Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for Culinary Travel

La Cumbia del Mole

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.

 
ROASTING AND PEELING POBLANOS FOR BICENTENNIAL CHILES EN NOGADA…

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…

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Time Travel in Tlaxcala

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! 

Muchos saludos,

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…

Tacos de Canasta

Funny, I have a tendency to get homesick for Mexico City, a place I would never consider living.

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.

Strew more onions between each layer, but not so many that there is a lot of oil filtering down into the bottom layer.

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…

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

 

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