Life Café NYC on Tour –
Turning Chili Under the Sun in Mazarron, Spain, October 2012
The rays of the midday sun still burned hot on my skin, but the usual breeze across the campo felt much colder. Autumn is in the air and on this particular day I got a hankering for the warming taste sensation of Life’s Veggie Chili.
Cool breeze, hot sun. It’s autumn on the Campo
Life’s Veggie Chili was the first hot menu item I served at Life Cafe in 1982 on the corner of 10th Street and Avenue B in the East Village neighborhood of New York City. Chili was cheap to make, warming and healthy. The local bohemians got a cup for 50 cents. And if they had an extra buck, they got it served over short grain brown rice and topped with grated cheddar cheese. The dish was a full protein meal for vegetarians like me and David Life, my husband at the time. I made sure I got the most nutritional buck out of my food staples.
Now in southeast Spain, I examined the list of ingredients for the Chili Paste in the Life Cafe recipe, a vibrant blend of dried chilies and spices. Garlic, Spanish onions, salt, vinegar, oregano, dried thyme – check, check and double check; I had them all. Nada on the whole dried guajillo, puila and ancho peppers. I no longer had the Mexican delis on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn to raid. Instead I travelled to the nearby towns of Totana and Mazarron during market days with John’s sister Ann and Terry his brother-in-law, local residents. Thank heaven for them and their car. And they knew the roads.
Ann and Kathy Life at Market
- Big healthy radishes
John checks out the dried fish at Totana Market, Murcia
Lady locals gossip in front of the olive vendor’s stall
The Moroccan Vegetable Vendor
There is a lot of this fresh and exotic squash
Just picked tangerines, Totana Market
I found the Nora chili, round, fat, glossy dark red. From the Internet I found it’s not hot at all, rather it has a mild, sweet flavor that gives a deep red color to dishes. It’s grown right here in the Murcia region. Now that’s real locavore!
Nora chili on far left
Discovering the Nora chili lead me to Romesco sauce, a classic Catalan condiment originating from Tarragona in Northeastern Spain. Made with roasted tomatoes, nuts, olive oil, vinegar and toasted bread, it’s an accompaniment to all types of dishes, like fire roasted or grilled seafood and vegetables. It also works as a sandwich spread on fresh baguette. I thought how great it would be on Life’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich in place of chipotle mayonnaise.
During Springtime in Catalonia entire towns gather in the public square for a calçotada, an annual flame-licked ritual of grilling calçots (a large spring onion) over an open fire. The sweet alliums are served blackened from the ashes of vine-fed flames. Revelers slide off the charred outside layers and dip the silken centers into Romesco sauce. The Spanish appreciate the life in their food. Take tomatoes for example; slice open a fresh tomato here and the aroma can be orgasmic. So it’s not surprising that tomatoes can drive Spaniards a little crazy. Have a look at this link — it’s enough to put you off your ketchup, or spread it on all over! La Tomatina Festival 2012
Wiping off the tomatoes and putting them back safely into the fridge, I refocused on the Romesco sauce. I just had to make some. The bit of work was worth it. The end product is thick like pesto with the color of rust. The nuts lend it texture and the bread gives body. John couldn’t stop raving about it, saying it was Moorish; spicy and original, a new taste. Try this recipe. It’s one of many variations, and all are good.
Tune in to the next blog to find out what happened to the Spanish version of Life’s Famous Veggie Chili!