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:

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 what happened to the first one. 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.


  • 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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Holiday gift idea: make a cake stand for your foodie friend

Here’s an idea for your holiday gift giving — unique cake stands made from thrift store finds using glass candlestick holders and attractive plates.  All you need is one pretty plate, a glass candlestick holder and a tube of epoxy. And the urge to go thrift store shopping, a favorite past-time of mine when I am in the U.S. (My Mexican readers may not find materials for this project so easily, unless Walmart has glass candlestick holders.) I read about this while cruising the net one night. Wandering Chopsticks, a Vietnamese food blog, had all the instructions.

I look for special plates with a bit of flair, something that sets them apart from the ordinary. The plate on the left is by Dansk and made in Japan, the center plate has a leaf motif and may be hand-painted, and a Spode bone china plate from England is on the right. None of the plates cost more than $2, and the candlesticks were around $1 each. (Chiles from my sister’s garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico, are on the Dansk plate,  in case you are wondering.) Wandering Chopsticks also used glass goblets, but I prefer the look of candlestick holders. You may like the glasses, so check out her site to see what she made.

To make a cake stand, clean both plate and candlestick holder with very hot, soapy water. If  the candlestick holder is second-hand, check for any wax residue and remove completely. Wipe the areas where the epoxy will be applied with rubbing alcohol to insure super cleanliness.

Measure across the bottom of the plate to determine the exact center. Apply epoxy to the candlestick holder rim, and place on the upturned plate. Work on newspaper in case there are any drips of epoxy that escape you.

If any movement happens when you place the candlestick holder on the plate, you have a few minutes to make adjustments and reposition the candlestick holder. Don’t try to turn the plate right side up — the epoxy is too fluid and the plate may slide around. Leave the plate upside down and place a plate on top of the candlestick holder, with a weight on it. Leave the plate undisturbed overnight, until the epoxy is completely set.

After I made the round of thrift stores in Santa Fe, I set out my purchases and played around with different combinations of candlestick holders and plates, with an eye for matching height of candlestick holder to size of plate, and design of candlestick holder to the pattern on the plate. I particularly liked the square candlestick holder on the right (above).

For long-life for your recycled cake stand, carefully wash by hand, not in the dishwasher. And, of course, you will now have to bake something to display your new plate. Maybe Coconut Macaroons. Or Eggnog Cream Cake or Fruitcake Bars for the holidays.

Chocolate, slavery and our collective guilt

There is no delicate way to ask this question: Are we complicit in the use of slavery today to produce chocolate?

Hundreds of years ago, Mesoamerican slave labor harvested cocoa beans to supply European demand for chocolate. I recently came face to face with this horror from the past while visiting Chocolate: The Exhibit,at the Minnesota History Center.

This exhibit is on loan from the Chicago Field Museum. Upon returning home, I visited the Field Museum web page to learn more about chocolate (a taste I love so much, I think it should have its own place on the food pyramid). One thing led to another, as it does when you trip from link to link on the internet, and it wasn’t long before I was reading that history has repeated itself, that slave labor is being  used again to harvest cocoa beans, this time with child slaves, in parts of West Africa. And, to answer the question in the first paragraph, yes, we are complicit. You and I support this evil each time we purchase a chocolate product that is not labeled fair trade, free trade, slave-free or organic. Time to rethink my relationship with chocolate.

Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, where hundreds of thousands of children work the plantations, many of them as slaves, supply 70% of the world’s cocoa. (Certifying Blood Chocolate, June 25, 2010) Teen-age boys are sold into slavery by their impoverished parents. Others are lured by agents who scout for homeless children in Mali and then transport them to Cote d’Ivoire where they work in appalling conditions without the ability and resources to find their way home. (Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote d’Ivoire)

Consumer outrage over this situation forced many chocolate producers, including giants in the industry, such as Nestle, Mars and Kraft, to sign the non-binding Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol in 2001, which commits the companies to eliminate “… the worst of child labor. The Protocol did not commit the industry to ending all child labor in cocoa production, only the worst forms of it … the protocol was criticized by some, criticism which seems to have been validated by the fact that industry still has not delivered on farm level certification against the worst forms of child labour”. (Cocoa Protocol — Wikipedia)

Chocolate has deep roots in Mexican culture, history and cuisine (Oaxaca al Gusto, by Diana Kennedy)

Other chocolate producers have signed on with the Rain Forest Alliance to ensure the entire cocoa supply is “sustainably produced”. Critics say that RA standards aren’t severe enough to change the industry, and instead offer its members a way to look good for consumers without significantly changing business practices. (Certifying Blood Chocolate)

Compliance seems spotty and mixed. And confusing. Do the labels “organic” and “fair trade” mean slave free? According to Caroline Tiger, writing for the online magazine Salon, there is, apparently, another option that is slavery-free. “Organic chocolate, sold by such U.S. companies as Newman’s Own and Dagoba, is also ‘slave free,’ since organic farms are subject to their own independent monitoring system that checks labor practices.” And from Stop Chocolate Slavery , “It has also been noted that, as of now, they don’t grow cocoa beans organically in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), which is where the vast majority of the reports about chocolate slavery have come from. Finally, according to Camille Littlejohn of Newman’s Own Organics, the limited supply of certified organic cocoa ensures that organic cocoa farmers receive a premium price. So, apparently, organic is also okay”.

After writing this, I eyed my chocolate stash with a wary eye. Hershey’s cocoa. Trader Joe’s bittersweet chocolate. My old standby, Mexican Ibarra chocolate. Surely the artisanal chocolate bars from B.T. McElrath Chocolatier in Minneapolis were untainted, but why was there no label on the packaging assuring the buyer of free trade, fair trade, organic, anything?

Back to the web pages, where I read that B.T. McElrath “support(s) sustainable agriculture by sourcing chocolate products with UTZ Certified Sustainability Program and socially responsible business practices.” So why not state “Free Trade” on the label?

UTZ is not without its critics. It requires its members to follow national laws regarding renumeration of employees. If a country, such as Cote d’Ivoire, has poor or non-existent laws regarding child labor and adult employment, but the laws, such as they are, are followed, UTZ is satisfied. (Wikipedia)

Hershey has an impressive web page devoted to explaining their social commitment. “Building on Milton Hershey’s legacy of commitment to consumers, community and children, we provide high-quality Hershey products while conducting our business in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner.” Again, there is nothing on the cocoa can label to indicate free trade or their social responsibility. Perhaps it is because Hershey is not as committed as it claims to be. An article by John Robbins in the Huffington Report, dated as recently as September 2010, states “this carefully researched report pointed out that the Hershey company lags well behind its competitors in taking responsibility for the impact the company is having on the local communities from which it sources cocoa around the world … While Hershey’s primary competitors have at least taken steps to reduce or eliminate slavery and other forms of abusive child labor from their chocolate supply chains, Hershey has done almost nothing”. (Huffinton Report)

My 500-gram bar of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate, measuring almost 11″ by 5″, has all the room in the world to state something about its free trade commitment, if it has one. The package is happy to tell me the chocolate bars are “made exclusively for Trader Joe’s in a small town outside of Antwerp by confectionery artisans”, but nothing about their social commitment. Nothing about being slave free. Perhaps the S word is too dirty to mention, even in a positive context, if Trader Joe’s has anything positive to say.

It seems that if a company is taking the high road by certifying that all their chocolate is sourced from free trade growers, they would want to announce this fact. Is the absence of this information because their chocolate is not 100% fair trade, therefore the fair trade label is only on a few chocolate items, if any? Is an agreement with the Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol, which lacks any enforcement, enough to make them look good without really changing anything?

I would love to know that there is more up-to-date information, that the above mentioned companies — and the hundreds of other companies not discussed here — are now in 100% compliance with the Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol. I would love to be corrected by more current information. I want to be corrected and told that blood chocolate is a thing of the past. Sadly, I can’t find anything more current that disputes my conclusions. Bittersweet, indeed.

What You Can Do:

  • Be a responsible buyer. Check  for fair trade or organic labels.
  • Call or write the producer and ask tough questions. Demand slave free chocolate.
  • Boycott companies that have no commitment to slave free chocolate.
  • Sign a petition telling Hershey to shift toward Fair Trade certified cocoa
  • Spread the word.

Related Articles:

More Reading:

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The pescatarian’s dilemma: Is it possible to eat seafood and not destroy the oceans?

How to shop for seafood within the framework of sustainable development is becoming more challenging. Pollution and over-fishing, coupled with environmentally damaging fishing practices, are to blame for fish populations that are becoming ever more scarce and endangered. Some experts feel we should stop eating fish altogether. If you have not yet made that choice, here are some guidelines for being a smart seafood shopper, whether you live in Mexico or another country.

Sustainable development: a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for future generations. (Wikipedia)

“Sustainable” is a key buzz word in today’s food market, yet not generally understood or followed. As a shopper, pushing my cart in a grocery store or checking out the offerings in a fish market, how am I to know what is a smart seafood purchase and what isn’t? How can I know which species are sustainable and which are close to being endangered? Responsible, informed organizations are working to supply us with well researched information that is as accessible as our computers. We can shop responsibly.

This and all photos taken by Tony Dobek at Jalgachi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea

Seafood Watch iPhone App: Thorough Tuna List
Image by Special*Dark via Flickr

Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains the Seafood Watch Program which details seafood recommendations in four categories: The Super Green List, Best Choices, Good Alternatives, and Avoid. Individual fish names can be entered in the search feature for specific information on that species.  Their current list recommends avoiding Atlantic flounder and sole, and Mexican grouper. Pacific halibut and farmed tilapia are recommended, as are many other species. How the fish is caught determines which list it is on. To make purchases easier while you are in a store, download and print their  Seafood Watch Pocket Guide or use their Seafood Watch Mobile Guide on your iPhone.

Greenpeace’s Supermarket Seafood Sustainability Score Card rates U.S. supermarkets according to their commitment to offering only sustainable seafood. Stores are given a Fail, Pass or Good score on a scale of one to ten. Their number one ranked store is Target, Whole Foods is number three, and Trader Joe’s, with a Fail score, ranks ninth out of twenty stores. Due in large part to the bad publicity this score has brought Trader Joe’s, they have recently stated that as of December 31, 2012, all of their seafood will come from sustainable sources. Trader Joe’s is already making the transition, as it stops selling such fish as Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper.

More guidance is available from the Marine Conservation Society Fishonline where you can read “fish ratings”. Each species is rated according to method caught, whether it is from a certified fishery, if it is over-fished or endangered, and other sustainability factors. Fish are rated on a scale from one to four, Rating One being the most sustainable.

Finally, there is Neil Banas’ Eco-Health Seafood Pocket Guide. Neil is an oceanographer, teacher and artist who has put together a pdf file, rating fish in three categories of mercury and PCB content: Bad, Medium and OK. This rating, determined by combining toxity with sustainability factors, draws upon information from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Environmental Defense Fund.

In 1994, the World Watch Institute issued a warning that more fish are being caught than nature can replenish. It’s like a bank account — the withdrawals are greater than the deposits. It sounds grim, but it doesn’t have to be. We have the ability to turn this around, and it begins in the supermarket and fish market with the choices we make and the demands we make from store management. We can speak out and let them know we will only purchase sustainable seafood. Here’s one thing you can do: Tell Costco to Stop Selling Endangered Fish (


To eat small, plate-sized red snapper, one of the most popular menu items in seafood restaurants in Mexico, is unconscionable. At that size, red snapper have not reached breeding age. Without an opportunity to reproduce, they are being harvested with no chance of replenishing their species.

Shrimp purchases contribute to environmental destruction if the shrimp are harvested by dredging, a practice that can literally scrape clean the ocean floor and capture many other fish beside shrimp, known as bycatch. The bycatch can be as much as three to fifteen pounds of non-food species to every one pound of shrimp. This bycatch is thrown back into the sea, the fish already dead or dying. More modern dredging equipment is being implemented to reduce bycatch, but its use is not enforced in many countries. I will guess that Mexico, with good regulations but poor enforcement, does not practice sustainable dredging, if such a procedure is even possible.

Farmed shrimp are only a partial solution, as farming destroys thousands of acres of vital wetlands, the nurseries for juveniles of many fish species and the fishing grounds for those who live more impoverished lives and depend on estuaries and mangroves for their food and livelihood. Fish farming, if not highly regulated, can cause water pollution and higher incidence of diseased fish. Again, I suspect Mexico is not always enforcing laws designed to protect the environment and its food sources.


I invite all readers to comment on this article. Please tell us which stores in your area offer sustainable seafood. Which resources do you use to make your purchase decisions? I would especially like to hear from readers in other parts of the world as to what their countries are doing to support seafood sustainability and inform shoppers, and what are considered sustainable seafood species where they live. Finally, to answer the title of this article: can one eat seafood and not contribute to marine destruction?


More reading:

Net Loss: Fish, Jobs and the Marine Environment by World Watch Paper examines the ecological, social and economic crisis in world fisheries.

All About Global Fishing from CNN on the effects of unregulated global fishing on diminishing seafood resources.

Fresh Hope for World’s Fisheries from Optimum Population Trust on successful rebuilding of fish stock in regulated marine ecosystems.

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