Simple bread and butter

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
  1. 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.
  2. Cover well with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 18 hours.
  3. Place dough on well floured board and fold over on itself twice. Form a ball, with seam on bottom.
  4. 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 1 hour, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Allow to cool 1 hour before slicing.

Cultured Butter

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Knead in 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Refrigerate or freeze. This makes 640 grams of butter and 1 overflowing cup of buttermilk.

Notes ~

~ It is vital that yeast is fresh for any bread recipe. Store it in the freezer, where it will keep well for a year or more.

~ 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.



Fish tostadas — tostadas de pescado

When you are a little hungry, but not famished, when you want something tasty to eat, but don’t really feel like spending too much time in the kitchen, fish tostadas are the answer. Start with a crispy corn tostada, add a layer of refried beans — the “glue” that sticks the fish to the tostada — and go from there. If fish isn’t to your taste, use beef, tofu, or just beans and cheese. Yes, there really are recipes online for tofu tostadas, but you would have to look long and hard to find any in Mexico. I went with fish fillets. They cook quickly, and make for a satisfying, light meal.

Crema blended with chipotle chile en adobo provides a creamy, zippy topping, along with the traditional refried black beans, thinly sliced cabbage, avocado slices, and a sprig of cilantro. In the mercado (market) restaurants or at street carts, sliced cabbage is the norm for topping tostadas.

You can make your own tostadas by frying corn tortillas, or brush with oil and bake. To keep it simple, I use packaged tostadas. In Jalisco, the stores carry Tostada Vallartense, made in Puerto Vallarta with black sesame seeds.

A few days later, lunch was tostadas topped with sliced, leftover chicken, and the addition of queso cotija. I’ve never been able to get my head around combining cheese with fish. Years ago, I got into a little dust-up with the head chef where I worked about topping Pescado a la Veracruzana with cheese. My quasi-Mexican palate couldn’t accept that combination, and it most likely would not be served like that in Mexico. But cheese with chicken works for me. If you don’t have this hang-up, by all means add queso cotija, or any other cheese, to your fish tostada.

Fish Tostadas

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder
  • 2 Tilapia fillets or other mild, white fish fillets, 13 oz (368 g) total
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup (240 ml) crema or sour cream
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) chipotles en adobo
  • 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) refried black beans, warmed
  • 1 cup cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 6 corn tostadas
  • Cilantro for garnish
  1. Blend salt, cumin and chile powder in a small bowl.
  2. Pat fillets dry with a paper towel, and evenly sprinkle both sides with salt mixture.
  3. Heat oil in a skillet. When the oil is hot, cook fillets for about 8-10 minutes for fillets 1″ (2.5 cm), turning halfway through. (See note below.)
  4. Remove fillets from pan and break into large flakes with a fork.
  5. Spread refried black beans on tostadas. Top with fish, cabbage, avocado, crema and cilantro. Serve immediately.

Notes ~

~ To insure that fish is not overcooked, follow the Canadian Rule: regardless of the cooking method — provided it’s not low temperature stewing or very hot sear — allow 10 minutes total cooking time per 1″ thickness of fish.

~ Eating seafood is fraught with decision making these days. To put it simply, fish can no longer reproduce at a rate that keeps up with the catch. It’s a net deficit for the ocean. I have settled on Kirkland farm-raised tilapia purchased from Costco as a conscionable option. Costco tilapia is grown by Regal Springs in Mexico and other countries, with priority given to the best aquaculture practices, and certified by Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative. In the U.S., you may have more options available for purchasing sustainable seafood.

~ Chipotles chiles are large, dried, smoked jalapeños. Mark Miller, in The Great Chile Book, describes the flavor as “smoky and sweet in flavor with tobacco and chocolate tones, a Brazilnut finish, and subtle, deep rounded heat.” In other words, delicious. They are canned in a red adobo sauce of tomato and vinegar that’s so good, I wish I could buy jars of just the sauce.




Pickled Onion – Cebollas Encurtidas

Pickled onion, cebolla encurtida in Spanish, is great with grilled meats, but also a colorful addition to tacos and tortas — sandwiches. This is one recipe where a minimum of effort yields big results. A little crunchy, a little citrusy, and pleasantly oniony without the bite, it has become a staple in our fridge and on the table. Even though it looks like onion tacos in the photo below, there is chicken under the pickled onion. It’s easy to get heavy-handed with something this good.

Red onion in English, translated to cebolla morada (purple onion) in Spanish, adds a brightness to anything where raw onion is called for. The color, whether you see it as red or purple, seems to become more intense when pickled. This reminds me that we say brown eggs in English, but in Spanish it is huevos rojos — red eggs. Hmm … do we define or see colors differently in different cultures, different languages?

The pickling acids used here are vinegar, lime juice and orange juice. Our lime trees provided their curious fruit which seems to be a cross between lemons and limes, green like limes, but lighter in color, and not as sour as limes. Sadly, our orange trees are no more, overcome by the worldwide plague, citrus greening. The lime trees are resisting the disease so far, fingers crossed. So we buy oranges now, presumably growing healthy somewhere.

Pickled Onion — Cebolla Encurtidas

  • 1 jalapeño chile
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) lime juice
  • 1/4 cup (59 ml) orange juice
  • 1/4 cup (59 ml) white vinegar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, ground
  • 1 large red onion, about 12 oz (340 grams), sliced into rings
  • I small carrot, sliced, optional
  1. Roast jalapeño over a gas flame or in a hot, dry skillet until mostly blackened. Use whole — uncut and unseeded.
  2. In a quart or liter jar, mix all ingredients together, except bay leaves, jalapeño and onion, until salt is dissolved.
  3. Add jalapeño, bay leaves, onion slices and carrot, if using. Press onion slices below liquid, adding more white vinegar or lime juice if necessary to submerge everything.
  4. They are ready after 2 hours at room temperature. Refrigerate for up to 3 to 4 days.

Notes ~

~ About onions in Mexico. Yellow onions don’t seem to exist here. White and red, yes, but not yellow. White onions are sharper and more pungent, as are red onions, though they are also described as being sweet. Red onions grill very well, keeping a better texture. I missed yellow onions for a long time after we moved here. White and red onions are the normal now.

~ Bitter orange juice is sometimes called for in pickling onions, but our bitter orange trees didn’t make it either, so it’s lime and orange for now.

~ Citrus greening has been wiping out citrus trees in Florida and other major citrus growing areas for years. There is no remedy, although agriculture departments worldwide are working on it. In Mexico, the disease is called dragon amarillo (yellow dragon), a nod to its origins in China.


Agua Fresca

I can’t count how many times we have sat down in a little restaurant in Mexico after shopping, errands, or just being tourists. Hot, dusty, and foot-tired, we are here for the day’s comida corrida, an inexpensive mid-day meal that is the closest thing to a Mexican home cooked meal, except a bill comes at the end. Nevermind that. We appreciate a basic, well prepared, three or four course lunch that invariably includes a cold pitcher of agua fresca. Maybe there will be a choice between two fruit flavors. Maybe no choice, and we are happy with whatever we get. 

Aguas frescas are nothing more than fresh, tropical fruit blended with water, and lightly sweetened. You can get fancy and use carbonated water for a bubbly version.  A copious amount of ice assures that the pitcher is running with condensation, leaving a wet spot on the tablecloth.

Common fruit options are papaya, piña (pineapple), sandia (watermelon) and naranja (orange), in which case it’s called a naranjadaLimón (lime) agua fresca is also common, which is a limonada. Guava would be good, too, but be sure to strain out the buckshot seeds. We always ask for ours with no sugar, or poco — a small amount. We are no match for the Mexican sweet tooth.

I used Archimedes’ Principle to get an exact proportion of three parts water to one part fruit by filling a quart measuring cup with 2 2/3 cup water, and dropping in chunks of fruit until the water level reached the four cup mark. A little tidbit of knowledge from science class too many years ago, and in this case, maybe precision carried to an unnecessary degree.


  • 1 part chopped, fresh fruit to 3 parts cold water 
  • Sweetened to taste with sugar or stevia, or not sweetened at all, if the fruit is sweet enough
  • Lots of ice
  1. Mix well in a blender with sweetener of choice until fruit is pureed.
  2. Strain. 
  3. Pour into an ice-filled glass. 

Proportions of water and fruit are up to you — more watery or more fruity, depending on your taste. Straining out the fruit pulp is optional. Add a bit of fresh ginger or mint to the blender, if you have them on hand, but if not, your agua fresca is more true to the refreshing beverage that accompanies an everyday comida corrida in Mexico.

Notes ~

~ If you use carbonated water, puree the fruit, adding a little bit of plain water if needed to get it moving in the blender. Strain, and add carbonated water.

~ If you are not adept at skinning a pineapple or papaya, here’s how to do it. For a papaya, cut off about 1/ 2″ (13 ml) off the top and bottom. Cut off the top of the pineapple about 1″ (26 ml) below the stalk and 1/2″ off the bottom. Stand fruit on end, and using a sharp serrated knife with a slight sawing motion, slice from top to bottom, removing a thin slice of peel. A serrated bread knife is good for this. Proceed all the way around. The thinnest slice will minimize waste. Cut the papaya in half lengthwise, and scoop out seeds. Cut the pineapple in quarters lengthwise and cut out core.