Champurrado, Drink of the Gods

If chocolate is considered food for the gods, champurrado, chocolate atole, must be their drink. February 2 is Día de la Candelaria when tamales and atole will be served. Las mujeres (the women) are already grinding cacao beans to make chocolate for champurrado. I’m taking the easy route, and using Ibarra chocolate, the sweet table chocolate used for making hot drinks.

Russ and I were touring the colonial city of San Luis Potosí when we first encountered champurrado on a plaza in front of the city’s baroque cathedral. This has now been many years ago, but the memory has stayed with me. I can’t remember my first taste of chocolate candy or my first bite of a juicy peach — I was too young. But champurrado came into my life when I was old enough to fully appreciate and remember its smooth chocolate richness. I’m sure I immediately had a second cup. I hope I did.

And somewhere in the mountains, when we were still traversing Mexico with our vintage Avion trailer, we found atole strainers made of woven horse hair in a village market. The hand-woven mesh of dark hair was stretched across rough, hand-cut hoops of pinewood and tied onto the hoops with fibers, and meant to strain out the larger bits of masa. This was a handcraft we had never seen before, nor have we since. We bought three graduated sizes of strainers, but I never use them. They are appreciated as a craft from a by-gone era. (They are in the background of the top photo.) Cheap, plastic strainers are now in every Mexican kitchen, including mine, and that is what I use when making atole.

Día de la Candelaria marks the halfway point between winter solstice and Spring equinox. It is the day tamales are served to friends by the person who found the little doll in their piece of Rosca de Reyes, Three Kings Bread, last month on El Dia de los Reyes, which marks the end of the Christmas holidays. If your slice of rosca hid the baby doll, you’re about to host a tamales and atole fiesta this week.

In the photo below, you will see whole cocao beans on the right. I went the easy route, and used chocolate tablets, meant for making hot chocolate. Pictured with the tablets is a ball of fresh masa, the same corn dough used to make tortillas.

Champurrado 4 servings

  • 5 oz. (142 grams) fresh masa
  • 6 cups (1.5 liters) water
  • 3 discs Ibarra chocolate, chopped
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 pinch of salt
  1. Crumble masa into water and whisk well until dissolved.
  2. Strain through a sieve into a pot, discarding solids.
  3. Heat the masa liquid in a pan over medium heat and stir until thickened, about 8 minutes.
  4. Add chopped chocolate and whisk until chocolate is dissolved.
  5. Serve hot.

Notes:

Chocolate is made from seed pods of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). “Theobroma” means “food of the gods”. The Mayan people knew cacao had divine associations. It was used in their rituals and consumed in great quantities by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma.

Atole has sustained people of Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Taken as a nourishing gruel, it can be sweetened with piloncillo, an unrefined sugar, and sometimes fruit. For special fiestas, champurrado — chocolate atole — is served with tamales.


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How to Clean Nopal Cactus Pads without Becoming a Pin Cushion

It just took a few times of getting my hands full of cactus spines to decide I was never going to clean fresh nopal pads again. The spines were almost too tiny to see, even with my reading glasses. I needed those same glasses and a bright light to extract each minute spine with tweezers. The next thing I touched let me know I had missed one. Or several. From then on, I only ate store-bought nopales, because somebody else had already de-spined them for me.  A visit to my friend Linda’s garden and a taste of freshly picked nopales made me realize how much flavor I had been missing. It took Linda to point this out to me, as she removed each aureole of spines.

If you have your own nopal plant (also known as prickly pear cactus and opuntia) select young, small pads that do not yet have mature, large spines. These young pads are brighter green and usually small, though they can be large.

Anything is better when freshly picked, but something else is going on here. Nopales picked in the afternoon lack the pronounced fresh citrus, slightly acid flavor that an early morning picking can give. The difference is so great, that I was ready to brave the spines again and learn how to de-spine them under Linda’s direction so I could harvest my own in the morning. My fine opuntia specimen would no longer to be just an ornamental in my garden.

It could not have been easier, with a little attention to detail and a sharp knife. After first breaking off a pad, Linda used the knife tip to cut out the tiny spines bunched together in aureoles by shaving across them. Each aureole was slightly raised, making it easier to slice them off. Then she took off a thin slice of the edge of the paddle, where there are more aureoles. She was careful not to touch the remaining spiny aureoles as she repositioned the nopal in her hand. See the light spot at the base of each soft, green spine? That spot is an aggregation of spines so tiny, they are barely visible. That’s what was cut out.

If you are ready to rush off in the morning, after a quick cup of coffee, this trimming may seem slow going, cutting off each little aureole one at a time. It could be tedious, but Linda says she sees it as meditation, patiently focusing on the task at hand.

The morning bird calls and quiet garden setting added their own meditative qualities to the task.

When the nopal pad was trimmed of spines, Linda cut it into strips and handed me a piece to eat fresh. No salt, no lime juice. Just fresh nopal. The skin provided a soft crunch, followed by juicy, tender, slightly acid … cactus. I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say it was refreshing, lemony and like nothing else in the vegetable world. A good way to start the day.

Note:

Many instructions for cleaning nopales recommend wearing gloves, but I don’t think this is a good idea. The gloves will get full of tiny stickers, which can work through the glove or stick in your fingers when you take them off or pick them up again. I learned this the hard way.

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Enchiladas Rojas en Mi Cocina Pequeña

Enchiladas Rojas — Enchiladas with Red Chile Sauce

Some dishes are more challenging to make en mi cocina pequeña, in my tiny kitchen. Enchiladas Rojas is one of those dishes where organization and preparation — referred to as mise en place in France are key. As each ingredient is prepped, the counter space is cleaned before I move on to the next one. With a counter that is only 14.5″ (37 cm.) deep, I don’t have room to make a mess. Not that I don’t. On a not so good day, my kitchen can look like it just exploded and I know I will never see my spatula again. Today was a good day.

A bad day is when I bend over to open the oven, and my rear end knocks something off of the shelf behind me. Or there is not a single bit of clean counter space, and I still have more preparation. Then I have to call time out and clean up to start all over again. The floor area is only 31″ (79 cm.) wide. When Russ is cooking with me, our movements are almost choreographed; neither can turn around with a knife in hand or holding a drippy spoon without being aware of where the other is working.

Enchiladas Rojas were inspired by the recipe of the same name in From My Mexican Kitchen, Techniques and Ingredients by Diana Kennedy. A vegan friend was coming for dinner, so his serving was changed: no cheese, but with a filling of vegetables that Mrs. Kennedy used as a topping. Plus, I added mushrooms and chayote for a heartier vegetable mix. Russ and I had a generous amount of queso fresco that was made right in our town of La Cruz.

Can you guess what is in the photo, below right? I’m not offering a give-away prize, just my felicidades if you know. Hint: it is part of the preparations. The extra large garlic clove (1.5″ long)  is included to give a sense of scale. (Answer: veins from dry chiles, which are used in Mexico as a garnish.)

Enchiladas Rojas makes 12 enchiladas

  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced (medium dice for all 4 vegetables)
  • 3 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 small chayote, peeled and diced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 12 medium mushrooms,  diced
  • 1/3 cup white vinegar
  • 9 guajillo chiles, flattened
  • about 1 1/2 cups (375 ml.) water
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 peppercorns, crushed
  • 2 whole cloves, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • about 1/3 cup (80 ml.) vegetable oil for frying
  • 12 corn tortillas
  • 8 oz. (225 grams) queso fresco for filling, plus 4 oz.(115 grams)  for garnish
  • 2/3 cup (165 ml.) white onion, finely chopped
  • jalapeños en escabeche (pickled jalapeños)
  • 1 1/2 cups (375 ml.) lettuce or cabbage, finely shredded
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml.) white onion, finely chopped
  • 3 radishes, thinly sliced
  1. Add carrots, potatoes, chayote and salt to a small pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 10  minutes or until just tender. Drain.
  2. Heat oil in small skillet and cook mushroom until tender, about 5 minutes.
  3. In a glass bowl, barely cover vegetables with cold water, add vinegar and stir gently. Set aside.
  4. To make the guajillo salsa, heat griddle or skillet and toast chiles on both sides 10 seconds per side. Do not burn.
  5. When cool enough to handle, cut chiles lengthwise and remove seeds and stems. You may need to pull out the veins and strip them of seeds if the seeds cling tenaciously to the veins, but be sure to use them (the veins, not the seeds).
  6. Put chiles in small pot, cover with water and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and allow to soak 10  minutes.
  7. Strain chiles, discard water, and tear chiles into 6 or 8 pieces.
  8. In blender jar, put 1/2 cup (120 ml.) water, chile pieces, garlic, crushed peppercorns and cloves, and zizz 1 minute.
  9. Add remaining water and blend until smooth, about 3 minutes.
  10. Pour into a sieve and press to extract pieces of tough skin. (This step is not necessary if you have an efficient blender that purees the skin or you don’t mind the little pieces of skin.)
  11. Add oregano and salt and pour into a shallow bowl. Set aside.
  12. Drain vegetables, stir in mushrooms.
  13. Pre-heat oven to 350 deg. F. (180 C.)
  14. Heat 1 tablespoon (20 ml.) of oil in a small skillet.
  15. Dip tortillas in sauce to lightly coat both sides, and fry one at a time, about 8 seconds per side. Do not overcook.
  16. As each tortilla is cooked, spread a small amount of  cheese and onion across the center. Fold or roll.
  17. Keep enchiladas warm in oven until all are filled.
  18. Pour remaining guajillo chile sauce into skillet and add vegetables. Cook until heated through.
  19. Divide enchiladas among 4-6 plates, spoon vegetables on top, garnish with cheese, cabbage and radish slices and serve with pickled jalapeños. Serve hot. Enchiladas Rojas can also be served in a casserole dish.
  20. Vegan version: omit cheese and generously fill fried tortillas with vegetables and onion. Garnish.

Notes:

This method of  making enchiladas by dipping tortillas in sauce and then frying may seem unusual to you, but it is a common kitchen practice in Mexico.

The guajillo chile, a dry chile with deep orange-red hues, is very common all over Mexico. I always get a kick out of Mark Miller’s descriptive tastes from The Great Chile Book. He describes guajillo as having “a green tea and stemmy flavor with berry tones”.  Also “a little piney and tannic with a sweet heat.” I wish I had his finely tuned palate. I can’t detect these individual tastes, but this flame colored salsa made with guajillos is a favorite on our table.

Leftover enchiladas are great for breakfast with a fried egg.

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Caldo de res — Mexican beef soup


Caldo de Res, Mexican beef soup, is perfect for our unusually chilly winter. With chunks of tender beef and vegetables, including chayote, this soup is found on menus all across Mexico. Years ago, before we settled here, we would cross the border and drive all day through the desserts of northern Mexico to reach the highlands and jungles further south. As we drove, we would be already thinking about that day’s breakfast and lunch, our mouths almost salivating with anticipation of the upcoming meal, the first real Mexican food since our last trip south. Driving all day was tiring, the northern desserts could become boring. The thought of lunch or dinner was the carrot dangled in front of us. Onward to the next town and its restaurants, with their regional dishes of locally grown and raised chiles, beef, tomatoes, chayote, and more. I guess you could say we travel on our stomachs.

“Chayote?”, you are wondering. Also known as mirliton in France, and vegetable pear in English, it is a common squash south of the border, served in soups or stewed with tomatoes. Its unique appearance sets it off from the more familiar squashes, with tucked-in creases on its wide end. Zucchini makes a good substitute if you can’t find chayote.

Thinly sliced shanks and meaty beef bones make a rich broth. Oscar and Marta at Kenny’s Carniceria know I’m a regular soup maker, so they slice the bones thinly for me. Ask for chambarete (sham-bar-EH-tay) if you are shopping in Mexico. I brown the meat and bones first for richer flavors. I don’t pretend to be a food scientists, so this is the best explanation I can offer: when foods brown, chemical reactions take place, resulting in hundreds of different flavor compounds. This same reaction gives cajeta, (dulce de leche) its marvelous taste.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 lbs. (1 kilo) shank and soup bones, thinly sliced
  • 2 quarts water plus more as needed
  • 2 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1/8 head of small cabbage, chopped
  • 1 ear of corn, husked and cut into 4-6 pieces, or slice off kernals
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry Mexican oregano
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, epazote, minced
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • cilantro for garnish
  1. Heat oil in large, heavy-bottomed pot and brown meat and bones on all sides, about 15-20 minutes.
  2. Add water, cover and simmer 1 hour, or until meat is tender (or pressure cook 30 minutes).
  3. Pour off broth and reserve. Skim off fat when it rises to the top.
  4. Remove meat from bones when cool enough to handle.
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in large pot over medium-low heat and cook onion until tender.
  6. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds, stirring.
  7. Add carrot, potato, cabbage and corn and reserved broth. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
  8. Add meat, tomato and fresh herbs and simmer 5 minutes more.
  9. Salt to taste.
  10. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with lime wedges and warm corn tortillas.

Notes:

For a traditional bowl of caldo de res, vegetable size matters. Cut the pieces into large cubes, slices or chunks for an authentic presentation. Mexican soups are always served with lime wedges and corn tortillas.

Of all those bowls of caldo de res we ate while traveling across Mexico, neither of us can ever remember chile being one of the ingredients. For heat, a dish of cooked salsa was brought to the table. Salsa roja would make a nice accompaniment to serve with caldo de res.

Again, we have the Aztec Nahuatl language to thank for the word, chayohtli, which became the Spanish word, chayote.

Corn, or elote, as it is known in Mexico, is still a foreign vegetable to me. Tough and starchy, it is not the sweet, tender, juicy corn we grew up with north of the border. It is included in the recipe and photo for the purpose of remaining true to the preparation and presentation of caldo de res, but I generally omit it because I simply can’t chew Mexican ears of corn. Mexicanos love their elote, sold roasted on sticks, smeared with mayonnaise, and sprinkled with lime juice and chile powder. I have yet to find one tender enough to chew.

More Warming Mexican Soups

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Licuado de Nopal– Cactus in a Glass

Licuado de nopal, a cactus smoothie, has recently become my new favorite breakfast drink. I had it few years ago at nearby El Tigre Golf Club’s Sunday Brunch, and then promptly forgot all about it until I read about this green drink last week on Muy Bueno Cookbook. Their (always) gorgeous photos helped inspire me to make it, and it turned out awesome.

Muy Bueno Cookbook uses water in their recipe, though Yvette, the main MBC hermana, writes me that she is now using fruit in her daily drink. The first time I made it, I used cut-up watermelon, including the seeds, instead of water. The taste was delicious, but the color was murky green, so you will not see a photo of that version. Today I made it with freshly squeezed orange juice. Not only was it a beautiful, green color, it tasted refreshing.  Licuado de nopal  has become a part of  my morning routine. After drinking a glass this morning, I took a 30-minute power walk, something I used to do until a month ago when the morning chill and dark made me lazy. Now Chucha and I are walking again, right after my green refresher.

Licuado de Nopal serves 2

  • 2 medium-sized nopal pads, chopped
  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled and chopped
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice or 1 cup cut-up watermelon or other fresh fruit
  • 2 mint leaves, optional, plus more for garnish
  1. Add all ingredients to blender and zizz until smooth.
  2. Pour over ice (optional) and add mint leaf for garnish.

Notes:

Nopales are the young, tender “paddle” leaves of Opuntia cactus, the common prickly pear cactus of Mexico and the American Southwest. They are eaten as a vegetable all over Mexico and are found in Mexican grocery stores in the US, as I learned last year when I visited Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Nopales are quite prickly to handle if the spines have not been removed, but if you buy them in a grocery store, they are already de-spined. We have a thriving prickly pear cactus in our yard (photo above, with an agave in the foreground), but I don’t harvest its pads. Every time I tried, I became a human pin cushion, my fingers stuck with impossible-to-see, minute spines. Mexicans must be born with the knowledge of how to de-spine prickly pear pads, but I lack this skill. I’m now content to buy them from the supermarket and leaving the handsome specimen in my yard untouched.

A bit of etymology and history: Nopal is from the Nahuatl word, nopalli, meaning pads.  An Aztec legend tells of finding a new homeland by looking for an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake. On this spot, Tenochtitlan (meaning place of nopal cactus), was settled, taking its name from nochtli, another Nahuatl word for nopal. Tenochtitlan is present day Mexico City, and this image of the eagle on the cactus is depicted on the Mexican flag.

If you live in a small Mexican town, like I do, you will find fresh nopal, de-spined and either whole or pre-cut, at your local carnicería, the meat market. I have no explanation for why they are sold at carnicerías and not in the produce section at the little, corner grocery stores. In large supermarkets, they will be in the produce section, where you will also find sugar, another puzzlement for me.

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