One of the bright sides to growing up as an immigrant in North America is that you’re rarely alone. In no time the U.S. will be majority Hispanic. Growing up on the California-Mexican border that reality has always been real to me.
But just below the surface California is a hodgepodge of “minority” immigrants, including Indians, Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Middle Easterners. I grew up in predominantly Latino areas, speak Spanish, salsa dance, and have travelled to a generous number of Latin American countries. But it was a fluke that my family settled 10 minutes from the Tijuana border crossing. Settling there in the 80’s, speaking a foreign language (Arabic), no wonder people thought we were weird!
What I love about immigrants is that we find kindred souls everywhere. It was our Mexican neighbors who opened their doors to us with open arms, and kitchens! To this day our closest family friends still invite us for barbeques, weddings, Christmas dinners and Quinceañeras. And one important thing in common between our cultures—we show affection through food.
Imagine a typical spread: freshly made salsa and guacamole, blackened peppers and carne asada on the grill, black beans slowly cooking in a large pot, tortillas being patted down on a griddle, a roasted chicken being shredded, charred corn and my favorite SoCal dish, fish tacos.
Actually the commonalities between Arab and Latin cultures go back centuries to the Moorish influence on Southern Spain. Did you know that saffron, the signature ingredient for paella, is an Arabic spice? Zaafron is a derivative of the Arabic word for yellow. Alcohol, also an Arabic name, was brought by Moors via winemaking. The Moors occupied Iberia for 700 years and introduced rice cultivation, figs, citrus, cinnamon, nutmeg, almonds, sausages, empanadas, and plenty of other spices and sauces. These foods were brought over to Mexico as well, like albóndigas (a meat ball recipe), estofado (a meat stew), nogada (a nut sauce), and mole (a spicy reddish-brown sauce). Some say even the popular Spanish churros came from the Arabic zelabia or from Sephardic Jews’ bimuelos.
When I was 16 my father took our family to Spain so we could see the Arab influence in Europe, and it is really spectacular to see old mosques and churches side-by-side; flamenco music and dance; and delicious tapas, all which are mixes of east and west. To this day I have a love affair with Andalusia.
So that’s how I enjoy my blast to the past dinner of chile rellenos and churros with chocolate for dessert. The first is a Mexican dish of a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with cheese in a tomato sauce. Churros y chocolate is a favorite Spanish fried pastry dessert or breakfast snack which is dipped in hot chocolate. Delicioso!
12 poblano, pasilla or Anaheim chiles
1 pound queso fresco cheese (or Monterey Jack)
2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cup oil
8 medium Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 medium onion, thinly chopped
1 ½ cup water
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 chicken bullion cube
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
- To peel the skin from the pepper, blacken them by holding them over the burner of a gas stove, broiler, or grill them on a baking sheet in the oven. Once one side of the pepper chars and blisters, turn it so to evenly cook each pepper.
- Once blackened put peppers in a closed plastic bag to sweat out the moisture. After 20 minutes remove from bag and begin peeling the skin.
- Slit them down the middle with a paring knife and cut out the main seed pod, being careful to not rip the pepper. Rinse with cold water to remove any remaining seeds.
- Cut the cheese in thin strips as long as each pepper and stuff with the queso fresco. Don’t stuff too tightly as it expands when it melts. Use toothpicks to hold them together. Roll the chiles in white flour and set aside.
- Separate the egg yolks from the whites and beat whites in a large bowl with an electric beater until fluffy. Fold in the egg yolks and flour and completely mix.
- Heat oil in a big frying pan 1” deep to medium heat or about 370º F. Holding the stuffed pepper by the stem dip it into the batter and fry until golden brown on both sides.
- Remove from the oil and place it carefully in the tomato sauce so that the sauce covers the pepper. Keep sauce on low heat long enough to melt the cheese.
- In a medium size saucepan fry chopped onions in oil with garlic and spices until translucent. Then add tomatoes, water, and bullion. Cook until tomatoes are mashed.
- Put mixture in a food processor, but be careful the sauce does not become too watery. Pour the tomato sauce over the cooked chile rellenos on the serving platter and serve.
Churros con Chocolate
3 cups canola oil (for frying)
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Piping bag with large star tip
6 ounces dark chocolate
2 2/3 cups milk
2 tablespoon cornstarch
6 tablespoons sugar
- Heat the oil in a deep frying pan to 350 degrees F, 1 inch.
- To make the churro dough, heat the water, butter, and salt to a rolling boil in a medium size saucepan until melted.
- Add the flour and stir vigorously over low heat with a wooden spoon until mixture forms a ball, approximately 1 minute.
- Remove from heat and transfer to large bowl to cool for 3 minutes. Beat eggs into the mixture until smooth and sticky (easier with electric mixer). Optionally add half a teaspoon of sugar and cinnamon into batter for flavor.
- Spoon the batter into a pastry bag with a large star tip. Pipe 3 to 4-inch strips of dough into the hot oil, and use a knife to cut batter from tip. Fry 3 or 4 strips at a time until golden brown and cooked in the center, turning once with tongs, about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to paper towels.
- While cooling for 3 minutes, mix the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl then toss the churros in sugar and cinnamon.
Serve warm to dunk in Hot Chocolate:
- Place the chocolate and half the milk in a saucepan over very low heat and simmer, stirring, until the chocolate has melted. (For a spicy flavor add nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, cloves, vanilla or orange peel, to your taste.)
- Dissolve the cornstarch in the remaining milk and whisk into the chocolate with the sugar. Cook on low heat, whisking continuously until the chocolate thickens, about 5 minutes.
- Remove and whisk until smooth. If it doesn’t thicken, whisk in more cornstarch and let sit for 5 more minutes.
- Pour the chocolate into small cups for dipping the churros after every bite. Serve warm.
—World Atlas of Food, Jane Grigson editor [Mitchell Beaszley:London] 1974 (p. 170)
—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 741)
—Arab Influences in the Culinary Art of Mexico, Habeeb Salloum, 2005 http://www.infohub.com/forums/showthread.php?t=7483
—The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection, Rachel Laudman [Saudi Aramco World] 2004 (p. 32) http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200403/the.mexican.kitchen.s.islamic.connection.htm
—An Air of Buenos Aires Draws Argentines to Manolo, Linda Bladholm [The Miami Herald] June 24, 2004 (p. 9E) http://churrosmanolo.com/herald.html