's mechanic shop. It's watching your baby brother throw a fit in the lobby of the National Musuem of Anthropology, and pretending you don't know him. It's hearing both your parents speaking Spanish to everyone, not just amongst yourselves when you're at home. It's comforting and strange, familiar and alien. It's beautiful and dangerous and a secret part of you that no kids in your class at home know anything about.

Even as an adult, I almost feel like it's a sort of secret identity, a quiet other half that I don't tap into very much. I have been trying to lately, and what better occassion than Mexico's Independence Day on September 16?

It felt extra-important to commemorate La Independencia this year, since 2010 marked both the bicentennial of Mexico's independence from Spain and a century since the Mexican Revolution.

Since I'm not very big on crowds, a more personal celebration was in order. I decided to throw a little dinner party, just for my husband, my good friend, and the aforementioned baby brother who is not really a baby anymore.

Now, beyond the odd dish of enchiladas or batch of salsa, I've never tried any serious Mexican cooking on my own. My Mama gave me a gorgeous cookbook years ago, Frida's Fiestas, Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo, and I'd been itching for an excuse to break it in.

The menu consisted of Red Mole, White Rice, and Flan from the cookbook, supplemented with a green salad and roasted tomato salsa. Simple enough, right?


Now I know why traditional Mexican cooks spend all friggin' day in the kitchen. I thought it would take me about three hours to whip up this meal.

It took me six. With lots of help.

That doesn't count the hours I spent going to grocery stores, little Latino markets, and the farmer's market in search of all the ingredients. Who knew it would take me three tries to find both dried ancho chiles and guajillo chiles for the mole sauce? Not to mention, the failed quest my brother and I went on to find one little herb called acuyo. AKA heirba santa. AKA oja santa. AKA unicorn hair, 'cause it was just as impossible to find!

Regardless of the acuyo fail, it was still a grand old time. With Chavela Vargas and Pedro Infante serenading us from my new laptop, my brother and I broke in my new molcajete with a batch of Roasted Tomato Salsa.

It's super-easy to make. Just grill a bunch of small tomatoes (I used zebra tomatoes from the farmer's market), garlic cloves (not pictured) and serrano chiles on a comal or frying pan.

When they're starting to char and peel, and they feel soft and squishy when you squeeze them with kitchen tongs, toss 'em in your molcajete (or food processor). Be sure to remove the stems from the chiles. Add some freshly chopped cilantro, and a few dashes of salt to taste. Mush it all up real good.

Transfer it to a glass or earthenware bowl (I swear it tastes better than plastic), and let it sit in the fridge to cool and let the flavors "marry." Or just eat it warm out of the molcajete. It's awesome that way, too.

There's more to this, but I've already rambled on enough for one post. Next time: my Flan-tastic dessert and why you NEED to watch the mole while it cooks...

[The culinary adventure continues here...]

Monday, September 20, 2010

It's an "Electronic Wasteland" out there!

Though not as big news as the release of Halo: Reach, I too have my own small contribution to the gaming community to announce today.

The secret project I have alluded to in my past posts is finally up and running! For all you gamers and game-curious folks, I give you the Electronic Wasteland!

Created by my old friend Kevin Eno, "Electronic Wasteland" is a place to discuss all things video game related. It covers video gaming news, reviews, and lifestyle, embracing all forms of digital gaming, from big-budget console franchises to indie-made iPhone apps.

So far I've contributed two pieces, one about how to get your significant other to game with you and one about my Dragon Age II experience at Comic Con.

I'm really excited to have a specific place to share my love of games, and I hope ya'll take a peek. Kevin is also looking for writers who would want to contribute, so drop me or him a line if you're interested.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Culinary catastrophes build character

I should be working on a piece for my as-to-be-disclosed project, but right now my mind is swimming with images of melting butter, de-boned duck, vodka gimlets, and utensils being flung around a tiny Long Island City apartment. Yup, I just finished reading Julie Powell's Julie & Julia.

I picked it up as the inaugural book for my Berkeley Public Library membership (about friggin' time, I know), and polished it off in just under a week. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. But it definitely struck a deep chord.

I know it's hip to hate Julie ('cause it's easy to hate people who become successful for doing what they love), and to be honest, there's a part of me that kind of does. But this is the part that recognizes the things I hate are exactly the same traits I find in myself. Which shuts me up fast and makes me appreciate her even more.

Here's the story of a depressed urbanite on the cusp of 30, who finds a direction for herself by taking a giant leap with her eyes closed. Is it easy? No. Is it sane? No. Is she trying to change the world? No. She's just trying to cook 524 recipes in 365 days.

She drinks too much. She has crying fits in the kitchen. She bitches about her job. Her apartment is filthy. She fights with her husband (a lot). In other words, she's a human being. Flawed, like the rest of us. Which is why I like her. She's no Martha Stewart. Thank god.

One thing that makes it easy to relate to Julie is her approach to cooking. She's not a kitchen goddess with eight arms, each coolly waving a gleaming gadget over her perfect culinary creations. She fucks up. A lot. But she's honest about it, and she keeps trying.

A lesson to remember when things like my Sweet Bean Pudding incident occurs:

This was supposed to be a delicious fusion of coconut milk-soaked rice and homemade black beans scented with orange, gently steamed in a fresh banana leaf.

What it was, was a friggin' mess:

I'd like to blame the vague cookbook directions, which lacked the proper instructions for working with banana leaves. But the cold, hard facts of the matter are that a) I should have known better than to substitute brown rice for white rice, and b) I didn't think about replacing the steaming water in the pot until after it had evaporated. At least, not until after the delicious aroma of steamed coconut milk transformed into the stench of scorching banana leaves.

And scorch they did:

It was so bad it took three days of soaking, plus a good working over with steel wool to get all the black funk off my best pot and steamer basket. To add insult to injury, I think this little mishap is what contributed to the burn-out of my biggest electric burner.

Did I cry? No. Did I throw things? No. Did I pour myself a big glass of red wine and whine to my lovingly patient mama? Oh yes. Yes. Yes. It still felt like a very Julie moment, even if it was Sweet Bean Pudding rather than Julia's Charlotte Malakoff.

Every cook has those moments. And every cook worth their Morton's knows the only thing to do is try again. And again. And again. Now that the burner is fixed, I actually can, and I will.

I'd like to think that Julie and Julia would approve.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Adventures of Rocketgirl, Vol. 1

It's been a while since I've dug my needle into some real embroidery. I've been getting my crafty ya-yas mostly through knitting, and even that I've kind of slowed down with lately. There's something about a warm summer day that discourages one from curling up with a skein of fuzzy yarn...or doing much of anything beyond lying in front of the fan serial-reading trashy vampire novels.

But then my pals at Sublime Stitching announced their Combo Contest, challenging stitchers to mash up three or more SS patterns. If there's one thing you'll learn about me from reading this blog, is that there's nothing like a contest to get me off my duff and get me creating! It's not the thought of winning that drives me, it's the participation, and mostly, the deadline. This was perfect.

I dug around in my hoard of patterns, and after a day or two came up with a concept that made my fingers itch to stitch. Inspired by my recent obsession with Futurama (what took me so long, anyway?) and my old love of Reading Rainbow, "The Adventures of Rocketgirl, Vol. 1" made it's way into the world stitch by stitch.

And I do mean stitches: backstitch, satin stitch, stem stitch, split stitch, French knot, as well as some funky, random fill stitch I used for the egg-shaped planet.

I have to say, my favorite bit out of the whole piece is the librarian. I'm super-proud of how her hair turned out. She reminds me of Amber Von Tussle from the OG Hairspray...but in a nice way.

I also love the colorful stack of books in her arm:

And her dainty little shoes:

I ended up using six different patterns in all: "Sexy Librarians", "Spaced Out", "Tara McPherson" (stars), "Craft Pad" (planet), "Lucha Libre" (lightning bolts), and "Chinatown" (cloud puff). I also played a lot with variegated floss, which added some nice effects to the more "natural" elements (stars, planet, lightning bolt).

Although I didn't win the contest, I feel like I got something really important out of it: a reminder of just how much fun embroidery can be (cue inspirational music). I've already begun working on a little non-SS stitching project to keep stoking this crafty fire, and I feel like I'm finding my groove again. It's a really good feeling to have.

In Unrelated News
Thanks to Jeff over at Craziest Gadgets for featuring my cookies as part of his review on the Star Wars cookie cutters. Not to mention, for the rallying call for a bona-fide Death Star cookie cutter. If there's one thing we know for sure about the Star Wars franchise, is that they'll make it if enough people ask for it. Just look at the phenomenon that is the Tauntaun sleeping bag.