Archive for August, 2011
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,