A lesson in making Sonoran flan, from a master

After working in Sonora, Mexico's remote Sierra Aconchi for four days on a biological survey, we decided to spend a night at La Posada del Río in Banámichi, a picturesque colonial town along the Río Sonora. Lovingly restored but decorated in bright modern colors, with a tropical plant-filled courtyard  and antiques from around the world, it is truly a treasure. But the real treasure is the staff: friendly and helpful, everyone we met made us feel like we were guests in a home rather than a hotel. Chuyita Ruiz is the cook, and she prepared delicious Sonoran specialties such as tortilla soup, carne asada, machaca and eggs, and flan chiltepín. The latter, a classic Spanish custard but spiced with locally grown wild chiles, was out of this world, and we expressed our opinion vociferously. The next morning, Chuyita invited us to the kitchen for an impromptu lesson. Experiences like this are why we love to travel.

To make the caramel, add 1 cup sugar to heavy pan and stir constantly over medium-high heat.

The sugar starts to melt and caramelize. Keep stirring so it does not burn.

Continue stirring until rich, dark caramel-brown.

Carefully pour the hot caramel into the tin mould, swirling to coat the whole inside. Careful, the molten sugar sticks and burns skin very badly (notice how Chuyita is holding the tin as she swirls it, keeping her hands well away from any drips). The mould is a Christmas cookie tin with a lid.

Prepared mould, set to cool while the batter is made.

Mix the batter in a blender: 1 can evaporated milk, 1 small can sweetened condensed milk, 8 oz. cream, 4 eggs, 1 t. vanilla. Add flavoring or not. Chuyita made one with chiltepines (very hot wild chiles, a specialty of the Río Sonora region) about 10 crushed finely; or a tablespoon of instant coffee. (If you prefer not to used canned milks, you can use whole milk and eggs: Add 2 cups milk and salt to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring milk to a brief simmer. Do not let the milk come to a boil. Remove from heat. In a mixing bowl combine 6 eggs, 1/3 cup sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla and beat well, until light and foamy. Add milk to the egg mixture, whisk continually.)

Pour the batter on top of the caramel.

Place the lidded tin in a simmering water bath.

Cook in the water bath for 45 minutes.

Fresh from the water bath. Let cool a bit before inverting.

Place a pie plate over the tin and invert.

Voilá—the inverted flan with the caramel coating on top. A flan chiltepín "muy rica," courtesy Chuyita Ruiz and La Posada del Río Hotel, Banámichi, Sonora, Mexico.

Happy 100th birthday, Julia Child

Julia Child once said the perfect meal was a thick juicy steak and a martini.

I offer up the perfect martini (the Vesper), in honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth today.

Via the excellent blog, Why Evolution is True, here are some great links honoring her today as well:

New York Times has several article, including a summary of her contributionsby Julia Moskin and a nice remembrance by friend and co-chef Jacques Pepin. She was without question ad icon, and had an enormous influence on American cooking and dining. And of course she was hilarious in an unintentional way: gangly, awkward, and with that voice. She inspired several imitations, including Meryl Streep's wonderful portrayal in Julie and Julia (I loved the Julia parts, didn't like the Julie ones), and of course Dan Ackroyd's sanginary satire on Saturday Night Live.

I consider Julia Child to be one of the people who inspired me not only in the kitchen, but in life. She lived everything 110%, and had a wonderful and inspiring relationship with her husband, Paul. (One of the best gifts my wonderful husband gave me was a signed copy of From Julia Child's Kitchen.)

I worked my way through much of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and it made me a much more competent cook, very comfortable in the kitchen and working with ingredients. I can whip up from memory now any of the basic sauces (all the variations of brown and white, from a good meat gravy to a lovely béchamel)—and I think of her every time I do.

I love her practical approach to everything, but above all the fact she was so true to food and its basic goodness. She eschewed fads and was quick to slay them in public. I also love that she had a very basic kitchen, no $20,000 super-charged 10-burner-equipped gleaming kitchen for her. You can see the kitchen she used her whole career, it's lovingly resurrected (the actual kitchen) in the Smithsonian in D.C.

Desert Rain Cafe, Tohono O'dham Nation

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As a thunderstorm charged across the desert floor north of us, dust and sheets of rain sailing dramatically in its path, we headed west across the vast Tohono O'odham Nation to visit a little cafe we read about over the weekend.

Tohono O'odham Community Action ( has many worthwhile projects across this vast nation (2.8 million acres), but their Desert Rain Cafe and Gallery, in the very nice, rather upscale shopping center on Sells' main street (Indian Route 19, on Google maps), is their most visible.

We pulled up at about 1 pm, and the place was hopping. All the tables on the porch (cooled by misters and shaded by mesquite trees on the west) and inside the small but cheerful cafe were full, and there were several people at the counter ordering. It's hard to miss the bright yellow walls—exactly the color of desert marigolds.

The menu features not only desert foods, but locally farmed on the nation. All the proceeds benefit community projects, and the young people involved in the cafe project and farming are gaining valuable skills in food production and running businesses. From the TOCA website:

TOCA’s Desert Rain Cafe’ opened in April, 2009 as the only restaurant using locally-farmed Tohono O’odham foods, including tepary beans, O’odham squash, and cholla buds. In the first year, the cafe served 90,000 meals.  In September, 2010, TOCA was able to publish From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Foodways. The cookbook serves as the basis for Desert Rain Cafe’s menu.  
TOCA’s commitment to offering affordable, fresh, native meals in the O’odham community has improved the local food system.  The cafe’s success and leadership by young adults has helped TOCA and our community partners bring traditional O’odham foods into the local schools:  
- In April, 2010, the first O’odham meals were served in local schools.  
 - In October, 2011, the Indian Oasis Baboquivari School District made tepary bean quesadillas part of its daily menu for K-12 students. 
- TOCA’s Y.O.U.T.H. & Project Oidag help in the school gardens and activities.

We ordered from the lunch menu ("Monsoon") as well as the appetizers ("Drizzle"). I had the prickly pear cactus-and-chile-glazed grilled chicken sandwich with freshly baked roll, which comes with a side of tortilla chips and pico de gallo salsa made with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and cholla cactus buds. Jonathan had the white tepary bean and short-rib stew with a chile cornbread muffin. We both had lemonade sweetened with agave nectar. Both entrees were delicious and perfectly cooked, with the glaze just spicy enough to be interesting, and the stew very hardy but not greasy; the cholla-bud salsa is also very tasty, though you have to get used to the slightly mucilaginous texture of the buds. The food at the cafe is also very affordable—the stew was $5.95 and the sandwich $8.95. With drinks and an extra side of chips, the total was $25.

The service was not fast, but there were only 2 staff to handle phones, counter sales, and table service, and they did so with quiet efficiency and friendliness, though not effusive; if you're fond of the "Hi guys! My name is Mandy and I'll be your server!" perky waitstaff, head to the university, not an Indian nation.

Despite being happily stuffed, we had to get a couple of giant mesquite cookies to go. Made with flour from mesquite tree beans, these cookies had an almost gingerbread-like flavor and texture, naturally sweet and carob-y from the mesquite, though they are pretty dense and not super moist.

The clientele was eclectic and friendly; from hip young O'odham women in business attire texting madly on iPhones to bad-ass young men (who Jonathan dubbed, politically incorrectly, "Papago punks") with gelled hair, Bowie knives, tattoos and 'tudes, as well as Anglo teachers and social workers, O'dham business people, and "foreign" travelers (two men from Germany). It felt like we were far, far from the USA, which in a way we were.

As we left the cafe to head back to Tucson, we saw a scene unique to Indian nations and developing countries across the globe: livestock casually wandering the streets, in this case half a dozen horses with new foals, the traffic barely slowing down to get around them.

It's great to be reminded you can explore just 50 miles from home and still have wonderful travel experiences.

Peach season: rustic tart, and . . . pickles?

Camera Roll-56 by ConserVentures

Our friends Diane and Steve recently brought back many boxes of lovely organic peaches from Willcox, Arizona.

Of course we've had peach cobbler, peaches on ice cream, and a rustic peach tart (above).

But this year I decided to try tershi, or Afghani-style pickled peaches.

With hot-pepper flakes, coriander, mint, garlic, and apple-cider vinegar, the results are puckery indeed—a bit much to just eat from the jar (though Jonathan did, to humorous results).

Last night I made whole wheat fettucini with turkey and sautéed onions, garlic, and celery with dried cranberries and half a jar of chopped pickled peaches and a dollop of the juice. The savory turkey, onions and garlic went very well with the sweet-tart pickles and cranberries—and the colors are really lovely as well.

Pickled Peaches, Afghan Style (tershi)

Recipe By: Mark Bittman (How to Cook Everything)


2 lbs. peaches, peeled and sliced
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 cups white or white wine vinegar
1/8 cup sugar
4 cloves crushed garlic
2 teaspoons dried mint
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes


Put the salt, the vinegar, sugar, and spices in a pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, then let cool for about 5 minutes. Pour the mixture over the peaches and let cool to room temperature. (Add more vinegar or water if the cucumbers are not covered.)

Transfer the peaches and pickling liquid to airtight jars or containers; store in the refrigerator for at least 3 days or longer for stronger pickles. They will keep in their pickling liquid for up to 3 weeks.


My first batch was made with very ripe peaches; they would do better with ever-so-slightly under-ripe fruit, so their structure holds up and yields a slightly crunchier texture.

Life is good. Chocolate-bourbon pecan pie.

Life is good. Chocolate-bourbon pecan pie. by ConserVentures

Jack Daniels Bourbon Pecan Pie


2 grade-A large eggs (slightly beaten)
1/4 cup dark Karo syrup (I use Sonoran Desert honey)
3/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons corn starch
8 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup Jack Daniels bourbon
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I use Lindt 72% dark chocolate)
1 bag pecan halves (approximately 2 cups)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix eggs and Karo.

Combine sugar and corn starch, add to egg mixture.

Melt chocolate and butter, cool. Add bourbon and combine with egg mixture. Beat together in mixer on slow speed. (At this point I usually sample the bourbon. Just to make sure it's fresh.)

Pour into a 9-inch unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle evenly with pecan halves. To make an impressive-looking pie, lay the pecan halves on top in a circle around the edge and keep making circles until the pie top is covered rather then sprinkling them on top.

Bake on cookie sheet for one hour. It's okay to keep sampling the bourbon.
Pie should be firm and will "set-up" while cooling. Serve with bourbon, if there is any left.

Pasco Kitchen & Lounge, Tucson

Pasco Kitchen, TucsonA "Rickey's" at Pasco KitchenPineapple hard at work infusing vodka at Pasco KitchenPart of what makes the mixology work at Pasco Kitchen—along with a totally enthusiastic staffDeep-fried dark chocolate beignet with double creamAftermath

We discovered Pasco Kitchen and Lounge in Tucson this week. Fresh, local, organic, house-made—it's all here, plus a vision for flavors and presentation that's unbeatable.

We enjoyed one of the most inspired cocktails ever: the Roasted Rickey's (roasted-chile-infused gin, cilantro muddled with sweet-and-sour, and fresh lime juice) with carnitas tacos, and grass-fed beef burger . . . followed by dark chocolate beignets (basically, mousse balls rolled in champagne-batter and deep-fried) and served with heavy whipped cream and raspberries.

Oh my.

The Rattlesnake

Inspired by Pasco, we made our own summer cocktail: The Rattlesnake, with chile vodka, watermelon, and sweet-and-sour. by ConserVentures
Photo by ConserVentures on Flickr.
Inspired by Pasco Kitchen and Lounge in Tucson, which serves truly inspired cocktails, we created our own summer drink from some ingredients on hand.

We called it the Rattlesnake, for its bite and for the lovely diamondback rattlesnake that was snoozing on our porch when we got home on Wednesday this week.

The Rattlesnake


1 ounce vodka, chile-infused
3-4 ounces watermelon juice
1 ounce sweet-and-sour
simple syrup, to taste
cilantro, about a tablespoon, muddled with simple syrup


1. Muddle the cilantro with a dash of simple syrup in the bottom of a Mason jar (muddling is just mashing the herb with sugar, using a wooden spoon or if you're a mixologist, a special "muddling pestle").

2. Add sweet-and-sour, watermelon, and vodka. Taste, add more simple syrup if needed.

3. Add ice, stir, serve, preferably with a slice of watermelon as garnish.

Depending on the strength of your chile-vodka, this can have a great bite!


We make our own chile vodka by simply steeping good vodka (Skyy) with a handful of hot chiles (jalapeños, birds-eye, chiltepine, or Thai) in a cool place for a few weeks. Pasco makes a chile gin by using roasted chiles.

We also make our own simple syrup with organic cane sugar (bring to boil sugar and water in a 1:1 ratio), and our own sweet-and-sour (3:2:1 fresh lime juice, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup; we often use jarred organic lime and lemon juice from our local Sunflower market).

Silver tea set

Silver tea set by ConserVentures
Silver tea set, a photo by ConserVentures on Flickr. [iPhone with Snapseed processing]
Nothing marks the weekend better than getting out the vintage silver tea set for tea. From an estate back East, the set includes classically shaped tea pot, creamer, sugar bowl, and tray. The tea pot is perfectly designed, with a generous bowl for excellent brewing action, and a spout that does not drip and includes an integrated strainer. A much-loved Christmas present.

Vin de noix ~ Green walnut wine

Walnuts (Juglans major) in the southwestern states are beginning to ripen . . . time to try something I've had in my nature notes for some time: vin noix (green walnut wine), made from noix de Saint-Jean (Saint John's walnut). One of the best tutorials on the origin and making of this European aperitif is on William Rubel's website ( Traditionally in France the walnuts (from J. regia) are harvested around June 24, which is Saint Jean's Day, the feast of Saint John. Our southwestern species don't begin to grow until later in July. I don't know if our wild walnuts will yield a quality flavored product (it's actually one of several flavorings in what's known as a fortified wine, since it's made by infusing alcohol and wine with botanicals and spices). The recipes refer to the astringent quality of the walnuts, and ours certainly have that characteristic. I gathered these in New Mexico's Mimbres Valley, northeast of Silver City.

Vin de Noix (from William Rubel)
40 young walnuts that can be pierced with a needle, rinsed and quartered
1 liter alcohol such as brandy, marc, eau de vie, or vodka
5 liters red wine
1 kg sugar (2 pounds)
One or more of the following are often added, but are optional
12 walnut leaves
Zest of 1 orange
4 to 8 cloves
1 vanilla bean

[I reduced the recipe to 15 wild walnuts; 1.25 L red Italian table wine; .25 L vodka; 225 g sugar; 4 walnut leaves; half a vanilla bean; zest of 1/4 orange; 4 cloves.]
1. Pick the walnuts in late June when the walnuts are well formed, but can still be pierced with a needle. Place all of the ingredients in an 8 quart (8 liter) non-reactive container with a lid. I use a large glass jar. Store in a cool dark place for 6 to 8 weeks, shaking occasionally.

2. Strain through cheesecloth into a bowl. Taste, and adjust the sugar if you want the drink to be sweeter. Bottle and store in a cool dark place until the cold weather.

Check back in eight weeks for a taste test. I'll also look for ripe walnuts in the fall; these make excellent pigment.

Food as art . . . chipotle salsa

Cooking is a creative process, identical to creating jewelry or painting or clothing. You begin with an idea, you work with flavors as a palette, and there is a definite aesthetic. A few days ago I cooked up half a dozen jars of my chipotle salsa - and I think it is a good example of Food as Art: the flavor palette includes spicy fresh jalapenos, smokey chipotles (smoke-dried jalapenos) reconstituted in a homemade sweet-vinegary adobo sauce, tart onions, and acidic tomatoes. The aesthetic includes a not-quite-smooth texture, with small bits of onion and chile and tomato, and a color that is deep oxblood red.