Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nachos 101

My dad asked me a very serious question the other day. He was concerned, since I’d lived away from Texas for so long, where I fell on the nacho spectrum. Did I prefer a pile of chips with some toppings slopped on willy-nilly or did I prefer each nacho to be one chip toasted with a tasteful spread of Longhorn cheddar cheese and a sliced jalapeno. I was shocked he even had to ask. For me, and for every Texan, there is only one kind of nacho: the latter. Nachos are simple and elegant. Each nacho is its own entity (and that is key), with just enough toppings to give it flavor and a bit of heft but not enough to make it saggy or soggy. Anything else is an imposter!

Nachos are reputed to have been invented in 1943 by a maitre d’ named Ignacio Anaya who was working at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which is just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. As the story goes, some ladies from Eagle Pass came into the restaurant one evening, ordered some drinks and wanted some snacks. The kitchen was already closed, so Anaya melted some Longhorn cheddar on some tortilla chips and garnished each chip with a jalapeno slice. He presented them to the ladies calling his improvised appetizer “Nacho’s Especiales” as Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio. And the name, without the “especiales,” stuck.

Nachos were made only this way until 1977 when a San Antonio businessman named Frank Liberto started selling melted processed-cheese food to Arlington Stadium. You know, the gross stuff that comes out of a pump. (Not to be confused with queso, which is far, far superior!) He called it “nacho cheese” and it was served with tortilla chips. As the story goes, sportscaster Howard Cosell tried some, loved it and extolled the virtues of these "nachos" on national TV. And a taste sensation took off, but sadly it was misinterpreted. Instead of the exquisite traditional nacho of one chip with a topping, people thought nachos were a mountain of chips with melted processed cheese. It was a very dark day in the history of this beloved Tex-Mex treat.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oatmeal bread and a case of the Januaries

oatmeal bread recipe

I called my Grandma recently and asked how she was doing. With a sigh, she said she was suffering a case of the Januaries. “What’s that?” I asked. She replied that it meant she didn’t have much energy to cook or do much of anything. That’s certainly not a good way to feel.

Do you ever suffer a case of the Januaries? After December, which is a lively month filled with festivities, gifts and fellowship, I can see how some would think that January is something of a letdown with its cold, short days. I, however, view January as a time to recharge my batteries—it’s a fresh start! And since, fortunately, I am not suffering a case of the Januaries (though check back with me in February when I usually start shaking my fist at a mocking sun that gives off more light but still refuses to emit any heat ), I decided it would be nice to bake my grandmother some bread. But not just any bread—I decide to bake her a loaf of her mother’s oatmeal bread.

When I spent time with my grandparents last summer, we had a blast going through all of the family recipes. Every dish came with a story, but Grandma especially lit up when we came across the card for Great-Grandma Gibson’s oatmeal bread. “That’s my favorite,” said Grandma. Great-Grandma Gibson’s oatmeal bread wasn’t an everyday thing—she only baked it about once a week. But when Grandma would wake up and see a loaf cooling in the kitchen, she knew it was going to be a great day. She recalled one time when she came home from college and Great-Grandma had just pulled a loaf out the oven. “I was so hungry and it smelled so good, I probably ate most of the loaf with some butter (or maybe it was peanut butter),” she said.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Uncle Austin's Granola

Every Christmas, my uncle Austin cooks up gallons of granola to give as gifts. The lucky recipients know that this isn’t just any granola—it’s an addictive treat that once you start, it’s difficult to stop eating.

He’s been making this granola for as long as I can remember. And being a humorous fellow, he always packages it with silly labels such as: “New! Jimmy Dean All Organic Granola;” “Chef Roscoe’s Famous Style Granola made by the Sanitary Food Co.;” “Name Brand ‘Fancy Style’ Granola;” “Jesus’ Favorite Granola (He says that about everyone’s granola and means it);” and my favorite, “Health Camp Hi-Carb Granola: Preferred by Nudists Everywhere.”

But no matter how the bag is branded, it’s what is inside that counts. And Uncle Austin’s amazing mixture of organic oats, nuts, coconut and dried fruits is a salty, sweet treat that is just as good with milk or yogurt as it is straight out of the bag.

One Christmas, the family gathered at my mother’s house in Houston. Everyone was able to make it, except for my grandparents who weren’t feeling up to making the trek from their farm six hours away. My uncle Richard, who lives in Dallas near the farm, was given a bag of granola to take back to my grandparents. But the bag should have been kept under lock and key because by the time the granola arrived at the farm, half the bag was gone! “Why did you eat their granola?” asked Austin. Richard replied, “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself, it’s so good!”

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What do you know, it's papalo!

There’s a certain scent I associate with Mexico that I’ve always assumed was laundry detergent. It’s overly pungent and heavy, with hints of citrus and mint. It’s the kind of smell that wafts into your nose and lingers there for hours, overpowering anything else with which your olfactory senses come into contact. I’ve smelled it in grocery stores in Guanajuato and outside of domestic kitchens in Mexico City not to mention in some of the Mexican neighborhoods here in NYC. I don’t know why I assumed the smell came from soap, I just did.

Last week, I found myself in Jackson Heights and I stopped into the charming El Sol de Azteca to grab a bite to eat. They had cemitas on the menu—a Pueblan sandwich stuffed with spicy pork, red onions, chipotles, lettuce, avocados and that Mexican string cheese called quesillo all piled high on a sesame seed bun. I’d never had one and was curious how it compared to a torta, another Mexican sandwich. I took a bite and was pleased by the crisp, buttery bun and the spice and juice from the meat and vegetables, but there was a hint of that smell, that funky flavor that I always assumed was detergent. I took the sandwich apart and found an herb. After tasting it, I realized that it was the source of that flavor. That smell wasn’t detergent, it was a plant!

I asked the waitress in my rusty Spanish what was the name of the herb. She smiled and said, “Papalo!” Papalo. Who knew? I finished my sandwich trying to savor this new flavor, but couldn’t quite work my head around the fact that what I always thought was soap was actually an herb. I now understood how those who can’t stand cilantro feel.

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