Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Memoirs of a Chef

By Dorothy Cole

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  They say it takes a foreigner to appreciate local flavors and customs. Josefina Howard, born in Cuba and raised in Asturias, is a good example. The cuisine she grew up on had more in common with the foods of the French or Italian countryside than with anything we would think of as "Spanish" cooking. When she got to Mexico, she came without any real prejudice toward the foods that were available.

This book is much more than a cookbook. It is Josefina Howard's life story, as well as a history of Mexican civilization, a treatise on appetizing surroundings and a reference book on exotic ingredients and chiles. Howard does not pretend to be an expert on any one of these subjects, and she puts the different elements together pretty much in the order that she discovered them. The name of her New York restaurant, "Rosa Mexicano," is not her own name or nickname, but a particular shade of pink. The author cares about things like colors and surroundings; she worked as an interior decorator for years.

As a child, Josefina recognized the snobbishness of her upper-class Spanish grandmother. There is a class element to the granddaughter's story as well. For instance, Howard tells of a deal she made with her friends in Mexico City. She would teach them to make pashka, a sort of Russian cheesecake that she had learned to make in New York. In return, they would each share a Mexican recipe with her. Of course, these educated and refined women rarely did their own cooking. So Josefina Howard spent a day in the kitchen of each household, while the cooks her friends employed taught her to make Mexican food. Part of the deal was her promise not to hire away any of the cooks for her own kitchen.

There is a refinement and a certain aesthetic good judgment to her choices. This chef would rather eat worms, maggots and ant eggs than employ any second-rate ingredients or cooking methods. She is dismissive of the fried, crunchy corn tortillas that are the basis of popular "Mexican" food in the United States. I confess that I have been craving one of her soft, white corn tortillas, ever since I began reading the book. (They are made with regular masa harina and cooked traditionally, like pancakes.)

For a guide to commonplace and unusual foodstuffs of the indeginous Southwest and Mexico, try the catalogs and newsletters of Native Seeds/SEARCH, 526 N. 4th Avenue, Tucson, AZ, 85705. They are a good source for ingredients, too. The local number is 268-9233.

The following is one of the "Rosa Mexicano" versions of chiles rellenos.

Recipe from Rosa Mexicano

Chipotles Naulinque; serves 6

6 chipotle chiles, dried, the largest and straightest possible
1 cup piloncillo, or dark brown sugar
1/4 pound queso fresco, cut in thin strips approximately 3 inches long
3 egg whites
2 egg yolks
3 cups vegetable oil, for frying
1/2 cup flour, for dredging
6 white-corn tortillas

1. In a 1-quart saucepan, place the chipotle chiles with the piloncillo and 2 cups of water. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook for 30 minutes. Strain and allow to cool. For milder chiles, repeat the process.

2. When cool, cut a small slit in the chiles and carefully remove the veins and seeds. Place two to three strips of cheese inside each chile.

3. To make the batter, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Whisk the egg yolks and fold the whites into the yolks.

4. Heat the vegetable oil in a 2-quart saucepan. Holding each chile by the stem, dredge in the flour and carefully shake off any excess flour. Dip in the batter and carefully lower into the hot oil. Turn with tongs to brown evenly, and when golden brown, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

5. To serve, roll into the fresh tortillas.

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