Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for Cruisers

COOKING UP A STORM: LIFE AFTER ODILE

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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

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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…

EL PINOLE

Hola!

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 .’

This brought to mind two Mexican sayings, ‘Either speak or eat pinole,’ and ‘He who swallows the most saliva eats the most pinole.’ ” 

Muchos saludos a todos,

Donna

 

COOKING IN CABO IN AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER–BEAT THE STREETS FOR TREATS IN THE HEAT!!!?

Hola, all!

The answer to this burning question is a resounding YES!  I am amazed at the response to the August culinary tour I designed to allow us to continue to take in Cabo’s traditional Mexican  food scene without losing our cool…  and now I’m hearing from truly intrepid travelers who venture to Cabo at the height of hurricane season–hey, if you’re crazy enough, count me in! 

 Here’s the deal:

I am offering a special culinary tour, Breakfast and Marketing in Mexico, to take in Cabo’s burgeoning traditional Mexican food inlets and outlets.  This four hour experience, 9am to 1pm, will take you off the beaten path and into the heart of Mexico.  

We fortify ourselves for our shopping expedition with a discussion of Mexican foods over breakfast Mexican-stye at a popular cafe where everything is made fresh daily in a spotless kitchen.  Then we walk through air-conditioned markets reviewing basic ingredients including breads, meats, cheeses, chiles, fruits, vegetables and herbs. 
 
We wind up our day with an antojito and a cold drink at a true artesanal tortillera, where masa is made the way it has been for a thousand years (increasingly rare even on the mainland of Mexico), watching women making classic corn masa antojitos like quesadillas de comal, sopes and gorditas with freshly made mouth-watering fillings, served up with hand made salsas and fresh nopal (cactus paddle) salad!   You can use what you’ve learned to prepare foods you sample during our day together and other traditional dishes using recipes you take home from our tour to share with friends and family. 
 
 Interested?  Let’s do it!  I’m all fired up!
 
Have a great summer wherever you are… and stay cool!
 
Muchos saludos,
Donna

CULINARY ART IN BAJA

Next time you’re driving down Baja, try to hit Ensenada on a Sunday and stop in at Marcelo Castro’s recent addition to Baja’s quiet gourmet food and drink revolution.  Take the short drive 40 miles east of Ensenada on federal highway 3 to Ojos Negros to see what it’s all about.

Now, in addition to incomparable seafood, fantastic organic produce, olive oil and wines all made possible by sea breezes which create a very special micro climate perfect for all these culinary treasures, Marcelo Castro has installed America’s first stone cave for aging artesanal cheeses the way it’s been done for generations in Europe.

It makes sense.  Marcelo is a fourth generation artesanal cheese producer, following in the footsteps of his Swiss-Italian grandfather who brought the family tradition to Baja, making cheeses for American and Mexican cowboys in the valley historically known as Valle de San Rafael.  The family business expanded to include the Ensenada-Tecate-Tijuana triangle, then the entire country of Mexico.

Marcelo’s ambitious project allows him to turn out 400 kilos of exquisite artesanal cheeses daily, and the stone cave has a capacity for 10,000 pieces at the perfect humidity and light exposure for European quality cheeses.

Artesanal doesn’t just encompass cheese production, either.  Marcelo’s grows and feeds their own livestock, milks the cows and takes it from there!  And yes, you can drop in on Sundays for a tour that allows you to see just how it’s being done, and to sample the fare, including the Valley’s famous wines.  Google Cava de Marcelo for more information. 

It’s an exciting time for foodies in Baja!  Come for lunch…

!Provecho!

Donna