It’s officially October, which means it’s time for the annual Unprocessed October Challenge. Coming off the wanton abandonment that is the summer months, full of travels and adventures and an appetite to match, my eating habits need some firm redirection. It’s little things that creep up on me, mainly due to sheer exhaustion and a whole lot of laziness. The irony of being a professional cook is that what you do all day for other people leaves you little energy and interest in doing it for yourself. Take out, delivery, drive thrus and shortcuts become the bane of our existence. Because shortcuts are easier and that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? A multi-billion dollar food industry is built upon that very premise. So I take this month to get things back on track, especially before the holidays hit and things go off the rails again.

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For the last few weeks, the deep purple elongated prune plums have been hanging out quietly on the farmer’s market tables. I always buy a big bag and think of the things I’ll make. Cakes mainly, of all varieties – upside down, almond batter, brown sugar glazed but maybe also a lovely French inspired custard tart, studded with a shingle of plum slices that ooze their crimson juices in the oven. My enthusiasm, though great, is often tempered by my ability to lose track of things. While I keep a running inventory in my head, I am often distracted, miscalculating the time I actually have available to make such things. I also have this fabulous habit of forgetting where I put things. I’m telling you, those refrigerator produce drawers are a hazard. It’s a wormhole in there. With the latest plums, I made a skillet cake and promptly forgot that I stashed the rest in that damn drawer, next to the miso I’ll never get around to using but keep because maybe, I just might. A week later, I found those plums in surprisingly good shape with a heady aroma but they needed to be used pronto. A small amount of jam or fruit butter was in my near future.

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In my previous post, I extolled the virtues of machaca, a Mexican shredded beef of which I am inordinately fond. My standard plan when visiting family in Phoenix, is to stop by my favorite restaurant for a machaca chimichanga. The beef is no better than in a giant deep-fried burrito sauced with both fiery red and green chili sauces and sour cream, known as “Christmas style” in those parts. It is one of my favorite things of all time. While the beef is a fairly do-able thing to pull off in a home kitchen, deep-frying a giant burrito at home has never appealed to me. There are very few things I deep fry at home – chicken, egg rolls and a packzi or two are the occasional exceptions and a single chimichanga will not be added to that list anytime soon. When the machaca craving hits and December is months away what I’ll now do instead is whip up a batch of machaca enchiladas. Very delicious and a bit easier to pull off.

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I grew up in Phoenix and though I’ve now lived in Chicago for a good long while, my ideas of Mexican food were formed early in that hot, desert community at a lot of small mom & pop corner restaurants. “Our” Mexican food was influenced from the northern part of the country, just south of our Arizona borders, with a lot of local specialties thrown in. Say what you will about pollo fundito, a sort of square fried chicken burrito in a jalapeno cream cheese sauce that’s never seen the light of day in Mexico, but it’s pretty delicious and something with which every Phoenician is familiar and I’ll take a cheese crisp with green chilies over an ordinary quesadilla any day.

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Like most cooks, I often have to come up with things on the fly often in a teaching situation. You plan one thing weeks in advance then show up to teach a class and everything that can possibly go wrong does. Ingredients weren’t purchased. The oven is broken. No one shows up. Or better yet, everyone shows up and brings a friend. One night it was a perfect storm of a few of these things and I had to come up with a quick and easy vegetable dish to fill out the menu that didn’t use the now defunct oven. I found a large bag of zucchini in fridge, purchased for the next days classes, so I took them. With minimal effort they became grilled zucchini with a garlicky lemon gremolata for a crowd. The idea was pulled from somewhere in the deep archives of my brain; maybe I read it somewhere, maybe I even ate it somewhere. Regardless, I had the ingredients on hand, it was delicious and it worked. It worked so well in fact, I made it frequently after that night, both in classes and for myself.

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The best laid plans sometimes go wonky. I have been planning on making a raspberry pie for years. No joke, for years, yet somehow I never quite get to it. This year was going to be different. I was determined that this was going to happen. Not surprisingly like many things in my life, I was waylaid by the unexpected. Last week a crazy good bargain up-ended my plans faster than you can say “poor sentence structure”. While driving by a favorite produce market where I’ve found some good deals in the past, I noticed a curious display outside the store under a tent. Oh the telltale boxes of something good for cheap! It’s something I can never resist and in this case it was blackberries. Big, fat, sweet and uncommonly good blackberries and only 99 cents for a whole flat. Keep in mind that a whole flat is 16 half pints. For less than a buck. Mine! All mine! If I had more space in my freezer I would have bought a few but I showed uncharacteristic restraint and purchased only one. I will regret it later; this much is true.

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All right. If you’ve been reading along the last few weeks, you know that my little garden plot has been rather prolific this summer on the tomato front. A steady 3-5 pounds have made their way home each week and I’ve been plugging along, making all kinds of things. This week I have a two-fer; two final tomato recipes for the season. Two recipes that are easy, delicious, perfectly do-able for a quick weeknight dinner and highlight what’s best about these late season tomatoes. So get in there while the going is still good and all these amazing tomatoes are still hanging around the markets. They’ll be gone before we know it.

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