Tag Archives: Food

What the blogger had for breakfast


The word is huauzontle, and finding its etymology is a bit of an adventure. You will likely already have guessed, given the “-tl” ending, that the name derives from the Nahuatl langauge, the tongue of the Aztecs, and thus, as is true of “tomatl” and “coyotl,” describes something found in central Mexico. And you are correct. But what does it mean? The one direct English translation I found, a bit suspect, was “hair amaranth.” This is obviously not quite right. The plant looks amaranthy enough to confuse a present-day non-botanist North American, but pre-contact Americans knew their amaranths, and this isn’t one of them. It’s a Chenopodium, one of a genus of plants closely related to the amaranths (and lately, after genetic study, put within the amaranth family by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group) but distinct in morphology. The chenopods were of great economic importance to Native Mexicans, and it’s hella unlikely they’d have called one an “amaranth.”

The huauzontle entry in the Spanish fork of Wikipedia brings us closer, giving as its parenthetical etymology of the word:

(del náhuatl huautzontli, literalmente = ‘bledo como cabello’, de huautli ‘bledo’ y tzontli ‘cabello’.)

Word for word: From Náhuatl “huautzontli,” literally = “chenopod resembling human head hair,” from huautli “chenopod” and tzontli “human head hair.”

It’s charming enough that Spanish has a word for “human head hair,” and cabello, like “hair,” functions as both a singular and collective noun. It can mean one strand of hair from a human head or the mass of hair on a human head. There’s also an adjective, cabelludo, which means “hairy” except with that same restriction to the hair being on a human head. I’m clearly going to have to start using “cabelludo” in casual speech.

But about that “bledo.” It’s one thing for a land-based culture to have a diverse and detailed taxonomical vocabulary for important crop plants. With a couple of exceptions, though, the chenopods aren’t nearly as important to the agricultural economy of Mexico as they once were, especially as the agricultural economy of Mexico is mainly cultivated in Iowa these days and dumped on the market by subsidized US corporations. How cool is it that a simple common part of speech nonetheless persists in Mexican Castellano describing a genus of plants most gringos have never heard of?

To be fair, the gringos have the same word with the same meaning. It’s a cognate, anyway: “blite.” Of course a vanishingly small percentage of gringos have ever even heard the word, and most who have probably assumed the person was using a homonym. “Blite,” nonetheless, is the common Gringlish word meaning “chenopod.” You can now use it to describe lamb’s quarters and pigweed and epazote and quinoa.

And huauzontle! Which I found yesterday in the corner store. That little corner store is an ethnobotanist’s wet dream. It’s run by a Mexican-American sister and brother, and they cater in part to the neighborhood’s burgeoning Andean population, so there are always little treasures popping up on the shelves. Corn so purple it’s black, for instance, sold for making chicha morada and which I bought a couple years ago as seed corn. Or Chuño, an Andean form of freeze-dried potato traditionally made by grinding potatoes, leaving them outside overnight to freeze at 14,597 feet, then mashing them the next day to drive out some of the liquid and repeating the process a few more times. There are bright yellow Aji peppers that look way more hot than they prove actually to be, and sludgy, bitter drinks made from maca, one of about a dozen common Andean tuberous vegetables. (Tried it. Didn’t like it.)

I haven’t seen oca there yet. When I do I’m buying some and sending it to Kat, because she really loves the stuff. 

Anyway, they had huauzontle yesterday, Chenopodium berlandieri ssp. nuttallii,  which is used in a manner very much as is broccoli. The green flower buds and small stems (pedicels) on which the buds reside are cooked and eaten as a green vegetable. Since it’s from Mexico, it is traditionally cooked at least twice before people eat it. Blanched or boiled and then wrapped around cheese, battered with eggs, fried, and then cooked in tomato sauce, for instance. Sometimes it’s just boiled and battered and fried on its own, and people eat it by holding the big stems and pulling the buds off with their teeth, vaguely like corn on the cob.

That first step of boiling may have been completely necessary back a couple thousand years ago. Blites often have saponins in them, bitter, soapy chemicals likely evolved by the plants under selective pressure from grazing animals and insects. Quinoa, for instance, which some Blitologists surmise may actually be descended from huauzontle or vice versa, has enough saponins in its seedcoat tissue that you need to rinse the seeds before cooking them. Huauzontle might have been bitter back then unless you leached the saponin out of it.

I didn’t boil the huauzontle. I just chopped it up some, sauteed it for a bit in olive oil, poured three beaten eggs over it all, made something the approximate shape of an omelet, and grated some pecorino cheese over it. It was really, really good. And it turns out I made a safe choice about the saponins. As the Spanish fork of Wikipedia says:

Las saponinas pueden ser tóxicas, pero el huauzontle contiene cantidades tan pequeñas que no presentan ningún riesgo.

Mmmmmmm, ningún riesgo. Mi favorita.


Sepia officinalis

In Farsi they’re called Sepidāj, these green-blooded, porous-boned relatives of squid. Some think, and Wikipedia takes them at their word, that the animal’s name in a few Latinate languages was borrowed from Farsi. Stranger linguistic things have happened. In Greece, you can buy them in the markets labeled Σουπιες — “soupies”  — and what with the Greeks and Persians* battling each other and taking vocabulary as spoils from time to time, the word could have ended up in Latin from either source.

As Romans evolved culturally and became Italians and invented Italian food, seppia found their way involuntarily into pots of risotto. At times the seppia’s ink, a deep rich brown in color and used as a camouflaging defense after the manner of squids, found its way into the pot too, adding color and flavor.

That ink or at least the pigment extracted from it, found its way into painter’s pots as well. The common cuttlefish thus lent its name to a color, and indirectly — through the vicissitudes of the technological history of photography — to a mood connoting a delicate antiquarianism, quaint images of times three generations ago, poised on the verge of the deep forgotten past.

And what better day to meditate on the word “sepia” than on Cephalopod Awareness Day?

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Tohono O'odham White

Two years ago I planted a purple-black corn from Perú. I got distracted in 2006 and planted no corn at all. This year I planted Tohono O’odham White, an heirloom flour corn from the Sonoran Desert.

Suited for growing without irrigation in the desert, drinking only the groundwater in alluvial-wash cornfields and the occasional monsoon, Tohono O’odham White matures fast. It bears mature ears quicker than any corn I’ve ever grown, on stalks shorter even than the Hopi corn growing on the res near Tuba City. I grew up in cornfields with stalks six feet tall, or seven, instant and fleeting wilderness for five-year-olds. These stalks topped out at three and a half, four feet. And yet in a mere square meter of garden bed — the extent of my cornfield this year — there is enough corn for a few meals.

The catch: this is not sweet corn. Or if this corn did have a sweet green stage, I missed it while taking out the trash. Even young the kernels were mealy, thick with starch. This is corn for pozole, for nixtamal, and it will likely go into a crockpot for a few days with a chicken to keep it company.

The stalks are dead already, tan sheaths on tan stems, and I ought to get around to collecting the husks for tamales, or at least to feed to the rabbit. There are spots on the husks: a month ago the aphids had found the plants, were fruitful, multiplied. They seemed not to hurt the crop much, so I let them alone, food for the lacewings and hummingbirds, the ladybugs.

Sweetcorn kernels turn almost translucent when they dry, filled with crystallizing sugars rather than cornstarch. The O’odham White is opaque. Even dry, its kernels are balloon-stretched, replete, smooth.

I am a bit replete myself these days. I find small pleasures that would once have provoked an upward flicker of the left corner of my mouth — a breeze to tickle the back of my neck, the belly of a harrier wobbling over a distant field — and the river gives a sudden surge against this dam of twigs. I threaten to spill over. I am a naked nerve these days, joy and grief and discontent roiling in me at once.

There are house-sized eddies on the Colorado River, strong whorls persistent through decades, and boaters in the Canyon sometimes relax by abandoning the main stream and pulling into one. Twelve thousand cubic feet of water passing by each second, and yet some eddies hold their captives strong enough that four oars are needed, or six, to push the raft atop it back out into the river. A boundary of water against water, solid as a wall, and yet impossible to chart precisely except by navigating it.

These days my skin seems indistinct as the wall between river and eddy, my turbulent self contained by boundaries laminar and liminal. These days I strain at the oars. I struggle to cast myself out into the main stream again, to entrench meandered canyons in the swiftly rising desert. I am part of the river, and though it flows past me I must rejoin it.

There is another river in the desert. It has no banks, no rapids. One cannot swim in it; one cannot drown in it. Its headwaters are in the earth and it flows upward molecule by molecule, until the precipice at the surface. And then the cataract: a desert-wide river, ephemeral as desert rivers are, falls vaporous into the sky. Along its edges skins form: they separate small whorls from the river. The eddies grow, push seed leaves through stony soil, sprout stalks and ears, fill burgeoning seeds from which new eddies propagate. Corn is a chain of whirlpools in the sky river. We drink them and they swallow us in turn.

What the blogger had for breakfast

The secret to cooking omelets is to use a pan on a much lower flame than one would for fried eggs. A 12-inch non-stick skillet is ideal for three-egg omelets, and should nonetheless be lubed with a bit of good cooking oil — olive oil being my favorite — and the oil allowed to heat thoroughly. If the omelet filling requires frying before you assemble the omelet, you can do so in the same pan, but be sure when you remove the filling that the pan is smooth and slick. Add more oil if necessary and let it heat.

The base of the omelet is plain, unadulterated egg, three or four of them, beaten with a fork until nearly uniform, with perhaps a stripe or two of white among the yolk. Making sure the pan’s surface is uniformly hot and slick, with oil coating well up the sides, one pours the egg mixture into the center with a flourish, then lifts the pan and tilts it so that egg covers the entire bottom, running up perhaps a little on the sides. If the pan is the right temperature on its medium flame, the sides will cook through almost instantly while the center remains a pool of liquid. With a bamboo spatula, push the cooked sides slightly toward the center — an inch or so — tilting the pan to flood the space you’ve freed with egg.

In three or four minutes, the egg should be nearly cooked through with only a bit of uncooked liquid atop it, in the center, and bubbles may have formed in the center above the flame. Shake the pan by its handle: the egg should move freely in the pan. If it does not, use a lower flame or more oil next time, or both. If the egg sticks in the pan, gently try to lift it free with the bamboo spatula. It may tear, in which case you may as well just fill the omelet at this point, cutting your losses.

But if the egg moves freely in the pan clear the kitchen of onlookers, move the pan to a place where you have a few feet of airspace, and breathe for a moment. Toss the egg into the air with a flip of pan. A round-sided, well-oiled pan will send the egg toward the front of the pan, up the side and vertical into the air, where angular momentum will flip it and gravity pull it back into the pan, upside down. This is easier than it sounds, but if trepiditious you can always run through a few dozen practice eggs.

The egg flipped, you return the pan to the stove, draw an imaginary line bisecting the egg, and put your filling in the center of one of the halves so designated. An omelet’s filling is best arranged with an eye toward symmetry, the eventual flavors in combination in each bite, and prevention of loss out the sides. Fold the omelet: cover the filling. A few more minutes on the flame will meld flavors, warm the filling.

I have in this past week filled omelets with handsful of herbs from the garden, savory and oregano, sage and sorrel, chopped fine and added raw or sauteed first in olive oil and then removed to a plate to await the eggs. I have filled them with wilted dandelion greens. I have filled them with Genovese basil from the farmer’s market, a bit of sticky white chevre and a couple tablespoons of chopped walnuts added in a moment of blinding inspiration. A few days ago I rummaged through the kitchen for omelet filling and found a jar of pickled fern fiddleheads, a gift from Kat, and a piece of goat brie we bought before our hike this month, and made a Kat omelet of fiddleheads and goat brie. Or that same cheese and a sauce of roasted dried chiles. Sometimes I add to the eggs, before beating them,  a pinch of truffle salt: an extravagance of twenty dollars when I was employed, three ounces black Abruzzi truffles ground fine and mixed with sea salt, and if we use a pinch a day our truffle salt budget will run ten dollars a year. It is one of the best things I have ever tasted, and adds savor to the eggs, though it would not have worked well with today’s basil and walnut omelet, I am thinking.

Tonight I took three long japanese eggplants, fried them well for our dinner with basil and garlic and oregano from the garden, and about a quarter cup of olive oil. Tomorrow comes the Imam baldi omelet. It may be worth it, this waking up.

Mango salsa

mango salsa

“Serrano” means “of the mountains,” and the chile so-named is like its home sierras, in Puebla, in Hidalgo; verdant green, hard-ridged in places, sharp-pointed, fiery hot. Take two of them and a sharp knife, cut stem to point and then again, to quarters, and flat sides down upon the board, cut slices paper-thin. Mind fingertips! Your knife should be sharp enough to take them off without you knowing for a second, maybe two, and barring that, when you raise them to wipe sweat from your eyes the juice of the Serrano blinds you. Work slowly, with deliberation.

(You may decide to scoop out ovaries and seeds before you slice, for the greatest measure of heat contained therein. No one will think the less of you, and if they do they will not say so unless they are your kin.)

The chiles sliced, remove them to a bowl, ceramic or of hard lathe-turned wood with pores well-sealed, heartwood that will not absorb what you give it, and cover the sliced chiles with the full juice of a large lime. Heat will diffuse outward, sour in.

Wash your hands as if you had been picking poison oak.

In a spot where he once stood to watch the nights roll past as looming ships half-seen out on the current, their outlines masked by river fog and dark, there grows some mint, spearmint, its roots confined in kiln-fired clay against the certainty that they would infiltrate every square inch of garden. Take some of that, a handful, and the tops of Florence fennel fast-bolting in the summer heat, a tablespoon of leaves. Pull the mint stems quick against the grain between thumb and finger to strip the leaves, and cut them with the fennel leaves until they are near-paste. Scrape them off the board with the sharp side of the knife. Stir them into the lime and chile.

Wash your hands again. The Serrano chile is not as hot as some: you can eat a slice or two without expiring. The Habañero is more than ten times as hot, the brave chiltepin of the desert washes five times more. And yet the chiltepin is a meteor, its heat near-gone in minutes. The Habañero’s secret, hidden from the novice by its staggering heat, is that it also passes quickly over the tongue: two minutes and the novice can speak again. Grown well the Serrano’s heat can linger on the tongue for an hour, and its thick meat has smeared that heat on the cutting board, the handle of your knife.

Halve three yellow mangoes, ripe and soft, and score the flesh crosshatched with a paring knife. Invert the halves. Thick juice will run down your arms, drip onto the counter. Outside, two hunting California towhees kick leaf litter, scamper on his grave. One of them, if it was the same one, has come ten times this week through the back door to fling itself against the window where you drip mango juice. The back door has been open more than not the last ten months, though lately only to provide the rabbit shelter from marauding cats, and the insistent world pokes fiery eyes into the house, scratches at the accumulated litter of your life to see if anything alive is beneath. Scrape the crosshatched meat out of each inverted mango half, carefully, so that it falls onto the dry slope of the bowl, slides into the lime and chile without splashing.

Some will splash anyway: wash your hands again.

A sweet red pepper sits on the counter. The Serrano’s cousin, spirit broken and without heat. Its seeds are bitter and tempting, but the mix of bitter in the bowl already just overwhelms the sweet. Scoop out the seeds and fleshy ovary that bears them, and cut the rind into small pieces. The bright red will contrast with the ripe mango, a note of visual interest in the bowl, a bit of resistance to the teeth. The bell pepper’s is a different sort of sweetness, an earthy musk, a bridge between mango and Serrano. Stir it into the mix, the mango becoming liquid with each turn of the bamboo paddle, flavors melding.

The onion sets around his grave are too young to harvest: you can see that plain through the towhee-smudges on the window. Find a sweet red onion in the refrigerator, enough to give you half a cup or so when diced. Open the towhee’s window against the fumes lest you rub an eye with capsicum. One drop from underneath an eyelid, one moment spent in absent reflection and forgetting, gazing out the window at the lovage and fennel, at the towhees scratching around the upturned earth where you weeded his grave the day before, a spotted fledgling harassing them loudly for food, singing vireos on the timber bamboo and the slantwise sun lighting up Sobrante Ridge and the memories come like a Habañero swallowed whole, one absent-felt itching trickle and reflexive wave of hand; one such unguarded moment and all is lost.