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Grasshoppers and Worms, Oh My

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Steven Ravago stocks the kitchen of his San Diego home with worms. Not ordinary garden worms but dried, smoked gusanos de maguey from Oaxaca that are the secret to his terrific, smoky salsa.

“Everyone says that’s the weirdest ingredient I have,” says Ravago, head chef at Sweet Lew’s Barbeque in La Jolla.

He doesn’t use the worms for his restaurant cooking, of course. At Sweet Lew’s, he confines himself to Southern dishes--catfish fritters, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie and lots of barbecue. Away from the job, however, he switches to Mexican cookery.

“It is vibrant food, festive food. Food made to be shared with others,” he says. “It’s my comfort food.”

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Ravago was born in Los Angeles but traces his family back to the Mexican states of Nayarit and Sonora. One of the best meals he recalls was prepared by his grandmother, Quintina Ravago. “It was simply homemade flour tortillas and refried beans,” he says. “The simple pleasure of that lunch is indelible in my memory. Pure and basic Mexican food. I knew it was the food of the gods.”

Ravago and wife Carole often hop over to Tijuana to market and eat. On vacations, they go deep into Mexico, to Chiapas and Yucatan last year, to Oaxaca the year before.

“When you go down to Oaxaca, you go to the market and the worms are all over the place,” he says. “You can buy them individually or on strings. A string has a good two to three dozen worms attached to it.”

Plucked from maguey cactus plants, the worms either go into bottles of mezcal or into Oaxacan tacos, enchiladas and tamales. Ravago prefers them in salsas. “You grind the worms in a molcajete, add them to the sauce and heat them up a little,” he says. “They add a smoky quality.”

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Ravago has also brought home Oaxacan fried grasshoppers. “I use them for show and tell. I’ve done some things with them, but it’s one of those acquired flavors that I’ve only sort of acquired,” he admits. “Everyone’s very proud of their little farms of grasshoppers down there. They always insist that you try them before you buy them, and so I do--grudgingly.”

At home, he loves to experiment with uncommon Mexican ingredients. He’ll stuff clusters of huauzontle, which is a vegetable form of an ancient Aztec seed crop (Chenopodium) with cubed cheese, dip them in batter and deep fry them, then add a tomato sauce. “It’s a very rustic kind of dish,” he says.

On the fancier side, he steams salmon wrapped in hoja santa leaves and serves it with an orange, ancho chile and pecan sauce. If he has fresh huitlacoche, the truffle-like fungus that grows on corn, he cooks it with onion and epazote leaves and stuffs it into empanadas that he deep-fries and surrounds with a light chipotle chile sauce.

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Or he wraps chicken breasts in squash flowers, sautes the bundles lightly, then bakes them. “I use just basic seasonings for the chicken because I don’t want to overpower the delicacy of the squash blossoms,” he says.

“The sauce depends on my mood. Tomatillo sauce is really quick and easy. That I can just slam out.” (Ravago’s Green Enchilada Sauce appears on H4.)

On the tamer side, his larder includes dried oregano from the municipal market in Merida in the state of Yucatan. “It adds a different flavor, more of a lemony kind of scent,” he says. I use it in tacos or grind it up and add it to eggs in the morning.”

Ravago’s garden yields still more Mexican ingredients, among them Mexican limes. “There’s so much you can do with a Mexican lime--ceviche, margaritas, aguas frescas (fruit drinks) on a hot summer day.” And he has planted banana trees because he needs the leaves to wrap “big, oversized tamales” or chicken legs. Ravago cooks the chicken briefly in guajillo chile sauce, wraps it in banana leaves and foil, then grills it.

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But he cooks simple dishes too, “I take great pride in being able to cook Mexican food that reminds others of their own grandmothers’ cooking,” he says.

“On occasion, I have blown fellow kitchen employees away with flavors they had not tasted in years. I would always swell with pride when someone would tell me that something I had prepared transported them back to their own childhood.”

STEVEN RAVAGO’S RED ENCHILADAS

Steven Ravago, head chef at Sweet Lew’s Barbeque in La Jolla, says any meat can be used in these enchiladas. If you prefer them without meat, substitute queso fresco or Jack or Cheddar cheeses. Either way, try adding Caramelized Onions, which will make the enchiladas some of the best you’ve ever tasted. “The filling can be as simple or involved as you wish,” Ravago says.

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RED SAUCE

10 dried ancho chiles

10 guajillo chiles

2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano

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2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon kosher salt

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3 tablespoons oil or lard

ENCHILADAS

1/2 cup corn oil

12 corn tortillas

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3 cups shredded cooked chicken, beef or pork

2 cups shredded Cheddar, Jack, fontina, havarti or any combination of favorite cheeses

1 bunch green onions, chopped

Caramelized Onions, optional (See recipe on H4)

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1 cup crumbled queso anejo or Parmesan

Sliced black olives, optional

Sliced poblano chiles, optional

Finely diced cooked potatoes, optional

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Mexican crema or sour cream, optional

RED SAUCE

Toast ancho and guajillo chiles on griddle or in skillet on both sides. Do not let skins blacken. Place in bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover bowl and let stand until softened, about 45 minutes. Remove chiles and reserve soaking liquid. Stem and seed chiles. Put in blender, add 2 cups soaking liquid and puree until smooth and thick. Add more soaking liquid if needed. Strain to remove any solid pieces and seeds.

Place oregano, vinegar, sugar, garlic and salt in blender. Add 1 cup strained chile sauce and blend. Add mixture to remaining chile sauce and stir to combine.

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Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add sauce and simmer, stirring constantly, 3 to 5 minutes. Sauce should be of pourable consistency. If too thick, add more soaking liquid. Let stand 10 minutes before using.

ENCHILADAS

Heat oil in small skillet over medium-high heat. Place tortillas, 1 at a time, in hot oil with tongs, frying 2 seconds per side. Tortillas should stay pliable; over-frying will make them tough. Drain on paper towels.

Put 1/2 of chicken, cheese, green onions and Caramelized Onions, if using, down middle of each tortilla. Carefully roll up tortilla around filling and place seam side down in baking dish large enough to hold 12 enchiladas.

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When all are rolled, pour Red Sauce over top. Sprinkle with queso anejo and olives, chiles and/or potatoes if using. Cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving. Top each serving with dollop of crema if desired.

12 enchiladas. Each enchilada without Caramelized Onions, olives, chiles or potatoes:

342 calories; 808 mg sodium; 51 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 2.31 grams fiber.


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