Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Remembering a Mesquite Tree and a Recipe

A venerable, old mesquite tree grew in front of our yard, almost obstructing the so-called street. This unpaved street would remain that way until 30 years later when I was long gone and far away from my hometown. The ubiquitous mesquites that grew near the Rio Grande were usually shrub height, but this one was old, its branches reaching probably 15 feet up into the blue skies. There was nothing better on a hot, dry day than biting into the red-striped mesquite pods that dangled from its branches to get to the sugary juice. The wood from it's fallen branches was perfect for our wood fires, and some of my father's carpenters sometimes made boxes for us out of this hardwood.

In recent months, I've had the faintest of memories about that mesquite appear, like little pieces of the puzzle of long ago events. A white dishtowel blows softly from a branch, hung there by my mother in expectation of a delivery. But a delivery of what? I've wondered lately if it was a delivery of corn masa, or corn tortillas. I even called my 99 year old aunt in San Antonio.

I've come to the conclusion, actually, that it was probably the barbacoa man. Early on Sunday mornings, I could hear his call: barrrbacooaaah. If the towel was out, it meant we would be wanting a delivery. In Laredo, this was a traditional Sunday breakfast for many people. This must be the case for all of northern Mexico as well, because I remember also, that when I visited my aunt Oralia in Monterrey, I would hear the same call early on Sunday mornings.

So, the white dishtowel on our mesquite would guarantee a delivery. This mesquite tree also offered shade for another old man who often passed our way selling frozen fresh fruit popsicles that he sold out of a cart with dry ice. When he got to our house, exhausted, he would spread a cloth under our mesquite and take a nap. The mesquite is gone now, chopped down in the early eighties, when the street was finally paved; Laredo, itself, is a completely different place. Only the spirits of all those who climbed this old tree, walked around it and slept under it remain. Part of me is always there, even though I've lived in and traveled to so many other places for so many years. But this is the place that made me what I am, this is the place that gave me a sense of what is right and wrong, the radar for false or authentic. This is where I learned that comfort, in part, comes from good food and the love that accompanies it.

I was thinking about the Taco Bell debacle last night as I wrote this. So, does it have more meat, less meat..where's the beef...blah, blah, blah...Why in the world would people eat food like this? Why would we addict our children to food like this? Why aren't there laws that regulate this industry more efficiently? Why don't we have the sense to know that we shouldn't put junk like this in our mouths or offer it to our children? Whew! Enough ranting for today. I had to get that out. So, where was I?

My mother never let us out of the house without breakfast. There was a variety of different things we would find at the breakfast table: atole, huevos a la mexicana, huevos rancheros, frijoles, etc., all served with warm tortillas. It's taken me years of living with my Italian husband to wean myself away from this hearty breakfast and have a simple Italian breakfast of cappuccino and a minuscule piece of bread. But sometimes...he's the one craving for huevos a la mexicana for breakfast. So, today, let me put out a typical breakfast served in most parts of Mexico: huevos a la mexicana. This is what I usually order for breakfast in San Miguel de Allende at Casa Carmen as Doña Beatriz, the cook, prepares them. When I was growing up, we just called them huevos revueltos con salsa.

The tortilla I try to eat with all my (Mexican) food is the traditional corn tortilla. The tortilla in Mexican food is a "spoon" used to pick up food. You can use the one-handed approach or use two "spoons" to scoop your food into the folded tortilla wedge.

Huevos a la Mexicana

Recipe Type: Breakfast

Author: Gilda V. Carbonaro

Serves: 2 to 4

  • 2 tbl Canola oil

  • 1 small onion (minced)

  • 1 large tomato (chopped in small cubes)

  • 1 serrano pepper (minced)

  • 5 eggs

  1. Coat the bottom of a non-stick pan with canola oil and cook the onion at low heat until it's almost transparent.

  2. Add the serrano pepper and continue to cook for about 3 minutes.

  3. Add the tomato and cook for only about 3-5 minutes.

  4. Don't wait until the tomato dissolves: you don't want runny tomato sauce in this dish.

  5. Add the eggs straight into the pan.

  6. Pop the yokes, add salt, stir and wait until all the egg has cooked.


This is not a bad thing to have as a lunch or light dinner, (not just breakfast), as long as you've got these basic ingredients.

Serve with hot corn tortillas that have been warmed on a comal (griddle). Enjoy!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Answer: Totopos

From time to time, too-far-away cousins email me questionnaires that solicit information about my favorite things, likes and dislikes and other random trifles. What socks are you wearing right now?  Great Dane or Chihuahua?  When was the last time you cried?  I take these inquiries very seriously, knowing that my relatives are trying to bridge the distance between us. None.  Great Dane. When I chopped onions this morning.

Then there are the questions about my favorite book, movie or food. These stump me. I agonize over the answers.  These questions are like asking me to choose between my children or to decide what I want to be when I grow up.  It’s much easier to articulate answers about the books I have no interest in reading, the movies that put me to sleep in the first twenty minutes or the few foods that motivate my gag reflex (e.g. liver).  There is, however, one exception.

My answer to the food question would be chips and salsa, but not the kind you find in the grocery store.  I’m talking about homemade fried or baked tortillas, called totopos in Mexico and a fresh salsa verde.

In The Art of Mexican Cooking, Diana Kennedy offers several variations for making totopos: fried, salted, baked, whole. raspadas or thin pieces.  I made last night (It's so easy!) and served them with some salsa verde.  Here’s what I did:  (Diana Kennedy’s directions are a bit more detailed than mine, but you may also want to consult her cookbook.): I cut 15 blue and white corn tortillas into triangles and heated about a cup of canola oil in a medium-sized frying pan.

I dropped the triangles into the oil (Test the oil by putting only one triangle in the pan; if the oil bubbles around the edges of the tortilla, it is hot enough.) and let them fry on each side for about a minute and a half.  I then scooped them out with a slotted spatula and placed them on three or four paper towels to drain the excess oil.

Next, I tossed them with some coarse salt and served with GVC's salsa verde.

Here also is my extremely simple guacamole recipe; this will make a nice dip for totopos


Recipe Type: Appetizer

Author: Gilda Claudine

Prep time: 15 mins

Total time: 15 mins

Serves: 4 to 6

  • 3 to 4 ripe avocados

  • 1 small tomato, diced

  • 1 small clove of garlic, mashed and minced (optional)

  • 1 or 2 Serrano or jalapeño peppers, cut in thin slices or minced (optional)

  • A pinch of coarse salt

  • The juice of 1/2 fresh lime

  1. Mash the avocados with a fork into a chunky pulp.

  2. Add the tomato and the garlic (and chiles), the salt and lime.

  3. Top with cilantro and a couple of the totopos.

What socks are you wearing right now? Great Dane or Chihuahua? Your favorite totopo accompaniment?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Atole de Maís

This cold January weather makes me think of the creamy atole de maís my mother used to make.  The last time she made it for me was a few years ago when she visited me in the fall and we shared a bowl one cold afternoon for la merienda.

Some people put vanilla in theirs; in my family it's just the corn masa, sugar, cinnamon, and milk.  For the corn masa, you can use Maseca, a corn meal used to make tortillas. Our mother usually served us this atole for breakfast.

Floria's Atole de Maís

3/4 cup of Maseca corn meal
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups milk warmed in a 1 quart pot
2 large cinnamon sticks broken up
2 vanilla pods

Place one cup of milk in a pot and warm over medium-low heat on the stove.  Gradually whip 1 cup of milk with a small whisk in to a bowl containing the masa.  When the corn meal and milk mixture in the cup is smooth, slowly add it to the milk on the stove. Continue to heat the atole in the pot,  adding the sugar and broken up cinnamon sticks. You may also add the vanilla.  Cook until the mixture begins to thicken. Some like it watery, others like it thicker. Stop cooking it when it's got the consistency you like.

Pour it into a bowl and eat it while warm.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Soy de Laredo…

Pasé la época de mi niñez en Laredo, Texas, allí nací y allí viví hasta los dieciocho años. En ese tiempo todavía no había muchas casas en esa zona de Laredo donde mi papá había construido la nuestra. Los campos estaban llenos de la flor de cebollín que me llegaba hasta las rodillas en la primavera. Pero en el verano, el suelo polvoso se partía en ranuras que casi se tragaban hasta los lagartos que abundaban. Esos campos abiertos eran el lienzo donde construía mis fantasías de muñecas bien vestidas y alimentadas.

A las niñas de ese tiempo no se les compraba bloques de construcción como los famosos Legos de hoy en día que son unisexo. Pero igual, si me los hubieran comprado, habría construido mi casita de muñecas. Por cierto, mi casa de fantasía era primitiva, ruda, delineada con piedras acarreadas y amontonadas para marcar las paredes; las sábanas puestas sobre sillas proveían esa poca de sombra bajo aquel sol brutal que ardía y no daba tregua. Aquí, debajo de las sábanas viejas puestas como carpa les preparaba las comidas a mis muñecas, a veces era simplemente, uvas machacadas puestas en platitos de loza o pedazos de tortilla mojada en melaza de la marca Brer Rabbit que compraba mi mamá. La ropa de las muñecas estaba hecha de los retazos que le quedaban a mi mamá después de habernos hecho la ropa a mí y mis hermanas.  Todo eso parece ser parte de un sueño, tanto como la alegría de la llegada de un hijo muchos años después.

En mis juegos de infancia había sentido el puro deleite de todo lo que iba a significar ser madre. Yo sé que no es 'políticamente correcto' (como decimos aquí en este país) decir que es de nosotras las mujeres que viene el instinto de nutrir, de poner una mesa completa para nuestra familia. Y, de hecho, no lo voy a decir...porque hoy en día, la realidad es complicada. Lo importante es que en una familia, alguien...ya sea el padre o la madre se ocupe de reunir la familia a la mesa cada día, aunque sea para una comida sencilla pero siempre sana. En mi caso, aunque he seguido muchos intereses en mi vida, y he llevado una carrera en lingüística y enseñanza de idiomas y cultura (recibí una maestría en lingüística de la Universidad de Georgetown en Washington DC y llevo más de treinta años de enseñar) no hay nada que haya tomado más prioridad en mi vida todos estos años como mi familia y nuestra mesa comunal. Sin querer decir mucho aquí ni en este momento, diré que una tragedia personal muy dura, una cosa que me quiso arrancar la mera vida, me dio una claridad en cuanto a prioridades (si no la tenía ya) que la vida es especial y es corta, y que hay que vivirla bien, que la celebración del día no está en las posesiones sino en tomar el tiempo para reflexionar a través de tradiciones y rituales que siempre han rodeado el acto de compartir el pan (¡o tortilla!) desde tiempos primordiales.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Luscious Taste of Verde

My mother always commented on the "greenness" of a taste when she added her serrano pepper to something or tasted the 'greenness' of a tomatillo sauce.  Es el sabor a verde que me gusta en esta salsa, she would say. (It's the green taste that I like in this sauce).

Here is a sauce that celebrates that fresh, green taste. I recently tried it at La Posadita in San Miguel de Allende where they first roast the tomatillo, giving it a smoky flavor. It's a perfect sauce for eggs (huevos rancheros), can be added to guacamole, slathered on meat after grilling or simply eaten with totopos (chips).   When the "greenness" hits your mouth, your tastebuds tremble with pleasure as the sauce mixes with the other tastes in your mouth.

Green Tomatillo Sauce

1/2 lb. tomatillos (about 4 green 'tomatoes' in their husks)
1 Serrano pepper (or more if you prefer)
1/2 to 1 clove of garlic
Bunch of cilantro leaves (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 of a mid-sized onion

Brown the tomatillos on a 'comal', a stove top griddle, for about 10 minutes until you see black patches on all sides. Then remove most of the black peel.
Throw the tomatillo and the rest of the ingredients, which are raw, into the blender and liquify.  Garnish with a sprig of cilantro.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lardo di Colonnata

Yes, that's right. Those white ribbons are lardo di Colonnata (LARD!), a very special sort of bacon with only the fat and cured the old-fashioned way in white marble vats for months and months here in this town, Colonnata, a town near Carrara where marble has been mined since Roman times.

I used the lardo to make a plain and simple bean soup. Just white beans, freshly hulled, with bits of lardo di Colonnata, a leaf of sage and a bit of olive oil. How many ingredients does it take to make a delicious and hearty dish?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cannellini in a Clay Pot

My friend, Matelda, came to my door yesterday with a clay cooking pot. The quintessential clay pot is unmistakably part of a cook's batterie de cuisine, but somehow I've come to be this old and never splurged on one. I have no answer as to why I never bought myself one, but having had one for all of two days here in Florence and breathing the fertile scent of earth, of clay, and of all things right in the world as our meal bubbles in the round, brown belly of the pot makes me nostalgic for times gone by.

I had to cure the pot first by soaking it in water for 12 hours. At the market this morning, the first thing I noticed was the freshly hulled cannellini. So, remembering how my mother cooked our beans in a clay pot with a round belly like this one, I decided that had to be the first thing I cooked in my new pot: beans. The difference here is that when they're ready, we will eat them as they usually do in Tuscany, simply with extra virgin olive oil

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Fiori di Zucca

The other day, my friend Chiara shared with me a bumper crop of zucchini blossoms from her vegetable garden in Lucca. Chiara showed up with a bag overloaded with all kinds of veggies from her garden, including zucchini blossoms. I have had to plan well to use everything she brought. But there's no better use of zucchini blossoms than how my friend Antonella in Rome makes them: stuffed with mozzarella and a tiny bit of anchovy, dredged in a bubbly yeast batter and then fried in hot oil. Not exactly a low-calorie item, but you only need to eat one...or two.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Perfect Cornetto

I've found the perfect breakfast cornetto. It's here at my neighborhood bar, Cibreo's. A cornetto is like a breakfast croissant, but it's so much more than a croissant. It's a cross between a brioche and a croissant. It's got eggs, butter and a little lemon zest.  It tastes light and airy and all things sinful. The French don't have any regrette!  I asked Isidoro, the barista, what it is about these cornetti that makes them so airy....something about the lievito controllato  or "managing your yeast," whatever that means!  Oh well, I just know that happiness is a hot-out-of-the-oven cornetto from Cibreo's with an equally perfect cappucchino to accompany it.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Walking through the mercato di Sant-Ambrogio in Florence, I always see these gigantic Sicilian lemons. I can almost picture them still swinging from their tree on some hillside by the sea under that magic sun of Sicily. Today I'm going to make a limoncello using my mother-in-law's recipe. It takes at least 10 days, but who is in a hurry? I've got my lemon peel, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, sugar and alcohol. In the meantime, there's much to do, to see, to eat...

Acqua Cotta

The next three photos are of acqua cotta, a perfect example of simple Tuscan fare. It's a summer soup made from sun-ripened tomatoes, onions, celery, basil and parsley. At the end, eggs are broken into the skillet. It is served in a bowl over a slice of old bread, and extra virgin olive oil is drizzled on top.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Gilda in Italia: Prosciutto e Fichi

In Florence, trees bursting with ripe figs are everywhere I look! Needless to say, I brake for figs! Their textured sweetness perfectly complements these gossamer shavings of prosciutto.