Wednesday, September 20, 2006

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

chile sauce:
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

garlic seasoning:
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.

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Blogger Francine said...

oh my! I am drooling here! I'm another lover of Mexican food, always liked the tex mex stuff, but then was lucky enough to travel to Mexico as well as live in Puerto Rico where thereare quite a few good Mexican restaurants. It's true, if one kind of food is missing here it's definitely Mexcian.

2:22 PM, September 20, 2006  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

I've had rabbit a few times...just can't get into it for some reason..I wish I could :(

3:26 PM, September 20, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, I love rabbit...wish it was more readily available here! Just wanted to drop in and tell you I love the blog, the pictures are absolutely beautiful. I usually read you in bloglines, so although this is my first time commenting, it isn't my first time reading!

4:54 PM, September 20, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely love your story and relate to it in so many ways! Such a nice read, and needless to add, a recipe I would adore. Thank you Lucy!

3:42 AM, September 21, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

You know I think I come here to relax after a long hard day. It's like the late and lamented Victoria Magazine — it "gentles" me and soothes the rough edges.

4:22 AM, September 21, 2006  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks so much for your comments!

11:20 PM, September 21, 2006  
Blogger Jann said...

What a terrific post........a recipe that we all must try1 Thank you for sharing!

5:10 AM, September 23, 2006  
Blogger Riana Lagarde said...

This looks delightful, I found a store in Toulouse that has some Mexican ingrediants like habenero chilis and masa (so that I can make corn tortillas) I miss Mexican food so much that I beg my husband to take us to Toulouse just to go and get a few ingredients. I'll invite you over for enchilladas if you bring me a chili ;)

9:09 AM, October 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have an incredible site. It's inspiring!
Thank you
C. Danel (similar last name as yours--french grandfather)

2:39 PM, October 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know, I am so way behind. So sorry if you have to go so far back to see who has been rummaging in your library. You see, I just discovered your blog which I dug up from The Traveler's Lunchbox.

Curiosity had me flipping through your stories, which I must say are very colourful. Plus your photos are so beautifully rustic and real, the flipping did not want to stop.

This particular tale caught me because I have trapped myself many times in trying to cook my own food in a foreign country. My anxiety got even worse when the ingredients were not available! Now when I am in my late 30s that I realize I would never enjoy myself, no matter what falls onto my plate, if I continue to play the headless chicken.

Anyhow, you telling it made me feel quite zen-ed (or is it relieved?) that I was not the only one and probably would not be the last. Thank you for sharing. I am a slow reader but I'd catch up.

4:09 PM, October 06, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

As my girlfriends and I like to say, "Nothing beats hot cheese". This sounds and looks like a lovely treat. Your appreciation for and intimacy with this food comes across wonderfully in your photos. Pictures of food can be so disastrous.

That first paragraph could be the start of a great novel, too.

Many thanks!

9:58 PM, February 13, 2009  
Blogger shawn said...

I feel for you. There is *no* substitute for Mexican oregano. And rationing the chile is detrimental to the finished product.

12:01 PM, October 30, 2012  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Ah but it still warmed that little place in my heart. Perhaps not ideal, but what in life is?

4:00 PM, October 30, 2012  

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