Rant: When poor people had gardens

I’m teaching the cooking classes at Rancho La Puerta this week. Last night at dinner one of the  guests asked me if I thought that cooking good food (by which she meant healthy food) was a dying art.

“Yes!” I replied, taking the bait immediately. “When I was a kid, and up until a couple of decades ago, everyone ate real food, and it was poor people who kept gardens and cooked for themselves. Now food has become elitist.Cooking is a hobby for the rich, like keeping race horses. Most people are scared to cook.They think it’s too hard, or that they’ll be judged against Top Chef.”

“Or, God help them, Rachel Ray.”

In 2010 you can look at food as business – mighty big business,too – or  food as fashion, to distract us and flog packaged food / lifestyle crap. And lagging behind more and more, food as life.

This is slowly killing us. Worse, if younger people don’t learn to cook for themselves, we will forever lose traditions and knowledge that have been learned and handed down for hundreds of generations. If we don’t grow and cook for ourselves, it will all be gone, and your health and that of your grandchildren will be at the mercy of corporate food. We’ll be helpless in the grip of Pepsico and Monsanto and ADM.

The way to be healthy is to have control over your food supply and how it is prepared.

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Roasted Jalapeno Salsa

The hysterical heat of the bhut jolokia chile makes worrying about the heat of jalapenos pretty much irrelevant, don’t you think? Much as the threat of nuclear attack puts the bow and arrow in perspective.

Jalapenos definitely have some kick, but I like them because of their lovely bright flavor, which is enhanced by grilling or dry-roasting until evenly charred and soft. They’re simple and good with a sprinkle of coarse salt and a squeeze of lemon or lime. In Ensenada, they’re often roasted and served with lemon and a little soy sauce. (Warning: if you hear weird whistling and popping noises while roasting, this is a sign that they are about to explode. Poke a hole.)

I found this terrific roasted jalapeno salsa at a puesto at the fish market in Ensenada. It has an olive-green color flecked with bits of the charred skin, which makes it very attractive as one of an array of salsas. Make sure your guests don’t confuse it with the much milder Tomatillo Salsa.  It’s meant to be served as a condiment with food, not scooped up with tostadas – though that might be fun to watch. Even more fun if they think it’s pickle relish.



(from Baja!Cooking on the Edge)

Believe it or not, this is not an overwhelmingly hot salsa, despite being made purely from roasted jalapenos. The long, slow cooking seems to sweeten and mellow the heat just a tad, but don’t be fooled- this is not for the faint-hearted.  Roasted Jalapeno Salsa is excellent on grilled meats, fish tacos,  or anything fried. Keeps for several days, refrigerated, though the heat will diminish. You will want to re-season it before use. Makes about 1 ½ cups.



10 large, firm jalapenos, washed and dried

3 large unpeeled garlic cloves

1/3 cup to ½ cup water

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1.     Line a heavy cast iron pan or comal with a sheet of foil wrap. Turn the pan on high heat and turn on the fan. Roast the jalapenos and garlic on the foil, turning every few minutes, until the jalapenos are well charred and soft. This may take as long as 20-25 minutes. Just baby them along, and don’t rush the process; they need to cook. The garlic can be removed when it has brown spots on the papery skin and has begun to soften, about 7 minutes.

2.     Or, if the grill is on. you can wrap the jalapenos and garlic in two layers of foil, and grill the packet over medium heat for 15- 20 minutes, turning often. Proceed with recipe.

3.     Cool the jalapenos. Wearing gloves, remove the stems from the jalapenos, and peel the garlic. Put 1/3 cup of water in a blender along with the garlic and salt, and pulse several times to chop the garlic. Tear the jalapenos into strips and place in the blender, along with the garlic. Pulse several more times, until the jalapenos are coarsely chopped; if necessary add water a tablespoon at a time. Don’t over-thin the sauce, and don’t puree until smooth – a little texture is nice.  Scrape into a bowl and allow to rest for 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Zowie!

4.     Alternatively, make the sauce in a molcajete: Grind the garlic and salt to a paste. Add the stemmed alapenos and grind to a textured puree, adding small amounts of water as necessary. Thin with more water, adjust salt (if necessary) and serve right in the molcajete.

Salsa con Nopales


Nopal (beavertail cactus) in the wild

Beavertail cactus, called nopal in Mexico, is an exceptionally healthful food. Mexican folk healers (to whom food is medicine) prescribe nopales to aid circulation, and treat blood pressure and high blood sugar; it is thought to be particularly helpful for pregnant women. Cooked nopales have a firm, almost squeaky bite, rather like cooked green beans or okra. They may be slightly slimy when cut, but this off-putting texture goes away when cooked.
I love them mixed into this great salsa, which is as juicy, spicy and tomato-sweet as one could wish, with loads of satisfying crunch from white onion and crisp diced nopales. Serve with tostadas and a crumble of queso fresco, or serve as a complement to grilled meats, chicken or fish. It’s terrific tucked inside a corn masa quesadilla, or try a few spoonfuls stirred into your scrambled eggs, as they do in Mexico. It’s a great way to add nutrition along with flavor. Nopales strips are often served on mashed pinto beans with queso fresco, fresh tomatoes and onions on a large oval corn tortilla called a huarache.


Nopales cleaned and ready for sale

Most Latin and Mexican markets sell nopal with the spines removed, and sometimes already cut into strips or diced. If you are lucky enough to be able to harvest your own (using gloves, of course) choose small, firm paddles. Lay them flat on the counter, holding the small end. Lay a chef’s knife, or other large sharp knife almost flat against the paddle, and scrape away from yourself. (A small curved machete is ideal for this, if you happen to have one.)Trim the edges to remove any spines. Cut into small cubes, between ¼ and ½ inch, and cook according to recipe directions.

1 large fresh cactus paddle (nopal) spines removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 serrano chiles, sliced into rings
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
½ teaspoon whole dried Mexican oregano
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons white vinegar or lime juice
1/4 bunch cilantro, stemmed and chopped

Dice the cleaned cactus into cubes of about 3/8 inch. Place in a small saucepan, cover with water and pinch of salt, and boil for 5 minutes. Drain, and rinse under cold water.

Nopalitos on the boil. They will be olive-green when cooked.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions, garlic and serranos. Cook, stirring until the onion is just starting to soften. Add the diced Nopales and sauté until they are crisp tender, about 2 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and oregano cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are just warmed through. Season with a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir in the cilantro immediately before serving.
Dice the nopales and place in a sauté pan large enough to hold in one layer. Add a small amount of water and bring to a boil. Cover , reduce heat and cook several minutes, stirring a few times. When the nopales are tender, remove the lid and cook and stir until dry.

Three Classic Salsas: Pico de Gallo~Salsa Verde~Salsa de Chiles de Arbol

The immediacy of a taco, handed to you hot from grill and comal, simply can’t be equaled. You can stand there and eat yourself silly with one taco after another, each made fresh for you and consumed within seconds. A  great taco rocks with distinct tastes that roll on and on, like a little party on your tongue, with layers of flavor and textures: juicy, delicious fillings, perfectly seasoned; the taste of the soft corn tortilla; a morsel of salty cheese and  finally, best of all, the bright explosion of a freshly-made salsa that suddenly ignites and unites everything on your palate. At the end of your two- or three-bite taco you just want to repeat the experience until you are sated.

That essential salsa is far more than just a sauce. It completes the taco the way icing completes a cake. It’s about balance again, as you add not only flavor but color and texture as well, carefully chosen to complement the filling. Rich and meaty tacos need an acidic salsa, such as one made with tomatillos and coarse salt. Citrus flavors such as lemon and lime jump out with a the touch of hot salsa. Fresh tomato, onion and cilantro go with almost anything, especially a creamy melted cheese, or a smoky char-roasted chile. Fish and shrimp fairly pop with fresh hot peppers and fruit,  given an herbal edge with cilantro. Throwing on just any salsa, or too many different salsas, misses the point completely.

Choose impeccable ingredients of great character – ripe tomatoes, fragrant mangoes, fierce chilies, vibrant cilantro and lime. Be bold and unafraid! Go a little over the top with your seasoning. Timidity has no place in a salsa.  Remember, each taco will have only a small amount of salsa, and the salsa has to stand up to all the other tastes and unite them. The flavor of acid, salt, sweetness and heat escalate when the salsa is properly, that is to say, assertively seasoned. A perfectly crafted salsa will seem almost too powerful, but each taste will balance the others, and that little taste will make your simple taco exceptional. (from Amor y Tacos)


Tomatoes – choose Roma or pear-type tomatoes. You don’t have to peel them, but you do have to seed and core them. Sorry. Check the video for some fast techniques.

Onion – white or red onions only, please. A really good onion will make you cry. Accept it.

Tomatillo – green tomatillos are the most common,

but a good Mexican market will sometimes have the tiny milpera which is more authentic. Before cooking, remove the papery husks and wash in warm water to remove the sticky, bitter coating.

Garlic – buy heads of fresh garlic, grown in the USA, and separate cloves as you need them. It’s easy to get the skin off – just tap the clove gently with the side of a knife. Don’t buy peeled garlic. It’s old, has preservatives and often comes from China. Yick.

Chiles – use a fresh green chile such as a jalapeno or serrano. Serranos are reliably spicy, jalapenos a bit milder. For flavor and less heat, remove the seeds before dicing.

Cilantro – wash, shake dry and place stems in a cup of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Pluck stems as needed. Always chop cilantro immediately before you need it. If you hate cilantro, leave it out.

Lime – you WILL use the juice from fresh limes only, please – no bottled juices. Invest in a little hand juicer, preferably a Mexican esprimador. The best limes are small, thin-skinned limones with a little yellow on the skin; buy them at Latin markets. As an additional benefit, fresh juices also immeasurably improve the quality of your margaritas.

Salt – kosher or sea salt is best. Iodized (table) salt has a bitter aftertaste.

PICO DE GALLO (adapted from Amor y Tacos)

The simplest salsa of all- ripe tomato, seeded and diced, mixed with sweet white onions,

Pico de Gallo

cilantro, lime, a pinch of salt and fresh hot chiles. If you prefer, omit the hot chiles; it then becomes salsa fresca. You may also choose to add more onions. Roma tomatoes are a must for this salsa, which is a classic on all types of tacos. Mix the salsa ingredients just before serving, and season with plenty of salt and fresh-squeezed lime juice (from limes, not a bottle) until the flavors jump! Makes about 2 ½ cups.
4 large, ripe roma tomatoes, cored, seeded and diced small (2 cups)
½ cup small dice white onion
½ medium serrano chile, minced, or more to taste
½ cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, or more to taste


(adapted from !Baja! Cooking on the Edge)

Tomatillos are a kind of ground cherry native to Central America. They have a tart, pleasantly acidic flavor that is delicious with grilled meats. Choose firm tomatillos with their papery husks intact. Remove the husk and wash off the sticky film that remains under warm running water; it is bitter. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
6 medium (2-inch diameter) tomatillos, about 2 cups
1 clove garlic, peeled
¾ cup white onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large jalapeno or serrano, stemmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 sprigs cilantro, stemmed (1/4 cup packed leaves, 2 tablespoons chopped)

  1. Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos and wash under warm running water. Cut into quarters and place in a 1 1/2 –quart saucepan along with the garlic, onion, jalapeno, and salt.
  2. Add just enough water to barely cover the tomatillos and quickly bring to a boil over high heat. Boil the vegetables until the tomatillos have just begun to soften, and the tip of a knife can be inserted, about 5 minutes; do not overcook.
  3. Drain and reserve the cooking water, and transfer the contents of the saucepan to a blender, along with the whole cilantro leaves.
  4. Pulse the tomatillos until a thick, textured sauce forms, adding some of the cooking water as needed to form a fairly smooth sauce.

CHILE DE ARBOLES HOT SAUCE ( adapted from Amor y Tacos)

This sauce, made from dagger-shaped chiles de arbol, has a enjoyable sharp heat that quickly dissipates. It is excellent on anything rich or cheesy. If you want a hotter sauce, add the optional habanero chiles. Makes about 2 cups.
2 roma tomatoes
3 large garlic cloves, un-peeled
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup stemmed and seeded chiles de arbol
OPTIONAL: 1 or 2 fresh habanero chiles, stemmed and chopped (please wear gloves)
1 cup water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Frijoles de la Olla (pinto beans cooked in a clay pot)


Olla with pinto beans


Using authentic Mexican wares makes a difference in how your food comes out — even something as humble as frijoles (beans) which, along with corn tortillas, are the foundation of every Mexican meal, are much different when cooked in an olla.

The olla is a clay pot of deceptively simple design, engineered by successive generations of cooks to cook food slowly and evenly while reducing the evaporation of liquids. ( This last is desirable because obviously something is going to taste better if stewed , as it were, in its own juices. )

At first I thought the shapely bottom, narrow neck and flared top was just an attractive design, then I started to cook with it. I quickly  realized that beans cooked in the olla cooked more evenly and took in far less water than if I cooked them in a straight-sided metal pot. This means that the flavor is concentrated, along with the nutritional value. The frijoles taste better, and are better for you.

The desirable texture for a cooked bean is melt-in-your-mouth creamy but still holding its shape. When the beans are perfectly cooked, there should be enough liquid left that the beans move easily, but it should not be soupy. I don’t soak the beans overnight, probably because I don’t think about it until I need to cook them. It is perfectly OK to soak them, but do it overnight in the refrigerator, and don’t throw away the soaking water; it is full of vitamins.

The beans may be served right from the pot as frijoles de la olla , or mashed with a little lard and sauteed onion for refritos or doctored up with beer, bacon or fried pork , sauteed chiles, garlic, black bepper….beans are delicious, and I am perfectly happy with any version.

Cooking with clay vessels is a revelation.  You can brown and simmer, or cook the best tortillas you ever had right on the surface. It is a good idea to use a more moderate heat for all cooking, and don’t pour liquid onto a hot dry surface. I have an olla and a few cazuelas which I use for stews like pollo verde. And don’t get too attached to them. Though surprisingly resilient, they will eventually give up the ghost, and you will have to go get another.  A note about lead: Make sure anything you use is not finished with a lead-based glaze (when you buy a piece, ask an adult in the shop if it is  sin plomo. As most Mexican families cook with clay vessels,  good housewares shop will not lie you) and if you are very paranoid, simple lead-testing kits are available. I am told that a drop of vinegar bubbles on contact, but I don’t know if this is true.


Cazuelas are better for stews



1 pound pinto beans(about 4 scoops from the bulk bins)

1/2 white onion, peeled

about 6 cups filtered water – or so; depends on the beans

3 teaspoons kosher salt, or more to taste

Pick the beans over and remove any clumps of dirt or small stones. This step is important. I susally pour them onto the left side of a rimmed cookie sheet, then move them to the right as I go through them. If you buy in Mexico, or imported brands, this step is essential.

Wash the beans well with cold water. If you’re soaking them, cover with 1 inch cold water and place in the refrigerator overnight. If not, pour the beans into the olla, add the half onion (leave the root on so its’s easier to pick out) and fill with water up to the narrow part of the pot. Set on low to medium heat and bring sloooooowly to an easy, steady simmer, where the water is definitely moving but less than a rolling boil. Use a wooden spoon to stir the beans a couple of times – make sure you get everything off the bottom, as the beans can clump up at first. After an hour or so,  add the salt. Keep an eye on the water level as the beans cook. You should always have about an inch or so of water over the top, and you should always be able to easily stir the beans. But you don’t want to flood them. Depending on how old the beans are and the position of the moon, you may need to add a little more HOT water once or twice during the cooking process. Taste the liquid after a couple of hours; it is what your beans will taste like. You can add a bit more salt if you like,  but be careful with it. I actually prefer my beans a little underseasoned, to balance other, stronger flavors.

The beans are done when they are perfectly creamy within. This may take 3-4 hours at that nice, slow, even bubbling pace. Let the beans cool in the cooking liquid. I like to make a big batch and freeze some in ziploc backs.


In a frying pan, heat a small amount of lard (my personal favorite,) bacon fat or vegetable oil. Add a little bit of finely minced onion – like a teaspoon per cup. Cook and stir the onion until lightly golden. Remove pan from heat and add a ladleful of hot beans. Mash until creamy. Add another ladle, mash and keep going until all the beans are creamy, adding cooking liquid as needed to give the perfect consistency; they should be very soft and barely hold their shape. If they get too soft, you can put the beans back on the heat and cook slowly, stirring, until they thicken up. They will thicken with standing. Serve very hot sprinkled with a little cotixa cheese.

Charro Variation: saute diced onion ( 1 tablespoon per cup of beans) along with some diced bacon until fragrant. Mash the beans (or leave whole) and add a little bit of beer and some black pepper. Top with cotixa cheese and some green onions.