There are several things that make cooking in Mexico very different from cooking in my Brooklyn apartment:
• Stoves that won’t turn down to low
• No oven
• Cheap, thin pots and pans with uneven bottoms that make the hot stove even less forgiving
• Garlic that comes in tiny, intense cloves and only white onions, rawer and better for Mexican cooking, but not complex
enough for Italian pasta sauces
• Not enough bowls
• I miss my good chef’s knife!
Still, there are quite a few advantages. Last Saturday, I cooked a pot of black beans, practically cackling with glee that I had epazote, which Rick Bayless says to use “if you can get it.” They were the best beans I’ve ever made, if not the best I’ve ever tasted, tender but with distinction, full-bodied with the incomparable flavor of epazote, and so easy, as all I had to do was boil up a cup of beans in water covering them with a sprig of epazote for two hours, adding more water when necessary and a bit of salt near the end. They didn’t even need to be pre-soaked! I may cook a pot of beans every weekend while I’m here. And if I can smuggle some fresh epazote past customs and into my Le Creuset dutch oven in Brooklyn, they might be even better than they were in the cheap, thin, misshaped pot I had to use, though admittedly, there may be some special risks to smuggling packages of herbs and weeds from Mexico into the U.S.
On Sunday, I decided to make a lunch of tacos, of garlicky greens and fried onions, from my beloved Rick Bayless cookbook. Most of his recipes are eminently and invitingly doable, but with my crappy stove and my reluctance to stock up on all kinds of spices, I’ve decided to stick to simple dishes and try making at least one kind of salsa a week, which is still an exciting goal.
I started by making Bayless’s Yucatecan simmered salsa of roasted tomatoes and fresh peppers, substituting serranos for the habaneros I couldn’t find. I roasted the tomatoes on a metal comal covered in foil right on top of the stove, until the skins were black and splitting open. After peeling them the best I could, I threw them in the blender. In the meantime, I sautéed chopped white onions until dark gold and sweet. I added the pureed tomatoes and two chiles, halved. It wasn’t as spicy as I’d hoped, but it was still such a joy to spoon it up, to remember with such brightness how delicious tomatoes could be. I wonder if this is what it’s like to fall in love again with someone you’ve been married to for 20 years.
For the greens, I had some fresh green chard from the organic market. That got washed, sliced into ribbons, and then blanched for a minute or two in boiling water. Then I thinly sliced white onions and sautéed them until dark and sweet, threw in some chopped garlic, and then the chard until it was warmed through, adding a bit of salt. Meanwhile, the black beans from the day before were reheating in another pot.
I even walked to “Las Delicias de Etla” on Independencia, past the Basilica de la Nuestra Soledad, for my cheese to try to ensure that the queso fresco I bought was truly “fresco” from Etla, where all great Oaxacan cheese is born.
Ah, the juggling of pots and pans! The mug I had to fill with crumbled cheese, the juice glass with salsa! My little sink was overflowing. But I sprinkled queso fresco all over the beans and greens, made sure my blandas, the big floppy tortillas, were warm, and sat down for a very good meal. It was so satisfying, and almost surprising to taste the sweet onions mixed in the slightly bitter, strong flavor of the chard. The beans were even better reheated, and the salsa added a tang that would otherwise have been missed. It was simple meal, despite the number of burners I had going at one point, but it was the best thing I could have eaten on that Sunday afternoon. It felt so good to be cooking again!
This weekend, I’m going to make shredded pork tacos with a tomato-chipotle salsa.