I am a changed woman. I spent four days in Mexico last week and had nothing less than an epiphany while I was there.
What was it, you ask? Well, it turns out that I adore Mexican food.
Yes, me! The girl who hates cilantro and always wrinkles her nose when her boyfriend suggests Mexican food, so much so that he's stopped asking and only occasionally complains about it. The girl who never understood why burritos and tacos and enchiladas draped with strings of goopy cheese and stuffed with pallid bean mush were practically the national food for kids of her generation. The girl who tried very hard to be a good sport and find something - anything - to like about the Mexican food available to her and who finally just threw in the towel and resigned herself to disliking it - an unpopular stance at best.
The truth is, I still don't like the Mexican food in New York or that stuff listed above - I'm still convinced it's not worth my time or my money. But the Mexican food in Mexico? The flaky, fragrant tortillas, the myriad salsas glittering red, green, pink and burgundy in the sun, the chewy, lean meat, charred and blistered on an open grill, the pure, clean flavors, the freshness and the spice - oh, the blessed, blessed spice - well, like I said, it was almost a religious experience.
And. The moment I realized I had fallen, hook, line and sinker: lost in thought while chewing on a mouthful of salad that topped a crunchy tostada, I crunched down on a cilantro leaf and it was like sunlight bursting through a shaded glen or something - suddenly, I got it! Bright and earthy at the same time, the flavor exploded in my mouth, tying all the other things together - the crispy tortilla, the unctuous crema, the spicily dressed salad. For those of you who know just how much and how long I've loathed the stuff, unhappily so, you can only imagine my glee. If I hadn't been sitting at the table with people to whom I couldn't admit my sudden discovery for fear of sounding like an utter fool, I would jumped up right then and there and shouted to the heavens, "Cilantrooooooooooo!"
Yeah. It was a momentous couple of days, for sure. Now that I'm back home again, I've done nothing but pore over the few Mexican recipes I have in my house and tried to find somewhere in Queens (there must be somewhere, right? A taco truck, a hand-pulled cart?) that will sell me the kind of food I ate in a little dot of a town in Baja, at an outdoor stand where a bowful of roasted jalapenos cooled next to the blackened grill and our tacos came filled with chopped, grilled meat, a shower of diced white onions and chopped cilantro, and a fluid avocado salsa, unlike anything I'd ever seen or tasted before.
For Ben, this conversion is like the Second Coming.
Last night, I triumphantly held aloft a long-clipped recipe from the LA Times for Diana Kennedy's meatballs that I'd been hoarding all by its lonesome, since it's one of the only Mexican recipes I've clipped over the years. The meatballs are made from a flavorful mix of pork and beef and stuffed to the gills with chopped zucchini and onion - the meat barely binds the vegetables together, making for light and flavorful little albondigas. Even better, the meatballs aren't first seared in a pan, like so many polpette of my youth, but rather braised directly in a simmering sauce. It makes for an easier clean-up and lighter, brighter-tasting meatballs.
Better still, the sauce: plum tomatoes whizzed together with a few canned chipotles (my mother bought us an immersion blender while she was visiting - thanks, again! - and that thing is a powerhouse. I didn't even bother peeling my tomatoes and they liquefied in a matter of seconds) and gently simmered with some olive oil and chicken stock. That stuff is addictive - I could have eaten just the sauce on rice for dinner. Except not really, because those meatballs were completely delicious - spiced with restraint, tender and sweet from the braising, the perfect tasty foil to the spicy sauce. I gave the leftovers to Ben today and am regretting it wholly.
Oh, Mexico. I'm sorry it's taken me so long. But I'm here now! Consider this my first entry into a whole new world I cannot wait to discover. I haven't yet bought my own cilantro, but that day is coming and soon.
Meatballs in Tomato and Chipotle Sauce
Serves 6 to 8 (about 34 meatballs)
12 ounces ground pork
12 ounces ground beef
1 medium zucchini
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1. Place the ground pork and beef in a food processor and pulse several times. Transfer to a large bowl. Trim the ends of the zucchini and chop finely. Add to the bowl.
2. Finely grind the peppercorns and cumin seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and add to the meat. Add the oregano, eggs, onion and salt and gently use your hands or a spatula to thoroughly combine all the ingredients.
3. Gently form the mixture into 1 1/2 -inch meatballs. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate while making the sauce.
Sauce and finish
2 pounds tomatoes
2 to 4 chipotle chiles en adobo, more or less to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup chicken broth
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Core the tomatoes and place them in the boiling water. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain the tomatoes and cool for a few minutes.
2. Process the tomatoes and chipotle chiles in a blender or food processor until smooth.
3. Heat the oil in a large skillet and add the tomato sauce. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth. When the sauce comes back to a simmer, add the meatballs.
4. Cover the pan and simmer the meatballs over low heat until they are cooked through, about 50 minutes. Adjust the seasoning by tasting and adding salt just before the end of the cooking time. This dish can be prepared a day ahead or can be frozen and reheated.