I saw my first palm tree at the age of nine. Accustomed to the stately pines, colorful maples and rough barked birches indigenous to Nova Scotia I found the top-heavy spindly palms a bit odd indeed when they first came into view out the window of my parents new Buick. The Buick had been purchased prior to my mother’s recent nuptials specifically to carry us across the continent. My new stepfather, to become the first of three, manned the wheel as we made our way from our entrance into the U.S. in Bangor, Maine to our final destination in Santa Ana, California. What an interesting trip it was. At that time Howard Johnson’s (HOJO’s to those who remember it fondly) were strung across the nation like lights across the tree and extremely popular. I believe I ate a different flavor of ice cream while seated on one of their red vinyl stools in every state we visited.
Our trip proceeded at whatever pace we chose, stopping along the way to explore the wondrous caves of both the Meremac Caverns in Missouri and the Carlsbad Caverns in Arizona. I had my picture taken standing on a precipice at the Painted Desert and not long afterwards seated on a gnarly log at the Petrified Forest. Along Highway 10 we followed the signs to see “The Thing” and paid $.75 to view whatever the thing was never being really sure exactly what is was we saw.
I can remember approaching the Las Vegas strip and thinking I’d stepped into the magical world of Oz. Never had I seen such magnificent buildings and fabulous neon light displays. Had Dorothy, Toto and their band of needy travelers been seen dancing down a street paved with yellowed bricks it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least. Leaving the twinkling lights behind us and venturing out on the desert floor I was transfixed by the starkness of it all and the prickly visages of cactus plants some looking as if they were waving their long arms at us as we passed. Cactus was a new variety of plant for me as well, as they don’t grow in Nova Scotia where the temperature hovers far lower than their natural comfort zone.
Crossing the border into California we were stopped by border officials and asked to declare anything we were taking in from Arizona they might need to know about and once cleared began our trip south to Orange County. At that time Orange County was aptly named. The fragrance from the sea of orange trees was intoxicating floating in through my open window. The rural streets seemed as if they were ablaze with orange and the sky was a nearly unnatural shade of brilliant blue. Paradise. Looking back I can see why people migrated to the west coast. Warm breezes, sunny beaches, ah yes, I remember it well. As yet Orange County was not overrun with businesses and people, and smog was yet a term uncoined. Disneyland was up and running, although the Matterhorn was yet to be completed. I found the whole scene around me compelling.
Arriving at my new step-grandfather’s house, I was shown to the small room I was to occupy until we found suitable housing in the area. Finding a new home was to be my mother and my job as my stepfather was scheduled to start his job as a writer at the local newspaper the following Monday. Each time I stepped out into the summer sunshine I was amazed at the bath of heat pouring over me. Thankfully, one of my newly acquired relatives lived close by and had the good sense to have put in an in-ground pool. This was something not new to me. While in Halifax I spent a good deal of time in the water and at nine was already an accomplished swimmer.
Getting used to my new surroundings was challenging at first. For me it was like going from Sweden to Peru. A lot to learn about my new stable mates for sure. Once we located a house and got situated the rest of the summer lay before us. Disneyland came first after much begging on my part, then Knott’s Berry Farm, and finally the beach. I settled into the warm sand welcoming it like an old friend. The familiar salty smells and sounds of gulls calling overhead reminded me of home.
Our first dinner out we were taken to a Mexican restaurant, whatever that was. Nova Scotia at the time had nothing of the kind to offer, Canadian cooks leaning more naturally towards seafood, soups, stews, chowders, and the like. On the table was a bowl of what looked to be diced tomatoes and some hard salted triangles we were told to use as a sort of scooper for the tomatoes or what they called salsa. Hmmmm. I liked tomatoes. First I tried a chip and it was hard and crunchy but tasty. Next I dipped it in the “salsa” and placed it in my mouth. Once the burning sensation causing my taste buds to do the lambada reached my brain my fingers in self defense immediately wrapped around the sweating glass of ice water the waiter had placed by my plate. Good Lord, I was on fire. People around us were smiling and pointing as my face turned red and I drank and drank in an attempt to put out the blaze on my tongue now traveling down my esophagus. My mother was horrified, assuming I’d been poisoned. Never had I tasted any food that had actually bitten me back.
Many years have passed since then and Mexican food now ranks among my favorite ethnic food. This is a great way to use up leftover white rice if you have enough or you can make a new batch and add it to the mix. I serve this with the crockpot chile verde recipe you can find at crockpot chile verde. They are the perfect pair.
Mexicali Beans and Rice
1 1/2 cups cooked white rice
1 14 1/2 oz. can petite diced tomatoes
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15 oz. can black beans drained and rinsed
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. ground coriander
1/4-1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (your call for heat)
Cook rice according to pkg. directions (if not using leftovers) and set aside.
In fine strainer drain diced tomatoes reserving liquid. Add water to tomato liquid in measuring cup to equal 1 cup.
In large skillet heat oil over med-high heat. Add onions and cook 6-7 mins. until translucent. Add garlic and cook 1 min. Add black beans, salt, cumin, chili powder, oregano, coriander and red pepper flakes. Cook and stir about 1 min. to incorporate. Add reserved tomato/water mixture. Bring to boil. Cook on low boil for 5-7 mins. until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add tomatoes and rice and continue cooking for 3 mins. until warmed.