by Gretchen Hanson
The San Diego of my childhood was not the glossy high rises of the center city or the quaint architecture of the Gas Lamp District. It was a gritty border town of often unpaved roads, homes that were little more than adobe covered cement and mangy coyotes who ate your unwatched cats. In huge tracts of brush, immigrants without the protection of documentation were living hard. Bars were on every main street corner and often smelled of stale beer and tequila laced vomit. You could get three tacos for a dollar from most street vendors with a variety of fillings that varied from tongue or tinga to fried pork skin or chicharrones. Most street vendors cooked on small barrels with a hole cut from the side. A grate was built on the top and a heating element was put through the side and filled with the mesquite that grew wild everywhere or charcoal. Maiz tortillas, hecho a mano, were put down two or three at a time to heat them up before filling with the various meat fillings are usually kept hot on a small propane ring. You could pick your salsas from small molcajetes or plastic bowls lined up in a row on a plastic covered picnic table.
While other kids were drawn by brightly colored candy at the corner store, you could find me standing next to any street vendor I could find and peppering them with questions. How long did they cook the pollo so that it fell off the bone? How did the chicharrones become so crisp? What peppers did they use in the salsa that made my eyes water? How did they get the hint of sweet into the heat? Usually the stands were run by women, and I was unafraid to ask them dozens of questions about cooking, which would later become my chosen profession.
When they were tending other customers or tired of my broken baby Spanish, I would just watch everything they did. My eyes were glued to them like a precursor of the Food Network. I have this skill in no other compartment of my life, but I could watch those women do something once, and go home and recreate it. I never needed a recipe. A handful, a pinch, a shake; as directions they made complete sense to me. I loved the language and loved the food but mostly I loved the women. They were nurturing and loving and yet hard and fierce if you so much as looked cross-eyed at their babies. As a veteran of multiple Spanish nannies, I was more drawn to their culture than my own, of often less than benign neglect. I was infinitely jealous of their maternal involvement.
When I was six my mother insisted that for the entire summer I would have a full-time teacher to turn my rudimentary Spanish into fluency. She was a gifted organizer and before you could say “Vaya con Dios” every parent in our neighborhood had committed their kids to an 8 a.m.-2 p.m. regimen of Spanish 5 days a week. The itinerary included preparing lunch every day in our kitchen using only Spanish in the process. We wailed and moaned and gnashed our baby teeth but my mother was implacable once she had made a decision. We spent the next two and a half months drilling verb tenses and vocabulary for six hours a day, broken only slightly with brief stints in the kitchen to assuage my bitterness.
As if that wasn’t enough Spanish, our weekends were usually spent across the border shopping and going to the market. My proclivity towards open-air markets came into being at this point. I would wander the alleyways for hours while my mother and her then-husband would sit on a bench outside people watching while eating tortillas, avocados and queso fresco. Once I found a stand with a woman who looked friendly, I would stand and point to each item and say the words I knew. Betebel. Alchofa. Cebbolita. I would practice until their patience had run out or a paying customer came, and then I would move on to the next woman whom I could coax to teach me.
I had no fear of wandering alone freely through the markets or of the Mexican women who ran them. Most children at my age were read the Brothers Grimm to make them toe the line, but I had skipped that stage. We never had a TV until I was twelve and we didn’t see any movies except the ones shown on a pitched screen outside a commune in Del Mar not far from where we lived. Most children were shy and afraid of talking to strangers, but I had no such inhibitions. I did not see a boogeyman around every corner because my bogeymen were real people, not mythical faceless evildoers. My villains existed in my real life as people of authority that I knew too well who frequently hurt me at night and told me it was okay afterward. I was probably pretty safe from the unknown. My ‘known’ was bad enough.
Even now I realize that this logic is twisted, but as a child, the outside world ruled by fierce women who would protect you seemed far safer than what was happening inside my own unprotected home.
I cannot imagine my own children having the freedoms that I did as a child. Even now when my daughter takes the dog for a walk to the park at night she must carry her cell phone, put the halogen collar on the dog and call me when she arrives at the park and every 10 minutes she is gone. She is a teenager and this is in a middle-class neighborhood. It was only after her badgering me for months that I allowed her this freedom and it still makes my blood run cold every time I think about it. But from the time I was 14, I could go into any barrio bodega and order a beer or tequila shot. Since I had skipped several grades in school, I was surrounded by mostly older teens.
We spent a lot of time running across the border for fun. It was easy to come and go across the border back then. A bunch of American kids coming to spend money in Tijuana—why wouldn’t they let us in? Our favorite day run was to Puerto Escondido. We would tell our parents we were headed to “the beach” (meaning right down the road) for the day and hit the 101 south until we had crossed the border into Mexico. From there, we followed the circular road to the right around Tijuana, and headed south for about 45 minutes. Puerto Escondido was on the way to Ensenada and the whole town was a one lane road that ran to the beach. It was lined on both sides with shacks that made grilled langosta tacos over open flames with frijoles refritos, arroz con tomate, dozens of salsas and all the fixings. We could eat till we were sublimely full for less than 10 dollars. Add a couple more bucks for beer, and we were in food heaven. We would then roll down the beach to sleep it off and by the time the sun was setting, we would be sober enough to drive home.
In the years before my children were born, I would routinely book a flight to Mexico City and a hotel for the first night. Many weeks later, dusty and dirty, I would find my way back to the airport through the circuitous routes that simply unwound themselves as I went along. I would pick a general area I wished to explore, and maybe a couple of towns, and find a bus out of La Ciudad. Each state of Mexico has its own specialty cuisine, and which direction I went was dependent on where I was on my culinary path. One sojourn was spent making and tasting mole sauces, one spent in the seaside towns of Old Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta learning the perfect ceviche. I shunned the American tourist areas and found dives that could be rented for less than 10 dollars a night.
When my son was born, I spent most of one year in Cuernavaca and its environs mastering the subtleties of the puffed corn soup called Pozole with its thousands of variations. I was engaged to a man who owned a house there, and while I am loath to admit it, this was his primary attraction. I would sit at a booth in the open air Mercado and watch the women cook all day, my little baby rolling on the dirt floors with the dogs and the children that belonged to them. If I had loved him I’m sure I would have been quite happy staying there in the City of Gardens for the next 50 years making more babies and eating carnitas until I was as round as a molcajete. Sadly I was not, and I delayed telling him till long after it was painful and obvious.
Fast forward through two more decades and I am once again on my own in Mexico with no itinerary. My two other children are at home with their father. I am here: my Mexico, my home.
My breath catches, a sob forms in my throat and I literally weep as I step off the plane onto the tarmac and into the sultry and humid air. I have flown into Cancun this time with no hotel, but a car reservation where the no-name jalopy rentals are. Remember the scene at the end of The Terminator when badass Terminator Momma throws her stuff in a jeep and heads away from the chaos of civilization? I am channeling her as I head north on the 180 towards Chichen Itza. I am leaving my own chaos behind, and trying to recover my bearings. If no one knows who you are, are you really such a complete failure? I have a roadmap but nothing more, as I begin my wander. I will not use GPS and my cell phone is set to silent. I have to be back in three weeks to catch a plane. Until then no one knows who I am.
My brain begins to hum in Spanish and I will do everything in my power to speak no English for the next few weeks. By the time I leave I will dream in Spanish and for weeks after I return I will think in Spanish. I love recreating who I am in a country that has no biography of me. I can be no one; I can be anyone. The best part is that I can be whole again. It is a strange kind of freedom to be the person you think you want to be next. I try on personality traits as if I am putting on clothes. This Gretchen is brave, this Gretchen is quiet. This Gretchen is whole. I can take them off again but for right now I will wear these robes.
Four hours after I have landed in Cancun I am in the middle of the scrub that is what is the natural habitat of the Yucatan Peninsula, miles and miles of dense brush that is no taller than four or five feet but completely impenetrable. I am following the road to Chichen Itza but past that I have little or no plan. I could head up to Oaxaca or down to Belize. All that matters is the clock stopping and allowing me time to heal my broken heart.
After meandering up the eastern coast I find a small town that is flung against a flamingo sanctuary like an afterthought. I rent a small cottage on the sea with no waves, and park my car for the next 20 days. There is a dock and there are boats that come back and forth from Merida, as well as boatloads of naturalists and bird watchers that pass through the town to study the flamingos. Other than the bright pink birds that flock overhead periodically, there is nothing unusual or different about this town. A large church in the center zocalo, an open-air market, bodegas and cantinas that radiate for a few blocks comprise its entirety, with the exception of a hotel of small seaside cottages with a total of five Germans. I never hear any English other than the attempts of the small children that belong to the shopkeepers, or the occasional German attempting to be friendly. I do not rebuff such attempts, but I don’t encourage them either.
I sit in the zocalo at nights, or on the dock that leads to the waveless sea. The little children who play at my feet ask me why I am here. “What brought me to this town?” they politely inquire. They sit at my feet and draw pictures with the brightly colored pencils and notebooks I have in my bag. They write me love letters in their baby Spanish that I will take home and treasure.
I have no answer to the question. I am just here. I allow the sea to work its magic. I write words on empty pages. I watch the bright pink birds fly overhead. I watch the fishermen on the dock. I eat from the open air market, bringing mangos and papayas to my little cottage to sprinkle with chile powder and salt and squeeze tart lime juice over before tasting the bittersweet.
The first time I ever knew I was home was in this foreign land. When people ask where I am from I usually answer Mexico. It is a lie. The truth is that I have no home, but as much as you can love a place, I love this one. In a life filled with bittersweet memories, these are at least surrounded by soft-spoken women and music and light and food.
Mostly the food…
CILANTRO PESTO DOS
2 bunches of cilantro rinsed to remove grit, don’t de-stem, but dry
½ cup organic safflower oil (you may need more)
4 cloves of garlic
1 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
½ tsp cayenne
1 tsp cumin
Zest of one lime
Puree in food processor. Store in refrigerator.
BLACK BEAN BOWL
4 cups black beans soaked overnight
1 TB ground cumin
2 quarts vegetable stock (more or less)
1 tsp Herbamare
½ tsp white pepper
1 cup roasted onion
¼ cup roasted garlic
Guajillo Salsa * see recipe
Cilantro, chopped avocado, diced tomato, grated cheese to garnish
Quick soak beans, drain water, recover with vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, simmer until tender. Caramelize onions and garlic and, at last stage add cumin till seasonings heat and flavor, set aside. Puree beans with liquid and onion mixture. Add salsa as needed for heat.
COOKED GUAJILLO SALSA
1 cup dried chilies more or less
4 cups plum tomatoes
½ cup onion roasted
2 TB garlic roasted
1 tsp canola oil
1 TB Agave nectar
2 tsp ground cumin
2 cups vegetable stock
Cook dried chiles in a hot dry frying pan till smoking. Remove chilies at any point past the smoking stage and set in glass container with hot vegetable stock to cover. Add onion, cumin and garlic cloves and 1 tsp canola oil to the pan and move till oils release, set aside. You will have to de-stem the chilies at some point so let them soak for 10 minutes till cool the strain and reserve the soaking liquid. Remove hard stems. In food processor puree all solids till they could be forced through a fine sieve (while this step is optional I highly recommend it) adding boiling liquid as necessary to make it easier to puree. Add agave nectar, herbamare and white pepper to taste. At this point you can recook the salsa in a hot pan to remove the air bubbles if desired.
CHILE DE ARBOL SALSA
1 cup chili de arbol dried and brushed clean from dust
¼ cup roasted garlic cloves
½ cup roasted onion
1 can roasted tomatoes (15.5 oz.)
1 tsp agave
½ TB cumin ground
1 tsp herbamare
Optional : ½ cup orange juice
Cook chiles in dry hot pan till smoking and blackened. Cover with water of vegetable stock and allow liquid to absorb and simmer. When chiles are softened. Puree in blender and sieve through fine strainer adding more water as necessary. Puree all other ingredients and add everything to a hot pan cooking till slightly reduced and thickened. Check seasonings and serve.
Put cilantro pesto and beans and cashew cheese on tortillas and put under broiler. Dice jicama, red pepper, cilantro, and lettuce. Top tortillas with salad mixture and chile arbol salsa and avocado.
TOSTADITOS WITH PINTO BEANS AND SOYRIZO
2 cups pinto beans soaked overnight or with quick soak method
1 TB ground cumin
1 TB vegetable base
½ tsp baking powder
1 slice kombu (optional)
1 whole jalapeno
4 whole garlic cloves
1 tsp Herbamare
1 tsp white pepper
1 cup caramelized onion
Soak beans, drain water, recover with water and add vegetable base, kombu, smashed garlic cloves, jalapeno and 1 tsp cumin. Bring to a rapid boil then reduce to simmer until tender. Put onions in a pan and when hot add cumin till fragrant. Add onions to beans and let flavors meld 15-20 minutes. Puree beans with immersion blender. Serve on top of warmed tortillas with cooked soyrizo, cilantro, diced onion and tomatoes, baby lettuces and tomatillo salsa.
2 8 oz. extra firm organic non GMO tofu blocks crumbled
1 cup TVP reconstituted with 1 cup veg stock
4 TB Ancho paste
2 TB Tomato Paste
1 tsp Agave nectar
3 TB Cumin
3 TB freeze dried Onion
1 TB dried Oregano
¼ cup Roasted Garlic
½ tsp cayenne
1 tsp Ancho morita powder
Reconstitute TVP with vegetable stock, add ancho paste, tomato paste, agave nectar. Put 2 blocks extra firm tofu in food processor on pulse until finely pureed. Add roasted garlic and freeze-dried onion. Pulse again. Mix both batches together with all remaining spices. Sautee in non-stick pan until browned for crumbles. If you wish to form into patties add 3 TB vital wheat gluten or rice flour to mixture to form patties. You can scramble this dry or with organic canola oil.
BEAN AND JICAMA TOSTADITOS
Cooked Black Beans from Black bean bowl
1 cup jicama diced
½ bunch cilantro sliced
1 red pepper diced
½ small red onion diced
1/3 head lettuce sliced very thinly
4 oz. cilantro Pesto
1 diced Avocado
1 diced Fresno chili (optional)
½ cup Guajillo salsa
6 Corn tortillas
1 TB + 1TB organic safflower or olive oil
1 TB lime juice
Chile salt to taste
On a hot comal barely brushed with oil heat tortillas on both sides then spread 1 TB cilantro pesto and top with 2 TB black beans, heat till toppings are bubbling. In separate bowl toss lettuce and vegetables with lime juice and seasonings. Top hot tortillas and drizzle guajillo hot sauce over tip.
TOMATILLO AND AVOCADO SALSA
2 cups cleaned, husked whole Tomatillos
6-10 Jalapenos or Serranos with stems removed
10 whole garlic cloves
1 tsp chili salt
Handful of cilantro thoroughly cleaned
4 TB organic safflower oil
Juice of two limes
Toss whole tomatillos, jalapenos and garlic with oil. Roast tomatillos, jalapenos and garlic in very hot oven preferably finishing under broiler till they are blackened and charred. Puree with cilantro and salt. You may vary the quantities of jalapenos and garlic depending on your taste. If you don’t have chili or lime salt use sea salt instead. Mash avocados and lime juice into tomatillos and correct salt.
PICO DE GALLO
2 cups finely diced very ripe Tomatoes
1 finely diced Garlic clove
½ cup finely diced Red Onion
1 very finely diced Jalapeno chili
1 TB Cilantro leaves ( I like more)
1 Lime squeezed for juice (you can do a half of a lime if you wish)
½ to 1 tsp Chile Salt (I do 1 tsp )
Toss ingredients. Adjust.
2 cups Jasmine Rice
1 TB Cumin
1 tsp Paprika
1 tsp Cayenne
1 tsp Herbamare
1 tsp Oregano
½ tsp thyme
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ cup roasted onion
2 cups Vegetable Stock
2 cups Tomato Juice
1 cup sassy corn kernels
½ cup shredded carrots
2 cups slices summer squash sautéed in EVOO
Sautee rice in EVOO with seasonings and roasted onion until kernels are golden. Add liquids, corn and carrots to rice and bring to a fast simmer on the stovetop. Cover pot tightly and put in a 375 preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes. You must resist the urge to peek every two minutes. After 20 minutes check and add a bit more vegetable stock if the grains of rice are still crunchy.
SASSY CORN KERNELS
8 ounces corn kernels
1 TB smart balance vegan margarine or extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp chili powder
½ tsp herbamare
Drain corn and saute until brown with smart balance and seasonings.
4 extremely ripe but not brown avocados
Juice of one lime
1-2 garlic cloves smashed and diced
¼ cup cilantro leaves
¼ cup finely minced white onion
½ cup finely diced plum tomatoes
2 finely diced jalapenos
1 tsp chili salt
Dash hot sauce (optional)
1 TB just mayo
Peel, seed and mash avocado with lime juice and just mayo. Fold all other ingredients in. Serve immediately.
1 can 15 oz Fire roasted Muir Glen tomatoes
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp oregano
2 TB agave
2 TB tomato paste
1 tsp chili powder or one canned chipotle chili
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp sea salt flakes
1 TB canola oil
Puree everything but canola oil in a blender. Heat canola oil in a pan till very hot and cook sauce till thick.
One batch enchilada sauce
Small package Corn tortillas
1 Yukon gold potato diced and par cooked (still firm but not raw)
¼ cup roasted onions
2 TB roasted garlic cloves
1 cup cheese or vegan non-dairy cheese
2 TB just mayo
½ tsp cumin
Pinch of cinnamon
¼ tsp oregano
½ tsp sea salt flakes
1 chayote or zucchini finely diced
1 Pasilla pepper diced
In heavy saucepan heat roasted onions and garlic together and add chayote and Pasilla pepper. Cook till softened and add potato, cumin, cinnamon, oregano and sea salt. Warm through and add cheese and just mayo. Warm corn tortillas on a comal just brushed with a little canola oil. Swirl a couple of tablespoons of enchilada sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish and then in the following order: tortillas, sauce, veggies, REPEAT ending with a layer of sauce. Bake covered in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes (or longer if ingredients are cold) then remove cover and cook for five minutes more.
ROASTED CORN AND PEPPERJACK TAMALES
2 ¼ c Masa Harina
1 ¼ cup vegetable stock
½ cup Smart Balance
½ cup coconut oil
2 TB baking powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp white pepper
1 cup sassy corn kernels (see recipe page number)
½ cup caramelized onions
1 cup grated Pepper Jack or Daiya Pepperjack
3 TB just mayo
3 TB Guajillo salsa (see page number)
Banana Leaves or Corn Husks or four-inch tin foil squares
Tomatillo Salsa (see recipe page number)
Heat vegetable stock, coconut oil, Smart Balance in a pot to fat liquefies. Put masa, baking powder cumin, salt in bowl and add liquid until well blended. It should feel pliable like playdough, not crumbly. Mix onions, corn, just mayo, guajillo salsa and pepper jack in a pan and warm until cheese melt . Put masa on top of banana leaves in a 4 x 4 rectangle only ½ inch thick and fill with 3 TB of stuffing. Fold over and wrap in small packages. Steam for forty five minutes to one hour in steamer. Serve HOT with tomatillo salsa and guacamole and more guajillo salsa.
2 large cans Hominy
2 large cans Muir glen fire roasted tomatoes
3 cups Tomato juice
3 Vegetable stock
1 tsp cumin
1 cup roasted onion
¼ cup roasted garlic
2 Pasilla or Aneheim chiles
2 red Bell peppers dices
½ cup Guajillo pepper paste equivalent to 4 oz dried peppers
2 lbs Carrots,, peeled ½ inch slices or grated
3 Yukon gold Potatoes in 1 inch dice
2 chayote fine dice
2 TB blue corn meal
4 TB safflower oil
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp sea salt flakes
½ tsp white pepper
TOPPINGS: frizzled corn tortillas strips, fresh oregano, diced white onion, cilantro, diced tomatoes, avocado, diced hot peppers
Rinse cans of hominy. Toss carrots and potatoes in a heavy baking pan with oil, put in 400 degree oven and stir frequently to browning and crispy. In heavy stockpot put roasted onion, chilies, peppers, chayote, smashed roasted garlic, cumin, spices and cook stirring constantly until spices fragrant and vegetables wilted. Add guajillo paste (see guajillo salsa) and blue cornmeal and cook until thick and bubbly. Add all other ingredients and simmer on low for at least an hour. Serve with frizzled corn tortillas strips, fresh oregano, diced white onion, cilantro, diced tomatoes, crema Mexicana
PICKLED JALAPENOS AND CARROTS
1 pint jalapeno peppers
1 lb carrots
1 red onion
1 tsp Peppercorns
4 Bay leaves
4 smashed garlic cloves
1 cup White vinegar
4 TB kosher salt
4 TB organic sugar
Slice jalapenos horizontally in strips about ¼ inch wide. Remove stems and seeds. Peel carrots and slice on the diagonal in ¼ thick slices. Cut red onion in half then quarter inch slices. Bring white vinegar, salt, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns and sugar to a quick boil. Drop carrots in let cook for two minutes. Drop jalapenos and onions in and cook one minute more then remove from the heat. Make sure all vegetables are submerged. Let cool completely then refrigerate.
Executive Chef Gretchen Hanson is an award winning chef who coincidentally happens to be vegan. She is currently taking a gap year to travel and spend time with her daughters.
Follow her culinary adventures at www.chefgretchenhanson.com or on Facebook. Her cookbook “When It’s done: The Making of a Chef” will be released this year. Contact her at chefgretchen (at) gmail (dot) com for lectures, teaching, cooking engagements, or just to send airfare.