Corn tortillas, old world and new

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Dear Readers,

This was my last posting, written in 2011. At this last writing, my life took a different turn, and I had no choice but to follow. Even though I have not added anything new to Cooking In Mexico, you will still find it to be a treasure-trove of authentic Mexican recipes written for today’s cook. In addition, there are a few non-Mexican recipes that were too good not to share with you. You will find all of my favorite Mexican dishes at the top of this page under “Recipes”. I hope you refer to them as often as I still do. Thank you for your readership and many comments. I still reply to every comment and question and look forward to hearing from you.

Kathleen

May, 2011

Corn Tortillas, Old World and New

We were in the state of San Luis Potosí some years back, in the very small town of La Plazuela, when we came across the tortilleria — the shop that makes fresh corn tortillas. Every Mexican town has at least one tortilleria, but this one was special. The tortillas were being made from freshly ground, dried corn, instead of packaged Maseca, the corn flour usually used. We watched the grinding process, and waited around for the hot tortillas. Ay caramba, were they good! I don’t think we have had tortillas made from corn kernels ground on site since.

Amadeo, a resident of La Plazuela, ate egg tacos every morning made with these tortillas. He was a poor man, and when I saw his breakfast, I realized there wasn’t more than a small smear of cooked egg in each taco, essentially tortillas flavored with a bit of egg. His large meal of the day was tortillas with beans, and he told us that he was lucky he liked beans and tortillas so much, since that was the food God gave the poor of Mexico.

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Corn tortillas date back to pre-Columbian times, and still figure prominently in traditional Mexican cuisine. Then as now, the corn kernels are first soaked in an alkaline solution of lime (known as cal in Mexico) and water. This softens the outer skin, which is then rubbed off by hand. This process is known as nixtamalization. If you buy a bag of Maseca in Mexico, that is what the word nixtamalizado on the package means.

Despite the growing popularity of spongy Bimbo bread, tortillas are everywhere. They are the basis of quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, enfrijoladas and much more. These days, they are more likely to be made from the dry masa mix, rather then freshly ground, dried corn. There is no comparison between the flavor of the two, but a corn grinder is not a usual household applicance, even in Mexico. So we all eat tortillas made from Maseca, though today’s modern Mexican youngsters probably do not even know what tortillas made from freshly ground corn taste like. No doubt, in the remote villages of Mexico, the real tortillas are all they know.

For some reason, my dear chief taster has had this fantasy that his esposa will some day slap masa between her hands and make corn tortillas for him regulary. Maybe this has something to do with a wish to return to simpler times. With a tortilleria only a block away, this is one fantasy that is not going to happen. Or so I thought until he gave me a beautiful, wooden tortilla press as a gift. What else could I do, but make tortillas for him. This one time.


Do you have a tortilla press and a mate who thinks you are going to slap together fresh tortillas for breakfast? If so, buy a bag of Maseca, or better yet, go to your local tortilleria and buy some fresh masa. That’s what I did. A half kilo of fresh masa cost six pesos, the same as a half kilo of tortillas. In other words, it cost the same for an equal weight of freshly cooked, steaming tortillas as it does for the masa, leaving me to go home, press the tortillas, then stand over a very hot griddle. But if making corn tortillas will make your day, here’s how to do it.

If you live in a town with a tortilleria, buy fresh masa. One pound (one-half kilo) will make twelve to fifteen tortillas. If you are not lucky enough to live near a tortilleria, buy a bag of Maseca or Quaker Masa Hariana de Maiz and follow the instructions on the package. Their instructions call for 2 cups of masa mix, 1 1/4 cups of water, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir together, adding water in small increments if the dough is too dry and cracks when a test tortilla is pressed, or adding more masa if it is too wet and sticks to the plastic bags in the press.

Whether your masa is fresh from a tortilleria, or mixed at home, pinch off enough dough to roll a ball in your hands that is slightly larger than a walnut. Keep the balls covered with a towel or plastic bag so they don’t dry before they get to the griddle or comal.

Lay a plastic bag on your tortilla press, set a ball of dough in the center, cover that with another plastic bag, and bring down the upper part of the press with moderate pressure. That’s it — remove the tortilla from the bags and place on a very hot, unoiled griddle. After a few minutes, when brown spots start to appear on the under-side, turn it over. It will start to puff a little. Cook another minute or two, until small brown spots again appear underneath. Don’t overcook or it will be crispy. We are after soft tortillas.

Once you can stand back and survey your handiwork, you are ready to make quesadillas, Baja fish tacos or enchiladas rojas. The side of the tortilla that puffed up is called the “face” and experts say it goes inside a taco or quesadilla, because it may peel off. Once I have the tortillas cooked and off the griddle, I can’t tell which side is which. But, I’m no expert.

The two illustrations at the top are from the Florentine Codex and the Mendoza Codex, respectively.

Public domain

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Jamaica iced tea

Jamaica iced tea is tea is everywhere in Mexico — in almost every restaurant, offered by many street stands, in large, glass jars in the markets. The grocery stores sell jamaica (ha-MY-ka) by the bag full, and bulk herb and grain stores sell it loose. It is always served cold with plenty of ice, and in Mexico it is also served overly sweet, like red liquid candy. If we order it with a meal, we only order one and a glass of ice water. A few tosses back and forth between the two glasses, and we have two ruby drinks that are half as sweet, but still refreshing.

Known as hibiscus in English, and flor de jamaica in Mexico, jamaica/hibiscus is the herb that gives some Celestial Seasonings teas the bright red color and a slightly bitter flavor. If you drink Red Zinger tea, you are drinking hibiscus flowers.

The stronger the brew, the more noticeable the bitter flavor, which leads to more sugar added to mask the bitterness. This recipe uses less jamaica, but it needs less sugar because the bitterness is minimized. Iced jamaica tea can be mixed with fruit juice, like mango nectar, though I have never seen it served with juice in Mexico. In Mexico, don’t ask for té de jamaica — ask for agua (water) de jamaica.

Hibiscus tea is made from one particular plant, Hibiscus sabdariffa. It doesn’t grow in our yard, but another hibiscus blooming outside (below) is just as red, though not for used for tea. The tea is not made from the petals, something I used to think until I learned that it is the part of the flower around the petals, the sepals, that are used for tea .

Jamaica Iced Tea — Agua de Jamaica

  1. Bring two cups of water to a boil.
  2. Add 1/4 cup of lightly packed jamaica/hibiscus.
  3. Turn off  heat and brew for 3-5 minutes. Strain, discarding jamaica.
  4. Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar, or to taste.
  5. Add 2 cups of cold water or fruit juice.
  6. Pour over ice and serve.

Makes one quart.

Post Script: As my readers have reminded me in their comments below, this tea is also delightful without sugar.

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Chiles en nogada with fresh fruit

If you have missed me, I’ve missed you, too, but it’s just been too hot to be in the kitchen this summer. El Día de la Independencia, September 16, brought me back from the brink of forgetting that I even have a food blog. Chiles en nogada, the traditional dish served for Mexican Independence Day, helped reacquaint me with mi cocina mexicana.

A year ago, I featured Chiles en Nogada the way they are traditionally made in Mexico — with dried fruit. For something different, this recipe features fresh fruit instead of dried, with a golden delicious apple and a sweet, juicy peach. I think plums and pears would be great in this, also. With all the beautiful fruit in the markets this month, the possibilities are endless.

My taster-in-residence says these chiles en nogada are delicious, but for a real test, he would need to taste them side by side with the dried fruit version. At least that’s what I think he said between mouthfuls of stuffed poblano. His sly smile means he really wants me to make more, with either dried or fresh fruit. He’s not particular.

Chiles en nogada are usually garnished with pomegranate seeds, something hard to come by in our little town. I substituted an unusual fruit, Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa), that grows in our yard. Its color replicates the pomegranate seeds, but its flavor resembles a sweet cranberry. If you are in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and walk along the Marina Riviera Nayarit, you will see hundreds of Natal plum bushes lining the walk-way, bright with aromatic white flours and red, little plum-like fruit.

The word nogada is Spanish for “sauce of pounded walnuts”, according to Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary. The creamy, white walnut sauce adds a mellowness all of its own. Don’t bother trying to peel the walnuts, as many recipes recommend. It is too tedious a chore and really not necessary.

Chiles en Nogada with Fresh Fruit
  • 6 poblano chiles
  • 3 medium tomatoes (.75 lb./340 grams)
  • 1 medium onion (6-7 oz./220 grams)
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup (1 oz./30 grams) finely chopped walnuts or sliced almonds
  • 1 apple, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 peach, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml.) ground cinnamon
  •  1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups (360 ml.) crema (Mexican sour cream), crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 3/4 cup (180 ml.) walnut meat
  • salt to taste
  • pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
  1. Roast and peel poblano chiles. Carefully slit down center and remove seeds. Set aside.
  2. Roast and peel tomatoes. Squeeze out juice, reserving the liquid. Finely chop tomatoes. Set aside.
  3. Saute onion and garlic until tender.
  4. Add ground meat and cook until no longer pink.
  5. Add tomatoes, 1/4 cup walnuts (0r almonds), fruit, bay leaves, cinnamon, oregano, salt and pepper and simmer for ten minutes. Do not allow to cook dry. Add reserved tomato juice or water to maintain some moisture. Remove bay leaves.
  6. To make the sauce, combine crema or sour cream and 3/4 cups walnuts in blender until smooth. Add a little milk if it is too thick. Salt to taste.
  7. Generously fill chiles, spoon walnut sauce over top, and garnish with pomegranate seeds.
  8. Serve hot, cold or room temperature.

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Mole Verde con Pollo for Cinco de Mayo

Mole Verde con Pollo marks a milestone for me, as I have never had a recipe for chicken on this blog before, and I have not eaten chicken in over ten years. Until now. I could not bring myself to eat anything that had been raised in cramped cages, denied sunshine and fed who knows what.  A local reader, knowing of my chicken hang-up, told me that the same store where I buy range-fed beef also carries chickens from a local ranch. Several years ago, when I asked about chicken at this store, they could not tell me it was supplied locally. It seems things have changed, so chicken is back on our menu. Russ is glad.

With fortuitous timing, another reader, Cecil, sent me her grandmother’s recipe for Mole Verde con Pollo. Compared to most, this mole (MOH-lay, with an accent on the first syllable), is easy to make, having fewer ingredients, and it has a lighter taste. The dark moles can be heavy. This is not to say they aren’t wonderful, but they are fairly intense. Mole verde is less spicy but with its own notes of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos and epazote. Russ says he’ll eat it as often as I make it.

There are many different types of moles, spanning a rainbow of colors: yellow, red, black, green, plus pipián and almendrado. They all contain chiles, but they don’t all use chocolate. Mole Poblano, a dark mole from Puebla, does include chocolate. Mole Verde does not. I think you will like how easy it is to prepare and its fresh, light flavor. It’s what we are having for Cinco de Mayo, an almost non-event in Mexico, but celebrated big time by the grocery stores in the U.S.

Pumpkin seeds — pepitas — are a common snack in Mexico. You can buy them raw or already toasted and salted. What we think of as pumpkins in the U.S. and Canada are seldom seen in Mexico. (And that means no jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween in Mexico, either.)  Pepitas are really squash seeds. For this recipe, start with raw seeds, pepitas or pumpkin seeds, and toast them lightly until just starting to brown.

Unless you are all fired up about using your molcajete, pulverize the cooled, toasted pumpkin seeds in a coffee grinder. Wipe out any coffee residue first, or better yet, keep a coffee grinder dedicated to spice and seed grinding.

Mole Verde con Pollo

  • 1 large chicken, cut into pieces and simmered in 1 quart (1 liter) water until tender
  • 3/4 cup (100 grams/3.5 oz.) ground toasted pumpkin seeds
  • 8 medium-size tomatillos, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved
  • 4 serrano chiles, seeded or not, according to taste (seeds are the hottest part of chiles)
  • 4 poblano chiles, skinned, seeded and chopped (see link below)
  • 4 romaine lettuce leaves, chopped
  • 3 sprigs cilantro, chopped
  • 3 sprigs epazote or parsley, chopped
  • 3 cups (700 ml.) chicken stock, strained, from cooking the chicken
  • 1 tablespoon (20 ml.) vegetable oil
  • salt to taste
  1. In a medium sized pot, simmer tomatillos, onion, garlic, serranos and 2 cups of chicken broth for 5 minutes, or until the tomatillos are soft.
  2. Pour tomatillo mixture into a blender jug and add poblanos and lettuce. Puree until smooth.  (Hold lid on firmly with a dish towel to prevent a hot explosion of liquid.)
  3. Add ground pumpkin seeds, cilantro and epazote and puree again until smooth, stirring seeds into mixture if necessary.
  4. Heat vegetable oil in a large pot.
  5. Pour blender contents into the pot while stirring, and stir in remaining one cup of broth.
  6. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning on the bottom. Salt to taste.
  7. Ladle a generous spoonful of mole into soup bowls, add a piece of cooked chicken, and spoon more mole over chicken.
  8. Serve with rice or warm corn tortillas.

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Rancho El Limón

Rancho El Limón, forty-five minutes out of Puerto Vallarta toward the Sierra Madre Mountains in the state of Jalisco, is a real, honest-to-goodness organic farm. Every Sunday, Alison brings the ranch’es bounty of cherry tomatoes, mixed salad greens, fennel, arugula, freshly laid eggs, and sometimes a giant Mexican squash or watermelon, to the market at the La Cruz Marina.

Since the Sunday Market began, Alison and her table of organic harvest are all we have known about Rancho El Limón, so Russ and I jumped at an opportunity to visit the ranch when we were invited to an open house. It was a chance for a number of us who participate in the market to tour the ranch, meet Alison’s partner, Manuel de Jesús, and learn about the other side of Rancho El Limón, the Pura Vida Spa.

The day was one of those bright, sunny Mexican days, when the sun seems too bright, the sky almost too brilliant. Alison and Manuel had a lunch ready for us under the cool shade of mango trees, featuring — what else — a huge salad of homegrown ingredients, with local fresh cheeses and corn tortillas. We would have expected nothing less. Even the salad dressing of pureed tomatoes came from the land.

Alison was formerly involved in a venture that sold chimeneas made to her specifications. This interesting stove, made of fired, glazed clay, comes with racks for cooking over the chimney, and that is exactly how the tortillas served with lunch were heated over a fire of mango wood. This type of stove, in one form or another, is found all over the world, and Mexico has a long tradition of relying on chimineas for heating and cooking. This one was a beauty in form and function.

A large, clay horno, or oven, was just outside the kitchen. It had recently been used to cook pizzas, but they were not on the menu today. Hornos, made of adobe clay, also have a long history in Mexico, and are seen in backyards throughout the countryside.

After lunch, we were taken on a tour of the house, with its spacious dining room, well-appointed guest rooms, and breezy walkways. Manuel has owned the ranch house and its thirty hectares of farm land for over twenty years. The house has a comfortable, welcoming feel, perfect for an afternoon with friends.

This was when we learned about the other business side to Rancho El Limón, known as Pura Vida Spa. Winter visitors and busy Puerto Vallartans can spend a few days enjoying the treatments for body and soul, with massage, steam baths, stretching exercise, and other activities that sooth and relax.

The highlight for me, beside the organic lunch, great ranch house, hospitable hosts, pleasant companions, and shady garden setting — in short, everything — was the tour of the greenhouse, the source of our weekly, organic salad fixings. Rancho El Limón produces its own compost and worm castings for pesticide- and chemical-free produce.

The afternoon ended with a walk to the calm Rio Ameca, a far cry from the raging river it can become during the summer rainy season. Sculpted ficus trees and wild flowers lined the walk. The dogs romped. A perfect afternoon.

Alison is at the Sunday Market at the La Cruz Marina, and can tell you more about Rancho El Limón, its organic produce and spa activities. As long as you are there, buy some salad greens and cherry tomatoes. Her tomatoes are as sweet as candy.

Alison is also at the Sayulita market every Friday from 10 am until 2 pm until May 13. She is organizing a summer market at the Bucerias Bilingual Community Center that will begin Saturday May 7, also 10 am until 2 pm. The BBCC is two blocks behind Carnes del Mundo on Calle 16 de Septiembre, #48.

Rancho El Limón has a web page with more information and photos. It is between Ixtapa and Las Palmas, but don’t try to find it by yourself — the maze of ranch roads are tricky to negotiate.  Alison can provide detailed directions if you want to visit.

Rancho el Limón
Las Palmas, Jalisco
044 322 110 1689 English
044 322 174 8986 español
From within USA/Cananda 858 736 9004
email: info@rancholimon.com,  rancholimon@gmail.com

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Coconut Mango Tres Leches Cake

A wheeled cornucopia goes down our street every day, with vendors selling everything ripe and local out of the backs of their trucks. In the summer, I can step out of the gate and buy mangoes by the kilo. Until then, I have to walk a block to the nearest store for mangoes coming from further south.

Until we moved to Mexico, I never knew the aroma and taste of mangoes picked ripe and juicy. And the variety! The common Tommy Atkins, known familiarly as “Tommy” in Mexico, the luscious Ataulfo, also called the Champagne mango, the large, firm Haden, the Keitt, still green when ripe, and the Kent mango, almost fiberless. These are the common mangoes of Mexico, exported by the ton, maybe coming this summer to a supermarket near you. When you find some, eat them raw and fresh, standing over the sink — or better yet, in the surf — so as not to drip the staining juices on your shirt. If there are any left over, make Mango Coconut Tres Leches Cake.

Tres Leches cakes are the cake of Mexico. Probably of European origin, this cake is known for its high moisture level, due to its saturation with three milks — condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream. Some think it is too wet. Well, that is part of its charm. If it wasn’t wet, it wouldn’t be a tres leches cake, just another white frosted cake. My cakes are hardly ever white, nor are they overly sweet. As in many of my baking recipes, this one has whole wheat flour and decreased sugar. It also has coconut oil instead of butter and coconut milk instead of dairy milk. The inspiration came from a recent recipe in the New York Times for Mango Tres Leches Cake. Its addition of Spanish brandy is a touch of genius.

This was one of those rare times when I actually had an uncommon ingredient on hand, thanks to Costco. If you don’t have Spanish brandy, cognac is fine. If you don’t have cognac, the cake will still be very good.

Coconut Mango Tres Leches Cake

  • 1  1/2 cups (6.5 oz./185 grams) sifted whole wheat flour*
  • 1/2 cup (3.5 oz./100 grams) plus 1/4 cup (1.75 oz./50 grams) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (30 grams) baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon (3.5 grams) salt
  • 6 large eggs, separated
  • 5 tablespoons ( 2.25 oz./63 grams) melted coconut oil
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) coconut milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 cups (17 oz./240 grams) cubed mango
  • 2 cups (473 ml.) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 can (14 oz./397 grams) condensed sweetened milk
  • 1/4 cup (2 fl. oz./60ml.) Spanish brandy or cognac (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cups (360 ml.) very cold heavy cream (called crema para batir in Mexico)
  1. Butter a 9-inch-by-13-inch (23 cm. x 33 cm.) baking pan; heat oven to 350 deg. F. (180 C.).
  2. In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in 1/2 cup sugar.
  3. In a large bowl, stir together egg yolks, melted coconut oil, 3 tablespoons coconut milk and vanilla.
  4. Beat egg whites until frothy, add cream of tartar. Before peaks form, add 1/4 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until slightly stiff.
  5. Whisk half of flour mixture into yolk mixture. Whisk in 1/4 egg whites. Carefully fold in another 1/4 egg whites with a large spatula or balloon whisk.
  6. Sift half of remaining flour mixture into batter, and fold in. Fold in 1/4 egg whites. Fold in remaining flour mixture. Fold in remaining egg white. Do not over-mix.
  7. Spoon batter into prepared pan, smooth top,  and bake 25 minutes, or until center tests dry with a wooden toothpick. Cool on a rack.
  8. In a small pan, heat coconut milk, condensed milk and brandy until hot. Pour over cake. Cover and chill cake for at least 3 hours or overnight.
  9. Puree mango in a food processor until smooth. Add additional sugar to taste if the mango is not sweet.
  10. At serving time, whip cream until stiff. Fold in half of mango puree.  Spread mango cream over the cake. Spoon remaining puree on top and swirl into whipped cream with a spatula.

Notes

  • * After sifting, you should have 1 1/2 cups of flour; save bran for muffins or bread.
  • When whipping cream, especially in the summertime, use very cold cream, and pre-chill the mixing bowl and beaters in the freezer. This will prevent you from unexpectedly making butter instead!
  • Use organic ingredients when possible. The Coconut Mango Tres Leches Cake was made with organic coconut milk, organic coconut oil, organic sugar, eggs from free-range chickens and locally grown, unsprayed mangoes.

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