All posts by Zia

Hi! My name is [Zia] and this is my blog. It covers my adventures in eating, cooking, hiking, daytripping, and doing stuff in New Mexico. I'm a writer/editor born and raised in New Mexico. After a decade-long stint farther west, I'm back in the Land of Enchantment. Truth be told, I'm mostly here for the food. But I'm also really into the people, the panoramic views, the mountains, the deserts, the culture, and the seasons. Oh and the food.

Corn Dogs and Meh at the New Mexico State Fair

So we went to the State Fair and for like three weeks leading up to the fair we were like CORN DOGS FUNNEL CAKES DEEP FRIED THINGS ON STICKS — MAKE IT HAPPEN, FAIR. And then we got to the fair and yes, there were many yummy smells coming from many food booths all over the place. Promising!

It was about 85 degrees, I think. Which might not sound too hot, but out on the asphalt and NO SHADE of the fairgrounds, it quickly became a blistering stuffed animal & carnie infested hellscape.

You know what sounds good in that environment? A/C and a nap. A cold beverage. Ice cream, snow cones.  You know what doesn’t sound good in that environment? Hot, deep-fried foods.

BUT WE WERE ON A MISSION. A mission to eat and love some fried fair foods (preferably on sticks).  So we stood in various lines and picked up a foot-long corn dog, some drinks, and a funnel cake.

Then we sat down in the shadeless noonday sun in the midst of the carnival crowds of sweating, dragging, weary people and we ate our hot, fried foods, dripping sweat into our mustard.

CORN DOG
Foot-long hand-dipped corn dog, NM State Fair

So the corn dog was $6 and the bottle of water was $3. We also got a cold bottle of Pepsi, also $3. (Which is more expensive than the drinks at Disneyland, which I hadn’t thought possible.)  The funnel cake my daughter picked out (with whipped cream and Hershey syrup) was NINE FREAKING DOLLARS.

Everything was fine. Good, even. But was it exciting or special? Not really.

Something else we had, which was a finalist or something in the “Unique Foods” competition, were the deep fried green chile cheese curds. Which really, sounds like the quintessential NM State Fair food, does it not? And they are served with ranch for dipping, naturally, like every other savory deep fried thing.

And they were fine. Good, even. The problem I had with them was the lack of green chile. There was a slight green chile flavor, but at the NM State Fair, where we are celebrating things New Mexico, if something says “green chile” I want BAM! GREEN CHILE!

So, yeah.

State Fair Cheese Curds
Deep Fried Green Chile Cheese Curds, NM State Fair

Maybe my expectations were too high. I had been watching Carnival Eats for weeks leading up this day, just to prepare myself. But I found the foods to be uninspired and just OK. Oh and way too expensive.

Overall, we had a fine time at the fair. We rode some rides and played some games, ate some foods, and felt somehow violated in ways we couldn’t pinpoint by a few carnies, so it was a typical fair experience.

But I’m just now getting over the sticker shock of the prices for everything ($5 apiece for rides/games was the norm).

My favorite part of the fair was not the food or midway at all — it was the buildings of prize-winning art, textiles, and giant vegetables. Mostly because they were interesting to look at, but also partly because they were air conditioned and didn’t cost another $15 each time we walked through a door.

Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie

Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. An old-fashioned apple pie, with the New Mexican addition of freshly roasted Hatch Green Chile and some cheddar cheese.


THE MATH :
Apple Pie + Cheddar = Delicious.
Cheddar + Green Chile = Magical.
THEREFORE:
Apple Pie + Green Chile + Cheddar = Magically Delicious. 


By “old-fashioned” I mean I gleaned the starter apple pie recipe from the pages of a Better Homes & Gardens cookbook circa 1968.

BHG Cookbook
Well-worn Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook
BHG Apple Pie Recipe
Better Homes & Gardens, Perfect Apple Pie Recipe. There’s food & stuff on the page. 🙂

Because I live in the modern age and I’m kinda lazy, I always use Pillsbury Pie Crusts (the kind that come rolled, 2 to a box). They are good and easy and I don’t think I could do it any better.

TO MAKE THIS PIE:

Create the apple pie filling in accordance with the BH&G recipe listed above.

Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie Apples
Apple Pie Filling – Traditional

Grate some Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese, and chop up some Hatch Green Chile (which ideally has been roasted out on the grill like an hour earlier, but frozen or canned will do just fine).

Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie GC and Cheese
Chopped roasted Hatch Green Chile, and grated Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese

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To add the cheese and green chile, first unroll the bottom pie crust and form it to the bottom of the pie dish. Then sprinkle some grated cheddar on it.

Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie Cheese Crust
Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie Cheese Crust

Next, stir about 2/3 cup of grated cheese and 1 cup of chopped green chile into the apple pie mixture. (Save back a little cheese to sprinkle on top later.) Pour filling mix into pie crust.

Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie ready to bake
Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie ready to bake

Add a few pats of butter on top for extra yumminess. Unroll second pie crust on top, seal the edges together, and pinch a fancy design in if you are so inclined and able. My mom did mine. Don’t judge me. Cut some vents into the top. I did mine in a Zia symbol, just for funzies.

Bake at 400 deg for 50 minutes or until done. About halfway through, cover the edges with foil to prevent burning. When golden brown and bubbly, remove the pie from the oven and sprinkle a little cheddar cheese on top.

Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie
Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie – Zia Vents for New Mexicans

Let it rest for about 10 minutes, then serve it up!

Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie Slice
Green Chile Cheese Apple Pie Slice

 

THIS PIE IS WONDERFUL. And I guess because it has green chile and cheese in it, we didn’t feel at all guilty about having it for lunch.

I’d suggest some mild vanilla ice cream to serve alongside.

Enjoy!

Caramel Apple Piñon Ice Cream

If you recall, I proclaimed my love for the piñon previously, in my recipe for Banana Piñon Muffins. So it may come as no surprise that my second recipe on this blog has piñons in it. The next one probably won’t, but really I can make no promises.

This recipe started out with a simple idea:

It’s summer! Let’s make ice cream!

I love making ice cream. I have a nifty little countertop no-ice-required ice cream maker, so it’s pretty easy.

Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker
Cuisinart Countertop Super-easy Ice Cream Maker. No ice or rock salt required.

Plus, it’s fun to try out new things! I knew immediately that I didn’t want to just make vanilla or chocolate ice cream. I LOVE those two flavors, but you can get them at any grocery store, and I’m probably not going to do any better than, say, Haagen Dazs, who has their recipes pretty dialed in. I wanted to do something unique. Something with a hint of FALL and a hint of NEW MEXICO.

Caramel + Apple + Piñon = ALL THE THINGS

Caramel Apple Piñon Ice Cream
Homemade Caramel Apple Piñon Ice Cream

INGREDIENTS:

2  1/3 c heavy cream, plus 1/4 – 1/2 c for melting caramels
2  1/3 c whole milk
3 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
1  c sugar
1/3 c piñons, roasted (see “A Note About Piñons” below)
1/2 c applesauce (I used homemade — see “A Note About Applesauce” below)
Caramels — about 15 little squares

A NOTE ABOUT CARAMEL:

I knew that I didn’t want to make my own caramel. I am a NOVICE in the kitchen, and I was on a deadline (wanted this ice cream for dinner that night), so if I messed up the caramel, it would throw me off schedule. So I grabbed the cheapest bag I could find of the little wrapped caramels and got my daughter to work unwrapping them. I think she only ate about 6 or 7. They worked just fine, but I admit homemade caramel would have been tastier.

Bowl Of Caramels
The individually wrapped caramels are a pain in the butt. But they are easy to melt and they are tasty!

 

METHOD:

This is a traditional custard-based ice cream, so it requires a little planning and working ahead (4+ hours minimum), because you have to make the custard base then let it cool in the fridge before putting in the ice cream maker.

  1. Combine the cream and milk in a medium saucepan. Bring to just a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar in a medium sized mixing bowl. Use a hand mixer (mid speed) to beat until the mixture is thick, smooth, and creamy (about 2 minutes).
  3. Measure out about a cup of the warm milk mixture and, with the hand mixer on low speed, add the milk mixture in a steady stream to the sugar/egg mixture. (Adding it slowly tempers the cream. If you were to add the eggs straight to the hot milk, your eggs would probably cook — egg drop soup style.) You can add another cup of the milk mixture to the eggs in a slow drizzle, just to be safe.
  4. Pour the entirety of the mixing bowl’s contents back into the saucepan and stir to combine.
  5. Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon — a few minutes. If you cook this too hot or too long, you will end up with LUMPY CUSTARD (which I will name my punk band some day — I called it). If you end up with LUMPY CUSTARD, see “A Note About Lumpy Custard” below.
  6. Transfer the custard mix to a mixing bowl and let it cool on the counter for a few minutes. Stir in the applesauce until combined. This does not have to be thoroughly blended, because some chunky pockets of applesauce in the ice cream will be pretty tasty.
  7. Melt the caramels in a small saucepan with 1/4 – 1/2 cup of heavy cream, stirring constantly. The more cream you add during the melting process, the thinner the caramel sauce will be. I used about 1/3 cup heavy cream. Once melted, stir the caramel sauce into the custard base.
  8. Cover the mixing bowl with cling wrap and put it  in the fridge until it is completely cooled (a couple of hours at least).
  9. Remove from fridge and freeze according to your ice cream maker’s directions. I use a Cuisinart counter-top ice cream maker. It took about 30 minutes to freeze this to a soft-serve consistency.  When the ice cream is ALMOST frozen to soft-serve consistency, add the piñons then let it go a bit longer.
  10. For a more solid ice cream, you can move the ice cream to a freezable container and leave in the freezer for a couple of hours to harden up.

A NOTE ABOUT PINONS

To roast/toast your piñons: Spread the shelled raw nuts out in an even layer in a dry skillet. Over medium heat, toast the piñons, shaking or stirring them every minute or so to check for color and prevent burning. You want to toast them until they are a nice deep tan color with some darker spots. Once you start to really smell them, they are about done. Remove them from the pan and spread evenly on a plate or paper towel to cool. Add a little salt if desired, then try not to eat them all.

A NOTE ABOUT APPLESAUCE

I bought a bag of “Manager’s Special” apples at the grocery store a while back. They were 99c for about 8 small Golden Delicious apples that were just this side of “iffy.” I was planning to juice them but never got around to it. There they sat, in the fridge, with a few other random old apples, dejected. Until one day I decided that the household needed some applesauce about as much as I needed to clean out the fridge. So I got out the crockpot.

To make chunky applesauce: Chop up all the apples (peels on for laziness). Put them in the crockpot with a little water (I used 1/2 c for about 12 apples). Add some cinnamon, brown sugar, and whatever other applesaucey spices you may have (nutmeg, allspice, etc.) Cook on LOW for 3-5 hours. Check on them now and then so they don’t get too soggy. Once they are cooked down, you can use an immersion blender or potato masher or fork to smash them into applesauce consistency. Add salt, sugar, brown sugar, and/or other spices as needed. This is good hot, cold, plain, as a relish, and of course, added to homemade Caramel Apple Piñon Ice Cream!

A NOTE ABOUT LUMPY CUSTARD

If, after cooking the complete custard base until it coats the back of a spoon (see step 5 above), you end up with LUMPS in the custard, do not worry! I ended up with lumpy custard at this stage, and I was really worried. Had I ruined my ice cream? Did something… curdle? Ick! So I did what anyone would have done. I googled it. The first answer I found was in a cooking forum, and it was, and I QUOTE:

“You gotta strain that shit, son!”

So strain it I did. I pressed the custard mix through a fine sieve and voila! No more lumps. And life made sense again.

Caramel Apple Pinon Ice Cream
Caramel Apple Pinon Ice Cream — make it happen

 

This ice cream was flavorful, decadent, rich, creamy, and awesome. The caramel added a buttery richness to the ice cream base, the piñons gave it a little nutty crunch, and the applesauce made the whole thing taste kind of like apple pie a la mode.

I hope you’ll try it!

Hiking the Slopes at Sandia Peak

“So there’s no trail?” I ask, scratching at my legs. The waist-high grass is blowing in a sporadic breeze, making me itch. I swat at a tiny winged insect buzzing around my right ear. Then another, or maybe the same one. They’re tenacious, these bugs. I look up at our goal: Sandia Peak, 10,400 feet seemingly straight up from where I stand at the bottom of a ski slope. The thick green grass between us and our goal feels teeming with snakes. I look down. I can’t see my feet.

Too bad the ski lifts aren’t working. I could just take one of those up.

Sandia Peak Ski Lifts
Ski lifts at Sandia Ski Area, Albuquerque. Really, it’s more UP than it seems.

“Well, there’s a trail, somewhere,” Roadrunner admits. “But last time I just charged straight up the grassy part. The ski slope part.”

Of course you did.

“I’d rather take a trail,” I say, scanning the vicinity for some kind of marked or even unmarked bike or game trail. Somewhere where I can see my own feet and any snakes I might be about to step on. I also knew that any trail would switchback along the face of the mountain, giving me a better shot of completion than the near-90-degree (in my mind) straight-up “charge” that Roadrunner has planned.

“Ok, let’s find it.” Roadrunner sets off. Upward. Straight up the slope. In a “charging” fashion, some might say.

I follow, only hoping that he is scattering any wildlife (i.e., snakes) outward from his footsteps, rather than downward (i.e., toward me). We push on and up, through the waist-high grass, stopping now and then for me to catch my breath or just catch up. Finally, we happen upon a narrow dirt trail carved into the tall grass. About 18 inches wide, this must be the bike trail.

Hello, feet!

The bike trail cuts straight across the slope, so we can’t tell which way is headed up and which way is headed down. We randomly pick a direction, based mainly on which direction gets us to the shade quicker. Luckily, we pick the right direction and our trail starts switchbacking (switchingback?) upward, in the comfort and coolness and snakelessness of the dense pine shade.

Now and then we come back across one grassy ski slope or another and decide to plow upward across it to save some time (picture this as a shortcut between switchbacks), and all the while in the waist-high grass I’m wondering how many snakes I’m stepping on or near or over.

Grassy Slopes
The grass is tall, the scenery is beautiful. Sandia Ski slopes. Albuquerque.

This goes on for a while. At some point we stop for a snack in the shade. Clementines, cashews, water.

Eventually, we come upon an area in a slope where the grass turns to rock and beyond that we can just see the shape of the mountaintop buildings emerging over the next ridge.

I make my way a few yards up the rocky area and have to stop and rest. I can’t seem to catch my breath so I stop and wait, leaning heavily on my trekking poles*. Gasping, you might say. Roadrunner comes back to make sure I’m not actually dying. “If I don’t make it,” I gasp, “feel free to eat me.”

I’ve read (and seen) ALIVE. I know how these things go.

He cheers me on, because he’s a good person. I climb another few yards, then stop to rest and catch my breath. Then one foot in front of the other. Try not to slip on the loose rocks because heaven knows if I slip, I’m slipping all the way to the bottom. This goes on for about another hour (or 10 minutes), until I finally, mercifully, exhaustifully crest the final outcropping and see the restaurant and outlook area we have been aiming at for the past 8 hours (or 2 hours).

Yay! Time to sit down, rest my lungs and legs, and have the one special treat I packed for this exact moment.

A 7 oz can of Dr. Pepper.

When I’m tired or sleepy or cranky, Dr. Pepper is my sweet elixir of life.

Dr. Pepper Boobs
Yes, I have the t-shirt. Dr. Pepper is my BFF.

 

We sit (and I huff and puff and whine and probably swear a little bit) and drink our tiny Dr. Peppers. Just as I am starting to appreciate my accomplishment and feel pretty OK about myself, a co-ed group of young CrossFitters bounds up the steps and to the vista rail, looking out at the view, all smiles.

(I’m sure you can imagine them so I won’t describe them, but I will point out they bounded up the HARD SIDE of the hike, the front side, the La Luz trail side. Like it was nothing. And I’m pretty sure they weren’t breathing hard OR EVEN SWEATING.)

I try to keep my hatred for them inside.

After about 10 minutes sitting there, having a snack and recuperating, we get up to go look at the view, which is, some would think, why we came all the way up here in the first place. A few yards away is the top of the Tram station, and people pour forth from the little metal deathboxes -AHEM- I mean tram cars, with a regularity. For those unaware, the Sandia Peak Tram is an aerial tramway that covers almost 3 miles of rugged terrain and valleys, from the base near Albuquerque to the top of Sandia Peak (10,400 ft.).  A trip on the tram takes about 15 minutes, and ends with much less huffing and puffing than the way we did it. But if you have issues with heights or claustrophobia, you might want to hike up.

Everyone getting off the tram wants to eat at the restaurant atop the mountain, High Finance, but it’s not open yet. So people are milling about, killing time. (For restaurant info click HERE. For Tram info click HERE.)

Roadrunner leads me away from the restaurant, down a rocky slope that looks a lot like the rocky slope I just trudged UP, and then parallel to the crest, toward a secret vista point. We step around a few small boulders and toward the edge.

We sit on a boulder and take in the view.

Sandia Peak and my feet
My hiking shoes are happy for the break at the top of Sandia Peak, Albuquerque
Sandia Peak Pano
Panorama from Sandia Crest

We can see all of  Albuquerque, laid out in its neat criss-cross lattice of streets at right angles, and beyond to the volcanos of the West Mesa on the horizon. Far below us, in the tops of some trees that begin even farther below, a hawk and a raven soar and flap and survey.

And the sky opens up and goes forever.

This is why we’re up here.

Z and R
Zia and Roadrunner, on top of Sandia! No, Roadrunner is not peeing off the side. OR IS HE?

We need to get home so after about 10 minutes of rest, we head downward. Down is like up, but much faster and easier on the lungs. What it’s harder on are the quads and knees and toes. We charge down some of the grassy slopes, and take the switchbacks now and then to give our feet and knees a break. We make it down to where we started in about 45 minutes.

Sandia Ski Area, lifts
I wonder what this looks like during ski season? Sandia Ski Area, Summer.

 

OVERALL I’d give this hike a bunch of stars on any kind of star system. It was really pretty (woods and grassy slopes in one hike) and the trail was fairly well marked in most places. Next time, I would probably start at a trail head and just stay on the trail and plan to take longer, rather than charging up the slopes to save time. I’d take away a star or two because I didn’t see any wildlife other than a squirrel, which is kind of a bummer.

*Author’s note: I completed this hike, from approximately 6,700 ft. – 10,600 ft. about 2 weeks after I moved to New Mexico from California (at sea level). I can say with certainty that I had not fully acclimatized to the altitude yet at this point. I don’t really recommend attempting this hike if you have just moved to the area after living at sea level. Get acclimatized then try it. Otherwise you will be sucking wind. Just saying.

On Rattlesnake Road

by [beenthere]

It was a dark and stormy night. Just before midnight, glared the dash clock in the ‘64 station wagon. This highway I had already seen twice today: going south, then back north, and now south again. The earlier two trips were in bright friendly sunlight. Now I was driving south in the darkest of darks. Behind me two miles was Corona, and ahead of me just 44 miles was Carrizozo. Then on to Alamogordo, my final destination where I would rid the car of my guest and guests: the one in the front seat, asleep for the past hour and to stay same until we reach his driveway, and the rowdies caged in back who were about to awake.

I was a first year rookie with NM Game and Fish and in assignment to Jack, a seasoned wildlife information officer who also hosted the weekly Game and Fish PBS television show in Albuquerque. As we prepped for this week’s show, he said, “Tomorrow drive to Alamogordo and pick up our guest and his props, drive him up for the show, then drive him back to his home tomorrow night. It will be an easy and fun day and you will be entertained during your drive,” Jack, the Prankster, said.

I learned some things in my first 16 years in New Mexico when we never lived closer than 15 miles to a town.

Don’t waste water, ice is a heavenly gift, take a flashlight to the outhouse, never go barefoot outside, always shake your shoes in the morning to empty of critters, and many other helpful tidbits to well serve during a full life.

And the most important: You will — from time to time and without a doubt — hear a rattlesnake rattle. The rattle is the signal that it is near. You must first determine its location. Then your options are: (1) remain perfectly still, or (2) leap high and far in the opposite direction, and (3) scream because you cannot contain a good scream. In my youth I practiced all three many times. To this day the sound of rattles rattle me. And did that night south of Corona.

Early that day when I gathered the guest for the night TV show, he brought his props all right: two boxes of rattlesnakes that he promised were boxed tightly with secure lids. He placed the boxes in the back of the very long ’64 wagon. The trip to Albuquerque was pleasant. Not a sound from the back. Occasionally I breathed. I could see the boxes in the rearview mirror. Lids were secured. We did the TV show and the guest allowed the snakes to crawl around on stage. All of us bystanders were watchful and ready to run.

Show is over, boxes of snakes are placed in the back of the station wagon, and off we go into the dark of the night on the two lane to Alamogordo. All is well until Corona. The guest in the passenger seat goes to sleep. The 46 miles to Carrizozo is a much rougher road at night and the shocks on the wagon have hardened since the trip up earlier in the day.

Now, with each bump in the road, a snake rattles. The more bumps, the more rattles.

I turn on the dome light and can just make out that the lids appear to be on the boxes. “Will the lids hold?” I ask myself. I am now looking at the front floor board to see if I am still alone. Did I see a wiggle? A slither? More bumps; more rattles. I now have one leg and foot under me and the remaining foot has increased our speed to 75 which has increased the number of bumps in a short period and increased the rattles until we are a speeding lights-on missile in the dark of night near out of control rattling and screaming as we pass the turns to Ancho and White Oaks and finally arrive at the old Texaco in Carrizozo where I brake to a sliding stop and abandon the idling vehicle. Leap high and far and scream.

An hour later we finally arrive in Alamogordo and as the guest opens the back to get his boxes he says, “That was sure a nice and quiet trip; glad my little friends did not bother you.”

Tales from a Corona Campout

by [beenthere]

We were “camping” at a Corona motel about 20 years ago on a winter deer archery hunt. We usually did a tent or popup trailer camp in the winter, but 8 inches of crusted snow and temps in the teens prompted us wise hunt veterans to seek indoor facilities for a few days.

We were well prepared for the hunt, but Bill forgot to bring changes of underwear for the three hunt days. John and I allowed we would not share, nor trade. We walked down to the Mercantile on Main Street in search of underwear and a skillet as our meals would be on a gas stove on the pickup tailgate and a skillet was not among us.

John found a cast iron skillet (which he still fondly uses today over in Alabama) in the store that had a wide selection of items common to a country store. However, the clothing section offered only one package of underwear and in three bright colors: blue, red, black.

Only three guys in their mid-years could enjoy the moment of such a find far from the big city and at the register we were still enjoying the moment. “You want a bag for those?” asked the lady at the counter. “No, we’ll just carry them,” said Bill, as he hoisted his bright colors for all to see including the four hunters who met us at the door and obviously found no humor in three of their fellow hunters boasting of a bag of new shorts. We think they were just jealous we had some new ones.

Cedarvale’s Boat

by [beenthere]

Back at the turn of this century, I had occasional employment that caused me to drive the stretch of road from Ruidoso north to roads that went to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The drive included hwy 42 from Corona to Willard through Cedarvale. Cedarvale is isolated, no services. A few houses remain as does a large abandoned building that probably was a school in its day.

On trip after trip I always looked at the barn, or garage, that faced east and was on the south side of 42 in downtown Cedarvale. I always looked as there was a boat on a trailer in the barn and the boat appeared to be green and maybe a tri-hull model. It always reminded me of a similar boat we had back in the ‘70’s that I still miss today. It was a bit difficult to closely identify and describe as lumber and other items had fallen or been placed on it. But I always looked for it and enjoyed the sightings each time. And it looked like the barn was beginning to sag a bit?

Not too long ago, we—the family—were traveling down 42, and I was sharing old stories as old sages do, and began building the story of the “boat in the garage” and everyone was anxious to witness. “Here it comes!” I said. “Up here on the right! Just beyond those big trees!”

Just beyond the big trees was a pile of old lumber. The barn had collapsed. The boat was gone. Shucks.

Divining Over Biscuits

 

Divining Over Biscuits at the Flying Bull Ranch

by [Zia]

Art will tell you: the dinner bell rings at 7:30 sharp, and if you don’t haul ass to the buffet, consider yourself screwed. You will get the roast beef’s crusty edges and the bottom-of-the-barrel pinto beans, which will be mostly beanwater and a few floaters. Art will tell you: put your phone away because you won’t get any reception out here and no one is going to call you anyway.

Art is head of the Chuckwagon dinner here at the Flying Bull Ranch (but don’t call him Cookie or Hopalong, or you won’t get any butter for your potato). The Flying Bull is one of those fake western towns where you can play horseshoes and learn how to pan for gold. There’s a gunfight nightly where the Sheriff (cheers and applause!) most always wins, and there are troubadours that sing cowboy songs and tell bad jokes. But Art knows what folks really come here for: the food. They show up early and watch him cut out biscuits with the lid from a jelly jar. They wipe their mouths when they get a face full of smoke from the pit barbecue.

Sometimes Art will look up from his biscuitmaking and say: heed my warning. (He tells fortunes while he cooks. This was not a job requirement. From what we can tell, he’s right about half the time.) He’ll say: that job you looked at is coming through. He’ll say: your husband is doing that thing you hoped he wasn’t; a great gift will arrive in the mail. Some folks enjoy this; some don’t. Most don’t pay him any mind. Just another old nut, they figure.

Art makes the chunky applesauce by hand, crushing the cooked apples with an old potato masher. He adds a secret ingredient from a ceramic bowl marked “Secret Ingredient” (we’re pretty sure it’s Allspice), then winks at anyone who might be watching. He hauls the applesauce to the buffet and then marches outside and rings the bell. He’ll tell you: you want to be at the front of the line, that way you can get seconds on the applesauce.

When everyone is fed and settled in to watch the Flying Bull Band, Art sits in a rocking chair out back and he rocks and smokes. He looks toward the west and rubs his jaw. Art tells you he can feel the rain coming even when it’s a day away. He says he can feel it in his teeth, and in the holes where his teeth were once. He walks out to the middle of the fake road, holding his jaw, staring out toward the horizon.

Art will tell you: there’s a big storm coming. And you’ll believe him, even though he’s only ever right about half the time.


 

Banana Piñon Muffins

Picture this: Some near-abandoned New Mexico back road, present day, Fall. The weather is just starting to turn and there’s a hint of a nip in the air, but you drive with the windows down because the sun is shining and somewhere someone is burning leaves. The two-lane road is in need of repair, but it is lined with skinny wild sunflowers and sage and mesquite and somehow a perfectly flat, smooth, black asphalt highway would just not work here.

You’re looking for somewhere to stop and stretch your legs and maybe grab a drink. A small town — not much more than a gas station — emerges on the horizon like a mirage. You slow the car. A makeshift roadside stand has been set up on the tailgate of an old beat-up Ford with rusted-out wheel wells. A hand-painted sign says: Green Chile & Piñon.  An old man with a stoop and a young boy with a dusty baseball cap are roasting chile in a big black tumbler. Large burlap sacks of fresh green chile and small burlap sacks of piñon nuts line the tailgate. This is where you stop.

This is where you must always stop.


NM Piñons, roasted/salted in shell
New Mexico Piñon nuts — Little Roasted Nuggets of Happiness

NM Piñon Nuts — the roadside delicacy — are an easy way to add some New Mexico flair to your dishes. Cookies, quick breads, pastas, and salads are some of my favorite places to use them. Roasted and shelled, they have a buttery, nutty flavor with a slightly crunchy texture.

In my opiñon (get it?), these little wondernuggets are the tastiest of all the nuts and seeds in the universe. And while other piñon or “pine nuts” (from California, Nevada, and Colorado) or the Italian “pignolias” are still super tasty, they just aren’t quite as perfect as the New Mexico Piñon.  Oh and hey, they come from our state tree, the Piñon Pine. So, bonus. [ASIDE: I eat piñon nuts from the state tree. I would eat a cutthroat trout — our state fish. But I would never eat a roadrunner — our state bird. That just seems… wrong.]

Harvested in the fall, the entire piñon-ing process is done by hand. The entire pinecone is harvested before it completely opens up. (If you wait until the cones are fully opened, critters like squirrels and birds will take all the piñons because they know how good these things are.) You spread out a tarp or sheet on the ground below the tree. Then you use something long (like a broom) to whack the pinecones out of the tree down onto the tarp. Then, gather up the cones and empty them of their seeds. The piñon nuts are covered in a hard shell, which should be washed and dried thoroughly before roasting.

Harvests in the past 5 or so years have been much lighter than normal due to early/heavy snows and pests like the bark beetle decimating both the immature nuts in their shells and also the trees themselves. This causes supplies to diminish and prices to skyrocket. Anyone who has ever bought piñons or pine nuts or pignolias knows that they ARE going to be expensive. It’s just a matter of how expensive. You can expect to pay about a dollar an ounce or more. Trader Joe’s usually has a raw-shelled form of “pine nut” for about $8 for an 8 oz bag. These are not NM piñons, however. They are a smaller and blander variety imported from Russia!  For true New Mexico piñon nuts, you can either buy them at a NM chile/farm store, farmer’s market, or roadside stand during the Fall, or you can order them online. A pound of roasted/salted NM piñons is currently selling online for about $30/pound. And that’s IN the SHELL. Which means more weight, less meat.

Places you can buy online:
PinonNuts.com
The Chile Addict

These delicious little bastards are super expensive, is what I’m saying. But they are worth it.

Pine Nuts, shelled, roasted.
Pine Nuts, shelled. These are the Trader Joe’s imported ones.

ON TO THE RECIPE

Whoa! I got carried away there and almost forgot this was a cooking & recipe post! Sorry about that. Here we go…

Banana Piñon Muffins

These muffins are based on a typical banana nut bread recipe, but with piñons added in place of (or in addition to) walnuts, to give it a little New Mexico flair. Usually I add green chile for NM flair, because it’s kind of a no-brainer, but I wasn’t sure it would work in banana muffins. Though, honestly, I really want to try it now.

Ingredients:

1  cup sugar
1/2 cup stick butter, softened
2 large eggs
4 medium ripe bananas, smashed
1/2 c buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 & 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup piñons, or a mix of piñons and walnuts if straight piñons is too spendy

For topping:

1/2 c piñons or mix of piñons and walnuts.
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 medium ripe banana, sliced thin

Method:

  1. Heat oven to 350.
  2. Grease bottoms only of cupcake tins or use paper liners.
  3. Mix sugar, brown sugar, and butter. Stir in eggs until well blended. Add smashed bananas, buttermilk, and vanilla, then beat until well mixed.
  4. Add in flour, baking soda, and salt until moistened, but don’t overmix. Stir in 1 c of nuts.
  5. Fill cupcake tins about 2/3 full.
  6. Stir together topping ingredients except for sliced banana.
  7. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with topping mixture.
  8. Top each muffin with one slice of banana — for looks. 🙂
  9. Bake muffins about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove and eat them all right there on the spot, if you’re me.

 

Banana Pinon Muffins!
Fresh baked Banana Piñon Muffins. A new New Mexico tradition!

And there you have it! One of my favorite things baked into another one of my favorite things. Let me know if you try this recipe! I’d like to hear how you like it.

Enjoy!


BONUS PHOTO: Don’t turn your back on your photo subject if your kid is hungry.

And here's the dish of nuts after my daughter snuck a handful
And here’s the dish of nuts after my daughter snagged a handful