DD: “How about we host a Valentine’s Day dinner?”
DDW: “And I’ll spend all day cooking and all night serving?”
DD: “How about we host a Valentine’s Day dinner and hire a chef for the evening?”
DDW: “And who might that chef be?”
DD: “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have than Kirsten West.”
DDW: “So what are you waiting for? Call her.”
There are a lot of things I remember about last February’s dinner but my fondest memory, by far, was the soup. It was a soup I’d never had before. And a soup I’ve wanted again ever since that night.
The soup was crema de nuez and pays tribute to a nut native to Northern Mexico. Its habitat actually spreads up into the southwestern U.S., then all the way to Southern Illinois. Its name comes from its most northeastern reaches; it’s from the Algonquian, meaning a nut that requires a stone to crack. In English, it’s called a pecan.
Though it’s doubtful that the habitat of the pecan stretched as far south as San Miguel de Allende, there is a tree in a yard on Calle Recreo that, from its size, could be well over 100 years old which would take it back to the late 19th Century when pecans were first commercially grown. An even older and larger pecan tree was used for all of the floors and cabinetry on the same property.
In Canada, where I grew up, pecans were almost non-existent. I remember them in one of my favorite flavors of ice cream, in the very occasional pecan pie, in a candy called Turtles that was almost as essential a part of my Christmas as Santa, and that was about it.
I think the problem with pecans is walnuts. North of the 49th parallel, pecans were always the underdog. Walnuts always the reigning heavyweight champ.
Pecans made their way into a few recipes. But most of those recipes originated in the United States. And American cuisine has always had problems being accepted outside of its own borders.
Walnuts, on the other hand, were in all of those European recipes. The ones that have been around for centuries. Ones that immigrants brought with them on cardboard cards packed in the bottom of steamer trunks. And the only attention pecans ever received was in lines like “if walnuts aren’t available, pecans may be substituted”.
In Mexico, pecans are called nuez which is confusing because walnuts and sometimes even nuts, in general, are also called nuez. Outside of Mexico, in other Spanish speaking countries, they are called pecanas or pacanas.
In November and December, in San Miguel de Allende’s Tuesday Market, you’ll see a young guy with a wheelbarrow, dancing his way through the aisles, wailing “noooooooooays, noooooooooays”. He not only walks through the market, he walks to the market. He told me the pecans came from trees a few blocks away. But he wouldn’t tell me where.
In another San Miguel market, the Mercado de Artesanias, you’ll find a guy with this funnel shaped, copper cooking device that I’m not sure is a roaster, toaster, or something else altogether. But, whatever it is, it sure makes wonderful sugar coated pecans. The vendor definitely charges tourist prices but his personality is as bubbly as the syrup the pecans are prepared in, making it impossible for me to walk by without buying a bag.
There’s another reason I have a commitment to this man and his pecans for it’s his pecans that caused a little revelation in my life. Up until I had his pecans, I was a died in the wool walnut man. But after I had his pecans, I realized walnuts weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
All I can blame it on was inexperience. And presumptuousness. I just always assumed that walnuts must be better because they were more popular. And I was wrong.
Walnuts and pecans are very similar in taste but there are two differences. Bitter and butter. Walnuts are more bitter. Pecans are more buttery.
I think it was the sweetness and buttery flavor of the pecans that made Kirsten West’s crema de nuez so very good.
Kirsten West’s interest in Mexican cuisine began 29 years ago when she was living in L.A. and decided to go on a 12-day culinary tour of Mexico with Marilyn Tausand’s “Culinary Adventures” where she had some life changing classes with Diana Kennedy, the woman who, today, is considered the person who, almost singlehandedly, put Mexican cuisine on the world map. Diana and Kirsten became friends and colleagues and, it didn’t take long before Kirsten was as hooked on Mexican as Diane.
If Diane Kennedy is the queen of Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless is the crown prince. Kirsten West’s appreciation of Mexican cuisine was culminated when she met Rick Bayless in Oaxaca and, subsequently, spent eight years in Chicago working with him on his PBS television show and testing all of the recipes that went into his book, Mexico, One Plate At A Time.
I didn’t even realize pecans were native to Mexico until the first time I met Kirsten West. She was teaching a class in San Miguel’s Lifelong Learning Program about the origins of foods that were native to the Americas. I recognized on that day that there’s no one I’ve ever met with as much knowledge about the beginnings of the only national cuisine to have world heritage status granted to it by UNESCO.
Kirsten West’s crema de nuez wasn’t the first Mexican soup I’ve had that was made with nuts. Spanish explorers found peanuts in the market when they reached what is now Mexico City and a popular dish in the state of Jalisco is a peanut soup. But that soup includes chiles and the nutty taste is a little lost compared to the rich, full taste of the pecans in the crema de nuez.
The recipe, which Kirsten was kind enough to allow me to share with you, is, in fact, very simple. It’s so simple that I might actually attempt it myself unless, of course, Don Day’s Wife insists on doing it (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
Creamed Pecan Soup
Crema de Nuez
Pecans are indigenous to Mexico and grown extensively in the state of Chihuahua. They are used in an infinite amount of recipes; not only for pies. This delicious soup is a very good example.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, finely grated
1 tomato, grated and strained
8 oz. pecans, finely ground, save a few whole for garnish
6 cups chicken stock, preferably home made
¾ cup crema or sour cream
1 bunch fresh dill or any other herb of your choice for garnish (optional)
Heat the oil in a 4-quart sauce pan over medium heat. Fry the onions until they are translucent, and then add the tomato puree and fry until mixture has thickened. Add the ground nuts and fry quickly for about 30 seconds, then add the chicken stock. Continue cooking on medium heat for an other 10 minutes, then stir in the sour cream and mix well. The soup is ready to serve. Garnish with a whole pecan and the herb of your choice.
Kirsten West is available to conduct cooking classes or cater meals in your home with an emphasis on the best of Mexican cuisine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.