“Go on; don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise men to the Divine.”
When I ask the woman at the Paute Domingo Mercado if her tomatoes were sprayed with “quimicos”, she promptly jams her thumb nail into one of the tomatoes. “No”, she shakes her head and wags her finger sideways. The red juice and seeds spurt out over the ground in front of my feet. The tomato looks delicious. She has hundreds of tomatoes and gives me a large black plastic bag full for fifty cents, tomatoes spilling out over the top.
I buy a huge bouquet of cedron, citrus branches, from a very old woman, wrinkled and shrunken with the most beautiful liquid eyes. I put the cedron to my nose, inhale deeply and let out a delicious whooshing sound. She nods approvingly as I tuck the quarter in her extended gnarly hand. Her hand or perhaps her cedron touches a soft spot. I linger on the feeling.
Back in my open air kitchen of screen windows, where it can get as cold as 40 degrees in the winter time (for the Ecuadorian Andes that is cold), the sun has warmed up the glass roof above my head. I am cleaning out the refrigerator before putting in all the fresh vegetables I just bought. The vegetables are all over my kitchen counter as well as on the little round table in and around the geraniums and fuchsias I am growing.
My round table collage looks stunning with deep red small tomatoes, red and black clay bowls, my perfect deep purple eggplant on top of some old potatoes, shrunken yams, lemons from my garden, and long green bell peppers, all nestled into a woven straw basket. The hot peppers, green and red, some fresh, some shriveled, are displayed in a narrow blue tray with delicately hand-painted flowers. Another basket holds the garlic bulbs with their dried yellow stems still attached and large pieces of fresh ginger. Mixed in there is a Jamaica, dry now and dark red, almost black. “This Jamaica flower makes tea good “por los riñónes”, the woman told me at the market. She had shown me where the kidneys were, placing her dirt stained hands behind her back and rubbing her kidneys.
The idea of kidneys has taken a hold of me and I check the freezer to see if I still have a cow bone I can boil up into a bone marrow soup with the left over vegetables. Bone marrow is especially good for the kidneys.
Auguste Escoffier, the legendary French chef of the late 1800s advised any gourmet chef worth his salt to boil the bone for at least 7 hours. This is where my impatience comes in, “ah certainly, 2 hours is enough, see, I can spoon the yellow gloppy bone marrow right out of the two cavities of the bone. It floats in the soup. I decide to wait more, see what happens. I repeatedly check the soup to see if the broth has boiled down. Every half hour or so there is only an inch of liquid with distinct glistening rounds of fat and I have to add water. My modest Mabe Andes stove has its own rules about fires, nothing too subtle please, simmering is not part of her vocabulary. I turn the burner off for a while and let it sit, cool off.
While tending my soup I am listening to classical music streaming from the Internet, but when the music unexpectedly changes its tempo I become hyper and am ready to give up on the broth, not good. This soup takes patience, practice, concentrated effort. I am six hours into it now…the fire under my soup is back on. I feel ready for a nap, I reach for the timer, but then scold myself that I have to bring focus to this mundane task, if I want this soup to be as delicious as I want it to be. No timer. Just stretch my legs on the bed for a little bit, keep my eyes open and nose ready.
At last my broth is done, I pour the contents through a colander, pick out the bone, toss the bone to the Weimaraner dog Bennie, who has come over to check out the smells in my kitchen. He is a big sloppy dog and one side of his lip hangs loosely over the bone in his mouth as he comes over to thank me, nudging his slime on my sleeve. I squeeze out the vegetables to get their flavors into the soup. Later I learn I should not have done that if I had wanted a clear broth. Too late. I sift the broth one more time through a cheese cloth to catch most of the fat. The broth is not clear, not totally pure, but tastes very good. Next time when I make a clarified broth, no vegetables with the bones, and simmering heat only, lest too many impurities are released. I may have to become more seasoned in the practice of patience or perhaps buy a new stove that can simmer.
“Fine, I can try putting in three egg whites and crumpled egg shells, perhaps they will absorb the impurities and fat.” But I only have four eggs and I am not willing to give up my scrambled eggs for the morning. “I can spare one.” As I stir in the egg white and shell, I can readily see that one egg is not enough, although the soup does look less cloudy.
At last I sit down with a fine glass of Chilean white wine, Sauvignon Blanc mixed with Semillon. On the deep blue woven table cloth, sits my bowl of soup. One sip of wine, rest, I carefully taste the soup, once, twice, delicious, DIVINE! I have done it! I made a divine soup with a nearly pure heart.
I can feel my pride sitting on top of my heart as I take another sip. I am vaguely aware this something extra does not sit so well. I am a bit puffed up. I recall what a Zen Buddhist Master Suzuki Roshi once said during the hay days of the late 60s in San Francisco: “if you see the Master coming, run the other way!
After a long day in the kitchen, in the early hours of the evening, the mountains turn into a misty fairy land as they do almost every night. I want to describe it as a Chinese watercolor painting, but that would give those mountains that puffed up “extra” they do not need. The lights down the Uzhupud valley heading towards Cuenca reflect a jewel box sliding lengthwise over the dark earth.