Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for Mexican food

PAPANTLA VANILLA–MMMMMMMM!!!

My guy Manuel Luna will be here in a short week or two!  Naturally I’m excited to see him, but I’m almost as excited to help him unpack… he goes to the fabulous pre-hispanic market in Tlaxcala and buys out the man who stocks real vanilla from Papantla, and being an engineer, he REALLY packs the 3/4 liter glass bottles so there’s no chance one will burst open in his carry-on.

Why is this so exciting?  You really have to smell the stuff to understand.  All over Mexico “real” vanilla is sold, particularly in tourist areas, but frankly, the stuff we get here is like an industrial cleaning product compared to the elixir Manuel hikes over on his visits from the mainland, and loads me down with when I visit him on his side of the water.

I treasure this stuff, the real deal from Papantla, where vanilla was born and from which it was sent forth, another precious gift from Mexico,  into the world, eventually settling in Madagascar, Indonesia, China, Tonga… wherever it could be cultivated and successfully pollinated.

Cortez fell in love with it, but the Spaniards couldn’t figure out the trick.  In the 1800s it was finally determined that a vanilla orchid flower, which blooms only once a year for one day, could be artifically pollinated rather than relying on the very rare bee found only in Papantla, whose time honored job has always been to pollinate the orchids as well as their hosts, the groves citrus trees which also grow in the area.

Manuel and I talk about an early summer excursion to take part in Papantla’s pre-hispanic vanilla celebration, where we plan to OD on vanilla, locally grown coffee and traditional dances, notably the fabled Voladores–men who tie themselves to the top of a tall pole and jump off upside down… some playing flutes as they descend!

And of course we have to taste xanath, the Totonaco Indian word for vanilla and also for a beautiful vanilla liqueur rarely found outside northern Veracruz.  We’ll shop for vanilla–the real deal–and vanilla crafts such as small baskets and other forms made from vanilla beans which they say hold their intense perfume for up to seven years.

Gee, I wonder if we can afford it…  I failed to mention–those 3/4 liter bottles of vanilla so fragrant it brings tears to my eyes set Manuel back $20 PESOS a bottle at the Tlaxcala market!

Heavy sigh… if only we could get the stuff here…

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

P.S.  Did you know that Mexico is the largest producer of honey in the world?  Papantla’s, of course, is perfumed with orange blossoms…

Tacos de Canasta

Funny, I have a tendency to get homesick for Mexico City, a place I would never consider living.

There is nowhere like the city or its people, and certainly nowhere on our planet has such street food!  In a country renowned for street eats, Mexico City is bursting with variety– the sights, sounds and enticing smells everywhere you go…

So when I get homesick for Mexico City, it usually involves food.  In this case, Tacos Sudados de Canasta — Steamed Basket Tacos — something only Mexico could dream up.  These soft, oily, flavorful, comforting morsels are filled with good things which have been stewed for hours for maximum flavor, then wrapped up lovingly in a carefully prescribed way and held, usually in a wicker or carrizo basket, for at least two hours before serving.  Fillings may include mashed potato with cheese and sausage, chicken tinga, chicken and mole, cochinita pibil, refried beans and chicharron prensado.  Here’s how it works:

You need a basket or other container, cloths to line and cover it, plastic to retain steam and brown paper to absorb grease.

Line the basket first with cloth, then plastic, then brown paper and more plastic, then more paper.  Strew a good layer of sliced onions which have been sauteed in a bit of oil with a pinch of oregano until soft and fragrant.

Fill small, fresh, hot tortillas (preferably the little 4″ ones made for tacos, so you can eat more of each filling) with a variety of fillings.  If you can get different colored tortillas — they are made red with chile, green with chile or nopales, and the natural blue of corn or with added cuitlacoche — put a different filling in each color.  Otherwise, devise a stacking system so you can tell which row has a different filling.

Strew more onions between each layer, but not so many that there is a lot of oil filtering down into the bottom layer.

Cover the top layer well with paper, then more plastic and finally a thick layer of cloth to retain heat to steam the tacos well for at least two hours before uncovering and serving.

When you’re walking the streets of Mexico City and run into Tacos de Canasta, don’t hesitate!  Dive in and enjoy with a freshly made salsa, pickled chiles and an ice cold drink…

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

 

EL PINOLE

Hola!

You may recall I went to visit my boyfriend at  his Tlaxcala home in February, and was amazed by the pre-hispanic market that has stood on the same site for a thousand years, and still sells the same products they sold way back then.

Today Manuel sent me a story about pinole, a traditional toasted corn drink he remembers fondly from his childhood.  Like many Mexican children, he loved to eat it dry, enjoying its sandy texture and rich toasted corn taste.

Here is my translation of his pinole story:

“Pinole.  Since I was a child I hadn’t eaten pinole, and last week I had the chance to taste it once again thanks to my sister, who had a bit in her kitchen.  She told me that they’ve always sold it in the market here in Tlaxcala, so I went to look for it and on the second try located it. 

I asked an old woman who sold seeds where to find it, and she told me who carried it. ‘ There’s an old woman who sells her goods right on the floor, she’s got it,’ she told me.  So I found her, and noticed that she is old, but quite strong like people of her generation often are, and yes, she sells pinole and ground corn of different colors to make atole.  I asked how pinole is made and she told me it’s a simple recipe, you just toast corn on a hot comal, then grind it with sugar and cinnamon.  I tried some before buying,  and the flavor was different than I remembered from my childhood.    I bought some anyway and took it back to the woman who sells seeds to try, to tell me if it seemed like good stuff to her. 

She said, ‘I believe you love pinole because your mother ate a lot of it before she had you, and hey, my son loves quesadillas made with squash blossoms because I ate a lot of them when I was pregnant with him.  I love seafood because they say my mother ate it before I was born.’  I asked her again if she liked the pinole and she said she really didn’t care for it.  I asked if it was bad, and she explained why she never eats the stuff.  ‘I’ve never liked pinole because an uncle died eating pinole, he asphyxiated, so I recommend that  you make it into atole and drink it .’

This brought to mind two Mexican sayings, ‘Either speak or eat pinole,’ and ‘He who swallows the most saliva eats the most pinole.’ ” 

Muchos saludos a todos,

Donna

 

COOKING IN CABO IN AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER–BEAT THE STREETS FOR TREATS IN THE HEAT!!!?

Hola, all!

The answer to this burning question is a resounding YES!  I am amazed at the response to the August culinary tour I designed to allow us to continue to take in Cabo’s traditional Mexican  food scene without losing our cool…  and now I’m hearing from truly intrepid travelers who venture to Cabo at the height of hurricane season–hey, if you’re crazy enough, count me in! 

 Here’s the deal:

I am offering a special culinary tour, Breakfast and Marketing in Mexico, to take in Cabo’s burgeoning traditional Mexican food inlets and outlets.  This four hour experience, 9am to 1pm, will take you off the beaten path and into the heart of Mexico.  

We fortify ourselves for our shopping expedition with a discussion of Mexican foods over breakfast Mexican-stye at a popular cafe where everything is made fresh daily in a spotless kitchen.  Then we walk through air-conditioned markets reviewing basic ingredients including breads, meats, cheeses, chiles, fruits, vegetables and herbs. 
 
We wind up our day with an antojito and a cold drink at a true artesanal tortillera, where masa is made the way it has been for a thousand years (increasingly rare even on the mainland of Mexico), watching women making classic corn masa antojitos like quesadillas de comal, sopes and gorditas with freshly made mouth-watering fillings, served up with hand made salsas and fresh nopal (cactus paddle) salad!   You can use what you’ve learned to prepare foods you sample during our day together and other traditional dishes using recipes you take home from our tour to share with friends and family. 
 
 Interested?  Let’s do it!  I’m all fired up!
 
Have a great summer wherever you are… and stay cool!
 
Muchos saludos,
Donna

CULINARY ART IN BAJA

Next time you’re driving down Baja, try to hit Ensenada on a Sunday and stop in at Marcelo Castro’s recent addition to Baja’s quiet gourmet food and drink revolution.  Take the short drive 40 miles east of Ensenada on federal highway 3 to Ojos Negros to see what it’s all about.

Now, in addition to incomparable seafood, fantastic organic produce, olive oil and wines all made possible by sea breezes which create a very special micro climate perfect for all these culinary treasures, Marcelo Castro has installed America’s first stone cave for aging artesanal cheeses the way it’s been done for generations in Europe.

It makes sense.  Marcelo is a fourth generation artesanal cheese producer, following in the footsteps of his Swiss-Italian grandfather who brought the family tradition to Baja, making cheeses for American and Mexican cowboys in the valley historically known as Valle de San Rafael.  The family business expanded to include the Ensenada-Tecate-Tijuana triangle, then the entire country of Mexico.

Marcelo’s ambitious project allows him to turn out 400 kilos of exquisite artesanal cheeses daily, and the stone cave has a capacity for 10,000 pieces at the perfect humidity and light exposure for European quality cheeses.

Artesanal doesn’t just encompass cheese production, either.  Marcelo’s grows and feeds their own livestock, milks the cows and takes it from there!  And yes, you can drop in on Sundays for a tour that allows you to see just how it’s being done, and to sample the fare, including the Valley’s famous wines.  Google Cava de Marcelo for more information. 

It’s an exciting time for foodies in Baja!  Come for lunch…

!Provecho!

Donna

Cooking in August

Only the most intrepid traveler comes to Cabo in August.  However, I’m receiving steady requests from cooks whose enthusiasm for Mexican cooking is obviously unaffected by the heat… so here’s the deal:
 
I shut down my kitchen during the time of volcano heat beginning in August, starting up again when the heat dies down in mid-October.  However, I have received several requests in August from people who really want a taste of traditional Mexican cooking, so I would like to offer a cook’s tour of Breakfast and Marketing in Mexico to show off Cabo’s recently blossoming traditional food producers and purveyors.
 
Starting at 8:30 with breakfast at a great local comedor, we continue with a visit to an artesanal tortilleria where they make fresh nixtamal daily even in our hottest weather, the way it’s been done for a thousand years.  After another stop or two (we now have an authentic Tlaxcala bakery, unbelievable!) we wind up at one of our major Mexican markets (air conditioned, of course–see my entry on Traditional Mexican Panaderia below) with a walk-through introduction to Mexican cheeses, pan dulce, meats, herbs, spices and chiles, fresh and dried, including suggestions for use and recipes to take home.  The tour winds up at 12:30, and you’re home in time for a nice siesta before hitting the beach when the heat subsides in the afternoon…
 
The plan is to eat and shop our way through Cabo’s developing traditional food scene while keeping our cool.  If this interests you, let me know.  I hope to meet you when you come down, and share my passion for Mexican food!
 
Muchos saludos,
Donna

Pibil in Paradise

June is shaping up to be a really tasty month. 

We started out in Tabasco with some absolutely addictive chipotle chiles simmered in a piloncillo brine then plump-stuffed with platano macho fried golden in butter with sweet onions, then mashed with fresh orange juice, raisins, chopped toasted walnuts and a good handful of crumbled queso panela for good measure… each one rolled in flour, then egg, then dry breadcrumbs and fried golden crisp and served with cold sour cream to cut the heat… I dream about those chiles!

Then yesterday some culinarily adventurous cooks asked for lunch in Yucatan — so off we went!  Sopa de Limon is Yucatan’s version of Mexico’s famous and also addictive tortilla soup — with a chunk of habanero simmered in the broth and a good squeeze of sour orange juice to top it off. 

Papadzules — strange food!  Mayan food.  This unusual and somewhat baroque offering from Yucatan makes a wonderful breakfast dish — tender corn tortillas are dipped in a toasted pumpkin seed sauce then rolled around chopped hard boiled eggs and served in a pool of spicy tomato sauce. 

Ah, and the pibil!  You thought I would never get around to the pibil, right?  Well there it was, simmering away on low in my trusty crock pot since four a.m., tender juicy bundles of chicken, achiote and other traditional herbs and spices, onion rings and tomato slices — with a chunk of habanero tucked into each bundle to add a little extra interest — all wrapped in fresh banana leaves redolent of the jungle from which they were harvested…

And sure enough, the crock pot is the way to make pibil if you aren’t lucky enough to have a pit barbecue in your back yard.  A good friend makes pork the same way and it melts in your mouth!

So where will we be off to next?  Oaxaca, or maybe Veracruz… the fun part is that we can eat our way through the Republic of Mexico without leaving my cozy Cabo kitchen these days since we can now get pretty much all the ingredients for any regional dish we can dream up right here in town!

I’m loving the new Cabo!

Muchos saludos,

Donna

¡JICAMA!

¡Saludos!

This one goes out to my culinarily adventurous friend Alberto…

Jicama.  Surprisingly few people have explored this juicy, crispy tuber that is so popular in Mexico, Central and South America and the Orient, since the Spaniards carried it to the Philippines as one of the spoils of the conquest of Mexico.  It remains quite popular in Oriental cuisine as an economical substitute for water chestnuts, since it has a pleasing quality of absorbing flavors and retains its crispy crunch in stir fries and the like.

You may have tried it on a trip to Mexico while wandering the streets, in an irresistable fruit cocktail or on its own, liberally doused with lime juice and chile powder.  It discolors slowly, making it a great addition to relish platters even in the comparatively culinarily conservative U.S.A., where aficionados think the flavor is a cross between a crisp apple and a crisper pear… or an apple and a potato if the tuber is older and starchier.

It’s high in vitamin C and fiber, low in sodium and has zero fat… so it SHOULD become a staple on your table as it is in so many Mexican homes.  Choose a tuber that feels heavy for its size, with a root that doesn’t look too dried out.  Mexican cooks in jicama country won’t take it home from the market unless it has fresh leaves sprouting from the top, but most of us aren’t that lucky.

Try it peeled and cubed in a salad with similarly cubed cantaloupe and honeydew dressed with lime and honey (add a good grind of fresh black pepper, what the heck!); chop it and make a fruity salsa with mango, red onion and serrano pepper… or try this delicious, refreshing salad from Jalisco, known as Picardía:

Cube a small jicama in 1/2″ dice

Seed and devein one or two small fresh serrano chiles

Chop a good handful of fresh mint

Mix together and dress with fresh lime juice and a drizzle of honey if the jicama isn’t sweet enough.  Chill well and serve in pretty butter lettuce leaf cups and really cut the heat of a summer day!

However you enjoy your jicama, try it in another recipe, fresh or cooked and you’ll be glad you got to know this Mexican delight!

¡Provecho!

Donna

¡VIVA EL FLAN!

Hello, and happy Spring!

Today I’m inspired to talk about Mexico’s creamy classic dessert, flan…

Some have never eaten flan, and others have fallen on funky flan!  Fortunate diners have had the full on flan experience, which rivals good cheesecake as a dessert classic and can run the gamut from basic vanilla to baroque chocoflan to suit the most demanding dessert-o-holic’s palate — but have no idea how to create the flan fantasy for themselves.

Similar to creme brulee, flan’s caramel sauce is baked on the bottom to be inverted and served as a liquid topping that requires a serving platter with a lip to contain every golden drop. 

I’ve never had a flan fail to flip.  This is because the custard floats on its base of liquid caramel, and all it takes to release it from its mold is to run a sharp knife around the sides, once it has been thoroughly chilled.  Simply place your platter over the mold, and FLIP!  Fabulous flan!

It’s all technique.  Melting the sugar for the caramel topping is simple.  Get a heavy skillet, place over medium heat, add 3/4 c. sugar and let it stand until you can see the sugar clearly melting; the top sugar layer will be floating on melted caramel.  At this point stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is mostly melted; turn off the heat and continue to stir until completely melted and golden.

Have a mold ready to receive the caramel.  I use a glass souffle baker, which I preheat with some boiling water, drying it well just before pouring in the melted sugar.  IMMEDIATELY tilt the mold around to coat the bottom and 1/2-1″ up the sides with caramel, working quickly as it sets up fast.  Set aside to cool until you can place your hand on the sugar to avoid scrambling the eggs in your custard.

You need a water bath to bake the custard; eggs are delicate and really need this insulation from the oven’s heat.  Find a baking dish that will hold the mold with room to spare.  Measure the water by placing the mold in the baking dish and adding water to about custard-level.  Remove the mold and heat the measured water almost to boiling.  Preheat your oven to 325.

The custard is a simple thing.  Pour a 14 oz. can of Eagle Brand sweeteened condensed milk (La Lechera in Mexico) into your blender jar.  Using the same can, measure milk, half and half or cream (depending on how rich you want your flan) and add it to the blender.  Break four large eggs in with the milk and voila!  Basic flan!  Add flavoring of your choice — good quality vanilla, coffee powder dissolved in hot water, Bailey’s, Kahlua, orange zest, a can-full of fresh corn kernels… only your imagination limits your choices.

WHIZZZ the custard thoroughly and pour into your cooled, caramel lined mold.  Place the baking dish with hot water in the oven, carefully add the flan in its mold and bake for an hour. 

Now the tricky part.  Is it done?

The flan should be puffed and a beautiful golden brown.  If this is not the case, let it bake another 10-15 minutes and check again.  Puffed and brown?  Great!  Now give it the Jiggle Test.  Pay no attention to recipes suggesting that a knife inserted off center will come away clean.  By that point your flan is WAAAY overdone! 

Give it a judicious jiggle.  If it has a liquid sort of jiggle, like an old-style water bed, let it bake another 5 and try again.  It should have a happy little jello-type jiggle… in which case it’s done!  Take it straight out of the oven, and out of the water bath to cool completely before chilling at least 3 hours prior to flipping.

¡Fabuloso!  You’ve mastered the perfect flan!  There it sits in its pond of golden caramel awaiting your pleasure.  You can, of course, serve it just as-is as a finale to even the most elegant meal.  OR… you can certainly gild the lily, adding fresh berries or sliced peaches and a final drizzle of cream before serving, or go completely crazy and pipe whipped cream rosettes and drizzle with hot fudge sauce…

In the end, what you do with your flan in your own home between consenting adults is really up to you.

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

GREEN CORN

I know I have gone on and on about how happy I am to have Mexican products available to us here in Cabo.  It seems incredible that only a short few years ago we were limited in our selection, and now we are surrounded by such abundance, all with the Mexican cook in mind!

Epazote, arguably the most Mexican of all culinary herbs, has become a regular staple at our big box stores as they try to outdo each other vying for popularity with Cabo’s Mexican population, which suddenly outnumbers foreign residents and locals combined! 

Black beans would not be black beans without epazote in central and southern Mexico.  It is also used with wild abandon in quesadillas de comal, chopped with fresh corn, in soups and stews, and also as an herbal remedy reputed to be an antiflatuent and vermifuge.  It is a pungent, slightly bitter herb that is fairly easy to grow, although it tends to dry out in our Baja hot season.  I really love having epazote readily available at the markets, along with a wide selection of other fresh herbs like chamomile for tea; mint, which is used in a variety of Mexican dishes as well as a refreshing tea; laurel (Bay); thyme; basil and sage.

We can also get fresh banana leaves for tamales, a really good selection of fresh and dried chiles, and virtually all the competitive markets have a full-time nopalero, a man who stands whisking the spines from prickly pear cactus paddles–nopales–with a super sharp knife, trimming the edges so each paddle is perfect, ready for the kitchen!

What do do with nopales?  Here’s a great tip:  drizzle them with a little olive oil, sprinkle them with salt and grill them briefly on each side (you can do this in a hot skillet as well), then use them as a beautiful bright green base for pork in a mole sauce, chicken in chipotle… whatever your imagination can cook up!  Serve with a side of rice and wow!  Healthy, light and absolutely delicious.  They taste a bit like green beans with lime juice, really fresh and tasty.

Ah, but I digress!  I was going to talk about green corn.  Recently huge shipments of fresh corn have been arriving in our major markets, and by the truckload to be sold on street corners and in the big arroyo where fresh produce appears out of nowhere when it comes in season.  The markets use it as a come-on to attract the coveted market of Mexican cooks who mob the place with the cheapest price, using elbows and shopping carts to jockey for the best position as they load up on this most cherished of all Mexican ingredients.

This is a mystery to the foreign palate… these are not ears of sweet corn like those you would find in California, literally bursting with sugar and needing only a brief cooking to be at their tender best.  These are tough, starchy ears of field corn that foreigners find inedible!  What possible use could you find for these tough customers?

I was in the melee, sharpening my elbows to get my share, and I took the opportunity to ask people around me what they planned to do with the bounty.  The answer?  TAMALES!  Fresh corn tamales must contain a lot of starch, or they will never set up.  TORTA DE ELOTE!  Mexican gastronomy contains few desserts, but fresh corn makes a delightful, moist cake popular with the whole family.  ATOLE!   This thick beverage, like a thin pudding, is so nourishing when made with fresh corn kernels. 

Me?  I was going to make a batch of Uchepos, Michoacan’s fresh corn tamales, delicate little morsels served right on the fresh steamed corn leaf with queso fresco and a dollop of cream. 

And so the answer was the same from all of us as we clamored for our corn:  COMFORT FOOD! 

Muchos saludos a todos,

Donna

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