Romance of the rancho

Times Staff Writer

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 "Encarnacion'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 Espanol" ("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, Encarnacion 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 albondigas (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 espanola (stewed Spanish rice) and attributed many other dishes to Spain. Perhaps it made them seem more elite -- but her frijoles colorados a la espanola are simply beans cooked with lard.

Pinedo's recipe for pudin 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."


Chicken with pineapple sauce

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from "Encarnacion's Kitchen."

1 ripe pineapple

2 tablespoons oil, divided

1 slice white bread

2 large cloves garlic, peeled

3/4 pound Roma tomatoes, peeled

1 (2 1/2 - to 3-inch) cinnamon stick

6 whole cloves

1 cup water

2 teaspoons salt

6 chicken legs with thighs (about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds)

1. Trim off the top and bottom of the pineapple. Remove the skin and cut into quarters. Cut away and discard the center core, then cut the quarters into 1-inch slices.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a Dutch oven. Add the bread and cook until browned, about 1 minute on each side, then remove from the pan. In the same pan, roast the garlic until browned.

3. Combine the tomatoes, pineapple, browned bread and garlic in a blender container or food processor and blend (in batches if necessary) until smooth.

4. Using a spice grinder or a coffee grinder dedicated to spices, grind the cinnamon stick and cloves to a powder.

5. Heat the remaining oil in the same Dutch oven. Add the pineapple mixture, the ground spices, water and salt. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.

6. Wash the chicken legs, remove the fat and most or all of the skin. Add them to the sauce and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Uncover and simmer 30 minutes longer. If the sauce seems thin, remove the chicken and keep it warm. Boil the sauce for a few minutes until slightly reduced.

7. Spoon a generous amount of sauce over each serving of chicken and accompany with rice.

Each serving: 296 calories; 28 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 13 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 94 mg. cholesterol; 885 mg. sodium.


Pudin de naranja

Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Adapted from "Encarnacion's Kitchen." Pan dulce, sweet Mexican bread, is available in Latino bakeries and groceries. You may also use a firm dry cake for making crumbs.

Peel from 1/4 mandarin orange or tangerine

1/2 cup plus 1/4 teaspoon sugar, divided

4 cups milk

1 cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons softened butter plus more for preparing the baking dish

3 egg yolks

2 cups fine crumbs from day-old pan dulce or cake

1/3 cup raisins

1/4 cup slivered almonds, chopped

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a glass 7- by 11-inch baking dish.

2. Finely chop together the citrus peel and one-fourth teaspoon sugar. Set aside 1 tablespoon of the peel mixture for this recipe. Save the rest for another use.

3. Combine the milk, remaining sugar and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in the butter.

4. Place the egg yolks in a small bowl and beat with a fork to break up yolks. Gradually beat in some of the hot milk mixture, then return all of the combined egg and milk mixture to the saucepan. Remove the cinnamon stick and add the crumbs, raisins, almonds and peel mixture and stir to mix evenly.

5. Pour into the baking dish and bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Serve warm.

Each serving: 209 calories; 5 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 10 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 87 mg. cholesterol; 62 mg. sodium.


Fresh fava beans with lettuce

Total time: 35 minutes

Servings: 2

Note: Adapted from "Encarnacion's Kitchen." Fresh favas must be shelled and hulled. To hull, blanch them in salted boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain, then peel each bean.

1 cup shelled, hulled fresh fava beans (1 pound whole favas)


6 cups (about 1/2 head) romaine lettuce cut into 2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon oil

2 tablespoons finely chopped onions

1 small garlic clove, finely diced

3 tablespoons ham, diced small

1/2 cup chicken broth


1. Pour several inches of water into a medium-sized skillet and heat to a simmer. Add the fava beans and one-half teaspoon salt and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in the chopped lettuce and cook for 2 more minutes. Pour the beans and lettuce into a colander, drain and set aside.

2. Wipe out the skillet and add the oil. Cook the onions, garlic and ham on medium heat for 2 minutes, then add the chicken broth, fava beans and lettuce. Bring to a simmer and cook until most of the broth has evaporated, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; serve immediately.

Each serving: 175 calories; 11 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 12 mg. cholesterol; 243 mg. sodium.

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