Week 1: Salsa Ranchera

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What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Hello! And Happy Mother’s Day!
Also, welcome back. It’s been a while since I’ve sent out this email diary. If you’ve enjoyed it in the past, I apologize for the long hiatus. And if you’ve not enjoyed it, I’m sorry to again bombard you with free content. (There’s an unsubscribe button somewhere down there.) The truth is that I’ve missed sending this out. I’m hungry to talk about myself, about what I’m doing and thinking. So I’m re-starting this list. Buckle your seatbelts. I’m going to send out more emails.

In its prior incarnation, this was a travelogue. I narrated, sometimes at great length, what was happening as I traveled in Tibet, China, and Thailand. But today the airplanes are flying three-quarters-empty, the border guards are bored, and pleasure travel is the exclusive province of sociopaths and the mega-rich (but I repeat myself).

The other night, Lisa and I spent half an hour watching a video someone took a few years back of a simple night walk around Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. We peeked in little bars that only seat five at a time. We admired elegant billboards and looked curiously at businesses with English-language names like Peg and BigBang and Bon’s Old Fashioned American Style Pub. Most of all, we jealously ogled pedestrians who were out on the town, faces uncovered, physically undistanced, residing in the normal world that is no more.

Has any time ever made us hungrier for connection? And for that matter, has any time ever made us hungrier? I miss street life, restaurants, jam-packed farmer’s markets, and big dinner parties. Those are things that nourish.

I am going to try to send a copy of this email diary out every Sunday. Like my travelogue, this version of my newsletter won’t last forever. I’m thinking of sending twelve or eighteen installments—if I’m having too much fun, I’ll choose the bigger number. They will be open diaries, letting you know a bit of what I’m doing and thinking, how I am touching the world—the sort of thing I might tell you about if you came over for brunch. And I will include a recipe. Not because I expect you to cook it. More like, it’s fun when you visit someone to watch them cook, and to hear them talk about what they’re making as they make it.

I’ll do my best to keep it brief. Though I’m bad at brevity. I’m sorry.

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These are the huevos rancheros from Cafe One, a little diner on the north end of Fort Bragg. They are, to my mind, the perfect breakfast. You eat them with a fork and knife, and each bite can be perfect in its own way.

The essential equation here is eggs + salsa + beans + tortilla. The flavors fit together so nicely. Rich custardy yellow yolks contrast with tart salsa. Corn-forward tortillas plays off the softly round black beans. Sour cream, avocado, and egg yolk are all fats, but each brings something special: the cream is tart, the avocado is sweet and green, and the yolk is a rich, sinshiney liquid that flows and coats. All the components are fresh and good on their own, but as a dish they become even better. Especially if you drizzle some Tapatio over the top. And did I mention they come with breakfast potatoes and a tiny wedge of watermelon?

I have thought a lot about this dish—mostly about how much I want to eat it, but also about how I could make it on my own. Eventually, I realized that the main thing standing in my way was having a really good salsa ranchera. (The canned stuff is, for this purpose, just not up to snuff.) The need to find a good salsa ranchera became more urgent in January, when we moved to L.A.

 

This is the week that the jacaranda trees decided to reach maximum purple petal. It’s also the week that the carpenters building the luxury condo complex across the street decided to enclose it in a pale yellow sheathing product that every four feet proclaims itself to be “DensGlass.” I find the two colors—one organic, the other manufactured—to be unexpectedly lovely, together like this.

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I’m a tremendous fan of John Thorne, the cookbook writer. His book Mouth Wide Open did that rare thing that Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat also did: it changed the way I cook. Both books gave me permission to deviate, often wildly, from written recipes. But while Nosrat’s book gave me a framework for understanding the elemental components of good cooking, Thorne helped me think about cookbooks in a new way. Before, I thought that you read cookbooks mostly to look for dishes to make. You might idly page through one, and if something caught your eye you could flag it with a sticky note. But that’s not the only way to read a cookbook. You can also read it more like a novel: enjoying the language, getting familiar with the peculiarities of the narrator, and letting the waking dream of a different world assemble itself in your mind. In the case of a cookbook, the world you visit is mostly a kitchen, and the eyes you see through are those of someone who loves cooking.

Now I mostly read cookbooks while laying in bed. I love it when their authors talk about different techniques, how they came to learn something, and what they were thinking when they formulated a dish. In this way I have spent time with the minds of patissiers, Chinese-American cooks, Persian-American cooks, bread bakers, and even that guy who started Blue Bottle Coffee. (He’s very intense about his coffee.) I cannot recommend pleasure reading good cookbooks enough.

But John Thorne also taught me that when you want to cook a specific dish, the opposite approach is best: take down every cookbook that you can think of that might have a recipe for that dish. Read all of the different approaches. Then come up with your own.

So, excited to make salsa ranchera, did just that. I took down Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday (with its bizarre emphasis on yoga, of all things), The El Paso Chile Company Cookbook, and one of my favorite books ever, Secrets of Salsa.

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Secrets of Salsa
was first published
in 2001 by the Anderson Valley Adult School, and it collects the salsa recipes and stories of the women in their English as a Second Language classes. Everything in the book is presented bilingually, in facing translations. The book design is beautiful, the salsa recipes are excellent, and all of the proceeds benefit adult literacy in Anderson Valley. According to the seventh edition’s introduction, Secrets of Salsa has sold more than 27,000 copies. If you account that mine cost $14.95 new at Matson Mercantile in Elk, that must be a lot of money raised. Beyond its incredible value as a fundraising tool, it is a powerful proof of the work they are doing in those classes. I think of the pride of these women in seeing their ancestral knowledge and personal genius collected and valued in such a tangible way—it makes my heart sing.

So I compared Bertha Mendoza’s recipe for Salsa Ranchera to those from my other cookbooks. The El Paso Chile Company suggested fresh jalapeños where Bertha used pickled ones, and I thought that made sense—especially with what I had in the fridge. I also looked at a few recipes I found online. I liked the idea of adding some broth to both thin the salsa and make it richer.

Eventually, I turned the broiler on and made my own version. This salsa is rich with flavors, moderately tart, and a little spicy. It gets better over a few days in the fridge, and in my experience it can keep for up to two weeks. (As with all refrigerated foods you have to use and trust your senses.) Lisa and I have enjoyed it over huevos rancheros, in burritos, and on baked potatoes.

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Jasper’s Salsa Ranchera

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10-12 roma tomatoes
3-5 jalapeño peppers
1/4 of an onion
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup strong vegetable broth
juice of 1 lime
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1. Halve the tomatoes and peppers. Array them face down, round side up on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, along with the onion and unpeeled garlic. Roast for ten minutes in the broiler—until the tomato skins are crackly but not burnt.
2. After removing from the oven, pull the skins off the tomatos and jalapeños (if possible). Also peel the garlic.
3. Throw everything in a blender. Blend. Salt to taste.
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Serve alone or as a topping. Store in the refrigerator. If you have more than you can reasonably eat within the next week or two, give some away or freeze it.

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Just put some ice in your beer already.
I don’t get why people are so precious about this salubrious liquid. In Thailand, everybody does this. And why not? It makes your beer cold. Then it keeps your beer cold. And, best of all, it slowly dilutes it! Learn to love your cold, watery beer.

I’ll see you next week

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Jasper