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Got Blight? (Part II)

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I left off at Adobe Guadelupe, which has to be one of the most beautiful, peaceful places imaginable. The air, full of flowers and vines; the textures of light and shadow draped across washed plaster walls; a sanctuary of both hush and whisper. (Visit http://www.adobeguadalupe.com/; you’ll see what I mean!)

Then back on the bus, to another winery, dinner, and a small, wood-paneled hotel with fountains twinkling in its tiled courtyard. But dinner is the meat of this story, so to speak. We went to Ensenada to visit the retail outlet of another winery (I have notes on all these wineries, but haven’t dug them out in a while, so just know that I can, with help, give proper details on each visit and tasting!) and to have dinner in an old distillery that had been converted into a restaurant.

For dinner, we enjoyed a lovely cut of grilled beef surrounded by vegetables and a potatoes-mashed-with-garlic side dish. (Yes, Ensenada is known for its seafood, but unbeknownst to us, our hosts want us to enjoy their huitlacoche specialty.)

So…we’re a bunch of happy, relaxed, slightly sunburned, slightly-tipsy-from-too-much-tasting-not-enough-spitting wine tourists all eating dinner and toasting anything that moves, or anything that stays still long enough for us to focus on it–and we suddenly realize that this meal we’re eating is absolutely amazing. The beef is grilled to perfection and the sides are excellent–but WHAT is the sauce that accompanies the beef and spills over onto the vegetables and potato? It’s light, but has a definite consistency; something like a homemade vinaigrette, but not oily at all. It’s transparent, but has an appealing black-brown tint reminiscient of a good balsamic emulsion. It has a piquant quality, but not overwhelming–it sort of “lights up” the taste of the beef like a marinade or steak sauce should but usually doesn’t.

I look around; many are mopping their garlicky potatoes (papas con ajo?) in little leftover puddles of sauce. Some are holding it aloft on fork tines, looking at it in the dim light; others are simply hunched over their plates with looks of dazed good fortune. Normally, this type of description would be an exaggeration, but the sauce really is extraordinary, and no one can “place” the taste. We begin questioning our guide: what is this? How is it made? Is there any more in the kitchen?

Our guide–a very nice man who teaches the chemistry as well as the appreciation of wine–smiles at us. Do we really, really want to know what it is? Do we want to deconstruct the recipe, or do we prefer the mystery?

We demand deconstruction–we have to know!–and thus begins our education in the tradition of huitlacoche: a very traditional ingredient in Meso-American culture. The main ingredient that gives our heavenly sauce its indefinable-but-addictive taste: the humble (and completely repulsive) corn smut.

If you’ve ever seen an ear of corn afflicted with the type of blight known as corn smut, you were probably *completely* horrified by it. When corn acquires this particular blight, the kernels puff up into grotesque, blackish-gray lumps on the corn–sometimes so vigorously that it pushes the husks out of its way to peek out at the world. Ugh! If you (and by you, I mean me) were to discover it unexpectedly on your corn, you’d probably throw the ear down in disgust, thinking it was rotten and ruined and…well, blighted.

You begin to understand the scope of the situation: we’ve just enjoyed a fabulous meal with a silky, exotic sauce that we practically licked off the plate–and now we know it was made from corn smut. Most of us on this trip have enough experience with home-grown corn to know what this means…and the looks on our faces clue the clueless in that this is disturbing. We digest the news. Literally.

There’s nothing else for it. We must accept huitlacoche for what it is (a fungus) and get on with our lives. We raise our (replenished) glasses to our new discovery, take a deep breath, and drink (deeply) to the dark mysteries of cultural gastronomy. !Salut!

(Psst…mozo? Hay un huitlacoche mas en la cocina? Es muy maravillosa!)

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Got Blight? (Part I)

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My last post about the elotes vendors on the Copper Canyon train made me think of another interesting corn-related dish in yet another location: huitlacoche in Baja, Mexico.

In 2003, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the annual Wine Society of America Conference in Anaheim, CA. For a little extra, you could go on a pre-conference field trip–an overnight hop through some of the vineyards and wineries of Baja, Mexico. Sign me up!

We departed Anaheim on a bus to Baja, driving down the coast past San Diego and Tijuana and farther along the Baja peninsula. We had lunch *somewere* on the coast at a neat little spot with amazing views. Our guide (a wine expert) said all the new construction in the area was based on second homes for SoCal residents.

Entrance to our brunch destination overlooking the Pacific...

Entrance to our brunch destination overlooking the Pacific...

Another view of the spot where we ate.

Another view of the spot where we ate.
 
 

Our first tasting stop was Casa de Piedra; a boutique winery specializing in a few fabulous vintages and a very appealing shooting star logo. Then we traveled to Mogor Badan for an outside tasting in the vineyard–all windy, flapping tablecloths and a Chasselas that I never forgot. (It’s a wine of Swiss origin, believe it or not, and I still have a bottle and can’t bear to drink it because I’ll probably never have another. Yes, that’s a stupid reason, but…)

On to another family-owned winery whose name I cannot remember, but there was a friendly black dog in the tasting room. Then we fetched up at Adobe Guadelupe, which combines its vineyard and winery with an amazing guest house/bed & breakfast-type accommodation. The place abounds in primitive angel forms, from the light fixtures and the hardware to an enormous metal angel sculpture in the vineyard itself. (I should add my photographic evidence to flickr.com.) I don’t remember the wine as much as the setting: enormous baskets of bougainvillea spilling over the walls; shadows of angels and arches falling on tiled floors; the sunsetting sky stretched overhead and burning down to ashy grape and pewter colored-clouds…fabulous!

Beautiful bougainvillea!Metal angel sculpture at Adobe Guadelupe.

You know what? I think I’ll save the next part of the story for the next post. I want a glass of wine before I continue!

Farmer’s Market

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Haven’t blogged lately; have been traveling to other locales and checking out their locavore action. More on that topic later.

As a family (parents, siblings, in-laws and offspring), we generally get together every Saturday night and have dinner. Last night was no exception, except that dinner came almost entirely from the WNC Farmer’s Market. The menu included new white potatoes boiled in their thin little jackets, fresh sweet corn (could be sweet, fresh corn, but it actually was sweet corn as opposed to field corn), fresh cabbage, and (of course) my mother’s corn bread.

A perfect spring meal. The potatoes were fork-tender and moist, almost the consistency of firm custard. A sprinkle of salt is all they needed to achieve potato nirvana, at least in my book.

We’re mostly a corn-OFF-the-cob family, so we sliced into slabs of fresh corn, watching them topple away from the cob in perfect yellow sheets. Once you’ve cut off the kernels, then you scrape the cob with the edge of the knife, releasing the milky corn-hearts to pile up on top of the corn already on your plate. A little salt, a little fresh lime juice squeezed over it–fresh corn heaven!

(Sidebar: Years ago, I was on the Copper Canyon train near Creel, Mexico, and encountered elotes vendors for the first time. They were carrying 5-gallon buckets out of which they dipped and sold paper cups full of freshly-cooked corn mixed with salt, lime juice, butter, and some variety of red pepper sprinkled on top.  It was SO good, even though I’m not a fan of butter on corn, believe it or not, that I could have probably eaten a whole 5-gallon bucket full of of the stuff. Ever since that day, I’ve been cutting my corn off the cob and adding salt and lime. S&L is also really good on baked sweet potatoes, especially since I don’t like butter on them, either.)

After dinner, we had a fresh cantaloupe for dessert. Does it get any better than that? The only flaw was that we’re still experiencing a few dregs of blackberry winter, so it was damp and chilly rather than feeling like spring. Oh, well. At least it TASTED like spring!

Farmer's Market

Posted on

Haven’t blogged lately; have been traveling to other locales and checking out their locavore action. More on that topic later.

As a family (parents, siblings, in-laws and offspring), we generally get together every Saturday night and have dinner. Last night was no exception, except that dinner came almost entirely from the WNC Farmer’s Market. The menu included new white potatoes boiled in their thin little jackets, fresh sweet corn (could be sweet, fresh corn, but it actually was sweet corn as opposed to field corn), fresh cabbage, and (of course) my mother’s corn bread.

A perfect spring meal. The potatoes were fork-tender and moist, almost the consistency of firm custard. A sprinkle of salt is all they needed to achieve potato nirvana, at least in my book.

We’re mostly a corn-OFF-the-cob family, so we sliced into slabs of fresh corn, watching them topple away from the cob in perfect yellow sheets. Once you’ve cut off the kernels, then you scrape the cob with the edge of the knife, releasing the milky corn-hearts to pile up on top of the corn already on your plate. A little salt, a little fresh lime juice squeezed over it–fresh corn heaven!

(Sidebar: Years ago, I was on the Copper Canyon train near Creel, Mexico, and encountered elotes vendors for the first time. They were carrying 5-gallon buckets out of which they dipped and sold paper cups full of freshly-cooked corn mixed with salt, lime juice, butter, and some variety of red pepper sprinkled on top.  It was SO good, even though I’m not a fan of butter on corn, believe it or not, that I could have probably eaten a whole 5-gallon bucket full of of the stuff. Ever since that day, I’ve been cutting my corn off the cob and adding salt and lime. S&L is also really good on baked sweet potatoes, especially since I don’t like butter on them, either.)

After dinner, we had a fresh cantaloupe for dessert. Does it get any better than that? The only flaw was that we’re still experiencing a few dregs of blackberry winter, so it was damp and chilly rather than feeling like spring. Oh, well. At least it TASTED like spring!