Friday, October 19, 2018

whipping up dreams

"My favorite Mexican food is fajitas."

That apercu was from my friend Doug. We were discussing the local restaurants when the conversation took one of those cul-de-sac turns.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with fajitas. I think I dug into my first fajita in Olympia in the 1980s. Dos Hermanos, if I remember correctly. I fell in love with the blend of grilled beef and vegetables in their secret sauce -- all wrapped in a tortilla.

And then I got sick. Every subsequent time I ate fajitas, I got sick. And I have no idea of the root cause for the bizarre reaction. Because I enjoy good food, I was willing to put up with the occasional bout of St. Helens nausea.

But that was not what caught my attention with Doug's romantic infatuation with fajitas. It was his reference to "Mexican food."

One of the joys of the internet is having the equivalent of the Library of Congress at our fingertips. Gary, my American-Canadian restaurateur friend, and I often have our personal mini-pub quiz about the origin of things considered quintessentially Mexican.

We all know that tomatoes, corn, and chili peppers were originally from Mexico and were spread around the world by the Spanish and Portuguese. But, what about the coconut? Asia. Mangoes? India. Those fantastic flamboyan trees? Madagascar. Limes? Maybe Indonesia. Possibly, southeast Asia.

But there are also plenty of foods that were considered to be Mexican where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Most of my friends still believe that the chili con carne is as Mexican as Salma Hayek. Of course, it isn't. I suspect it is that Spanish-sounding name that does it. Chili con carne, that is. Not Hayek. That is a German name.

That is why I was a bit surprised to discover that fajitas are no more Mexican than was Lyndon Johnson. Well, maybe a bit.

The flaw in food history is that most dishes were not created one afternoon in a specific restaurant. We know peaches Melba was created by Auguste Escoffier at the London Savoy Hotel to honor soprano Nellie Melba. Or that Caesar salad was cobbled together by Caesar Cardini in either San Diego or Tijuana (giving some credence to the claim the anchovy-flavored dish is actually Mexican). Or that the recently-stirred-up Caesar cocktail was given to us by a restaurateur in that culinary capital Calgary to celebrate the opening of an Italian eatery.

But, they are the exceptions. Most foods have their roots in some provincial kitchen, and the most arduous Holmesian endeavors will never disclose them.

The history of fajitas is not that obscure. The earliest mention of the name is in the ranch land of southern Texas in the tough times of the 1930s. Texas ranchers would give their vaqueros (Mexican cowboys who helped create the myth of the American cowboy) the portion of slaughtered cattle that could not be marketed. That included the hide, the entrails, the horns, and trimmings from the skirt steak -- giving them the ingredients for head barbecue and tripe stew.

The vaqueros would grilled the otherwise tough skirt steak trimmings into something that was not quite as reminiscent of shoe leather. "Fajita" was the name of the grilled strips of skirt steak.

In 1969, an Austin meat merchant, sold the first fajita (similar to the dish we know) at a fast-food fair booth. T
hat same year, restaurants in Texas had fajitas on the menu. It took some time for the dish to become popular. But, it spread through Texas, on to Arizona, through The States, and other countries.

So, Doug was not entirely wrong. The vaqueros were simply cooking beef strips as Mexicans had in the northern Mexican states for years. But what the vaqueros ate bears as much resemblance to contemporary fajitas as a grilled peach resembles peaches Melba.

I am not certain I had ever made fajitas at home. And that surprised me. It is a rather simple dish to prepare -- most of the time being spent in slicing and mincing. And, because there is no such thing as an "authentic" fajita, I could indulge my culinary creativity.

So, off to Hawaii, my favorite grocery, I went. The first thing in my basket was a packet of oyster mushrooms. They would add body to the dish. A couple of habaneros. Four serrano peppers. Red and yellow bell peppers. Garlic. Red onion. Tomatoes. And some whole-wheat tortillas. (If I am going to eat carbohydrates, I want my digestive system to fight for them.)

I considered using firm tofu as my protein, but decided against it. I am not extremely fond of its texture. (They have that same feel in the mouth as avocado and papaya. I would prefer to pass on the experience.) Instead, I stopped at the butcher and bought two chicken breasts.

Sauces are the canvas where cooks develop their art. I wanted mine to be simple. Fresh lime juice. Cumin. Coriander. Hot smoky paprika. And a healthy dash of ghost pepper chili powder.

But something was missing. I inventoried the ingredients on the preparation table. What was it? There was something that would add umami to the meal. And it was not there.

It finally hit me. One of my favorite tastes with fajitas is sour cream. And I felt the frustration I often feel when I want an ingredient for a dish, but it is just not available.

When I moved here a decade ago, I discovered sour cream was unknown. There was crema fresca, a thinner and less-cultured version of sour cream. But it did not have the robust flavor of sour cream that fajitas require. (There is a Mexican product, crema agria, that is almost indistinguishable from sour cream. I bought some in San Miguel de Allende. I have never seen it here.)

I wish I could remember who taught me this trick (I suspect it was that doyen of cooking Leslie Harris de Limón)
, but it is possible to create sour cream from crema fresa with two simple ingredients. Lemon juice and a dash of salt.

The devil lies in that innocuous "simple." For years, finding a lemon in my part of Mexico was like finding privacy on the internet in Red China. (I know. I have tried.) Now and then, it might happen. But it was rare.

There was a reason for that. Mexico has long been one of the world's largest producers of limes. But, it was also once a major source of lemons -- for export to The States. Lemons, unlike limes, were not part of Mexican cuisine.

And then the market collapsed. More accurately, the trees collapsed. In the 1930s a plague killed most of the lemon trees in the United States and Mexico.

The trees in the United States were re-planted. And, as is the case with protectionist administrations, FDR put a staggering tariff on lemons from Mexico in the false hope of protecting American farmers at the expense of American consumers.

Because Mexico did not need lemons for its internal consumption, the lemon trees were not re-planted here. Some economists credit the lemon tariff as one of the justifications for Mexico nationalizing American, Canadian, and Anglo-Dutch oil companies. Mind you, a very small part. But, it did leave a sour taste.

It is now simple to buy lemons where I live. Alex, at Hawai, is one of the best Mexican businessmen I have encountered in our area. He knows his customer base (northerners in the winter and Mexican middle-class shoppers in the summer), and he caters to them. He is a man with a business plan.

And lemons are one of the items that now appear regularly at Hawaii. In a large box next to the cash register. They are not cheap, but they certainly add new possibilities to cooking. That always justifies the expense.

Hey, Steve. Weren't you telling us about a sour cream recipe?

Yup. Let's get back to it.

I bought a carton of crema fresca (450 ml) and a lemon. The crema fresca went into a mixing bowl, I squeezed in the juice from the lemon, and whisked for about three minutes. Almost immediately, the curdling effect of the lemon juice caused the crema to stiffen.

When I was done whisking, the result was not quite as thick as standard sour cream, but it was thicker than the crema in its natural state. I added a dash of salt and put the concoction in the refrigerator to cool.

When I tasted the scoop on top of my amazingly-layered fajita, I knew my mission was accomplished. It was not exactly like northern sour cream. But that was not my goal. I wanted a taste similar to sour cream to give me more flexibility in cooking. And I found it.

Having whipped up one of the best fajita dishes I have ever tasted, I can now move on to other projects. There is no sense in ruining the memory by trying to replicate it.

Doug, fajitas are not my favorite food. But, thanks for giving me the idea on this dish. We need to talk more.   

No comments: