Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for Mexican food


I never cease to be amazed at the methods used by traditional  cooks as I travel through south and south-central Mexico — the densely populated Colonial areas well below the “tortilla line” that runs through Cabo and Mazatlan across Mexico’s midsection, dividing the Republic by bread and beans.

I’m from northern Arizona, so I grew up on flour tortillas and pinto beans.  My guy Manuel is from way below the line, so his basics are corn tortillas and black beans.  This is pretty much set in stone, though he will eat my pintos if that’s all we have laying around the house.  “Where’s the epazote,” he’ll ask.

But the topic of this article is fire.  Many times I wind up a class and someone will suddenly realize that we have been eating  intensely Mexican foods all day… and that we have used no spices whatsoever!

How is this possible?  Isn’t Mexican food based on heaps of esoteric spices we’ve never heard of, much less incorporated into our own dishes?

One of the best kept secrets of traditional Mexican cooking is no secret at all.  It is the oldest cooking method known to man — the direct application of heat, and preferably fire!

There is often an intake of breath as tomatoes, onions, chiles and garlic hit a hot, dry comal (griddle) without a speck of oil!  The same treatment is given to spices and pretty much everything else to be incorporated into traditional Mexican dishes.  Why?  To quote the immortal Homer Simpson, “Fire makes it good”.

Traditional Mexican salsas, including simple and elaborate moles, are prepared using various applications of heat and fire, from charring raw vegetables to a technique called “frying” a sauce in a small amount of oil to thicken and concentrate flavors.  Fresh poblanos and dried chiles to be stuffed or used in salsas go straight on my gas burners to char the skins, imparting a wonderful roasted, smoky flavor and mind-blowing scent.

When I go to Oaxaca City and see women in frilly aprons throwing  tiny, vinegary chorizos or thin pieces of spiced beef or pork straight onto mesquite coals whipped into a white-hot frenzy, sparks blown clean across a cobbled street by woven palm fans made expressly for this purpose… the hairs on my neck stand up and a deep thrill runs through me as I witness this most primitive form of cooking still used daily in Mexico’s traditional areas by cooks following instructions passed directly from mother to daughter into the smoky distant past stretching back a thousand years or more.

I discuss the subject of fire with Manuel, and he is surprised.  He grew up eating this way, and knows the smells and flavors well, but he’d never considered fire as an ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking.  He agrees that it is critical–and of course the ashes add to the dish!

As ever, I highly recommend we all go to Oaxaca for lunch.





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,


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!



It must be Fall.  I’ve been getting steady requests to do Lunch in Yucatan, featuring a modern version of the ancient Mayan classic, Pollo Pibil–and I find myself awaiting each of these occasions with my salivary glands in high gear!  Somehow, as the weather cools and the season turns over a new leaf, nothing comforts like a big, overstuffed Mayan pit-style, habanero-and-achiote spiced pulled chicken sanwich scattered with day-glo pink pickled onions…

In Yucatan, Mayans still dig pits in their yards to roast whole pigs or chickens to sell along the roadside for a spicy, smoky Sunday breakfast treat.  However, this is something we can easily create at home after a foray into a good Hispanic or Oriental market for a couple of basic ingredients–namely achiote paste made from rock-hard brick red annatto seeds ground with spices, and fresh banana leaves.  If you’re lucky enough to find (or grow) fresh epazote, be sure to pick up a bunch of that, too.

Back at the ranch, prepare the marinade for your pibil by tossing into your trusty blender 4 tablespoons of achiote paste with 1/2 c. fresh orange juice and 1/4 c. fresh lime juice, plus a splash of white vinegar for good measure.  Add a clove or two of fresh garlic,  about a half dozen whole allspice berries and 1 tsp. sea salt and whiz away to create your beautiful brick red marinade. 

Pour this fragrant sauce over about 4 lbs. of bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts or boneless pork leg, deeply scored, and allow the meat to marinate for several hours or overnight.

Get a good roasting pan with a lid, preferably pottery or stoneware, and line it with the fresh banana leaves.  Place the marinated meat lovingly in your substitute pit, pouring extra sauce over the meat.  Slice up an entire large white onion and three or four red ripe Roma tomatoes onto the meat, adding a large sprig of fresh epazote (dried will do in a pinch), and tuck in two or three fresh, bright orange habanero chiles.  Don’t worry–if you don’t open them they won’t add too much heat!

Cover your pibil with fresh banana leaves, tuck it in nicely and cover tightly.  Bake it for an hour or so in a 350 oven until the meat is tender, then remove it from the oven, shred the meat into the juice and remove the banana leaves.  Correct the seasoning–I usually wind up mashing and adding the habaneros to bring up the spice level–and put the whole shebang on a burner and continue cooking until the meat is very tender and most of the sauce has been absorbed…  Torta time!!

Ah, but I digress… you will of course have prepared a jar of southern Mexico’s famous day-glo pink pickled onions, ubiquitous throughout the south on every table.  Simply slice a dark red onion in half, then slice as thin or thick as you like.  Pour boiling water over it briefly to wilt and cut the heat, then pack in a glass jar, adding white vinegar to fill the jar halfway, plus a teaspoon of sea salt.  Tuck a flame-blackened habanero in the jar, and turn it over every time you open the fridge for a day and voila!  Day-glo pink pickled onions for your tacos or tortas!

If you have access to a Mexican bakery you’ll need a good telera, a French style flat roll perfect for making this sandwich.  Otherwise, get the best your area has available.  Pile on the pibil, scatter with vinegary onions and dive in!

PERFECT party food!  I hope you make up a big pib-full and enjoy with your foodie friends this holiday season. 



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,


COMIDA CORRIDA – Cheap Eats with Deep Roots

The gastronomic phenomenon of an inexpensive, three course, fixed price meal comes alive during the afternoon lunch hours at every “fonda” and “cocina económica” in Mexico.  This wonderful Mexican gastronomic phenomenon, the Comida Corrida, is named for the “Tres Tiempos”, the Three Parts, of a bullfight, the legendary Corrida de Toros.

These small restaurants are attended by women who own them, presiding over kitchens throughout the country with a motherly homestyle feel, feeding a nation well and very affordably every working day.  Men generally stick to more manly cheap eats like tacos and carnitas, leaving lunch to the ladies.

The Three Parts have been set in stone over the generations:  First:  The “entrada caldosa”, a brothy dish like a pasta soup or consomme.  Second:  The “plato seco”, or dry dish of rice or spaghetti, or a vegetable salad.  Third:  The “plato fuerte”, or main dish, typically featuring three or four options of Mexican homestyle dishes like beef tips in red chile sauce, pork or chicken in mole, fried or grilled fish, and perhaps a vegetarian offering like tortitas de papa, crispy potato cheese cakes served in a red sauce, particularly during Lent.  An “agua fresca”, fresh water drink made with fruit, flowers or rice will be served, but dessert is not typically included and would be considered a courtesy of the house rather than a part of the comida corrida.

My guy Manuel is back in Mexico City, where he frequently takes his main meal in fondas near his home.  He sent me this story, which he wrote for me as a birthday present the other day. This is my translation:

On Saturday I went back to “Fonda Mary” for a comida corrida.  The day was chilly, and when I stepped inside the fonda was empty, which I presumed was due to the cold, but as I ate people began to arrive and the place filled up as it always does.

The comida corrida consists of three dishes–I ordered vegetable soup, adding fresh cilantro, chopped white onion, chile and lime for extra flavor.  Then I asked for rice and beans, and as a main dish I had the almendrado, a simple mole with almonds and chile cooked with pork, mopping it up with eight hot tortillas and washing it all down with agua fresca.  It was so tasty that I raised my glass to my lady in celebration of her birthday back in Cabo!

The almendrado was homemade and very tasty, and I got to wondering what part of the southern Republic Mary might be from.  Today when I went back for the comida corrida the first thing I did was ask her where she learned to cook.  It turns out she’s from Progreso National, born right here in Mexico City!  So again today I had the pasta soup, then spaghetti with cream and cheese, and finally a pipian–the famous green mole based on pumpkin seeds cooked with pork and beans, and it was delicious as always!

A worker or campesino who does hard work can eat a good comida corrida and leave well satisfied and ready to continue his work.  The same goes for a housewife with children, and for students who don’t want to live on junk food.  Professionals are just as likely to be found at fondas, eating well and saving money on Mexico’s national treasure, the comida corrida.

This Saturday I will celebrate 60 years of eating at great fondas like Mary’s–with yet another comida corrida!

Saludos a todos,



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…




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!