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
My guy Manuel is on the Oaxacan coast studying Reiki. Between courses he drops into an internet cafe to render his opinion of local foods–we have frequent discussions about regional differences in traditional foods like these Oaxacan delicacies made of freshly ground nixtamal, which is starchy field corn cooked with powdered limestone and water the way it’s been done for over a thousand years, then stone ground to make beautiful whole grain breads.
“Speaking of tlayudas, totopos and tostadas, here in Puerto Angel I found a place where in the evenings and at night they sell all of these at $35 pesos each, and as they are the first I’ve eaten in my 60 years I can honestly say they’re the best I’ve ever had!
“Imagine a Oaxacan at age 60 eating his first tlayuda–well, that’s me! I never had one before because in the Lower Mixtec they don’t make them. There we eat totopos which are almost the same size, except that totopos are made with fresh lard and aren’t as sturdy as tlacoyos which can hold up under a lot of toppings.
“Totopos are best with a light topping like nata (similar to Devonshire clotted cream), or regular cream, cheese and salsa, and they’re crisp and delicious as a snack or with a meal instead of tortillas.
“They load a real variety of things on tlayudas, which are actually a gigantic tortilla at least 35 cm. in diameter and very sturdy. Here in Puerto Angel they top them with refried beans, cream, Oaxacan cheese, tasajo, red salsa, guacamole, lettuce, onion and tomato like a Oaxacan pizza made with corn, or maybe Italian pizzas are like Oaxacan tlayudas only made of wheat…
“Eating a tlayuda is a full meal deal, because when you’re through you’re really satisfied. Another difference between tlayudas and our totopos from the Lower Mixtec is that tlayudas only keep a couple of weeks, and totopos keep beautifully for a year or more without any kind of refrigeration, held in a plastic bag.
“Totopos from Juchitan and Tehuantepec are smaller, about 20 cm., and they have small holes. Tostadas from Puerto Angel and Pochutla have no holes and are very thin.
“The amazing variety of these corn bread variations makes them truly edible art. They all have in common that they are cooked over low heat to dry them out.”
And so once again I find myself recommending everyone who loves Mexican foods to get on down to Oaxaca for lunch! I highly recommend Tlayudas Libres in Oaxaca City, on Libres Street, which opens at about 9pm and goes like crazy until about 7am! Have a Oaxacan pizza and savor the flavors of Mexico.
I never cease to be amazed at the methods used by traditional cooks as I travel through south and south-central Mexico — the densely populated Colonial areas well below the “tortilla line” that runs through Cabo and Mazatlan across Mexico’s midsection, dividing the Republic by bread and beans.
I’m from northern Arizona, so I grew up on flour tortillas and pinto beans. My guy Manuel is from way below the line, so his basics are corn tortillas and black beans. This is pretty much set in stone, though he will eat my pintos if that’s all we have laying around the house. “Where’s the epazote,” he’ll ask.
But the topic of this article is fire. Many times I wind up a class and someone will suddenly realize that we have been eating intensely Mexican foods all day… and that we have used no spices whatsoever!
How is this possible? Isn’t Mexican food based on heaps of esoteric spices we’ve never heard of, much less incorporated into our own dishes?
One of the best kept secrets of traditional Mexican cooking is no secret at all. It is the oldest cooking method known to man — the direct application of heat, and preferably fire!
There is often an intake of breath as tomatoes, onions, chiles and garlic hit a hot, dry comal (griddle) without a speck of oil! The same treatment is given to spices and pretty much everything else to be incorporated into traditional Mexican dishes. Why? To quote the immortal Homer Simpson, “Fire makes it good”.
Traditional Mexican salsas, including simple and elaborate moles, are prepared using various applications of heat and fire, from charring raw vegetables to a technique called “frying” a sauce in a small amount of oil to thicken and concentrate flavors. Fresh poblanos and dried chiles to be stuffed or used in salsas go straight on my gas burners to char the skins, imparting a wonderful roasted, smoky flavor and mind-blowing scent.
When I go to Oaxaca City and see women in frilly aprons throwing tiny, vinegary chorizos or thin pieces of spiced beef or pork straight onto mesquite coals whipped into a white-hot frenzy, sparks blown clean across a cobbled street by woven palm fans made expressly for this purpose… the hairs on my neck stand up and a deep thrill runs through me as I witness this most primitive form of cooking still used daily in Mexico’s traditional areas by cooks following instructions passed directly from mother to daughter into the smoky distant past stretching back a thousand years or more.
I discuss the subject of fire with Manuel, and he is surprised. He grew up eating this way, and knows the smells and flavors well, but he’d never considered fire as an ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking. He agrees that it is critical–and of course the ashes add to the dish!
As ever, I highly recommend we all go to Oaxaca for lunch.
I started the Breakfast and Marketing Tour over the summer as a kind of joke. I never thought so many people would be willing to get out in the volcano heat of Cabo’s hurricane season in search of traditional Mexico and Mexican foods! Unlikely as it seems, it was hot hot hot — and that’s no joke! So much so, in fact, that once I was able to get back in the kitchen lots of people wanted to do both the Tour AND a cooking class!
Enthusiastic and energetic as I am when it comes to Mexican food, I cannot do it all! The solution is a perfect one. My Mexican cuisine and culture guru, Claudia Velo, has taken over this part of the Casa de Colores program. With no further ado, I’d like her to introduce herself. I hope you’ll get a chance to meet her in person on a Cabo visit. She’ll give you an unforgettable, truly Mexican experience.
When Donna asked me to help her with the Breakfast and Marketing Tour in Cabo my heart did a triple somersault of joy because this means the universe, through my wonderful friend Donna, is giving me yet another chance to share my passion for Mexican culture and cuisine with the wonderful, adventurous people who choose to explore beyond the obvious sand-and-sun beauty of Mexico.
And so… here is my official introduction to all of you foodies that follow Donna on her culinary adventures at Casa De Colores.
I was born and raised in Mexico City, and my whole life I have had an intense love affair with Mexican traditions and cuisine which was intensified all the more when I spent time abroad and found out how precious our traditions truly are, how complex our culinary landscape really is, and how it has related to other cultures through centuries of history and exchanges from the merely commercial to the profoundly passionate. Remind me to tell you in another participation in this blog about how the China Poblana costume was created, and I think you’ll understand what I mean.
I believe my love affair with Mexican traditions began in my childhood when I spent endless hours at the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City where my mom worked as curator of the ethno-history exhibits. Instead of reading fairy tales, I read about Mexico’s history and legends, and later on when I ventured into the hospitality industry in Puerto Vallarta I realized how I loved to share this knowledge with visitors who are interested in Mexico. At that time I contributed cultural content about Mexican traditions to several tourist guides such as Frommer’s, Berlitz and Mexico’s Beach Resorts for Dummies.
When I had the chance to design and open the Cultural Center at the Four Seasons in Punta Mita I began to fully realize how fulfilling it was to share little known facts about origins and reasons behind Mexico’s traditions with visitors from near and far.
Now, I am excited beyond words at the opportunity to share with you the wonderful culinary wealth of Mexico that has become available in Los Cabos thanks to a fortunate and rare set of circumstances… so come and let’s explore the marvels of Mexico’s cuisine in places off the beaten path and stroll aisles filled with traditional Mexican products… I guarantee you will have a wonderful experience and learn how to use many ingredients that I bet you had no idea what to make of before.
See you in Cabo!
It must be Fall. I’ve been getting steady requests to do Lunch in Yucatan, featuring a modern version of the ancient Mayan classic, Pollo Pibil–and I find myself awaiting each of these occasions with my salivary glands in high gear! Somehow, as the weather cools and the season turns over a new leaf, nothing comforts like a big, overstuffed Mayan pit-style, habanero-and-achiote spiced pulled chicken sanwich scattered with day-glo pink pickled onions…
In Yucatan, Mayans still dig pits in their yards to roast whole pigs or chickens to sell along the roadside for a spicy, smoky Sunday breakfast treat. However, this is something we can easily create at home after a foray into a good Hispanic or Oriental market for a couple of basic ingredients–namely achiote paste made from rock-hard brick red annatto seeds ground with spices, and fresh banana leaves. If you’re lucky enough to find (or grow) fresh epazote, be sure to pick up a bunch of that, too.
Back at the ranch, prepare the marinade for your pibil by tossing into your trusty blender 4 tablespoons of achiote paste with 1/2 c. fresh orange juice and 1/4 c. fresh lime juice, plus a splash of white vinegar for good measure. Add a clove or two of fresh garlic, about a half dozen whole allspice berries and 1 tsp. sea salt and whiz away to create your beautiful brick red marinade.
Pour this fragrant sauce over about 4 lbs. of bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts or boneless pork leg, deeply scored, and allow the meat to marinate for several hours or overnight.
Get a good roasting pan with a lid, preferably pottery or stoneware, and line it with the fresh banana leaves. Place the marinated meat lovingly in your substitute pit, pouring extra sauce over the meat. Slice up an entire large white onion and three or four red ripe Roma tomatoes onto the meat, adding a large sprig of fresh epazote (dried will do in a pinch), and tuck in two or three fresh, bright orange habanero chiles. Don’t worry–if you don’t open them they won’t add too much heat!
Cover your pibil with fresh banana leaves, tuck it in nicely and cover tightly. Bake it for an hour or so in a 350 oven until the meat is tender, then remove it from the oven, shred the meat into the juice and remove the banana leaves. Correct the seasoning–I usually wind up mashing and adding the habaneros to bring up the spice level–and put the whole shebang on a burner and continue cooking until the meat is very tender and most of the sauce has been absorbed… Torta time!!
Ah, but I digress… you will of course have prepared a jar of southern Mexico’s famous day-glo pink pickled onions, ubiquitous throughout the south on every table. Simply slice a dark red onion in half, then slice as thin or thick as you like. Pour boiling water over it briefly to wilt and cut the heat, then pack in a glass jar, adding white vinegar to fill the jar halfway, plus a teaspoon of sea salt. Tuck a flame-blackened habanero in the jar, and turn it over every time you open the fridge for a day and voila! Day-glo pink pickled onions for your tacos or tortas!
If you have access to a Mexican bakery you’ll need a good telera, a French style flat roll perfect for making this sandwich. Otherwise, get the best your area has available. Pile on the pibil, scatter with vinegary onions and dive in!
PERFECT party food! I hope you make up a big pib-full and enjoy with your foodie friends this holiday season.
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!