I recently prepared a Mexican dinner for an intimate group of women ages 20 to 84. The occasion? A girls night out to celebrate Esperanza getting married. Esperanza’s boss at the upscale salon where she is a stylist hired me to prepare a number of dishes, including my Three Bean Chipotle Chili, Spicy Tofu Tamales, Roasted Vegetable Quesadillas, Yellow Rice, my semi-famous Hibiscus Tea, fresh guacamole, a Mango/Jicama Salsa, and a Red Hot Chipotle Sauce for the tamales. I became especially excited about this cooking gig when I met Esperanza in person. When I picked up the deposit at the salon, I met her for the very first time, and she ended up giving me an impromptu scalp treatment that was absolutely amazing. In the process, she shared that she was from El Salvador, and I asked what I considered a most revealing question, “What is your favorite El Salvadorian dish?”. She couldn’t decide on one and went on to describe several. I quickly realized that even though Mexico and El Salvador are different countries, the overlap in their cultures and cuisines meant that my Mexican meal was going to be eaten, judged, and hopefully enjoyed by an insider. In some ways, this would be the ultimate test.
As I always do when I cook myself into a frenzy, I learned some things along the way. While shopping for the ingredients, I discovered that bell peppers not only come in yellow, green, and red, but they also come in deep purple. My friend Gabrielle sent me a message all the way from Switzerland via Facebook outlining a host of names that these purple peppers go by, including nocturne, chocolate bell, buena mulatta, and, most amusing of all, black penis pepper.
Together, these four colors would make the perfect array for my roasted pepper quesadillas. I prepared these by whisking together olive and canola oils, cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and salt in a large bowl and then filling the bowl with the chopped peppers and stirring until the peppers were all coated. In a single layer on a cookie sheet, I roasted the coated peppers at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes until they browned and became just tender.
For the first time, I worked with jicama, a root vegetable that I had tasted on only two other occasions, once in a salsa where I mistook it for an apple, and another time on the salad bar at school, where it stood alone with chopped cilantro and spices common in Mexican cuisine. That time, I mistook it for raw potatoes but realized that unlike the potato, jicama does not fill your mouth with starch. So I guess jicama is more like a radish than a potato. Since my early encounters with jicama, I’ve also learned that it can be eaten cooked or raw and is full of fiber, Vitamin C and iron.
I chopped jicama, fresh mango, cilantro, red onion, and a fresh African Pepper from my herb garden and put them all in a dressing of lime juice, apple cider vinegar, agave nectar, and a dash of sea salt. And voila, I had a raw dish, a wonderful, refreshing salsa that was a big hit at the dinner. Some ate it with chips and others topped their tamales with it.
I also created a sauce for the tamales, consisting of red onion, garlic, tomatoes, and dried chipotle pepper. The sauce came out magnificently. I say that because when Esperanza sampled it, she exclaimed, “That reminds me of home.” I experienced her words as the biggest compliment anyone could have ever uttered about my food. This sauce made a great accompaniment to the tamales which came out less than perfect. Though the guests didn’t seem to mind, the tamales were dry, bready and bland; so much so that the day after Esperanza’s gathering, I took the leftover filling and dough and made tamales again with a determination to finally get them right. I ditched the recipe and instead did what I do best, which is improvise and go off of my own vibrations. In a large bowl, I began with water and olive oil to make this batch of tamales more moist like the ones I remembered from childhood. You know the greasy, spicy, meat ones wrapped in wax paper that came in a can. To make my vegan ones more spicy, I added more cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, liquid aminos, and salt until the dough tasted like perfection. I wrapped about eight more tamales, steamed them on top of a bed of corn husks and savored the results. Everyone who stopped by my house that day enjoyed what I’d like to think was an authentic taste of Mexico.
In the process, I relearned the lesson of using the recipe as a guide but privileging my own instincts for the rest.
I plan to make a batch and take some to Esperanza at the salon to see if they too will remind her of home.