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Saints in the Kitchen

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Esperanza Diaz has a problem with her chipotle chicken. Whenever she makes it, something goes wrong. Sometimes she puts in too much cream, sometimes she forgets the onions and sometimes she doesn’t remember to remove the chile seeds.

“I can never get that sauce right,” Diaz complains on the second page of the novel “Esperanza’s Box of Saints” by Los Angeles author Maria Amparo Escandon.

Escandon, an avid cook, makes no such mistakes. Her rendition of the dish is masterful. The chicken is covered with a lush pale orange sauce lightly flavored with fiery, smoky chipotles. To make it handsomer, she sprinkles the sauce with toasted sesame seeds and slim dark red rings cut from dried California chiles.

Of course, that assumes she can find the time, which is rare these days. “Esperanza’s Box of Saints,” her first novel, became an almost instant bestseller earlier last year. It follows a young Mexican woman as she searches for a daughter who may have been abducted.

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Escandon wrote the novel in English and translated it into Spanish. The English version was published by Simon & Schuster. The Spanish-language edition, titled “Santitos,” is distributed by Bantam Doubleday Dell. Escandon also wrote the screenplay for the film “Santitos,” which was shown recently in Los Angeles.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Escandon lives in West Los Angeles with her husband and two children. Under normal circumstances, she teaches a quarterly seminar on the magical realist literary style for UCLA Extension. That, like cooking, is temporarily on hold.

Just before leaving on a business trip to New York and Mexico recently, Escandon did find time to make a couple of dishes based on the novel.

She carried Esperanza’s chicken to a dining room table set in formal Mexican style. Outside, another table showed off hand-painted Talavera plates from Puebla, tin place mats from Oaxaca and green-and-blue stemware from Guadalajara. Here, Escandon placed a large black molcajete filled with fresh tomatillo-cilantro salsa. Slices of queso fresco and avocado, arranged at one side, were meant to be eaten with the salsa, taco-style. This was Soledad’s Cheese Appetizer, named for another character in the novel.

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Early in the film, Esperanza is seen grinding this sauce in an overflowing blender. At that moment, she spots the image of San Judas Tadeo (St. Jude) in her oven door. The saint dispatches her on a search that leads from her home in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, to Tijuana and Los Angeles.

San Judas appears again when she bakes stuffed chicken breasts, and again when she prepares baked potatoes with cream and ham.

“Esperanza’s search is a very intimate search. What is the most intimate, warm place in the house? It’s the kitchen, the oven,” says Escandon, “so that is where he decided to appear.”

Culinary references are scattered throughout the book, although it is not as food-intensive as Laura Esquivel’s novel “Like Water for Chocolate” and contains no recipes.

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“The emphasis is on everyday life, which includes food,” says Escandon. “In Mexico, meals are major stuff. Breakfast is big. Lunch is big. Dinner is the least one. They eat bread with hot chocolate. That’s it.”

And so the characters in “Esperanza’s Box of Saints” share a tamarind soda, eat avocado ice cream, rely on chicken breasts with garlic to ease a hangover, enjoy stuffed crabs at Esperanza’s wedding in Tlacotalpan, eat chiles en nogada in Los Angeles, and chicken with salsa, rice and an egg on top in Tijuana.

There is plenty of such food in Escandon’s home, a bright yellow structure with the ambience of Mexico. Patios and exuberant gardens surround the house. A wall of the light, airy dining room is covered with family photographs that reach back generations. The men seated in one photo include Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico for 30 years, and Escandon’s great-grandfather, Ramon Corral, who was vice president under Diaz. Look closely and you can see a bullet hole in the photograph, put there by revolutionaries who shot up Corral’s home. (Corral had fled to Paris.)

Escandon, who lived in Mexico City until she was 24, cooks only Mexican food.

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“That’s what I really like,” she says. It’s a matter of necessity too. “I have always had a hard time finding a good Mexican restaurant in town. Even in New York you get better Mexican restaurants.”

Escandon finds this hard to understand. “The Mexican cuisine is one of the most diverse. Every region of the country has very rich cuisine.”

Cooking was not a priority in her family. “My mother didn’t cook,” she says. “I think I just reacted to that, you know how some kids do exactly opposite what their parents did. I just started liking it.”

One of her specialties is breakfast. “When I have meetings with people, I like to invite them for breakfast,” she says. The main dish might be huitlacoche omelet, or huevos rancheros topped with mole and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, or migas--tortillas cut into squares and fried (“like little corn chips”), then mixed with scrambled eggs and topped with fresh salsa. Another breakfast special is chicharron, broken into tiny pieces and heated in a tomatillo salsa much like that in Soledad’s appetizer.

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Esperanza’s chipotle chicken is a party dish. Escandon would serve it with white rice, shaped in a cup and turned out onto the plate, and asparagus. There would be wine too: “Merlot, definitely.” And, for dessert, Kahlua poured over vanilla ice cream sprinkled with almonds lightly browned in butter. “It’s delicious,” she says.

Escandon stages a large party once a year, engaging a musical trio and caterer. Although her time is limited, she manages to cook for an occasional dinner party.

“This past year, I’ve been traveling so much. Every time I am in town I like to invite people--no more than six. I don’t like to make a big party,” she says. “I enjoy much more the intimacy of a small group. And I only have six chairs in my dining room.”

Soledad’s Cheese Appetizer

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Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 15 minutes * Vegetarian

Use 1 jalapeno for mild salsa, 2 for medium and 3 for hot.

12 tomatillos, peeled

4 cloves garlic

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1 to 3 jalapenos

1 bunch cilantro

Salt

2 avocados

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1 (6-ounce) package queso fresco

2 dozen small corn tortillas

* In a molcajete or food processor, grind together tomatillos, garlic, jalapenos to taste and cilantro to make chunky salsa. Do not over-mix. Add salt to taste.

* Pit avocados and slice into thin strips. Crumble cheese into large chunks. Gently add avocados and cheese to salsa. (Alternatively, cut cheese into wedges and serve with avocado slices alongside salsa.)

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6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings: 351 calories; 338 mg sodium; 11 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 44 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 4.06 grams fiber.

Esperanza’s Chipotle Chicken

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 50 minutes

6 whole chicken legs

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3 tablespoons oil

1/2 cup milk

1 cup Mexican crema

1 to 3 canned chipotle chiles

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Salt

1/4 cup chicken broth

2 dried California chiles

3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

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Warmed corn tortillas

* Cook chicken in oil in skillet over medium heat until browned, 6 to 8 minutes each side. Cook in batches, if necessary. Remove skin and set chicken aside in Dutch oven.

* Combine milk, 1/2 cup crema, chipotles to taste and salt to taste in heavy saucepan. Bring to boil. Pour into blender and blend until smooth. Pour sauce over chicken and cook over low heat 15 to 20 minutes, turning once. Add remaining 1/2 cup crema and chicken broth, and cook 5 minutes longer, or until cooked through, gently mixing sauce.

* When ready to serve, place chicken on heated platter. With scissors, cut California chiles crosswise into thin rings, discarding seeds. Sprinkle chicken with sesame seeds and decorate with chile rings. Accompany with tortillas.

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6 servings. Each serving, without tortillas: 421 calories; 164 mg sodium; 93 mg cholesterol; 38 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0.31 gram fiber.

Ice Cream With Kahlua

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 5 minutes

1 teaspoon butter

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2 tablespoons slivered almonds

2 scoops vanilla ice cream

2 tablespoons Kahlua

* Melt butter in small skillet over medium-low heat. Add almonds and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes.

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* Spoon each scoop ice cream into wide dessert glass with footed bottom. Top each scoop with 1 tablespoon Kahlua and 1 tablespoon nuts.

2 servings. Each serving: 217 calories; 70 mg sodium; 30 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber.


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