Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for ancient aztecs

SURREAL SUNDAY IN XOCHIMILCO

Mexico City is too much!

I know I’ll never see all the things I want to see in this sprawling megalopolis packed with life-loving Chilangos making the most of everything, every day.

Neither Manuel, who has lived in Mexico City for 40 years, nor I had been to the legendary floating gardens of Xochimilco.  We were both prepared to hate it, thinking it would be dirty, overrun and touristy…

We were surprised to find a surreal dream of a Sunday filled with impossibly colorful gondolas, trajineras, bumping sides as they were poled through miles of canals that are the remnants of Lake Texcoco where the ancient Aztecs created fertile gardens to grow their foods and flowers.

On weekends the canals become a floating fiesta with bars, restaurants and gangs of fully fledged mariachis all competing for business from their own colorful little boats.  It’s a riot of color and sound, an olfactory and auditory banquet you really must experience if you have the good fortune to find yourself in this magical city.

Hop aboard a trajinera, tie a floating bar up to one side and a group of musicians to the other and while away a truly surreal day in Xochimilco.  If all this isn’t enough, you can wander for hours through 24 hour fruit and flower markets, as Manuel and I did…

Xochimilco invites you to eat, drink and be merry!

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

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SWEET MEMORIES OF MEXICO

For a country with so few dessert options, Mexico has a serious sweet tooth.  Desserts are more varied on the tourist strip, but at the end of many a fine meal in Mexican restaurants I have asked for the dessert selection only to have the waiter respond with a great flourish, “Hay flannnn…’ trailing off that final consonant in a hopeful tone…

So flan it is for dessert, and if it’s well made, it rivals cheesecake as a finish and isn’t nearly as rich.  It’s actually a stroke of dessert genius as it tops off a spicy Mexican meal like nothing else could.

But about that sweet tooth.  If you’re ever in a traditional Mexican market, or even a decent Mexican supermarket, take a look at the candy aisle.  The selection above is pretty typical, candy for the eye as well as that aching tooth.  So what’s behind all that day-glo display?  Here’s a short list.

Obleas con cajeta (Goat’s milk caramel wafers) – a delectable treat  made of two paper-thin flour wafers filled with Mexico’s fabled goat’s milk caramel candy, cajeta, creating a sweet sandwich that won’t stick to your fingers.  Also available as chewy caramel candies.  Top brands: Coronado, Las Sevillanas (mini or medium) and Aldama.

De La Rosa’s Mazapan (marzipan) – is a delicious and traditional peanut confection delicious with a tall glass of milk, or crumbled as a topping to enhance other desserts.

Fruit rolls – These sweet fruity treats are very popular in Mexico, made from tropical fruits like coconut, mango and guava. Cocadas are deadly sweet coconut rolls.  Popular brands include: Productos Cihuapilli and Dulces Moreliates.

Spicy spoon suckers – Yep, it’s a spicy, salty, sweet and gooey candy sold  right on a spoon in our favorite traditional tropical  fruit flavors — tamarind and mango.

Pepitorias (seed brittle) – This is a sweet and delicious confection made of  ground sesame seeds sweetened with honey, coconut, pumpkin seeds and peanuts thrown in to guild the lily.  Las Trojes is a popular brand that manufactures these succulent treats:  Mixed seed brittle, coconut brittle, peanut brittle, sesame seed brittle and pumpkin seed brittle.  Yum!

Candy skulls – Celebrate the Day of the Dead and honor your departed loved ones with these crazy creative confections fashioned from sugar, chocolate or amaranth.  This much-loved Mexican tradition has been passed down through generations.

 …and this is a short list!  Take a tour through the candy aisle and start making your own sweet memories of Mexico! 

¡Provecho!

Donna

AZTEC COOKWARE

¡Muchos saludos!

Every day people are taken by surprise in my kitchen when we toss the ingredients for a red or green salsa straight onto a hot, dry comal.  Zero fat.

What the heck is a comal, anyway?Well… it’s Aztec cookware.

The name comes from the Nahuatl word comalli–the ancient Aztec language still spoken as a first language by many Mexicans, including a number of our Cabo beach vendors.  Anytime you see all those x’s and tl’s in our Mexican Spanish (as in nixtamal and Tlaxcala) you are looking into Mexico’s past which, like so much of our traditional foods, merges with the present. 

A comal is a griddle, traditionally made of thin, unglazed pottery.  Modern cooks tend to use a more resilient heavy tin or rustic metal disc that can be scraped down with a metal spatula, and even scrubbed with a pumice stone since dry cooking thrashes a pan’s surface.  Nowadays we’re seeing fancy comales in fancy supermarkets that are lightweight and have Teflon surfaces.  Don’t buy them.  You really want something you can abuse, and you really cannot scrub your Teflon with a pumice stone.

Why go to all this trouble?  Because, to quote the immortal Homer Simpson, Fire makes it good!  It’s like when you do a roast, and the best of it is stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Dry grilling or toasting ingredients on a hot comal builds layers of flavor like no other process can.  And nothing gets peeled but the garlic because the best of the flavor is in the charred skins of those chiles and tomatoes.

Dried chiles must be toasted before they are used in a dish.  They are stemmed, seeded and flattened and pressed onto the hot surface of the comal until their heavenly toasted chile flavor is released.  And they taste like they smell–you’ll never get that kind of flavor from chile powder!  Other whole spices, seeds and nuts are similarly treated before they are ground and incorporated into traditional dishes including moles.  The kitchen smells like heaven!  Someone really should come up with a line of comal air fresheners!

The comal is not the only Aztec cookware still in use today.  We use a variety of ollas and cazuelas, glazed and unglazed earthenware pots that country cooks swear improves the flavor of a dish.  They must be seasoned before use by simmering a chopped white onion and a head of garlic until almost dry.  The practical piece in the picture goes, with its cargo of pollo pibil marinated and wrapped in fresh banana leaves, straight into the oven until the meat is falling apart in the sauce.  Then, banana leaves removed and meat shredded into the sauce, it goes right onto a gas burner to simmer until the sauce has thickened for tasty pulled chicken pibil sandwiches… and the pot cleans up like nonstick!

We still use the molcajete, that beautiful three legged volcanic stone bowl with its ergonomic handpiece, the tejolote, to grind salsas like the one grilling on the comal above.  You have to be careful when you buy one these days since they’re now making chintzy bowls out of aggregate as garden ornaments.  Scrape it with a key or coin, and if a lot of dust results, pass it by.  Look for a real stone bowl that is not too porous.  When you get it home it must be prepared by repeatedly grinding dry rice until the rice remains white with no gray grit to ruin your guests’ dental work…  Don’t use soap on your molcajete, or your salsa will taste like soap forever after.  Use hot water and lime juice, scrub well with a stiff brush, rinse with hot water, air dry and you’re good to go.

As with earthenware comales and ollas, the stone bowl of your molcajete imparts an earth flavor to salsas that are considered to be an ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking.  If you’re in a hurry or in a lazy mood, do what modern Mexican cooks do–pulse your comal roasted salsa in the blender leaving plenty of texture, and serve it in the molcajete to take advantage of its unique flavor.

Don’t miss out on the flavors of traditional Mexican cooking.  For a small investment you can have a collection of Aztec cookware that will look beautiful and keep on cooking for many years, imparting your dishes with the true flavor of ancient Mexico.

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

WEIRD FOOD, GOOD FOOD

Greetings from sunny Cabo!  It never ceases to amaze me how we’ve come into the civilized world.  Every day I attempt to explain to those who have only recently arrived how for years we drove two grueling hours to La Paz to buy the most basic items, such as  toilet paper!  More outlandish items like round toothpicks and frozen turkeys were hiked down Baja by sympathetic friends living in more civilized areas. 

These days things are very different.  Having a full-on Plaza Sendero mall five minutes from my house is still a source of wonder to me, and I walk through with my mouth hanging open even now, two years after its near magical appearance.  Our new reality is that we have access to virtually everything, including all the ingredients to make beautiful traditional Mexican dishes which were only a dream as little as five years ago.

My small local market carried fresh huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche) all summer last year, and it looks like it’s going to happen again.  The picture above pretty much says it all–a normal ear of corn is infected with a fungus that blows each kernel into a huge, strange and wonderful mushroom!  The outside is a gray blue, the inside black.

If you’ve never seen huitlacoche, its Japanese sci-fi movie appearance can make you want to run in the other direction, but if you love mushrooms… and if you just happen to love corn too… maybe you should stick around.

The ancient Aztecs were addicted to this earthy gourmet treat, so much so that they intentionally infected corn plants by cutting into them near the soil level to allow water borne spores to enter.  Mexico is still crazy for cuitlacoche, and like any good mushroom the canned variety are a disappointing substitute for the real deal.  If you are lucky enough to find it fresh, treat it like any other fresh mushroom.  Gently tease the kernels from the cob and sautee them in sweet butter with finely chopped onion and garlic, and use them anywhere you would any other fine fungus.  They will turn soft, sweet and black, and may be folded into a crepe bathed in a roasted poblano cream sauce for a traditional Mexican classic dish that is truly alta cocina.  It may be cooked up with chorizo, potato, onion, garlic and serrano chile and used to stuff hot tortillas, roasted poblano chiles etc., or simply folded into an omelette.

I plan to frequent my local market this summer on the hunt for cuitlacoche.  Hard core foodies who join me in my kitchen are in for a real treat!

¡Provecho!

Donna

A couple of Mexican classics