Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Homage to the Capsicum

Unknown, "The Holy Family with Angels", c. 1425
 Catherine de Hueck Doherty concludes the second chapter of My Russian Yesterdays with this simple prayer to Our Lady:

"Mother of Christ,
Keeper of St. Joseph's house,
Heart of all hearths,
Patroness of all wives and mothers,
Give me the grace
To make a home
Wherever I am.

I was particularly struck by the last line of this prayer. As a wife and a mother, what does it mean to "make a home wherever I am?"

We've all heard the trite cliche age-old adage, "Home is where the heart is." Here's my concern about this line of thought: as a wife and mother called to "make a home wherever I am," I must take my heart with me. I cannot leave it behind in a previous place of security (perhaps my childhood home) while I move to another place that I merely occupy. When I accompany my husband into a different, perhaps foreign land, I must go with the intention of making this new place a home.

 This theme of relocation is one of the primary themes in O.E. Rolvaag's tragic novel, Giants in the Earth. In the book, which chronicles one immigrant family's attempt to make a home in young America, the wife of the main character is literally driven insane out of homesickness for her native land. Her initial despondency develops into a brooding sadness, which finally ends in full-blown despair and madness. (Yes, it sounds depressing, but it's an excellent book, I promise.) Although this is an extreme example of what can happen when a woman despairs of her new and perhaps unwanted arrangements, I think it speaks to something that women and men alike may experience when they move to a new place. Your heart doesn't always come with you right away. Sometimes you have to pull it along behind you until it finally catches up.

 We experienced this a bit when we moved from Belgium to Phoenix. And yet in moments of desolation and loneliness, it helped us to remember that this new place was (and is) utterly given. There is a mission for us here, a calling to make a home, for however long that may be. And the Good Lord has given us a great way to accomplish this: Food.

Delicious delights to make you feel truly at home! "Comfort food" in the truest sense! Yes, the Southwest has plenty of unique processed foods to offer, like cactus candy and those cool scorpion lollipops. We like to limit the sugar intake around here, however, so I was thinking more along these lines:

Until a few months ago, I didn't know the difference between a habanero and a jalapeno (weren't they the same thing??) Since then,  I've become a fervent admirer of the Capsicum family (or genus if you want to get technical) and its many varieties. There are 73 in this picture, I believe, and I've only used about six of them, but the experience has been a true culinary revolution. Try this recipe for "Gingerbread-Crusted Apple Tart" from the excellent book, Seasonal Southwest Cooking. It might look like your typical apple pie at first glance, but the addition of just one serrano pepper and a teaspoon of chile powder makes it truly distinctive...and perhaps the best apple pie we've ever tasted.


Gingerbread-Crusted Apple Tart
 From "Seasonal Southwest Cooking," by Barabara Pool Frenzl


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon molasses
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces and chilled
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water


4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 serrano chile, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon


1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup whole toasted almonds
1/3 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, cut in 1 inch pieces and chilled

To Make the Crust:

The book recommends using a food processor, which is an excellent tool, but for pie crusts I personally prefer to do it by hand. Regardless of the method you choose,  simply mix the flour, sugar, salt, ginger, chile powder, and cinnamon together. Cut or process the butter and molasses into this mixture until you have coarse crumbs. Add just enough cold water to bind the ingredients without making the dough sticky. Transfer the dough onto a floured surface and knead it just until it comes together. Chill the dough for at least an hour, then roll it out into a 13-inch circle and transfer to a pie pan. The book recommends using an 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. I used a springform cheesecake pan and it worked just fine. Chill the crust while you make the filling and topping. You'll also want to preheat the oven at this point to 375 degrees.

To Make the Filling:

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.

To Make the Topping:

Process all the ingredients except the butter until the nuts are finely chopped. Or, if you don't have a food processor, you can do it caveman-style and place all the nuts in a plastic zipper baggie, then pound them with a heavy object. Add the butter and process or cut it into the mixture until you have pea-sized pieces.

Put the filling in the crust and spoon the topping on top of it. Bake about 45 minutes or until the crust and topping are brown and the apples are tender. Cool for 15 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and serve with whipped cream or ice cream (the book recommends cinnamom, which would be amazing, but we served it with vanilla and it was delicious). Makes about 12 servings.

This pie is delicious. I'm sure it would be amazing without the peppers, but if you want the real experience, DO NOT OMIT THE PEPPER OR THE CHILE POWDER. You will not be disappointed.

Now we use chiles in our menu most nights of the week and have enjoyed several recipes, like chicken mole as well as a delicious chili recipe made with beef round, tomatillos and roasted Anaheims and poblanos. A few nights ago I made a posole with chicken and tomatillos, which used another new ingredient for our family (hominy), as well as tomatillos and Cotija cheese. Oh, and canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce have become our new best friend. In short, the dear Capsicum family has proven to be a tried-and-true kitchen  companion out here in the Valley of the Sun. Perhaps pepper farming is in our future...


  1. Nice post. I think that it took ten whole years to retrain my heart to be content with living in Phoenix. I really like that prayer to Mary.

  2. Thank you for the comment Cordelia. It seems like Phoenix is an acquired taste for many people! We've really come to love it here though. I'm glad you like the prayer--the book is also wonderful if you aren't already familiar with it! It's a quick read but has some great insights and meditations on motherhood and the family.
    Enjoy the beautiful Phoenix weather (while it lasts)!