Tag Archives: New Mexico

NATIVE PLANTS. DURANGO, CO

For the past few days we have been in Durango, Colorado for the annual meeting of the New Mexico Native Plant Society. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? The story goes that nearby Farmington, New Mexico sits in the desert and oil patch of northwest New Mexico with limited native plants. Durango feels isolated from the rest of the Colorado Native Plant Society but has an abundance of native plants. The two cities decided to merge their membership in New Mexico. On top of that, Durango lies at the base of the San Juan Mountains, arguably the most beautiful range of the Colorado Rockies. The mountains are filled with old-growth forests, spectacular wild flowers, and stunning trails. Besides, Durango is a quaint gold and silver mining town from the 1880s with a lot of beautiful Victorian buildings. It is the center for river trips down the Animas River, hub for mountain bikers, and the terminus of the famous Durango and Silverton Rail Road, a vintage narrow-gauge train that takes passengers on a scenic trip through the San Juans to another old mining town, Silverton. With all of that going on, it was not surprising that the meeting sold out well in advance.

At these annual gatherings, Susan always goes to the meetings and field trips. I never do either one. I usually strike out on my own for a private photo shoot. This year was no different except that I didn’t wander that far afield. Because of a crash of my Adobe Lightroom software, I wound up having to post some images from my iPad and iPhone. Apologies for the quality.

The first night we ate at the Mahogany Grille of the Strater Hotel. This landmark was built in 1887 and has been lovingly and beautifully preserved. We were looking forward to our experience, because the restaurant promised fine dining in an antique setting. We were not disappointed with the room, but the dining did not really fulfill the concept of fine dining. For starters, the place was jammed with tourists in short shorts, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Durango is a classic summer tourist town overwhelmed by huge extended families of  all ages, sizes, dress, and demeanor.

The host sat us at a very private booth in the back of the room, so that took care of the crowds problem. The menu sounded very interesting with bruschetta and various toppings, elk chops, lots of grilled meats, corn chowder and what sounded like tasty salads. The kitchen gave it a good effort, but my glazed salmon came out dry and a little burned on the bottom, and Susan’s Colorado trout (That should be local and straightforward) came out so dry that Susan had to ask for some melted butter as a sort of sauce. All in all, a bit of a disappointment, but still a pleasant experience in a great old hotel.

The next night was another story. We were staying in the student apartments at Fort Lewis College, located on a mesa top with the San Juans as a backdrop. A lovely, if Spartan, setting. Because of the long day of walking behind us, we decided to try the college’s “All You Can Eat Buffet” at the student center. The choices included the mashed potato bar with cheese, sour cream and bacon bits, the salad bar, pizza, and the night’s special: tamale pie with grilled chicken. I had forgotten what dorm food can taste like. This brought back memories of my youth. We did not go back for seconds. In fact, we didn’t finish firsts. But the high school and college students who were participating in summer programs seemed to love it. Of course, their favorite was the pizza.

Here are a few of my food images from our two dining-out experiences as well as some shots from my trip along the route of the D&SRR and the San Juan Mountains.

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SOPAIPILLAS AND HONEY

A swarm of bees has invaded one of our canales, the little troughs that drain rain water from the flat roofs of New Mexico. We don’t know the first thing about bees, so that prompted a call to the local bee expert who advised that we call Nicolas, an expert bee keeper who specializes in extracting bee hives. Part of his fee is that he keeps the queen bee for a new pollinator hive. He has many hives that he moves around the orchards and farms of Northern New Mexico. Nicolas grew up in Provence, helping his uncle move hives in the fields of lavender that are so well known in that part of France.

“Nico” assessed our situation and then returned with his bee-keeping gear including his netted hat, heavy boots, and full-length coveralls with thick gloves that extended to his elbows.

 

Nico in full bee-protective gear

Nico in full bee-protective gear

Unfortunately, the bees proved more aggressive than usual, although Nico did not believe they had been Africanized. Still, he did not want to use the queen with her “bad genes”  in his pollinator hives. He did plan to capture the bees without exterminating them. That required a new strategy, and we are still waiting for Nico to come back with additional equipment.

As spring has arrived, the bees have become more active. In fact, they dive bomb us during the afternoon if we walk below their nest. They are more peaceful when they are busy among the flowers.

 

As a gift, Nico brought us a small jar of honey collected from his bees.  He has a business where he sells his honey, Fool’s Gold Honey. That made me think about ways to use honey beside just smearing it on a hot biscuit. What could be a better alternative than a Northern New Mexico sopaipilla? Sopaipillas are deep-fried flaky puffs  very similar to the beignets of New Orleans. They are also related to Navajo (or Pueblo) fry bread and buñuelos that are such important parts of Southwestern cuisine.

As to sopaipillas, there is no doubt that they originated in Northern New Mexico. My first memory of them was in 1948 when I visited my aunt and uncle, then living in Los Alamos. The recipe that follows is theirs.  The popularity of sopaipillas has spread throughout the Southwest, and they now are on the menus of practically every Tex-Mex restaurant, including those in New York City. They are usually served at the end of a meal with honey and maybe butter to pour inside, but they can be dusted with powdered sugar, coated with honey, served with jam, or even stuffed with chili con carne or carne asada as a main dish. Any way you eat them, they are delicious.  My most memorable sopaipillas – actually non-sopaipillas – were served years ago in the Cactus Taqueria in Dumas, Texas. The restaurant is no longer open. While traveling, our family stopped for lunch. We ordered the usual tacos and enchiladas. Sopaipillas were promised as dessert. Next to us, three cowboys were just finishing their meal, so the waitress delivered three big sopaipillas. At first, each of the cowboys poured honey into his dessert from a plastic dispenser sitting on the table. Shortly, one of the cowboys, unsatisfied with the flow of honey from the dispenser, stuck the end in his mouth and sucked away. We paid our bill as quickly as we could, and left with the waitress chasing after us shouting, “You still have your sopaipillas coming!”

Sopaipillas are very simple, and very easy to make, but there are a few tricks. First, the dough needs to be rolled to the right thickness. Too thick or too thin, and they will not puff up. Second, the oil for frying must be the right temperature – close to 400ºF. Otherwise they will not puff and/or become greasy. Finally, they need to be held under the surface of the oil for awhile when you first put them in the hot oil.  Otherwise they will not puff up. If they don’t puff up immediately or completely, they will not.

RECIPE

Sopaipillas

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
  • ¼ cup water

Method

  1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the lard or shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
  2. Add the water and knead gently until the dough comes together. If it is too sticky, add another teaspoon or so of flour. If it is too dry, add more water, a few drops at a time until the dough holds together and forms a smooth ball.
  3. Turn the dough onto a heavily floured surface. Knead gently by flattening it out, folding it in half, flattening out again, and folding in half again. Repeat the process 10 or so times. Then form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 15 minutes
  4. Place the rested dough on a floured surface and roll it out into a rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Cut into rectangles, squares, or triangles about 6 inches on a side.
  5. Cover the individual pieces with a cloth while you prepare to fry them.
  6. Heat at least 3 inches of oil in a heavy skillet or deep-frying pot to 400°F. When the ol is hot, gently drop one or two pieces of dough in the oil. With a spatula or pancake turner, hold the pieces under the surface of the oil until they start to puff. When the sopaipillas are brown underneath, turn them over and brown on the other side. Remove from the oil, and drain on several thicknesses of paper towel. If you wish, at this point drench the hot sopaipillas in powdered sugar or a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Keep the finished sopaipillas in a warm oven (170 – 200°F) while you finish cooking the remaining pieces of dough. Serve with honey and butter while still warm.
  7. This should make 10 to 15 6-inch sopaipillas.

After I had written this post, I realized that I had already written about sopaipillas nearly a year and a half ago (October 9, 2013).  Worse, I had told the same stories about my aunt and uncle and about eating sopaipillas in the Cactus Taqueria. I guess that’s because good stories are worth hanging on to, or more ominously I should chalk it up to old age. I need to ask my kids if I have started to repeat myself. I don’t think I want to know the answer.

I have included some of the images from the earlier post, but as a  request for forgiveness, I have added some images of the wildflowers and garden flowers that have attracted bees from our hive.

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BOSQUE DEL APACHE AND GREEN (RED) CHILE CHEESEBURGERS

Last week we drove south to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico. The refuge sits on the bank of the Rio Grande and is one of the largest winter stopovers on the Central Flyway. There are thousands of water birds during the months of November through March. The largest colonies include snow geese, Canada geese, and Sandhill cranes; there are ducks of all sorts as well.

The main shows are always the flight at sunset when the geese and cranes settle in to ponds for safety during the night and then again at sunrise when the birds fly off in clouds to head to feeding grounds throughout the region. We were a little disappointed this year, because the evening spectacle was not as impressive as in the past. In part that is because some of the birds have already begun to head north in the spring migration.

Still, we enjoyed the birds of winter. We saw pintails, shovelers, mallards, many other ducks, and grebes. There were Gamble quails, red-winged blackbirds, herons, roadrunners, dozens of red-tailed hawks, and a merlin. Reportedly there was a trumpeter swan and a bald eagle around, though we didn’t see either one – we have seen them in the past.  We also saw a peccary and a skunk. It was a treat for anyone who enjoys wildlife.

After the evening flight, we stopped for a relaxed meal at the Buckhorn Bar in the nearby hamlet of San Antonio. This one-street town is probably the epicenter for the New Mexico green chile cheeseburger passion. Cafés and greasy spoons all across the state offer their version of this delicacy, but the Buckhorn and its big competitor, the Owl Bar and Café, sit just across the highway from one another, and both have at one time or another vied for the title of best green chile cheeseburger in the world if not the universe. Just down the interstate the McDonald’s and Burger King in Socorro, the largest nearby town, offer their versions of the sandwich, and a local gasoline station also serves a very tasty rendition, so there is no lack of opportunities to enjoy a GCCB, as the locals call it.

The standard question that is asked by the server in any New Mexico roadhouse is, “Red or green?” That means you are supposed to tell him or her whether you want red or green chile on top of whatever you order. If you can’t make up your mind, the standard reply is, “Christmas!” so that you get both red and green chile.

It has always been a puzzle to me as to why there is never a red chile cheeseburger choice, or maybe even better, a Christmas option. This is my effort to correct that culinary deficiency. For the green chile part, I roasted some Anaheim chiles – pretty conventional for a GCCB. For the red chile part, I decided to use chile colorado in two forms: the straight stuff and in mayonnaise. Forty years ago I learned to make chile colorado from our laboratory dishwasher who was from Mexico. This version is a little embellished from that recipe, but it is not very different from practically every recipe out there. The most important thing is to use ground chiles rather than commercial chili powder, which contains a mix of chiles along with garlic and onion powders, cumin and oregano, and probably a bit of MSG. The following recipe makes a lot more sauce than you will need for the cheeseburgers, so think about using the leftovers with fresh corn tortillas for enchiladas or chilaquiles.

RECIPES

Chile Colorado

Ingredients

  • ½ cup ground red chiles (your choice on the heat level)
  • 2½ cups water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ½ small onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 2 tablespoons AP flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin, toasted in a small  dry skillet
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano, crumbled between your hands
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)

Method

  1. In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chile powder until it darkens lightly and becomes fragrant. Stir frequently and do not allow to scorch. Stir the toasted chile into the water and set aside.
  2. Wipe out the skillet, and return it to medium heat. Heat the oil and add the onions and garlic, stirring until the onion is translucent. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. Stir in the chile and water, cumin, and oregano, and bring to the boil. Then reduce to the simmer for 40 minutes until the raw taste of the flour has cooked out and the chiles have mellowed. Adjust the seasoning with salt.
  4. Cool and store in a non-reactive container. (Red chiles can present a challenge for stains)
  5. Makes about 1 pint

Red Chile Mayonnaise

Ingredients

  • ½ cup mayonnaise (homemade or commercial)
  • ¼ cup chile colorado

Method

  1. Combine the mayonnaise and chile colorado
  2. Set aside until ready to use.

Green/Red Chile (Christmas) Cheeseburger

Ingredients

  • 4 good-quality hamburger buns
  • 8 tablespoons red chile mayonnaise
  • 4 Anaheim chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded, and opened
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 tablespoons chile colorado
  • 4 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 8 deli slices, cheddar cheese
  • condiments (lettuce, sliced tomatoes, dill pickle chips, ketchup, mustard as desired)

Method

  1. Slice the hamburger buns in half, and spread the cut-side of each half with red chile mayonnaise. Toast on a hot griddle until lightly browned. Set aside.
  2. Make 4 hamburger patties from the ground beef. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Sauté  one side of the 4 hamburger patties on the griddle over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Turn the hamburgers only once. When you turn the hamburgers, coat them with the chile colorado using a pastry brush. Then top, in order, with chopped onion, cheddar cheese, and roasted green chiles. Saute for another 5 minutes or until the hamburgers are done to your liking.
  4. Place the cooked hamburger patties in the prepared buns and serve immediately with condiments as desired.

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ON THE TRAIL OF THE GREEN CHILE CHEESEBURGER

The best green chile cheeseburger I have ever eaten was at Ski Apache near Ruidoso, New Mexico. I realize that there is a situational bias to that statement. Every day during ski season, weather permitting, cooks fired up an outdoor grill close to the lift line. The scents of fresh roasted green chiles and hamburger would drift up the lift line creating hunger pangs that made it hard to unload at the top. Then you had to deal with the wonderful fragrance as you made it down the trail as quickly as possible to get in line for your own burger.

Since then, I have been looking for the perfect green chile cheeseburger. I am not alone in that quest, nor am I the first. In fact, the State of New Mexico has its official Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. New Mexico has an official state cookie – the biscochito – and two official state vegetables – the chile and the pinto bean – but it does not have an official state dish, probably because there are a lot of candidates – enchiladas, Frito pie, fry bread among them. Nor does the state have an official sandwich even though nearly every New Mexican would probably agree that the designation should go to the green chile cheeseburger.

Nobody knows exactly who invented the GCCB. Some say it was the original Blake’s Lotaburger store in Albuquerque. (Blake’s is our local junior McDonald’s or In-N-Out with stores all over the state.) Of course that claim is disputed, and there are several claimants to the honor. Whatever the origins, the GCCB can be found in virtually every city and hamlet across the state, most of them claiming that they have the world’s best GCCB.

The first GCCB to gain national recognition came from the Owl Café in San Antonio, NM, a tiny little town just off Interstate 25. It was made famous by the commentator, Charles Kuralt who discovered it in his journeys around the USA. For years I always stopped at the Owl on my many trips up and down the interstate. Then I discovered Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern, just a short distance  across the road in San Antonio. The rustic outsides, the numerous flashing beer signs and the armada of parked motorcycles suggested that it was not the place to be, but once inside, it felt comfortable and welcoming. Bobby Olguin, Manny’s son and heir was at the flat top behind a partition, frying up Buckhorn Burgers. The solitary middle-aged waitress was scurrying around taking orders, and the stuffed mountain lion and various birds of prey occupied the walls of the back room.

Bobby always stuck his head around the partition to give a welcome, and if things were slow, he would pay a little social visit at your booth. Then things changed. the Buckhorn was discovered by the Food Network and Bobby Flay, who lost a throw-down to Bobby Olguin. After that, there was a long waiting line at the front door and a sign that said, “Please wait to be seated” near the entrance. Bobby hired some cooks to work the flat top so that he could work the dining room, and sadly, the stuffed mountain lion disappeared because Bobby had watched Robert Irvine’s television series about restaurant re-dos. Bobby thought the place needed a face lift and the mountain lion had become too dusty and mangy. Nothing much else has changed, and the GCCBs are as good as they have ever been.

San Antonio, besides being the epicenter of the world of the GCCB is also the gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Bird and Wildlife Refuge. During the winter, birders from all over the world come to watch the hundreds of thousands of sand hill cranes, Canada geese, and snow geese along with bald eagles and numerous other birds. Of course, many of those tourists visit the Owl and the Buckhorn.

One of our previous governors, unwilling to get caught up in the controversy of who had the best GCCB in New Mexico, but wanting to promote the competition and with the encouragement of food writers, suggested the promotion of the GCCB. The Office of Tourism took up the effort in 2009. They created the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, identifying restaurants across the state with noteworthy GCCBs. The list was updated in 2011 with the help of noted Santa Fe cookbook author, Cheryl Alters Jamison, along with other food writers and cooking professionals. Their list included around 200 noteworthy GCCBs. Both the Owl and the Buckhorn recused themselves from any competitions to select the state’s best GCCB. Still, there were lots of potential candidates.

Sparky’s is a perennial favorite. In part that is because the place is in Hatch, home of the world-famous New Mexico green chile.  Bert’s Burger Bowl in Santa Fe is often mentioned as a contender because it has been featured on Guy Fieri’s  “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network. Unfortunately, some of the strongest contenders have shuttered their doors. One of my favorites was the Outpost in the town of Carrizozo, just down the road from San Antonio. It was a family biker bar with motorcycles lined up in front, 12-foot rattlesnake skins tacked up on the walls, a terrarium filled with lizards and other desert varmints, and a pool table toward the back of the dining room. They had a wonderful GCCB along with crisp but greasy French fries, but I guess the owner just got tired and decided to close.

The now-closed Outpost in Carrizozo, New Mexico

The now-closed Outpost in Carrizozo, New Mexico

In my view, the Santa Fe Bite stands in a class of its own. It formerly operated as the Bobcat Bite in a tiny little adobe building just off the interstate several miles from Santa Fe. It had quirky hours, and there was always a line waiting for coveted few seats when it was open. After a lease fight with the adobe’s owner, the restaurant relocated to much better, bigger digs in downtown Santa Fe. They are still jammed at lunch time. Their burger is made of 10 ounces of freshly ground sirloin, prepared to your liking. Because it is so big, even for medium rare it takes a while to prepare. Just be patient. You can get it plain, with cheese, with green chile, with bacon, or with all of the above along with fresh house-made potato chips and a side of onion and pickle. Of course, there’s mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise available, but to me that just covers up the great taste. The Santa Fe Bite GCCB is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and you should be prepared to ask for a doggy bag.

Green chile cheeseburger with bacon and house-made potato chips at the Santa Fe Fite

Green chile cheeseburger with bacon and house-made potato chips at the Santa Fe Fite

If you’re interested in following the GCCB Trail, check out the website. You won’t be disappointed wherever your travel takes you.

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ANASAZI BEANS AND RICE

The Anasazi were a native people who lived in the Four Corners area of the United States – New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. What they called themselves is unknown, but archaeologists working in the area called them “the Anasazi” from a Navajo word which means “the ancient ones” or “the ancient enemy”. The modern Pueblo Indians, who live in villages throughout the Rio Grande Basin are thought to be the descendents of the Anasazi who abandoned their native homeland during a prolonged drought in order to be closer to a more reliable water source near the largest river in the region. The Pueblo Indians don’t like the name, Anasazi, for obvious reasons, but it has stuck.

The Anasazi began their civilization at least hundreds if not thousands of years BCE, living in pit houses, but they advanced rapidly to live in sophisticated multi-story stone apartments situated in secure areas like mesa tops and huge hollows in stone cliffs There they could pull up ladders leading to the valley floor and ride out sieges from marauding enemies.  When they finally abandoned their homelands in the 1400s, they had built amazing structures like Cliff Palace in what is now Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the White House in present-day Cañon de Chelly National Park in Arizona, and what may be the most sophisticated population center of all, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, with advanced astronomical observatories, and a web of roads and trails leading in all directions, suggesting that the place may have been the commercial or religious center for the entire region.

Today, there are only a few remaining structural links to the ancient people: Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico, the ruined Pecos Pueblo that I wrote about a while back, other ruins scattered around the Four Corners, and much more modest communities in the existing pueblos.

All of that is a long-winded introduction to Anasazi beans and how they got their name.  The traditional story is that a sealed jar of beans was discovered by archaeologists digging in the ruins of the Cliff Palace. The beans were spotted red and white, unlike any other beans the scientists had seen. To their surprise the beans sprouted, and were subsequently propagated. This story has its detractors who say that beans lose their ability to sprout after 50 years or so. They think that while the beans may have been discovered in the clay pot they could have not germinated, but  they were identical to beans that had continued to be cultivated in the region. Of course, there have been multiple interpolations of the two stores, so we really don’t know the truth. Nevertheless the name, Anasazi beans, was given to the beans and it has stuck ever since.

For a time, the beans were raised commercially only in Colorado, but now they are raised in many places, probably because of their unusual coloration and because of their distinctive, some say sweet, taste.

We bought a big supply of Anasazi beans at a farm stand, so I decided to make a variation on the Louisiana classic, red beans and rice. I know that late summer is way too hot to be making beans and rice, but I had the beans, so why not.

RECIPE

Anasazi Beans and Rice

Ingredients

  • 2 cups Anasazi beans
  • water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 closes garlic, minced
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 6 ounces ham slices, cut into ½ inch squares
  • 8 ounces link sausage, Andouille, bratwurst, or your choice, cubed
  • 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled between your hands
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and pepper
  • 8 cups cooked rice
  • chopped scallions for garnish
  • Louisiana hot sauce (optional)

Method

  1. Pick over the beans carefully for small stones and shriveled beans. In a large pot, cover the beans with water to at least 2 inches depth. Soak overnight.
  2. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cover to sweat for 5 minutes until they are translucent but not browned.
  3. Stir in the garlic, chicken stock, celery, bell pepper,  ham pieces, cubed sausage, oregano, and cumin. Bring to the boil, and then cover and reduce the heat to the simmer.
  4. Cook the beans until they are tender, 2 to 4 hours.
  5. Uncover and raise the temperature to a slow boil in order to reduce the liquid until it is thickened to your taste. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
  6. Place a cup of cooked rice in each serving bowl. Ladle on the cooked beans. Serve with optional chopped scallions and hot sauce.

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NATIVE PLANTS AND GORDITAS

This last week we drove down to El Paso, Texas, for the New Mexico Native Plant Society annual meeting. Yes, El Paso is in Texas, although there are many who wish it were in New Mexico: many of the residents of the city as well as many Texas politicians. El Paso is in the same time zone as New Mexico, an hour out of sync with almost all of Texas, and the population is decidedly different from those of Dallas and Houston. On top of that, it’s over five hundred miles from El Paso to Houston and San Antonio, and only thirty miles to the New Mexico border and a little over two hundred miles to Albuquerque. But the main reasons that El Paso is part of the New Mexico Native Plant Society is that the ecology (read desert) of El Paso is similar to much of New Mexico; both are on the edges of the Chihuahuan Desert and so the plants are very similar, unlike the live oaks and Spanish moss of East Texas.

We lived in El Paso for a number of years, so the meeting was an opportunity for us to renew old friendships, visit our old neighborhood, and enjoy some of the good regional food of the Border.

Susan went to meetings while I drove around old haunts and took naps, but both of us took time out to eat at two of our old-time favorites, the Little Diner in Canutillo, Texas, and the H & H Car Wash & Coffee Shop in downtown El Paso. We ate at a trendy new restaurant in the refurbished warehouse district. We didn’t much like it, so it will go nameless. But we also enjoyed drinks and snacks in the Liquids Bar in our hotel, a wonderfully revnovated derelict of a hotel that had sat vacant for many years after having a moment of glory in the distant past when Elvis Presley performed there.

Here are a few images of native plants from New Mexico that you might enjoy.

The Little Diner is a local institution. It is extremely hard to find in a residential area of the little town of Canutillo. It sits right next to a coin laundry, so you can do your washing while you are having lunch. Unfortunately, the original owner has died, and her daughter now runs the place. Some of our El Paso friends reported that it had gone down hill, but we had a great experience. The specialty of the house is gorditas, fat little masa pillows deep-fried, slit open, and stuffed with seasoned beef, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce. You add the salsa to your liking. They are so unlike the pale copies sold at Taco Bell that you wonder how they share the name. They come three to a plate with beans and a salad, so even a big man should not go away hungry. To my knowledge, gorditas are fairly localized to this part of the border. I have never seen them on Tex-Mex menus in the rest of Texas, and they are not a part of the cuisine around Santa Fe.

Gorditas at the Little Diner

Gorditas at the Little Diner

H & H Car Wash is legendary. It was awarded the 2001 James Beard Award for American Classics. Not bad for a hole-in-the wall with a counter and about 10 stools along with two booths. Never mind that you can get your car washed and filled with gas and also get your shoes polished while you wait your turn for jumping on one of those stools. The day we visited, there were heavy rains, decidedly unusual for El Paso (It’s in the desert, remember?) So the car wash didn’t have much business, and as a result the coffee shop was also not crowded. Being able to speak Spanish helps when you order. Actually, many of the staff speak English, but here you are on their turf, and they don’t cut a lot of slack unless it is clear that you need HELP.

I ordered what I always order, huevos rancheros. Their version is unique, and I favor my own version, but it is still delicious and, anyway, that’s the reason I came to eat. Susan got the eggs and sausage. Since it was Saturday morning, we could have also gotten a bowl of menudo that was heating in a big pot on the back of the flat-top. We both passed, but that’s another story.

The night we ate at the bar, we ordered queso fundido (“melted cheese”). The first time we ever had that dish was nearly thirty years ago in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. It was so good with freshly made corn tortillas that it has been a favorite of ours ever since. The bar’s version came with crostini, cutting across cultures, but it was delicious. I will give you a recipe in a subsequent post.

Queso fundido at Liquids

Queso fundido at Liquids

All in all, we had a great visit, and enjoyed some food that we can’t get locally.

 

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SOPAIPILLAS

Nearly every cuisine I’m aware of has a deep-fried fritter that is puffy and flaky. The Northern New Mexico version is the sopaipilla. I first had them during a visit with my aunt and uncle in Los Alamos when I was ten yers old. I liked the treat so much that I brought the recipe back home with me and tried to make them – probably with not much success. Since then I’ve had countless sopaipillas, some delicious, some not very good, some light and fluffy, some greasy.

The most memorable sopaipillas I never had were at the Cactus Taqueria in Dumas, Texas. On a long road trip, our family had stopped for lunch. After we had placed our order, one of the kids went to the restroom only to report on return that there was a dead cow in the kitchen. When I checked it out for myself, sure enough there was a black and white spotted cow lying in the kitchen with its four legs stuck straight up. That should have been our first clue to leave, but we decided to wait for our food.

While we were eating we noticed three cowboys at a nearby table. The waitress brought them their traditional complimentary basket of sopaipillas for dessert. The men ate the puffs with honey and then stuck the squeeze bottle of honey in their mouths, sucking out the last few drops. We left before we got our dessert.

Sopaipillas make great containers for both sweet and savory foods. Traditionally, they are served with honey (although traditionally it is expected that you put the honey container back on the table instead of your mouth) but they are also delicious when filled with stew or chili.

The real thing should be made with lard, but you can substitute vegetable shortening.

If you are trying to make them for the first time, you may have difficulty in getting them to puff. The two secrets are that you need to make sure the deep-frying oil is hot enough, and you can hasten the process by holding the frying sopiapilla under the surface of the frying oil for a few seconds using a spatula.

The frying oil should be hotter (400° F) than the usual 350° F recommended for deep frying. I have suggested using peanut oil because it has a smoke point above that temperature even though sopaipillas are traditionally fried in hot lard with a smoke point below 400° F. I used my new infra-red thermometer to measure the surface temperature of the oil. That was amazingly similar to the temperature that I got with an instant-read probe. Use whatever thermometer you want as long as it will register the temperature of deep-frying oil.

If the sopaipillas don’t puff up right away in the hot oil, they won’t puff, but you can still eat them, covered with honey, with a fork.

RECIPE

Sopaipillas 

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons lard
  • ¼ cup water
  • powdered sugar (optional)

Method

  1. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Cut in the lard with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
  2. Add the water and knead gently until the dough comes together. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour. If it is too dry add a little more water a few drops at a time. The dough should form a a firm, smooth, ball.
  3. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Flatten it out with the palm of your hand. Then fold it in half. Repeat this process 10 or so times. Then form the dough into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap, and let rest for 15 minutes.
  4. With a rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. Cut into squares, rectangles, or triangles about 6 inches on a side.
  5. Cover the cut pieces with a cloth to keep them from drying out before you fry them.
  6. Heat at least 3 inches of peanut oil in a heavy skillet or deep-frying pot to 400°F. When the oil is hot, drop one or two pieces of dough into the oil and hold them under the surface of the oil with a spatula for a few seconds until they begin to puff.  Fry the sopaipillas on both sides until they are golden brown.
  7. Remove the fried fritters to drain on several thicknesses of paper toweling. Then transfer to an oven heated to 200°F to keep them warm until you have finished frying the remaining dough pieces.
  8. Serve immediately while still hot. If you wish, you can sprinkle them generously with powdered sugar or a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.  Serve with honey for a dessert or serve them plain if you want to fill them with stew or chili. They are also delicious just plain with butter.

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