Homer’s $1 Horse

The horse originally belonged to Hank Hitch, the angriest kid I have ever, ever known.  If 1 is totally emotionless, and 10 is running around, shrieking, and tearing your hair out in rage, Hank got out of bed every morning at about an 8.5.

His sister Melody was four or five years older than us, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Go figure.He and his family lived in Puerto Rico when we did, on the same base.  His dad ran the base exchange; it’s a military general store.  Everything from perfume to bicycles.  When they moved there, they joined the on-base ranch, Lazy R, and got a couple of horses for the kids.Rufus was a run of the mill buckskin. That’s a horse with a blond-ish body and a black mane.  The thing was, though, Rufus was kind of a jerk.

In the symphony of being an irritating equine, Rufus was a virtuoso.  That horse knew just when and where to nip or stomp.  He made being a butthead into an art form.  Which is inspirational, because other than his inventive orneriness, he was ordinary and utterly unremarkable.

Hey, shine where you are, right?One morning our little base, our Mayberry with palm trees woke to an exciting scandal.

It had been discovered that Hank’s father had been embezzling huge amounts from the exchange.

The entire family, aided by the federal government, vanished into the night.  Their belongings were packed up and shipped out, but there were some loose ends.  One of them being their horses. 

The elected officers of the ranch decided that at the next show, they’d raffle off Rufus and his fellow owner-less ponies.

Our family was ranch members and we had three horses.  Homer, his wife Kelly, and their daughter Mindy were also stationed at the base and often accompanied us out to Lazy R for shows and events even though he had little interest in anything equestrian.  My big brother is a lot of things, but horse guy is definitely not one of them.Homer had bought Bud and me a couple of sodas, so Mom decided, as a joke, to pay back the $1 by buying him a raffle ticket for Rufus.

The ticket was a winner.

This is not a Disney film, where man and beast bond.  There was no dramatic climax where they saved each other’s lives, the music swells, and an emotional tear is shed by all. Homer and the horse just never took to each other, bless their hearts.A couple of times a year local youth would come to Lazy R in the middle of the night and take seven or eight horses.  It was the equine equivalent of a joy ride.In a day or so, a message would come that our horses had been found safe, and for a small finder’s fee they would be returned.  The fee was a ten spot, six-pack, or a carton of smokes (remember, this was the seventies).  It was a game, the horses were never harmed, and everybody involved kind of enjoyed it.  A little innocent skullduggery to break up the day.

During one episode, Rufus was taken.  And in a move straight from The Ransom of Red Chief, Homer declined to pay up.  It was the perfect way to rid himself from the care and feeding of an animal he didn’t ask for and never liked.It was unprecedented.  But ranch members knew the temperament of the beast, and completely understood his choice.

And in a response that would have instilled pride and amusement in O. Henry himself, the misanthropic Rufus was the first one returned.Thanks for your time.

Coqui & Me

It's What's On The Inside That Counts  Inspirational Hand Hammered and Stamped Brass Bracelet Bangle CuffShe was the living embodiment of the old saying that beauty is on the inside.

Being stationed in Puerto Rico on a military base was an interesting state of affairs.We were literally living in a vacation paradise.  We got to experience a culture that for some, was completely unlike anything we’d ever known.  Rent and utilities were provided by Uncle Sam and thus microscopic compared to living stateside.  There were also far fewer opportunities to spend money on shopping, and eating out.

All of these factors meant that most families had an unusually large amount of disposable income.

I can’t speak to “Teen Town”, I wasn’t a ‘teen’ when we lived in Puerto Rico.

The military takes family morale very seriously.  There were swimming pools, movies, bowling, beaches, theme nights at the base clubs, USO shows, sponsored trips, and horse stables.  Our ranch was the Lazy R.

This is actually my Lazy R, back in the day.  It sure did seem bigger then.

Most horse folks in the area knew that the people at Lazy R had a soft spot for animals in trouble.  Sick, abused or neglected, we could almost always be counted on to step up, take them from the situation, and give them a good home where people would love them and take care of them.

More Lazy R.

One day my dad told me about a young mare that had had some troubles in her life but needed somebody to love her, take care of her, and make her feel safe.

Her name was Coqui.

The horse on the far right looks just like Coqui.

She was a beautiful little horse; her coat was a deep, rich chestnut flecked with black.  Her flowing mane and tail were a deep ebony.  Her head and ears were small and aristocratic.  Her large intelligent brown eyes were heart-breakingly sweet.  Coqui was almost perfect—she only had one flaw.

Her mouth was completely mutilated.  Her lips were scarred, twisted and mangled.

Dad explained that almost before she was old enough to be ridden, she had been stolen, by what had to be people fashioned from pure evil.  They didn’t have a bridle but wanted to ride, so they used a makeshift bridle.

Made from barbed wire.

A Hackamore.

Because of the damage, she could only be ridden with a hackamore.  Instead of a bit that went between her teeth, a hackamore had a padded leather band that went around her muzzle.  The light pressure provided was enough to use on a well-trained, responsive mount.I’d never been around a horse with a sweeter disposition.  She was eager to please in everything she did.  Instead of angry and skittish, the unspeakable abuse had made her wise and gentle.

She wasn’t a very fast horse, or outrageously nimble.  But she put her whole heart into everything I asked of her.  I loved her, and she loved me.  We were inseparable.     I would have lived at Lazy R if I could.  Or failing that, happily shared my bedroom with her.I try to live in a way that leaves me with few regrets.  But one of my biggest concern that sweet little mare.

When it came time to move to our next home, we had to sell all three horses.  But, I really hate endings and goodbyes.  I guess that as a military brat, I’d lived through too many of them.Because of my weakness, the day we handed over the horses, I couldn’t face it and stayed home.  I never said goodbye to my sweet, sweet girl.  I so wish I had.

So, I have a bit of advice.  Rarely in this life do we get the foreknowledge and opportunity to say a final goodbye.  If you can, do it. Saying goodbye hurts, but it’s an honest pain that we owe to ourselves and the ones we love.  Consider it the price of admission.

Thanks for your time.

Horsin’ Around

Macho was the first.He wasn’t tall, but was as solid as a Sherman tank.  He had very large ears and a Roman nose, which meant his profile was convex; with an outward curve.  He was the color of warm maple syrup with mahogany mane and tail.

He was a chungo; a Puerto Rican colloquial term for a horse of indeterminate lineage.

He was badly gelded.  So badly that it never even occurred to him that he was, in fact, a gelding.This fact was brought home to me with a bang and a crunch one day when I was fetching him from the pasture where he lived with his horsey harem.  He didn’t want to go.

He really, really, didn’t want to go.  I was convinced of this about the same time he knocked me down and stepped on my shoulder.  Or it may have been when he ran over my prone body and one of his hooves struck me on the top of my skull. I’m very lucky that he didn’t wear shoes, but even so I probably should have been under concussion protocol.  I definitely would have been, if I’d told my parents exactly what happened that day.  As far as they knew, Macho was cranky, bumped into me, and knocked me on my keister.

I still have a horse hoof shaped dent in the top of my skull.

Because Macho was temperamental and something of a “handful”, he became my dad’s mount.  My folks then bought Juanita, for my brother and I to share.  She was a bit taller than Macho and black-speckled white with gray mane and tail. Juanita looked like she was half asleep half of the time.   The other half she looked like she was stuffed for display.

But underneath that semi-comatose exterior, Juanita had two secrets.

First secret: when she wanted, she was capable of an equine explosion of speed.  That mare went from drowsy to sixty in the blink of an eye.  But she had to want.

The other secret was a mile-wide mean streak.One afternoon she and I were taking a ride in an unused pasture.  On the return leg of the trip, she decided to turn on the gas.  We were a streak of lightening.  It was one of the most exultant experiences of my young life.

As we came close to the open gate of the pasture, I attempted to slow the horsey locomotive that Juanita had become.  Slowing held no appeal for her, but she had a plan.  Upon exiting the pasture at a very high rate of speed, Juanita suddenly swerved.

Rider-less, she would have just missed scrubbing her side against a thick post at the pasture opening.But of course, she wasn’t rider-less.

It hurt when Macho mugged me.  And in kindergarten a brick had fallen on my head (yeah, I know; insert joke here).  So, I thought I knew pain.

Um, no.  I knew not the nature of true pain.  It hurt so badly I kind of hoped my leg would fall off.  I saw stars and looked into the pain abyss.  And from that abyss, pain stared right back at me, unblinking.How I didn’t break any bones remains a mystery.  But all I was left with were bruises and a healthy dislike for one particular sleepy-looking mare.  I’d loved horses my entire life, and it seemed I would never have a bond with a horse of my own; maybe there was something wrong with me, and horses just didn’t like me.

But then I met Coqui.To be continued…

Thanks for your time.

Transfer Negotiation

Ladies and Gents…welcome to 1973.1973 video

Cathy Ange and I were in love.

It was the spring of 1973, we were in the third grade, and over the moon.

For Donny Osmond.Santa had brought us his album, Crazy Horses.  At the Ange’s house,  Cathy would place the album onto her turntable in a pain-staking ritual that would have us both nearly in tears of impatient frustration.

Then Donny would sing.  Cathy and I rolled around on her bed shrieking like lunatics.  It resembled some type of possession and makes me wonder if the children in Salem were less affected by witchcraft and more by the dulcet tones of that purple-socked Osmond brother.

I couldn’t wait until Marie was my sister-in-law.

Strangely, we never had any jealousy.  If Donny had shown up to take us away from home, family, and Central Elementary School, we’d have shared him.

He’s a Mormon you know—just sayin’.

In the days before the internets, the only ways to be close to one’s idol were infrequent television appearances and print media, aka fan magazines.

There were titles like Tiger Beat, Spec, and my favorite, 16.  That year 16 had a story about Donny which was printed in installments.  Like the 19th century serializations of Charles Dickens’ novels in monthly publications, only with more teeth and less literary value.As school ended for the year I was in clover.  My best friend and potential sister wife, Cathy lived five houses down.  I was once again on my championship softball team, ‘The Stripers’.  I had the run of the neighborhood on my groovy pink Schwinn, and later in the summer, I was going to a sleepaway girl scout summer camp.

Life was good.

Then my parents and the President of the United States ruined it all.  My father had received transfer orders and by early fall we would be living in Puerto Rico.Puerto Rico!  My knowledge of that Caribbean island began and ended at having maybe heard the name, maybe.  It might have been Venus as far as I was concerned.

And the last time we’d moved I had only been five.  I’d loved our home in Mobile, but my world had been much, much smaller there.  This time I was old enough, and integrated enough into my community to know how much I’d miss it.

But there was a much bigger problem.  I would not be able to go.

At the time of the move I would be about seven months in on that eleven-part Donny Osmond magazine serial.  And unless I had an official, notarized guarantee of an uninterrupted flow of 16 Magazines, I was going nowhere.My mom sorted it.  She marched me across the street to her best friend, Miss Judy’s house.  I explained the situation and told her I’d bring her the cost of the mags, along with money to mail them to me.  She agreed.

Crisis averted; move assured.

The move to Puerto Rico was probably my hardest childhood move.  But once we got there I realized how lucky I was.  It was like three years in summer camp.  We hiked and swam in both pools and ocean.  We had our own horses, and rode in horse shows.  And, I discovered, to my delight and my parents’ horror that I am a bit of a risk-taking daredevil.

survival beach for print

That’s me and my little brother Bud, at Survival Beach, which was across the street from our house, and then just a hike down a sheer, slippery coral cliff.  I’ll bet you can’t guess why it was called “Survival”.

I learned about a new culture and discovered Puerto Rican cuisine which is about the best food ever.  We lived on a tiny base, and knew every single person, like Mayberry with palm trees.

So the move I didn’t want to make turned out to be my favorite posting.

But, I’m still waiting for that visit from Donny.Thanks for your time.

Feliz Navidad

Puerto Ricans have their own version of the warming, life-affirming chicken soup made by Jewish grandmothers.

Only it’s a drink, which is a heck of a lot more fun, and way tastier.  It’s a spiritous little beverage called coquito.  It’s tempting to say it’s a Puerto Rican eggnog—but don’t.

Sure, there’s egg and dairy in there, and of course booze.  But coquito (little coconut) isn’t just some random carton you grab at the local A&P in early December.  This is a concoction with deep familial roots in Puerto Rico.Every Puerto Rican family has their own super-secret, super-special version.  The recipe for it is normally tightly-guarded and handed down to only the very favorite offspring.

And somehow, I, and by extension you, Gentle Reader, are now in possession of one of those venerated family heirlooms.

A couple years ago I met the then-Durham chief of police, Jose Lopez, and his awesome wife, Becky in line at Costco.  They have become friends, and Becky is now my Puerto Rican food mentor, coach, and head cheerleader.  And in the spirit of friendship for which Puertorriqueños are known, she gave me her family coquito recipe to share. So, here, in her own words, is Becky Lopez’ great-grandmother’s coquito recipe.  And if you’d like to say thanks for her generosity, take a moment and spare a thought or a prayer for the residents of Puerto Rico who are still in dire straits.  If you can do more, visit https://hispanicfederation.org/unidos, where 100% of your donation goes to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

Becky’s Family Coquitocoquito ingredients5 fresh cinnamon sticks

1/4 thumb size piece of ginger (about 1/2in.)

2 capfuls of vanilla extract

2 egg yolks (no membrane)

2 cans of evaporated milk

2 cans of coconut milk

1 can of coconut syrup (Coco Lopez)

151 proof dark rum or your choice of dark rum (Important: add only after mixture has cooled down)

Bacardi stopped making 151 last year. I now use Cruzan 151 aged rum.Take cinnamon sticks and smash them in a paper towel with a mallet so that their oils and taste may be released in the boil. Peel the ginger then cut it into thin pieces. Place the cinnamon and ginger in a small pot filled halfway with water and boil it for about 15 min. This should yield no more than 1 cup of liquid mixture.

Open one can of evaporated milk and one can of coconut milk and empty them into large pot. Place egg yolks in this mixture. Stir well until there’s no separation between eggs and liquid. Remove anything floating (remove any egg membrane) and cook on medium for 10 min.  Turn off heat and add the coconut syrup, stir, then add the rest of the ingredients including the vanilla extract, cinnamon and ginger water. Stir well. Cool down and add rum to taste.

Optional: before adding rum, place this mixture in a cold place (fridge or outside) @ 45 degrees or lower overnight then strain the congealed fat from the top.coquitoWhen mixture’s cooled down add rum to your taste.

Because the eggs were slowly cooked this drink can last for years in the fridge. Grandma would always bring out the last year’s Coquito (which always taste better) and served it in shot glasses. With time it thickens and becomes even more creamy.

I have had up to 4-year-old Coquito in my fridge. The trick is to shake your refrigerated bottles at least once a month.

Buen provecho! (Enjoy!)

And from the Matthews’ house to yours, have the most wonderful of holidays, and a happy, peaceful new year.Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at momsequitur@gmail.com.

Just like Abuela made

For twenty years or so, I’ve been telling The Kid about Puerto Rico.  As a child, I lived there for a few years, and it was kind of totally awesome.

The base we lived on was tiny.  I knew every family in every house.

But the flip side of all this familiarity was that everybody knew me right back.  It was impossible to misbehave in public.  If I did something dumb or dangerous, reports got back to my house before I did.

Beaches were everywhere.  Survival beach was closest; just a short but risky hike down the side of a moss-covered cliff.  Kids were forbidden from going on their own, but I probably don’t have to tell you that it was one of those dumb and dangerous things I regularly did.We had our own horses, explored ruins, swam with exotic fish and climbed countless trees.

But one of the very best things about Puerto Rico was the food.

Just like our own revered pit masters here in North Carolina, there are certain people on the island that have a mystical connection to pork.  A whole pig is either split in half and cooked over hot coals or cooked in a box, called a Caja China.  It’s a pig pickin’ set to salsa music.On holidays many families have pernil, a slow roasted pork shoulder.  The outside gets brown and crispy, and the meat is moist and falling-apart tender.

Plantains, or platanos, are large starchy bananas.  They look like bananas on steroids.  Ripe, they’re sweet.  They’re usually pan fried until caramelized

While green, they act as potatoes in the Puerto Rican diet.  Fried, they’re heavenly crispy disks called tostones.  When mashed they become an insanely delicious food known as mofongo.  It’s made in a mortar and pestle called pilón and maceta.

And then, there’s yuca, also known as cassava.  It has to be cooked, because eaten raw, your body converts it to cyanide.  Even cooked, some folks can’t tolerate it, and results in not death, but a pretty nasty upset stomach.

Which brings me to a delicious meal The Kid and I shared yesterday. The Kid told me months ago about a restaurant called Tropical Pickin Chicken.  They have locations in Wake Forest and on Capital Blvd, in Raleigh.  They have different types of Caribbean fare, with many dishes from Puerto Rico.

It’s a little hole in the wall set in a sleepy strip mall.  But the cozy atmosphere and authentic, delicious food made me feel like I was sitting in an abuela’s (grandmother) kitchen being stuffed full of her amazing cooking.Brittany, the owner’s daughter was our adorable culinary guide.  We had mofongo, covered with succulent pernil, topped with onions (which The Kid, an avowed onion-phobe devoured). It was served traditional style, in a large pilon.  A small order of their delicious yellow rice and red beans was more than enough for the both of us.

And we had fried yucca.

Brittany told us how they prepare it.

Fried Yuca

yuca

2 or 3 yuca roots

1 cup vegetable oil + more for frying

Head of garlic, chopped and mashed into paste

Salt and pepper

Make garlic oil.  Mix mashed garlic, salt and pepper into cup of oil. Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours.

Place large heavy pot on medium-high.  Fill with 2-3 inches of oil and bring to 350 degrees.

Peel yuca and cook in salted boiling water until tender.  Cut into approximate size and shape of steak fries.  Cook in oil until golden-brown.  Remove and place in large, shallow bowl.  Drizzle 1 ½ tablespoons of garlic oil on top, and toss until yuca is well-coated.Serve hot.

If you’d like to see everything they have to offer, the menu is on the Grubhub website.  Which means they deliver.  But I’m pretty sure no matter how hard I beg, nobody’s making a 30 mile trek to bring food to me in Durham.

So, until they change their minds or open a spot closer to home, I’ll be burning up the highway for more of that home cooking just like my abuela would have made for me if I’d actually had a Puerto Rican abuela.

Thanks for your time.

Greens, Eggs, and Ham

You know those wooden pork stands in the grocery store, back by the meat department?    If you’ve ever checked out this porcine scaffolding, you’ve likely noticed they’re stocked with just about every part of the pig, save face and squeal.  From fat back to ham steaks, it’s there.

They have packs of bits and pieces of country ham.  Which is what I picked up to make Puerto Rican rice and beans.

There was enough, even in the small package that I divided it u and threw them in the freezer for a meal to be attempted at a later date.

Then I had a food chat with the former chief of the Durham Police Department, Jose Lopez, and his wife Becky; both Puerto Rican.  They invited me into their home, and gave me a comprehensive class in the cuisine of the island.   

She taught me a few dishes and one of them was a big pot of beans.  They were delicious and tasted and smelled just like Puerto Rico.

There was only one problem.  There was pork in the recipe, but not ham—ham hocks.

So now I had a couple bags of ham pieces, and nothing to do with them.  There was no way I would toss perfectly good meat.  But I had an idea; I would use it for a pot of not beans, but risotto.

Ham and egg risotto

ham egg risotto

½ cup country ham trimmimgs, cut bite-size

½ onion, diced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup arborio rice

½ cup white wine

3 ½ cups chicken stock (approx)

12 ounces frozen peas and carrots, thawed

¼ cup parmesan cheese

¼ cup butter

3 cups raw baby spinach

Salt and pepper to taste

6 eggs

1 tablespoon vinegar

Heat one heavy saucepan to medium-high. 

Put stock into another saucepan, and set to medium-low.  You only want the stock to simmer, turn down if it starts to boil.

Put oil, ham, and onion into another saucepan, and sauté until the onion releases its water, and starts to caramelize.  Add Arborio and toss until the rice starts to toast and a little browning occurs on the pan bottom.

While the risotto ingredients are browning, put a shallow bottom pan on the stovetop poach eggs.  Fill with water, and add vinegar.  Turn on medium and bring to very gentle simmer.

Back at the rice pot; pour in wine, and toss until the wine cooks out.  Constantly stirring, add about ½ cup of hot stock to rice until the liquid is absorbed, then add more.  After about 2 1/2 cups stock, start tasting for doneness.

At this point, start poaching eggs n the simmering water, 3 at a time for about 4 minutes.  Remove from water with slotted spoon, and place on clean kitchen towel to keep warm, and dry.

When the rice is cooked through, add peas and carrots, butter and cheese.  Gently stir until butter is melted. 

To plate: Lay a big handful of spinach on plate, then spoon about 2 cups risotto over spinach and place 2 poached eggs on top.  Serves 3.

dancing pig 1

Cute, right?

This dish is very versatile.  You could eat it for any meal, and if you have any rice left, it heats up very well in a microwave with a little water added.  Or, you could make cakes, or arancini, which are breaded and fried rice balls, each one stuffed with a piece of mozzarella.

Oh yeah, the ham hocks needed for the rice?

dancing pig 2.png

Yet this one is deeply unsettling.  Why is that?

I found them on that ham kiosk in the back of the grocery store.

Thanks for your time.

My mom, the awful cook

*Last week the Henderson Dispatch had some serious production issues and my column did not run in the paper.  Since they are running it this week, there will be no new Henderson piece.

Please enjoy this classic column from 2011:

This is the Tree Frog cabin in Linville, NC.  One of my favorite spots on earth.

A dream vacation for me would be weeks in a quiet mountain cabin, or an isolated beach cottage. I’d do tons of cooking with local produce and ingredients.

For my mother, that would be a punishment. She belongs in a bed and breakfast near shopping, and in the center of mild happenings, dining out every meal.

Sooo much more my mom’s speed.

With the same deliberate, reverse pride I have in my lack of algebraic aptitude, Mom will declare her lack of skill and interest in the culinary. “I’m not a good cook, and only do it to eat!”

This is no passive-aggressive bid for flattery. She honestly thinks she can’t cook.

She’s wrong.

You could fill an elementary school auditorium with the people who have eaten her spaghetti sauce once, and forever after jockeyed for repeat invitations to her table with the naked shamelessness of a reality star at 14 3/4 minutes.

Her macaroni and cheese is terrific. Best eaten cold, late at night, and in semi-private. My faithful companion: my eight-year-old self, in a flannel nightgown and bare feet, armed with a Superman fork in one hand, a salt shaker in the other, and a defiant grin. It is comfort food of mythic proportions.

Ask The Kid about Gramma’s chicken-fried steak. Last visit Gramma was implored to not only make it, but to give a chicken fried class.

She’ll occasionally cop to minor skill in baking and deserts. She’s a trained cake decorator (in the 1970s-no-fondant-lots-of-star-tip style). Despite buying the crust, her pies do just what pies should, taste yummy and make you feel loved (a la mode or not).

Each year at a holiday soiree, she feeds everyone lunch, and we ice hundreds of sugar cookies. Not only do we feast, we aren’t allowed to leave without dozens of her deceptively simple but crazy delicious Christmas cookies.

She’s a self-taught wizard of producing sweet treats with very little on-hand, while dodging three loud, hungry kids and all their friends.

NO.RECIPE.

She can make eclairs without fear or recipe. Who does that?

Here are two of my mother’s classics:

The first, wacky cake, is from her mother. I think it was originally a recipe to cope with shortages during the depression and rationing during WWII.
I don’t think there was frosting on the original (Heresy!). But Mom covers hers in a thick warm layer of milk chocolate, fudgy goodness.

Wacky Cake

wacky cake
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
3/8 cup?! (I know, weird; sorry.) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350. In a lightly greased 9 inch cake pan put in dry ingredients. Make a small well in the center of the dry and pour in wet ingredients. Mix together and bake for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick comes out moist with just a couple of crumbs clinging to it. Cool, then cover with warm fudge topping.

Fudgy Milk Chocolate Icing

fudge icing
Melt three tablespoons of butter in saucepan. Whisk in 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. When dissolved, add 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons whole milk, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. It will look like you’ve made a mistake, but keep whisking and it will turn to a glossy yummy glaze. Also good on marble brownies.

The other is a recipe picked up at a horse show potluck in Puerto Rico, and named for a trendy playdoh-type toy we all had then.

Slime

slimePrepare large box lime Jello according to package directions. When cooled, but not set, pour into blender along with one 15 oz can of pears, drained, and one 8 oz block of cream cheese, softened. Blend until completely smooth. Pour into mixing bowl and fold in one packet of Dream Whip (Whipped topping mix found in the baking aisle. Can substitute thawed, 8 oz tub of Cool Whip) made according to directions. Let set for at least four hours before eating.

Don’t ask me why, but we all had to have this stuff.

Thanks for your time, my father’s sweet tooth, and Mom’s bake sale fantasies.

 

Get your mojo running

For the last few weeks, this space has been heavily Durham-centric.

Well, not this week.

Today our sojourn will be in the sunny climes of the Caribbean, by way of Brier Creek.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico there is a sauce called mojo (pronounced mow-hoe).  It’s a very strongly flavored marinade.  Along with herbs like oregano and culantro (culantro, not cilantro; it’s an entirely different plant), it’s full of garlic, olive oil, and bitter orange juice.

While different places have different varieties, the most common is mojo criollo.  Criollo means Creole, which is a mixture of cultures.  The cultures in this instance are Spanish, African, and indigenous Caribbean.  Traditionally it’s used in amazing pork dishes.

This will look very familiar to barbecue-crazy folks from NC…in Cuba and Puerto Rico it’s called lechon.  And once you’ve had it, you will dream about this crispy, crispy skin.

A few weeks ago I went shopping to help fill fridge and pantry in The Kid’s new apartment.  After Target, but before we hit Lowes Foods, we stopped at the dollar store.  It’s terrific for nonperishables.  I almost always buy egg noodles and canned beans there.  I’ve also gotten amazing cosmetics there too.  The $1.00 eye liner works better than one from Sephora costing $14.00.

As we were walking down one aisle, I spied a bottle of mojo criollo.  It was a smaller size, but even so, $1.00 is a real bargain.  The Kid picked up a bottle and so did I.

That was the first bottle I bought there.  I used it to marinate pork tenderloin and flavor a pot of black rice for dinner one night.  It was delicious.

Then I went back for a second bottle.

This time, I decided to color outside the lines.  I would do something with it that I’d never heard of.  I was going to make mojo pasta salad.

Mojo chicken pasta salad

mojo pasta

1/3 cup + 1/4 cup mojo criollo

1 cup mayonnaise

Pinch of sugar

Water

1/2 pound tubetti, sea shell, cavatapi, or lumaconi pasta

1 cup frozen peas, blanched and shocked

3/4 cup grape tomatoes or similar

1/4 cup diced red onion

3 cups cooked, shredded chicken

Salt and pepper to taste

Make dressing: Whisk together mayo, 1/3 cup mojo, and sugar.  Add enough water to make it the consistency of creamy salad dressing.  Taste and season.  Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Slice tomatoes in half and place in colander.  Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and let sit out for at least 90 minutes.  This will draw out much of the moisture, so the tomato flavors are concentrated and the juice doesn’t dilute the dressing.

Cook pasta in heavily salted, boiling water until tender.  Drain.  While still hot, put into a large bowl and stir in ¼ cup mojo.  Cool completely.

1 hour before service, gently mix together all ingredients.  Stir in dressing.  Make it a bit wetter than you want the final product, as the dressing will absorb into salad and will dry out as it sits.

Let sit at room temp for one hour.  Before serving, toss and check for seasoning.

Serves 4-6 as a main or 8 as a side.

I buy them at the Durham Coop, and almost always have some in the fridge.

I served this with a large handful of pea shoots on top.  They’re exactly what you think; tiny shoots from a pea plant.  Fresh and green, with a mild peppery bite, they’re perfect for sandwiches and on top of dishes that need a hit of something bright.  They’re perfect on scrambled eggs and avocado toast.

We also had some bread with our meal.

While I was at Brier Creek picking up the mojo, I stopped by Earth Fare for one of the best deals in town.  They have freshly baked baguettes for only 98 cents, every day.  Right before we eat I run it under some water, and toss it in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so.

This little trick brings bread back to bakery freshness.  I keep rolls and buns in the freezer, and with this method, we have fresh bread on demand (when frozen, they go for 13 minutes).  For yeasty dinner rolls, instead of water, I spread a thin layer of butter over the whole surface.  They come out crispy and buttery.

Plate up some of this pasta salad, pour a glass of rum, and turn on the salsa music.  You’re in Puerto Rico with no plane ticket required.

Thanks for your time.