Friday, February 23, 2007

Up By the Roots: Learning from Doña Chucha

El Monstruo Verde
has been dead since last Autumn, when the chapulines used it as a place for their frenzied orgies of mating, only taking time out to nibble at the leaves for renewed energy. After a week or so of this behavior, El Monstruo had been reduced to a ghostly remnant of its former grandeur. A few days ago, Doña Chucha asked me if it would be all right if they removed the remaining roots. There is a motive besides yard beautification. Los raices del chayote can be cooked in a salsa de chile colorado. Susan had eaten a plate of this when we were at El Camino Real Restaurante. Although the root is bland and somewhat starchy, it makes a good base for the smooth, brick-red and picante salsa.

Yesterday, Don Mateo came and dug up the roots, first removing the unsightly supporting structure of tubería plásticas. In an hour or less, he had reduced the once fearsome plant to a small wash tub of tuberous roots.
A day or two passed. On Sunday morning, Chucha came to tell us that she would cook the chayote roots at 1 p.m. I would be there with my camera.

When we arrived at the house, we entered the dimly illuminated kitchen. The walls are covered with a gray colored, optical illusion patterned tile. What light entered through two small windows gave the kitchen an muted, shimmering feeling.
Their daughter, Verónica was already there to help.
Chucha had already peeled and boiled the roots. She'd also prepapared the thin, slightly picante tomato-chile sauce.

We watched Verónica separate the eggs by tapping out one end with a fork, then draining the whites out into a shallow dish. The yolks went into another bowl. Verónica first whipped the egg whites with a hand held electric mixer, then the yolks and folded them together.

Chucha then passed each thick, starchy slice of raíz by hand through the egg batter, or capeado, placing three slices at a time in a skillet of hot oil. As the slices browned, she turned them, then tilting them to drain off excess oil, placed then into a cazuela de barro in which simmered a medium thin puree of chiles and tomatoes. When all was done, we gathered around the kitchen table and ate of the flesh of El Monstruo Verde, now reddened with salsa; arroz a la Mexicana, and hot tortillas. It was simple, tasty and satisfying.

I'd run home next door for 15 minutes or so earlier to refashion some rolled chicken breasts, stuffed with acelgas and cheese, cooked in a light white wine sauce with diced tomatoes and sweet peppers. (all the parts were cooked previously, and all I had to do was assemble and reheat it.) All the family tried my dish and seemed to enjoy it, but I agreed with her that it was something only for a cook with a lot of free time available. In my opinion, her dish also required a cook with extra time, because I seldom batter fry anything, and the concept of an egg batter consisting only of whipped eggs and no flour is novel to me. (At the end, I saw Mateo heating up more homemade tortillas with which to fill out his meal.)

Chucha gave us a large quantity of Raíz de Chayote en Salsa Colorada to take home. A day or so later, I made a new, thicker sauce, more akin to to that served at Restaurante El Camino Real. I soaked 2 each seeded and stemmed, then lightly toasted chiles anchos y chiles mulatos in very hot water. Meanwhile, I toasted a little whole cumin seed and Mexican orégano with a small onion in chunks, and a large clove of garlic. I added a splash of plain vegetable oil
and 1 large and one small Roma tomato, cut into small dice, and proceeded to fry and reduce the tomatoes.
Meanwhile, I drained the now softed soaked chiles, and blended them in a powerful blender with the tomatoes and seasonings.
Be careful when doing this, as hot tomato chile sauce may spew out of the top of the blender. Blend it in small portions if necessary.

I added water as necessary to attain the desired thickness of sauce; something thinner than a typical mole, but thicker than a caldillo. The sauce is returned to the 14 inch iron skillet, to blend and thicken, over a low flame. Seasoning checked. I thought that it needed salt, which I added in the form of coarse sea salt and some Knorr-Suiza Caldo de Tomate. I placed all of the precooked, battered and fried chayote slices into the sauce to heat up. To lessen splattering of the thicker sauce, I put a perforated pizza pan, non stick side down, over the frying pan.

When a small pot of Texmati rice was done, we ate it with the chayote roots in their salsa de chile colorada rica. The three versions we had now tried were interesting, if minor variations on the basic dish, but all were good.

UPDATE: The raices de chayote got a new and (I hope, final) incarnation, as I have heated them up in the microwave, while a casserole of cooked grits, black beans and cheese, smothered in Salsa Colorada bakes in a cazuela en el horno.

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