Remember, pre-Whole Foods, when there were health food stores? Shops, usually on the small side, that carried unusual things you didn’t see in the regular grocery stores like countless bulk bins of oats, nubby whole wheat flours, nuts and everything “chocolate” was actually made from the always disappointing carob. You were sure to see some tie dye, several pairs of Birkenstocks and a machine that ground peanuts into fresh peanut butter was tucked in a corner. In my younger days, freshly ground nut butters fell squarely into that “good for you” category which was an automatic strike against it’s character (refer back to carob). I never cared much for it and the requisite oil slick on top then but I’ve come to the realization that the Skippy of my youth is no longer my favorite. (Except for peanut butter cookies. Nothing makes a better cookie than creamy Skippy.) These days, I actually seek out these machines and now I even grind my own nut butters. Whoa. I’ve come a long way baby.

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Ah, pears. So fragrant, so delicious, so damn hard to find. Yes, I know, pears are everywhere. I see them too but where are the good ones? Huh? The ones that are heavy for their size, which you can smell 20 feet away, the ones where you bite into them and juice runs down your arm? Not so easy to find, are they? It’s a common dilemma with fruit these days. The farmer’s market is a sure bet but like peaches, you have to hit them just right. It’s certainly possible but it’s a roll of dice. Blink and you missed them. Grocery stores, unless you are very very lucky, are nearly always a miss. They arrive unripe and they stay that way. I am beyond tired of flavorless, hard, mealy pears. Be they Barlett, Anjou, Bosc, Comice or the adorable Forelle, chances are good they’re mediocre. The best possible solution is grown your own but few have that option. So I’ve come up with a better idea. Find someone with a tree. Which is exactly what I did. I highly recommend this option.

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This recipe started out as crackers. I had quite a bit of cotija cheese left from a prior recipe and given that it’s a bit similar to parmesan, I thought to make a cheese cracker. An ever so slightly sweet, crisp wheat cracker spiked with some heat – a Mexican inspired Wheat Thin of sorts. The thing is, the idea was solid but what came out of the oven? Not so much. Though the friends I hoisted my experiments onto disagreed, I thought they were too crispy, too bland and too blah. They liked them but I didn’t think they were quite right and I wasn’t sure how to fix what I saw as the problem. Which was everything. So I gave up and changed direction. You have to know when to throw in the towel on occasion.

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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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