On many occasions over the past three months in Oaxaca, Mexico, I thought of what I might write for The River Reporter when I returned home at the end of March. Would it be about the one-day cooking …
On many occasions over the past three months in Oaxaca, Mexico, I thought of what I might write for The River Reporter when I returned home at the end of March. Would it be about the one-day cooking class I took where we made corn ice cream, passion fruit red snapper ceviche and three varieties of fresh salsa?
Or would I chronicle our weekly trips to the Friday market in the nearby town of Jalalatco, where, for the first time, I bought such exotic fruits as granada china, mamey and guanabana. I also found big, fat, fresh figs that went so well with the creamy goat cheese with herbs I got from a sweet woman vendor who sold nothing but goat’s milk cheeses, even a version of tangy parmesan.
Maybe I would wax poetic about the dozens of meals we had in a city known for its food. There were all kinds of restaurants, from homey to innovative to taco joints, where we savored our favorite, al pastor, warm tortillas filled with perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful pork meat tossed with grilled and charred pineapple chunks.
All over the city are eateries which offer what is called comida corrida or menu del dia. For around $7 or $8 (American dollars), we would be served a first course of a salad of mixed greens, long cucumber curls, tiny cherry tomatoes, strawberries and thinly sliced radishes in a cilantro vinaigrette or a creamy pureed spinach and potato soup topped with a couple zucchini flowers; a main course of chicken in an almond mole sauce or a slab of seared tuna that had been coated in chia seeds and arrived atop a slightly piquant salsa verde; then a simple dessert of something akin to custardy French toast dusted with cinnamon, served with fresh blackberries and a tiny scoop of homemade ginger or coconut ice cream.
Then, sometime in late January, word began trickling down about the coronavirus: begun in China but swiftly seeping into the world at large, and little by little becoming a threat with enormous, unfathomable ramifications.
Janet and I had planned to end our trip with a four-day visit to Mexico City, but by early March, museums and performance venues there were closing to the public, and soon after in Oaxaca, as well. We realized we’d be better off staying put. We began the task of canceling hotel and restaurant reservations we’d made in Mexico City, and listened with new ears to the murmurings circulating among us.
Things were beginning to collapse in our beloved Oaxaca and our hotel, Las Mariposas (The Butterflies) was clearly in danger of losing its footing. The many Canadians staying there, and then Americans, were being implored to return home. We watched our friends frantically rescheduling their returns to a fate that was eerily mysterious, and in the end, Janet and I were the last to bid farewell to the staff at Las Mariposas. By this time, the Oaxacans had taken to hugging themselves, arms wrapped tightly around their own shoulders, by way of showing that they wished to embrace us but could not.
We left Oaxaca only five days before we had planned to, and, as we hurriedly packed, we felt a great weight wondering what awaited us in the States. Friends who had previously left and arrived safely home to Wisconsin, Woodstock, NY, Toronto, Philadelphia and New York City were emailing daily about their experiences, both at the airports and when returning home to place themselves in self-quarantine for a minimum of two weeks.
The woman we had paid to drive us to La Guardia airport on January 3 and pick us up on March 24 did not let us down. She apologized for arriving late due to icy conditions upstate, and for donning a surgical mask and gloves. She graciously offered to stop in New Jersey at an enormous supermarket we frequent, to allow us to pick up much-needed foodstuff, as we were arriving home with nothing much in the fridge or larder.
Now home, the most important thing I have found, with regard to providing food for Janet and me, is to think creatively, using what is on hand in novel ways or with a little experimentation.
I found in the freezer a small package of picadillo, a sweet and savory mixture made with ground pork and beef spiked with lots of fragrant spices, raisins and capers. The mixture is versatile. It can be used to stuff empanadas or rolled inside flour tortillas and baked topped with salsa and grated cheese. I have eaten it over rice or various types of pasta, as well. In the basement, I found a bag of still-crispy blue corn tortilla chips, a jar of Ragu marinara sauce (for when I don’t have time to make homemade), and one of salsa. Since I’m never without a half-dozen types of cheese, I layered a shallow casserole dish with the chips, topped with the picadillo and a drizzle of tomato sauce and a few plops of salsa; laid some grated cheddar on top and put it under the broiler until bubbly. I showered it with chopped cilantro we’d picked up on the way home and the dish was hearty and tasty, and an indication of how I can cook creatively during this bizarre and uncertain time.
I hope to, and perhaps have to, come up with new and innovative uses for both what’s on hand and what we can get our hands on, during this ongoing crisis. We are in this together regardless of being physically separated. Food has always brought people together and that is a constant. Eat, cook, savor and stay safe.
1 – 1 1/4-pound ground beef or pork (or a mixture of the two)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 drained bottled pickled jalapeno chilies (about 1 1/2 tablespoons), finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves or allspice
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups chunky tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon drained tiny capers
1/4 cup chopped pitted green olives (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium sized skillet over moderately low heat. Add onion, garlic, jalapenos, cumin, chili powder, oregano, cinnamon and cloves to pan. Sauté, stirring, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over moderately high heat. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking up any lumps, until meat is no longer pink. Add tomato sauce or tomatoes, tomato paste, raisins, capers, red pepper flakes and olives (if using). Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add onion and garlic mixture to skillet, stir to combine, and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes, until it is thickened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Serve.