Friday, October 29, 2010

Git Along Little Dogie

Woolly Bully

The sound of exasperated and terrified bawling and mooing came from the old corral. About 50 cattle milled about in the limited space. A large white bull snorted and stamped the ground near the barbed wire fence where I stood watching as a tiny calf, all ears and eyes approached me, his curiosity overcoming his reticence. Fawn colored, his umbilical cord was still attached. Such a sweet little thing!
Sweet little calf and it's mom
 But there is no use getting attached to any of these animals...this is a working ranch. All the animals have to pull their weight, and after they have, it will be off to the meat packing plant to satisfy humans' insatiable desire for beef.

Still, these cattle have it good by Mexican cow standards. They are owned by the family of our friend Beto Corella, and they are extremely well cared for as Mexican cattle go. They are well fed and watered, vaccinated and nurtured along.

The ranch house porch
Beto and his wife Vicky invited us out to the ranch for a picnic. After 45 minutes of bouncing along a maze of unsigned dirt roads while leaving billowing clouds of dust behind us, we were definitely ready to arrive. The ranch house itself was primitive. The kitchen opened onto a wide  porch covered with corrugated aluminum.

Inside the kitchen was a blackened hearth and a tiny cement sink. In the center was a table with chairs made from tractor seats. This definitely was a man's hideout!

We all squeezed onto the shady part of the porch as the day was unseasonably warm. Meanwhile Tichi, Beto's mom, wiped down the metal chairs for us to sit and relax while Beto checked with his ranch hands about the animals and then started a fire for the picnic.

Gradually the female cattle were herded into a smaller corral off to one side. One of the ranch hands pulled on a long plastic glove that reached to his shoulder. After each cow was secured so that it could not move, he reached inside them with the gloved hand to feel if each was pregnant. These were real cowboys, doing real cow stuff. None of this nonsense about riding around and shooting at bad guys and Indians. They were testing a statistical sample to see what percentage of the cows would produce babies in the spring. This is a for-profit ranch in the hinterlands of Banámichi, and, as with any business, productivity is an issue.

I recall last year hearing Beto say that the bull "wasn't doing his job." Apparently that meant that not enough cows were being impregnated. This year the bull must have done well - 7 out of 10 cows were pregnant. At the end of the day, the remaining 3 females were loaded into a trailer to be taken to Beto's farm where they would be artificially inseminated. They cow has a job to do, and do it they must, want to or not.

Beto chopping wood for the cooking fire
 Meanwhile, back at the ranch (I've always wanted to use that expression in it's original context!), lunch was being prepared. Of course here in Sonora it could only be one thing - carne asada - grilled beef. Somehow it seemed a bit crass to cook and eat beef in front of the herd, but they were sufficiently disturbed at finding themselves in the corral that they didn't seem to notice.

Beto and Vicky cooking Carne Asada
The beef in Mexico is a bit different than what we get in the states. It is not grain fed, nor is it hung and aged, but it is often aged on the hoof -that is it comes from an old animal, and so will be quite tough and stringy. This problem is solved by slicing it very thin and then cooking it over mesquite coals. Then it is chopped into tiny pieces and put into a tortilla with pico de gallo (Salsa of fresh onion, tomatoes, green chile and cilantro), guacamole, and the ever present salsa de chiltepin. By the time it is eaten, the toughness is not noticed.

Yummy picnic: Carne Asada Tacos
This time of year in late October it is chiltepin season. The chiltepin is a tiny red pepper (the size of a small black peppercorn) that grows wild in truly inhospitable conditions. People have tried to domesticate it and grow it in gardens, but apparently, to no avail. It only grows in parts of Sonora and along the US border, and the salsa that is made from it is a specialty of this region.

Bowl of chiltepins
Chiltepins are VERY hot! On the Scoville scale, they are hotter than cayenne, but not as hot as habaneros. One tiny little red globe will make a bowl of soup very hot indeed. Recently I heard a tale of a fairly naive man who was convinced to pop one in his mouth and chew it up. His face turned bright red, and when he could breathe again he said "I shouldn't have done that!"

 Salsa de chiltepin is prepared from tomatoes, onion, garlic, seasonings and a certain number of chiltepins to taste - a few for a mild salsa, more for an incendiary one. Being a chile lover, I can attest to its intense heat, and also its excellent flavor.

Chiltepins on the bush
Part of our day at the ranch was spent in walking up a small dirt track into the desert and looking for chiltepin bushes. Whenever we found one we picked as long as we had patience - it is a slow and painstaking process.

It is a tradition that if you pick on somoeone else's land that you give them 1/3 of your pickings. Beto however would not take any, so we brought ours home to dry and store for future salsas.

I have not yet made the salsa - there is a woman who makes it and sells it door to door in Banámichi, and so far I have purchased it from her. It seems such a hard way to make a living! But this last time, Dan proclaimed it too hot to eat, so when this lot is gone I will attempt to make some that is milder.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Tichi and I crocheting on the shady patio
As he sun was setting we piled back into the vehicles for the trip home. The cowboys rode in the back of Beto's truck, Mexican style. The 3 non-pregnant cows lurched and tumbled about in the trailer as it bounced over the pot-holes. Back in the vehicle behind the trailer, their eyes glared wide and frantic in our headlights. Occasional "MWRAAAA!" sounds emanated as we crept along. Finally we saw the lights of the tiny pueblo of Las Delicias in front of us, and we were almost home. The journey for the 3 cows was just beginning.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall has Fell

Inter-not Update:
When we arrived this time, there was a note stuck to our door that TelMex had visited us several days earlier. Dan checked the router as soon as he walked in the door. "I think it's working!" he shouted! With shaking hands he plugged everything in and fired up the computer. "By Damn! It works!" he said. We don't know how this happened. o far as we know, no one has died and released a port. At any rate, we are now enjoying high speed internet, and we are as happy as clams with our new services.

Fall has Fell:
When I was 8 or 9, my group of friends and I used to repeat to each other,  "Spring has sprung, fall has fell, summer will be as hot as hell!" Then we would laugh out loud because we had gotten away with saying a naughty word.

This year I said naughty words all summer because this summer truly was hellish. The heat was long, intense and humid - a deadly combination. Normally I am fairly stoic about the heat, but this year it drove me nuts. There was no reprieve, no way out - no matter which way I turned, it was just plain hot. I sweated buckets and took lots of showers and grumbled a lot to whoever would listen.

That is until we arrived back in Banámichi a few days ago. It has cooled down here - literally overnight -  and the  weather is delicious - 70's in the daytime, 50's at night. last!  With a huge sigh of relief I am settling back into my glorious outdoor lifestyle.

With the cooler weather has come the red chile harvest - a time that is very important to the inhabitants of the Rio Sonora - and to me.

A couple of days ago we drove to the tiny pueblo of La Estáncia where many of the red chiles are sold.
The ristras - long narrow wreaths of chiles - were hanging from walls, doors, and from racks by the side of the road. We stopped at one farm where a sea of gorgeous dark red blanketed the entire area in front of the barn.The chiles were being dried and sorted, the ones not destined to become ristras to be ground up into a fine powder called "Chile Colorado."

Seeing the chiles brings joy to Elena's heart. (Remember Elena?) This is where I feel a deep connection to Mexico and the  people who share my love of the sauce made form Chile Colorado. It is a deep red, fiery hot, sensuous and delectable flavor. I could drink it with a straw. It makes all my mucous membranes tingle and come alive. My eyes might water and I may gasp for air, reach for beer, milk, any nearby liquid to quench the fire, but I can't stay away from the stuff. I am addicted to it. It is one of my favorite foods in this lifetime!
Ristras for sale at the farm
Ristras hanging in a doorway

A sea of red chiles
Sorting chiles for powder
Those of you who are not familiar with Chile Colorado may wonder what to do with the stuff. A few years ago, a friend with an extended Hispanic family taught me what to do with the pods themselves.

Chile Colorado Sauce (from  fresh or dry pods)

Start with more of the pods than you think you will need - lots - at least several pounds - the sauce freezes well. Carefully wash the pods and remove the stem end. Scoop and rinse out all the seeds (they are way hot - if you use your fingers, be sure not to touch any mucous membranes!) Bring a big pot of water to boiling. Drop a handful of pods at a time into the boiling water until they are re-hydrated and a bit soft. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and put them in a blender. Add just enough boiling water to make the blender go and grind up the pods into a thick slurry. Pour the slurry into a food mill or heavy duty strainer and squeeze, press, or mill until the slurry goes into the container below and only the dry chile skin fragments remain. Discard those. Repeat until all your chiles are used. Now you can use the sauce directly, or put it in baggies and freeze until you need it.

Red Chile pods
If you have some Chile Colorado powder, you can still make a perfectly delectable sauce.

Chile Colorado from Powder

Measure out about 2/3 to 3/4 of the powder.
Pour 1 quart chicken stock into a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
Very slowly add the chile powder to the stock, stirring with a wire whisk to break up lumps.
Whisking occasionally, simmer uncovered for about 30-45 minutes until liquid is reduced by about half and the resulting sauce has thickened enough to coat a spoon. Sauce is ready to use.

OK, you say, now what? Will the stuff be hot? You bet your sweet bippy it will be hot. How hot will depend on the variety of chiles you use. They come in various degrees degrees of ability to burn the mouth. If you have gotten a batch of hotties, and you have tender taste buds, I suggest you dilute the sauce with some good quality tomato sauce - the kind that comes in those little cup sized cans, not spaghetti sauce. A 1-1dilution is good. You can do more tomato sauce if you want, but with too much, the flavor of the tomato will overwhelm the chile flavor, which is a real shame.

A very simple way to use the sauce is to spoon it over grilled chicken breasts.
You can pour a couple of cups of it into a crockpot with a hunk of beef and in 6-8 hours you will have a delectable dinner.

You could also use it as the sauce base of chicken enchiladas.

The first way I ever tried Chile Colorado was in a Mexican restaurant in Durango, Colorado. They half-filled a soup bowl with cooked pinto beans, added some grilled chicken and then smothered the whole dish with a sizeable quantity of the sauce. Add a bit of cheese and some sour cream or guacamole and you will think you have died and gone to heaven. It is pure ambrosia.

This tells you a bit about Elena's tastes. I hope you will love this stuff as much as I do. If you don't live where you can purchase ristras or pure chile powder, DO NOT use the red so-called "chile powder" that is adulterated with garlic powder, cumin, salt or whatever. You will be sorry. It is NOT GOOD. It is a poor facsimile of the real thing. Sometimes grocery stores carry cellophane packages of dry red chile pods - especially in areas where there is a sizeable Hispanic population. Use those.

Good luck and my  blessings for happy meals that evoke the warm sunny climate and the cheerful loving people of the Rio Sonora.