It’s inevitable. When the stress level reaches an all-time high, information is longer registering and a glazed over, glassy look weighs on my face for hours on end, it’s time to take a load off and retreat to the comfort of old friends. The stove welcomes me back with open arms and my fingers know how to deftly curl around the handle of a knife, my wrist flicking up and down in a fluid motion now as instinctive and natural to me as blinking. No vegetable is safe while I stand at attention in front of my cutting board. The kitchen becomes my refuge in times of struggle. It’s my best friend, therapist and my lover mixed into one.
Cooking is something I do not have to think about. It’s natural. I have gotten to the point where most recipes act as guides rather than bibles and improvising with fresh ingredients, local goods and whatever whisk (or lack thereof) I have on hand is the norm. Where once I would fret about measuring, now I can confidently add a dash of this or a pinch of that with ease, knowing the result will at least be tasty and on those oft moments of genius, pretty stellar. In contrast to being immersed in a new language / house / culture / lifestyle, I welcome the challenges I face in the kitchen with open arms and a curious spirit.
I am never alone in the kitchen – physically, mentally or emotionally, many people are there with me. My mother stands metaphorically over my shoulder reminding me to tuck my thumb in when I chop vegetables so I don’t cut myself. My Tata, the family butcher, is with me making sure I trim the fat on a piece of meat just right. As I stir and whisk and plate I am remember the wisdom and techniques of great chefs who have come (and some gone) before me and left a thumbprint on my cooking – Julia Child, MFK Fisher, David Chang, Jim Harrison, and Gabrielle Hamilton. All are there in my kitchen, abet in my mind most of the time, testing and tasting and improving the flavors in the pot and the state of my mind. Even if I am working solo, I always have company.
And then there are the times when I get to be in the kitchen with others, in the flesh. Sometimes it’s with Pasquala, the housekeeper in at the San Juan house who made an attempt to teach me how to make tortillas at which I failed miserably but enjoyed immensely. Other on Sundays in Senora Hilda’s when everyone – me, the German kids, Hilda, Hilda’s husband Mageo, her niece, her grandson, and the kitchen help – crams into the kitchen to make pizza or sample a special dish from Hilda’s repertoire. In the case of a recent Sunday I was with Carolina in her kitchen making Pepian. Carolina and Hilda (her mother), are both my friends and new culinary sages, guiding me through the peaks and valleys of authentic Guatemalan cuisine. Even though they have not known me for long, they know me. When I eat at Hilda’s table I am peppered with information about the ingredients used in the dishes before me, why she used them, how they can be used other ways, and would I like to go to the market to learn how to buy the best specimens? When I walked into Carolina’s to cook Pepian, she had this beautiful spread ready for me, knowing I would snap a million photos.
Pepian is a typical Guatemala dish. It amounts to a thick, hearty stew composed of numerous vegetables, a protein of chicken, pork, or both, and a sumptuous broth. Toasted tomatoes, tomatillos, cilantro and seeds, sesame and pumpkin, are blended into a smooth gravy with the help of a blender – even an authentic Guatemalan kitchen is not without it’s modern conveniences. Every Guatamalteco prefers their Pepian a bit differently. Some swear by a more caldo or soup-like consistency where a spoon is absolutely necessary to lap up every last drop of bother. For some who prefer the sauce to be thicker, achieved by adding flour or cornstarch, rice, tortillas and a fork get the job done. Some will roast their seeds and chiles longer for a darker, oscura, sauce and others prefer to have a lighter version with a quick toasting to let the flavors be. I have not sampled enough Pepians to know my preference yet. Three instances is certainly not enough to make an educated judgement on this subject. I do know I could eat a lot of Pepian, daily if you let me, in order to make my recommendation to you.
When I am in the kitchen with Carolina I feel life come back to my body and I feel my mind clear with every slice and dice. My fears of speaking Spanish vanish because I know I can speak, listen and understand the language of the kitchen no matter what actual idiom is in use, the conversation over a stove as natural and universal as a smile. No matter where I am and what I cook, the kitchen is home.
Several of these ingredients are not readily available in the States. If you frequent a farmers market venders there may have suitable small, round squash to substitute for guicoy. Pattypan squash would also work well. The closest thing I can think of to replace the guisquil (or chayote) is an acorn squash, as I have never seen these in the States. I am thinking perhaps well stocked Latin American markets may have them, but acorn squash is a good substitute. I am also working on a vegetarian version, because this recipe just screams EGGS to me, so look out for that soon. Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Active time: 1 hour; serves 8 hearty portions, with leftovers.
For the soup –
1 whole chicken, cut into parts (about 2-3 pounds)
1 pound pork spare ribs, separated
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 4 pieces each
1 acorn squash, cut into 8 pieces, OR 1 green and 1 white guisquil, peeled and quartered
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 4 pieces each
2 large zucchini or 4 quicoy, cut into 4 pieces each
For the broth –
4 roma tomatoes
10 small or 5 large tomatillos, peeled and rinsed
2 small or 1 medium onion, peeled
4 cloves garlic
1 chile de pasilla, dried
1 chile de guajillo, dried
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup pepitas de calabaza (pumpkin seeds)
5 sprigs of cilantro
salt to taste
For serving –
Cilantro, chopped fine
Tortillas de maiz
In a large stock pot, add pork ribs and cover with 2 inches of water. Bring water to a boil, turn heat down, cover and simmer. After an hour, add chicken pieces, carrots and acorn squash (or guisquil). Bring back to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover again and simmer another 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a clean sauté pan over medium-high heat, toast tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, and garlic for 8-10 minutes, turning every few minutes until they are brown or several sides. Once toasted, remove from heat and place in a food processor or blender and set aside. Toast dried chiles in the pan over medium high heat for 3-4 minutes, until they are browned and fragrant. Add to tomato mixture. Toast sesame seeds over medium heat, taking care not to burn them, about 4-5 minutes. The seeds are done when they are deeply golden and popping. Add to tomato mixture. Toast pepitas over medium heat, again until they are deeply golden and popping, about 7-8 minutes. Add to tomatoes and sesame seeds. Add cilantro to the pan and cook quickly, about 2 minutes. Add to tomato mixture. Add salt now to tomato mixture, starting with one teaspoon. Blend until mixture is combined and very smooth. You will need to add about 1/4-1/2 cup of the water in the stock pot to the mixture to thin out the sauce. Taste for salt and add more to your liking (for this amount of sauce, I like about one and a half teaspoons).
Add potatoes and zucchini (or guicoy) to the stock pot. Remove enough water from the pot until remaining liquid covers ingredients inside. You are making room for the tomato sauce. Add sauce from the blender to the stock pot, bring to a boil again, and allow mixture to simmer, sans lid, for 20 minutes. Broth should be a thick stew quality**. Turn off heat.
To serve, place cooked rice in bowls, about a 1/2 cup each. Ladle either chicken, pork, or both into bowls with plenty of vegetables and about 1/2-2/3 cup of broth. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with tortillas de maiz. Enjoy!
**Many people here prefer a thicker sauce, more like a gravy than a stew. To achieve this, mix two tablespoons corn starch into 2 tablespoons water in a jar and shake well to combine. Add a bit at a time to the stock pot in the last five minutes of cooking, incorporating well, until desired consistency is reached.