The legendary chef answers the question…What did you eat today, Jeremiah Tower?
When I lived in Manila my dinner guests would often arrive two hours late. And bring an extra five people. Or not show up at all. Merida is similar if not so extreme. So planning dinner this evening for house guests with no certain arrival time should be a breeze. No pun intended with their having to cross the windy channel between Cozumel and the mainland. The weather is acting up over there, and then they have a four hour bus ride through tropical storm rains that could have them stuck in some local pueblo with nowhere to go. Have stocked up on ice in case my cocktail hour is extended by an hour or so. If it is, better have something that can be finished on auto pilot. Could always get some goat barbacoa and pour it over polenta, but if the temperature doesn’t fall below 80 degrees with a similar storm coming in over here, that might be a bit sweaty. There are some haricots verts in the freezer that I never got around to cooking and am hesitant to chuck since they are so rare down here. Perhaps a green bean butter to pour over some barely boiled shrimp? Never done that, and the taste conjured up in my head doesn’t quite work. A green bean risotto perhaps–using the technique of cooking the rice ninety percent in advance? Shrimp first then, with just lots of chopped garlic and ginger. Maybe a flourish of cilantro leaves over the top of those lovely pink shrimp still swimming, this time in butter heavily perfumed with the garlic and ginger.
Well, that didn’t work. The green beans I mean. Half way through boiling them the smell was like alfalfa pellets given to the goats before they become barbacoa. Chucked the beans. What else was in the freezer? Some shellfish stock and a pound of blue crab meat that was the victim of the last tropical storm when the power went out and the guests stayed home. Just brought the crabmeat up to a boil in the stock, so now I am back to risotto. Shellfish and asparagus? Forgot I had to find Arborio rice, let alone Canaroli or Vialone. No luck, so I did what I should have done in the beginning, walk over to Merida’s huge central market. No fresh shrimp, so off to the cooked pig gut stalls for the usual hits. Morcilla, or intestine stuffed with ground pork and blood, buche the same deal but bigger intestine, no blood, and hard boiled eggs, and kastakan, the pork belly fried in rendered pig fat. The Mayan woman at the counter threw in a mountain of fried pig skin, or chicharon, with a smile. I wondered if I should cancel my annual checkup at the end of the week. What the hell, I thought, just throw in some greenery, reddery, and any other fresh colors to help us think we might survive. Radishes, the little-leaf cilantro from the pueblos, and over to the flower ladies to get bouquets of basil. They always have it and no one else ever does. More quaint Merida lore. Walking over to have two tacos of lechon “normal” (dripping in juices, not the dryer one for tourists or the health body health conscious), I saw the menu forming in my head. Kastakan with radish salsa as a first course, linguine mixed with fresh white beans finished in olive oil and garlic, the juices of morcilla and buche, the blood meats under the pasta, braised onions and their juices over, and a sprinkling of cilantro to relieve all the chestnut brown pig parts. Oh yes, and large gins and tonic to start with, each glass topped with a bouquet of violets. When their perfume hits the vaporizing gin, no one cares any more how much pig one is about to consume. All, just somehow, seems aright with the world. // Jeremiah Tower