By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by Kristina Wolter
Throughout my childhood, I spent every Tuesday night with my grandmother in her enchanting El Paso home. It was like a vacation to a faraway land. Her pink pueblo-style home had a dramatic three-story-high stained glass window depicting a yucca shooting its flower stalk into the sky against purple mountains. Dark wooded floors, Navajo rugs, ornately carved furniture and a staircase with a wrought-iron railing offset the stucco walls adorned with paintings by Santa Fe masters. And collections of handblown Mexican glass, worldly treasures and volumes of books from every genre lined shelves in the rooms.
But it was the kitchen that especially captivated me. Its Saltillo floor tiles were burnished from wear, and the countertop was laid with a vivid pattern of cobalt and orange Talavera tiles. An open shelf showcased Mexican earthenware pottery like cazuelas (casserole dishes), a bean pot and even a pot shaped like a fat chicken. Grandma’s kitchen was such a departure from the Formica, linoleum and lace found in many kitchens of that era.
We often ate in what Grandma called the “taproom” (or cantina)—a small room nestled off of the kitchen where a cuckoo clock reminded us what time to gather around the polished copper-topped table with wooden legs carved with flowers. There, Grandma introduced me to foods not often served in El Paso; my favorite was the artichoke we often shared—plucking off each leaf to reveal that glorious heart and dipping chunks of it in drawn butter. We watched a cheese soufflé magically poof, and spooned a bright green sauce of fresh mint, sugar and vinegar over leg of lamb. Comfort foods come to mind like chipped beef on toast, meatloaf smothered in a thick and tangy tomato sauce and cloud-like angel food cake mounded with strawberries. Some nights, the pungent scent of enchilada sauce, or the earthy smell of frijoles simmering on the stove, filled the kitchen.
One Tuesday in the fall, I stepped into her steamy kitchen as mason jars boiled and something sweet and spicy simmered on the stove. It was piccalilli, and even the name of it delighted me. Grandma was putting up her highly sought-after specialty that she would give away as Christmas gifts. She let me taste a spoonful and the sweet, savory and piquant flavors danced in my mouth. She explained that piccalilli—a favorite condiment in mid-18th century England—is a slightly sweet and savory relish comprised of onions, tomatoes, peppers, vinegar, sugar and spice, and is sometimes referred to as “Indian pickle.” Of course, she added her own touches: strips of fire-roasted New Mexico green chiles, cinnamon, allspice and brown sugar. Throughout the winter, Grandma’s piccalilli enlivened many of our meals—especially roasted pork, chicken and turkey, or cheese toasts and scrambled eggs.
I love making this recipe on a chilly winter’s eve, and I’ve discovered even more ways to serve it, like mounding it atop a savory, sharp Cheddar cheese ball, mixing it into chile con queso, adding it to a sauté of eggplant, okra or squash or as a topping for roasted potatoes or butternut squash. Sometimes I add a dollop to beef or hearty winter stews, or use it as a delicious sauce for spaghetti or pappardelle or as the best hamburger relish ever! But I think one of my favorite uses for piccalilli is to add it to freshly cooked black-eyed peas for a New Year’s Eve feast.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to conjure up memories from long ago. However, the taste of a recipe lovingly passed down easily takes me back to childhood. I want to be in Grandma’s kitchen again, at that copper table, to thank her for inspiring my own eclectic home, recipes and lifestyle. Today, my casita is filled with many keepsakes from her beloved home. I offer this heirloom recipe with the wish that you, too, will reminisce and bring to life happy memories from your past. Grandma would be pleased that I am sharing her piccalilli with you. It’s a recipe guaranteed to bring good fortune and good cheer to the season.