Archive for Cooking in Cabo
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!
I am re-posting this entry because I have a recent run on classes making mole! DO check out this amazing video that accompanies Lila Downs singing La Cumbia del Mole.
This entry is inspired by a recent visit from Manuel, a friend born in the Lower Mixtec region of Oaxaca who brought abundant blessings in the form of music and traditional Mexican foods. In his home town a very few women still make a corn masa journey bread which dates back hundreds of years, called “totopos” although they are nothing like the corn chips we all know and love for snacking. These totopos were carried by mule drivers on long trips along with dried meats and a dried salsa which could all be reconstituted with water, lightweight and hearty fare for the trail. Manuel somehow got hold of some totopos, and brought them along to share. I hope someday to get to the Lower Mixtec to find out just how they are made, before this wonderful ancient culinary tradition dies out.
He also brought along a couple of liters of real vanilla, labeled with the name of the Vargas family who produces it in Papantla, Veracruz where vanilla orchids are grown, based in Carrousel 22 of the Papantla market. I compared it with the junk they sell here, which smells like an industrial cleaning product next to the real thing, which smells just like the flowers from which it is made. In Tlaxcala it went for $20 pesos per 3/4 liter.
I would like to share a very special song by the amazing Lila Downs, born in 1968 in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca not far from Manuel’s home town, the daughter of a Mixtec cabaret singer and an American cinematographer and art professor from Minnesota. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, having grown up between Oaxaca and the USA, and she performs her own compositions which fuse with native Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya and Nahuatl musical culture. If you are unfamiliar with her music, much of it appears on YouTube. I highly recommend you search for and listen to the version of La Cumbia del Mole called “La Cumbia del Mole Video Mix” on YouTube, which presents Lila’s hypnotic lyrics with a cumbia beat — cumbia being a Columbian Caribbean rhythm originating from African slave courtship dances… along with stunning images of Oaxaca, mole ingredients and preparation. YUMMY!
With love and many thanks to Manuel, here is my translation of her lyrics. I hope you visit Lila Downs at YouTube and sing along. ¡Buen provecho!
La Cumbia del Mole, Lila Downs
It is said that in Oaxaca they drink mezcal with coffee
They say that herbs cure bad faith
I love the mole that Soledad is going to grind up for me
My dear Soledad is going to cook up a wonderful mole
From the heavens of Monte Alban, at night I dream of you
It’s made of ground peanuts, the bread is ground as well,
Dried almonds are ground with chile and also salt
That chocolate is ground with cinnamon
Pepper and cloves, moving the mole grinder
They say that in Oaxaca chocolate is made with water
They say in the festival of the little bulls it must burn
For the one who orders the passion of Soledad…
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!
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.
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!
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…