ctober’s Day of the Dead has always fascinated me, but this year I was suddenly overcome by memories of a friend we lost suddenly some years ago, a woman whose shoot-from-the-hip take on life’s most important issues kept me spiritually nourished, entertained, and sometimes frustrated for so many memorable years.
I miss her drawling Texas accent and her endlessly surprising quips, as in “both his oars just ain’t in the water,” “she’s not playin’ with a full deck,” and “it was over quicker than a gnat can swim a dipper.” Not yet fully understanding that she is gone, I’ve longed to hear her call my name (in three syllables). I’ve missed her sage advice and her off-the-wall solutions to life’s disturbing and puzzling problems.
She was also passionate about Mexican food.
How would I build her altar on The Day of the Dead? Though respectful of others’ religions, would she really give a hoot about sugar skulls symbolizing the sweetness and sadness of life or chrysanthemum petals strewn to make the path to paradise more pleasing? She was certainly more than acquainted with both goodness and pain, and she could have perfumed her own way to heaven with petals from her amazing garden of roses.
In Mexico, the dead are supplied with sweet bread, toilet articles, even a bottle of beer or tequila to comfort them on their path to the promised land, but I think my friend would have chucked it all for a plate of crisp, picante quesadillas, some guacamole and chips, and a few pork burritos to sustain her next-world voyage.
In that spirit, here’s a meal in her honor.
In half a cup of olive oil, sauté a kilo of small, tender chunks of pork; two large sweet onions, chopped fine; three-to-four chopped garlic cloves; a can or two of finely-cut sweet and hot green chilies or three-to-four fresh ones from Asian markets; and four large green tomatoes (tomatillos, the little green tomatoes used often Mexican cooking, are rare in Europe).
When all of the above is browned and fragrant, add chicken stock and a good handful of chopped cilantro. Now, cover the pan.
(I pause from cooking to think back to the two of us cooking Mexican dinners together— strong margaritas making us mellow and fearless as we planned and plotted to save the world, abused children, stray animals, and no matter what protect good recipes, old photographs, and our friendship. Over a bowl of guacamole, we would crucify unforgivably errant lovers, wish for George Clooney as a client — Sandy, a realtor, often worked with members of Hollywood’s glamorous clan — and wonder how it was that we had landed in the same community in Los Angeles. At 16, we were cheerleaders for rival Texas schools who hardly knew one another. We then met again 15 years later to become the best of friends. Destiny.)
On to the guacamole.
I finely chop a second sweet onion and use four of the creamiest avocados I and find, then finely chopping cilantro and a tiny garlic clove, squeeze a beautiful Amalfi lemon over everything in front of me, and mash the all with a wire whisk, adding salt and a little cayenne…
(The cayenne is a tribute to her more-than-peppery personality.)
Though quesadillas are usually made with cheddar — which you can find in Rome’s specialty shops — a nice, strong caciotta will work as well. First, you need to make chili sauce.
Blend one sweet onion, one small can of chilies, two garlic cloves, three fresh tomatoes, a handful of cilantro, one dry pepperoncino, a squeeze of lime juice, some salt and a little olive oil in a blender.
Heat a spoon of olive oil in a skillet and place a flour tortilla (found in Asian markets, or simply just use piadine, focaccia) in the oil. Spread it on the skillet with grated cheese and a little of the chili sauce, and cover with another tortilla.
After a minute or two, the tortillas will become old friends and stick together nicely; turn them and cook the quesadilla on the other side until golden brown. Remove to a plate, one on top of the other. Cut into wedges and savor, as I savored the stories Sandy told as I fried the tortillas for our Mexican feasts. Serve the chili verde in bowls with more warm tortillas.
(I’ll be preparing my dead friend’s altar, minus skulls, toothpaste and chrysanthemums. Maybe I’ll leave behind that bottle of Jose Cuervo, with limes and salt for the Margarita. She’d like that.)