Norman Van Aken's Word On Food
1:00 pm
Fri April 12, 2013

'Taco of Shepherds' Highlights Cooking Trip To El Paso

Credit Norman Van Aken

We were invited to El Paso, Texas to cook at a gathering of ‘Oldways Preservation’, a non-profit organization based in Boston, Massachussetts. ‘Oldways’ is one of the premier educational forums for focusing on healthy, culturally diverse and historically respectful eating. They put on conferences around the world and invite scientists, farmers, professors, chefs and food/wine media to promote positive lifestyles.

The first night we had barely landed in El Paso when we were whisked off to cook for more than 300 guests at a venue called the ‘Old Train Station.' We had almost all of our food shipped ahead from the restaurant to try and make sure everything was as perfect as it could be in advance but still is always a scramble. I was very excited to see the elaborate grilling station that some of the local chefs had put together to feed guests. The smell of Texan beef rose up like a lusty perfume and the crowd didn’t hold back sampling one vendor’s choice between “classic” and “prickly pear” margaritas.

Despite all that we rose at 6 a.m. the next morning to cook brunch for the attendees at the ‘Camino Real Hotel’. We were set up in the grand lobby. They rarely build them like that anymore. Labor costs just don’t allow it! I was happy to be so steeped in the Western feel of the architecture. But I was there to represent South Florida so we started cooking my Rhum and Pepper Painted Fish, Pork Havana with Caramelized Plantain Mash and Key Lime Natilla with Exotic Fruit Salsa.

It was times like this that I could get a better gauge on how our cooking, food history, ingredients and flavors were similar to those of the Southwest that were being offered by some of my friends like Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles of Dallas, Robert Del Grande of Houston and Mark Miller of Santa Fe.

Finally we finished our work, cleaned up and walked over the bridge, past the border guards to Juarez, Mexico and into a place that hadn't changed in more than 50 years.

Dusk was falling. We hadn’t had more than coffee all day and were ravenous. We stepped along the broken sidewalks, shopping for sustenance with our noses. Jaunty mariachi and accordion music punctuated the balmy air. Then we saw and smelled what would nourish us. A ramshackle little stand selling “tacos al pastor” or ‘tacos in the style of shepherds’. These particular tacos were inspired by Lebanese immigrants who used spit-cooked lamb instead of pork and herbs instead of chili paste. The thinly sliced pork is layered on a vertical device called a trompo, (a visual reference to a spinning top) and parked next to a gas flame. A pineapple sits atop the trompo, dripping down to sweeten and even tenderize the slowly cooking pork. It is visually as enticing as any cooking technique I have yet to see.

We ordered and each got four little stuffed tortillas which we devoured standing up against the crooked counter with America ¼ mile and many ‘miles per hour’ away.

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