Jamaica iced tea

Jamaica iced tea is tea is everywhere in Mexico — in almost every restaurant, offered by many street stands, in large, glass jars in the markets. The grocery stores sell jamaica (ha-MY-ka) by the bag full, and bulk herb and grain stores sell it loose. It is always served cold with plenty of ice, and in Mexico it is also served overly sweet, like red liquid candy. If we order it with a meal, we only order one and a glass of ice water. A few tosses back and forth between the two glasses, and we have two ruby drinks that are half as sweet, but still refreshing.

If you order this colorful drink in Mexico, don’t ask for  de Jamaica, as I once did, only to be corrected. Ask for agua de jamaica. Apparently, a tea is a hot drink, and an agua (water) is served cold.

Known as hibiscus in English, and flor de jamaica in Mexico, jamaica/hibiscus is the herb that gives some Celestial Seasonings teas the bright red color and a slightly bitter flavor. If you drink Red Zinger tea, you are drinking hibiscus flowers.

The stronger the brew, the more noticeable the bitter flavor, which leads to more sugar added to mask the bitterness. This recipe uses less jamaica, but it needs less sugar because the bitterness is minimized. Iced jamaica tea can be mixed with fruit juice, like mango nectar, though I have never seen it served with juice in Mexico. In Mexico, don’t ask for té de jamaica — ask for agua (water) de jamaica.

Hibiscus tea is made from one particular plant, Hibiscus sabdariffa. It doesn’t grow in our yard, but another hibiscus blooming outside (below) is just as red, though not for used for tea. The tea is not made from the petals, something I used to think until I learned that it is the part of the flower around the petals, the sepals, that are used for tea .

Jamaica Iced Tea — Agua de Jamaica

  1. Bring two cups of water to a boil.
  2. Add 1/4 cup of lightly packed jamaica/hibiscus.
  3. Turn off  heat and brew for 3-5 minutes. Strain, discarding jamaica.
  4. Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar, or to taste.
  5. Add 2 cups of cold water or fruit juice.
  6. Pour over ice and serve.

Makes one quart.

Post Script: As my readers have reminded me in their comments below, this tea is also delightful without sugar.

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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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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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Home roasting coffee in a popcorn popper

Did you know you can roast coffee in a hot air popcorn popper? It helps to have a West Bend Poppery II model and a spouse who can remove the thermostat in the popper and modify the chute. Once those requirements are met, you are on your way to having freshly roasted coffee on a weekly or daily basis.

Here we were, living in the Mexican state of Nayarit, a state known for growing organic coffee for export, and we were going to the store like everyone else to buy ground coffee. How long can self-respecting foodies keep this up? Locating green coffee beans grown in our state was easy. Figuring out how to roast them wasn’t. A skillet on the stove was a hot, smoky, messy process. Back to the drawing board, I mean internet.

A quick search gave us information about modifying a hot air popcorn popper to roast coffee. The West Bend Poppery II was the hot-air popper of choice. Didn’t we have a hot air popper around, one we didn’t use because neither of us was really into popcorn? A quick search located the unused popper, and I couldn’t believe it! It was a West Bend Poppery II, bought for a few dollars from a yard sale when we thought popcorn was a good idea.

The same internet site gave directions for modifications. You don’t exactly dump coffee beans in and plug it in like you would with popcorn. Some changes were in order. I won’t get into the details, mostly because they are beyond my sphere of knowledge, but it involves removing the thermostat and installing a non-plastic chimney. If you try to use the plastic chute, it will melt with time. Ours did.

While roasting, the beans release chaff. For this reason, I do it semi-outdoors, on a low wall in my laundry room, where the popper fan blows the chaff  over the ledge. The top of the chute has an angled part to direct the chaff outside.

Coffee goes through several stages in the roasting process, two of which are “First Crack” and “Second Crack”. You can hear very audible cracking sounds. After the first crack, it is roasted enough to make a cup of coffee, but you will want to continue to the second crack if you like a dark roast. Unplug the popcorn maker when smoke starts pouring out of the chimney. The beans will be fragrant and dark. The roasting needs to be stopped immediately, so put your coffee on a pan (I use a pizza pan for a large surface area) under a fan.

Roasting Coffee in a Popcorn Popper

  1. Measure 2/3 cup of organic green coffee beans into a modified popcorn popper.
  2. Plug it in and stay close to listen and watch. After 2-3 minutes, you will hear the first crack.
  3. Second crack happens soon after. Smoke starts during second crack. You can either stop it during second crack or let it go all the way through for a very dark roast. I alway watch for smoke. When it gets serious, the popper is unplugged, interrupting the second crack state.
  4. Immediately cool the beans on a shallow pan under a fan. Use a hot pad to handle the pan.
  5. If you are really into the ultimate cup of coffee, keep the roasted beans in a container that can ventilate for 24 hours to allow release of carbon dioxide. Then, and only then, will the beans yield an incomprable cup of coffee.
  6. For long-term storage, the beans can be frozen, but need to be at room temperature to be ground. If you are roasting small batches, roast enough for one week and keep the beans at room temperature, tightly sealed.

You are in for a treat if you have never made cinnamon flavored Cafe de Olla, the way it is made in Mexico.

More Reading:

Getting Started Roasting Coffee at Home (Sweet Maria)

How to Roast Coffee in a West Bend Popper (eHow)

Coffee Roasting CoffeeResearch.org
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Agua de tamarindo, a refreshingly tart Mexican drink

Tamarind, known as tamarindo in Mexico, is found  throughout the country as a favorite drink on food vendor counters and carts.  Besides being the main ingredient for the ice cold, tart drink, agua de tamarindo, it is mixed with sugar to make an overly sweet candy that children love. One popular tamarind candy is called Pelon Pelo Rico. The name translates to “Delicious Bald Hair” and describes the strings of candy that are squeezed out of the smooth-topped little container. Maybe it would have looked more string-like when I squeezed it out if my kitchen hadn’t have been so hot. Only a kid could love this stuff.

Purchased agua de tamarindo is usually too sweet, the sugar masking its characteristic tartness. If I make it myself, I can control the amount of sugar added.

To make your own, first crush the pod covering and peel off the shell. It’s almost like peeling a hard-boiled egg. Pull off any strings. You will be able to feel seeds incased by the pulp. Or you can buy a package of shelled pulp from a street vendor, as I did, but you will still have to remove the strings and seeds.

To remove the seeds, bring 2 cups (about 1 lb./.5 kilo/.5 liter) of pulp and 2 cups (.5 liter) of water to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer covered for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool uncovered.  When it is cool enough to handle, pick up about eight seeds and squeeze in your hand. The pulp will ooze out between your fingers and you will be left with a handful of seeds. It probably is not the most efficient way to separate the pulp, but it gets the job done quickly. After fifteen minutes, I had one and one half cups of pulp. Discard the seeds.

Recommended music: Santana’s Supernatural provided the right Latino beat for this job.

For each two glasses of agua de tamarindo, stir together one and one half cups of water and one quarter cup of pulp. Sweeten to taste. Pour into ice-filled glasses.

Notes:

Etymology: Tamarind is a Latinization of the Arabic words تمر هندي, meaning “Tamar Hindi”, or Indian date.

Tamarind is not a New World native. It originated in tropical Africa where it is still found wild. Tamarind was brought to the Americas, probably in the 17th. century, possibly by the Portuguese.

Worcestershire Sauce contains tamarind pulp, as do many East Indian chutneys.

More reading:

Tamarind (Wikipedia)


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