Díade la Independencia, Mexico’s Day of Independence, normally finds us in Mascota watching the parade of beautifully costumed señoritas, the dashing caballeros on horseback, and the cute children dressed as revolutionaries from the 19th century. But it was not to be this year, as the governor of Jalisco had called off all festivities and gatherings because of covid. It rained much of the day anyway, so it was a good day to stay home and celebrate with queso fundido, melted cheese similar to fondue, but better. Better because of the additions of chorizo, rajas of poblano chile, and salsa roja.
This dish is commonly served as an appetizer at restaurants, but we made lunch of it. It was close to our quota of cheese for the month, but what a way to have a month’s worth of cheese all at once! Actually, it proved too much to polish off for lunch, so leftovers became the filling for the next morning’s omelet, which Russ enjoyed as much as the fundido.
Plates of Chile en Nogada will be served all over Mexico on September 16, Mexico’s Día de la Independencia, and some of them may be vegetarian. Every large city in Mexico has vegetarian restaurants. In fact, a plate of beans, rice and tortillas, eaten by countless campesinos through the years, is comidavegetariana. For the carnivores, here is an earlier meat version of Chile en Nogada.
Chile en Nogada was first prepared in the city of Puebla in honor of the visiting Emperor Augustin de Iturbide in 1821. The green cilantro, white cream sauce and red pomegranate seeds, representing the Mexican flag, make for one of Mexico’s most colorful dishes. Nogada refers to the walnut cream sauce. Most recipes call for skinning the walnuts, something that seems beyond tedious to me. Skin the nuts if you wish, but the sauce is delicious with unskinned nuts.
To peel the chiles, first char them over a grill or a gas stove burner. You could also use a broiler, but I haven’t tried that. See complete instructions on roasting and peeling poblano chiles.
Chile en Nogada serves 4
4 large poblano chiles, roasted and peeled
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup (2 oz/60 g) walnuts
9 oz (260 g) drained (reserve juice), canned tomatoes or chopped, fresh tomatoes
1/2 cup (2.8 oz/80 g) chopped dried peaches and pears or other dried fruit
2 1/2 cups cooked lentils (about 18 oz/510 g cooked)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 1/2 cups (360 ml) crema or sour cream
34/ cups (75 g) walnut meat
Slit one side of each chile, and remove seeds. Set aside.
Saute onion and garlic in olive oil.
Add cooked lentils, tomato, dried fruit, bay leaves, oregano, cinnamon and salt.
Simmer for 10 minutes, adding reserved tomato juice or water to prevent lentils from becoming dry.
While lentils and simmering, make sauce by combining crema and walnuts in blender until smooth. If too thick, thin with milk
Fill chiles with lentil mixture.
Spoon walnut sauce over chiles, and garnish with chopped cilantro and pomegranate seeds. Serve at room temperature.
~ If you cut into pomegranates the way I have for years, you may have found it a messy job, with juice everywhere and stained clothing. After some internet research, I found an efficient method to section the fruit.
First, cut out the small spot where the flower was, cutting at an angle, but not through the skin into the seeds. Remove this “button”.
Now notice the ridges that run from the flower end to the stem end. Make very shallow slits along these ridges through the skin from the flower end all the way to the stem end, being careful not to cut through to the juicy seeds. The slits should meet at the stem end of the pomegranate. If you see drops of juice, you are cutting too deeply.
Holding the pomegranate, place both thumbs at the flower end and firmly pull out a section, releasing it along the slits. Now you are ready to pull out the individual seeds. It’s still not a good idea to wear white when you do this.
September is here, the month to celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day. Flan seems in order, the most Mexican of Mexican desserts, and one that any good cocinera mexicana worth her sal should know how to make.
Flan and other very sweet desserts arrived during the Spanish colonial period with the nuns. I can’t remember eating flan until we started traveling south of the border. On one of our trips, we assigned ourselves the mission of finding the very best flan anywhere. After many different tastings in many different towns, the winner was a flan at the Hotel Victoria in Chihuahua. Delicate. Silky. The stuff food memories are made of.
Flan is fairly simple to make, though I added the extra step of cooking sugar with evaporated milk to avoid using condensed milk, an ingredient in many Mexican flans, but excessively sweet. This substitution for condensed milk allows for adjusting the sweetness level to your own taste. Use less or more sugar in the condensed milk substitution, or use a can of condensed milk in place of one of the cans of evaporated milk if your sweet tooth needs sating. But if you do use condensed milk, omit adding sugar to the evaporated milk. It’s already in the condensed milk.
Flan in Mexico can be made with whole milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk, coconut milk, orange juice, even with a box mix. This is a low-sugar version with evaporated milk.
FLAN serves 8-10
2 cans (340 ml/360 g each) evaporated milk
1/2 cup (104 g), plus 2/3 cup (135 g) sugar
5 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1/2 cup (120 ml) whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Bring evaporated milk and 1/2 cup (104 g) sugar to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
Bring 8 cups (2 liters) of water to a boil. Line a larger pan with a folded dish towel. This is to stabilized the loaf pan when it is placed into the larger baking pan of boiling water, creating a bain-marie, or water bath.
Caramelize sugar to line loaf pan by bringing 2/3 cup (135 g) sugar and 1/4 cup (60 ml) water to a simmer over medium high heat in a medium sized, heavy-bottomed skillet, swirling pan briefly to evenly moisten sugar. Do not over-swirl or stir to prevent sugar from forming crystals. When it reaches a medium dark brown color, carefully pour into a 9″ (23 cm) loaf pan. Set aside. (See notes below recipe before caramelizing sugar.)
Pre-heat oven to 300ºF (150ºC).
Whisk yolks, whole eggs and vanilla. Gradually add evaporated milk and whole milk until combined. To avoid bubbles, do not over-mix. Pour into loaf pan. Cover with foil.
Place pan on lowest shelf of oven. Carefully add boiling water to larger pan.
Bake for 1 hour and 20-30 minutes. The center should jiggle when done. Let loaf pan rest in water bath for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, set on rack to cool. When room temperature, cover and refrigerate overnight.
To unmold, run a thin knife around inside of loaf pan, place a large, rimmed dish upside down over flan and quickly invert, holding 2 dishes securely together. Remove loaf pan. Scrape any remaining caramel sauce around the flan. Slice and serve with spoonfuls of caramel sauce.
~ Making caramel requires a few does and don’ts. Do stay with the pan during caramelization. There’s a fine line between the complex bitter-sweet, dark brown caramel stage, and burnt caramel. Don’t stir. This can create sugar crystals. Swirling the pan at the beginning to moisten all the sugar is sufficient. Dark caramel reaches 380 F (193 C), so no splashing or spoon licking. Do pour the finished caramel immediately into the flan pan to stop cooking.
~ The pan can be removed from the heat at any time after the caramel starts to brown, but the darkest color, just when the caramel starts to smoke, yields the delightful bitter-sweet flavor that gives a counterpoint to the sweetness of the flan. Some of the caramel will remain in the pan after the flan is turned out. Set the pan in a skillet of very hot water for a few minutes, then scrape out softened caramel, but it won’t be possible to get it all out. Fill the pan with hot water and allow to soak before washing.
~ A lighter colored caramel will come out of the pan more easily, but will not have reached the complex burnt sugar flavor that is the hallmark of flan.
~ Serving flan is a delicate operation because the flan is so delicate. Use the thinnest knife you have to cut one slice. With a serving spatula as large as the slice, ease it into where you just cut. Have a second large spatula in place against the outer surface of the slice of flan. Using the first spatula, ease it onto the second spatula, then onto the dessert plate. Did that make sense? No worries if your served slice isn’t pristine. It will still be delicious.
Molletes are common lunch fare, found in mercados and street stalls, but so easy to make at home. They are Mexico’s grilled cheese sandwiches, but heartier with refried beans and salsa fresca, fresh salsa that Russ and I still call pico de gallo — beak of the rooster — because that’s the name we learned when we first encountered it on our early trips to Mexico.
Bolillos, the crusty yeast rolls found everywhere in Mexico, are the base for molletes. During these covid days (months), my neighbor Maria and I take turns going into Mascota to pick up our pre-ordered groceries from Pepe’s. When I ordered bolillos, I got round, soft rolls. Not what I wanted. The next time it was my turn to go in, I pointed to the pointy rolls in the glass case in front of the store, not knowing what to call them, because to Pepe they weren’t bolillos. But they were! The grocery receipt itemized them as bolillos telera grande, a full 8″ (20 cm) long. We had molletes muy grande! If you can’t get bolillos or teleras by any name, crusty French bread makes a fine substitution.
Molletes ~ serves 4-6
3 bolillos, or French bread cut into 6 4-6″ lengths
2 Roma tomatoes, about 10 ounces (283 g), finely chopped
1/2 cup (2.4 oz/68 g) minced red onion, finely chopped
2 jalapeño or serrano chiles, seeded and minced
1/2 cup (.7 oz/20g) cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Mix all ingredients. Adjust salt
~ For breakfast, serve molletes with a fried egg on the side. Russ wanted his with a scrambled egg on top (pictured below). And additional salsa verde, just because. I don’t know if Mexicans add eggs to molletes, but it worked for us.
~ On one of our trips to Mexico, before we made it our home, we came across a panedería with a wood-fired oven in the little town of Ciudad Fernández, in the state of San Luis Potosí. Such crusty bolillos, with a hint of wood smoke. Twenty-some years later, those bolillos remain a delicious memory.
~ The double “l” in mollete is pronounced as a “y” sound. Mo-YEH-tay. Bolillo is pronounced bo-LEE-yoh.
Two of the things we missed when we moved to Mexico were good, whole grain bread and the wide selection of butter available in the U.S. The large supermercados do a decent job of offering multigrain bread, but they don’t have the chew and crust that make a great bread. In Mexico’s defense, bread is not part of the traditional diet. And butter options are limited. If you are an expat who is missing bread and butter a cut above what is generally available in Mexico, the answer is to make your own and it couldn’t be easier.
Jim Lahey’s popular no-knead bread recipe has made a huge impact in home kitchens. So easy, yet so good. If you have never baked bread before, you can make this one and feel proud of your accomplishment. My bread is a version of Jim’s, with whole wheat flour (harina integral) added, sometimes seeds, and yogurt instead of water for a sourdough-like tang. I’m not a real sourdough baker, so I pretend. An 18-hour rise allows for flavor and yeast to develop.
Jim Lahey’s recipe calls for baking in a cast iron pot with a lid, which I don’t have. I improvise by using an insulated cookie sheet and a stainless steel bowl. You could also use a Pyrex dish with a lid. By covering the bread, steam helps form a crusty crust. An 18-hour rising time allows the flavors to develop.
What Mexico lacks in butter, it more than makes up for with crema, very close to sourcream, but better. Like crème fraîche, crema is cultured with naturally occurring bacteria until it reaches a slight, acid flavor. As it turns out, crema makes an excellent cultured butter, with more depth and complexity than sweet cream butter. Crema, brought in from local ranches, is sold fresh in many of the small grocery stores, sometimes from a bucket in the cooler, usually in one-pint cartons. If you have a food processor, you can have butter in minutes. Well, add about 10 more minutes for washing the butter, but we’re talking again about great results for not much time and effort.
Easy, No-knead Bread
10.6 oz (300 grams) whole wheat flour
3.5 oz (100 grams) white flour
1.4 oz (40 grams) gluten flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
2 teaspoons fine salt
1 1/2 cups (355 ml) plain yogurt OR 1 1/3 cups (316 ml) water
Mix all dry ingredients in a standing mixer bowl, add yogurt (or water) and mix using dough hook until a ball of dough forms. OR mix by hand in a large bowl until dough forms, adding more flour or more liquid as needed to form a sticky dough. You want dough that’s very sticky, but can still be handled.
Cover well with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 18 hours.
Place dough on well floured board and fold over on itself twice. Form a ball, with seam on bottom.
Place dough on parchment paper and slash top of dough with a very sharp knife. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to almost double in size, about 2 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.
Preheat oven to 450 F/232 C. If using a cast iron pot with lid, pre-heat pot in the oven for 30 minutes. If using an insulated cookie sheet and stainless bowl, there is no need to pre-heat sheet and bowl.
Using the parchment paper as a sling, carefully lower dough into the now very hot cast iron pot, leaving parchment paper in place, or place on baking sheet. If using baking sheet, cover with an overturned stainless steel bowl about 8″ across and 4″ deep, lined with a 3″ wide strip of parchment paper.
Bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove lid or bowl and bake another 20 to 30 minutes, or until well browned and bottom sounds hollow when thumped.
Allow to cool 1 hour before slicing.
Process 4 cups (960 g) crema in food processor bowl until butter curds separate from the liquid. This may take as little as 30 seconds, or up to 2 or 3 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer curds to bowl, and with the back of a spatula press out milky liquid until there is almost no more to press out. Save buttermilk for baking.
Wash butter by adding 1/3 cup very cold water to bowl, and press water and butter together, washing out more milk from butter by pressing with a spatula. Repeat 3 or 4 more times, kneading butter with spatula until almost all liquid is removed.
Knead in 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Refrigerate or freeze. This makes 640 grams of butter and 1 overflowing cup of buttermilk.
~ You can tell when bread has risen enough when you gently press a finger 1/2″ into the dough and an indentation remains.
~ The more sour the yogurt, the better approximation of a sourdough flavor.
~ In Mexico, gluten flour can often be found at bulk spice/seed/flour stores. La Abejita in Bucerias carries it. The large supermercados that carry imported foods sometimes have Bob’s Red Mill vital wheat gluten flour.
~ Sweet butter can be made the same way by using sweet, heavy cream. It may take longer in the food processor to become butter. Pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized cream will not have the same flavor. Avoid using cream with additives. Commercial brands of crema acidificada, like Lala or Alpura brand, will not make butter, as they have stabilizers added. These products are closer to commercial, American sour cream. Look for a pure cream product.
~ The buttermilk by-product can be used in any recipe calling for buttermilk. This is real buttermilk.
~ Other agitation methods can be used to make butter. A large jar sloshed by hand, a regular mixer, or a blender will make butter. If you use a jar, make sure it is large enough to allow the cream to move around vigorously.
~ For 4-ounce bars of butter, press 1 pound into a parchment-lined, rectangle container. When cold, cut into 4 bars, wrap and freeze.