Archive for Travel in Mexico
¡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…
As I attempt to describe the things I have seen in the pre-Hispanic market in Tlaxcala to people who come to cook in my kitchen, my mind spirals back a thousand years when women sat in the same spot selling the same tamales made from huge fresh lake fish stuffed with tiny lake fish, wrapped in mixiote–the inner membrane of the maguey cactus leaf–the whole package tossed into hot coals until the fish is tender and the mixiote blackened and crisp…
A thousand years ago the maguey cactus was one of the most sacred and important plants in pre-Hispanic Mexico, and pulque–or octli–was a precious, milky, viscous alcoholic ritual drink reserved for special people on special occasions.
After Mexico’s independence from Spain, pulque’s production–and consumption–exploded, particularly in the states of Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, which produced a pulque aristocracy, and even in the 50s up to half the revenue of both of these states was produced by pulque.
In the early 1900s there were at least a thousand pulquerias in Mexico City alone, and many were elegant places characterized by quirky names like “Memories of the Future”, and “I’m Waiting for you Here at the Corner.” Diego Rivera declared the finest of Mexican art to be displayed on the facades and interior walls of Mexico’s pulquerias.
There are still some of the old pulquerias in Mexico City with sawdust on the floors, where patrons will spill a bit of pulque on the floor as an offering to Mother Earth in the time honored way. Pulque is traditionally served from large barrels kept on ice, dispensed into glass mugs using a calabash gourd cut in half called a “jicara”, and of course the bartender is called a “jicarero”.
Tlaxcala has organized a two day tour through the old pulque haciendas known as the Pulque Route. I dream of taking it, and once again traveling back through time the next time I’m visiting Manuel in his Tlaxcala home!
The gastronomic phenomenon of an inexpensive, three course, fixed price meal comes alive during the afternoon lunch hours at every “fonda” and “cocina económica” in Mexico. This wonderful Mexican gastronomic phenomenon, the Comida Corrida, is named for the “Tres Tiempos”, the Three Parts, of a bullfight, the legendary Corrida de Toros.
These small restaurants are attended by women who own them, presiding over kitchens throughout the country with a motherly homestyle feel, feeding a nation well and very affordably every working day. Men generally stick to more manly cheap eats like tacos and carnitas, leaving lunch to the ladies.
The Three Parts have been set in stone over the generations: First: The “entrada caldosa”, a brothy dish like a pasta soup or consomme. Second: The “plato seco”, or dry dish of rice or spaghetti, or a vegetable salad. Third: The “plato fuerte”, or main dish, typically featuring three or four options of Mexican homestyle dishes like beef tips in red chile sauce, pork or chicken in mole, fried or grilled fish, and perhaps a vegetarian offering like tortitas de papa, crispy potato cheese cakes served in a red sauce, particularly during Lent. An “agua fresca”, fresh water drink made with fruit, flowers or rice will be served, but dessert is not typically included and would be considered a courtesy of the house rather than a part of the comida corrida.
My guy Manuel is back in Mexico City, where he frequently takes his main meal in fondas near his home. He sent me this story, which he wrote for me as a birthday present the other day. This is my translation:
LA COMIDA CORRIDA.
On Saturday I went back to “Fonda Mary” for a comida corrida. The day was chilly, and when I stepped inside the fonda was empty, which I presumed was due to the cold, but as I ate people began to arrive and the place filled up as it always does.
The comida corrida consists of three dishes–I ordered vegetable soup, adding fresh cilantro, chopped white onion, chile and lime for extra flavor. Then I asked for rice and beans, and as a main dish I had the almendrado, a simple mole with almonds and chile cooked with pork, mopping it up with eight hot tortillas and washing it all down with agua fresca. It was so tasty that I raised my glass to my lady in celebration of her birthday back in Cabo!
The almendrado was homemade and very tasty, and I got to wondering what part of the southern Republic Mary might be from. Today when I went back for the comida corrida the first thing I did was ask her where she learned to cook. It turns out she’s from Progreso National, born right here in Mexico City! So again today I had the pasta soup, then spaghetti with cream and cheese, and finally a pipian–the famous green mole based on pumpkin seeds cooked with pork and beans, and it was delicious as always!
A worker or campesino who does hard work can eat a good comida corrida and leave well satisfied and ready to continue his work. The same goes for a housewife with children, and for students who don’t want to live on junk food. Professionals are just as likely to be found at fondas, eating well and saving money on Mexico’s national treasure, the comida corrida.
This Saturday I will celebrate 60 years of eating at great fondas like Mary’s–with yet another comida corrida!
Saludos a todos,
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…
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…
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.
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…
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 .’
Muchos saludos a todos,
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.
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…
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.