When Greens Cafe opened in the mid eighties, one of our signature dishes was grilled chicken breasts with tomatillo sauce. We made the sauce by chopping onions, tomatillos and cilantro, which we blitzed with cumin, salt and chicken stock. It was good and tasty, but, I later realized, a little one-dimensional.
Years later, while traveling in the Yucatán, Ionah and I had a memorable Sunday lunch in Mérida, in a grand but crumbling old colonial hotel, with toucans and giant palms in the dining room, which was a kind of exotic bird house open to the sky. I kept my hat on and she wore a colorful scarf.
We had been surviving on budget lunches like shark tacos, sopa de lima and street food, and staying in cheap hotels, one of which turned out to be a brothel, where the staff looked tired, overworked, overlaid and underpaid, but everyone was nice, even if we were a bit out of our realm..
It was a Sunday : the banks were closed and we found ourselves dangerously low on cash, and then we discovered that all the visa machines in Mérida had mysteriously gone down. Fortunately, in those days, I carried an Amex card, and after much searching, we found this one hotel, the one with the toucans, that accepted the card. The place had suffered the ravages of time — it exuded a sense of decrepit, noble elegance. We checked in and showered with minimal water pressure, walked down to the dining room and sat under a massive fan and settled in for Sunday lunch.
After a fish soup pleasantly cluttered with bones and shells and an eye that I spied and promptly ate, I had Pipian de Pavo: turkey— free range; no question about it, simmered in a complex pumpkin seed sauce. They called it pipian rojo. It was a deep, dark red, almost black sauce, made from various dried chiles, pumpkin seeds, achiote and thickened with masa. It was sublime, and, it was my introduction to the world of squash seed sauces.
We splurged on a Spanish Rioja and finished with coconut ice cream. We sipped on little cups of mescal and coffee while watching two elderly toucans in what appeared to be a food fight. We needn’t have worried, I found out it’s how they play around, tossing scraps back and forth—a coquettish thing.
The Lucas de Galvas central market in Mérida, a mind expanding place, sold all kinds of squash seeds, dried chiles, black chile paste, red chile paste and achiote — the red seasoning paste made from annatto seeds, and I brought a sampling of all of these home.
I still make variations of pipian; it can be time-consuming, but then so is binge watching your television — we cancelled our Netflix account — so, I’ll make a pipian rojo soon. But, if I have an hour and I want to invite the aromas and charm of Mérida into the house, I find myself more often than not making the green version, pipian verde. It doesn’t have the complexity of the pipian rojo, as I use fresh green chiles instead of the more flavorful dried red ones, but it’s still a fine sauce worthy of attention, and it takes, as I say, maybe an hour to make.
Traditionally, it was seasoned with the local sour plums, called ciruala, AKA Spanish plum, but now everybody uses the tomatillo to give the sour edge. And it works especially well with pork, chicken and fish dishes.
And with camping season upon us, why not poach a chicken at home, cool it down over night and pack it, and the pepian verde, and bring beans, bring tortillas, and bring them all to the fire. Grill the chicken on the coals, bring the pipian to a bubble, warm the beans, fry the tortillas in fat, grill a few spring onions and while this is happening, consider a simple side salad: shred some cabbage, a couple of radishes, douse with fresh lime and sprinkle with salt. Simultaneously anticipate and appreciate the approaching feast.
6 Anaheim chile peppers, charred on an open flame, steamed in a bag, peeled and deseeded.
1 pound tomatillos, charred (without oil) on a hot and heavy skillet, steamed in a bag, peeled.
1/2 a large peeled onion, same as above
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped, including the stems
a few peeled garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
a pinch of dried oregano, or a couple of sprigs of fresh
1/2 cup of raw pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted
1 cup, or more of chicken stock or water.
2 tablespoon of coconut oil and a dash of soy sauce.
Salt to taste.
Prepare the chiles, tomatillos and onion.
Chop the cilantro.
Toast and grind the cumin seeds.
Toast the pumpkin seeds.
Blend everything together, in batches if necessary, adding stock as needed.
Heat a big enough skillet to hold the sauce, and when it’s mighty hot, pour it in. Brace yourself: It’ll have a fit— it’ll sizzle, bounce and spit. Never mind, talk back to it, stir it up, calm it down, lower the heat and walk away. Simmer nice and slow with an occasional stir, until time passes, like 30—40 minutes?