¡Hola a todos!
It’s been far too long since I’ve gotten an article up. At the risk of cheating I want to post this great letter I received some time back from cooks who spend time every year in Cabo, who have access to a kitchen and continue to cook even though they’re technically on vacation. My people!!
Just a note to thank you once again for the wonderful afternoon cooking in your home on November 22. We did a little shopping after class, and collected a few more ingredients. I was up early the following morning, toasting tomatoes, garlic, onions and peppers on our “comal” (a teflon skillet), grinding in our blender, then “frying” the resulting mixture to create our own version of Huevos Rancheros, which we served with the tortillas we bought with you–MMMMM! We also stopped at Artesanos later in the week, and I found a molcajete (I checked as you said, to determine that it was really made of stone). We seasoned it with many batches of guacamole during our remaining days in Cabo. During the course of or stay, we managed to accumulate little bits of leftovers to add to those you sent home. One of our last meals was a rendition of the soup we made, including the leftover broth, some rotisserie chicken (and broth made from that chicken), various odd veggies and some saffron rice. We licked our bowls clean!
Did you know that you cannot bring a molcajete in your carry-on luggage??? That was our original plan–not wanting to pack it in a suitcase with a couple of bottles of tequila–but a sign at the airport listed the implement right along with guns, knives, baseball bats and more than 3 oz. liquid!. We had to do a quick re-arrange of the luggage contents before we could check the bag. I’m happy to report that it molcajete made it home intact, as did the tequila!
I am re-posting this entry because I have a recent run on classes making mole! DO check out this amazing video that accompanies Lila Downs singing La Cumbia del Mole.
This entry is inspired by a recent visit from Manuel, a friend born in the Lower Mixtec region of Oaxaca who brought abundant blessings in the form of music and traditional Mexican foods. In his home town a very few women still make a corn masa journey bread which dates back hundreds of years, called “totopos” although they are nothing like the corn chips we all know and love for snacking. These totopos were carried by mule drivers on long trips along with dried meats and a dried salsa which could all be reconstituted with water, lightweight and hearty fare for the trail. Manuel somehow got hold of some totopos, and brought them along to share. I hope someday to get to the Lower Mixtec to find out just how they are made, before this wonderful ancient culinary tradition dies out.
He also brought along a couple of liters of real vanilla, labeled with the name of the Vargas family who produces it in Papantla, Veracruz where vanilla orchids are grown, based in Carrousel 22 of the Papantla market. I compared it with the junk they sell here, which smells like an industrial cleaning product next to the real thing, which smells just like the flowers from which it is made. In Tlaxcala it went for $20 pesos per 3/4 liter.
I would like to share a very special song by the amazing Lila Downs, born in 1968 in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca not far from Manuel’s home town, the daughter of a Mixtec cabaret singer and an American cinematographer and art professor from Minnesota. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, having grown up between Oaxaca and the USA, and she performs her own compositions which fuse with native Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya and Nahuatl musical culture. If you are unfamiliar with her music, much of it appears on YouTube. I highly recommend you search for and listen to the version of La Cumbia del Mole called “La Cumbia del Mole Video Mix” on YouTube, which presents Lila’s hypnotic lyrics with a cumbia beat — cumbia being a Columbian Caribbean rhythm originating from African slave courtship dances… along with stunning images of Oaxaca, mole ingredients and preparation. YUMMY!
With love and many thanks to Manuel, here is my translation of her lyrics. I hope you visit Lila Downs at YouTube and sing along. ¡Buen provecho!
La Cumbia del Mole, Lila Downs
It is said that in Oaxaca they drink mezcal with coffee
They say that herbs cure bad faith
I love the mole that Soledad is going to grind up for me
My dear Soledad is going to cook up a wonderful mole
From the heavens of Monte Alban, at night I dream of you
It’s made of ground peanuts, the bread is ground as well,
Dried almonds are ground with chile and also salt
That chocolate is ground with cinnamon
Pepper and cloves, moving the mole grinder
They say that in Oaxaca chocolate is made with water
They say in the festival of the little bulls it must burn
For the one who orders the passion of Soledad…
I know I’ll never see all the things I want to see in this sprawling megalopolis packed with life-loving Chilangos making the most of everything, every day.
Neither Manuel, who has lived in Mexico City for 40 years, nor I had been to the legendary floating gardens of Xochimilco. We were both prepared to hate it, thinking it would be dirty, overrun and touristy…
We were surprised to find a surreal dream of a Sunday filled with impossibly colorful gondolas, trajineras, bumping sides as they were poled through miles of canals that are the remnants of Lake Texcoco where the ancient Aztecs created fertile gardens to grow their foods and flowers.
On weekends the canals become a floating fiesta with bars, restaurants and gangs of fully fledged mariachis all competing for business from their own colorful little boats. It’s a riot of color and sound, an olfactory and auditory banquet you really must experience if you have the good fortune to find yourself in this magical city.
Hop aboard a trajinera, tie a floating bar up to one side and a group of musicians to the other and while away a truly surreal day in Xochimilco. If all this isn’t enough, you can wander for hours through 24 hour fruit and flower markets, as Manuel and I did…
Xochimilco invites you to eat, drink and be merry!
In Tezoatlan, tucked away in the Lower Mixtec Mountains of northern Oaxaca, a totopo is something else altogether.
For generations this gigantic, paper thin bread made from freshly ground nixtamal (field corn prepared with slaked lime the way it’s been done for over a thousand years), fresh lard and a pinch of salt, was carried by mule drivers carrying goods to ranches and settlements that seldom made it to a town of any size to buy the basics.
They carried totopos, which look fragile, but are cooked to a point of flexibility that, when reheated on a comal or over an open fire, attain a perfect crisp, crunchy texture that is uniquely satisfying. Along with dried salsas that could be rehydrated with a little water and dried meats made palatable by simmering in the same salsa, plus whatever greens and fresh meats that could be gathered along the trail, the hardy mule drivers ate pretty well without carrying a lot of extra weight.
Tezoatlan’s totopos are a local addiction, part of everyone’s daily diet in this magically beautiful village of the Lower Mixtec. My guy Manuel was born and raised there, in the building where his father had an electric mill used to grind fresh nixtamal carried in by local women daily in five gallon buckets. The mill had stone discs inside which had to be chiseled on a regular basis to make stone ground, whole grain masa for tortillas, tamales and other antojitos and, of course, for totopos.
DOÑA Filiberta is one of two women in Tezoatlan who are still making tototopos, although age and arthritis have slowed her down considerably. Manuel (along with plenty of Tezoatlan’s townspeople, no doubt) has long been concerned about the future of their favorite oversized cracker… but we can all relax after our visit to her kitchen workshop in September when she assured us that her grandaughter is learning the trade and will be taking over this important work.
The photo at the top shows Doña Fili’s old fashioned, thin pottery comales (griddles) upon which her totopos (also shown) bake over a hardwood fire, just as they have always been. The second shot features Doña Fili herself, with the stone metate still used to grind nixtamal. She also has a small stone mill similar to the one Manuel’s father used in the family business, and she still remembers him fondly. She says he was a kind man who always provided hot water for the women to wash their hands on brisk Mixtec mornings.
Mexico’s food traditions are the glue that hold its people together. I hope you can take a trip someday to small town Oaxaca where you will see and taste exactly what I mean!
For a country with so few dessert options, Mexico has a serious sweet tooth. Desserts are more varied on the tourist strip, but at the end of many a fine meal in Mexican restaurants I have asked for the dessert selection only to have the waiter respond with a great flourish, “Hay flannnn…’ trailing off that final consonant in a hopeful tone…
So flan it is for dessert, and if it’s well made, it rivals cheesecake as a finish and isn’t nearly as rich. It’s actually a stroke of dessert genius as it tops off a spicy Mexican meal like nothing else could.
But about that sweet tooth. If you’re ever in a traditional Mexican market, or even a decent Mexican supermarket, take a look at the candy aisle. The selection above is pretty typical, candy for the eye as well as that aching tooth. So what’s behind all that day-glo display? Here’s a short list.
Obleas con cajeta (Goat’s milk caramel wafers) – a delectable treat made of two paper-thin flour wafers filled with Mexico’s fabled goat’s milk caramel candy, cajeta, creating a sweet sandwich that won’t stick to your fingers. Also available as chewy caramel candies. Top brands: Coronado, Las Sevillanas (mini or medium) and Aldama.
De La Rosa’s Mazapan (marzipan) – is a delicious and traditional peanut confection delicious with a tall glass of milk, or crumbled as a topping to enhance other desserts.
Fruit rolls – These sweet fruity treats are very popular in Mexico, made from tropical fruits like coconut, mango and guava. Cocadas are deadly sweet coconut rolls. Popular brands include: Productos Cihuapilli and Dulces Moreliates.
Spicy spoon suckers – Yep, it’s a spicy, salty, sweet and gooey candy sold right on a spoon in our favorite traditional tropical fruit flavors — tamarind and mango.
Pepitorias (seed brittle) – This is a sweet and delicious confection made of ground sesame seeds sweetened with honey, coconut, pumpkin seeds and peanuts thrown in to guild the lily. Las Trojes is a popular brand that manufactures these succulent treats: Mixed seed brittle, coconut brittle, peanut brittle, sesame seed brittle and pumpkin seed brittle. Yum!
Candy skulls – Celebrate the Day of the Dead and honor your departed loved ones with these crazy creative confections fashioned from sugar, chocolate or amaranth. This much-loved Mexican tradition has been passed down through generations.
…and this is a short list! Take a tour through the candy aisle and start making your own sweet memories of Mexico!
Greetings from sunny Cabo! It never ceases to amaze me how we’ve come into the civilized world. Every day I attempt to explain to those who have only recently arrived how for years we drove two grueling hours to La Paz to buy the most basic items, such as toilet paper! More outlandish items like round toothpicks and frozen turkeys were hiked down Baja by sympathetic friends living in more civilized areas.
These days things are very different. Having a full-on Plaza Sendero mall five minutes from my house is still a source of wonder to me, and I walk through with my mouth hanging open even now, two years after its near magical appearance. Our new reality is that we have access to virtually everything, including all the ingredients to make beautiful traditional Mexican dishes which were only a dream as little as five years ago.
My small local market carried fresh huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche) all summer last year, and it looks like it’s going to happen again. The picture above pretty much says it all–a normal ear of corn is infected with a fungus that blows each kernel into a huge, strange and wonderful mushroom! The outside is a gray blue, the inside black.
If you’ve never seen huitlacoche, its Japanese sci-fi movie appearance can make you want to run in the other direction, but if you love mushrooms… and if you just happen to love corn too… maybe you should stick around.
The ancient Aztecs were addicted to this earthy gourmet treat, so much so that they intentionally infected corn plants by cutting into them near the soil level to allow water borne spores to enter. Mexico is still crazy for cuitlacoche, and like any good mushroom the canned variety are a disappointing substitute for the real deal. If you are lucky enough to find it fresh, treat it like any other fresh mushroom. Gently tease the kernels from the cob and sautee them in sweet butter with finely chopped onion and garlic, and use them anywhere you would any other fine fungus. They will turn soft, sweet and black, and may be folded into a crepe bathed in a roasted poblano cream sauce for a traditional Mexican classic dish that is truly alta cocina. It may be cooked up with chorizo, potato, onion, garlic and serrano chile and used to stuff hot tortillas, roasted poblano chiles etc., or simply folded into an omelette.
I plan to frequent my local market this summer on the hunt for cuitlacoche. Hard core foodies who join me in my kitchen are in for a real treat!
A couple of Mexican classics