Ahead of its time

EncarnaciĆ³n Pinedo profiled the food of the Californios. Above, fava beans with lettuce. (Ken Hively / LAT)

The menu is sophisticated and unusual — fish stuffed with cinnamon-spiced ground nuts, fresh fava beans cooked with lettuce and ham, corn pudding and, for dessert, tuberose ice cream. The latest at a trendy fusion cafe? No — it's Old California cuisine, as revealed in an intriguing historic cookbook, recently republished by University of California Press.

Recipes for these and other contemporary-sounding dishes such as chiles rellenos filled with vegetables or pork chops cooked with white wine, mushrooms and basil, appear in "Encarnación's Kitchen" (University of California Press; $24.95).

Translated from Spanish by Dan Strehl, who also edited the recipes, the book, one of a series on California food and culture, was originally published in San Francisco in 1898 as " El Cocinero Español" ("The Spanish Cook"). It is, Strehl says, the first cookbook written by a Latino in the U.S.

Strehl, a co-founder (with the Los Angeles Times' Charles Perry) of the Culinary Historians of Southern California and manager of the Frances Howard Goldwyn Hollywood Regional Branch library, wrote the introduction, and there is also an introductory essay on the author and her times by Victor Valle, director of the American communities program at Cal State L.A. and professor of ethnic studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

The author, Encarnación Pinedo, who lived in Santa Clara, profiled the cuisine of the Californios, Spanish-speaking settlers who lived, and ate, very well until Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848. After that, the Californios lost status as their property and political influence declined. The recipes, which blend European and Mexican ingredients and techniques, reflect the taste of a well-educated woman of some means. "It was a more elevated and thoroughly thought-out cuisine than people would assume," Strehl says.

Pinedo made sandwiches with foie gras, stewed thrushes with truffles and Champagne and stuffed hens with a sweetened mixture of raisins, almonds and cheese that she seasoned with orange blossom water. Her recipes include albóndigas (meatballs) using hard cooked eggs rather than meat; quail pie, and grilled fish smoked with bay leaves.

Pinedo's food is light, fresh and sophisticated, very different from the heavy, sauce-laden plates served in Mexican restaurants in California today.

Familiar dishes have different twists, such as a steamed tamale pie, which Pinedo describes as the ultima novedad (latest thing); chilaquiles made with dried shrimp, and a mole sauce that consists mainly of ground pine nuts, walnuts, almonds and sesame seeds along with pasilla chiles.

More than a collection of recipes, the book gives a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of a vanished segment of California society.

Fruit, vegetables, herbs

Strehl theorizes that Pinedo, who never married, may have remained single to care for her widowed mother, as was customary. A photograph shows her as a pleasant-faced, buxom woman in a voluminous dress that sweeps to a bustle.

"Pinedo's 'Cocinero' documents the start of California's love affair with fruits and vegetables, fresh edible flowers and herbs, aggressive spicing and grilling over native wood fires," writes Valle in his essay.

Strehl chose not to tamper with historical accuracy by adapting the recipes to a modern kitchen. So although he has provided a glossary that explains unfamiliar ingredients and techniques, working with the recipes as published can be daunting, because Pinedo often omitted measures and was vague about procedures. Cooks of her era would have known how to fill in the gaps.

But even so, some of her recipes can be interpreted quite successfully. Knowing that fruit sauces with chicken and meat are common in Mexico, for example, I tried Pinedo's fresh pineapple sauce for chicken and found it to be absolutely wonderful if made with ripe, sweet pineapple.

The book offers a few recipes for salt cod — bacalao in Spanish. I gave one a try and was surprised by the great flavor. But I had to tinker with the sauce, adding many more tomatoes than Pinedo had specified. This sort of adjustment is necessary for many of the recipes.

I've always used oil to fry raw rice for "Mexican" rice, but Pinedo used butter, and the flavor is much richer. Pinedo titled this dish arroz guisado a la española (stewed Spanish rice) and attributed many other dishes to Spain. Perhaps it made them seem more elite — but her frijoles colorados a la española are simply beans cooked with lard.

Pinedo's recipe for pudín de naranja (orange pudding) puzzled me because it called for a "biscuit cake," to be pulverized into crumbs to thicken the pudding. Not having any idea what a 19th century biscuit cake was, I tried out Mexican pan dulce (sweet bread), choosing rolls that were plain, not filled or frosted. It took a couple of tries to get it right, but the delicate pudding, flavored with tangerine peel, was delectable and earned raves from tasters. I've added it to the menu for an upcoming dinner party.

An expert cook and devoted aunt, Pinedo filled her book with useful advice on what she called "a woman's work" but skips over her family's turbulent history, which is recorded in Valle's introduction.

Not the least modest about its merits, Pinedo said of her book, "its like has never been brought to light, so explicit, complete and compendious." Her intent was not to promote herself but to spark more interest in the art of cookery, which in her era was taken seriously only by "young women of a humble and poor lineage."