Sunday, January 2, 2011

Where the heart is...

They say that home is where the heart is, and I would agree 100% when it comes to a real home cooked meal. Now, I'm not talking about just any meal that happens to be cooked at home. Not all meals cooked at home are home cooked meals, and conversely, not all home cooked meals are cooked at home. Real home cooked meals convey love an affection; a nearly indescribable soulfulness. You know it the minute it touches your lips and tongue. The time and effort and attention to little details unfolds as your senses take in every bit of yummy goodness that enters your body. There is an intimacy there that is as intense as any loving hug from your parents or grandparents; or a passionate embrace from a lover. It all depends on where the food is coming from.

So, you all may or may not know by now that I am a musician, amongst other things. It certainly has its perks. I've gotten a lot of free stuff over the years just for being able to make a guitar sound good- free travel, free booze, free lodging, free...uh...let's call them "party favors" get the picture. I'm not going to lie. All of those things were fun once upon a time, but I've gone legit and enjoy stability these days. However, the one thing that I have always gotten and continue to get for free, and will never tire of, is: Food.

It's not often I have a home cooked meal these days. I'll admit it. I'm just lazy sometimes. Also, I rationalize my inability to cook at home by pointing out that my stove has an electric range. I mean, how can one properly cook without a gas range? Needless to say, I have to rely on others to provide me with the home cooked meal experience.

This is where my friend Esther comes in.

Esther and her husband Ernie are amazing people. Hailing from Yolo, California, they are real fans of music and regularly make the half-our trek to Downtown Sacramento in order to support the Blues at the Torch Club. I'm always glad to see them, for many reasons, not the least of which is the home cooked food they bring. Be it tamales, or burritos, or salsa, they bring the real home cooked Mexican food. Even better is when they send me home with a care package of said home cooked goodness to tide me over for a few days. It's seriously the best musician perk ever.

Now, with New Year's Day comes assorted food traditions, most of them revolving around curing the dreaded hangover that comes along with New Year's Eve. For Mexicans, the magical cure for the New Year's hangover is either menudo or pozole. I'm assuming that most of you know what these magical soups are, but for those who are not well versed in Mexican cuisine, I'll let wikipedia handle the explanation:

Menudo is a traditional Mexican dish, made with beef stomach and hominy in a clear broth or with a red chili base (this variation is called menudo colorado). Usually, lime, chopped onions, and chopped cilantro are added, as well as crushed oregano and crushed red chili peppers. Boiled tripe has a tough chewy texture very similar to calamari, but with a completely unique flavor and smell.

Pozole is essentially the same soup, but with pork instead of tripe. It's usually served to those who are less adventurous and fear the tripe in menudo. I mean there's no real reason to fear tripe. People shouldn't let the fact that it's cow stomach freak them out. If you've eaten a hot dog, I assure you, you've eaten worse. Tripe is yummy, but has to be cooked right. Cooked to long and it becomes too gelatinous. Not cooked long enough and it is too tough to eat. It's for this reason that you should only have menudo cooked at home by real Mexicans.

Anyhow, as has become a tradition down at the Torch Club, there is a Hangover Party every New Year's Day with music and food and a Bloody Mary bar. It's a way to take the edge off if you partied too hard the night before. Now, I don't drink anymore, so I'd have neither the need, nor desire to be at a bar with a bunch of hungover for one thing: Esther's Pozole!

She'd been telling me well in advance that I needed to be there for it. It's not too often that I get the chance to have home cooked menudo and pozole. The timing was perfect, in a way, because I happened to have a bit of a cold on New Year's Day and the hot and spicy of the soups is a perfect antidote.

I got there early. I was going to be the first in line to get at the pozole...

It was unassuming enough, arriving in a large white crock pot. After a few minutes to get it back to the right temperature, I got the first of three servings. Yes, THREE, servings. People were shocked that I would have that much, but what can I say? It was GOOD! Epic good!

You just had to be there

I have to say, the picture doesn't do it justice. What you see is my second serving. The soup itself has the chunks of pork and hominy. The bits of green you see are oregano, which, along with lime, onions, and hot sauce (Tapatio for my soups), are used to enhance the flavor of the soup. What you can't know about this soup from the photo, is its amazing consistency.

If you've had menudo or pozole, you might know what I'm talking about. Sometimes, the soup itself is just too watery. Not to say it doesn't taste good, but it just isn't filling or fully satisfying. I suppose this is the case with any soup. This soup was amazing in that it was thick, but not too thick. Imagine the creamy consistency of a clam chowder and imagine the wateriness of your run-of-the-mill chicken noodle soup from a can. Now imagine a spot in the middle, but just towards the chowder. Got it? THAT was the consistency of the soup. If you didn't get a chunk of pork or hominy in a spoonful, there were very thin, nearly microscopic bits of pork and corn in the liquid. How do I know? Well, I couldn't see them, but I certainly tasted them and felt them along my tongue as I slurped. The soup was awesome.

I asked Esther how she accomplished such a feat. She responded simply, by saying she cooked it slowly, over the course of two days, letting it reduce to just the right consistency and flavor. Let me tell you, I could taste the time and effort and care and love that went into this soup. I know I wasn't the only one who appreciated the deep soulfulness of this truly home cooked meal. This food win was only compounded by the fact that I was sent home with a huge container of it, which will be my dinner for the next two nights. To-go food win!

So thank you Esther for the truly amazing food you make and your continued friendship. I'm looking forward to your barbecue this summer. Maybe make a little batch of pozole?