It’s been a few months that I did not participate in my favorite online culinary exchange Recipe Swaps. Oh, I was ambitious when I set sails for Serbia earlier in the summer, intending on reporting about various farmers’ markets I visited, foods I tasted and I enjoyed, dinners al fresco and at restaurants, and family meals I prepared in the warmth of our family’s kitchen. But life intervened and my good wishes were dispersed in an instant. My blog suffered and I missed the interchange with my virtual friends scattered all over the globe.
Things happened and hours in the day were too few. My muse was like a flitting fairy, here in one second, gone in the next, and the rhythm of my days over there was so syncopated that I could not plan anything even one hour ahead. I am not complaining, even though some of those hours were saturated with grief of the deepest kind; I was fortunate to spend a few weeks with people I loved who loved me in return. We cried and we laughed intermittently; we reminisced and remembered, filling each other’s stories with our own almost forgotten details; we spent long minutes in silent embraces, our shoulders wet from tears; we sat at a long, disjointed table in the yard underneath the eave, drinking Father’s golden-hued, homemade slivovitz and listening to the ballads that marked our youth; we allowed ourselves to get lost in bygone years, reaching to the past to get that special feeling back, the feeling of unwavering hope, unbridled energy, and the unstoppable zest for life yet to come.
The weeks I spent overseas were therapeutic, sobering, and mind-awakening. I drifted between sorrow and exultation; after my mom died, I sniffed her pillow knowing that even the faintest whiff of her smell would make me cry for hours; minutes later I would be laughing with my sister as we remembered the funniest moments of our childhood, Mother making faces, cracking jokes, and instigating some seriously funny mischief.
I returned to the U.S. filled with energy, ready to tackle all the obstacles of life, prepared to face all the demons I was hiding from for so many years. My smile is bright, my skin is shining, and my mind is set on finding the right path for my future. My friends love my new aura of self-confidence, and I bask in the glow of their appreciation.
As if she could guess seemingly antagonistic thoughts occupying my head, our group leader and founder Christianna, from Burwell General Store, challenged us to recreate Pork Fruit Cake from Nebraska Pioneer Cookbook for this month’s Recipe Swap. Ground pork paired with molasses, cloves, and raisins, mixed with flour and baked into a cake? An impossible task at first glance.
I channeled all the contradictions of my present life and conjured up a vision of a dish containing many of the given ingredients, celebrating their bold, yet complementing tastes. Picadillo sounded just right, with its sweet plump raisins and exotic spices not often paired with pork (at least not where I come from). Piquant Hatch chiles are at the peak of their season and I used a batch I had roasted a couple of days ago as a cradle for this fragrant sauce. When their soft flesh closed around the filling, and the icy touch of the freezer made them more compliant, I rolled them in the flour and the beaten eggs, and fried them gently until they were perfectly browned and crispy.
All the flavors from rice, tomato sauce, and stuffed peppers melded together even as they jumped individually, asserting themselves one by one: the sweet and tart of cranberries mellowing out the spicy notes of Hatch chiles, the cumin in rice finding the cumin in the tomato sauce, the nutty crunch of roasted almonds welcome alongside crumbled, slightly tart pork.
I am slowly settling back into my American routine, each new day another challenge I gladly accept with my new-found energy, even though I am still partially overseas, roaming the house that holds so many memories, smiling through tears, confident that the best of life is ahead of me.
CHILES RELLENOS WITH PICADILLO SAUCE
Loosely adapted from Mexico, One Plate at a Time by Rick Bailess
- 1 Tbsp lard or bacon fat
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 can (28oz) whole tomatoes, pureed in a food processor or a blender
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 cup chicken broth
- ¼ cup slivered almonds
- 1/2lb ground pork (or beef)
- 2 Tbsp milk*
- 1 cup reserved tomato sauce
- ¼ cup dried cranberries (usually itâ€™s the raisins required by the recipe, but my girls donâ€™t like them)
- ½ Tbsp vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but you can add one of your choice)
- 12 Hatch chiles (or 6 poblanos), roasted and peeled ( destemmed mine, but itâ€™s easier if you leave the stem on and clean only the seeds)
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup flour+1Tbsp
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- oil for frying
Heat the lard or bacon fat on medium-low temperature. Add the onions and garlic, and sautee until translucent and soft, about 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, cumin, and cloves, and simmer for another 25-30 minutes, until it thickens.
Reserve 1 cup of the sauce for picadillo.
Add the chicken broth to the rest of the sauce and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Heat a non-stick skillet on medium heat and add almonds. Stir for 1-2 minutes until they are golden brown and crispy. Remove the almonds and add the pork to the skillet along with milk. Break the meat clusters with a wooden spoon and sautee until equally browned and crispy on the edges.
Mix in the tomato sauce, dried cranberries, and vinegar and stir until combined, about 5 minutes. Keep warm.
Make a slit in each pepper and remove all the seeds, trying to keep the stem intact (I failed at this, but it still worked). Place about 1 Tbsp of picadillo filling in the middle and wrap the sides of the pepper gently over it. Place on the cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. When all the peppers are stuffed, put the pan in the freezer for about 1 hour, for easier frying.
Separate the eggs. Whip the whites until firm, but not rigid. Add salt and yolks. In the end mix in the 1 Tbsp of flour.
Heat the non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add enough oil for frying, about 1 inch in depth.
Roll the peppers in the flour and then in the egg mixture. Place them in the skillet, four at the time. After 2-3 minutes, when golden brown, flip them with a spatula and fry for another 1-2 minutes until the other side is done (the egg burns easily, so be careful). Place onto a plate lined with paper towels. Continue until all the peppers are fried.
Spoon some of the sauce on a plate and place a couple of peppers on top. I served mine with Mexican rice and even though Hatch chiles managed to pack some serious heat, the girls and I enjoyed the dish.