Archive for Culinary Travel
It’s been a fantastic season, starting out slow on the heels of Odile… we did our first classes last October out of my home kitchen with an ice box, feeling very much like we’d slipped through a time warp back into the old Cabo,,, Ten months and a whole bunch of construction later, the Casa de Colores is better than ever with a brand new metal structure roof and gigantic deck, plus a whole lot more.
It’s Tlaxcala’s thousand year old pre-Hispanic market, and these tamales are sold by ancestors of the original vendors… still made from lake fish stuffed with tiny lake fish, wrapped in the inner membrane of the cactus tequila is made from–mixiote–then charred directly in glowing coals until cooked to smoky perfection. Such a shock to first world eyes to see not only pre-Hispanic, but pre-HISTORIC cooking still going on in Mexico, like the ancient recipe for stone soup, cooked by adding hot rocks to each bowl!
I turn 60 in October, and Manuel will be 64. As he is a huge Beatles fan, it has to be a major celebration–we’re thinking Cuba, or possibly Chiapas/Guatemala… stay tuned. In any case we will be crawling through markets collecting ideas and ingredients for my seventh season, which will begin on October 15th. Hope to see you there.
Have a great summer, and keep cooking MEXICAN!
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!
¡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….
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.
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,
¡Hola a todos!
It’s been far too long since I’ve gotten an article up. At the risk of cheating I want to post this great letter I received some time back from cooks who spend time every year in Cabo, who have access to a kitchen and continue to cook even though they’re technically on vacation. My people!!
Just a note to thank you once again for the wonderful afternoon cooking in your home on November 22. We did a little shopping after class, and collected a few more ingredients. I was up early the following morning, toasting tomatoes, garlic, onions and peppers on our “comal” (a teflon skillet), grinding in our blender, then “frying” the resulting mixture to create our own version of Huevos Rancheros, which we served with the tortillas we bought with you–MMMMM! We also stopped at Artesanos later in the week, and I found a molcajete (I checked as you said, to determine that it was really made of stone). We seasoned it with many batches of guacamole during our remaining days in Cabo. During the course of or stay, we managed to accumulate little bits of leftovers to add to those you sent home. One of our last meals was a rendition of the soup we made, including the leftover broth, some rotisserie chicken (and broth made from that chicken), various odd veggies and some saffron rice. We licked our bowls clean!
Did you know that you cannot bring a molcajete in your carry-on luggage??? That was our original plan–not wanting to pack it in a suitcase with a couple of bottles of tequila–but a sign at the airport listed the implement right along with guns, knives, baseball bats and more than 3 oz. liquid!. We had to do a quick re-arrange of the luggage contents before we could check the bag. I’m happy to report that it molcajete made it home intact, as did the tequila!
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…