A Busy Fall Begins with a Coda from Mexico

About two minutes after I got home from Mexico City, Diana Kennedy came to town to promote her newest book Oaxaca al Gusto. This is a beautiful magnum opus of deliciously disguised scholarship. Our acquaintance is casual but we have many friends in common and a lot of them live here in Chapel Hill. I love even a brief visit with her. After looking at this book I wished that she could have stayed a week. It seems like so many cook books these days are sort of quickly churned out of some kind of cook book mill. Not this one. I hate to take a they don’t make things like they used to tack but sometimes it’s true. When people like Diana produce a book you can be sure that they have done all the appropriate legwork. There is a depth and thoroughness that can only be attained one way. In any case I was a fan of Diana Kennedy long before I became so fond of Mexico. The night she stopped by four of my kitchen crew happened to be from Oaxaca. They were fascinated by her wonderful photos, and startled to see things like pigs’ feet with black beans in such a fancy book.

Later that week I was a guest at the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC for a fall dinner prepared by city council woman Penny Rich to initiate the Center’s Food Cultures Interdisciplinary Cluster. In turn, I’ll be cooking a dinner there for their board of directors on the 28th of this month. This is a Thursday night in between a trip to Oxford Mississippi for the Fall Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a Halloween night fund raiser for the James Beard Foundation in Atlanta, hosted by Anne Quatrano.

But before all that, I had the really wonderful opportunity to cook lunch for The Floating Writers’ Workshop, hosted by Kim Sunee, good friend and author of A Trail of Crumbs. It was a sophisticated little affair if I do say so myself, served outside on a pretty day. The first course was a rice porridge made with Anson Mills’ Carolina Gold Rice. I encountered rice porridge in Japan where it is often served for breakfast. It was just one more exotic item on a menu of many. A year or so later, when cooking this new rice, I found myself staring into a pot of rice porridge. Revelation.

For a main course, I returned to what has become a standard for me- Rosy Martinez’ banana leaf tamales. This is their fourth appearance at a special event. As luck would have it I had Rosy herself at the stoves for this. The tamales were delicious of course. A new discovery this time was that they are actually better after resting thirty or forty minutes after cooking. We served them with sliced fresh papaya dusted with cayenne pepper. Leftover papaya became sherbet on our regular menu the next day.

Dessert was a recipe from Kim’s book, the chapters on living in Sweden. I’ve used this very Scandinavian almond-saffron cake before. It uses equal parts almond paste and butter in the batter and of course has saffron that has been simmered in milk with orange peel as part of the liquid. The cake seems simple and luxurious at the same time. We served it with orange sorbet, bittered up with grapefruit peel. It’s been really nice to have my old friend back in Chapel Hill for a week.

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