Seasoning a New Molcajete — It’s a Grind

It’s still birthday month, and I’m looking forward to using the present Russ gave me, a new molcajete. This is the third one to come into my life. I’m not sure where the first one is, the second one, a cute little piggy shape, is now Chucha’s dog food dish, and now my third one, ample enough to grind a salsa or guacamole without spills.

Before I use it to make guacamole, it needs to be seasoned to smooth the surface and remove rock grit. According to Diana Kennedy’s book, From my Mexican Kitchen, this is done by three grindings of raw rice, each handful ground to a powder. By the third time, there should be no visible rock bits, and the ground rice should be white, not gray. If you try this, be ready for a work-out, or turn to your strong-armed mate for help as I did.

I really tried to grind the rice myself, but after ten minutes, I didn’t have much to show for my efforts and my hand and wrist were getting tired. I found Russ in the middle of his own project. After a bit of haggling, we agreed that if I made him a cup of espresso, he would grind the rice for me. It took him about three minutes to grind it to a powder, and about five minutes for me to make a cup of espresso. He thought he came out ahead.

He started out grinding on the kitchen table, but it was rocking and rolling under the exertion, so he switched to the kitchen counter for more stability. Then he smelled sulfur. He asked if the stove was on. “No.” I could smell it, too. “Are you sure you aren’t cooking something?” “No, and I haven’t even turned the espresso machine on yet.”

The smell was being given off by the volcanic rock of the molcajete! He held out the tejolote — the stone pestle —  for me to smell. The aroma of sulfur was obvious. All the more reason to give it several grindings of rice to work out the ancient aroma.

After each grinding, Mrs. Kennedy says to scrub, rinse and dry the molcajete. I bought an escobetilla for the job. This common Mexican pot scrubber is made of  fibers from an agave plant, and its tiny, stick-like ends are perfect for getting ground rice out of the porous surface. After a good scrubbing, the molcajete was put on the patio to dry.

Molcajetes are three-legged bowls carved from a solid piece of black or gray volcanic rock. Their use dates back to pre-Hispanic times, to the Mesoamerican eras of the Mayans and Aztecs. The food processor is an excellent appliance, but it can’t grind pumpkin seeds or almonds to a smooth paste the way a molcajete and tejolote can, as it is really cutting with blades, rather than grinding. My recent efforts of making torta de garbanzo and sikil pak made this shortcoming clear.

If you buy a molcajete, either at a market here in Mexico or a Mexican grocery store north of the border, look for one that is big enough to work without slopping guacamole over the edge. My new one has almost a quart (one liter) capacity. Also look for small holes, not large, in the rock surface. Mrs. Kennedy suggests cleaning it with unscented dish soap. If this product exists in Mexico, I haven’t found it yet, so I used hot water and lots of scrubbing.  After three rice grindings, three times of scrubbing and drying, the interior of the molcajete was smooth and clean, with no aroma of sulphur remaining.

When we first moved to Mexico, Russ had the illusion that I was going to pat out our tortillas by hand. He still holds up his hands to me sometimes, imitating the patting motion, hoping I’ll get the message and be a good Mexican esposa. I guess now he thinks I’ll be making all our salsas in the molcajete. I can’t disappoint him again.

Notes:

  • Like so many other words used in Mexican Spanish, the word molcajete is from the Aztec Nahuatl language, mulcazitl being the original.
  • A molcajete should be carved out of a single piece of basalt. Cheap ones are made of concrete with bits of basalt added. Often, an animal head will decorate the bowl, pig head motifs being common in central Mexico.
  • Molcajetes can be used as a serving dish or heated to a high temperature and then used to cook food.
  • Some Mexican cooks think that a molcajete adds a subtle flavor to a salsa or guacamole.


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Coconut Chocolate Cake

It was my birthday this week and I gave myself the same present I give myself every year. I baked a cake. This year it was a coconut chocolate cake, something I’ve been thinking about making for a while. Something else I have been thinking about is how to incorporate more coconut oil into my cooking. I have found that its subtle flavor adds a pleasant note to anything Asian, like stir-fries and curries. It also makes a good substitution for butter or vegetable oil in baking. Despite long held prejudice by many in the food industry, coconut oil has recently been found to be a superior oil to use in baking and cooking.

Our history with coconut goes back a long way, when we first started visiting Mexico. We once came close to becoming petty criminals when we purchased two coconuts with the tops lopped off, straws inserted, somewhere on a hot plaza in Mexico. As we wandered off, contentedly sucking on the cool, refreshing liquid, we were sternly called back by the vendor and informed that we had only purchased the coconut water, not its meat. We meekly stood in front of her and finished the water while she eyed us suspiciously, then handed the coconuts back to her. She, no doubt, had plans for her coconut meat, either to use in cocadas — coconut macaroons — or to sell it dried and shredded. We had had plans for the meat, too, but she effectively laid them to rest.

Back to my coconut chocolate cake. As it was my birthday and I didn’t want to spend all day in the kitchen, I used a quick chocolate cake recipe found on a can of Hershey’s cocoa some years back. But the recipe was only for inspiration. Sifted whole wheat flour was used instead of white flour, the sugar was halved, coconut oil stood in for vegetable oil, and dry, unsweetened coconut was added. The cake turned out moist, tender and redolent of coconut. There is no such thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to coconut.

Coconut Chocolate Cake

  • 1 cup (7 oz./200 g.) organic sugar
  • 1  3/4 cups (7.2 oz./218 g.) sifted whole wheat flour (save the bran for muffins)
  • 1 cup (2.5 oz./70 g.) dried, unsweetened organic coconut
  • 3/4 cup (2.6 oz./73 g.) powdered cocoa
  • 1  1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1  1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 free-range eggs
  • 1 cup (.24 ml.) organic milk
  • 1/2 cup (.12 ml.) melted organic coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup (.24 ml.) boiling water
  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. (180 deg. C.). Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans or one 13×9-inch pan.
  2. Stir together sugar, flour, coconut, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in bowl of standing mixer.
  3. Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla and beat on medium speed for two minutes. (If beating by hand, beat vigorously for four minutes.)
  4. Stir in boiling water. Batter will be very thin.
  5. Pour into prepared baking pan and bake 30-35 minutes for round pans or 35-40 minutes for 13×9-inch pan until thin knife inserted in center comes out clean. *
  6. Cool on racks for 10  minutes; remove from round pans. Rectangle cake can be left in pan.
  7. When completely cool, dust with powdered sugar.

Notes:

  • *I under-bake chocolate cake by about five minutes for a very moist center and more intense chocolate flavor. If you under-bake, the knife blade will not be completely clean when the cake is tested for doneness.
  • Some organic ingredients are easy to find in Mexico. Others, like whole wheat flour, are non-existent. Use what is available and what you can afford if you are concerned, like me, about chemicals in our foods.
  • Coconut oil contains no cholesterol, but does have saturated fat. What nutritionists are learning is that not all saturated fat is the same. Some are better than others, and some are actually healthy, such as the lauric acid (saturated fat) in coconut oil. If you buy coconut oil, do not buy any with the letters RBD on the label. This stands for Refined, Bleached and Deodorized. This is nasty stuff, containing chemical residues that were used in processing. RBD oil has no coconut taste or aroma.

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Dashi Broth and Japanese Aid

The closest we came to Japan was several years ago when we had a lay-over in Tokyo while on our way to South Korea. As the plane approached the airport, I strained to see as much as I could out of the small window, knowing that view might be as much as I would ever see of Japan. The one image I remember best is the color green everywhere, before buildings and runways filled the window. In my mind’s eye, I saw temples, simple homes with paper screens and futons, tea houses. Now we watch the news from Japan with heavy hearts.

We spent five weeks in South Korea, traveling the length of the country, while visiting restored Buddhist temples, world-class botanical gardens, huge markets with an array of exotic foods and crafts, and always, always, eating. Russ and I told each other that we could easily live off of Korean food alone, with its reliance on simply prepared vegetables, a minimum of meat, some fish, burning chile sauce, and light soups.

My Asian cooking is not extensive, usually a generic stir-fry. When I lived in the U.S., where Asian ingredients are easier to find than they are in Mexico, I would sometimes make dashi (だし), a simple broth made of kombu seaweed and bonito fish flakes. This broth is the basis for Japanese miso and noodle soups. Western chefs use it to season vegetables and other dishes. I enjoy it on its own as a mug of hot, savory broth.

As a way of paying homage to the people of Japan, I am making dashi today and wishing the good people of Japan safety and renewal. I know they need more than our good wishes, so we also made a donation to the American Red Cross. If you wish to do the same, contact information follows this recipe.

Dashi

  • 4 cups (1 liter) water
  • 7″ (17.8 cm.) piece of kombu
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz./5 grams) bonito fish flakes
  1. Add kombu and water to a pot.
  2. Heat water over medium heat. Just before it reaches a boil, remove kombu.
  3. Bring water to a boil and add fish flakes.
  4. Turn off heat and allow fish flakes to seep for 2 minutes.
  5. Strain broth, discarding fish flakes. Refrigerate or freeze.

For a simple soup, simmer julienned carrots and cubes of tofu in dashi until heated through. Season with miso or tamari and top with cilantro and sliced green onion for garnish.

Notes:

  • For a tastier dashi, first soak kombu in four cups cold water for one hour, then continue with cooking instruction, using the soaking water.
  • Bonito fish flakes are made by steaming and drying bonito, a type of mackerel, until it is bone-dry, and then it into flakes. Kombu is a seaweed from the kelp family. Kelp dashi is the taste responsible for the identification of umami, a Japanese word which indicates the fifth taste of savory, in addition to the four tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
  • Making dashi from scratch, as easy as it is, has become uncommon in Japan, as instant dashi powder is now widely used.
  • If you wish to support Japan earthquake and tsunami relief efforts, donations can be made to the American Red Cross. Or text “REDCROSS” to 90999 to donate $10 USD. For those outside of the US who wish to donate here is a directory of international Red Cross centers.

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How to Make Natas for Torta de Garbanzo

Last week when I wrote about, and made, Torta de Garbanzo, many of you must have wondered what in the world I was foisting on you. A bean torte? Sweetened garbanzo beans with cajeta? Yet, you gamely read on, some of you even writing that you wanted to make this unusual Mexican Lenten dish. The torta recipe called for natas, cooked, thickened cream, which I didn’t have, and I’ll admit, didn’t know much about. I substituted evaporated milk, but Leslie of The Mija Chronicles, a wonderful Mexican food blog, wondered if I would make natas and write about it. OK, Leslie. You have made your share of interesting, unheard-of-before recipes for us, so I’ll gamely take my turn, instead of waiting for you to make it first.

My Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary defines nata as “cream, the main part of a thing, the prime part”. Diana Kennedy, British by birth, writes in From My Mexican Kitchen, that natas are the same as clotted cream, so beloved with cream tea in England where it is spread on scones. Now we are getting somewhere. In my youth, when my family lived in England, we had cream tea. I was too young to know, or care, that it was clotted cream we were gobbling up. I just knew it was rich and delicious, and could I have more, please?

There isn’t much in my Mexican cookbooks about making natas, so I went to my friend Guillermina and my neighbor Lupita, both excellent cooks, to ask about their method. They gave the same instructions: slowly bring whole raw milk just to a boil over low heat, turn off the heat, let the milk reach room temperature, refrigerate until cool, then skim off the thick cream that has clotted on the surface. This thick, skimmed fat, the cooked cream, are the natas.

But Guillermina knew the easy way. She opened her fridge and showed me a carton of natas she had just brought home from Mega supermercado. If I hadn’t had two gallons of milk crying to be used up, I would have considered the easy way, too. But then I would I have lost my bragging rights about making natas, if it is anything to brag about.

After skimming the clotted cream, two gallons of raw milk yielded one cup of natas. What could I do with it, except make Torta de Garbanzo again, the way it should have been made in the first place, using natas instead of evaporated milk. This torta was wonderfully smooth, creamy and rich. Evaporated milk will do in a pinch, but for an authentic torta, you need natas.

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Torta de Garbanzo for Lent

Lent has arrived in the Catholic world, Mexico included. This period of time marks the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, and many Mexicans observe Lent by not eating meat and preparing certain dishes seen only at this time. I am not Catholic, but I appreciate Lent as a time to try different foods and recipes. This is the only time empanadas filled with tuna fish and canned peas make their appearance in the bakery departments of the big supermarkets. When we first tried this — and obviously we will try just about anything — we weren’t so sure about the taste combination, but now Russ and I look for this odd snack when we go grocery shopping during the days and weeks leading up to Easter. Torta de Garbanzo is another unusual Lenten dish with sweetened, ground beans, more reminiscent of an Asian sweetmeat than something you would find in a Mexican cookbook.

During our travels years ago, we visited friends in Sayula, Jalisco. Antonia and José Ojeda welcomed us warmly and fed us well. Antonia’s six-year old granddaughter was the young girl I mentioned in yesterday’s review of Taco Cuervo, when I wrote about trying to make perfect tortillas. She had laughed and laughed at my dismal results. Now she had another opportunity to see me in action, and must have anticipated the entertainment I would unwittingly give her this time.

We arrived at the beginning of Lent, and Antonia, knowing of my keen interest in the local food, asked me to help her make Torta de Garbanzo. This is the kind of opportunity I dream of — working with an excellent Mexican cook in her own kitchen, making one of her recipes. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to write down the recipe as I watched and helped.

Antonia brought out her metate, the heavy, stone tablet on which corn, cocao beans, and, in this case, cooked garbanzo beans, are ground to a flour or paste. She showed me, in a few efficient moves, how to grind the beans, and I went to work. The soft garbanzo beans turned to mush in no time, but when she added the almonds and broken cinnamon bark, I felt my arms start to tire. I thought of my nice Cuisinart food processor back in my kitchen, as well as every other appliance and gadget that makes cooking easier. The burning muscles and sore knees — yes, we were on the floor working — brought me up short. Here was Antonia, my senior, making quick work of this, while I failed to grind every bit of cinnamon bark until it disappeared into the garbanzos. She had to finish the job. If her granddaughter were around, she probably got another laugh, if not a snicker, from my performance.

Today, I’m making Antonia’s Torta de Garbanzo again, but the Cusinart is doing the grinding. I’m still a wimp.

I halved Antonia’s recipe, and now after eating a slice, I wish I had made the full amount. I also decreased the sugar, using brown sugar instead of panela, the hard, unrefined cones of dark sugar that also gave me sore arms that day. And where does a gringa like me find natas, the skin formed on boiled milk that is skimmed again and again until there is enough for a recipe? I used evaporated milk and it worked, but next time I’ll make natas. Antonia would approve. Almonds were blanched and skinned, and raisins were de-stemmed — the sweet, fruity, almost purple raisins I bought at Teresa’s store here in La Cruz still had some stems attached.

Torta de Garbanzo serves 6

  • 2 cups cooked garbanzo beans, drained
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup natas, or evaporated milk
  • 1 egg
  • 10 blanched and skinned almonds (0r 1/2 oz. almond butter)
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • cinnamon to dust surface
  • crema (Mexican sour cream) and cajeta (dulce de leche) for garnish
  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 deg. F. (180 C.). Generously butter an 8″ round baking dish.
  2. In food processor, puree beans, sugar, cinnamon and almonds.
  3. Add milk and egg and process until smooth.
  4. Stir in raisins.
  5. Spoon into baking dish and dust top with additional cinnamon.
  6. Bake for 25-35  minutes, or until firm.
  7. Cool for at least one hour before serving.
  8. Garnish with crema and cajeta.

Notes:

  • If you double the recipe, use a 9″ baking dish.
  • Pour boiling water over almonds to blanch. Remove from water after thirty seconds, and squeeze to pop the nut out of the skin.
  • Cajeta, also known as Dulce de Leche, is caramelized goat or cow milk. It was called for in the original recipe, but instead of adding it to the other ingredients, I spooned some over the crema when the torta was served.
  • José Ojeda is one of Mexico’s most famous knife makers. For thirteen generations, his family has been making high quality, award winning hunting and kitchen knives.

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