1. The Tamales Course at Fundación Herdez. This four-day course was probably the best cooking class I've ever taken in Mexico City. The instructor gave an exhausting overview of tamales from prehispanic times to the present, and we supplemented our knowledge with a trip to the Botanic Garden at UNAM. 2. Judging a small-town tamale fair. We arrived to Tetepango, Hidalgo thinking we'd peruse the tamales and atoles and that would be that. Instead we ended up judging more than 100 homemade tamales and atoles, in flavors like cajeta con whisky and bean maguey-worm. It was a blast. 3. Making homemade tortillas at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana. This was my second-favorite cooking class of the year. We made tortillas with guajillo chiles, and tortillas embedded with quelites. Mine inflated (ya me puedo casar), and I realized that a huge part of making good tortillas is a hot comal. I'm blaming my non-inflated tortilla failures at home on my stupid electric stove. 4. Visiting the farmers of Xochimilco. I'd heard of De La Chinampa, a group that supplies organic, locally grown produce to restaurants and local residents in Mexico City. In March, I finally had a chance to see the chinampas up close during a trip with Ricardo Rodriguez, the organization's director. We met a farmer, who explained his farming practices to us; then we floated around the most tranquil part of Xochimilco that I've seen. 5. Touring Queens with Madhur Jaffrey. In April, I was one of the few lucky ones who got to take an Indian food tour of Queens with Madhur Jaffrey, part of an event with the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Ms. Jaffrey was gracious and kind, and she taught us the history and preparation of every food we tried. This ranks in my top food experiences ever. 6. Puebla's International Mole Festival. In May I tasted some of the best foods in the state of Puebla -- moles, molotes, tlayoyos and more -- and listened to Rick Bayless, Marcela Valladolid, Mark Bittman and others share their personal experiences with mole and Mexican food. Completely worth the journey there and back, and I'm already looking forward to the festival again next year. 7.The joy of Oaxacan tamales. I thought I had tasted tamales before I went to Oaxaca. Let's be clear: I had not tasted tamales. These tamales have ruined me on all other tamales, now and into the future. Every time I make tamales, I know they will not be as good as the Oaxacan ones, and that is the cross I have to bear. 8. Burning a tortilla on an outdoor stove, for homemade mole. During the same June trip to Oaxaca, I took a cooking class with Susana Trilling. I volunteered to make the chichilo mole (no one else wanted to do it), which entailed burning a whole tortilla on the clay comal and then adding the ash to the stew. Can I tell you how fun this was? 9. Roast suckling pig in Mealhada, Portugal. When we were in Portugal in July, Crayton insisted (yes, Crayton!) on taking a side trip to Mealhada, also known as roast suckling pig central. We got lost on the way there, so we had to pull over and ask for directions in Crayton's Brazilian-style Portuguese. Eventually we found Pedro Dos Leitoes, a huge restaurant with skewers of pigs roasting in the front lobby. We gobbled down an entire lechón with the crispest skin, plus potato chips, salad, bread, olives and dry, fizzy white wine. 10. A long weekend in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. So what if the city is feíto? The food is fantastic, and I'd love to go back. I had the best time touring the markets with my friend Janneth and her mom, Martha. We stopped at little restaurants and I helped make homemade tamales de masa colada. 11. A food tour of Tijuana. I'm going to write about this soon -- hey, it barely happened in October (wince) -- but Crayton and I had the pleasure of taking a food tour with Bill Esparza, a blogger and Mexican food expert who lives in LA. Of the places he showed us, my favorite was Mariscos Ruben. The goopy, creamy taco de marlin still lives on in my dreams. 12. My first homemade chile en nogada. In hopes of channeling the 19th-century Poblana nuns who invented this dish, I went to Puebla to buy my ingredients and I peeled walnuts for six hours. When it came time to fry the chiles, curls of smoke wafted out of my kitchen and floated over my guests' heads. In the end -- the chile was spectacular. I forgot one more thing that I'm thankful for: you reading this blog, and commenting (or not), and generally making The Mija Chronicles a lovely place to be. I wish you a wonderful New Year, and hope you get a few moments of reflection before all the craziness begins. Un abrazote a todos!I'm grateful for so many things this year. We saw a little bit more of the world. We had lively conversations with good friends and stared out at gorgeous vistas and sipped excellent wine. (And excellent mezcal.) I got to come back to a city that I love like no place else -- fetid air, crushing traffic, raw chicken vendors who hoot at me and all -- and I got to learn and share everything I know about Mexican food, a job that I still cannot believe is mine. My family, thankfully, stayed healthy, and my husband did not complain when I had to work weekends, on vacation, or until 9 p.m. on a weeknight. (Thank you honey, and I promise not to make you visit any more markets if you don't want to.) I'm also thankful for the vendors who said hi to me when I was walking down the street, and for the stoic tlacoyo lady who prepared her last tlacoyo of the day for me, for free -- "Un regalo de navidad," she said. I'm thankful for the roof over our head and the abundance of food in our lives. I really don't know how I ended up with this life, but I am so glad it's mine. Here are some of my favorite food moments of the year:
I fell in love with the gordita inflada in Veracruz. Remember this beauty? She came to me in Coatzacoalcos, warm and crunchy with anise seeds, dribbling bits of mole. And then there were these little cuties in Xico, lined with a layer of black beans. The gorditas in Mexico City are not what one would call cute. They're flat and dense and thick with pork flavor. They are the hoss of the gordita genre. With the Veracruz versions, I kept wondering, what makes these things inflate? Is it baking powder? The only cookbook I found that really addressed the gordita inflada was Zarela's Veracruz: Mexico's Simplest Cuisine and she didn't specifically mention what made them puffy. (Perhaps because it's common knowledge to everyone except me.) I assumed I'd spend hours trying to figure out how to inflate the darn things, but it turns out all you need is two items: a thin-pressed gordita and a lot of hot oil. When I placed the first gordita in the pan -- with the oil heated to over 300F -- it puffed up into a round bubble and started sputtering oil, zipping around the skillet like a little motorboat. "Se infló!" I yelled to Crayton. "Se infló, se infló!" He was on the computer and didn't hear me. After some futzing with a candy thermometer, I figured out that the ideal oil temperature was 260 to 280F for a golden-brown, plump gordita. Today after the football game, I figured out the best way to serve them: layered on a platter and drizzled with ribbons of cajeta, with lots of napkins so everyone could wipe their sticky fingers afterward. The anise seeds are a nod to Coatzacoalcos, and the cajeta.... well, everything tastes good with cajeta. Puffy anise-seed gorditas (gorditas infladas) with cajeta Makes 14 to 15 Note: These contain a mixture of masa and flour. You don't absolutely need the flour for the gorditas to inflate, but the flour does help the gorditas hold their puffy shape longer. (My plain corn ones deflated a little as they cooled.) I also like the extra sweetness that the plantain adds. If you can't find one, leave it out. It may seem like a lot of anise seeds you're adding, but it works in the end. The anise comes through loud and clear, which is what I wanted. Lastly, you'll need a tortilla press and ideally a candy thermometer to measure how hot your oil is. You can eyeball it if not. Do ahead: Masa is highly perishable and, if fresh, does not last longer than one day. The masa I bought from a local tortillería went bad stored in my fridge from one day to the next. However, I did freeze a small amount overnight and it was fine the next day. I would not recommend freezing masa for long periods of time. You can prepare the dough the morning of and refrigerate it until using. Just make sure to knead it well before forming the gorditas. Ingredients 1/2 lb. or 240g fresh masa or the equivalent prepared from masa harina (e.g. Maseca) A 2 1/2 to 3-inch piece of ripe plantain, peeled 1 tablespoon milk 1 tablespoon flour 2 tablespoons grated piloncillo or packed brown sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 1/2 teaspoons anise seeds (toasted if you want), slightly crushed 2 cups oil for frying (I used vegetable) Cajeta for drizzling Other items: Tortilla press Plastic for lining press (e.g., from a grocery bag) Slotted spatula or spoon Baking sheet or platter and paper towels Directions 1. Making the dough Place your masa in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Zap your piece of plantain in the microwave for 20 to 40 seconds until it softens. (Alternately, slice the plantain into thick pieces and simmer in a little milk. Alternately #2, if the plantain is already super ripe -- the peel will be black all over -- you don't need to cook it.) Place the soft plantain in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon milk and mash into a thick puree. Add flour, sugar and salt and mix well. Stir the plantain mixture into your ball of masa, kneading with one hand (or both) until well combined. Then add anise seeds, kneading again until the anise seeds seem well-distributed and the dough comes together and forms a cohesive mass. 2. Shaping the gorditas Grab about a tablespoon of dough -- Zarela calls these "pingpong ball size" -- and roll into a small ball with the palms of your hands. Continue forming the dough into small balls until all the dough has been used. Cover them with a damp dish towel while you heat the 2 cups of cooking oil in a deep skillet. Line the plates of a tortilla press with two pieces of thin plastic. (I cut up a grocery bag.) Once the oil has reached about 260-280F (a little bit of masa should sizzle in the pan) take one of the balls and press it flat. Peel off the top sheet of plastic. Then turn gordita onto your open hand -- the upper edge of your hand works best -- and peel off the other piece of plastic. Place the flattened gordita gently into the hot oil. It should immediately sputter and sizzle, and become enveloped in a lagoon of bubbles. If it doesn't, your oil is not hot enough. Using a slotted spatula or spoon, flick hot oil over the top of the gordita in a quick motion. It should puff up. When the gordita turns dark-brown around the edges -- about 10 to 15 seconds -- turn over and cook the other side. Remove the gordita from the pan using a slotted spoon or spatula and set on a platter or tray lined with layers of paper towels. (Or, if you are in Mexico, papel estraza.) Continue until all gorditas are done. I fried two at a time, once I got enough confidence, in my 10-inch Lodge skillet. Drizzle cajeta on top and serve immediately. Don't forget the napkins! Or knives and forks if you want to be a little more civilized.
tasajo. This was different. The smoke enveloped you, and lurking behind it all was some sort of savory flavor that I couldn’t identify. We first tried to get more information on carne de Chinameca at the Coatzacoalcos market. A row of young girls sold piles of the deep-red colored meat, and they waved floppy pieces at Janneth, Martha and I, with their hands sheathed in plastic grocery bags. “Pásale guerita!” they called, shaking the meat. We stopped and asked the girls about the marinade. They shrugged, saying the meat was brought to them directly from Chinameca. A woman at the end of the row overheard us and said, “Tiene achiote and pimentón.” Annatto seed and paprika. We wanted more information, so the following afternoon we drove to Chinameca, about 30 minutes from Coaztacoalcos. I sort of expected to see a Texas Hill Country-type thing, with smokers parked on the roadside. It wasn’t like that -- Chinameca turned out to be a collection of well-kept single-story houses, a pharmacy, a taquería. The only sign that it was a barbecue paradise were two open-air stands on the outskirts of town, both of which appeared to be smoking meat. The first stand, an open-air wooden shack with a cobbled-together roof, had an obscene cluster of longaniza draped over the grill, dripping and smoking and hanging like a fresh pile of entrails. The owner, a friendly woman, explained that the marinade contained chile guajillo, achiote and pimentón. She first cooked the longaniza on the grill and then smoked for it two to three hours, using pine, nanche or mango tree branches. (That's when I realized: that flavor I couldn't identify probably came from the wood.) She told us about the other woman in town who made carne de Chinameca too. But when we drove over there and Janneth yelled in the window and that lead dried up, we found ourselves back at the friendly woman's stand, gently prying for more information. She let us observe her two young charges, teenage girls, who stood with their arms dunked halfway into a big plastic bucket, a stew of achiote and raw pork and water. One of the girls, who wore big hoop earrings and a beaded necklace with a saint's face dangling off the end, removed her hands and rubbed an almond-sized piece of achiote paste into her palm, almost like soap. Then dragged her pasty red hand across the surface of the ground pork. This would eventually become longaniza -- the pork stomach casings lay nearby. "You have to scrub the achiote like this, because if you just toss it in with the meat, it won't dissolve and you'll just have a little ball in there," she said. Janneth and I nodded knowingly. I wanted to take pictures but thought that would be too invasive. So we purchased a kilo of meat and said goodbye, the teenagers with their hands in the buckets still when we left. At the next stand, only 30 feet away at most, another family grilled reddish-orange filets at a grill set back from the street. We asked the young woman at the rustic counter if we could go back for a closer look, and she gave us a curt nod. About a half-dozen people stood around the grill, and they all sort of stared at us. Janneth, as usual, explained. “We just wanted to see how the carne de Chinameca is smoked.” No one said anything. A young girl of about 10 wore a taquería apron that was too big for her, and she helped an older man cut a huge slice of pork, holding back raw pieces of fat and skin back so he could make a clean cut. We looked for a few seconds more and went back to the counter, where we bought a kilo of gorgeous, reddish-black, fleshy ribs. In the end, I didn't get a recipe, but that’s not exactly what I wanted. We learned the basic elements of the marinade. We learned that you've got to get your hands and forearms in there, and that handmade achiote paste -- the basic stuff, without any seasonings -- is a key ingredient. We learned that the kids start young. And, because it's Mexico, that people will usually answer your questions even if you're a stranger knocking on their door. Someday when I have a backyard, I might make my own longaniza and suspend it over the grill, letting it drip its own fat down into the kindling. I'll rub the achiote with my bare hands, and I’ll remember being in small-town Veracruz and searching for a secret.It was one of those only-in-Mexico moments: my friend Janneth, yelling into the open window of a stranger’s home. “Señora!” she called. The living room on the other side of the screen was dark. But an older woman’s voice answered back, from somewhere in the depths of the house. “What do you want?” Janneth replied honestly. “We want to learn how you make your carne de Chinameca! They told us it’s very good.” (Important fact: in Mexico, no one ever asks who “they” is.) We waited a few seconds. Then came the woman’s muffled reply: “I’m busy.” We had ended up there because we’d become a little obsessed with finding out the secrets of carne de Chinameca, a type of smoked meat that’s popular in Southern Veracruz. I didn’t even realize that barbecue -- American-style barbecue -- existed in that area of Mexico. Carne de Chinameca reminded me a lot of what norteamericanos might eat on the Fourth of July: a smoky, crispy-grilled meat that tasted like coals and campfire and being outside. I had first tried it on a picadita in Catemaco and it was a jolt to the brain. This wasn’t the salty, cured taste of
Coatzacoalcos for months, ever since she came back from Coatza one day and started telling me about all the things she saw there that didn't exist in Mexico City -- tubs of small freshwater fish, crackery tortillas, and puffy, airy quesadillas called empanadas, which were served covered in shredded cabbage. Crayton and I finally had some free days in September so we decided to take a long weekend. Coazta isn't usually where folks stop in Veracruz. It’s an oil town along the state's southern edge, and nobody really goes there unless they work for Pemex or they know someone who works for Pemex. There is a beach but no one swims in it. One person commented on my Instagram feed that I should visit other cities in Veracruz, because Coatza was bastante “feíto.” (Ugly.) Coatza has nothing in the way of cool architecture or museums -- a reviewer on Trip Advisor called their Museum of Olmec Culture "a pirated version of Epcot Center" -- but it’s got good food, which makes it a perfectly reasonable destination in my eyes. After this trip I’m more convinced than ever that good food can be found anywhere in Mexico, even the most feíto towns. The best of Coatza: gorditas and markets Janneth grew up in Coatzacoalcos (her dad retired from Pemex), and she graciously offered to not only drive, but let us stay at her parents' house. Our first morning there we drove to La Picadita Jarocha for breakfast, a bustling cafe open to the street. She insisted we try the balloony sweet gorditas, made with masa speckled with anise seeds and stuffed with mole. They arrived liked little bubbles, and then we cut them open to reveal the mole underneath. I cannot tell you how good these things were. Afterward we wandered around Coatza's market with Janneth’s mother Martha, a wonderful cook and local food expert. She pointed out more things I’d never seen: black camarones reculones, called as such because they walk backward; little nubs of homemade achiote paste, and hoja blanca leaves used to wrap tamales. She also showed me the cracker-like totopos that came from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where she’s from. I'd seen them before outside the 20 de Noviembre Market in Oaxaca, but they seemed to be more prolific here. Then we made a quick stop at Janneth's aunt's restaurant to watch the staff make tamales de masa colada. I'd never actually seen masa colada up close -- it's a tamal dough made from nixtamalized corn that's cooked almost to a Cream-of-Wheat consistency. A team of two women worked fast on the back patio, laying down an hoja blanca leaf, a banana leaf, a heaping spoonful of masa colada and then chicken, epazote and red chile sauce. Then they wrapped everything neatly and tying the tamal with a little knot. I tried to make one and the sauce oozed out one end. We ended the day at an open-air restaurant with a dirt floor called Tio Chon, located off the old two-lane road to Minatitlán. Janneth instructed us on the proper Coatzacoalcosian way to eat camarones enchipotlados -- place the whole shrimp in your mouth, suck off the sauce, then dip it in more sauce when no one is looking. (Her mom immediately told us, don't do it that way, she's wrong.) The Minatitlán market Crayton was not exactly enthused to visit another market, but he was powerless against the trio of Janneth, Martha and I, who could together probably spend eight hours talking to vendors and scribbling down recipe notes. We visited another market -- the Mercado Popular Campesino -- in Minatitlán, a small town about 20 minutes from Coatzacoalcos. The heat was stifling even at 10 a.m. Ladies in checkered smocks, their faces shiny with sweat, sold various vines and fruits and vegetables, some of which I hadn't seen at the Coazta market the day before. We tried pópo, a beverage made from toasted cacao beans, rice, cinnamon and a vine called asquiote. One vendor was selling asquiote, too, which excited all of us to no end. "Look, it's asquiote!" I told Crayton. He just looked at me and continued checking his Blackberry. I loved the tortillas de frijol, a crispy plate of a tortilla -- sort of like a tlayuda -- made from masa mixed with beans. Martha said you eat it with cheese and very hot salsa. I bought one and munched on it while we shopped. There was one more food-related activity -- hunting down the famous carne de Chinameca -- but I'll save that for the next post. After only a few days together, I told Janneth and Martha that we should plan another trip together, to Martha's hometown in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in 2013. If we do go... sorry Crayton, you're not coming.Janneth and I had talked about me visiting her in
We arrived in Xico just in time for the Fiesta de la Magdalena. Mary Magdalene is the town’s patron saint and she's celebrated yearly in July. I wish I would've known more about the festival, but unfortunately all we could do was watch without really knowing what was going on. After lunch, we saw a group of young people carry a costumed statue of Mary Magdalene on their shoulders, singing hymns as they walked toward the other side of town. Once arriving in the main square, the site of Xico's largest church, a crowd of children danced in brightly colored costumes. Here's a few more of the photos I took, both of the processional and the children dancing. If anyone out there knows a little bit more about the festival, and the significance behind the processional and the costumes, I'd love to hear it!
Fiesta de la Magdalena, Xico’s biggest yearly festival that celebrates the town's patron saint. Strands of papel picado hung between the streets. The town looked like it ran directly up into the mountains -- behind all the buildings, you could see them there in the background, covered in thick clouds. Before we could get to lunch at El Campanario, the restaurant I'd painstakingly chosen as my primary mole xiqueño experience, a woman on a side street waved us over. She was selling toritos, a milky drink full of a boozy, rum-tasting liquor. She gave us little shots through the passenger-side window: piña colada, strawberry, peanut, coconut. At this point I was loving Xico. Then, finally, we arrived at El Campanario for lunch. While we mulled over the menu, the waitress dropped off a plate of fresh corn tortillas, drizzled with melted lard and a scoop of chunky tomato sauce. We ordered a few of the house specialities: sopa xonequi, made with a wild green that grows in Xico, and of course the mole. Then the food came... The mole wasn't like anything I've ever tasted. It was much fruitier than the mole I'd tried at El Bajío, with these lingering hits of apple and banana and blackberry-ish chile ancho. And it had texture: you could feel the spices under your teeth. The last thing I got before swallowing was a sense of balance -- it was tangy, toasty, sweet, charred. I wanted to keep eating more, just to see what else I could detect. Thinking about it now, I should've tried to interview some of the restaurant staff to find out how they make it. Instead we left the restaurant happy, and off to wander Xico. We caught part of a procession as we were walking. There are several restaurants that specialize in mole xiqueño -- the ones that were on my list, but I didn't try, were El Xicoteco and El Mesón Xiqueño. If you're planning a trip and you want to eat well, I also found Karen Hursh Graber's MexConnect article on Xalapa, Xico and Naolinco super helpful. I'll post the rest of my Xico pictures in the next post!The first time I had mole xiqueño -- mole that's made in the style of Xico, a town in the state of Veracruz -- was at El Bajío in Polanco. I didn't know much about it, so I had expected something heavy and sweet, like a mole poblano. The dish ended up being more complex: delicately sweet like a slice of fruit, and slightly bitter, with hints of smoke and ash. When Crayton and I decided to take a trip to Xalapa, I told him we had to go to Xico. I really wanted to try this mole at the source. Roy drove us from Xalapa. Coffee plants and banana trees lined the road. We pulled over at a little factory that advertised homemade mole, and they gave us a scoop of paste stuck to the end of a tortilla chip. It was delicious -- a mix of chiles, spice and dried fruit. We entered Xico proper a few minutes later. We’d happened to arrive during the