Spicy chorizo can bring people together

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YAKIMA, Wash. | Yasmin Fajardo sits down to eat eggs, potatoes and chorizo for breakfast at least once a week — an opportunity for her family to spend time together.

“Usually my family is at work, so we never have time to actually be together,” the 20-year-old said. “When we make that type of breakfast — well, it’s our catch-up time.”

But it usually happens only on weekends; it’s a special meal that’s only made when someone has time.

Her parents have used the traditional Mexican breakfast to let her and her brothers know that a new member of the family was coming, to discuss changes in their living situation, and, often, to encourage them to keep giving their best.

“They like to talk to us about never giving up and taking advantage of the opportunities we have that they didn’t,” she said.

Yakima chef Shawn Niles said that throughout history, food, like chorizo, has brought people together in a way words can’t. He strives though his dinner club to unite eaters through “global comfort food” — an uncommon mix of traditional foods, such as using chorizo in Scotch eggs.

The Mexican sausage — a little bit more expensive than its plain counterpart — is typically made with ground pork that’s combined with green chiles, paprika and other spices, Niles said.

It’s then put in sausage casings and either dried or used “wet,” according to Yakima County Health District environmental health specialist Paul Garcia.

The spicy sausage is known for its starring role in many Mexican breakfast dishes, like Fajardo’s family uses. But in the past several years, as it’s become more mainstream, foodies have started putting it in everything from burgers to soups. The possibilities are endless.

And they’re not just sticking to the crumbly Mexican sausage.

Chorizo also comes in a Spanish variety that’s dried, cured and usually found with other ready-to-eat meats.

It’s finding a home on pizza and charcuterie boards and in gumbo, a Southern staple, to name a few.

But many people, such as Fajardo, who were raised watching their mom or grandma serve it for breakfast, generally stick to the traditional egg preparation.

Its growing popularity can be seen at local stores, like Fiesta Foods, which keeps dozens of strands ready for purchase and far more in various stages of preparation. Several local markets also make and sell the sausage.

But it’s the work of making chorizo dishes that immediately breaks down walls because of the time and energy put into their creation, said 35-year-old Michelle Martinez. Her grandmother used to spend days making chorizo dishes for her friends and family, what she called “a labor of love.”

“It was the effort she put into preparing the meal. … And when she would make the meal we would talk in the kitchen and catch up,” Martinez said, explaining why her grandmother’s cooking was so unifying.

Many people also believe that “comfort foods” such as chorizo actually change the way the body responds to outside stressors, Niles said.

“If somebody is grieving, say there’s a death in the family or something tragic happened, I encourage people bringing food to the family to make it really hearty — something with cheese or lots of carbs,” he said. “Those kinds of food change the atmosphere inside of you.”

If comfort foods are consumed when people are already happy, it makes them more relaxed and sets a foundation for greater understanding.

Because of that openness, Niles said he likes to tell the stories behind his dishes: Where did the ingredients come from? What makes them special?

“I can’t take people with me to another country, but I can bring that back and they can experience it through stories,” Niles said. “It’s stories that are going to bridge the cultural divide.”

“That’s what grabs your heart if you let it. If you listen to someone’s story, you understand who they are, why they have the viewpoint they have, and it invites you into their world,” he said.

That’s one of many reasons, when Yakima County health inspectors were told there may be a health risk associated with locally produced chorizo, they chose to work with market owners to establish safe processes, instead of simply shutting down production.

“We said, ‘If they want to sell chorizo … let’s help them do it safely and serve the community,'” Garcia said.

Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com