Happy New Year to all my reader. Here’s the nextest bit of The Travelling Lady’s Cookbook. If you’re new, do look back through the previous eleven posts for the whole story, which is getting spicier now …
Sor Asunta’s announcement had thrown the convent of Santa Rosa into a panic. The Archbishop was on his way to pay an episcopal visit. The Abadesa’s strict instruction to make everything ready at lightning speed was felt most keenly in the refectory. A feast worthy of His Grace would be no small commandment to fulfil, and Mother Superior reminding them of what Our Lord could achieve with a few small loaves and fishes served only to remind them that what bread they did have was far from fresh.
xxxNonetheless, Sor Juana prayed fervently for inspiration, and inspiration came unto her. Christ made use (with divine aid, it must be said) of what He had available, so Juana started with an inventory. More than loaves and fishes to be sure, but feeding one Archbishop was a bigger challenge than five thousand Galilean campesinos.
xxxOne turkey (old and scrawny), some tortillas (stale), onions and garlic, chilli peppers (naturally), other herbs and spices from Sor Inmaculada’s garden, and those vital ingredients from their New World home, maize flour, tomatoes and chocolate.
Epifanea Tredwell cooked with delight dishes created on the fly. From Chicken Marengo, born (some say) on the battlefield, to chicken wings cooked to feed late night callers in Buffalo; and the Mexican national dish was one of her favourites. The sheer number of ingredients in her recipe book had limited it to dinner parties, whenever she could find guests who didn’t suddenly remember a prior engagement at the words turkey in chocolate sauce. Even he had been very reluctant to try it, until she convinced him that the chilli would overpower any other flavour; this was far from true but she knew his machismo would balk at the thought he might seem scared of the Scovilles.
xxxBut once she worked out that the necessary spices were always in her larder and could easily be combined in small quantities, it became a mainstay of her repertoire, even for the solitary diner. Added to this the increasingly common supply of breasts, legs or chunks meant that a turkey now was not just for Christmas. So she could reproduce the original recipe (or at least that given in her Round the World recipe book) with ease. Now that more books in Europe featured such exotic fare, she had seen other versions, using different spice mixes and even the inclusion of things like banana or plantain, something she always meant to try one day.
xxxFor now, on her travels, she simply carried a sachet of spices — fennel seeds, allspice, cloves, sesame seeds and chilli flakes — and waited to find that kitchen with the mortar and pestle or, for lazier days, a very small blender.
xxxWhich is why now, so far from anywhere remotely Latino, she was about to take the parting advice of Ahmed and Renaté and get some spice in your life. Though she was well aware that chilli was not what Renaté had in mind.
xxxThe tender turkey escalope from the local market would not need boiling anywhere near as long as Sor Juana’s had in the 1880s; half an hour’s simmering would be plenty to cook it and produce a meaty stock. In place of the pounded stale tortilla, half a slice of toast would go into the blender and give body to the sauce. Whizzing it with a clove of garlic, half an onion, a small peeled tomato, some blanched almonds, half a snack pack of raisins and a generous spoonful of her spice mix, produced a thick, pungent paste.
xxxCorn tortillas had proved elusive, as had flour ones in fact; she had no intention of making her own, so some boiled long-grain rice would suffice. A small tub of ready-made guacamole and a pot of the ubiquitous soured cream would be the side dishes.
xxxWhich left only the chocolate. To the Aztecs a bitter, savoury flavouring, a luxury import from the mountains, having spiritual associations with human sacrifice, it took the Spanish to turn it into a sweetened confectionary item, imbued with an equally religious significance for many consumers. It was a small square from the bar of an unsweetened, 100% cocoa version that Epifanea Tredwell carried in her culinary travel kit which now evoked that earlier usage; dissolved in the hot stock once the turkey pieces had been set aside to drain, it gave the sauce its character, underpinning all those other spices, bulbs and seeds.
xxxThe kitchen had no corn oil, nor lard, so she settled for sunflower oil in which to fry the paste. The scent of the frying spices assailed her nostrils and made her cough and sneeze but she stirred it around until the softening aroma showed that the spices had been ‘cooked off’, then added, a little at a time, the chocolatey stock, stirring it until she had a thick, rich gravy.
xxxA little salt and pepper and a chopped sprig of parsley and it was ready to have the turkey returned to its warm and velvety embrace. At home she’d often sprinkle some almond flakes and sesame seeds, lightly toasted in a dry pan, on the top. Here, after a long day of historic sightseeing, she couldn’t be bothered. Sufficient unto the day was the draining of the rice, putting it into a bowl and tipping the turkey and the sauce onto it. The soured cream and the mashed avocado sat at the side in their plastic tubs.
xxxPresentation is everything, she told herself.
According to one of its many creation myths, chop suey was invented when the Chinese Ambassador to the USA was asked by the then president if he would prepare some authentic Chinese food for him and the first lady. Being no cook but reluctant to lose face, he threw an assortment of items into a wok and stir-fried them with noodles, as he had seen done many times since childhood. When the delighted (or at least diplomatic) president asked the name of the dish, the reply in Chinese meant just a bit of everything, but sounded to American ears like chop suey.
xxxLikewise and equally unlikely, it is claimed that when the Archbishop of Puebla asked an exhausted Sor Juana how she came up with her delicious offering, she replied using the Nahuatl word for a mishmash, saying, “I made a moli“. A legend and a national dish were born.
xxxEppy washed hers down with lots of cold beer — making a mental note to use a little less chilli in future mixes — and prepared to Skype home in cheerful mood.
xxx“Hello handsome. How are things in Glockamorra?”