Summer Chaparral Carne Asada Tacos & Ranch Beans

Summer Chaparral by Genevieve Turner broke a long reading streak I had of historical romances that just weren’t all I’d hoped for. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Regencies & Victorians. But they do seem to suck up a lot of the historical limelight. Sure, there are Westerns and Civil War romances and Medievals and such if you’re willing to really look and read a lot of reviews, but the Ton ballrooms still seem to be the hottest thing on the historical romance menu. And I’ve never read anything like this Western Romeo & Juliet style family epic.

Set in California in the late 19th century, Summer Chaparral is the start of a new series about the Moreno family, an old Spanish family in the process of being displaced by and subsumed into the new American California. Catarina Moreno is the eldest of las Morenas, a dutiful daughter who is nevertheless chafing under her mother’s household rule and her own lack of romantic prospects. She suspects she is being kept from marriage as a result of her parents’ insistence that she marry within both her ethnicity and her social class, which leaves a dearth of prospects in their small California town. Beautiful, hard-working and intelligent, Catarina’s enormous rebellions have included putting cilantro in the barbacoa and flirting with boys, even giving them the occasion kiss. All she wants is a husband and a home of her own, but despite all her family’s wealth, it seems impossible.

When Jace Merrill comes on the scene, even a simple conversation with him gets Catarina into trouble with her meddling middle sister and both her parents, making her the object of weeks of town gossip. Jace has taken the much larger rebellious step of actually leaving his social climbing father’s house and name behind 13 years prior because he’d prefer to be a rancher than a judge. By working for years at a large ranch in the Valley, he figures he has nearly enough saved for a ranch of his own. He just needs a bit more money put by, a bit of land, a couple hundred head of cattle and a grazing permit. What he finds is Catarina. Right from the start, Catarina and Jave are irresistible to each other. So it is not surprising when someone eventually catches them doing quite a bit more than stealing kisses under the rose arbor.

Forced by her family to marry, there is quite a bit of tension between Catarina and Jace. Family loyalty prevents both of them from expressing their truths to each other and both spend a significant portion of the novel trying to assess where the others’ loyalties lie. But rather than relying upon misunderstandings and simple lack of communication, Turner ensures that the conflict between them is believable, reasonable and understandable. There is not only a clash of cultures and old family grudges at play here, but the tension between two newly-married people who haven’t quite got each other figured out yet. Having run into this phenomenon early in my own marriage, I identified with their relationship growing pains in a rare and special way.

Summer Chaparral is the first in a series of three. The other two Moreno sisters, Isabel and Franny will get their own next year. I’m very eager for the next book, the hero of which I am assured is quite issue-laden (which, as you may know, is my favorite), and for the final book of the series, which features the independent youngest of the clan; the not at all tradition-bound Franny. This book was a fantastic introduction to the historic California setting and Moreno family, cloaked in a sexy romance full of tension and family drama. If you’re ready to take a historical trip away from Regency England, Summer Chaparral would be a good place to start.

I’m from California. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved farther south when I was 12. This was a good experience for a future foodie. Not only is California incredibly racially and ethnically diverse with a corresponding diversity of culinary options, it has a huge array of fresh produce available year-round. In fact, when I moved to the East Coast for university, I was appalled by the state of winter grocery store produce. Pallid tomatoes, limp lettuce, bruised zucchini, flavorless strawberries. I started to pay a lot more attention to seasonality, locally grown fruits and vegetables (hello, ramps: someone write me a West Virginia romance please!) and farmer’s markets.

Now from May through November I buy as much produce as I can from the farmer’s market near our house and get a lot of our other groceries like milk, eggs and the occasional meat and poultry from a farmer who delivers it right to our door every week. We pay a little more for our food, but it feels more real to me that way: to be closer to the source of production and clearer on what exactly goes into my food. I’m not a huge evangelist for this way of eating or anything, but it did seem appropriate to share in connection with Summer Chaparral, which is so much about the basic necessities of both Catarina and Jace.

As for this recipe, it’s definitely not traditional Mexican cuisine, but it’s also not Tex Mex. You’ll note a complete absence of cheese, rice, refried beans, hot sauce and other things that people tend to associate with “Mexican” food. These two dishes are a particular brand of rural, ranching, cowboy food that seems nearly exclusive to California’s Central Valley: Fresno & Bakersfield, but also west to places like Santa Maria and south even to places like Brawley (which is where the friend who gave me this particular recipe years ago is from). Hence the orange juice, which is definitely a Southern California phenomenon. This is better on the grill, but if it’s too cold where you are or you don’t have one (like me), you can totally broil the flank steak.

The beans on the other hand are a total California grilling standby, usually plopped on a huge grate over an open wood fire. They get seriously burned on the bottom though unless you stir them constantly over a period of 6-8 hours so this crock pot version that I found does an excellent job of approximating the taste without needing constant attention or, uh, completely charring your pot. Not that I’d know anything about that. These aren’t sweet Boston-style baked beans or gloopy refried beans. They’re spicier, more savory and pair much better with the fresh simplicity of the tacos than anything else I’ve tried.

Plus, well, it tastes like home.

Carne Asada Tacos & Ranch Beans
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 24 hours, Hands on time: 30 minutes

Carne Asada Tacos
2 cups orange juice
1/2 tablespoon of lime juice
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon minced cilantro
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 pounds flank steak 
16 small (taco size) white corn tortillas
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)
fresh tomato salsa (optional)

1) Combine orange juice, lime juice, cumin, garlic, cilantro, salt & pepper in a freezer bag. Close and shake to combine. Add flank steak and squeeze out all the air. Refrigerate and allow to marinate for 12-24 hours.

2) Take the meat out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes prior to cooking. On the grill, cook the meat until a meat thermometer registers 140 degrees for medium (which I recommend or the meat will be tough), 160 for well-done (which I don’t recommend because the meat toughens up), approximately 5 minutes on each side. If you opt for the broiler, first preheat the broiler. Then lightly oil an oven-proof skillet with vegetable oil and sear meat for 2-3 minutes each side. Then place the skillet under the broiler for 3-4 minutes each side until meat thermometer registers 140 degrees.

3) While the meat cooks, heat corn tortillas in the microwave between two sheets of damp paper towel until warm and pliable, about 40 seconds. Chop half an onion and mince the additional cilantro and mix to combine.

4) Remove the meat from the grill or skillet and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Then slice into 1/2 inch cubes, first going against the grain and then slicing with the grain.

5) Using two tortillas per taco for sturdiness, add meat, then top with onion and cilantro. They don’t really need salsa, but you can add it if you like. I like a little squeeze of lime on mine, but that’s quite a California thing and may not be to everyone’s taste. Serve with Ranch Beans, recipe below.

Ranch Beans
adapted from Chow.com

1/2 pound dried pinto beans
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1/2 medium white onion, diced
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon chipotle or ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 small ham hock (for non pork eaters & vegetarians, substitute 1 teaspoon smoked sea salt and 2 tablespoons olive oil)
1 teaspoon cider vinegar

1) Rinse and sort dried beans, making sure to remove any small stones you might find. Cover with at least three inches of water and allow to soak overnight.

2) In a crock pot, combine drained beans, beef broth, onion, tomato sauce, jalapeño, garlic, salt, chipotle chile powder, chili powder, cumin, brown sugar, paprika, black pepper & oregano. Stir until combined. Add the ham hock. Cook on high for 6 hours or on low for 8 hours.

3) At the end of cooking, remove ham hock and rest it is cool enough to remove the skin & bone. Chop up the remaining meat and return to the pot with the cider vinegar, stirring to combine.

Disclosure: I received Summer Chaparral from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes and I am friendly with the author on Twitter.

3 comments

  1. You sold me on this book on Twitter. 🙂 I love venturing out from the typical historical eras also, though I suspect I'll always have a soft spot for Regencies. And now you've sold me on this recipe. Especially the beans. It's getting colder here, at last, and I think a giant crock pot of ranch beans is just what the weather calls for!

    1. Oh I totally have a soft spot for Regencies. I'm reading Christmas in the Duke's Arms right now at Mgan Mulry's recommendation and it's superb. Especially for holiday novellas, which are normally not a favorite of mine. They're festive, but not saccharine. I think I had just gotten bored by the sameness that overtakes Regencies sometimes. Branching out has done me some good in that regard.

      I actually halved that recipe I linked to so you can make a HUGE pot of beans if you want to with an entire pound of pintos. I still wouldn't add the vinegar until the end though as the acid can keep the beans from softening properly. Let me know how it goes!

  2. Christine Maria Rose

    I agree with Amy Jo, those recipes looks delicious, I'm definitely going to make the ranch beans soon.

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