Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for May, 2011

¡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

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¡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