Pueblo takes joy in cooking with produce from pueblo farmers and giving tamale stuffing to his siblings at Christmas.
Lawrence “Jay” Riley, 47, the father of three and grandfather of two, is head chef of the café at this remote and picturesque spot about 60 miles west of Albuquerque. Most days he’s in its modern kitchen, putting new spins on his breakfast and lunch menu to serve to pueblo visitors, of which there are often many.
That’s because a daylong visit to the Acoma Pueblo, during which guests take a bus tour lasting at least 90 minutes up and around the 300-foot high “Sky City” mesa and learn about its history, might require a bite to eat, especially after climbing down a wall of rocks with carved-in steps.
If that’s the case, a visit to Chef Jay’s café could round out a cultural lesson with a selection of food traditional to the pueblo.
The café, as well as the museum and gift shop, is easy to locate before or after the tour. All three are in the visitor’s center at the base of the mesa, where the tour begins. And although the building looks very modern, with décor that calls to mind an architecturally on-trend dine-in eatery, the café is in fact steeped in Acoma tradition.
For starters, the name Yaak’a means “corn.” The front of the menu has a few corn stalks and geometric designs often seen in Acoma pottery, and the words, “Guw’aadzi Hauba, Srau Needra’ape, which in Keres, the language about half the residents of the pueblo speak, means, “Hello Everyone, Let’s Eat.”
Inside the kitchen is Riley, a member of the pueblo. His family lived in Grants for a while but, like many who leave, he decided to return to the pueblo, which has a total population estimated at about 5,000. Having worked previously as a chef at the pueblo’s Sky City casino, Riley finds his current work a never-ending opportunity to blend his Acoma roots into the food he makes.
“I didn’t think cooking would be my passion,” he says during a recent interview in his neat kitchen and the well-lit dining room with about a dozen tables, “but every day is an experience of every day having fun at work,” he says.
Featured items this day are pork posole stew and green chile chicken pot pie, both featured at the pueblo’s
annual feast day and priced $6.99, which includes fry bread Riley cuts into four triangles and serves at the edge of the earthenware bowls for dipping. “Everyone has their own way of making it,” he says of the traditionally Native American version bread that looks like pita or naan, but tastes different. His recipe calls for milk and water, while some people only use one or the other, he says.
At the beginning of the meal on this day, another member of the Acoma community says a prayer in Keres, asking spirits to come to the table and join the diners in their meal. Then it’s time to dine. The two stews Riley has prepared are thick and flavorful, with distinct taste notes but similar consistencies and distinctions in flavor suggesting they were from the same kitchen.
His menu blends traditional breakfast and lunchtime fare with Acoma additions. The 1/3-pound Haan’u Burger and the pueblo taco are served on Acoma fry bread, and Haa’yaa’ni Blue Corn Porridge, made of blue corn meal and water, is one of the dishes for which Riley likes to use locally grown corn.
His stews start with the basics: onion, chicken broth, celery and carrots. To butternut squash soup, which he is also serving this day, he adds apple juice, ginger and brown sugar.
For Riley, cooking is an act of drawing from both the pueblo’s resources – like local wild celery that has a more pungent taste – and childhood influences. He remembers his parents and siblings going to sell bread in Gallup, and his mother teaching him to make beef tamale stuffing. It involved cooking outdoors with lard, and stuffing corn husks with shredded beef, onions, garlic, masa from local corn flour and other ingredients, tying the husks in several places, then boiling them for 20 to 30 minutes. “I gave beef tamale filling to all of my brothers and sisters for Christmas,” says Riley, the youngest of seven.
Blending family cooking memories into what he serves at Yaak’a Café makes his work fun, he says. “As I got older and started thinking back on that, I was like, ‘Those were good times.'”
GREEN CHILE PORK STEW
2-3 ounces vegetable oil
2 yellow onions, diced
4 ounces fresh garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 pounds diced pork
1 pound 12 ounces green chile, mild
1 pound 12 ounces green chile, hot
2½ quarts of water
1½ teaspoons ground coriander
4 ounces chicken base
1 ear of fresh corn
2 yellow squash, sliced
2 fresh zucchini, sliced
In a large pot heat vegetable oil over high heat until it starts to smoke but isn’t burning. Put onions and garlic into pot. Sauté onions until they are clear, stirring often so they don’t burn. Add pork and brown it. Next, add green chile, water and ground coriander. Boil on medium heat for 30 minutes or until meat is tender. Add chicken base to mixture a little at a time to taste. Cut kernels off corn cob and add to pot along with sliced squash and zucchini. Heat vegetables until tender, about 10 minutes. Taste and re-season if necessary.
COOK’S NOTE: Chicken base is a highly concentrated stock in powder or cube form.
GREEN CHILE CHICKEN POT PIE
4 russet potatoes, peeled (or unpeeled)
2-3 ounces vegetable oil, approximately 1/3 cup
2 yellow onions, medium-sized, peeled and diced
One whole garlic head, peeled and chopped fine
2 pounds chicken breast, diced
1 pound chopped green chile, mild
1 pound chopped green chile, hot
1 teaspoon ground coriander
6 cups water
2 ounces chicken base
1 pound bag of frozen peas and carrots
½ quart heavy cream
Ready-made puff pastry dough
Boil potatoes for 10 minutes, with lid partially uncovered to let steam escape, then let them cool for 30 minutes. Dice potatoes.
Pour vegetable oil into large pot and heat until oil starts to smoke but is not burning. Put onions and chopped garlic into pot and stir until onions are clear, about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often so onions do not burn. Add diced chicken and brown it for 4 to 5 minutes. Add chile and ground coriander. Add water and bring to a boil. Add chicken base, and mix well. Add extra chicken base if needed, to desired taste. Add peas, carrots, potatoes and heavy cream. Bring to a boil, turn down heat to medium and add roux (recipe follows), stirring in a little at a time until it has a creamy consistency. Pour mixture into soup bowl. Trim puff pastries to fit size of bowl. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, brush with egg wash and bake as directed, and allow to cool. Place on top of bowl and serve.
ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP
3 butternut squash, peeled, cut in half, seeds removed
1/3 cup olive oil
½ teaspoon ground ginger
2-4 ounces vegetable or canola oil
1 yellow onion, diced
3 ounces chicken base
6 ounces apple juice
½ quart heavy cream
1 teaspoon brown sugar
Cut off ends of butternut squash and peel until the orange flesh is visible. Cut seeded squash into medium-sized cubes and place in a bowl. Drizzle squash with olive oil and mix by hand until squash is lightly coated. Line a cookie tray with parchment paper and spread squash evenly on tray. Lightly season squash with ground ginger, then bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside.
In medium pot, heat oil on high until it starts to smoke but is not burning. Add diced onions. Stir onions so they don’t burn. Sauté onions for 4 minutes or until clear. Next, add water, chicken base and apple juice and bring to a boil, adding base a little at a time until desired taste is acquired.
Next, add roasted squash to pot and heat squash through, about 15 minutes. Turn heat off and strain squash and onions. Save liquid. Place squash and onions into food processor or blender in batches with some of the strained liquid. Puree squash and onions until smooth, then return to pot, along with any leftover liquid. Once all of the squash is puréed, heat back up and add heavy cream. While soup is heating, add brown sugar and stir. Stir in roux (recipe following) using a wire whisk until the soup has a creamy consistency.
1 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
In a small saucepan, heat oil. Add flour, a little at a time until it’s of pancake batter consistency. Blend into soup as described above.
Makes 5-8 rounds
1½ pounds all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ quart whole milk
½ quart warm water
Vegetable or canola oil
Mix flour and baking powder. Separately, mix milk and warm water. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients. Add in milk/water mixture and mix until soft but not sticky. Break into four-ounce balls. Fill a five-inch deep pot halfway with vegetable or canola oil. Heat up. It’s hot enough when a small piece of the dough tossed in comes right to the top of the oil. Roll out the dough into rounds with rolling pin, flouring the surface first so it doesn’t stick. Cut a few slits into the middle of each round of dough, then drop into the oil. Let fry for about 30 to 45 seconds per side. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.