Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for Cabo Info

LA MERCED – GREAT GRANDADDY OF TRADITIONAL MARKETS!

SHOPPING IN MEXICOCactus HeavenCactus Heaven…

¡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….

Take a camera!

Take a camera!

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.Conchas

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,
Donna

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COOKING UP A STORM: LIFE AFTER ODILE

IMG_4488
A warm, dry greeting to all from Mexico City!

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!

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

LA MERCED – GREAT GRANDADDY OF TRADITIONAL MARKETS!

SHOPPING IN MEXICOCactus HeavenCactus Heaven…

¡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….

Take a camera!

Take a camera!

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.Conchas

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,
Donna

OLD FRIEND, NEW PARTNER, HOT TOUR!

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.

Muchos saludos,

Donna

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!

Claudia

XOCOLATL — FOOD OF THE GODS FOR SURE!

The cacao tree is a lovely tropical evergreen with drooping leaves that loves the rich soil, high humidity and shade of the Oaxacan cloud forests just as much coffee does. 

Visit Oaxaca City anytime and you will find Oaxacans busily roasting, grinding and forming the fruit of this special tree into cakes to be turned into xocolatl — “bitter water” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

The roots of the cacao tree run deep.  It was cultivated and consumed extensively throughout ancient Mesoamerica, and ceramic vessels have been discovered with cacao residues dating back to 1750 B.C. on the Veracruz coast (where vanilla was happily growing away at the same time, you will recall)… and even farther back on the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, as long ago as 1900 B.C.!

The clever Mayans took the tree from the rainforest and grew it in their back yards.  They loved to harvest, roast and grind the beans, blending them with vanilla, maize, chiles, herbs and achiote to make a rich, foamy, spicy drink.

By 1400 A.D. the Aztecs had taken over a good chunk of Mesoamerica, and they traded the Mayans for cacao, and demanded the beans as a tax.  Drinking xocolatl was an important part of Aztec life, reserved for the wealthy and for religious occasions, and it is said that Moctezuma himself consumed around 50 golden goblets of the elixir each day.  Aztec temples and palaces were adorned with sculptures of the cacao pod, which was a symbol of fertility.  A hundred beans might have bought an animal or even a slave.

The more democratic Pueblo people of the Southwest U.S.traded for Mesoamerican cacao from 900-1400 A.D., and all members of their society enjoyed drinking chocolate.  However, until the 16th century chocolate was unknown in Europe.  Of course, after the Aztec conquest it quickly became a favorite at the Spanish court, and the rest is history…

Today about two thirds of cacao consumed worldwide is grown in West Africa.  The U.S. alone consumes approximately 3 BILLION pounds per year, and worldwide consumption is more than a million TONS.

If you’re lucky enough to go to Oaxaca, be sure to pick up some freshly roasted and ground cakes of rustic chocolate!  If all you can get is a commercial variety like Abuelita, it’ll do until you can get to Oaxaca!  Just shop or break a 4 oz. tablet into your blender and add 16 oz. boiling milk or water (if you don’t want it as rich–I like it this way in the afternoon).  Whiz away until a good head of foam develops, sit back and enjoy the food of the gods…

¡Provecho!

Donna

THE SPICES OF MEXICO…

Where does the time go?  Some time back I promised an article on spices used in Mexican cooking… it’s mid-September and only now have I found a moment to sit down and get to it!  Here goes.

It’s a big job to sum up spices used in traditional Mexican cooking, but let’s begin with cilantro, mentioned in Sanskrit texts dating back to 1500 BC.  The Romans carried it throughout Europe, and of course the Spanish brought it along to Mexico where it was eagerly adopted and has become an integral part of the Mexican diet.  Note that unless you reserve cilantro and add it only at the time you serve your dish, its flavor goes off very very quickly, leading  many people to conclude that it’s icky.  Serve is super fresh to truly appreciate the beauty of cilantro!

Comino (cumin) is native to the Mediterranean, another Spanish addition the use of which has become almost overwhelming in Tex Mex and some other northern styles of Mexican cooking.  Fine Mexican dishes reserve cumin’s pungent, slightly smoky, bitter taste as a grace note.

Canela (cinnamon bark), a native of Ceylon, is used extensively in many sauces, stews, meat dishes, desserts, fruit dishes and certainly in a good Mexican cafe de olla.  It combines well and frequently with other sweet herbs and spices like cloves, allspice, nutmeg, star anise and fresh mint.

There are a wide variety of  beautiful traditional herbs used mostly in the south of Mexico such as Epazote with its bright green serrated leaves and incomparable fresh scent, essential for good black beans in the south; Hoja Santa with its lovely heart shape and fresh, light anise flavor used to flavor dishes or as a wrap for steaming fish; and Avocado Leaves, used both fresh and dried, with their addictively resinous, licorice-bay aroma and flavor used to season mixiotes, soups, chicken and fish, barbacoa, beans etc. 

Fresh banana leaves add so much flavor to tamales or dishes wrapped in them for steaming or baking that they deserve to join the list.  And here I’ll mention achiote paste, made from crushed deep red annato seeds and other spices, the indispensable flavor in the marinade for pollo or cochinita pibil, the famous pit barbecue of Yucatan baked in fresh banana leaves, of course!

Another widely used leaf fiber is mixiote from the maguey leaf, used like parchment paper  to wrap and cook meats, fish and poultry.  It turns crisp and adds its special flavor to dishes like the pre-Hispanic tamales sold in the Tlaxcala market, made from large fresh water fish stuffed with tiny fresh water fish, wrapped in mixiote and baked in coals…  I would bet the women who sell them are descendants of other women who sold the same tamales in the same market as long as a thousand years ago!  I have included a picture, below.

I must mention the famous Hierbas de Olor, a special herbal bouquet of bay, thyme and Mexican oregano used to scent and flavor many dishes, as well as plain old black pepper, salt and sugar, all of which play an essential role in traditional Mexican cooking, and cooking all over the world.

Mexico still produces all of its own sugar, and piloncillo is an excellent nutritional choice for sweetening dishes and drinks alike.  It is  made from the juice of the sugar cane which is cooked and poured into molds weighing from 100 grams to 1 kilo.  In Oaxaca you will find excellent sugar called panela because it is made in round molds like panela cheese.

There are a wide variety of nuts and seeds which are used to add flavor and body to traditional Mexican dishes including sesame, amaranth, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pecans and walnuts. 

Without getting into the chiles, which really require an article unto themselves, this is a quick overview of the flavors used in traditional Mexican cooking.  I have failed to mention many beautiful herbs and spices such as grassy green flat leaf parsley, chamomile and lemon grass…  A complex cuisine like Mexico’s depends on a long list of items to create its signature moles, asados and guisados.  It is well worth a cook’s while to create authentic Mexican flavors at home, which can help us to develop our own personal cuisine to its highest level! 

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

PAPANTLA VANILLA–MMMMMMMM!!!

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…

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

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…