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  • As my wife will proudly tell you, she hails from peasant stock. Her parents grew up in a mountainside village in Turkey that had no electricity. She fondly remembers helping her grandmother tend her garden and prepare meals on a wood-fired stove. They were locavores; meat, packaged foods and sweets were luxuries except at Byram, the feasts marking the end of Ramadan, and these were community occasions where one of the more well off families would sacrifice and roast a lamb whole. And ever since, she has had a strong preference for simple foods, simply prepared.

    My upbringing was a bit different. Our family was middle-class culturally, but money was short when I was young in the 1950s. We had a vegetable garden and my grandmother cooked for us too, but we had meat, chicken and sometimes fish regularly, and eggs from our flock of two dozen chickens. One by one, those hens ended up in the stew pot as my father decided raising them was costing more money than it saved. Some ended up in our chest freezer in the basement that my father built from an old compressor, copper tubing, a big washtub and many layers of Homosote for insulation. So, even though I never felt particularly deprived, I knew frugality too.

    We had a milkman and a breadman visit us once a week, but mostly shopped in a grocery store in the town center that had wooden shelves, a tin ceiling, and two noisy cash registers. Mostly we bought staples there, plus meat and vegetables, fresh and frozen. In summer and fall, we got apples, pears and peaches from an orchard in town and grapes from an Italian man my parents knew. I recall being jealous of a schoolmate who said his family had Coke and potato chips on Friday evenings, as they watched TV. We didn't have a TV yet, and so I was allowed to go to the house of a neighbor who did to watch the afternoon kids shows, without snacks.

    It wasn't until I went to college and shared an apartment that I realized I enjoyed cooking. That was good, because I couldn't afford to eat out every night. Not that I cooked well—it was hard to rustle up very palatable meals from tough cuts of meat and frozen vegetables, ignorant of techniques, herbs and spices. So me and my mates ate lots of pasta with red sauce and salad with iceberg lettuce and boxcar tomatoes. But the joy of cooking got under my skin and has itched me ever since.

    From travel and eating out more often, over the years my tastes broadened and my repertoire of recipes grew. During my hippy macrobiotic period, I cooked a lot of brown rice and root vegetables. When that got old, I delved into Chinese cooking, but had to visit restaurants to get some of the Asian ingredients that you now find in supermarkets. A month in New Mexico got me fired up about Southwestern cuisine. From a visit to Southeast Asia I brought home an appreciation for ginger, lemon grass, lime leaves, shiitake mushrooms, stir-fried noodle dishes and satay sticks. And after I learned the delights of wild mushrooms and how to forage for them, I used them whenever I could.

    Nowadays, I cook for my family pretty much every night, but my wife and daughter's preference for simple fare constrains my culinary creativity. Thankfully, they like mushrooms, but complex sauces and experimental combinations of ingredients aren't to their taste. Curries and spicy stews with exotic flavors are out, and creamed dishes beyond mac and cheese aren't welcome either. It feels a little like I'm in Lake Woebegone sometimes, minus the hamburger helper and the ring of lime Jell-O with embedded pineapple chunks. And no pork chops with applesauce either. My wife grew up Muslim, so no pig meat.

    When guests come for dinner I have a bit more leeway to make fanciful food. My lady and I discuss the menu and she usually fixes a grain dish and a salad while I fuss over an entree, vegetables, and hors d'oevres. But it gets complicated because one guest is vegan, another can't handle milk products, another may be allergic to shellfish, eggs, or nuts, another is diabetic, and then there's the gluten thing. So help me, I don't remember this stuff coming up, say, twenty years ago, and wife says there's much less of this in the Old Country, although it's a trend there too. I blame food additives, pesticides, and synthetic frankenfoods for screwing up our digestive tracts. And that's why our family has a shopping rule that any prepared food with more than six ingredients should stay on the shelf.

    So if you'll excuse me, I have to start cooking now. Before I go, I'll leave you with one of my favorite recipes my family won't let me make any more. (But I did tonight, just to spite them, because re-reading it brought back such delicious memories.) Bon appetite!
  • Posole: A southwestern stew of hominy, peppers, onions and meat

    Posole (pozole) is Mexican food, but I first found it in New Mexico. Sometimes it is made with red chilis, but my favorite version uses green ones. The dish is usually made with reconstituted dried slaked corn (posole), which is also known as hominy. Dried hominy is hard to find in many areas, but canned hominy — which is less toothsome — is available in the Hispanic section of many supermarkets. Both white or yellow hominy are canned; in the Southwest blue corn dried posole is also used.

    Posole is usually a thin broth containing bits of ground pork or beef. I prefer shredded or diced pork, but beef, lamb, and turkey are decent substitutes. I also like to use appropriate stock, because the better the base, the better the soup. You can add beer to the stock if you like.

    In Mexico, posole is often accompanied by pieces of crisped tortillas, chopped cilantro, sour cream and lime wedges. Hotness and taste depend on the type and amount of peppers used. Mixtures of peppers can be tuned to obtain any desired intensity of heat and flavor.

    Ingredients for 6-8 servings
    2 15-oz cans white hominy, drained, liquid retained
    1 12-oz bottle non-bitter light beer, or stout if you want to be bold
    1+ quart robust pork, beef, turkey or chicken stock
    3 medium onions, peeled, quartered and sliced into 1/4 inch strips
    8 oz baby bella or oyster mushrooms, sliced (optional)
    1.5 lb uncooked shredded or minced pork, beef, lamb or turkey
    6 green peppers: Jalapeno, Poblano, Anaheim, Cubanelle, or bell, roasted, peeled, and cut into 1-inch by 1/4-inch strips
    4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
    1 tsp Cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
    1 tsp Coriander seeds, toasted and crushed
    1 tsp dried or 1 Tbs fresh oregano
    2 Tbs white wine or rice vinegar
    1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
    2 bay leaves
    3 Tbs olive oil
    2 tsp sugar
    Salt to taste
    Your favorite hot sauce (optional, for adding more heat)
    Lime wedges, Torn tortillas, shredded cheese, sour cream, and nopalitos (pickled cactus), if available, for garnishes

    Roast the peppers: Heat oven to broil, arrange peppers on a foil-lined baking sheet and place two inches from the flames. After about 10 minutes turn and keep turning until all sides are charred and blistered. (Alternatively, hold peppers one at a time over a high burner with a long fork or metal tongs, turning to char as evenly as possible). Place charred peppers in a paper bag to steam until cool enough to handle. One at a time, cut off tips over a bowl to catch any juice that runs out. Peel the peppers and discard skins. Scraping with a knife works best. Remove and discard ribs and seeds and cut into strips that you place in the bowl with the juices.

    Heat the stock in a heavy 3-qt stockpot, and when bubbling add beer and bay leaves. Add meat, and when boiling turn heat to low. If meat is fatty, first fry it in a non-stick pan and drain away the fat.

    Sauté onions in olive oil until translucent. Turn heat to high, add optional sliced mushrooms, and stir-fry for two minutes. Turn heat down to medium, cover and cook, turning every minute, for five minutes. Uncover, add minced garlic, and toss for two more minutes.

    Skim foam and debris from top of stock. Add onion/mushroom mixture to pot, turn heat up and bring to a boil. Turn down and simmer for 20 minutes. Add hominy, half its liquid, peppers, vinegar, Worcestershire, sugar, and optional hot sauce, turn down and let simmer for 30 minutes, skimming occasionally.

    Stir in cumin, coriander and oregano, and salt to taste. Serve steaming hot in bowls with tortillas and garnishes.

    Mmm... posole and some garnishes from Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
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