Namesake: Dad’s Chile Verde

February 22, 2012

Dad's dhile verde

Dad’s chile verde — even better the next day for breakfast.

Despite being descendents of mostly Eastern European stock, my parents introduced my sister and me to Mexican food at a fairly early age, which likely had to do with my dad’s early adult years. After leaving Wyoming, Dad lived in San Diego where he went to school. Later, when he got a job with Levi Strauss, and he and my mother bought a little bungalow in San Jose, next to a Mexican-American couple, John and Sarah Duarte. Or, as I knew them: Nina and Nino. I was born around that time, and Nina and Nino were designated my honorary godparents. Though I don’t remember living in that little bungalow, I do remember the many trips that Nina and Nino made to Salt Lake City over the years to visit us. I remember those times for the warmth and joy they brought with them, but also for the food. At an early age, I was introduced to traditional dishes like posole, nopales and menudo, none of which really appealed to my young palate. Of course with all of that also came the delicious thick homemade flour tortillas, hot off the griddle. I ate mountains of them as a kid.

When my parents moved to Utah, I can only imagine they each sought something familiar to make it feel like home. For my dad, that search seemed to be rooted in food, and he always was looking to discover the little dives for the most authentic Mexican flavors he could find.

I asked Dad about his chile verde recipe, and he told a story about working downtown and going to a cafe called La Paloma around the corner from his office on Exchange Place. He’d go in every morning around 7am to sip coffee, and talk to “Grandpa Joe” who was busy making the menu’s standards. While Grandpa Joe closely guarded his recipe for chile verde, Dad studied and made mental notes of the ingredients and proportions. In fact, this is the way my dad has always cooked, and always will. I don’t think he’s ever followed a recipe in his life: For him it’s all about interpretation, experimentation and knowing what flavors work well together.

During our annual President’s Day trip to Borrego Springs, I asked Dad to make his version of chile verde, the one I remember from my childhood, the one served for so many years at La Paloma. It tastes the way I’ve always remembered it: simple enough that the flavors of the basic ingredients stand out. It’s also got a lovely glossy texture thanks to a generous helping of roux. Of course, it’s good over a bean burrito, but even better the next morning just in a bowl. And with a homemade tortilla, hot off the griddle, it’s a taste of heaven.

Dad’s (Grandpa Joe’s) Chile Verde

1 1/2 pounds pork butt, cut into one-inch pieces

Cooking oil (Grandpa Joe used lard)

3 cups water

4 7-ounce cans diced green chiles

Granulated garlic (If you must measure, it’s, perhaps two tablespoons or so)

1/2 teaspoon-ish chile flakes

6 tablespoons flour for roux

1/2 large onion, diced

Pour a couple tablespoons of cooking oil into a Dutch oven or braising pan, add the pork pieces and season with salt. Place the pot over a medium flame and lightly brown the pork. (Don’t go overboard with the browning. Dad says it should remain “slightly rubbery looking.” Code for not-too-well browned.) Add the water, the canned chiles and the granulated garlic. Stir to mix and cover. Let simmer for about an hour.

Put about 4 tablespoons of cooking oil, lard or butter into a heavy-bottomed skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Add the flour to the pan all at once and stir until it’s well mixed. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until the roux becomes a rich golden brown, maybe 7 minutes or so. Stir the the roux into the simmering chile verde and let it all melt together. Simmer for another 15 minutes. Add the chile flakes and the diced onion. Cook only for another 5 minutes or so. Remove from heat and serve over burritos or in a bowl with flour tortillas. (Preferably homemade.)

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Sunday Dinner: Cacio e Pepe

February 5, 2012

Cacio e pepe finished

Fresh pasta, cheese and fresh ground pepper.

I’ve been sitting with this post for weeks now, unable to find words to adequately describe this beautiful simplicity of this dish. While I have many go-to recipes, my favorite dishes are often those with few ingredients that commingle perfectly. Cacio e pepe is one of those dishes. Fresh pasta, butter and olive oil, generous amounts of black pepper and salty Italian cheeses. Smug in my restraint, I thought: “This will be a beautifully minimalist post that shall represent the serene minimalist nature of the recipe.” How very zen.

But then I began to daydream about how this recipe may have come about. I imagined a slight Roman woman with knotted hands, children grown and in their own homes. She’s attending to the day’s housework in summer’s heat, sweeping, scrubbing, hanging laundry on the balcony to dry in the sun; and she’s cooking the night’s meal in a sweltering kitchen. I imagined that, after a long day of his own work, the tired husband returns home and sits down to his repast. They exchange tired looks and scant words about the day’s high points when he makes the fatal error:

“This needs more pepper.” “It doesn’t need more pepper.” “It does.” “It’s fine the way it is.” “I’d prefer it with more. Mamma makes it with more pep … ”

She snatches up the plate, whisking it back to the kitchen where she begrudgingly grinds a sneeze-inducing amount of pepper into the pasta, muttering: “Your mother (grind, grind, grind)… I’ll show your mother. You want (grind) more (grind) pepper (grind, grind, grind) I’ll give you  more (grind, grind, grind) blasted (grind, grind) pepper.”

And thus the spicy, salty, buttery combination was born, a happy accident born out of the weariness of a long day. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

Cacio e Pepe (Adapted from Bon Appétit)

1 pound fresh egg pasta (like spaghetti)

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper, or more to taste (ahem)

1 cup grated Grana Padano

1/2 cup Pecorino

Bring four quarts of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta for one to two minutes — it should be slightly underdone. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.

In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter along with the olive oil. Add the pepper, swirling to incorporate. Add 2/3 cup reserved pasta water and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and the remaining butter; using tongs coat the pasta with butter and pepper. Reduce heat and add the Grana Padano, mixing with the pasta until melted. Remove from heat and add the Pecorino, working the cheese into the pasta until it melts and the pasta is evenly coated, and al dente, adding more pasta water if it seems dry.

Serve with a medium-bodied Italian red like Langhe Nebbiolo, and toast your beloved and your good fortune at having discovered this dish. And, for the love of god, please don’t bring Mamma into it.