Monday, December 15, 2008

The Salsaman's Final Dance

It is with a heavy, heavy heart that I write this post. A good friend of mine went gently into the good night, and my life and others were indeed richer from his friendship, as well as his culinary skills.

We worked at two companies together, sharing offices, bitching sessions, the occasional smoke break, and a great love of all types of food. About 12 years ago, in our first job together, I worked out a payment plan with him where he brought me lunch 2-3 times a week from the family leftovers. This was the best lunch deal ever, because I got home-cooked meals that I didn't have to cook myself, and they were way better than whatever fast-food crap was available. And, I was perfectly willing to be experimented on, too.

He was diabetic, which meant he was trying to cook healthier, which I figured was to my benefit as well. He introduced me to roasted root vegetables, which I really had no idea that you could actually "roast" a vegetable, being a sort of culinary neophyte at the time...and 'twas the only time I ever had a beet and liked it...years and years later, I can still remember that meal of roasted pork with the roasted root vegetables--beets, parsnips, carrots, and potatoes...the beets were slightly charred and caramelized and were wonderful. I've never been able to duplicate them, and I've never had them done as well since then.

My most favorite lunch meal was "Almond Chicken," and I would have been perfectly happy if he'd made that every week. Not the ubiquitous Almond Chicken of American Chinese restaurants, but a Mexican version, gleaned from an old Sunset cookbook...for which I have searched eBay and scoured flea markets and library book sales for years to find my own copy, to no avail. I have some tattered photocopies that I've lugged around for the last hundred years, and I guess putting the recipe down here in tribute to Johns will at least give me a way to keep the recipe alive.

I remember when I made this recipe for the first time for was the first time I had ever roasted a pepper, and I was amazed at how easy it was to do it, thanks to some coaching from Johns.

Almond Chicken (Pollo Almendrado)

1/2 cup blanched almonds

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 Tablespoon butter or margarine

1/4 cup finely chopped white onion

1 fresh Anaheim or poblano chile, roasted, peeled,
seeded, de-veined, finely chopped

1 small tomato, seeded and minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup chicken stock or broth

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

Tomato wedge
Fresh cilantro sprig (garnish)

Process almonds, about 1/4 at a time, with on/off pulses in electric spice grinder or food processor, to a fairly fine powder. Dredge chicken in almonds on small plate to coat all sides; reserve remaining almonds.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil and the butter in deep 10-inch skillet over medium heat until foam subsides. Add as many breasts as will fit in single layer without crowding. Cook until chicken is light brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side, reducing heat if almonds get too dark; remove to plate. Repeat with remaining chicken, adding 1 tablespoon oil, if needed.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and the onion to skillet; sauté over medium heat until soft, about 3 minutes. Add chile, chopped tomato and garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add stock, salt and reserved almonds; heat over high heat to boiling. Add chicken to skillet; reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove chicken to serving dish; cover and keep warm.

Add whipping cream to cooking liquid; heat over medium-high heat to boiling. Cook and stir until sauce is slightly thickened, about 3 to 5 minutes; pour over chicken. Garnish with tomato wedge and cilantro. As accompaniments to this meal, he always made a jicama salad and these little zucchini boats stuffed with zucchini, corn, and cheese. We figured out that it was just as easy to chop up the zucchini completely, add the corn and cheese, and bake it like a casserole, rather than make boats! Although, the boats were nice for company. : )

Johns was an amazing person...a hippie from way back, with a wry sense of humor and air of comfort about himself and with himself that I will always envy. He was the most gentle person I've ever known, as well as one of the most courageous. He and his family packed up a few years ago, chucked the consumer lifestyle, and moved to Costa Rica to live a life of adventure and new experiences, including opening a vegetarian restaurant, Tia's Garden, which made me rather envious. We would get the occasional email with the most gorgeous pictures of sunsets, fresh fruit, and the smiling faces of his family. And each time, he would invite everyone on the email list to come and visit them. I always meant to go, and I will someday.

My heart goes out to his wife and daughters, and I wish I could do something to help ease their pain and sorrow of this time. I will miss him greatly, and I know I was a better person for having known him.


LinC said...

So sorry to hear about your friend. I will cook his recipe in remembrance. He had the right idea -- run away to somewhere tropical!

Erik the Tall said...

Nice tribute, great guy.