Archive for food
In Tezoatlan, tucked away in the Lower Mixtec Mountains of northern Oaxaca, a totopo is something else altogether.
For generations this gigantic, paper thin bread made from freshly ground nixtamal (field corn prepared with slaked lime the way it’s been done for over a thousand years), fresh lard and a pinch of salt, was carried by mule drivers carrying goods to ranches and settlements that seldom made it to a town of any size to buy the basics.
They carried totopos, which look fragile, but are cooked to a point of flexibility that, when reheated on a comal or over an open fire, attain a perfect crisp, crunchy texture that is uniquely satisfying. Along with dried salsas that could be rehydrated with a little water and dried meats made palatable by simmering in the same salsa, plus whatever greens and fresh meats that could be gathered along the trail, the hardy mule drivers ate pretty well without carrying a lot of extra weight.
Tezoatlan’s totopos are a local addiction, part of everyone’s daily diet in this magically beautiful village of the Lower Mixtec. My guy Manuel was born and raised there, in the building where his father had an electric mill used to grind fresh nixtamal carried in by local women daily in five gallon buckets. The mill had stone discs inside which had to be chiseled on a regular basis to make stone ground, whole grain masa for tortillas, tamales and other antojitos and, of course, for totopos.
DOÑA Filiberta is one of two women in Tezoatlan who are still making tototopos, although age and arthritis have slowed her down considerably. Manuel (along with plenty of Tezoatlan’s townspeople, no doubt) has long been concerned about the future of their favorite oversized cracker… but we can all relax after our visit to her kitchen workshop in September when she assured us that her grandaughter is learning the trade and will be taking over this important work.
The photo at the top shows Doña Fili’s old fashioned, thin pottery comales (griddles) upon which her totopos (also shown) bake over a hardwood fire, just as they have always been. The second shot features Doña Fili herself, with the stone metate still used to grind nixtamal. She also has a small stone mill similar to the one Manuel’s father used in the family business, and she still remembers him fondly. She says he was a kind man who always provided hot water for the women to wash their hands on brisk Mixtec mornings.
Mexico’s food traditions are the glue that hold its people together. I hope you can take a trip someday to small town Oaxaca where you will see and taste exactly what I mean!
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!
A couple of Mexican classics