Something from Nothing: Ramiro’s Beef Stew

As a long time fan of both a) learning and b) free things, the relatively recent surge in available MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has me enraptured. Thanks to Coursera and EdX, as well as the many institutions they partner with, I’m on my eighth free, online course. While many study at their own pace, I tend towards the deadline-driven approach, keeping up with course material as it’s posted each week and trying my best to complete the occasionally rigorous, occasionally token assignments. The courses, while not worth any so-called credit, are my way of preventing a lapse in productivity and abundance of unallocated free time, which my anal retentive nature prefers to avoid at all costs (read: my sanity).

Whether or not the unnecessary rigidity is healthy or not, I’m certainly learning a lot of really fascinating things. I’m currently deep in focus on international development, exploring topics in subsistence marketplaces, forest livelihoods, and sustainable agriculture. One class has been providing a particularly rich experience through short videos of and interviews with people living in both rural and urban subsistence, with a focus on India.

As a relatively rich westerner with little exposure to poverty in day to day life, it can be hard to grasp what a simple, average life would look like isolated from the abundant, unappreciated wealth of the first world. Movies, television, and your average travel experience may offer glimpses of this reality, but generally fail to depict the mundane aspects of life that inform the human experience. Call me an anthropologist (which actually, I am), but to me the mundane holds the most meaning, value, and insight. Which is why I’m so excited that these straightforward videos answer simple questions like, “Where do you sleep?,” “Do you buy soap?,” “How do your children get to school?,” “When do you eat dinner,” and so on, providing an incredibly rich window into the daily life of billions.

 

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Why do I mention it?

Well, it just keeps making me think back to this past spring and the magical month I spent working on a small, off-the-grid ranch in Mexico, Rancho La Venta. The ranch was staffed by a small crew: the owners (a hard-working, dedicated ex-pat couple), one or two temporary helpers, and Ramiro, a Baja native and long-time ranch hand.

 

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And that’s why I mention it.

Largely isolated on the ranch, Ramiro was my window into life in La Sierra de la Laguna. His English was limited to a handful of words. My Spanish, a cruel amalgamation of Italian and Spanish unintelligible to either speaker, was a mess. But we worked with each other every day, and soon enough we were bantering – albeit disjointedly – comfortably enough that I became translator between him and my hopelessly Spanish-less (but expertly Australian) roommate.

Over the course of the month I got to know, piece by piece, a bit of his story. But the funny thing is that the most powerful exchange we had was not with words or pictures or even a shared wheelbarrow full of horse manure. It was a meal.

 

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Ramiro was – by his own reckoning – the best cook in his family. He was the requested chef for family events of all sizes, and never failed to bring a homemade lunch – albeit always the same one – to work. He had long promised to demonstrate his culinary prowess and one day finally showed up with a package of beef, a stack of handmade tortillas, and a fixin’ on makin’ good.

I watched him in action. Stern as a soap opera surgeon he requested: “Tomate.” “Patata.” “Poblano.” When what we had didn’t align with expectations, he made it work. To offers of assistance he merely raised a hand in silent dismissal. Taking a break only to march into the garden for a handful of scallions, Ramiro put on a nonstop show worthy of the finest in culinary entertainment. Finally, he turned and declared, “Finito.”

 

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Somehow that handful of incredibly simple – yes even boring – ingredients came together to make something not necessarily grander, but a whole lot more flavorful, than the sum of its parts. Hearty, yet somehow perfect even after a 95 degree day, this water-based stew had taken on new life in the 10 minutes it simmered together. Perhaps it was the beef, which likely came from a cow down the road, or the lovingly flowered cherry tomatoes, or the brave scallions just picked from our desert garden. I don’t know. However it happened, it did, and it will forever serve in my memory as a reminder that just because you have more shit doesn’t mean it smells any better. Not sure why it had to be a poop related adage, but there it is.

So if you use Ramiro’s lovely, simple, rustic, ranch stew as inspiration for your next meal, I hope you remember to keep it simple, and perhaps give a nod to others in the world making amazing things with what some might see as nothing.

 

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Ramiro's Beef Stew

  • Servings: Oh, plenty
  • Difficulty: fácil
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Ramiro used what we happened to have in our sparse pantry for this spur of the moment stew. I have listed those ingredients as best I can here, but in no way mean for them to be rigid instructions. You can adapt this very forgiving, incredibly simple recipe to your pantry as well, using whatever you happen to have, in almost whatever quantity.

Ingredients

  • Oil
  • Garlic, a few cloves, minced
  • Poblano, one or two, large diced
  • Scallion, two or three, chopped
  • Potato, a handful of small white potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • Cherry tomatoes, a handful, with two incisions made in the shape of a cross on one end so each tomato sort of opens up like a flower (this was Ramiro’s real showstopper move)
  • 7 oz. can of Herdez salsa casera
  • A few thin slices of beef, cut into bite-sizes pieces
  • Oregano
  • Black pepper
  • Handmade corn tortillas

Directions

  1. Add a swirl of cooking oil to a large pot over medium/high heat (we couldn’t really control the burner anyways). Then add the garlic, poblano, scallions, and chopped potatoes. Stir.
  2. Add the cherry tomatoes and can of salsa. Stir.
  3. Add the beef, and a generous pinch of oregano and black pepper. Cook until the beef is no longer pink.
  4. Add water. Maybe 1-2 quarts. Basically until it looks on the slightly watery side of “stewy.”
  5. Cook until the potatoes are tender.
  6. Eat with handmade corn tortillas.

Plug: If you’re ever in Baja Sur make sure to check out my friends at Rancho La Venta for a horseback ride through the beautiful mountains and a glass of mango wine! Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get a handshake from Ramiro too!

 

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Say Yes to New Mexican Posole

Part of the reason I’ve been out of commission, at least lately, was a visit from some long-lost world travelin’ New Mexican family. During this visit, though, despite the running around from Philadelphia institution to institution, I didn’t stop trying new things in the kitchen.  Just writing about it.

In fact, I got a little inspired. The combination of 1) my sad attempts to neaten the house, 2) a reminder of how amazing New Mexican cuisine is and 3) a guest’s encouragement to temporarily drop all concern for my vegan/carb-related instincts inspired me to tackle an ancient bag of hominy sitting in my cupboard — and with no nutrition-related hangups, which, you can probably tell, win me over a bit too often.

To give you some background, hominy is one of those staple foods that has basically kept entire peoples alive in Middle America up through the American west — much like cassava and other tubers have done in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s basically just dried maize kernels with their germ and hull removed either mechanically or through a good soak in lye (yes, lye). This prevents the grain from sprouting during storage and makes them an excellent source of nutrition during cold winters when other foods are scarce.

And one of the most hearty, simple, down home ways to serve this heartwarming foodstuff is in posole – a rustic stew originating in Mexico, but most delicious (if I do say so myself) in New Mexico. And thanks to some encouragement from some real New Mexicans (boyfriend included) I didn’t try to alter this one. This is NOT vegan. This is NOT low fat. This is full of pork. And full of pork fat. As it should be.

So if you’re harboring any healthy-hangups in need of a good whack, and you have a day with some well-loved family around, run on down to any of the numerous Mexican grocers in the Italian Market for a bag of hominy. And be sure to grab a big ole’ pork butt while you’re down there. To make Posole.

New Mexican Posole

Serves 4

  • 1/2 pound dried hominy
  • 1 onion (half quartered, half diced)
  • 1 pound pork butt (aka shoulder etc)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3-4 dried ancho chiles
  • salt, cayenne to taste

SOAK POSOLE: Soak the posole in a generous amount of water overnight. Drain and rinse.

PREPARE POSOLE: In a large pot add the posole and twice as much water as you have posole. Add quartered onion and about 1/2 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and let cook uncovered for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until the posole “blooms” or opens up like a pretty little flower. Add water if it begins to dry out.

MEANWHILE, PREPARE PORK: Place pork in another large pot and cover with water. Add diced onion, minced garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, and salt/cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook until the pork is cooked through and fork tender, 1-2 hours. Remove the pork, let cool completely and then pull apart with a fork.

THEN, PREPARE CHILES: Remove chile stems (and seeds if you want your posole less spicy — booooring), and soak in 2 cups of the hot broth that the pork cooked in for 20 minutes. Blend broth and chiles to make a firey red paste.

COMBINE: Add the pork, remaining pork broth and chile paste to the posole. Continue to cook for another 1-3 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water if it looks to be drying out. It’s finished when the posole is fully bloomed and tastes slightly chewy but pleasantly tender.  Be careful not to let it cook too long or your broth will lose flavor!

Taste, adjust seasonings, and serve with any number of delicious toppings: cheddar cheese, lime wedges, chopped cilantro, minced onion, shredded lettuce or cabbage, diced avocado…whatever your heart desires!

SO GOD DAMN GOOD.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Baked Apples with Leeks, Chestnuts and [Vegan or Not Vegan] Sausage

In a fit of domestic rage induced by two large chicken carcasses taking up the majority of my refrigerator, I decided to (in one weekday night) a) make homemade chicken stock, b) roast two pounds of fresh chestnuts and c) create two versions of a restaurant-quality dinner for my boyfriend and I — one vegan, one not vegan — from thin air.  Don’t ask me why.

Luckily, chicken stock is generally content to entertain itself.  Only a few simple chops and a toss in my brand new 12-quart stockpot and she was ready to go until just before bedtime.  The chestnuts, on the other hand, force you to put some skin in the game.  I saw my fingertips pass before my eyes quite a few times as I attempted to score the sides of these stubbornly encased little beauties.  But all-in-all the prep work was simple:

After thoroughly singeing both thumbs, I finally had enough chestnuts to embark on this ill-conceived culinary adventure: Baked Apples with Leeks, Chestnuts, and Sausage (half vegan half not vegan).

With no clear plan in sight but a vision in place, I assembled the ingredients that either a) I wanted to use up (for instance the leftover vegan “meatballs” from my Ash-e Anar experiment several days before) or b) I thought were necessary components (whiskey for deglazing and milk for moisture):

From there it was on the fly.  I prepared the two different fillings at once side by side — one non-vegan for my boyfriend with rice and no sultanas (lovely plump golden raisins that he hates and I adore), and one vegan with no rice and sultanas for me.

An hour of chaotic improvisation later, I was lucky enough to have these surprisingly gorgeous suckers emerge from the oven.  Hers:

And his:

To top it all off, two hours after dinner I had an enormous vat of delicious homemade chicken stock ready for a quick strain and a night cooling outside on the deck.  Despite a few moments of uncertainty and chaos, it was most definitely a successful Monday night.

Baked Apples with Leeks, Chestnuts, and Sausage

(with your choice of vegan or non-vegan filling)

HER VEGAN FILLING

  1. Heat nonstick spray and saute 1/4 of an onion diced until translucent.  Add 1-2 clove garlic minced.
  2. Add 1 small leek (white and light green parts only), washed thoroughly and chopped. Continue to saute until soft (adding more nonstick spray as necessary).
  3. Push leeks to the side of your pan and add about 1/3 cup worth of vegan sausage substitute, breaking into small pieces as it browns.
  4. Once sausage is thoroughly browned and you have a nice fond (the layer of bits that get crusted to the bottom of the pan when you saute things) going, add a dash of whiskey to deglaze the pan, making sure to scrape off all those good bits.
  5. Throw in a handful of sultanas, a handful of roughly chopped chestnuts, and a tbs or two of chopped flesh from your hollowed apples, and 1/4 cup soy milk.
  6. Continue to heat as you season with thyme, parsley, salt and pepper.  Remove from heat when sauce begins to thicken.

HIS NON-VEGAN FILLING

  1. Melt 1 tbs butter in a saute pan.  Add 1/4 of an onion diced and saute until translucent.  Add 1-2 clove garlic minced.
  2. Add 1 small leek (white and light green parts only), washed thoroughly and chopped. Continue to saute until soft.
  3. Push leeks to the side of your pan and add about 1/3 cup worth of sausage (pork, lamb, chicken, maple — or the vegan substitute if your non-vegan counterpart is up for it — whatever you’ve got), breaking into small pieces as it browns.
  4. Once sausage is thoroughly browned and you have a nice fond (the layer of bits that get crusted to the bottom of the pan when you saute things) going, add a dash of whiskey to deglaze the pan, making sure to scrape off all those good bits.
  5. Throw in a handful of roughly chopped chestnuts and a tbs or two of chopped flesh from your hollowed apples (and sultanas if you like :)), a handful of cooked rice, and 1/4 cup whole milk or cream.
  6. Continue to heat as you season with thyme, parsley, salt and pepper.  Remove from heat when sauce begins to thicken.

ASSEMBLE THE APPLES

  1. Preheat stove to 350 degrees.
  2. Slice off top of each apple (I used gala, because that’s what the corner store had) and scrape out the center with a small spoon or melon baller, leaving about 1/2 to 3/4 inch of flesh.
  3. Fill each apple with stuffing, and place in a baking dish.  Add a small amount of water or apple juice/cider (I had no apple juice so I placed the remaining bits of core from the hollowed apples in the bottom of the dish with enough water to cover the bottom).
  4. Bake for 20-30 minutes until apple is slightly tender to the touch.
  5. Serve with chopped parsley and some grated cheese for the non-vegan (I used a beautiful special-release cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland, Maxx 365 – the aged older brother of Scharfe Maxx, a classic creamy, meaty, and tangy treat — but any non-salty cheese will do, such as gruyere or comte).

Enjoy!