ife in Rome can offer glitches when it comes to convenient food ingredients. North Americans as a whole are used to options, sometimes too many of them. My own choice, at least most of the time, has been to “live off the fatta the lan’,” like Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” It sharpens your senses, hones your survival instincts, and charges up your problem-solving faculties. You’re more productive.
Trying to locate things that are easily found in an American mall or supermarket can take most of a Rome day. Finding a dry cleaner, a shoe repair shop, and a really good, inexpensive butcher are all necessary and all take time. But once you know what’s what – including strange customs and weird phone service – you can start enjoying the friends you might make post office lines.
But as a Texan, I get cravings. From time to time I want chili con queso, guacamole, tomatillo salsa or fajitas. Thankfully, Rome’s supermarkets are happy to oblige. Not only that, but the Piazza Vittorio market offers real Fuerte or Haas avocados, cilantro, chili peppers and sometimes even tomatillos. What’s missing you can pick up at Castroni, which stocks a wonderland of south of the border items, including burrito fixings and taco shells.
For a quick and easy fix for a Tex-Mex craving, start with a nice piece (300g) of caciotta di Siena or Mimolette cheese at any alimentari that boasts a good cheese supply. Take it home and grate it.
Now for the salsa.
In a food processor bowl or blender, put one large sweet onion, a tiny piece of fresh garlic, two large reddish-green tomatoes (always available in summer and fall), chopped, a small hot green chili pepper (or the small can of Ortega chili found at Castrone), a handful of fresh cilantro leaves, a pinch of sugar, a tablespoon or two of wine vinegar and one-half teaspoon salt. Blend quickly to keep the salsa chunky, or purée for a smooth texture. Chill.
For fajitas made with soft tortillas or taco shells (also available at Castroni), follow these steps.
Buy meat for stracetti or have the butcher prepare good lean beef or chicken in very thin strips, about half a kilo for six people. In a large skillet, heat a splash of olive oil and sauté a large, sweet onion, chopped fine, two cloves of garlic, minced, one teaspoon of ground cumin and a few pinches of chili powder until the onion is soft. Add the meat and cook on high heat on all sides to seal in the juices. Lower the heat and cook gently, adding a splash of beer for flavor. Salt and pepper to taste. Since I like it hot, I also add chili to the meat. Set aside to use for filling the tacos or burritos.
Buy two packages of flour tortillas and have them ready a large skillet. Brush with olive oil and place a tortilla in the pan. Sprinkle on grated cheese and salsa, then cover with another tortilla, pressing the two together. Cover the pan with a lid for a few minutes, and then carefully turn over the quesadilla to cook on the other side. The tortilla should be a nice golden brown. After another couple of minutes, remove to a warm plate. Continue making quesadillas. To serve, cut into sixths and serve with more salsa.
For perfect guacamole, let four avocados soften slightly until they just give when pressed with a finger. You can ripen them more quickly in a paper bag placed in a dark corner of the kitchen. Scoop out the meat, add chopped sweet onion, lemon juice, chopped cilantro, a tiny squeeze of garlic and salt and blend to a texture you like. Serve with plain crisp tostados, also found in markets.
To make the tacos, fill each shell with cheese and the fajita meat, and heat in a 200-degree C oven until the cheese is melted. At the table, add salsa add mascarpone or whole milk yogurt to top them off.
If you wish to add refritos, re-fried beans, to your tacos or burritos, you can find red beans in cans in the market. Sauté a sweet onion, chopped fine, in lard, purée the beans in a blender and add them to the pan. Cook gently, adding a little beer as they cook, and serve with chopped cilantro over all.
And don’t forget the Dos Equis or Corona, although if you’ve remembered to make the mojitos or margaritas before dinner, any beer will do!