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Letter From the Canyon

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1204299253/gallery_29805_1195_24720.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Priscilla

Early on after moving to the canyon I was introduced to Victoria, a Mexican woman who lived in a little house with her husband Alfonso, for whom she cooked every single night. She worked for people in the neighborhood, but I didn't want cleaning or child care (well, cleaning, OK, I wanted -- still do want), I wanted her cooking.

She was an incredible cook. When she lived in Mexico, as a friend of hers translated, she cooked for wealthy women in their kitchens, for their parties. I've never met such a refined cook, working in any cuisine, in my life. And like all good cooks, she was a stern taskmistress. Cheery and easygoing in other ways, but cooking was cooking, and serious business. Since I've long been of that mind myself, Victoria and I understood each other. We had few words of spoken language in common, between my nonexistent Spanish and her shy, imperfect English. But as happens, we communicated fluently in the language of cooking.

She'd often bring me a sample of what she was preparing for Alfonso's dinner. Unbelievable smooth green mole on chicken legs, with pepitas and herbs and I don't know what all. The depth of flavor! Indescribable. Albondigas soup which put what self-styled Mexican restaurants serve under the title to shame. Tiny, tender little meatballs, flecked with herbs, cilantro, marjoram from the garden. Victoria, I discovered, like me, vastly preferred marjoram to oregano. She did specify oregano, the dried powdered type, as one of the necessary condiments for her pozole, buying a new cellophane package each time she made it, so that at least it would have that advantage. But in her heavenly escabeche of vegetables, for instance, it was marjoram all the way, and maybe a little thyme.

Little being the operative term. From Victoria I learned that onion can dilute the flavor intensity of a preparation to a terrible degree. Making her green salsa under her own watchful eye, prepping ingredients and putting them into the blender, she had me reduce and reduce again the wedge of onion I was showing her, until it was a veritable sliver of a quarter-inch or so. That was what went into the blender. And not too too much cilantro, either, she was adamant -- it's a tomatillo and jalapeno trip, mostly. You don't get the perfect neon green any other way, not to mention the perfect texture, and not forgetting, of course, flavor.

It was during Lent ten years ago or so that Victoria taught me maybe the biggest lesson of so many. I usually think of it as the mind-blowing realization that tuna and jalapeno are one of the best combinations under the sun, but really it was more than that, although it needn't have been, if you love tuna, and jalapeno, as much as I did and do. The Lenten Friday food I grew up with, and every Lent-keeping family I knew served, was a processed-food feast of frozen fish sticks and Kraft macaroni and cheese from the box. There might have been variation over the several Fridays of the season, but honestly I can't picture something different just now.

What Alfonso was having for this Lenten dinner was, yes, a trinity, by no accident; also looked like something suitable for a food photo shoot, as all Victoria's plates did. Alfonso was a funny old guy, came to our door one evening intent on showing us the lid from his lunchtime Maruchan Instant Lunch (which, I had learned, was the lunch of choice of many of the local Latin working men -- sold, along with lots of cooked foods, on lunch trucks all over the place), rather the inside of the lid. Perfect representation of Jesus's face, right there. Looked not at all unlike the image on the Shroud of Turin I'd seen in National Geographic. Remarkable, honestly. I mean it.

On his Lenten plate were three nicely cut pieces of fresh white cheese, the kind Victoria'd showed me how to use in chile rellenos. Tomato wedges with a little mayonnaise. And what I guess would be called macaroni salad, only was so much more than that to me. Cut pasta, lightly dressed, cilantro, canned tuna, chopped cucumber, onion, a chopped tomato, and quite a lot of chopped jalapeno. Looked beautiful, tasted even better.

At this moment it seems funny, and terrible, that there existed a time when I didn't assume tuna and jalapeno together, but it is true. That very sad era ended AT THE EXACT MOMENT I tasted Victoria's thrifty and appropriately austere Lenten offering. I've been pairing those flavors ever since in various ways. What she made was not a big deal, to her, prepared with her customary care and refinement from a handful of fresh ingredients. I thought about fish sticks and Kraft macaroni and cheese from the box, and the many meanings of poor.

<div align="center">* * *</div>

Priscilla writes from a Southern California canyon where the variety of four-legged creatures walked on leash currently evinces a vogue for miniature horses and pygmy goats, along with the usual llamas and rescue greyhounds.

Previous Letters:

Roadhouse Blues

Danger Zone

Rarus Fructus

The Last Caprese

Fava-vavoom

Sourdough Ducks

Sincerely, Flounder

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I am just nodding my head and sighing. These cross cultural/food interactions are so cool and add so much to our lives. I am the cook that I am today based in large part on the people I have met and eaten and cooked with. Of course the food sounds wonderful as well. Thanks.

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For us growing up, our usual Lenten Friday meal was white fish (cod, scrod, haddock) and tomato sauce poured over it. Usually by the time I got home from practice it was overcooked and rubbery and the tomato sauce was ... well, not soft anymore! I hated it. And my grandmother thought that meatless Fridays should extend throughout the year, not just during Lent.

Victoria's dish will be on our menu from now on. Thanks for sharing it.

Do you still see her?

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Priss, this is perfection in a few paragraphs.

I thought perhaps that less-is-more onion knowledge was the province of all the fine Southern cooks I've known, whose mayonnaise, aspic, macaroni salad, Green Goddess and countless other delicately-flavored dishes were gently enhanced by the scrape of a sharp knife over the cut surface of a halved onion.

Ten drops carefully counted off the edge into the waiting dish, like the titremetry of a precious elixir. Never more than ten.

And I, who have lived a strikingly un-fish life, am inordinately fond of the macaroni salad with a can of Chicken of the Sea stirred in along with the minced celery and home-canned sweet pickles. Against yours, it's hushpuppies to croissants, but it's famliar and comforting and just the thing you want when you see that Tupperware thump down on the Church Supper table. I'd eat yours every Friday, and we're Baptist.

Wonderful as always, Canyon Lady.

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I am just nodding my head and sighing. These cross cultural/food interactions are so cool and add so much to our lives. I am the cook that I am today based in large part on the people I have met and eaten and cooked with. Of course the food sounds wonderful as well. Thanks.

Thank you, Heidi.

And yes. I think of it adding up to what Madeleine Kamman calls cuisine personnelle, a life-long thing. The life-long aspect is one of the very best things about cooking.


Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ● Twitter Instagram

 

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For us growing up, our usual Lenten Friday meal was white fish (cod, scrod, haddock) and tomato sauce poured over it.  Usually by the time I got home from practice it was overcooked and rubbery and the tomato sauce was ... well, not soft anymore!  I hated it.  And my grandmother thought that meatless Fridays should extend throughout the year, not just during Lent.

Victoria's dish will be on our menu from now on.  Thanks for sharing it.

Do you still see her?

Thank you, Jeanne.

Was the tomato-sauce fish common in your region, or a family tradition?

Victoria returned to Mexico several years ago, where one of her sons and two grandchildren had remained, and died soon after.


Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ● Twitter Instagram

 

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Priss, this is perfection in a few paragraphs.

I thought perhaps that less-is-more onion knowledge was the province of all the fine Southern cooks I've known, whose mayonnaise, aspic, macaroni salad,  Green Goddess and countless other delicately-flavored dishes were gently enhanced by the scrape of a sharp knife over the cut surface of a halved onion.

Ten drops carefully counted off the edge into the waiting dish, like the titremetry of a precious elixir.  Never more than ten.

And I, who have lived a strikingly un-fish life, am inordinately fond of the macaroni salad with a can of Chicken of the Sea stirred in along with the minced celery and home-canned sweet pickles.  Against yours, it's hushpuppies to croissants, but it's famliar and comforting and just the thing you want when you see that Tupperware thump down on the Church Supper table.  I'd eat yours every Friday, and we're Baptist.

Wonderful as always, Canyon Lady.

Thank you, Rachel.

That onion lesson is a biggie. No surprise it is ingrained in good Southern cooking, because of course it is part of good cooking no matter the tradition.

In the beginning it is so easy to think of onion as one of the strongest flavors in the cook's arsenal, what with the attention it gets from picky eaters refusing to eat it and so forth, and, like garlic, it is one of those ingredients a novice cook is likely to multiply unreasonably in a preparation, or chop unpleasantly coarsely and (very common, in my experience, producing the dread slimey squares) seriously under-saute.

Knowing how to deal with onions, like lemons, no matter how you feel about them personally, is beyond essential. As Nora Ephron said in Heartburn, you really can't cook without onions.


Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ● Twitter Instagram

 

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It's a Friday night in Lent, and I thought about this piece as I planned dinner. My family didn't keep Lent, though the occasional fish stick dinner was welcomed by me and my siblings -- we just liked them, back then.

Well, sumgun, we're having capellini with white clam sauce. Friday night we go for easy and there's not much easier -- we have a simple pasta dish two Fridays a month. My husband's Irish/Italian family certainly kept Lent. I'm not sure what the Irish side ate, but we lived in the third floor walkup of a building in Chicago's Little Italy for a few years. My husband's grandmother, or, properly, Nonna, owned 1206-1208 W. Lexington, classic Chicago six flats. The family story is that her father, from Porta San Pietro, outside Naples, won them in a poker game in 1908.

She married up: a Toscani from Lucca, a man of great gourmandise and so violent and vociferous about his food that he'd throw any dish that displeased him against the kitchen wall. Nonna became a great cook, renowned, even, in the Taylor Street Hood. It's said she cooked for Giovanni Martinelli. When I met Annunziata Rovai she was in her 90s, living alone and cooking as if her terrifying husband were still alive. When she heard us walk up the stairs, she'd stick out her head and press a dinner into our hands.

They were nothing like Alfonso's austere and elegant Lenten plate. Shrimp in marinara over polenta. Stuffed whitefish. Meatless lasagna, spilling spinach and ricotta and cheese. Her amazing pizza -- proof to me that you don't need a wood-fired oven that hits 750 degrees. For Nonna, it wasn't about sacrifice (although she stepped up her Rosary schedule during Lent,) it was about confecting the best food she could, without meat. O, Madonna, her pasta e fagioli! (Never pronounced pasta fazool. That was for southerners, not Tuscans.)


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I am just nodding my head and sighing. These cross cultural/food interactions are so cool and add so much to our lives. I am the cook that I am today based in large part on the people I have met and eaten and cooked with. Of course the food sounds wonderful as well. Thanks.

Thank you, Heidi.

And yes. I think of it adding up to what Madeleine Kamman calls cuisine personnelle, a life-long thing. The life-long aspect is one of the very best things about cooking.

MK's "When French Women Cook" is in my top 5 favorite reads.

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For Nonna, it wasn't about sacrifice (although she stepped up her Rosary schedule during Lent,) it was about confecting the best food she could, without meat. O, Madonna, her pasta e fagioli! (Never pronounced pasta fazool. That was for southerners, not Tuscans.)

Well I know you know how lucky you are to have experienced such cooking, MtheC. Aside from the Lenten seafood, yet further evidence for my strong belief that if vegetarians would familiarize themselves with the Italian tradition, self-styled vegetarian cuisine would not have such a spotty reputation.

I lovelovelove pasta e fagioli... do you have Nonna's recipe?


Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ● Twitter Instagram

 

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I am just nodding my head and sighing. These cross cultural/food interactions are so cool and add so much to our lives. I am the cook that I am today based in large part on the people I have met and eaten and cooked with. Of course the food sounds wonderful as well. Thanks.

Thank you, Heidi.

And yes. I think of it adding up to what Madeleine Kamman calls cuisine personnelle, a life-long thing. The life-long aspect is one of the very best things about cooking.

MK's "When French Women Cook" is in my top 5 favorite reads.

Good to hear. I think Madeleine is sorely underappreciated. Not by me, however!


Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ● Twitter Instagram

 

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For Nonna, it wasn't about sacrifice (although she stepped up her Rosary schedule during Lent,) it was about confecting the best food she could, without meat. O, Madonna, her pasta e fagioli! (Never pronounced pasta fazool. That was for southerners, not Tuscans.)

Well I know you know how lucky you are to have experienced such cooking, MtheC. Aside from the Lenten seafood, yet further evidence for my strong belief that if vegetarians would familiarize themselves with the Italian tradition, self-styled vegetarian cuisine would not have such a spotty reputation.

I lovelovelove pasta e fagioli... do you have Nonna's recipe?

I've entered a approximation of Nonna's recipe into Recipe Gullet, here. She sometimes added canned tuna -- I'm thinking how amazing it would have been with some chopped jalapenos!

I didn't learn enough from Nonna -- I was making my bones as a cook upstairs in third floor rear. What resonates to this day is that she, on her kitchen table (counter space was non-existent) cooked three real meals a day, from fresh ingredients, until she was 100 years old.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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