If you ask me, food is a miraculous thing. From the smallest seeds spring trees heavy with red apples, which we harvest and enjoy in all their glory. We chomp through their crispy exteriors, letting their sweet, clear juices run down our chins. Or we mix them with sugar & spice (and other things nice) to create apple pies, turnovers and cobbler. Human beings are the only creatures who take so much delight in the things that nourish them, relishing colors and smells and tastes. But more than this, our food holds our memories. It reminds us of that bright afternoon spent picnicking with the family, and of the way Dad excitedly unpacked the simple, yet satisfying fare he’d packed away: sharp cheese, crisp pear slices, fresh bread and golden fried chicken. Plus the drinks: 7-UP for the kids and wine coolers for the adults. I sometimes wonder what my parents talked about as my brother and I ran around the park, stomachs full and minds filled with curiosity. Oh, to be nine again right?
Yet, of all dishes, one reigns supreme: arroz con leche, which is Spanish for rice pudding. This was the dish my mother made on chilly Autumn nights while the rain was beating against the roof. The one she sprinkled with nutmeg & cinnamon while the tea kettle was whistling; the one she ate with me while Auntie Mame was playing on the television. This is my comfort food.
For years I tried to create my mother’s arroz con leche in my own kitchen without success. Indeed my quest to reproduce it lasted so long that I could fill an entire post with tales about my various attempts. Some are horrifying, and involve the color black, a hue that definitely should not be associated with rice pudding. Others are amusing and make frequent use of the phrase “so I improvised and…”. Oy. What can I say? I was seventeen, away at college and incredibly homesick, but alas my frustrated attempts at making a simple pudding always ended with pulling a box of the packaged stuff out of the cabinet – aka, Plan B. The problem was that my mother always made arroz con leche from memory, using “what looks right” as her only guide. This is a culinary talent to be sure, but when you put instructions like “add about two handfuls of rice” into the hands of an inexperienced cook, well, you can imagine what emerges from the pot.
Then one afternoon I was browsing through the cooking section of my local library, when I saw a much-used cookbook called “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.” I pulled the text and was lazily flipping through the pages when I saw it: a recipe for arroz con leche, complete with precise ingredient amounts and variations. (I now realize that I should have looked for a formal recipe before – I mean, duh, Ari – but as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I wasn’t much of a cook until recently.) By this time I was living in an apartment with a real stove and a working oven, so I checked the book out of the library, stashed it away in my backpack, and began my adventures with Mexican cooking. I made rice pudding that evening and the resulting dish was so close to my mother’s version that Rick Bayless quickly became my hero. And I don’t mean that in a red cape, blue tights wearing sort of way. I was cooking! And Mexican food no less! Just like Mom!
Since then I’ve enjoyed many a Mexican meal – from a hot bowl of earthy beans accompanied by deep-fried, cheese-filled masa turnovers, to pollo pibil, which is red-seasoned chicken steamed in banana leaves. Though my knowledge of cooking and baking has grown, I always find myself coming back to Bayless’ books. He’s a gifted chef and author, the sort of down-to-earth guy who wows you on Iron Chef one moment, then dances the evening away in the next. When I began my blog interview series I knew he was one of the authors I wanted to include, but I was so nervous that working up the chutzpah to ask him took a couple weeks. What if he said no? What if he was insulted by a mere blogger asking for an interview? After all, he is an award winning author with his own television series right? Oh god! Yet when I finally emailed Rick’s assistant, Jen, she got back to me within an hour, then surprised me with the news that Rick was happy to let me interview him. A few weeks later the appointed day arrived and I sat at my desk, staring at the phone.
This is it, I thought, as I licked my lips and eyed the bottle of Amaretto in the pantry. Picking up the receiver, I dialed Rick’s number and Jen answered with a friendly, “Hi! This is Jen.”
“Hi…is this Jen?” I responded, immediately scrunching my face is silent agony. Arrgh, why did I say that?? Of course it’s Jen, she just said so! But within moments Jen had patched me through to Rick, and soon we’d developed an easy rapport that turned into a forty-minute conversation about everything from his daughter, Lanie, to his favorite kind of music. He had such an easy-going, approachable way about him that soon we were in the midst of a lively conversation. He even took the time to tell me how to make a dish called “guajes con pato en chile verde” – guajes with duck in green chili – the recipe for which my Nana has been looking for since her mother died some twenty years ago. “My mother used to make it for my father,” she told me when she heard I would be talking to Bayless, “It was my father’s favorite dish. But she never wrote down the recipe so it was lost when she died.” Thanks to Rick, this is one dish that can be resurrected from my Nana’s childhood in 1920′s Mexico City.
And now without further ado, the interview:
Before writing your now classic cookbook “Authentic Mexican,” you and your wife, Deann, lived in Mexico for five years. What part of Mexico did you live in and what was the kitchen in your house like?
I lived in Mexico City most of the time and then in Oaxaca, and when I lived in Mexico City I didn’t actually have a kitchen because my goal was to eat out all the time. I wanted to learn about the kinds of food that people were making for themselves which is an important part of learning a regional cuisine. I think one of the biggest problems is when people don’t get the authentic taste in their head before making modifications, and you can’t do that by recipe – it simply won’t be the same as seeking out the person who grew up with the culinary tradition. So I spent a number of years just eating out all the time. I’m interested in culture as well as cuisine, so I would visit different places to see what people were eating around me. It’s the way that the dishes all come together on the table – during the day, and in a bigger sense, during the years – and also the way people eat the food. When they eat, what their portion sizes are – that sort of information tells you so much about a dish, and you can’t get that from a recipe. Eventually all of this knowledge became a part of my relationship with Mexican cooking.
What is your strongest food related childhood memory?
Peaches, definitely peaches. My grandmother canned peaches every year and the grandchildren all went with her. We would pick the peaches then come back for several days of canning with her. As one of the younger kids I was usually the one who took bruised peaches and made them into peach butter or jam. The older kids could peel the peaches beautifully so that they could be canned. We’d even make pickled peaches and then all through the year the big family dessert was peach cobbler. So we could come back and experience the peaches again in December. When you tasted it you remembered how much fun you had and the whole rawkus of activity when everyone was dealing with those bushels and bushels of peaches. It was the best thing in the world to me and I still have incredibly fond memories of peach desserts.
You and your daughter Lanie co-authored a cookbook last year. Clearly she has inherited your passion for food – is there anything she makes better than you? What does she make most often?
The first dish she ever made was oatmeal in the microwave when she was 3 years old. She liked doing that for a while. The first dish that I really taught her to make, oddly enough, was chocolate souffle. Kids love the physicality of cooking and certainly they love making sweets and desserts and stuff. So I thought, well, you can make a really simple chocolate souffle where you just melt chocolate, add some cream to that, mix in egg yolks, and then fold beaten egg whites into the base, then you’re done. It’s like four ingredients and it’s really, really simple. You can melt all the chocolate in the microwave so the kids don’t have to work with fire, so, that’s what I taught her to make. It was something that was super dramatic and we would take turns beating the egg whites by hand because you know, it was something to do because kids are so full of energy. She’d beat the egg whites for a while and then pass the bowl to me and I’d beat them for a while. I taught her how to fold them in, and then we’d bake them in little tiny ramekins. She loved the way they would puff all up and actually, I think chocolate souffle is a great thing to teach kids.
Nowadays she’s really into baking, in fact, she’s finished her sophomore year of High School and is working at a pastry station right now. She really loves making pastries and her specialty is profiteroles. She makes the cream puffs, the chocolate sauce, and then we usually put some vanilla ice cream in it. When we have friends and family over she’s always making those and she does an absolutely fabulous job.
And she must get such satisfaction out of that, to make something and then see the smiles on people’s faces as they enjoy it.
Completely, completely. In fact I think she actually said those words in the introduction to the book that we wrote together.
Your have a restaurant called Topolobampo and I’m curious, did you name it after the city in Sinaloa?
Why did you name your restaurant after that city in particular?
Oh gosh, because I’m dorky. Topolobampo is an interesting place. I’m not a huge outdoors man but I drove the full 4,000 miles down the peninsula of Baja, and there aren’t very many people there so you just drive for hours and hours and hours. We camped along the way and when we got to La Paz we decided to take the car ferry across, which lands in Topolobampo – and I thought, ah, thank God – it was such a relief to get back to mainland Mexico. The interesting thing about Topolobampo is that back in the late 1800′s many people had pinned their hopes on it. For instance, an American guy had set up an utopian colony there; another person was convinced that Topolobampo was the next Acapulco, and they were going to send goods from the central USA by rail from Kansas down through the Copper Canyon to Topolobampo, and all the big cargo ships were going to go from there to Asia. Well, this never happened – they built the railroad – and this railroad is still used to go through the Copper Canyon- but it never developed into that major trade route that so many people had hoped for. Anyways, so a lot of people had pinned their hopes on Topolobampo so I thought why not me too?
Do you listen to music while you are writing? What is your favorite kind of music?
If you were to classify my favorite kind of music I would have to say World Music, because I love music from practically everywhere. And I listen to it all the time, I’m an iPod aficionado so I love to create play lists of things that mix up all the wonderful stuff in the world. But when I’m writing I usually listen to one CD over and over and over, all the way through the writing of the whole book.
So the last book you wrote, what were you listening to the whole time?
I was listening to the Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer album. It’s great. For me, the reason I listen to one thing when I’m writing a book is because – just like smell brings you back to a certain place – I know exactly what the next song is, what the pace of it is, and so on, so the one CD immediately puts me back in the groove from where I left off between writing sessions.
You created the Frontera Farmer Foundation to help support small farms in the Midwest. Why is this cause so important to you and what would you like people to know about it? What can the average person do to support organic farming?
Farms help to create communities because they put us in touch with where our food comes from, and when we know this we realize its a natural product that is connected to weather, soil and our environment in general. We have become so disconnected from our food supply in this country that I’ve heard people say things like “Well, if we screw up the soil around here we’ll just get our food from someplace else.” And when people think food is too expensive they say things like, “Why don’t we have the people in Mexico grow it for us? Or bring it from China, I don’t care. I want all my food and I want it right now, I don’t care where it comes from.” This perspective is pretty common in the US, but I think it’s the most dangerous view someone can have. It’s incredibly narcissistic too because it doesn’t preserve anything for future generations.
But when someone is connected with the local food supply, they start to ask very different questions, to demand different things from their food and become willing to work with the natural world. One of the reasons that I think our restaurants are so successful, is that we work with local farmers. A farmer comes in and tells me, “Hey, my such-and-such crop failed but I’ve got too much of this other stuff.” And because we’re partners with those farmers – and I don’t mean in the business sense, we have a direct relationship with them and consider them our partners in producing quality food – we’ll figure out what we can do with whatever produce the farmer has available. Sometimes this means we’ll have five dishes with spinach, it also forces us to be incredibly creative with our food. We have to figure out how to feature spinach on five dishes while making each one unique, making soups, and sauces, then putting it on another plate cooked slowly with garlic. There are so many wonderful things you can do with spinach, but most cooks would just say, “No I have my special recipe for this kind of spinach dish so I can only put it on one plate.”
Being partners with the farmers who grow our food also introduces us to new things and teaches us about taking care of the earth. People put a couple tomato plants in their backyard and go “Wow! That’s all you get off those plants? Do the farmers have to deal with this?” And the answer is yes, they do. Once you begin a dialogue with farmers and, by extension, with the food you eat, you start to experience a different sort of respect for the earth. Living healthfully and responsibly is all about understanding and being partners with your environment.
You can visit Rick online at www.rickbayless.com.
I like to eat rice pudding with a caramelized banana cooked in butter and brown sugar, then lightly sprinkled with granulated white sugar.
Arroz con Leche
Reprinted with permission from “Authentic Mexican” by Rick Bayless
Although I also love cold rice pudding, Bayless recommends thinning leftovers with milk and warming the pudding for a delicious breakfast. I have to agree, a cinnamony pudding like this is great way to start the morning. Three variations are included below, two from Bayless and one from me.
- 1 two inch long cinnamon stick
- A two inch strip of lime zest, colored rind only, 3/4 inches wide. (I usually skip this).
- 1 cup rice
- 1 quart (4 cups) of milk
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits.
- Ground cinnamon, for garnish
Step 1: The rice. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium size saucepan, add the cinnamon stick and lime zest, then cover and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Pour in the rice, let the mixture return to a boil, stir once, then cover and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.
Step 2: The pudding. Stir in the milk, sugar and salt, and simmer over medium to medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the liquid shows the first signs of thickening, 20 to 25 minutes. Take from the heat and remove the cinnamon stick and zest. In a small bowl beat the egg yolks until runny, stir in the vanilla and a few tablespoons of the hot rice, then spoon the yolk concoction back into the rice mixture. Mix in half the raisins, then spoon the rice pudding into a decorative 8-inch-square baking dish.
Step 3: Browning and finishing the pudding. Preheat the broiler and dot the rice pudding with the butter. Set the dish under the heat long enough to brown the top, 3 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining raisins and the ground cinnamon, and serve warm or at room temperature.
* Technique notes: In Step 2, the mixture should be simmered only until the milk takes on a slight creaminess (it will still look soupy). Overcooking will give you something dense and unapproachable. Should the latter be your fate, stir in a few tablespoons of milk just as you’re about to serve, dot with butter and brown again.
Coconut-Rice Pudding (Rick Bayless)
Prepare the rice as directed in Step 1. Hull, peel and grate a fresh coconut, reserving the coconut liquid. Add enough milk to the coconut liquid to bring the volume to 1 quart. Complete steps 2 and 3, using the milk-coconut mixture where milk is called for and stirring half the grated coconut into the rice pudding when you add the yolks. (Raisins can be omitted if you wish). Sprinkle a little coconut over the pudding before browning.
Cinnamon Rice Pudding with Caramelized Bananas (Baking and Books)
Prepare the pudding as directed in the original recipe above, omitting the raisins. Slice off the ends of an unpeeled, ripe banana, then slice it vertically down the middle so that you have two long halves. Carefully remove the peel, taking care not to break the pieces. Sprinkle both sides of each slice with dark brown sugar (about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of sugar in total).
In a skillet melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium-high heat, until foamy. Saute the banana slices, cut sides down, for one minute, shaking the pan occasionally to make sure the slices don’t stick. With two forks, gently flip the slices over and continue to saute for about 30 seconds longer, until the sugar melts and the banana has a light, golden brown color. As before, shake the skillet to prevent sticking.
Sprinkle the bananas with a pinch of granulated sugar and serve with warm rice pudding. Garnish the pudding with a pinch of ground cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg.
Note: HarperCollins has donated 3 copies of “Authentic Mexican 20th Anniversary Ed: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico” to the book raffle, along with several other books. Check it out!