It was two o’clock in the morning as my pup, China, and I crossed the border from New Mexico into Texas. Sunroof open, the Beatles blaring, feeling all born-to-be-wild tinged with terror as I was leaving my old life, turning the page on a new chapter and stepping into an adventure unknown. I was still in, what I like to refer as, my “fuck-you forties”, an age when I questioned why I ever cared what anybody thought of me. I’m sure I was slightly angry but truly, it was an awakening when I realized how many of my decisions in life had been based on how I felt I may be judged.
“Women get more radical with age,” Gloria Steinem has often pointed out. After years of experience coming up against false assumptions about who I was and what I was capable of, in my mid to late forties I made a conscious decision to make changes in how I lived my life, especially with regards to following my passion, regardless of what others may have thought. It was liberating.
My free wheeling screaming-down-the-highway attitude was quickly squashed when the glare of the police car lights lit up behind me, the siren blasted and then I heard a voice come over a speaker of some sort telling me to pull over. Needless to say, the siren and megaphone treatment were total overkill. On a desolate stretch of highway, alone with my dog, I felt slightly threatened by the cop who swaggered his way up to my window, “Do you know that you were going over the speed limit?” Of course I did, just give me my ticket and let me get on my way. Sheesh.
The following day, the blistering heat was record-breaking and unbearable. The thermostat in my car registered one hundred twenty-one fahrenheit. Was that even possible? I guess it was because eventually, it went up to one hundred twenty-seven and that is when I seriously feared my tires would melt right off my car. My dog was having none of it and refused to step onto the hot concrete at the rest stop to take a pee.
When we finally arrived in San Antonio, I became slightly disoriented after staring at the road for so many hours and I couldn’t remember how to get to the house so I phoned my father who helped me navigate my way. As I pulled into the driveway, I nearly dropped my phone as I looked up and saw where my “passion” had taken me. In front of me stood a dilapidated home with a Hefty garbage bag covering a window where the glass was missing. “Oh shit” escaped my lips in a quiet whisper to my dog. “Excuse me?” I heard my father’s voice say from the cell phone. “Oh, nothing, Dad. Thank you for helping me to get here.” The vision of this home in my memory was something very different from the reality of what was in front of me.
Not much in the house had been disturbed since my grandmother had passed away, so as I walked down the hallway to the kitchen, I was met with a flashback of memories and could almost see my grandmother bent over the enameled stove cooking away. I walked into the pantry, touched the ceramic bean pot that still had dried pinto beans in it, saw the dishes we had eaten on when we were kids and smelled the aroma of dried chili peppers that had permeated the walls over the years and I drew comfort from the familiar.
I drove to the HEB grocery store to pick up cleaning supplies, came home and began the process of cleaning the house from one end to the other on my hands and knees with a big scrub brush and a bucket of bleach and water. It was about 3am when I became so exhausted that I made my way to my grandmother’s bedroom, now my room, the place where I would lie in bed with her when she was well into her nineties and she would tell me stories of her past. I laid there feeling very small and alone but somewhere deep in my heart, I also knew that I was where I was supposed to be and for the first time, I felt my grandmother’s presence and I fell into a deep sleep.
It turned out that the years I spent in San Antonio were about healing my soul with the walls that spoke to me in my grandmother’s voice. As I peeled back the dirty layers of dust, I also uncovered my history through memories, photos that I found and scraps of paper that my grandmother had written little notes to herself on. Little letters from the past with encouraging words of her wisdom written on napkins and the backs of envelopes became mantras that I read and reread.
Eventually, it was also a sacred haven for my husband and me early on in our relationship. I would cook elaborate Mexican meals while Ric would sit on a chair in the kitchen playing his guitar. It was pure magic.
It was a beautiful time and place where I rediscovered myself, my strength and where I said good-bye to my fuck-you forties and entered my fabulous fifties.
“Respond to every call that excites your spirit” -Rumi
One of my favorite Mexican dishes to make in the fall are these butternut squash enchiladas. They can be made gluten-free by using Capellos gluten free lasagna sheets, which you can buy online and skip the flour in the enchilada sauce. You can also use store-bought enchilada sauce. Just remember when buying the sauce that enchilada sauce should not contain any tomato sauce at all. It should contain chili powder, water, oil and some spices.
Butternut Squash, Poblano & Roasted Onion Enchiladas
To make a basic enchilada sauce:
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
2 teaspoons flour
1/4 cup red chile powder (you can buy it in larger quantities for bulk prices from the Hispanic section of your grocery store)
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 1/2 cups water, chicken or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
In a medium saucepan heat the oil, add flour, smoothing and stirring with a wooden spoon. Cook for 1 minute. Slowly add the water or stock while whisking. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Turn temperature down and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
For the enchiladas:
4 cups cubed butternut squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped in a large dice
1 poblano pepper, roasted, seeded and chopped roughly
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon smoky sweet paprika
4 cups cheese (Monterey Jack or Colby Jack)
1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco or goat cheese
8 flour tortillas
Toss the squash with the olive oil and then season lightly with a bit of salt and pepper. Spread on a foil lined sheet pan and place under broiler for 10 minutes, tossing occasionally. After 10 minutes, add the onions to the squash giving it a turn or two and then place back under the broiler for another 10 to 15 minutes. Add the roasted peppers to the onions and squash, sprinkle on the cumin, smoky paprika and a little more salt if needed. Mix to distribute the spices.
Coat the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch pan with a ladle of enchilada sauce. Divide the butternut squash mixture and 3 cups of cheese (Jack/Colby cheese) amongst the tortillas. Roll up tortillas, placing enchiladas in the pan with seam side down. Top with remaining enchilada sauce and sprinkle with remaining cheese (Jack/Colby and the Queso fresco).
Bake for 20-30 minutes in a preheated 350 degree F oven, until cheese melts and sauce is bubbling. Garnish with fresh sage, sliced scallions and sour cream.