Introduction: A Door Opens
“COUNTRY GIRLS ARE ROUGHER”:
CAMPFIRE BREAKFASTS AND
THEN ALONG CAME GILDA
SHAKE OUT YOUR BOOTS:
QUICK ANCHOVY MAYO
WILD PIGS THAT GRUNT
Charming Little Sandwiches and a Belt-Busting Burger
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Ring the Dinner Bell
Hearty Sides with a Ranch-Style Kick
Simple, Seductive Desserts
DO I HAVE MY PANTS ON?
MY FAVORITE SPOT ON THE FRIO
AN EVENING RIDE
Epilogue: Ranches and Rivers
About the Author
About the Publisher
I couldn’t have written this book without the help and support of plenty of great people. I am lucky, and grateful, to have them in my corner.
Enormous thanks to my literary agent, Janis Donnaud, who believed in this outside-of-the-box book from the beginning, and who fought with her characteristic tenacity to make it a reality. Thanks for demanding my best work.
Thanks to the entire team at HarperCollins. I am extremely fortunate to have worked with Harriet Bell, a notoriously deft editor, on my first book. Thanks for helping it become the book I always wanted to write. Thanks also to Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, for a knockout jacket; and to Leah Carlson-Stanisic for an insanely fun and sexy book design.
The stars also aligned when I crossed paths with Shelly Strazis, my talented photographer, soon after I moved to the ranch. I had a gut feeling she’d be the perfect person to shoot this book—and she was. We both love things a little quirky, a little sexy, and think there are few things finer than a great animal portrait. I am grateful for her talent, whimsy, generosity (schlepping cross-country props!), hard work, and the spectacular photographs that have made this book so fun to look at.
Photo shoots are always stressful endeavors, with countless details to juggle. The process is even more challenging in rural isolation, with no catered cappuccinos, and the nearest grocery store thirty miles away. We couldn’t have pulled it off without Shelly’s tireless assistants, Brad Rochlitzer and Andrea Gomez, and my friend Melissa Garnett who went above and beyond, as an official recipe tester, making last-minute shopping trips, ironing cowgirl shirts, and keeping us fed and laughing. David also took care of us with his great cooking, fire building, smart creative input, and basically keeping me calm. Thank you, Shelley Thomas, for zipping down from Seattle for the first shoot when I needed you—and hoisting straps, lending your abundant style, and keeping me laughing in front of the camera as I knew you would. Thanks to Brian Smale and Calvin and Charlotte Rose for letting her come. Thanks to Angela Romero for keeping the kitchen running smoothly and coffeepots full, and for your essential sweetness.
Thanks to Dorothy Winston, the owner of Julien’s home store in Uvalde, for lending us many of the gorgeous plates, utensils, and linens in this book—you made this book more beautiful.
Thanks to Kit and Carl Detering for having the chutzpah to hire us, and to their children, Cassie and Carlos, for welcoming us into their spectacular corner of the world. Thank you for generously supporting our interest in raising animals and having a garden, and for enthusiastically sharing your Texas. Special thanks to Kit for the adventures that stretched from Mexican bingo parlors in Nuevo Laredo to the Plaza Athénée in New York, and for always being the first person to say “thank you” after a meal.
For lending their keen editorial skills as proofreaders, thanks to Peter Romeo, Clay Smith, Cate Conniff-Dobrich, Melissa Clark, and especially Amanda Hesser, who has been an encouraging and supportive friend. I am indebted to my friend Adam Sachs, who lent his sharp eye to the ranch vignettes. His suggestions tightened this book—and saved me from my most sentimental self.
Two friends provided a clean, well-lighted space to work when I needed a break from my beloved distractions. Thank you, Terry McDevitt (and Kathy Garza and Diego the cat), for sharing the beautiful refuge that is Casa Luna in Helotes, Texas. And thanks to Monica O’Toole for offering an urban escape in Chicago (and stocking the fridge with yogurt and sparkling water).
Love and gratitude to Craig and Melissa Garnett for friendship, flautas, and showing me that life can be a Fellini film anywhere you live. Our time in Texas has been infinitely richer because of you, and the other wonderful people you introduced us to, including Danny and Celina Leskovar, Buzz and Nancy Barton, Gina and Giovanni Piccinni, and David and Gabrielle Forbes.
Thanks to our friends in Rio Frio, especially George and Beverly Streib, Willis Springfield, and Sharon Purnell, for friendship, laughter, and beautiful horseback rides.
Thanks to Rebecca Rather for being such a generous friend and wonderful partner for many Texas adventures.
Thanks to our veterinarians for plucking out hundreds of porcupine quills, clipping Max’s hooves, and patiently fielding my countless queries about cats, dogs, horses, sheep, and goats, including Dr. Teresa Coble, Dr. Tracy Colvin, Dr. “Salty” Arnim, Dr. John Barnes, and especially Dr. Pete Vaden for laughs, tall tales, and cold beer.
Thank you to the women in Europe who invited me into their kitchens, including Patricia Wells, Kathie Alex, and especially Janet Hansen and Maria Martinez Sierra.
Thanks to my many other friends and family, who helped David and me navigate Texas, tested recipes, or simply loved and encouraged me through this wild ride and tolerated that certain tone in my voice when I was trying to meet deadlines: April Sachs, Brenda Nelson and Tom Van den Bout, Danielle and Neil Teplica, Chip Wass, Babs Chernetz, Beth Traynor, Gabrielle Hamilton, Suzanne Goin, Dr. Mary Ann Flatley, Susie Morris and her extended family, Noel McKay, Hollin and JoCarol McKay, Angela King, Susan Spicer, Kristin Batson, Stefani Twyford, Ron and Peggy Weiss, Patricia Sharpe, Robb Walsh, Pam Blanton, Gretchen and Lance Lahourcade, and Jane and Milton Howe (especially for our first Terry Allen CD!).
Thanks to Fran Norman, Jana Norman, and Paul Turley for your warmth and enthusiastic support of this project.
Thanks to my sweet Grandma Millie for love, great cooking, and filling my life with a steady stream of cookies, brownies, and various other Scandinavian confections.
Much love and gratitude to my parents, Mike and Julie Disbrowe, for your love, support, and endless efforts to make our lives smoother. Our adventure has been richer (and houses and gardens neater!) because you shared it with us. Thanks, Mom, for being one of my official recipe testers, and Dad, for being an official taster. Thanks to my brothers, Tim and Tyler Disbrowe, for always being proud of their big sister.
Last, but far from least, I thank my husband, David Norman. You have been there for me at every step, from bringing me sandwiches while I was holed up writing my proposal to picking up kitchen shifts and literally shoveling more shit so I could finish this book. No one’s feedback, or palate, has mattered more. Thanks for having the guts to move to Texas. This story would not be a story without you.
A Door Opens
Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can’t recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven.
—SON VOLT, “WINDFALL”
Every now and then the stars align and an unexpected door opens. You find yourself in a quandary. Do you walk past the door and continue with what is familiar, or do you walk through the door and turn your world upside down? This is a story about walking through the door.
A little more than four years ago, I knew almost nothing about the Texas Hill Country. Despite the fact that I had racked up plenty of frequent flyer miles as a food and travel writer, this unique part of the United States—a swath of rolling green nestled between the pines to the east and the Giant landscape to the west—had escaped my radar. There was really no excuse, given the fact that I spent a brief chapter of my childhood to the southeast, in Yoakum, Texas, picking bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush flowers, poking at possums (playing possum and ignoring me), and cheering armadillo races from my dad’s shoulders.
There was a lot I didn’t know about the Hill Country—the brisket and breakfast tacos, the fire ants and scorpions, the cactus blossoms and oak trees. And I certainly had no idea what it was like to live on a ranch. Now, as I reflect on how immersed our lives have become in this world, I’m amazed at the transformation that has ensued. Somewhere along the line, the Disney Texas that I first felt when I’d don a cowboy hat and pearl-snap-button shirt became more authentic. My jeans faded and my boots wore in, and I earned some legitimate cowgirl notches in my belt. More important, my inner dialogue quieted down. I used to find myself thinking, Isn’t this wild? I’m in a feed store buying bales of hay. Soon the errand was just that—a task as familiar as hailing a taxi in New York once was.
As I write this we have a baby lamb sleeping in a box in our kitchen, a kid goat curled up on the porch with our three dogs, and a rooster imprisoned in the backyard on murder charges (two young roosters are dead and the hens aren’t talking). And all this seems relatively normal. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before moving to the Texas Hill Country, I was a city girl. I lived in New York for ten years, with a two-year detour to Europe.
I first came to the Detering Ranch (aka Hart & Hind), a spectacular 5,250-acre property ninety miles west of San Antonio, in October 2001 to write a magazine article about a bakery in Fredricksburg. I penciled in a trip to Hart & Hind, a new guest ranch, hoping it might provide another story. It was then that I first met Kit, the owner and founder of Hart & Hind. I immediately liked her irreverent humor and unassuming nature. We’re both fast walkers, so we became acquainted on daily hikes.
Kit had been unimpressed with her experiences at trendy, of-the-moment spas, and wondered why she paid top dollar to leave her own spectacular setting. So she decided to create her own retreat—an “un-spa” inspired by the rugged landscape. The program would play up hiking, horseback riding, and good food, and leave the fluff-and-buff stuff to more frivolous destinations.
In turn, I told Kit that my boyfriend David Norman, then the head bread baker at Bouley Bakery in Manhattan, and I had been thinking about making a change. I had ten great years of New York under my belt, but I was getting older and weary of the same games. I was increasingly desperate to escape the land of beige office cubicles. I was tired of paying too much money for a tiny apartment. I wanted to spend more time outdoors and reconnect with the things that the city forced me to compartmentalize. My frequent travel was fun, but the freedom was deceptive. I spent too much time on airplanes, flying over homes with warmly lit windows.
David and I started talking about “what next.” It was sport dreaming and it was cheap. Maybe Northern California or Tuscany? Maybe the Pacific Northwest? If no one had called my bluff, I would have continued to “think about a change” for another five years. New York is a famously difficult place to live, but it’s an even tougher place to leave.
Kit had her own ideas. Her chef had just quit. “Why don’t you two come down here and run this place?” she asked with her usual spontaneity. I was flattered, but my initial thought was a resounding Yeah, right! Where could I find Vietnamese takeout or Prosecco by the glass? Where would I meet girlfriends for cocktails and gossip? Perhaps most important, I saw myself as a writer more than a cook. I’d spent the last several years behind a keyboard, not a stove. I hadn’t cooked full-time since living in France.
Yet the proposition was alluring. Despite myself, I started to get excited. The chapter I spent in Europe had made me a sucker for dramatic detours. I’d enjoyed several fun, frenetic years in New York, but I could predict the next few. The utterly new experience of living on a ranch—that was exciting.
Before I flew back to New York, I called David from the San Antonio airport. It happened to be his birthday. “I’m not going to give you any details,” I said, “but as I fly home I want you to think about the job title ‘ranch manager.’” Click. Later that night, over a mojito or three, he came around to my way of thinking. It was time for a change.
Just two months later, we loaded two apartments of stuff into a Penske truck and said many tearful good-byes. We pulled into the ranch on January 2 and haven’t looked back since.
Our adventure unfolded quickly. With our first paychecks, we bought cowboy hats. With our second check came the leather boots. The horses, saddles, and pickup truck came months later. Both David and I share the sentiment that if you’re going to live somewhere, you might as well live there. So we set about immersing ourselves in the unique culture of south central Texas. And we rolled up our sleeves and started cooking.
I wanted to make food that had a context, so I started cooking the kind of things I would want to eat in such a setting. The recipes are a confluence of people and places that have shaped my sensibilities, as well as the area’s beloved cooking traditions and ingredients. You won’t find sea urchins, truffles, squash blossoms, or candied violets in these recipes. While I love all those ingredients, I wanted to cook with ingredients I could find at local grocery stores.
South central Texas influences these recipes in many ways. I was living on a working cattle ranch, after all, so I served steak and other local favorites like venison and quail, citrus fruit (ruby red grapefruit, oranges, valley lemons), flour and corn tortillas, pinto beans, locally grown cabbage and broccoli, and fresh shrimp and snapper from the Gulf. I used local products whenever possible, be it homegrown pecans, honey from Uvalde (the self-proclaimed honey capital of the world), herbs from my garden, or our own fresh ranch eggs.
Most of our food is inherently healthy because we use good fresh ingredients, but this is not a diet book. This is about fresh, satisfying food that is easy enough to prepare while living life (and juggling its demands) to the fullest. We created the menu with selfish motivations: We wanted to serve food that we’d be proud of, but we also wanted to be outside, participating in ranch life as much as possible. Based on feedback from our past guests, we succeeded.
Before we moved to Texas, I never had a taste for land, and certainly never dreamed of owning any. As we fell in love with ranch life, it was all I could think about. When I thought about what I wanted next, for the first time in my life I had a concise answer. I wanted to keep the best aspects of my days here: wide open spaces and room to raise animals, hills to hike, fresh eggs to gather, a garden and a pace that allowed time to cook good food and share it with the people I care about. Our adventure has been anything but predictable. But the biggest surprise of all was that when Hart & Hind closed last year, we decided to strike out on our own and stay. Choices are evolutionary. Sooner or later it’s time to find a new place to love.
So we bought a ranch of our own in the Nueces Canyon—100 acres on a lonely highway in the shadow of Bull’s Head Mountain. We packed up our menagerie of animals, ordered more chickens, and deepened our commitment to the Hill Country and this sort of living—and cooking.
I like living life in chapters because the days remain vibrant and dense with learning. The Hill Country has been, and remains, an incredible chapter—and we’ve eaten awfully well to boot. I am delighted to share both the food and the escapades that have happened along the way.
If I haul myself out of bed early enough I can watch the sun break over the soft slope of hills that rise at the end of a field in front of our house. The light comes in two ways. When it’s overcast, the sky is a wash of periwinkle before easing into cotton candy pink and then increasingly radiant shades of coral. On clear days the hills are a sharp silhouette backlit by a crisp, bright stroke of butter yellow. As the sky brightens, our morning rituals begin. The bedroom door is cracked open, and Flannery the cat darts past my foot to reclaim the bed. We let the dogs out of the laundry room; they step into the backyard to stretch and yawn. One of us fills two cups of coffee.
My sleepy-eyed drive to the lodge, where I cook for guests, often feels like a video game where I am a character on a mission. Along the way I hit several targets that trigger a specific reaction. As I pull out of the driveway and past the windmills, the blesbok, an exotic African antelope that escaped from a nearby ranch, snorts at the truck, territorially shaking his head and pawing the earth. I descend a small hill and pass a row of live oaks where three rabbits pop up from a warren, race alongside the truck, then disappear down into new holes. As I near the pond, the snapping turtles that rest on a partially submerged log slip seamlessly into the dark water. When I reach the creek, a gray heron takes flight, each day gliding along the same arc of air. I can’t help but wonder if these animals anticipate me as I do them. I drive between my garden and the pasture of goats; they bawl and gallop along the fence for a few yards. Finally I park behind the lodge, flip on the lights and music, cinch an apron around my waist, and start cooking.
Some people pride themselves on skipping breakfast. I wake up hungry. Breakfast is the meal most evocative of ranch life, and in true Western tradition, ranch breakfasts are heartier and less harried. I’ve learned that a beautiful, thoughtfully prepared morning meal—whether it’s a bowl of yogurt adorned with a drizzle of syrup and a scattering of toasted seeds or a plate of spicy Mexican eggs—can be as satisfying as anything I will eat that day. Because our days are long and active, everybody needs to be well fueled. The same can be said for the daily demands of any active person.
Cooking for guests, I’ve also discovered that breakfast is by far the most personal meal. Morning customs are particular and not to be tampered with (half-and-half is as crucial to one person’s coffee as vanilla soymilk is to another’s). For some, morning bliss is a bowl of crunchy, nutty granola or a warm Blackberry Blue Corn Muffin. For others, heaven is Eggs over Polenta with Serrano-Spiked Tomato Sauce.
In the spirit of true camp cooking, David makes a hearty campfire breakfast outdoors—a chuck wagon fantasy come to life. Eating fresh ranch eggs scrambled with green chiles, warm buttermilk biscuits drizzled with cane syrup, and homemade turkey sausage outside in the sweet morning air is one of the most beautiful ways I know to start the day. We sip thick cowboy coffee from tin cups and watch the goats and horses grazing in the distance. But even if you can’t eat out on the range, make this breakfast (we prepare it inside as well!). You’ll love the satisfying flavors that deliver an undeniable Texas kick.
Makes 11 to 12 cups
One brisk and bracing morning, as I hauled buckets of sweet feed to the pasture, it occurred to me that I have a breakfast habit in common with my horses. We both like to start the day with crunchy, sweetened whole grains. Mercifully, I am able to keep more of them in my mouth while chewing. Oats, nuts, and seeds are essential to good health—but I crave this cereal because it’s delicious. Pecans, an important local crop, are a natural for Canyon Granola—we have three orchards on the ranch. They nicely complement a few other favorite ingredients, like pepitas (green hulled Mexican pumpkin seeds, available in natural food or specialty stores) and sweet, chewy dried peaches and cherries. Scatter a few tablespoons of these crunchy, chewy nuggets over plain yogurt, enjoy them as cereal with milk, or simply tuck a serving into your bag (saddle or gym) as a snack. Clear bags of this granola, cinched tight with a few ribbons and paired with some tin coffee cups, make excellent hostess gifts.
1 cup pure MAPLE SYRUP
½ cup DARK BROWN SUGAR
1/3 cup CANOLA OIL
¾ teaspoon SALT
1 tablespoon pure VANILLA EXTRACT
4 cups old-fashioned OATS
4 ounces (about 1 cup) PECAN HALVES
2 ounces (about ½ cup) PEPITAS
2 ounces (about ½ cup) SUNFLOWER SEEDS
½ cup WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR
½ cup NONFAT DRY MILK POWDER
1/3 cup ground FLAXSEED MEAL
4 ounces (generous ½ cup) chopped DRIED PEACHES or NECTARINES
4 ounces (generous ½ cup) DRIED CHERRIES or GOLDEN RAISINS
1. Place the oven racks on the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 300°F.
2. Combine the maple syrup, brown sugar, oil, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the brown sugar is dissolved. Stir in the vanilla.
3. In a large bowl, combine the oats, pecans, pepitas, sunflower seeds, flour, milk powder, and flaxseed meal. Pour the warm syrup mixture over the dry ingredients and use a rubber spatula to combine well.
4. Divide the moistened oats evenly between two baking sheets. Bake for 20 minutes, then stir with a metal spatula and rotate the sheets to opposite racks to ensure even baking. Bake another 20 minutes, then stir and switch pans again. Bake until the mixture has a fragrant, toasty aroma, another 10 to 15 minutes. Cool the granola in the pans, breaking up any unwieldy clumps with a spatula. When the mixture is completely cool, mix in the dried peaches and cherries and store at room temperature in an airtight container.
Breakfast Tacos 101
Makes 4 tacos
Served in taquerias and gas stations throughout the Hill Country, the breakfast taco is a beloved tradition and one of the first local food customs that I eagerly embraced. In the morning, they are as common as cornflakes. At just about any restaurant that serves breakfast, the menu will feature a roster of huevos scrambled with a choice of one or two other savory ingredients such as chorizo, bacon, fried potatoes, sautéed onions and poblanos, or grated cheese served in a warm fresh flour tortilla. The belt-busting bean and cheese taco, hefty with thick, creamy refried beans and grated cheese, is another favorite.
Breakfast tacos made with scrambled eggs are the perfect outlet for any ingredients that you might have on hand. I’ve given a standard recipe below, but feel free to add sautéed mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, or nopalitos (cactus paddles). You can also add any grated cheese, leftover meat (slices of smoked sausage are a favorite), or chopped fresh herbs. As with any dish of limited ingredients, the quality of each item is key. The best free-range eggs and tender, fresh tortillas transform this speedy breakfast into a sublime eating experience.
1 tablespoon OLIVE OIL
8 large EGGS
KOSHER SALT and freshly ground BLACK PEPPER
Dash of HOT SAUCE
1 bunch of SCALLIONS, thinly sliced
1/3 cup chopped fresh CILANTRO
½ cup GRATED CHEESE, such as Cheddar, jack, cotija, or queso fresco
4 flour TORTILLAS
1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and swirl to coat.
2. In a medium bowl, use a fork to lightly beat the eggs with salt, pepper, and hot sauce.
3. Add the scallions to the skillet and cook, stirring, until softened.
4. Pour in the eggs and cilantro and use a spatula to push the edges of the eggs toward the center of the skillet, tilting the skillet as you go, until no liquid remains. Just before the eggs set, fold in the cheese.
5. Meanwhile, heat the tortillas (see “Warming Tortillas,” opposite). Divide the eggs evenly among the tortillas and serve with your favorite red or green salsa or another dash of hot sauce.
WARMING TORTILLAS Store-bought tortillas become more flavorful and pliable when heated. Some of the freshest tortillas can even be a bit sticky when you buy them, from undercooking. I cook them a bit further by placing them directly on the grates over a gas flame (if your grates are particularly low, stack two on top of each other), turning as necessary, just until they darken and blister. If you don’t have a gas range, heat them in a dry skillet (I use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet) over medium-high heat.
VARIATIONS: Scramble eggs with any of the following combinations:
Corn, scallions, and fresh ricotta
Sautéed shallots, tomatoes, and fresh mint
Sautéed cremini mushrooms, fresh thyme, and goat cheese
Chopped roasted vegetables or potatoes and chopped parsley
“COUNTRY GIRLS ARE ROUGHER”:
POST OFFICE AS GREEK CHORUS
As soon as we moved into our new home, we immersed ourselves in the daily demands of getting settled and the completely foreign ranch chores that came with the job.
Each errand and presumably simple task took longer here. If we wanted something to eat, we had to make it, since there was no Chinese takeout or pizza delivery. The nearest grocery store was thirty miles away, so when it came to shopping, we had to be organized—not a strength of either of ours. Taking out the trash meant driving to the dump. Feeding the cows each morning meant driving a Mule (a Kawasaki ATV), opening cold and rusty gates, entering the mouse-filled feed barn, and hauling bales of hay and sacks of feed cubes. Sectioned-off flakes of hay reminded me of giant blocks of shredded wheat cereal. Clean clothes lasted a few minutes—muddy hoof and paw prints became tattoos on my trousers. For the first time in years, my clothes actually got dirty—and we’re not talking about a splash of coffee or red wine.
Wrap dresses and heels stayed packed away and I began to dress from a box of old jeans, khakis, and T-shirts. My hair was usually in a ponytail, and I was mostly dusty, sweaty, and paint-splattered. There were prickly burrs in my shoelaces and strands of hay and dried corn, for the goats, in my pockets. When I took off my jeans each night, the kernels would dance across the wood floor.
It was a return to my tomboy heritage, and it was mostly great fun, but I can’t deny that in weaker moments the transition was unsettling. I could no longer rely on the validation of feeling pulled together. There was no one around to say “Cool shoes” or “You look nice today.” Every once in a while I would feel the need to justify my disheveled appearance.
On one such morning I went to the post office in Rio Frio, a small rectangular building with bluebonnets planted in front and pungent goats out back. Sharon, the postmistress, had grown up in Rio Frio; her parents lived across the street and she lived next door with her husband. She was warm, friendly, and a fanciful dresser. I looked forward to seeing what she was wearing each day because she always looked great in her leopard prints, multicolored cat’s-eye glasses, blinking holiday jewelry, Western fringe, and flecks of glitter.
I hadn’t bothered to put in my contacts, so I peered at her through smudged glasses. “Don’t look at me,” I grumbled. “I’m a mess.”
I thought she might politely object. I secretly hoped she would refute the notion I was going to pot, even find some charm in my haphazard ways. Instead she looked me up and down, frowned, shrugged, and with a bit too much resignation said, “Well, country girls are rougher.”
Sharon shoots from the hip. She has continued to provide a running commentary on my appearance, weight fluctuations, haircuts, ranch life, and the contents of my mail. Hence, the post office came to serve as a Greek chorus of sorts to our time in Texas.
Stepping inside the Rio Frio post office is a bit of a time warp. The radio is set to an AM station, “where the legends of country live,” so it is routine to hear old-time country-and-western singers like Johnny Conlee, Hank Williams, and Charlie Rich. On lucky days I’d catch Dolly Parton. Most of the time I’d catch Sharon mid–phone call. She would pop up when I came in—at least before she got to know me. One time I arrived to hear Tammy Wynette singing “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and heard her whisper into the phone, “Well, isn’t he just a blow hole…”
Sharon put admirable energy into making the space cheery. For each holiday there would be corresponding decorations: jack-o’-lantern napkins taped on the wall for Halloween, metallic cupid streamers in February, bunnies and plastic eggs for Easter. The counter featured a candy bowl filled with Double Bubble and Peanut Chews. There was often a candle that reeked of Nantucket breezes or snickerdoodles, and a few stems of carnations in a vase. Mysteriously, every once in a while there would also be crates of produce. “Do you want some cabbage?” she’d ask. The source was always vague (“Oh, they brought it from down yonder…”).
Sharon was the central valve through which local news traveled. Certain folks seemed to spend a good portion of their day at the post office, for the air-conditioning and company. The ease and all-around pleasantness of going there couldn’t have been more different than it was in Brooklyn, with its morose clerks and long, irritating lines. Rio Frio suited my lack of organization. I could have shown up with an armadillo and Sharon probably would have helped me package it and find the friend’s address, lent me packing tape, and let me bring in the postage the next day. On lazy days, I would simply call from home to see if I had enough mail to warrant the drive. “Hey, it’s me. Do I have anything?” I’d say, not bothering to tell her who it was.
“You got a check,” she’d answer without looking. Sometimes she’d hand me a stack of envelopes, laughing, and say, “You got another postcard from that one friend…he is funny.”
We swapped stories about survival in the land of wild hogs and scorpions. “Killed one last night,” she’d say.
“Scorpion?” I’d ask.
She’d nod and we’d both laugh nervously. One morning she held up a finger wrapped in a Band-Aid. “Take a guess,” she said. She had been doing dishes and picked up a skillet only to be stung by a scorpion hiding underneath. “It drew blood and it hurt,” she said.
Once a wild hog chased Sharon and her dog up a tree. When the pig finally gave up and ambled off, she “climbed down and ran like a scalded dog” in the other direction.
Sharon’s favorite adult beverage was a Flaming Doctor Pepper, a mixture of beer and Amaretto that was ignited before it was served. She enjoyed these in Ruidoso, where she and a girlfriend liked to sneak off for weekends. “They quit serving them,” she sighed after one trip. “Someone got hurt, and there’s, you know, liability…” We both shook our heads in disbelief.
Makes about 4½ cups
Salsa verde is made from tomatillos, which resemble small green tomatoes encased in a papery husk. They are actually a member of the gooseberry family. Raw tomatillos are Granny Smith green; when simmered they turn the drab color of army pants. The cooking process is important—it transforms their raw tartness into a sweeter, more appealing flavor. You can assemble the components of this salsa in the time it takes for the water to boil to blanch your tomatillos. The avocado is optional, but it gives the salsa a luscious, creamy body. For a richer flavor and a bit more heat, roast and peel a couple of poblano chiles and add them to the blender.
Serve this salsa with Cowgirl Migas, chicken tacos, or cheese quesadillas. For an easy appetizer, pour a pool of the salsa onto an ovenproof platter, top it with slices of panela or another fresh Mexican cheese, and broil until bubbly (the cheese will soften but not melt). Serve warm corn tortillas on the side.
2 pounds TOMATILLOS (about 14 medium), husked
1 large ONION, coarsely chopped
2 to 4 GARLIC CLOVES (as desired)
2 to 3 SERRANO CHILES (or 2 to 4 jalapeños)
½ cup coarsely chopped fresh CILANTRO (about ½ bunch)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh TARRAGON and/or MINT (optional)
Juice of 1 large LIME or 2 to 3 MEXICAN LIMES (about 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon OLIVE OIL
½ teaspoon KOSHER SALT, plus more to taste
1 AVOCADO (optional)
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add the tomatillos and simmer until they darken to drab green and soften, about 5 minutes. Drain and transfer to a food processor or blender. Cool briefly, then add the onion, garlic, serranos, herbs, lime juice, oil, salt, and avocado if using. Pulse to break down the tomatillos, then purée until smooth. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or lime as desired. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
PONY EXPRESS: Canned tomatillos are not my first choice, but in a pinch and with the help of a few other ingredients (the avocado becomes more essential here), they make a tasty substitute. Drain two 10-ounce cans of tomatillos. Place in a blender with the serranos, onion, garlic, cilantro, and 1 avocado. Purée until smooth. Season to taste with salt and lime.
BLISTERED TOMATILLO SALSA Another way to make green salsa is to char and blister the tomatillos and vegetables under the broiler, which creates a more complex roasted, smoky flavor. When I make this version, I add 3 or 4 long, light green Hatch chiles (also called Anaheim). To prepare the salsa, place the tomatillos (they’ll need to be rinsed, since they are not being blanched), onion, unpeeled garlic, serranos, and Anaheim chiles on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil and toss well to coat. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and cook, turning as necessary, until blistered on all sides. The peppers will darken first, followed by the tomatillos and then the onions and garlic (remove them from the oven in batches if necessary). Stem the chiles (it’s not necessary to seed them), peel the garlic, then transfer all ingredients to a blender or the bowl of a food processor. Purée until smooth, taste, and season with salt and lime.
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FRESH CHILE PEPPERS
The following varieties are the ones I use most often. They appear in recipes throughout the book.
Hatch/Anaheim: A long, pale green, and tapered chile with a vegetal flavor that ranges from slightly warm to medium hot. Also called New Mexico Green Chile and Chimayo. Hatch chiles hail from around the town of Hatch in southern New Mexico.
Poblano: Fatter and wider than the Anaheim with a thick skin (making them perfect to stuff for chiles rellenos), poblanos are dark green with a rich flavor. The dried form is ancho. They are medium-hot, and usually roasted and peeled or sautéed with onions to form rajas, a popular condiment for fajitas and tacos.
Jalapeño: Green and bullet-shaped, jalapeños are the most famous hot chile in the world. Pickled jalapeños are the classic Tex-Mex condiment.
Serrano: Hotter and slimmer than jalapeños, serranos have a fuller, more herbaceous flavor with a nice, clean heat. This is my favorite for fresh salsas and guacamole.
Habanero: Also known as Scotch bonnet, this is the world’s hottest pepper. It has a pretty lantern shape and wonderful fruity aroma, but treat it with respect! Use habaneros in small quantities and wear gloves when slicing.
Pequín Chile: This tiny chile, which grows wild throughout Texas and northern Mexico, looks like a small jelly bean on a thin stem. (Local lore says that wild turkeys eat them and acquire a spicy meat!) I use fresh pequíns when I roast vegetables, and crumble the dried chiles as a garnish over pasta and salads. They have a bright heat, like cayenne, and a more interesting flavor than crushed red pepper flakes.
DRIED CHILE PEPPERS
I use these peppers in countless salsa and sauces. I also toast a mix of them (my favorite combination is ancho, pasilla, and New Mexico) on a baking sheet in a 350°F oven for 7 to 8 minutes. After they cool, I stem and seed the chiles and finely grind them in a food processor to create a complex, smoky seasoning that I leave on the table next to the salt and pepper.
Pasilla (also called Negro): Long and skinny with a purplish-black, wrinkled skin and medium heat, pasilla is Spanish for “raisin,” named for the wrinkled skin, but it also suggests the flavor (along with notes of coffee and tobacco).
Guajillo: Long and tapered with a glossy reddish skin, it has a tart, fruity flavor and medium heat.
Chile de Arbol (literally, “tree” chile): A small and shiny bright red to orange chile with tapered body, it has a bright, high heat and a subtly sweet and toasty flavor. It’s delicious when simmered with tomatoes to make a hot table sauce.
Ancho: The dried form of a poblano, ancho (meaning “wide”) chiles are a deep reddish brown color. They’re most aromatic when the skin is soft and leathery (as opposed to dry and brittle). The flesh is slightly bitter, with smoky notes of prunes, raisins, and chocolate.
New Mexican: Long, smooth, and tapered with a deep cabernet color, this is a workhorse chile, good in countless sauces and stews, with rich tomato and dried-fruit tones.
Chipotle: The dried form of a smoked jalapeño. I buy them canned in adobo sauce (prepared by cooking the dried chiles with vinegar, onions, and tomato). My favorite brand is San Marcos.
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Smoky Red Chile Salsa
Makes about 2 cups
Whereas salsa verde is light and herbaceous, this salsa, which relies on dried red chiles, is thick and jammy, smoky and intense. As the chiles and garlic toast atop a cast-iron skillet, they darken slightly and begin to smell like chocolate, raisins, and prunes. The chiles are soaked until they soften and are puréed with the roasted garlic and blistered tomatillos, which provide a tart, juicy base. A bit of honey softens the chiles’ slightly acrid edges, and onion macerated in lime juice provides an acidic balance. Serve this salsa with fajitas, roasted chicken, breakfast tacos, or cheese quesadillas. It’s also delicious alongside grilled tuna or sausage or mixed with mayonnaise to create a spicy condiment for burgers.
½ large RED ONION, chopped
2 tablespoons LIME JUICE (2 Mexican limes or ½ large lime)
5 ANCHO or PASILLA CHILES (about 2½ ounces)
4 large GARLIC CLOVES, unpeeled
10 large TOMATILLOS (about 22 ounces), peeled and rinsed
½ teaspoon SALT
1 tablespoon DARK HONEY or CANE SYRUP
1. Combine the onion and lime juice in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Line the bottom of a large cast-iron skillet with foil. Place the chiles and garlic on the foil and place over medium-high heat, turning as necessary until evenly blackened and blistered. Remove from the heat; set the garlic aside and transfer the chiles to a small bowl of hot water. Place a small saucer on top of the chiles to keep them submerged and soak for 30 minutes, or until completely soft.
3. Meanwhile, place the tomatillos on a foil-lined baking sheet and place under the broiler until evenly blackened and bubbly, turning as needed. Set aside to cool.
4. When the chiles have softened, stem and seed them. Peel the garlic cloves. Combine the chiles, garlic, tomatillos, salt, and honey in a food processor and purée. The salsa will have a fairly thick, jamlike consistency. Add the onion-lime mixture and pulse to combine (do not purée). Taste and adjust the flavors, adding more salt, honey, or lime to taste.
NOTE: Like apples, tomatillos contain naturally occurring pectin, so this salsa will thicken upon standing. If it’s too jellylike when you take it out of the fridge, feel free to stir in a tablespoon or two of hot water to thin it.
Horse Trader Salsa
Makes about 3 cups
This is the perfect salsa to make when your garden is heavy with peppers that have been baking and intensifying in the late-summer sun. If you buy them at the store, go for a mix of varieties and colors (I use red, green, and yellow jalapeños whenever possible); the results will be prettier and the flavor more complex. My friend George Streib first made this salsa for me. He learned the recipe from one of the Mexican laborers who work for him. He said the secret to getting it just right is that you have to crush the peppers with a heavy can. The first time I made this salsa I followed his instructions, then realized that a potato masher would work much better. Don’t purée this salsa—the rough flecks of chile pepper are part of the appeal. The thyme is my touch; it provides a faint herbaceous flavor through the heat, which is significant. Feel free to substitute other varieties of milder chile peppers, such as yellow Hungarian wax or red Fresno, into the mix.
20 ounces fresh red, green, and yellow JALAPEÑOS and/or SERRANOS, stemmed but not seeded
1 large TOMATO (7 to 8 ounces), chopped
1 medium ONION, chopped
3 to 4 THYME SPRIGS
1 teaspoon SALT, plus more to taste
1½ teaspoons RED WINE VINEGAR
1. Place the chile peppers, tomato, onion, thyme, salt, and red wine vinegar in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add about 2 cups of water (it should come about halfway up the vegetable mix). Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer vigorously for about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water if the pot gets too dry.
2. When the peppers are completely soft, cool, remove the thyme sprigs, and use a potato masher to blend. Taste for salt and serve with tortilla chips. Stored in the fridge in a sealed container, this salsa lasts 7 to 10 days.
Huevos with Ranch Hand Red Sauce
Serves 4 to 8
Just about every cook in Texas has his or her own method of making huevos rancheros, or eggs served atop a fried tortilla with spicy red sauce. For me it’s all about a balanced, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, the freshest eggs, and a full-flavored cheese melted on top. This recipe makes enough sauce for 8 servings, but it keeps well, so simply cook the eggs and tortillas to order and serve it throughout the week.
Partner this eye-opening breakfast with black beans or refried pintos and sliced avocado. As an alternative, try the Blistered Tomatillo Salsa instead of the red sauce. For a brunch party (margaritas, anyone?), the sauce can be made a day or two in advance. Then all you need to do is fry the tortillas (they can be done earlier in the morning), assemble the garnishes, and cook the eggs to order.
6 medium TOMATOES (about 2½ pounds)
3 to 5 SERRANO CHILES
4 GARLIC CLOVES, unpeeled
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh CILANTRO
1 teaspoon SHERRY WINE VINEGAR or RED WINE VINEGAR
¾ teaspoon SALT
1 tablespoon OLIVE OIL
1 GREEN BELL PEPPER, chopped
½ RED ONION, chopped
VEGETABLE OIL, for frying
1 FLOUR TORTILLA per serving
1 to 2 EGGS per serving
GRATED WHITE CHEESE (such as jack, asadero, or cotija), for garnish
CILANTRO SPRIGS, AVOCADO SLICES, and LIME WEDGES for garnish
1. Heat a large cast-iron skillet covered with foil over medium-high heat. Place the tomatoes, serranos, and garlic on top of the foil and heat until blackened on all sides, turning as necessary (you can also place the vegetables on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook them under the broiler). Allow the vegetables to cool, then stem the serranos, peel the garlic, and transfer to a blender. Purée with the cilantro, vinegar, and salt.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the green pepper and onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomato purée, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring, for an additional 5 minutes.
3. To serve, heat ½ inch of the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, fry the tortillas, one at a time, until puffed and golden brown on each side. Transfer the tortillas to a plate lined with paper towels. Cover each tortilla with an additional paper towel. Repeat as needed with the remaining tortillas.
4. Heat a tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Fry 1 to 2 eggs per person, as desired. To serve, top each tortilla with eggs, a generous ladleful of red sauce, grated cheese, and cilantro. Garnish with avocado slices and lime wedges.
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FOUR FRESH WAYS TO EAT YOGURT
Until I started buying the good stuff and adding a few embellishments, yogurt was something I had to force myself to eat. But with the great organic varieties available and these quick preparations, I look forward to eating it almost every morning.
Maple Syrup and Pepitas: This is my most common breakfast. Top yogurt with a drizzle of maple syrup and a scattering of raw or toasted pepitas.
Melon Cup: Use a knife to trim the peel from a small (softball-size) honeydew or cantaloupe. Then use a paring knife to slice small, slanted slits around the middle of the melon, so the melon eventually splits open like a cracked egg. Use a spoon to gently scrape out the seeds. Fill the melon cup with yogurt and top with fresh berries.
Citrus-Mint: Use a knife to trim the peel from a grapefruit, orange, and Meyer (or Valley, as the variety grown in South Texas is called) lemon. Feel free to add lime or regular lemon as well, if you want a tarter taste. Holding the peeled fruit in your hand, trim the fruit into segments, allowing both the juice and segments to fall into a bowl. Toss the fruit with chopped fresh mint and serve atop yogurt. (For sweeter results, stir a little honey into the citrus juice.)
Berry Compote: Simply simmer a pound of fresh or frozen berries (my favorite combination is blackberries and raspberries) with a generous drizzle of maple syrup; ½ fresh vanilla bean, split; a pinch of salt; cinnamon; and ground ginger (or a couple tablespoons chopped candied ginger). Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the berries break down and the juices thicken. On cold mornings, I serve this compote warm as a topping for oatmeal. Stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator, this compote will last about 10 days.
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Texas Tofu Scramble
Many of our guests at Hart & Hind had unshakable Texan tastes. They like their steaks “flipped” (rare enough that a good vet could still save it), their iced tea sweet, and jalapeños on just about everything. Needless to say, I was leery of serving tofu. So I didn’t say a word before I presented this fragrant, colorful scramble. I simply disappeared into the kitchen and listened. “How does she get these eggs so creamy?” I heard one of them say.
Chalk one up for the chameleon powers of tofu.
For a heartier breakfast, serve this scramble with black beans in a whole wheat tortilla, with a dollop of plain yogurt and salsa. I heat up leftovers with chopped fresh tomatoes for a quick, healthy lunch. Whether you tell anyone it’s tofu is up to you.
1 tablespoon VEGETABLE or OLIVE OIL
1 medium ONION, diced
1 RED or ORANGE BELL PEPPER, diced
1 SERRANO CHILE, stemmed, seeded, and minced
One 12-ounce package firm or soft TOFU, drained (see Note)
1 teaspoon TURMERIC
1 teaspoon RED WINE VINEGAR
1 teaspoon SOY SAUCE
½ teaspoon crumbled dried BASIL or MEXICAN OREGANO (optional)
¼ cup chopped fresh CILANTRO
SALT and freshly ground BLACK PEPPER
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion, bell pepper, and serrano and cook, stirring, until softened and slightly browned, about 8 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, drain the tofu and place on a cutting board, then pat dry with a paper towel. Slice into ½-inch squares. Add the tofu to the browned vegetables along with the turmeric and cook until heated through. Add the vinegar, soy sauce, basil if using, and cilantro and stir to combine. Taste and season with salt, black pepper, and additional vinegar or soy sauce. Serve immediately.
NOTE: Soft tofu will result in a looser, creamier texture that really does resemble scrambled eggs. Firm or extra-firm tofu will hold its cube shape.
Upon reflection, I think it was the possibility of raising chickens that clinched my decision to relocate. Fresh eggs to gather for huevos rancheros! Plus what is prettier than a bunch of hens picking around the yard? Over the past four years, I’ve raised dozens of chicks, ducklings, goslings, and guinea hens, and I can’t imagine not having my own fresh eggs. But when my first chicks arrived, I was unaccustomed—romantic notions had overruled the logistics of how things would come together.
For my first batch, I leafed through a mail-order catalog from a hatchery in Iowa, picked up the phone, and ordered a batch of thirty chicks as casually as I might select a sweater from J. Crew. The process was similar, after all. I could select just about any color, size, and breed imaginable, each promising a particular flourish. Black Rosecombs were noted for a “stylish body and alert personality.” Anconas promised “lustrous black plumage” and Pearl guinea hens would “reduce the number of bugs and ticks.” I wanted Aracaunas, the chickens that lay pastel-colored eggs in shades of blue, olive green, and peachy pink.
The chicks were to be sent via airmail and were scheduled to arrive on Presidents’ Day—a Monday and national holiday when the post office was closed. Assuming those who knew best would take this into account, I expected them to arrive on Tuesday. That Monday, I busied myself preparing their new home. I swept out the “aviary,” a stuffy old cabin that once housed migrant workers and now served as a makeshift birdhouse, based on the basic instructions that I’d read in the catalog. I hauled in a deep metal tub that would shelter the chicks from drafts, lined the tub with wood shavings, then placed a few sheets of newspaper on top. The paper would prevent the chicks, dazed and confused from their journey, from eating the shavings instead of their feed.
I found an old heat lamp in the barn, fitted it with a new red bulb, and secured it over the tub. The cord just reached a weathered socket in the ceiling, so everything seemed to be fitting into place. I filled the feeder with food, which resembled pale gray Grape Nuts. Pleased with my efforts, I headed up to the lodge for a glass of water. On a whim, I checked the answering machine, only to hear a panicked voice. “Paula, this is Sharon at the post office. Your chicks are here, and they’re not going to live through the night.” Click.
Mail-order chicks are shipped a few hours after hatching. They’re nestled into a perforated cardboard box small enough to reserve body warmth. Then they endure what must be a nerve-racking journey and arrive jostled, confused, and thirsty. Surely they feel adrift in an unkind world. I considered these things as I sped along the road.
The minute I opened the door to the post office I heard a frantic peeping. “They’re all alive,” Sharon screamed with no small amount of drama. “I checked.”
I grabbed the noisy, alarmingly light box and headed for the truck. I could feel the scratch and scramble of tiny claws through the cardboard. To calm the chicks, I started singing. It was a high-pitched hum really, which basically morphed into the word baaaaabeeeeeees over and over again. To my surprise, the peeping stopped. The chicks grew quiet and listened to the fluctuating pitch of my voice. When they’d start to chatter again, I’d change tones and that would do the trick for a few more minutes.
At the ranch I rushed the box into the aviary. Desperate peeping resumed. It was a cold morning, and I was eager to get the chicks under the heat lamp, but first I had to mix them a drink of vitamins and electrolytes with a few tablespoons of sugar, which I poured into the water dispenser. Then I tore off the cardboard lid and took a good look at the downy balls of charcoal gray and yellow buzzing around on a thin layer of straw. They looked like wind-up toys.
According to instructions, I was to catch each chick and dip its beak into the water so it would be able to locate its drink source. I carefully scooped up a chick, lowered it into the tub, and used my index finger to gently push its beak into the water. I released it and watched it stagger around on the newspaper. I continued this process as fast as I could. When I had unloaded about half of the box, I paused and looked into the red bulb of the heat lamp. Then it exploded.
There was a bright flash and I felt the sting of shattered glass on my face. Because I had been staring directly into the light, I saw stars. Unfortunately, so did the chicks. I could hear their panicked peeps, and when I was finally able to focus I saw one of the chicks, flat on its back, beak pointed up, knocked out like a boxer in a cartoon.
Just then David arrived. He found me on my knees, surrounded by broken glass and frantic chicks. “The bulb blew up,” I sobbed. “That one is dead.” I pointed to the knockout. David picked up the bird, cupped it in the palm of his hand, and stroked it. “It’s not dead,” he said calmly. “It’s just in shock.” Sure enough, the chick was starting to come around and so was I. David found another bulb, plugged it into an extension cord that led to a more trustworthy socket, and picked up the mess. Sniffling, I baptized the remaining chicks.
When they were fully feathered at two months and able to venture outside, I would sit outside their pen and watch them buzzing around. There was a relaxing rhythm to their scurry, and I loved the sound of their chatter, as soft and buoyant as rushing water.
Chickens start laying eggs in five to seven months. The act of searching for and finding an egg must satisfy an impulse left over from the playground—the process made me giddy. Often the eggs would still be warm in my hands when I carried them into the house. Our hens foraged for green things all day, and feasted on my vegetable trimmings and food scraps. As a result, their yolks were saffron-colored and richly flavored.
To raise chickens for the first time is to learn by a painful process of trial and error. Predators were numerous and unyielding. Who knew that a raccoon, with its crafty, tenacious paws, could skillfully work through a wire fence? Skunks, snakes, and barn cats were just as persistent. David and his shotgun made frequent midnight trips to the barn.
It was dangerous to get too attached to any given chicken, and naming one seemed like a death sentence. We coddled one hen while she sat on eggs until she hatched two chicks. Then on Christmas morning, just as I poured each of us a glass of champagne, Tex, the golden Lab, showed up at the screen door, proudly wagging his tail with the hen in his mouth.
Scrambled Eggs with Hatch Green Chiles
These eggs get their kick from plenty of chopped green chiles. This scramble is so simple that we cook it for outdoor campfire breakfasts (partnered with fluffy biscuits) and inside on the range to serve with warm flour tortillas and beans. If you can find fresh or even canned Hatch chiles (from Hatch, New Mexico), they will create a particularly tasty scramble. However, in a pinch any canned green chile will work just fine. Feel free to add shredded Cheddar or jack cheese to the eggs just before they finish cooking.
1 tablespoon OLIVE OIL
1 tablespoon BUTTER
8 large EGGS
¼ cup MILK or LIGHT CREAM
KOSHER SALT and freshly ground BLACK PEPPER
Dash of HOT SAUCE
2 HATCH (also called Anaheim) CHILES, roasted (see below), peeled, seeded, and chopped (or one 4-ounce can fire-roasted green chiles)
1. Heat the olive oil and butter in a nonstick skillet over medium heat, and swirl to coat.
2. Whisk together the eggs and milk or cream in a medium mixing bowl. Add the salt and pepper, hot sauce, and chiles. Pour into the skillet and use a spatula to push the edges of the eggs toward the center of the skillet, tilting the skillet as you go, until eggs are just set, about 4 to 5 minutes, and serve.
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To roast chiles, place them directly over the grate on a gas range and heat over the flame, turning as necessary, until they are evenly charred and blackened. Transfer chiles to a large bowl and cover with a dish towel. This will steam the chiles a bit longer and make it easier to remove the skins. When the chiles have cooled, slice off the stems, remove the skins with your fingers (or a paper towel or paring knife), slice them open, and scrape out the seeds and discard. Alternatively, you can place the chiles on a baking sheet and roast them under the broiler, turning as necessary until they are evenly blackened. Transfer chiles to a large bowl, as directed above.
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Migas (Spanish for “crumbs”) is a beloved Tex-Mex breakfast scramble with two familiar ingredients: eggs and fried corn tortillas that have been crumbled into bits. Traditional recipes are rich and heavy, laden with greasy tortilla strips and an avalanche of yellow cheese. I typically lighten mine by adding more egg whites than yolks, charred (not fried) corn tortillas, vegetables and fresh herbs, and a dusting of a more flavorful aged cheese such as Cotija or queso añejo. If you want a heartier version (a good idea the morning after a particularly enthusiastic fiesta), use whole eggs, your choice of breakfast meat, and more grated cheese.
Nopalitos, or pickled cactus paddles, are common partners with eggs in this area and a delicious addition to migas. Sold in jars in the condiment or Mexican section of grocery stores in most of the country, they have a mild green flavor that resembles a well-cooked green bean (which can be used as a substitute). Leftover grilled veggies, blanched asparagus, or sautéed zucchini, spinach, or mushrooms are good additions to migas. Substitute or add vegetables as you please, adjusting the amount of eggs, as necessary, to suspend the extra ingredients. Serve this dish warm from the skillet with a wedge or two of lime and some red or green salsa.
3 CORN TORTILLAS (or 4 small maseca tortillas, if available)
6 EGG WHITES plus 2 whole EGGS (or 8 eggs)
KOSHER SALT and freshly ground BLACK PEPPER
1 tablespoon OLIVE OIL
1 small RED ONION, chopped
1 YELLOW, ORANGE, or RED BELL PEPPER, chopped
2 SERRANO CHILES, seeded and sliced into half-moons
3 PLUM TOMATOES, seeded and diced
½ cup NOPALITOS, rinsed, patted dry, and coarsely chopped (see Note)
1/3 cup chopped fresh CILANTRO (leaves and tender stems), plus additional sprigs for garnish
2 ounces (about ½ cup) finely grated COTIJA or other aged cheese
LIME WEDGES and SALSA (optional)
1. Toast the tortillas over a gas flame until charred and blistered but not too dark. If you don’t have a gas range, toast them in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until slightly darker and fragrant. Cool the tortillas slightly, then coarsely chop into ½-inch squares.
2. Combine the egg whites and eggs into a small bowl, season with salt, black pepper, and hot sauce, if desired, and beat lightly with a fork. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and swirl to coat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and chiles and sauté until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down, about 4 minutes. Add the tortillas and cook, stirring, until they are moistened and have absorbed any juices. Add the eggs, nopalitos, and chopped cilantro and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, just until the eggs set. Serve immediately with a dusting of cotija, lime wedges, salsa, and cilantro sprigs, if desired.
NOTE: If you want a hotter scramble, don’t seed the serrano chiles. A microplane is the easiest way to grate the cheese over the hot migas. If you can find fresh nopalitos (they will be vacuum-packed in plastic bags in the produce section), by all means use them. They will have a more vibrant color, fresher flavor, and an asparaguslike texture. To prepare fresh nopalitos, empty the packet into a colander and rinse (the paddles will be coated in a gooey okralike liquid). Blanch the nopalitos in boiling water, then rinse again. Pat dry with paper towels before adding to the migas.
PONY EXPRESS: For a quicker migas, simply sauté the onion, then stir in a drained 10-ounce can of RO*TEL® tomatoes and green chiles. Cook a few more minutes to reduce the juices, then stir in the eggs and a cup of crushed tortilla chips; garnish with cheese. If you don’t have salsa, douse with your favorite hot sauce.
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You’ll have a hard time finding these tortillas if you don’t live in an area with a Hispanic community. If you do, seek out a Mexican grocery to find these tortillas, which are made from coarsely ground masa. They have an appealing pebbly texture, and are more flavorful than other varieties. They are my choice for enchiladas as well, because they become tender (not chewy or soggy) when baked with a sauce.
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Typically on the mild side, Mexican cheeses fall into two basic categories. Fresh cheese (queso fresco) is supple and moist, and dried cheese (queso añejo) has a concentrated flavor and crumbly texture. The following cheeses are available in most grocery stores and Mexican markets.
Crema: Not really a cheese, but a thick, tangy dairy condiment used to enrich sauces and as a topping for tostadas, tacos, and enchiladas. I love a drizzle on soups, black beans, and hot fruit cobblers. Sour cream, crème fraîche, or even whole milk yogurt can be used as a substitute.
Cotija: Think of it as Mexican Parmesan. This pleasingly salty, pungent cheese has a lightly moist crumb. It’s typically sold in a square brick shape. Since it’s a firm, aged cheese with a stronger flavor, this is the cheese I use most often as a garnish for salads and enchiladas. Pair it with milder asadero for a great cheese quesadilla. Crumbled feta, ricotta salata, or even pecorino or Parmesan can be substituted, although the latter will be drier and not as milky tasting.
Asadero: Also called “queso quesadilla” because it’s an excellent melter, it’s the best choice for nachos, burgers, queso flameado (literally “flaming cheese,” a popular appetizer of melted cheese and salsa or chorizo), or even a Mexican-inspired panini made with spicy puréed beans. Whole milk mozzarella, provolone, mild, Cheddar-like Chihuahua cheese, and Muenster are good substitutes.
Queso Fresco: The catchall name for “fresh cheese.” Most versions are soft, moist, mild, with a coarse crumble, for sprinkling over enchiladas, black bean soup, or a salad. It’s not a good melter.
Panela: A light, milky fresh cheese typically crumbled over tacos, salads, and enchiladas. In the morning, it’s a nice breakfast cheese with a drizzle of honey. I like to place slices over a pool of red or green salsa, broil it, and serve with fresh corn tortillas. The cheese softens with heat, but it does not fully melt.
Queso Añejo: An aged cheese with a dry texture and salty, nutty flavor, it’s an excellent garnish for tostadas and beans.