Food as Work

Posted on

There is a heritage of labor that many great cusines share. It is completely possible to appreciate and aspire to great effort when great result are to be achieved. I once had a coisant stuffed with chocalate on the Isle St. Loius that sent my mind spinning. It all at once possesed the qualities of a pastry, a cookie, a cake and a bread. You progressed from state to state entirely at the command of the baker who had prepared it. And you knew it was no simple task, thrown together from some premixed flour and fat trucked in from Indiana. The baker had been there from before dawn, preparing 30 of these things as well as hundreds of other savories. The work, the genuine effort, informed by great skill and priceless experience

I have found many such qualities in some other world cusines. In Mexico there is sometimes an hysterical level of labor, a hyper task… ah but the results, it’s the results that matter. After working hard at some of these things, I can completely see the point (with the exception of nopales but that’s another story). The following recipe from Zarela Martinez is very labour intensive and she has actually simplified the procedures. The quest for results, such as the special flavor the pumpkin seeds gain by being toasted in their shells ( if you have eaten fresh roasted peanuts in their shells you can begin to understand) and the texture of hand grinding, don’t need explaination or justification. they merely need to be tried and the results will speak for themselves.

Pepian Zapoteco

1 cup dried white beans
3 cups whole unsalted pumpkin seeds in the shell
3 chile de arbol, tops and seeds removed
4 cups homemade chicken stock
1 medium onion coarsely chopped
four 8 inch sprigs fresh epazote or one tablespoon dried crumbled
6 dried avocado leaves
3/4 cup dried shrimp
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Carefully pick over the beans and rinse under cold running water. Place in a medium size Dutch oven or saucepan and add enough cold water to cover by at least an inch. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil rapidly for 1 minute. Remove from the heat at once and let the beans sit in their cooking liquid for 1 hour

Meanwhile spread out the pumpkin seeds on a baking sheet in an even layer. Bake until lightly toasted, 10 to 15 minutes. Do not let them scorch or the entire dish will be bitter. Remove from the oven and let cool completely about 1 hour. Place the pumpkin seeds in a food processor and pulse on / off for about 3 minutes. The seeds will break up but fragments of the hard shell will remain. Do not process any longer or the seeds will become pasty

Working in 2 or 3 batches, turn out the pumpkin seeds into a medium mesh sieve placed over a bowl and shake to let the fine particles go through. After sifting each batch, pour one cup of water over the contents of the sieve to rinse through as much as possible. Discard the fibrous residue. Pour the strained seeds and water into a deep narrow container such as a blender jar or narrow pitcher; any bit of shell that went through the sieve will float to the top and can easily be skimmed off. Add the strained skimmed liquid to the pot of parboiled beans.

Wash and griddle dry the chiles. Puree the chiles in a blender with 1 cup of chicken stock. With a wooden spoon or pusher, force the pureed chiles through a medium sieve into a bowl. Add the chiles to the beans and pumkin seeds along with the onion, epazote, avocado leaves. dried shrimp, remaining chicken stock and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer and cook uncovered, until the beans are thoroughly cooked, about 45 minutes

Pepian Zapoteco is routinely eaten with white beans, which must cook with the sauce for a while to help mingle the flavors. Zarela sometimes stirs 3 cups of shredded cooked chicken into the dish about 5 minutes before serving, cooking just to heat the meat through. Potatoes are a delicious meatless alternative

From The Food and Life of Oaxaca by Zarela Martinez