Most of the 13 cookbooks represented in Vintage California Cuisine are rudimentary, to put it politely. El Cocinero Español (The Spanish Cook), California’s first Spanish language cookbook, published in San Francisco in 1898 by Encarnación Pinedo, is a notable exception.
Pinedo was a descendant of one of the leading Spanish-Mexican families that had settled in California long before the American era. By the time she published her book a half century after statehood, California’s pre-American past was nearly forgotten, and many of the Anglo newcomers were dismissing and denigrating her people’s rich culinary heritage. Pinedo returned their condescension in kind. As she declared in the introduction to her cookbook, “There is not a single English chef who is a master, and their foods and seasonings are the most insipid and tasteless to be found anywhere.” She gave Anglo-Americans backhanded credit for at least trying to upgrade their skills in the kitchen. Culinary schools had recently been established in England and in the United States, Pinedo noted, but to date “not with a very flattering result.”
With recipes such as the one I tested today, Almond Sauce for Hen, Pinedo backed up her trash talking with a masterpiece. Out of the 1,000-plus recipes in her book, I chose this one for inclusion in the representative sample of 30 that I reprinted in Vintage California Cuisine, on the advice of my Spanish friend, Susan Branyas, of Barcelona, who helped with some of the translations. I sent her photocopies of dozens of recipes from the Spanish language original, and this was “the most incredible” of them all, in her estimation. Here it is:
Hen with Almond Sauce
Put the stock used for cooking the hen in a saucepan. Add sliced tomatoes, garlic, slices of peeled and cored pineapple, chorizo sausage, a tablespoon of vinegar, raisins, almonds, small pickled chile peppers [chilitos], salt, pepper and the de-boned pieces of hen.
Source: El Cocinero Español (1898)
Typically light on detailed guidance, the recipe left me to guess about quantities, and about how to prepare some of the ingredients. This is how I chose to make the dish: I simmered the pieces of one small chicken in water to make the stock, of which I used about three cups. (I’ll start with less stock next time, since I ended up with a perfectly delicious soup but not a sauce.) I added half a pineapple, sliced, and roughly matched that in quantity with five sliced Roma tomatoes. I used a six-ounce piece of chorizo. As for the raisins, knowing that they would swell up and just sit there unattractively at the bottom of the stew, I opted for relatively few: about two tablespoons.
In retrospect, I was much too light with the almonds. I went with a quarter cup of almond slices and — just to see how differently-prepped nuts would behave — another quarter cup of sliced almonds that I pounded into crumbs. In a recipe with almonds in the title, I should have used at least twice as much, and I should have ground the entire one cup-plus of almonds so that they would be better incorporated in the sauce. I’ll do that next time, when I try this again upon my return to my home in Philadelphia, and I will report here on Almond Sauce for Hen, Take 2.
To finish the stew this time, I let all the sauce ingredients simmer for half an hour or so. As expected, neither the pineapple slices, nor the raisins, nor the sliced almonds were breaking down, and since I wanted a smooth blend of all of those flavors, I decided to run about half of the sauce through a blender before returning it to the pot. Finally, I added the deboned chicken and simmered it all for another 15 minutes or so.
The unanimous verdict here at Sara and Michael’s place in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles: this dish is off-the-charts fabulous! Even my mostly-vegetarian daughter Sara couldn’t disagree, though she says she would like to see a version without the strong infusion of chorizo flavors and the accompanying velvety sheen of grease.