Back to the Earth

Date October 31, 2006 at 11:00 PM


Eleven years ago, Santa Fe music teacher and artist Valdez Abeyta y Valdez discovered three flats of adobes at her front door. They'd been left by her father, salvaged from a wall her grandfather had built over 100 years ago. The decision to build an horno with the adobes did not come lightly.

"I'd never built a horno before and got really nervous about placing the last brick. It's like the keystone of a Roman arch, holding all the other bricks together,"€ she says.

Abeyta y Valdez replasters the oven each fall in mid to late October with earth she gathers from around the state. This year, she and her youngest daughter, Simoné-Felice, trekked to Abiquiu with buckets to collect dirt that had a good proportion of clay for the annual enjarando, or re-mudding.

Though Simoné-Felice and her two sisters, Anacarmen and Consuelo-Marie, are now grown, they return to their mother's house to participate in the ritual.

"Like the swallows returning to Capistrano,"€ the proud mother adds. "As the summer winds down, they ask when we'll be replastering the horno."€

The plastering is done in two steps. The first layer is earth that has been twice-sifted through another of her grandfather's artifacts, a fine mesh screen, mixed with water. This creamy composition is mixed and hydrated and mixed and hydrated, often for several days. Abeyta y Valdez calls the process seasoning the mud. The second layer combines the batter with straw. She hoses the horno down and lets it cure until the plaster dries, often protecting it from the elements with a plastic tarp. "But I don't like doing that, it takes something away from the natural process,"€ she says. Any left-over mud is saved for the next year.

Abeyta y Valdez's horno sits in her backyard garden like a squat turtle sunning itself. With extra adobe bricks she extended two low bancos from either side of the oven, almost like the turtle's hind legs. This summer's abundant rains have melted some of the years of plaster off the horno and bancos, the rivulets creating cracks and crevices that mirror the geometric mosaic on the animal's shell. Through the cracks, previous layers of plaster are clearly visible, marking the passing years. Clay from La Bajada is purple, while that from Abiquiu is reddish. A pale layer from last year peeks out from several sections, and straw pokes out from several spots on top.

The oval shape of the horno permeates the artist's pencil, ink and charcoal drawings, too. "The shape is like the mother earth reaching out for us, like the earth is a womb from which we come and return,"€ she says. She built her backyard studio with the windows positioned so she could see the horno and draw inspiration from it.

"Because of the connection with the mother, we need to keep this tradition alive. By massaging the earth back onto the horno, we create a dialogue with the earth. The earth tells us she's still giving us gifts and we pass on the story of the earth. If we all did this, we'd have a greater respect for the earth,"€ she says, visibly touched by her own words.

Part of the emotion comes from remembering her grandmother working the earth on the farm on which the artist was raised along the Rio Grande near Española. The whole family, in fact, cleaned out the acequias each year, hauling mud and debris from the waterway.

Women, she continues, do the plastering of ovens in most cultures around the world. These enjaradoras are valued members of society for their skill with mud. "My daughters are sophisticated, modern young women, but they are connected with an ancient symbol of the mother earth through the horno,"€ she says. "We've abandoned the earth by not living in adobe houses or cooking in mud ovens. This is how we come back."€

Abeyta y Valdez turned her research into adobe architecture into a paper that she presented to physicists at Los Alamos, and a school curriculum that explores the culture, history, and folklore of Northern New Mexican adobe construction. Students learn to make their own adobes and build miniature hornos. She says that her research showed that one-third of the world's population lives in earthen structures, and that the use of mud ovens, like hornos, pre-dates history's documentation of it.

Over the years, Abeyta y Valdez has experimented with cooking in the horno, often with disastrous results. She's burnt vegetables and a turkey. Once, the fire department showed up at her house because of the smoke rising from the oven, though this is a natural by-product of the horno's mechanics. Because of this, she only uses the oven in the winter, not wishing to alarm her neighbors. First, she stokes a fire, feeding it over several hours. Then she scoops out the embers and ashes and seals the entrance. After another several hours, the temperature falls to a level where baking and roasting is possible.

Now she sticks with bread and a few recipes she's perfected over the years. Her pan del horno has a crustier surface than bread made in a kitchen oven, and is delicious when made into French toast. This recipe makes eight loaves in 1-pound tin coffee cans, but can also be patted into round loaves.

Pan del Horno 4 packages active dry yeast 2 cups warm water 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 12 tablespoons sugar 4 large cans evaporated milk 4 teaspoons salt 8 tablespoons salad oil

16 to 18 cups all purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in water, blend in ginger and 4 tablespoons of the sugar. Let stand until bubbly. Stir in remaining ingredients, except flour. Add flour two cups at a time. The dough should be too sticky to knead.

Place the batter in 8 well-greased 1-pound tin coffee cans. Let dough rise until it is about one inch over the top of the cans. When an oven thermometer placed in the horno reaches 350º, place the cans in the horno for 50-60 minutes.

Katharine Kagel, the owner and Executive Chef of the famed Cafe Pasqual's, is a passionate advocate of horno cooking--not just for its unique flavor but also for the "elemental simplicity"€ of the process.

Horno cooking is one of the most satisfying cooking methods I've ever used. The results are luscious and flavorful every time. The process of heating the oven, outdoors, with wood, waiting for the fire to burn down and then the sweeping out of the embers and cooking in the declining heat is romantic and fascinating in its elemental simplicity.

Vertical Roasted Chicken or Turkey in the Horno 1 vertical roaster 3 to 4 pound whole chicken fryer 1 1/2 cups olive oil 2 fresh lemons, juiced 4 fresh sprigs of thyme 6 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed 6 cups chicken stock or water 2 teaspoons kosher salt 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

(For a 20-22 pound turkey multiply the recipe above by 4 and use 2 tablespoons Bell's Poultry Seasoning and a stick of butter.)

For a chicken, remove the wrapped innards that may be in the cavity of the bird and reserve for another use. Wash the bird well inside and out. Pat dry with a paper towel and in a large non-reactive bowl, marinate the chicken for at least 4 hours, refrigerated. Season the oil and lemon mixture with the fresh thyme sprigs, crushed garlic, the kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Turn the bird every half hour in the bowl to coat for even marinating.

For a 20 to 22 pound turkey, cut off the neck, remove the giblets' package, wash the turkey inside and out and pat the bird dry. Rub the outside of the bird with a generous quantity of Bell's Poultry Seasoning. Divide a stick of butter into numerous small bits and insert under the skin of the turkey, distributing the butter through out the surfaces. Put the bird on the horno pre-heated vertical roaster (see below) and set it in a pan to catch the drippings. Pour enough water or chicken broth in the pan to cover the bottom two inches. The resulting pan drippings may be used for the gravy.

Cook chicken about 20 to 25 minutes for a 3 to 4 pound bird. Check to see if the chicken is fully cooked, by moving the drumstick back and forth, and if the juices run clear, the bird is done.

Cook a 20 to 22 pound turkey, un-stuffed, for 2 1/2 hours or when the juices run clear when you wiggle the drumstick of the turkey. Carve and serve immediately with plenty of napkins if eating out of hand. Be sure to roll up your sleeves, as this is the juiciest bird in the world.

Vertical roasters which are wire Eiffel Tower-shaped structures, are pre-heated and fitted into the cavity of the bird in order to cook it from the inside as well as the outside. They are made of chrome or non-stick material and may be purchased from cooking shops and can also be had on the Internet. Another method of making a homemade vertical roaster is to fashion a point with a hatchet on one end of a brick. Remember to pre-heat any sort of vertical roaster inside the horno during the pre-heating process.

Prepare the horno by building a fire on the horno floor with an armful of wood and kindling. Once the fire is lit, put in the vertical roaster. Close the horno door. If the door is made of wood and has no metal sheathing, use a wet burlap bag on the backside of the door to create a seal that will also hopefully create a barrier for heat loss while protecting the door from charring or burning. Let the oven preheat for about 30 to 40 minutes.

Being very careful to cover all of one's exposed body hair-wearing a hat to cover the hair as well as a scarf to cover the eyebrows and wearing a long-sleeved shirt, test the temperature by opening the door and checking with a flashlight to observe if all the white ash from the fire has fallen from the ceiling of the horno to its floor. Another test that is often used is to hold a piece of pure wool yarn with long tongs, and reach into the horno and put the wool in the center and if the wool burns up immediately, the horno is pre-heated and ready for use. The temperature would be around 600º F. at this point. Clean all embers and ash from the horno and remove to a covered metal can for safety's sake.

Working quickly, place the now preheated vertical roaster in a small pan that is just large enough to hold all. Pour water or chicken stock in the pan to cover the bottom and go up the sides of the pan about 2 inches. Place the chicken over the vertical roaster. Close the door and with some wet mud seal the door and the smoke hole of the horno, completely sealing in the heat.

I like to put in a half a seeded acorn squash for each diner that is filled with some butter and brown sugar and a splash of water-they go in with the chicken and by the time dinner is over retrieve the squash-it makes for a perfect dessert.