Archive for traditional mexican dishes
Greetings from south of the border! Today I’m going to attempt the impossible–a semi-comprehensive article summing up the Mexican salsa experience. It’s tough because the subject is pretty broad, there being an ideal sauce for virtually every dish in every region of Mexican cooking. Salsas, moles, pipianes and adobos are the highest, most indisputable privilege of this vibrant, resonant, complex and amazingly varied World Heritage cuisine.
Salsas have always held an important place on the Mexican table by ancient prehispanic custom. A diner may preview coming attractions by scooping up a bit of raw or cooked salsa with a warm tortilla, crisp tortilla chip or piece of bread as a simple appetizer, and salsas will enhance and adorn antojitos, rice dishes, soups, salads and cooked dishes, adding rich dimensions of flavor, texture and heat.
In prehispanic Mexico mulli (now know as mole) meant sauce, as does the Spanish word salsa. Over hundreds of years moles have come to include not only relatively simple sauces but an astoundingly baroque collection of fine sauces which may be served on steamed vegetables, poultry, pork and even beef, these versions generally being considered fiesta food. Unfortunately mole is widely misinterpreted, many people believing it to be a bad chocolate sauce. A mole may or may not include chocolate to balance its finely tuned flavors, but at no time should it ever taste like Hershey’s! A mole might be light, fresh and herbal, and take under a hour to prepare, but it will warrant five stars… that’s mole. If you have the opportunity to try one, ask for a sample. If you love it, you’re in for a big treat, and if not–you’ve dodged that culinary bullet. A mole is only as good as the cook.
The pipianes are fairly thick, textured salsas based on toasted pumpkin seeds and other nuts and seeds, giving them a rustic texture and nutty, creamy flavor. They may be served thick to enrobe meats or vegetables, or may be thinned with flavorful stock and served as a festive soup. Pipian may be red or green, depending on whether red tomatoes or green tomatillos are used as a base.
There are myriad recipes and techniques used in the preparation of these magical sauces which are the heart and soul of traditional Mexican cooking. I would like to include a highly simplified run-down, the steps of salsa as I present them to cooks in my my kitchen.
Simply chop or dice fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes, white onion, and serrano chile, fold them together, season with sea salt to taste and add freshly chopped cilantro, if desired, at the moment it is served and you have a fresh Salsa Mexicana or Salsa Cruda. Add chopped or diced red radish and some peeled, seeded diced cucumber and voila! You have Pico de Gallo! The original Pico de Gallo from Jalisco is made with equal proportions of peeled, diced jicama and peeled, diced sweet orange sections, sprinkled with toasted, ground dried chile. These delicate raw salsas, which are actually fresh relishes, salads or raw chutneys, are good for one day only.
Char red Roma tomatoes or green tomatillos, a slice of white onion, a few cloves of garlic and a few serrano chiles on a hot, dry comal until everything chars, softens and sweetens. Grind in a stone molcajete or, as modern cooks do, in the good old Osterizer. If you use a blender, pulse and leave plenty of texture to mimic a salsa ground in a stone or earth bowl, season with sea salt to taste and you have what are known as salsas de molcajete, with their light, fresh, semi-cooked flavor and texture.
If you puree your molcajete salsa (or the same ingredients raw, or simmered briefly in hot water until softened), you may then use a technique called “frying” a salsa. Heat a splash of oil in a deep soup pot, pour your red or green salsa directly onto the hot oil (be careful as it will splatter!) and “fry” until the head of foam that initially rises has fallen and the bubble are popping thick, about ten minutes. This thickened, “fried” version will have the lovely texture, concentrated flavor and color of a marinara. The red version makes a wonderful Salsa Ranchera.
The next step would be to add a dried chile, or combination of dried chiles, to your red or green salsa. Toast your chosen chiles on a dry comal to maximize flavors, soak in boiling water to soften and add to instantly create a completely different salsa such as Salsa de Chile Ancho, Chile Guajillo, or Chile Pasilla (from left to right, below).
Any of these salsas may be used in any number of dishes with widely varying and always delicious results. Although it is impossible to present a full discussion of salsas in such little time and space, I hope this gets you in the kitchen COOKING MEXICAN!
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!
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…
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!
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
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.