Greetings from south of the border! Today I’m going to attempt the impossible–a semi-comprehensive article summing up the Mexican salsa experience. It’s tough because the subject is pretty broad, there being an ideal sauce for virtually every dish in every region of Mexican cooking. Salsas, moles, pipianes and adobos are the highest, most indisputable privilege of this vibrant, resonant, complex and amazingly varied World Heritage cuisine.
Salsas have always held an important place on the Mexican table by ancient prehispanic custom. A diner may preview coming attractions by scooping up a bit of raw or cooked salsa with a warm tortilla, crisp tortilla chip or piece of bread as a simple appetizer, and salsas will enhance and adorn antojitos, rice dishes, soups, salads and cooked dishes, adding rich dimensions of flavor, texture and heat.
In prehispanic Mexico mulli (now know as mole) meant sauce, as does the Spanish word salsa. Over hundreds of years moles have come to include not only relatively simple sauces but an astoundingly baroque collection of fine sauces which may be served on steamed vegetables, poultry, pork and even beef, these versions generally being considered fiesta food. Unfortunately mole is widely misinterpreted, many people believing it to be a bad chocolate sauce. A mole may or may not include chocolate to balance its finely tuned flavors, but at no time should it ever taste like Hershey’s! A mole might be light, fresh and herbal, and take under a hour to prepare, but it will warrant five stars… that’s mole. If you have the opportunity to try one, ask for a sample. If you love it, you’re in for a big treat, and if not–you’ve dodged that culinary bullet. A mole is only as good as the cook.
The pipianes are fairly thick, textured salsas based on toasted pumpkin seeds and other nuts and seeds, giving them a rustic texture and nutty, creamy flavor. They may be served thick to enrobe meats or vegetables, or may be thinned with flavorful stock and served as a festive soup. Pipian may be red or green, depending on whether red tomatoes or green tomatillos are used as a base.
There are myriad recipes and techniques used in the preparation of these magical sauces which are the heart and soul of traditional Mexican cooking. I would like to include a highly simplified run-down, the steps of salsa as I present them to cooks in my my kitchen.
Simply chop or dice fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes, white onion, and serrano chile, fold them together, season with sea salt to taste and add freshly chopped cilantro, if desired, at the moment it is served and you have a fresh Salsa Mexicana or Salsa Cruda. Add chopped or diced red radish and some peeled, seeded diced cucumber and voila! You have Pico de Gallo! The original Pico de Gallo from Jalisco is made with equal proportions of peeled, diced jicama and peeled, diced sweet orange sections, sprinkled with toasted, ground dried chile. These delicate raw salsas, which are actually fresh relishes, salads or raw chutneys, are good for one day only.
Char red Roma tomatoes or green tomatillos, a slice of white onion, a few cloves of garlic and a few serrano chiles on a hot, dry comal until everything chars, softens and sweetens. Grind in a stone molcajete or, as modern cooks do, in the good old Osterizer. If you use a blender, pulse and leave plenty of texture to mimic a salsa ground in a stone or earth bowl, season with sea salt to taste and you have what are known as salsas de molcajete, with their light, fresh, semi-cooked flavor and texture.
If you puree your molcajete salsa (or the same ingredients raw, or simmered briefly in hot water until softened), you may then use a technique called “frying” a salsa. Heat a splash of oil in a deep soup pot, pour your red or green salsa directly onto the hot oil (be careful as it will splatter!) and “fry” until the head of foam that initially rises has fallen and the bubble are popping thick, about ten minutes. This thickened, “fried” version will have the lovely texture, concentrated flavor and color of a marinara. The red version makes a wonderful Salsa Ranchera.
The next step would be to add a dried chile, or combination of dried chiles, to your red or green salsa. Toast your chosen chiles on a dry comal to maximize flavors, soak in boiling water to soften and add to instantly create a completely different salsa such as Salsa de Chile Ancho, Chile Guajillo, or Chile Pasilla (from left to right, below).
Any of these salsas may be used in any number of dishes with widely varying and always delicious results. Although it is impossible to present a full discussion of salsas in such little time and space, I hope this gets you in the kitchen COOKING MEXICAN!
I give everyone in my kitchen the same homework: Buy a real comal, give your chile powder away to Texans, get a selection of whole dried chiles (at least the top three if possible), teach yourself to toast light, medium and dark… and now you’re cooking MEXICAN! Not Southwestern or, God forbid, Tex Mex–MEXICAN!I say God Forbid Tex Mex because it is a renegade cuisine, light years removed from traditional Southern Mexican cooking. I say renegade because it breaks the law of traditional Mexican cooking, the same law that rules the great Oriental cuisines which are based on balance rather than any special secret blend of herbs and spices. If you get it in your mouth and it’s got balance, you instantly know you are eating the good stuff!
Tex Mex goes off the charts on three elements particularly: TM cooks will add PALM LOADS of dried chile powder, oregano and dried cumin powder to a dish! A traditional Mexican cook would never think of throwing a palm load of anything in a dish–spices are judiciously measured by what you can pick up with two fingers, three fingers or four fingers for a big batch of whatever is cooking, complex moles included.
So which chiles do you need to get started cooking real Mexican dishes, and how do they work?
The most used dried chile in Mexican cooking is the same as the most used fresh chile–it’s the poblano, but ripened to a deep red and sun dried. Now it’s called the ancho, and it’s as different from the poblano as raisins are from grapes.
Ancho is pictured on the left. Ancho in spanish means “wide” or “broad”, and it should be wide at the shoulders and narrow at the tip–a heart shaped chile just like its fresh counterpart, the poblano. Most people, when asked to sniff a bag of anchos and identify their perfume, will sing out “raisins”! Fruity and bittersweet, anchos come in all shapes and sizes, but a classic will be heart shaped and about 3×4*, If you are lucky enough to be able to cherry pick them from a bin, the fresh one will be shiny and flexible, though you can still work with them even if they’ve gone pretty potato chippy. If they’re small, but still nice and fresh, I like to stand and pick out a bunch of them to stuff with Chihuahua cheddar and simmer in a pink cilantro cream sauce as a highly memorable starter… Remember you can stuff any chile, fresh or dried, with any number of good things! Chile powder will never do that for you.
Note there is a confusing tendency in the North to call both poblano and ancho by the misnomer, “pasilla”. Study up and you’ll know what you’re buying.
If you’re buying chiles in a bag, give them the Charmin test–if they’re squeezably soft they’re fresh, though you can work with them even if they’re past their prime. Get them home, go through them to make sure none are buggy or mildewed. They’re not sprayed in the fields as they know we’re going to be eating them, so you can thwart their tendency to go buggy by storing with a handful of dried bay leaves, and/or freezing them.
Number two is the beautiful, stained glass red, leathery skinned guajillo, second from the left. We don’t use the fresh counterpart, the mirasol, but once it’s ripened red and sun dried the guajillo is a jewel red, flavor packed chile with legendary medicinal properties. It is inexpensive and widely available, and rather looked-down-upon by many Southern Mexican cooks, as being common. Even so, I could live happily forever after with the guajillo, and love to add it to a red salsa to make my favorite salsa diabla for deviled shrimp…
Next in line number three in South Central Mexico, will always be the Mexican pasilla for its deep complex flavors so critical to a good dark mole. It is midnight black, deeply wrinkled and can go to crazy lengths of 10″ or more! If it’s shiny and flexible it is an amazing chile to stuff with cheese or picadillo, and toasted, soaked and pureed on its own it makes a satisfying salsa with the addition of just a little garlic, onion and salt.
The little chile next to the impressive Mexican pasilla (not to be mistaken for the Oaxacan pasilla, which is another story altogether) doesn’t look like much, but it’s a powerhouse of flavor that has taken over the number three spot in the North. It’s the chipotle, and it’s a hot one, being a ripened, smoked jalapeno… and if you love smoke and heat, it’s an irresistable obsession. Use the dried version like a bay leaf, floating it in a pot of soup, stew or chile,anywhere you want smoke and heat, and remove it when you reach the levels you love. Buy cans of chipotle in adobo, puree them and keep in a squeezie bottle next to your ketchup. It will keep as long as ketchup and you can squeeeeeeze it anywhere you want that fabulous chipotle punch!
The mulato is pictured on the far right. It is a softer, sweeter, almost chocolaty version of the ancho, so if you can get your hands on it don’t hesitate to give it a try.
This should get you started. Now, how can you incorporate these gems in your cooking instead of the chile powder you just gave away to your Texan friends? Soak them in boiling water until they soften andthen puree, or better still, toast them on that comal you bought as part of your earlier homework and <em>then</em> soak them–this will bring out flavors you never imagined. Simply puree and add to any dish. The guajillo is the only one of the top three that should be sieved into your dish to remove the leathery skins that will not break down in cooking. Any of the others, including chipotle, can be toasted and cut or crumbled into your soup, stew or chile and they’ll cook right in.
Here’s a parting shot of a classic comal made of cold rolled steel. Don’t buy a pretty, light weight, modern, non stick comal–you’ll wreck it the first time you use it because the technique is dry heat. Never a drop of oil hits this Aztec griddle, which is why traditional Mexican cooking is so light, fresh and flavorful. Give it a good scrubbing with wet-n-dry sandpaper from Home Depot, dry it on a burner and you’re ready to toast up another batch of whole, dried chiles, whole spices, nuts, seeds… or whatever is cooking in your Mexican kitchen!
everWhew! We had a heck of a summer, and Cabo really took a hit from Odile… it was a test of everything and everybody here at the cape on a biblical scale. I am still impressed on a daily basis with the resilience and strength of our community, putting our lives and our town back together better than before the storm.
My kitchen has a brand new roof with solid metal structure welded into the framework of the house. I lost my old roof because the antique wooden framing couldn’t take the strain, and I figured it would be junk once the guys got it down–it turned out to be in amazingly good condition, and wound up building a good (and very pretty) stretch of fence!
We did the first week of classes in my downstairs kitchen out of an icebox. It reminded me of the old days in Cabo when I lived off the grid with solar panels and water was delivered by pump truck. I will always have a special place in my heart and kitchen for those first groups of cooks who came back to Cabo regardless of conditions so soon after the storm. I think we were all pleasantly amazed how quickly things came back together. So the roof is on, and we are back to cooking upstairs. The inaugural week was magical. I do not have a schedule. The first cooks to reserve a class choose the subject, and for the first time in six years of classes, every single class that first week turned out to be… making mole! My favorite!
I love my kitchen, and all the cooks who show up to cook, more than ever before. Thanks to all of you for your fine sense of adventure and love of traditional Mexican food and culture that brings you to Cabo and into my home and kitchen! I look forward to cooking with you soon.
In the wee hours of September 15th our beloved Cabo community sat peacefully within the eye of a monster–the most intense hurricane to make landfall on Baja Sur during the satellite era. The calm was not to last, as Odile hammered away at the southern tip of Baja accompanied by repeated shaking from quakes centered around San Felipe in Baja Norte registering from 4 to 5.2. Odile even spawned tornadoes I am told by friends who were there, hanging on for dear life as a real live monster created storms within storms…
A true tale of horror! I was spared the full trauma of the event as I breathlessly watched Odile’s progress through the window of my computer, high and dry with Manuel in Mexico City. It would be days before I knew the extent of the damage to Baja Sur, and to my beautiful kitchen.
I lost my second story roof to pressures equal to those of Florida’s Hurricane Andrew. I count myself lucky, because many hard working locals lost everything they own to what has been called the Odile Ordeal. Lots of concerned cooks who have adopted Cabo as their own community have contacted me to find out how I am, how Cabo is, and how they might help. There are many ways to support a disaster area, but I would say that without a doubt the most important thing people can do is to COME ON DOWN! Visit Cabo, and you are helping to rebuild in the most direct way possible.
Will I be cooking? You bet! My first scheduled class, appropriately making Comfort Foods, will take place on October 17th. Luckily I have a spare beautiful kitchen, and my plan is to keep on cooking downstairs as repairs go on overhead. Considering the quality of the people who support me I don’t think it will be long before we are all cooking in my new and improved kitchen upstairs!
Manuel and I have had wonderful adventures this summer visiting more of Mexico’s magical towns and cities. We spent a couple of weeks in Michoacán, which I have always been told is Mexico’s most beautiful state. It is indeed a very special place–the capital city of Morelia is a city of stone, perfectly proportioned architectural gems from the 16th century onward in all directions as far as the eye can see, centered around the fabulous iconic cathedral with its twin 70m towers… And the Lake Patzcuaro area of Day of the Dead fame is even more amazing than we had expected. I will reluctantly leave our travels to Michoacán, Puebla, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala and the Federal District for future articles, though I am posting like crazy on Trip Advisor to help travelers find their way to these incredible destinations.
My warmest greetings and deepest thanks to all of you who have been in touch. Your communication has meant more to me than words can express, and I look forward to this season of cooking with you all like never before! All reports from Cabo indicate that things have come together in record time to prepare for your visit. Manuel and I will be home on Sunday, lugging lots of wonderful freshly dried chiles and other goodies, ready to cook up a storm… in a good way, of course!
Special credit to Manuel for today’s photo. Nice shot!
¡Muchos saludos desde Cabo San Lucas!
I just got home from a serious chile buying expedition to South Central Mexico… sadly my little corner of the Mexican Republic is not blessed with traditional markets, but a short plane ride takes me straight into the heart of it all. These days we have domestic air carriers like Interjet and Volaris that make it easy and affordable to hop on over to Mexico City, Guadalajara and lots of other great destinations that DO shop the way they’ve done for over a thousand years!
La Merced is the largest retail market in Mexico City, which I would imagine puts it at the top of the heap nationally. It’s only about 13 blocks east of the Zocalo, the amazing public square in the Historical Center that is the cultural heart of the country. It’s named after its neighborhood, as well as the ancient monastery which previously occupied the sprawling space it inhabits. It is filled with life and color and smells and sights and sounds like no place else on the planet, well worth a visit if you are an adventurous traveler!
There are two metro stops for La Merced, including one that puts you right inside, immediately surrounding you with STUFF in surreal quantities, and the people hawking it are no less colorful. Anything you can imagine, and lots of things you never even thought of are sold at this great- great- great-grandaddy of Mexican markets, including a mind-boggling array of ladies young and old selling their own personal wares in this place where prostitution is the norm, serving local working class men including the many many truck drivers who have spare time between loads.
I was on the hunt for dried chiles, and was not disappointed. After passing through nopal cactus heaven where the air is overwhelmingly fresh, corn heaven where corn on and off the cob surrounds you on all sides, leaf heaven with dried and fresh corn husks for tamales and mixiotes, GIGANTIC sweet-smelling banana leaves in huge neat bundles for tamales, pibil and other good things… finally we came upon the chiles.
And what chiles! After passing a few initial stalls with puny, dried up specimens we came upon rows and rows of stalls displaying soft, flexible, shiny, overwhelmingly fragrant chiles in all shapes and sizes. I’m coming to the end of my season, so I only scored a couple of pounds of each (in their dried form, a pound is a bunch of chiles)–beautiful burgundy red anchos redolent of sun dried raisins for stuffing with cheese, meat mixtures, chorizo, potato and onion hash, or for making moles… shiny jewel red guajillos for salsas and soups, and even some long, midnight black Mexican pasillas with their rich, complex flavor, so fresh they brought tears to my eyes thinking of the pleasure of stuffing them with Menonite-made Chihuahua cheddar cheese and frying them golden in a tender egg batter….
So much to buy and so little space in the bags. Still, we had to get out of La Merced which meant passing through more indescribable quantities of STUFF, which of course had to include kitchen equipment… The first stall in the kitchen equipment area obviously had everything you could ever want or need to set up a commercial kitchen. I asked the friendly proprietor if she had molds for conchas, the Mexican sweet rolls with the seashell pattern cut into the streusel they’re topped with. Of course! Would you like that in stainless or tin? There’s a $10 peso difference in price–I went for the gusto, paying about $4.50 US for a beautiful stainless cutter with two patterns–cannot wait to bake! I have looked high and low for a concha cutter for years–naturally it’s the first thing you stumble over in La Merced.
And so much more… stainless steel pots and pans and skillets in every size and shape imaginable, commercial kitchen gear, utensils and lo! a fantastically beautiful array of COPPER comales! I had to have one! I suspect it will be wonderful for making tortillas, and sure looks good in the kitchen!
And of course, portable electric stone mills for grinding nixtamal for homemade, whole grain, stone ground corn tortillas. How ever will I get it back to Cabo? Stay tuned.
Don’t miss La Merced!
Muchos saludos y buen provecho,
I’ve been a baaaad blogger! I have a bunch of cheap excuses–last season was crazily, gloriously busy! I have acquired a new computer and new camera and because I was in the kitchen all the time I never figured out how to work them properly! I just got back from 9 weeks in south central Mexico… The bottom line is, it’s been a while since I have posted a proper article.
I am making use of WordPress’ amazing technology to repost this article on Mexico’s Comida Corrida not just because I haven’t put together a new article (which admittedly I haven’t) but also because I am putting together a new class entitled, rather pithily I think, COMIDA CORRIDA! In my travels through southern Mexico this summer I was again bowled over by the availability, price and quality of this amazing culinary phenomenon. Here’s your homework–read up prior to taking the class this season! As ever, BUEN PROVECHO!
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,
¡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!