Tarascan bean soup

La primavera (Spring) has arrived in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Mornings are still a little chilly, but the days warm up quickly. Soon it will be too warm to think about a hot bowl of soup, but that time has not yet arrived.

This soup is inspired by Tarascan Bean and Tomato Soup, a hearty soup recipe in Diana Kennedy’s book, The Cuisines of Mexico. Mrs. Kennedy writes that the the recipe is from Michoacán, and named after the Tarascan Indians of that state. It looks easy enough to try. I’m all for easy these days. And how can you go wrong combining beans, chiles and tomatoes?

If you already have some cooked pinto beans and fresh tomatoes, Tarascan bean soup comes together fairly quickly. You could use canned tomatoes, but it’s worth taking the time to blister fresh tomatoes over a flame for that incomparable roasted flavor. It only takes minutes. And I hope you have a Mexican stocked fridge and pantry. Some dry chiles, corn tortillas, a cheese that melts, maybe some Mexican crema (but that’s not essential for this soup).

Pinto beans are rarely seen in central and southern Mexico. They are a staple of northern Mexico and the American southwest. After telling friends that pinto beans aren’t found in central Mexico (much to their surprise), I was presented with a bag when they next returned from north of the border. Thoughtful friends. Great soup.

Tarascan Bean Soup Serves 4-6

  • 3 1/2 cups cooked pinto beans, with bean broth
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 2 large plum tomatoes, grilled until the skin starts to blacken, or 1 cup canned cubed tomatoes
  • 2 cups (1/2 l.) chicken or vegetable broth
  • 6 corn tortillas, cut into 1.5″ by 1/4″ strips, fried until crisp
  • 6 pasilla chiles, cut into small strips and fried until crisp (see notes)
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) thick Mexican crema or thinned sour cream
  • 1/2 cup crumbled cotija cheese or cubed manchego cheese
  1. Puree the tomatoes, onion and garlic in a blender.
  2. In a large skillet or heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Add the tomato mixture and simmer for 5 minutes over high heat, stirring occasionally.
  3. Blend the beans with their broth until very smooth.
  4. Add the bean puree and oregano to the tomato mixture, and cook over medium heat for for 8 minutes, stirring frequently.
  5. Add chicken (or vegetable) broth, adjust for salt, and cook 10 minutes more, stirring every few minutes.
  6. Divide among bowls, and pass tortilla and chile strips, crema and cheese.

Notes ~

~ Diana Kennedy includes instructions for making Mexican style crema for those north of the border. Simply blend 1/2 pint heavy cream with two tablespoon of buttermilk in a glass jar, cover loosely, and allow to set out in a warm kitchen for six hours. Refrigerate overnight and it will thicken. For thin crema, use thin cream, not heavy. If you live in Mexico, crema will be as close as your nearest cremeria or tienda abbarotes. Buttermilk is not to be had for love or money in Mexico, to my knowledge. (If a recipe calls for buttermilk, thin plain yogurt. Or take the longer route: make butter from fresh cream. The liquid pressed out of the butter solids is real buttermilk.)

~ To fry chile strips, cut out the seeds and membrane of pasilla chiles, cut into small strips, and fry in a little vegetable oil for no longer than 15-20 seconds per side. Over-cooking will turn the chile bitter.

~ Pasilla chiles, the fried form of the chilaca chile, add a delightful, almost sweet flavor with very little heat.

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Tortilla soup

As we see the icy images on television of the fierce storms sweeping the US and read of record cold (in Texas of all places!) we’re grateful for our relative warmth in Mexico. Winter still happens here, especially at our elevation of 4,600′ (1402 m). The grass was rimmed with frost this morning, but the morning sky is already brilliant blue. Chilly days call for steaming hot soup, and tortilla soup will warm soul and body on the coldest of days.

In the valley below, tomatoes, chiles and cucumbers are being harvested. Yes, winter is harvest time, and we have a friend, Profesor Pauli, who grows organic tomatoes. Ziploc bags of chopped tomato fill the freezer, enough to keep us supplied until next year’s harvest.

This soup is basically an extremely savory tomato broth with lots of toppings. Slices of avocado, strips of crisp fried tortilla and chile, queso cotija, crema mexicana, and optional chicken pieces, if you wish to make it heartier.

With two chiles — chile pasilla pureed in the broth and chile ancho strips as a topping — you might think tortilla soup would be muy picante. Not at all. These are mild chiles. Chile pasilla literally means “little raisin”, maybe because of its color. Mark Miller, in “The Great Chile Book”, describes the pasilla as tasting of berry, grape, and herbaceous tones with a hint of licorice.

The ancho chile is the queen of chiles in my kitchen. Ground or whole, I can’t get enough of it in soups, chocolate desserts and salsas, even in coffee and hot chocolate. The Great Chile Book describes it as “having a mild fruit flavor with tones of coffee, licorice, tobacco, dried plum and raisin, with a little woodsiness”. My hat is off to Mark if he can detect all those tastes. I can’t say that I can, but that’s probably due to my unimaginative palate. The chiles taste and smell exquisite, despite my lack of original descriptive adjectives.

Traditionally, tortilla soup is not served with chicken, but as with all recipes, creativity is the extra salt that seasons a dish like nothing else. In other words, add whatever you fancy — corn, potato, tofu, shrimp. It may no longer be a traditional tortilla soup, but the broth is so good, it will still be delicious, a customized bowl of soup. I didn’t have an avocado to use for leftovers the next day, so cilantro gave the bowls a touch of green.

Most likely, there are thousands of pots of soup being made today north of the border. For those still under winter’s cold spell, I wish I could deliver bowls of piping hot tortilla soup. Since that isn’t possible, here’s the next best thing, a recipe for one of the most warming, flavorful soups of Mexico. I’m hoping your casa has power and water, that you and yours are warm and dry, and that you are able to enjoy a hot bowl of soup. Provecho!

Tortilla soup 4 servings

  • 4 corn tortillas, preferably a day old
  • 4 ancho chiles
  • 1/4 cup (59 ml) neutral tasting oil
  • 2 cups (14 oz/400 g) chopped Roma (plum) tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup (59 ml) chopped onion
  • 2 large cloves minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 2 pasilla chiles, seeds, membranes and stems removed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 cups (1185 ml) chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups cubed, cooked chicken, well heated (optional)
  • 2 avocados, cubed
  • 1/2 cup (59 ml) crema mexicana, or sour cream
  • 1/2 cup queso cotija or queso fresco, crumbled
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges
  1. Stack and cut tortillas into small strips, about 1 1/4″ x 1/4″ (31.75 mm x 6.35 mm). Fry in hot oil in batches in a skillet until crisp. Drain on a paper towel.
  2. Slit open ancho chiles, remove stems, seeds and membanes. Cut into small strips, 1 1/4″ x 1/4″. Fry in hot oil in batches until starting to blister, 10 – 15 seconds per side. Drain on a paper towel.
  3. Puree tomato, onion, garlic, pasilla chile and oregano until very smooth.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add tomato mixture and cook until bubbling. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste.
  6. Divide hot chicken pieces, if using, among 4 bowls. Ladle broth over chicken. Top with avocado, tortilla and chile strips, crumbled cheese and a spoonful of crema mexicana. Serve immediately with wedges of lime.

Notes ~

~ Leftover tortilla soup is deliciosa, but be forewarned that the pasilla chiles have had time to steep their heat into the broth. Más picante, but still so good. We emptied our bowls too soon.

~ Guajillo chiles can be substituted for the chile ancho. North of the border, look for dried chiles online, or in Mexican or import grocery stores.

~ For a vegetarian version, substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth.

~ This is an anniversary of sorts, the 200th post for Cooking in Mexico. This post also has another distinction. While I was combining recipe, photos and text, the nuts and bolts of blogging, Russ was on the kitchen floor attempting to get the dishwasher doing its thing again. I would be in the process of inserting a photo, and he would ask for a wrench. Then I would start to rewrite a sentence, and he wanted a rag or screwdriver. I finally finished the post for tortilla soup, but he’s still working on the dishwasher. Russ has the harder chore today. He’s my fix-it guy par excellence. He’ll get it done. Or we’ll get a new dishwasher.

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All photos and text are copyright protected. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.

Seven layer bean dip

The Super Bowl deserves something above and beyond the usual guacamole and salsa. Don’t get me wrong. Well prepared, these two standards are always welcome. But since Russ has been looking forward to this game all year (five weeks), something out of the ordinary would be nice. Despite all the typical Mexican elements, Seven Layer Bean Dip is not from Mexico, originating in Texas with one of its first print appearances in Family Circle magazine in 1981. Always called Seven Layer Bean Dip, it turns out that the seventh layer is loosely defined and usually whatever you wish to use as a garnish. Some recipes add cooked ground beef and call that the seventh layer. A garnish of chopped cilantro and red onion works for me. To be honest, it’s more like a six and a half layer dip.

In our part of Mexico, it’s tomato and avocado season. We have a bounty of locally grown, organic tomatoes and avocados. The tomatoes are going into the freezer, and were eating guacamole almost every day to keep up with the rapidly ripening supply. I’ve never frozen tomatoes before, but it sounds easy. Pop into zip-lock bags, and they’re good for a year.

I have a bone to pick with most recipes that give the preparation time as 20 minutes, 30 minutes, when you know darn well it’s going to take at least an hour. Recipes are able to do this is by listing the ingredients as how they are to be prepared. Minced, chopped, peeled, refried, grated. One of the most popular recipes online states preparation time for Seven Layer Dip as 20 minutes. One look at that, and you can be assured that the clock starts once every ingredient is prepped according to the recipe list. But I don’t buy grated cheese, minced onion, sliced olives. Some of you may buy canned refried beans or salsa in a jar. But you have the option, if you have the time, of doing everything from scratch, and ending up with the freshest flavors.

Seven Layer Bean Dip serves 6-8

  • 2.5 cups (16 oz/453 g) refried black beans
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin (comino)
  • 4 ounces (113 g) grated cheese (I use half sharp cheddar and half manchego)
  • 1 cup (4 oz/113 g) sliced black or Greek olives
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 2 serrano or jalapeño chiles
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (237 ml) salsa fresca
  • 3/4 cup (6.5 oz./184 g) sour cream
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • Tostadas or tortilla chips
  1. Heat refried beans until starting to bubble. Stir in cumin. Salt to taste.
  2. Grate cheese and set aside.
  3. Slice olives and set aside.
  4. Make a simple guacamole by blending mashed avocado, minced serrano or jalapeño chiles, lime juice and salt.
  5. Make salsa or open your jar.
  6. In a shallow dish (I used a glass 9″/22.86 cm pie plate) spread hot beans. Cover with grated cheese, then sliced olives, guacamole, salsa, sour cream and finally, garnish with chopped cilantro and red onion.
  7. Serve with sturdy tortilla chips.

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All photos and text are copyright protected. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.

Caesar salad, take 2

I didn’t expect to spend this much space on Caesar Salad, but in the interest of presenting correct information, here it is again. Maybe some of you have already looked at the photo and noticed the difference between last week’s Caesar Salad and this one — whole romaine leaves.

Gary Beck, food writer and restaurant critic in Puerto Vallarta, brought to my attention, after seeing last week’s post (and maybe saying to himself, “Hmm…. should I set her straight or not?”) that Caesar Salad was originally served in a whole leaf form by the Cardini brothers, Caesar and Alex. My salad had the leaves torn, and was intended to be eaten with a fork only, while Gary enjoys eating whole leaves with a fork and knife. In the interest of tradition and culinary history, I’m making it again, using only whole leaves from the romaine hearts and enjoying it again.

Russ had already settled himself down with one of his favorite TV shows (American Pickers, where vintage Americana collectibles are searched out, items that should either be in a museum or a junk pile) when I gave him a whole leaf salad, with a knife, and no preamble. Would I see his eyebrow arch when something doesn’t look like he’s used to seeing something look? Without missing a beat, he dug in. With his fingers. Knife untouched.

Russ instinctively knew what he was doing. After a little bit of internet reading I learned that, yes, Gary was correct. The Cardini brothers used whole leaves of romaine lettuce hearts, and expected the salad to be eaten by hand, each leaf picked up and nibbled down. But after customers complained of oily, cheesey, fishy fingers, they switched to torn leaves.

Whole leaf or torn, knife or not, this salad has history, and ranks as Mexico’s most famous salad. I enjoyed eating it with my fingers today. Keep a paper napkin close.

For an interesting read, check out BBC’s article on the history of Caesar Salad, and this one from The Daily Meal.

Those of you who enjoy the fine restaurants in Puerto Vallarta may be interested in Gary Beck’s book, Beck’s Best, a guide to dining in the Puerto Vallarta area. For an updated 2021 copy, email Gary at: garyrbeck1@yahoo.com

Caesar salad

After all the calorie excess of the holidays, it’s nice to get back to our regular eating. More soups. More salads. Less baked goods and sugar. Caesar salad is substantial enough that a large dish became dinner the other night. Sooner or later, probably sooner, I’ll return to baking (David Lebovitz’ Bostock sure looks tempting), but for now I need to get the waistine of my jeans fitting comfortably again.

Many think of Caesar salad as an American invention. It could be called an Italian-Mexican-American invention. Alex Cardini Sr. and his brother Caesar Cardini immigrated from Italy to the U.S, where Caesar opened restaurants, and eventually was joined by Alex at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Caesar created his salad dressing, and Alex added romaine lettuce, croutons, and garlic. At one point, it was called Aviator’s Salad to honor American military pilots. Depending on different accounts, Caesar salad, may or may not have included anchovies and Dijon mustard.

My version does not include Dijon mustard, as I’m more or less hewing to Diana Kennedy’s recipe in her book, Mexican Regional Cooking. She is one of the few people who can say this salad was prepared for her tableside by Alex Sr., so I am willing to wager her recipe is as close as can be to the original. My version comes very close to hers, but I’m using anchovy paste instead of anchovy fillets, and queso cotija, a dry, salty Mexican cheese, instead of Parmesan cheese, as both are not to be found in Mascota. I hope you have Parmesan and anchovy fillets, but if not, adopt the covid quarantine practice of using what you have on hand. Substitution is the mother of invention, or at least one of the mothers.

Caesar Salad Serves 4

  • 2 cups 1/2″ bread cubes (see note below)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 6 anchovy fillets or 2 tablespoons anchovy paste
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
  • 1/4 cup (3/4 oz/21 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese or 3 tablespoons crumbled queso cotija
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove garlic (see note below)
  • salt and ground pepper to taste
  • 12 ounces (340 g) torn romaine lettuce leaves, washed and crisped in refrigerator
  1. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a hot skillet, toss in bread cubes, and toast over medium heat, tossing every few minutes, until the exterior is crunchy but the cubes are still slightly soft inside. This will take 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how moist the bread is.
  2. Make dressing by whisking 2 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, minced anchovy fillets (or anchovy paste), and Worcestershire sauce.
  3. Coddle egg by immersing in boiling water for 1 minutes. Break egg into dressing and whisk.
  4. Toss dressing with romaine lettuce, croutons and half of cheese. Top with remaining cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Divide among 4 plates and serve.

Notes ~

  1. French bread is traditional for Caesar Salad croutons, but being the nontraditionalist that I am, I used Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead bread, half white, half wheat. It made supurb croutons.
  2. Croutons are usually toasted in the oven. Save time and fuel by toasting on the stovetop.
  3. Recipes vary consideraly on the amount of garlic called for. I found one clove was enough. Two cloves, and we were exhaling garlic fumes. But Caesar salad is known for being garlic-heavy, so use more if you have no plans to socialize, and who is these days?
  4. You are the best judge as to whether or not you want to use a raw egg in the dressing. An egg coddled for one minute is as good as raw, but it sure makes a rich dressing.

© 2009-2021 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

All photos and text are copyright protected. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.