Traditional Mexican Food
xocoyol. The plant, which grows in nearby corn fields in June and July only, has a sharp, citrusy, sour taste, as if the leaves had been dipped in lime juice. My friends, three women, mixed the greens with curls of white onion and a few thin veins of chile de árbol. They made blue corn tortillas from fresh nixtamal. They laid the tortillas on the comal in thin sheets, then, once the tortillas had cooked, topped them with big handfuls of the xocoyol mixture, sprinkled with salt. There was no cheese. Everything steamed under the hood of the blue corn tortilla, and eventually, after several minutes, we had a soft, soft mixture without a single drop of oil. "Te enchilaste?" one woman, Sra. Rosa, said after I took a bite. I shook my head. The quesadillas were lovely. Sort of like nopal in terms of the acidity, with a little punch of heat. Apparently you can find xocoyol in Tlaxcala and the State of Puebla, too, although I'm not sure it's the same plant. Does anyone out there know it?This past weekend, I visited some new friends at their home in Xalatlaco, a small city in the State of Mexico. For breakfast -- a late breakfast for me, around 11 a.m. -- they made quesadillas de
nixtamal, the dough that forms the base of tortillas, sopes, huaraches, tlacoyos, gorditas and countless other Mexico City street foods. Nixtamal is made from dried corn that's soaked in a mixture of water and a mineral called calcium hydroxide. The mineral, which can be white and powdery or rock-shaped depending on where you buy it, adds important nutrients to the corn and better enables our body to digest it. Upon contact with the kernel, the calcium hydroxide pulls at the kernels' hard outer skin, which eventually sloughs off and makes the corn smoother and easier to grind. Because of the fluctuating price of corn -- and the unpredictable nature of a Mexico City mill, which may or may not have the nixtamal ready by the time customers want or need it -- many tortillerías in the capital now use packaged nixtamalized corn flour, like Maseca or Minsa. When I lived in DF, I'd always ask before approaching a new tortillería: "Es de maiz maiz, o Maseca?" If they replied "Cien por ciento maíz", I'd buy there. A lot of people are increasingly worried about processed nixtamal flour completely supplanting real corn tortillas someday. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where I stand, considering that Maseca and Minsa both provide cheap, quick alternatives (and nutrients) to families that may not have time to make their own tortillas daily. I prefer the taste of real corn tortillas, so I seek them out. Most mills in Mexico City still use thick discs made of volcanic rock to grind the corn, so that adds an extra layer of flavor. The last time I was in Mexico City, I passed by the mill and caught a quick video of the grinder in action. A trickle of water from the faucet makes the dough come together into a solid mass. The bicycle wheel in the bottom-left corner of the frame shows how the workers distribute the masa to fondas and taquerías throughout the neighborhood.One of my favorite places in the Centro Histórico is an old corn mill on Calle Aranda. It's one of the few places left in the neighborhood that still grinds dried corn into
Today’s post marks an occasional series I’m launching on this blog called “Tastemakers.” It’ll be a series of Q&As with people doing inspiring things with Mexican or Latin cuisine, in Mexico, New York and elsewhere. If you want to nominate someone, email me. Margarita Carrillo Arronte is among the most well-regarded chefs in Mexico. She's traveled the world and cooked Mexican cuisine for dignitaries and government officials, and her restaurant in Los Cabos, Don Emiliano, is well-respected and well-regarded. I met her for the first time a few years ago at a Slow Food dinner focusing on tamales, and she wooed the crowd (and me) with her tales of researching tamales in far-flung pueblos for her upcoming book. She seems busy enough -- did I mention she also hosts a travel show about Puebla on Mexican TV? -- which is why I was surprised to find out several months ago that she'd left Don Emiliano to open a new restaurant in Mexico City, Turtux. Traditionally, upscale restaurants in the capital have leaned toward the dramatic side, with chefs adding vanguardist touches to traditional Mexican ingredients. The food at Turtux isn't like that. It's soulful and still surprising; dishes like pistachio mole, or borrego slow-simmered in a pulque sauce, or ribs rubbed with guayaba and chile pasilla oaxaqueño satisfy deeply, yet somehow have an elegant touch. A comalera also makes heirloom-corn antojitos to order on the back patio (try the bone-marrow sopes), making Turtux one of my favorite new restaurants in the city. Carrillo's new cookbook, Tamales y Atoles Mexicanos, is a must if you're a Mexican food fan and you can read Spanish. The book breaks tamales down by technique and texture of the masa, and includes recipes that Carrillo says have not previously been published. A few months before I left Mexico City for New York, she was gracious enough to talk to me about her new adventure, and how she gets it all done. I read that you’ve been in the culinary world for more than 30 years. How did you get your start? Well, I come from a very, very traditional Mexican family in which cooking was part of family values and family tradition. I grew up cooking with my mother, my grandmother, my aunts. I wasn’t conscious that I was learning. We just cooked. I grew up like this. I went to university to study education, and then I went back to university to study culinary arts. What is it about Mexican food that you find so interesting? It has a lot of unique techniques and ingredients. And it’s been there for hundreds of years, for centuries. And we still, many dishes, we still eat exactly the same. Mexican cuisine is not just a group of recipes. It's completely mingled with religion, traditions and of course our culture. I love it and I find it very sophisticated and very simple at the same time. Wherever I’ve been cooking Mexican food, it’s surprising, people don’t expect this quality of food. You were in Los Cabos for so long. Why didn’t you just retire and live on the beach? No, no. (laughs) I was very happy there. But I never lived there full time. It was my son who lived there full time and I went there once a month. I had my house, my husband, the rest of my family here. And I love Mexico City. Although the restaurant was my reason to go there, I loved going there, but I’m not a watersports person or beach person. I’m allergic to sun. What are trying to achieve with Turtux? Why Turtux and not a second branch of Don Emiliano, for instance? This is much more work. Well. One of my missions in life is to spread the world about real Mexican food. And for me, I loved the restaurant in Los Cabos and I wanted to continue with its activity. I found this group of businessmen who believed in me, and who wanted to continue with my work, to help me to achieve my mission, and that’s why we’re here. Did you find it harder to take on this task now? Of course. I’m 10 years older. But I love my work so much. And at this moment in my life it’s harder because it’s a lot of work to open a restaurant in Mexico City. It demands 24 hours a day from your life. But it doesn’t matter. I’m very happy and I’m glad I did it. And I thank god for the opportuity. The menu seems so personal, which really stuck out to me. I'm not sure if you ate any of these things when you were younger, but it seems like you would have. Of course! It’s the way I am. I have to put my heart into my work. I grew up cooking, always in my house. We were six kids plus all the extras we always had. We were 20 people to eat every day in my house. Every day was a party. ...My father enjoyed it a lot. He loved his Sunday gatherings, with this elegant table wth linen tablecloths and nice china, and glassware, and always my brothers with a suit and a tie, and my mother and sisters and I always nice-looking. It was an event, every Sunday. So we grew up eating food, and the importance of the bond, the family bond. I can tell you that the kitchen in my childhood house was a huge kitchen. We could go inside the kitchen with our bicycles. What was your favorite dish growing up? There were so many. But my father’s birthday was on the 20th of November, it’s Revolution Day, and my mother always made -- from scratch -- the traditonal mole. And I loved it. And my aunts, my father’s sisters, during the whole year criaban turkeys, so we could eat them on that particular day. Wow. And my mother always cooked them. She made the mole and our maids ground it on the metates, and my aunts cooked one turkey in a cuñete, cold, and the other in mole. I remember all the ceremony of roasting the chiles, and the almonds and things, and I remember the smells of things -- I loved helping my mother, since then. She started allowing me to help her little by little. One day she said, “Now I’m very tired, you take over. I will keep an eye on you.” I was maybe 17 or 18. She said, "Now you’re ready, you do it from now on." And I started to do it -- I started to make the mole every year on the 20th of November. And when she died, I stopped making mole for five years. Why was it so important to focus on tamales in your book? I found out in the U.S. there are a lot of books on tamales. And I discovered, I realized in Mexico we hadn’t any, because tamales were so familiar to us. They’re always there for every celebration so we never thought, we need to write a book on tamales. I decided that I needed to write a book becuse it was our culture, our food. ...It took me a long time to decide which ones I would include and which ones I would take off, but in the end, I think it worked out very, very nicely. Was there one tamal you found particularly surprising in your research? Oh yes, several. But one was the raw meat tamal from Guerrero. It was very surprising, and it’s so good. One recipe that’s almost lost is tamal de espiga, it’s a corn espiga, not the traditional wheat. I went this little town and looked for the lady who I knew made these tamales, and I was with her for three days, and we went to the fields and she taught me how to cut the espiga, and make the tamales in this tradition. It was rescuing this recipe that nobody makes anymore. It seems like you’re always super busy? Yes. (laughs) I wish I had more time to sleep. How do you do it all? Well the truth is, short hours. And I have a lot of people who help me. A lot of people around me who are kind to me, and help me finish my work, and in many things I give the idea and they help me with the mechanical work. I have my son, my daughter-in-law, my kitchen staff here in Turtux, and my friends who help me. But the truth is very short hours. Meaning you get everything done in a small amount of time? Yes. When you have to, you have to. I think like the rocker Bon Jovi: I'll sleep when I’m dead. I don’t sleep enough but I try to make the most of my day. I sacrifice some things but it’s worth it. One thing that is very important for you to mention is, I could do all this -- have three boys and do a lot of my social life and everything -- because the back-up was my husband, always. He was there with the kids when I was going to school. And he was a great, great support for me. I couldn’t do everything that I could do in my life without his support.
It's been 17 days since I had a corn tortilla, and finally, today, I gave in. I bought these Mi Rancho tortillas because they were the best I could find. (I'm in San Diego visiting my Dad this week.) They did not contain wheat or a long list of weird chemicals. (By the way, what's up with corn tortillas containing wheat? That's so strange, especially with so many people who are gluten-free.) I thought it'd be fun to start a series of American corn tortilla taste tests, so here are my thoughts on this one. Pros: Loved the phrase "real tortillas are made from real corn" on the package. I also liked that the color was a nice, normal yellow, and not paper-white and gummy, like the other packaged corn tortillas I've seen. The smell wasn't too off-putting either -- it was mineral and slightly bitter, like leftover cal-water. Cons: Very chewy, even after a thorough heating on the comal. The taste doesn't much resemble corn (it's got that bland, floury taste that comes from tortillas made from masa harina), and I would not enjoy eating a plain one sprinkled in salt. OVERALL: Not corn tortilla perfection -- does it exist among the packaged thousands? -- but not bad. I would buy these again if homemade was not an option. If you have a favorite corn tortilla brand, let me know. My Nixtamatic doesn't arrive until early March.
I'm still not an expert at making corn tortillas without a press, but I was in awe of this woman at the Mole Festival in San Pedro Atocpan. Her name is Bertha Reyes Romero and she was the quesadilla-maker at one of the restaurants. Her hands worked so fast that I asked if I could take a video, and she said yes.
chiles en nogada this year, I became obsessed with peeling my own walnuts. Skinless, pristine walnuts are a requirement for the nogada, the creamy sauce that covers the Poblano pepper. The sauce must be white to reflect one of the colors of the Mexican flag; walnut skin adds a brownish tint. In both of the chiles en nogada cooking classes I'd taken, we did not peel our own walnuts because it took too long. In fact, no one I knew peeled their walnuts themselves. I kept wondering: how long did peeling walnuts actually take? If I really wanted to understand chiles en nogada, a recipe invented by ascetic Poblana nuns who scorned idleness, didn't I sort of have to know? It turns out nature didn't really intend for walnuts to be peeled. First you have to remove the shell without destroying the soft walnut pulp inside. Then you have to wiggle the walnuts out of their crevices, and delicately, with the agility of threading a needle, peel back their papery skin tiny pieces at a time. When -- huzzah! -- one large piece of skin comes off, it's like putting the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or peeling an orange in one long, windy strip. There is satisfaction in peeling walnuts. But it comes in trickles. In my quest to feel like a 19th-century Mexican nun, I spent 4 1/2 hours last Friday and Saturday cracking and peeling walnuts. That was the key part I hadn't thought of: the cracking. By the time I had enough walnuts to make nogada sauce for 10 people (roughly 4 cups of whole and halved walnuts), my thumbs were sore and covered in scrapes. My eyes hurt from squinting at pinhead-sized pieces of walnut skin. I couldn't even take pictures with my iPhone of my pile of walnut scraps and shells, because my thumbs didn't want to move. It was like Blackberry thumb, but worse. Walnut thumb. I will never do it again, unless I'm only cooking for four. But who makes chiles en nogada for four? Here are some instructions, in case you're struck with a bout of nunliness like I was. How to Peel Walnuts By a Girl Who Peeled Walnuts for More Than 4 Hours, To Make a Mexican Dish In the Style of the Nuns 1. Using a small hammer (forget the nutcracker, in my opinion, as it gives an out-of-control crack instead of controlled hits here and there), crack the walnut once along the thick border that runs from pole-to-pole. Turn it over and crack in the same place on the other side. 2. Still using your hammer, crack the walnut a few times along its smooth, rounded shell. Turn it over and do the same thing again. You don't want to crack only on one side, as that will loosen the walnuts one one side and not the other, and it’s a big bummer when that happens because one side of your walnut WILL NOT COME OUT. (Alternately, once you're comfortable cracking, you may hit the walnut multiple times in different spots, turning as you see fit.) 3. Once you notice cracks in the outer shell, peel it away with your fingers. You should see glorious walnuts inside. 4. Carefully remove the remaining outer shell and wiggle the walnuts inside, freeing them of the tough inner somewhat T-shaped membrane. If small walnut pieces break off, that’s okay. Let them go. You don’t really need them anyway. 5. You should now have large pieces of walnut, free of their shell and their tough membrane. Using your fingernail (and your reading glasses, if you need them), gently tear a piece of the skin off. Continue until all the skin is removed. It’s sort of like peeling a garlic clove. Take pleasure in it. 6. The naked walnuts should be placed in water so they don’t turn brown. Freeze them if you're planning on using them in more than 24 hours. Note that they WILL turn slightly beige in the freezer unless you freeze them in water. I personally find the freezing-in-water step unnecessary, as my walnut sauce still turned out very white, from both the milk and the goat cheese. I'll be posting my recipe in a few days, as soon as my fingers recover. Previously on The Mija Chronicles: Kicking off Chiles en Nogada Season in Puebla Four Chiles, One Day: A Marathon Chiles En Nogada Tasting in Mexico City How to Make A Proper Chile en NogadaOnce I decided I was going to make homemade
I finally brought them home from cooking school. On the upper-left corner of the metate, you can still see the stains from the cacao beans from the time we made chocolate from scratch.
Mexican History and Gastronomy program is that to understand Mexican cuisine, you really have to know what was happening in the convents during the viceregal period. The viceregal period refers to when Mexico was ruled by the Spanish crown, from 1521 to 1821. Yesterday Edmundo gave us a fascinating lecture on what life must have been like for the nuns back then. I didn’t realize the extent that money and class determined the course of their lives. The first convents in Mexico were segregated. If you were poor and indigenous, you couldn’t enter, except as a servant. Even women from good families might not have been able to afford it -- the convent required a dowry, and women who didn’t have one needed a rich benefactor. The rich benefactors preferred light-skinned, virtuous women. Young women who were about to “take the habits” (the literal translation from Spanish for taking a nun’s oath) had lavish, three-day parties where they paraded around town in jewels and fancy clothes. Families even paid for portraits of these women, as a sort of “before the convent” photo. One of these portraits is hanging in the Frida Kahlo Museum, near the kitchen; a few more are at the wonderful Franz Mayer museum. If you were a lower-caste woman without means, you had to find a husband, become a servant, or become a prostitute. One Mexican convent, Jesus María, was specifically founded to help prevent women from entering into prostitution, Edmundo said. The Franz Mayer Museum building, which lies just north of the Alameda Central, used to be a hospital exclusively served prostitutes, so this was a very real possibility for women back then. Even though a woman would've paid money to enter the convent, life there wasn't easy. One historical report that Edmundo read to us last night had the women waking up at 4 a.m. to pray. And there would've been various power struggles and scandals that come with sharing the same space with the same women, day after day. Once enclosed in the convents, the nuns used food as a way to make money -- several of their sweets live on today at Dulcería Celaya in the Centro Histórico. But eating was also a way to grow closer to God. These were not simple dishes. Can you imagine that first taste of a hand-ground, creamy walnut sauce, or a manchamanteles spliced with tomatoes and fruit? It had to lift them to the heavens. Heck, it lifts me to the heavens and I'm not living a cloistered existence. I bought a book of Sor Juana's recipes at Ghandi yesterday, and I'm excited to check them out and possibly make a few. When I do, I'll be grateful that I live in 2011 with the freedom to both work and cook.One of the things I’ve learned in my
Part of me really did think that since I made pineapple atole before in cooking class, I'd be a whiz on it the second time around. That wasn't the case. In my own kitchen, without my classmates looking over my shoulder, I didn't dissolve my masa very well. I ended up with little hard bits that I had to strain out. I also wasn't sure how much masa to add, since I'd downsized the original recipe. (My pot held 2 liters of water, instead of the 3 we used in class.) I put in 170 grams of masa and hoped for the best. But do you know what I learned? Atole is very forgiving. It really doesn't matter how much masa you put in it, or how much fruit. As long as you dissolve and blend things correctly, it's all to your own taste. My own result, at the end of 40 minutes of careful cooking and tasting, was a thick, sweet drink that was just as good as the one I’d made in cooking class. And it tasted much more pineappley, since I'd added in an entire 4-lb. fruit. Unfortunately all I had to serve it with were freezer-burned tamales. Oh well. Recipe below. ...
Last week over lunch at El Cardenal, one of the restaurant’s owners, Marcela Briz, stopped by our table. Dining with me were some fancy guests -- Penny, two chefs from the States and Ruth Alegria. So Señora Briz graciously gave us each a little present: a lotería game she researched and designed based on traditional Mexican foods. I’ve seen riffs on the traditional lotería game before, but never anything that focused specifically on food. This game is actually quite educational. Each card contains a detailed description in Spanish of a variety of Mexican foods and cooking utensils. There's a metate, comal, molcajete, cazuela, plus prehispanic foods like chinicuiles (maguey worms), amaranto and flores de maguey. And dozens more. If you're not familiar with how to play lotería (I actually don't have much experience), Wikipedia says it's like bingo except with pictures. Sounds easy enough. I wonder if you can play with mezcal? As of now, the game is only available in Mexico City. You can find it the El Cardenal location inside the Hilton Hotel on Avenida Juárez, and at the Museo de Arte Popular. It costs 35 pesos, which seems like a steal for the amount of work that went into this. If you're a fan of Mexican cuisine and you're passing through the city sometime soon, you should pick one up.