Conejo en Chile de Senora Maria Elena Lara
Oh it must have been about Thanksgiving time 1996. I went shopping for ‘western stuff’ in one of the specialty shops in the mall in the basement level of the China World Hotel in Beijing. Baking powder, poultry seasoning, you know, that kind of thing. There I saw a desperate woman. She was lurching most unattractively at the cake mixes, and packets of fake gravy and "stuffing mix" and grappling and stumbling and filling her shopping cart with these convenience foods, literally clearing the shelves as if a tornado was on the way and she was desperately seeking provisions to feed her family. What struck me was her desperation and the relative violence she incorporated into her actions – I didn’t see that kind of desperation ever again until I was in Paris 8 years later at the derniere démarque of a designer shoe sale in January. I admit, back in the 90s in Beijing, it was really hard to find ‘western things’. Having been taken under wing by a wonderful Chinese Ayi, I had already given up on the concept of eating western at the time, and didn’t have any real need for cake mixes, it struck me as doubly freaky to see this woman in such violent need. Being in a foreign country hits some people that way.
Ah, being in a foreign country. "Do you like living in France"? The most common question from strangers. Of course people who pose this question are just making small talk. I always come back pleasantly and briefly with a smile in return. It is my policy, on the whole. Once at a party a handsome young man thought he was being clever and asked "What's the one thing you hate most about France?" I cooly replied: "Fromage fort." And he didn't believe me, and said so and was very persistent, but didn't know him. I suppose he expected that I'd start crying and put my head on his shoulder and complain about having to re-take the drivers test or something. I stood my ground. "In fact", I added, "I think that Fromage fort is the only thing I don't like about living in France."
I learned, the first time living in a foreign country, that if you relax and allow yourself to experience the local culture instead of trying to create a little country of your own at home, things go much more smoothly. Second, if you really miss something, as in craving, you should go ahead and find a way to fulfill it in a relatively stress free context. For example, don’t promise someone a pecan pie for their birthday before you have the pecans, don’t try to create a completely American Thanksgiving, just keep a little list in your mind that you are looking for pecans or whatever and send out your feelers, and don’t put any sense of urgency in the matter. You will be suprised at how long you can harbor a craving without it destroying you. And learn how to make things yourself from scratch. It eventually comes.
Loïc went to Mexico for a conference, and brought me back all kinds of lovely staples for cooking Mexican because he has heard me mention on several occasions that I miss real Mexican food here in France. Especially out west where I have lived both in Monterey and Los Angeles, you can eat some really sublime Mexican food. But here in France, sadly I must say that something is dreadfully missing from what they are peddling as Mexican food. There is one restaurant in Vieux Lyon which is run by a chef coming from Mexico who also went through the Institut Paul Bocuse, but it is sadly very expensive, the Margaritas are rather small, and they serve only flour tortillas, most probably due to the unavailability of the proper ingredients for masa. So when I do have a craving, which happens every so often, I look in my compendium by Diana Kennedy, a woman who has lived and researched the local home cooking all over Mexico since 1959 and who has produced an incredibly complete opus that opens our world to the rich possibility of cooking delicious and authentic Mexican food at home.
This week I decided to prepare Conejo en Chile from Senora Maria Elena Lara which is I think most likely how a good Mexican housewife might prepare her rabbit, the Mexican version of Lapin Bonne Femme. It is beautiful and simple as a recipe. I used dried chili peppers, including guajillo peppers and those nice complex smoked chili peppers called the Pasilla de Oaxaca. We are rationing peppers, so we did not use as many as were called for in the recipe. If you are in France and have been harboring a serious craving, and are willing to plead your case, I might send you a few of these peppers, which Loïc brought to me from Mexico.
Conejo en Chile de Senora Maria Elena Lara
The recipe that Madame Kennedy recounts in her book calls for a first rather long (45 minutes) stewing of the rabbit in a vinegar brine with a bouquet including oregano and thyme, but only if you are using a big old tough wild rabbit. If the rabbit is tender, she suggests that we omit the first step, or the rabbit will turn out too soft. I am all for omitting the first step, although when game season is in full swing, perhaps I will try it with a wild rabbit.
One rabbit, young and tender.
A morsel of pork fat (I used a morsel from a side of foraging black pig raised by a friend in the Ain, but you can use plain fat back)
2 large white onions, sliced thin
15 guajillo chiles, wiped clean (due to rationing measures, we only used 7)
10 pasilla chiles (we used only 2, and we used the Pasilla de Oaxaca)
1 1/4 pounds or 500 grams tomatoes
Salt to taste
2 cups broth or water
2 large garlic cloves
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano (we used fresh oregano since we didn't have Mexican)
6 sprigs fresh marjoram
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 Mexican bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons water
Make the Chile sauce
– wash your tomatoes and fit them whole into a pan that holds them nice and snug and put into a hot oven for awhile to roast. Once they turn brown on top, take them out again.
- Transfer the whole roasted tomatoes, peels and all, into a high-sided bowl if you have a hand held blender, or a blender jar.
- Wipe off the chiles, cut them open and remove the seeds and veins, and cut them in pieces over the roasted tomatoes.
- Blend the chiles and tomatoes together with salt into a smooth sauce adding just enough water to keep it from getting too thick.
This is your sauce. You will add the broth to it later.
Brown the rabbit:
- Carve the rabbit into 6 or 8 pieces.
- Render the lard from the piece of pork in a heavy stewing pot.
- Once the fat is rendered, add the rabbit pieces and brown them in the pork fat.
While they are browning, make the garlic seasoning paste.
- Ground the garlic, cumin, oregano, fresh marjoram, fresh thyme, bay, and salt in a heavy mortar until it is a paste. (I used cumin powder and fresh local oregano since I didn’t have any Mexican).
Finish up, 1,2,3!
- Remove the meat from the hot pan, and stir in the seasoning paste letting it fry for a minute or two. Add the onions, and fry them for a minute or two. Use water in the mortar to get the last of the paste into the pan.
- Add the tomato chile sauce and continue to fry, and scrape up the bits from the bottom of the pan.
- Add the browned rabbit and the 2 cups stock back into the sauce, lower the heat, and stew for 20-40 minutes.
Fill that little hollow in your heart with it while it's hot. Serve with fresh hot corn tortillas. If you are in France, a very good wine to serve with this dish is Gigondas.