When it wasn’t broken down, we spent a lot of time driving around Mexico in our army green Jeep. And it looked exactly the way you imagine. Windows all the way down so hot wind and an occasional insect circulates and blows your hair like mad. Cracking open a bottle of fizzy beer, either Pacifico or XX. Slowing down for checkpoints where you gaze into the serious dark eyes of an eighteen year old solider who looks like a puppy wielding a slicked up Soviet weapon. Going fast with the last of our reckless youth, out of our country, outside of rules and responsibilities, free in a way we didn’t know we were and never will be again.
And going like this, on crazy trips to cenotes, which are sweet water swimming holes hidden underground, or extant Mayan ruin sites in the middle of the Yucatan peninsula, or to Motul on some odd errand, for nobody ever went to dusty, Robert Rodriguez Motul on a pleasure cruise, we would inevitably get hungry and have to find food. And while a bag of Cheetos Poffs or a Magnum ice cream novelty often sufficed, sometimes we were lured in to one of the roadside operations that qualifies as the middle of nowhere to all the world, except to the four families who live there.
Once, in Valladolid, coming back from the coast, we followed a small man in a large hat around the corner into his mother’s kitchen, where there were two table with plastic floral table clothes and Kangaroo Jack dubbed in Spanish playing on the television set perched high in the corner. The notion that Valladolid exists when I’m not there is staggering. It’s out of a magical realism novel, out of my imagination, out of time and not connected to space, except by internet cafes and Law and Order reruns. It’s vivid nature and pastel buildings and two black-socked German tourists who probably speak better English – and certainly better Spanish – than I do. Once upon a time in Valladolid I had a lunch I really enjoyed.
We ordered tall glasses of agua fresca and horchata and two of whatever was on offer, which we didn’t even bother inquiring after, because once you’re there and sitting, you’re hungry and not going to leave, and they’ll tell you they have something you ask for, but bring you the only thing they have, and it will most likely be mysterious and delicious but every once in a while seem like the remnants of the primordial soup discovered by a British colonial adventure explorer from the 19th Century who found the missing link, bottled it, and left it behind when he lost his mind to syphillus or malaria or elephant stampede. As often is the case in Mexico I was blindly led into bliss. Of course, sometimes you are blindly led into a bad deal on a shitty Jeep by a used car dealer crook named Mister Freddy. Win some, lose some.
It was a leafy green, most likely chaya, which is sort of like spinach and potatoes in a cream sauce. It came in a serving bowl with a stack of tortillas. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to make tacos or eat it like soup with a spoon and the tortillas were for dipping. I sort of awkwardly did both, with totally delicious results. In my effort to recreate that dish from thousands of miles, five years, and one toddler ago, I tried a few different methods and ingredient choices. This version is delicious, perfectly creamy with lots of kale, which I like a lot. You can season it as you like, I think a little heat is nice, honors the original dish and works well with the cream. You could try it with spinach, chard or other leafy greens. The potatoes give the dish some heft, so it stands up as a taco filling. You could also serve it over rice or quinoa, or any other grain you can think of.
- ½ lb kale, washed, stems removed, chopped
- 4 small purple potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 small red onion, diced
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon chipotle powder
- ½ cup sour cream
- ¾ cup Monterey jack cheese, grated
- Tortillas, for serving
- In a large pot, steam kale, 20 minutes until tender. With ten minutes remaining add potatoes. Drain kale and potatoes and set aside. In the same pot heat vegetable oil and butter over medium heat. Saute onions and garlic until translucent, 8-10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and chipotle powder. Return kale and potatoes to the pot. Turn heat down very low or off. Stir in sour cream and Monterey jack cheese. Serve warm with good tortillas.