Grilled plantain — plátano macho asado

If you ever see plátanos machos (plantains) that are ready to be cooked, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they should be immediately dispatched to the compost pile. Black, spotted, and sometimes even a bit moldy, they don’t seem exactly appetizing in their raw form. As funky as they look, this is when they are at their sweetest and most flavorful. Don’t judge a plantain by its skin, or a book by its cover, someone once said.

Years ago, when the restaurant El Coleguita was still in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and so were we, we enjoyed many a pleasant Sunday afternoon meal with friends while overlooking the Bay of Banderas. Dessert was always the complimentary half plátano with a dribble of condensed milk. El Coleguita must have known how easy it is to do dessert for a hundred or more diners by serving grilled plátanos. I always passed on the too sweet condensed milk, hence my photo (from ten years ago!) shows a token drop of it.

I’m telling you this as a tip on serving dessert to a large number of people. Load up the grill or oven with dozens of plantains, and set out toppings for do-it-yourself. You don’t even have to peel the plantains. Just slit them and you will have a table of happy guests.

Once plantains are grilled, fried, or baked, their intense flavor outshines the everyday banana we eat out of hand or sliced over cereal. A spoonful of crema with queso cotija, or with cajeta (caramelized goat milk) or agave syrup to sweeten them up (as though they need any more sweetness), might have something to do with the enhanced tastiness. Russ liked the sweetness cajeta added. I liked the counterpoint of the salty cotija cheese.

Grilled Plantain — Plátano Macho Asado

  • 1 plantain per person
  • foil
  • crema or sour cream
  • cotija cheese
  • cajeta or agave syrup
  1. Individually wrap fully ripened plantains in foil.
  2. Grill over medium heat with grill lid closed until tender, about 25 minutes, turning every 5 minutes.
  3. Unwrap and split skin lengthwise.
  4. Serve in skins with crema, cotija cheese, cajeta or agave syrup.

Notes ~

~ Plantain, known as plátano macho in Mexico, shares the same genus as bananas. They are normally cooked, not eaten raw. They are ready to cook when they are soft to the touch and the skin is mostly black. Cooked plantains are creamy and very sweet.

~ I grilled one plantain without wrapping in foil just to see the results. Not a good idea. The skin became almost crispy, and didn’t turn back easily when slit open.

~ Plantains can also be baked at 400 F (204 C) for 30 minutes, turning halfway through, until tender. Split skin lengthwise first. Or microwaved for 6 minutes, until tender, also splitting skin first. Foil is not needed for either of these methods.

~ Cotja cheese is available in US supermarkets, as is cajeta. I believe agave syrup is also widely available now in the US. My summer visit north of the border didn’t happen this year, so I’m not up to speed on the availability of Mexican products, but generally you will find all these ingredients if you have a Mexican grocery store in your town.

© 2009-2020 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Molletes and Salsa Fresca

Molletes are common lunch fare, found in mercados and street stalls, but so easy to make at home. They are Mexico’s grilled cheese sandwiches, but heartier with refried beans and salsa fresca, fresh salsa that Russ and I still call pico de gallo — beak of the rooster — because that’s the name we learned when we first encountered it on our early trips to Mexico.

Bolillos, the crusty yeast rolls found everywhere in Mexico, are the base for molletes. During these covid days (months), my neighbor Maria and I take turns going into Mascota to pick up our pre-ordered groceries from Pepe’s. When I ordered bolillos, I got round, soft rolls. Not what I wanted. The next time it was my turn to go in, I pointed to the pointy rolls in the glass case in front of the store, not knowing what to call them, because to Pepe they weren’t bolillos. But they were! The grocery receipt itemized them as bolillos telera grande, a full 8″ (20 cm) long. We had molletes muy grande! If you can’t get bolillos or teleras by any name, crusty French bread makes a fine substitution.

Molletes ~ serves 4-6

  • 3 bolillos, or French bread cut into 6 4-6″ lengths
  • 4 tablespoons soft butter
  • 2 cups refried black beans, hot
  • 9 ounces grated manchego or Oaxaca cheese
  • 6 tablespoons cotija cheese, crumbled, optional garnish
  • 2 cups fresh salsa (recipe below)
  1. Cut bolillos in half lengthwise. Using a fork, pull out much of the doughy interior. Lightly butter cut side of bolillos and toast under a broiler until light brown.
  2. Heat oven to 400ºF (180ºC).
  3. Spread about 1/ 3 cup of refried beans across toasted side, filling cavity.
  4. Sprinkle cheese over beans and return to oven until cheese is melted.
  5. Spoon salsa generously over melted cheese, topping with optional cotija cheese. Serve immediately. Good with pickled onion, cebolla encurtida.

Salsa Fresca or Pico de Gallo ~ about 2 cups

  • 2 Roma tomatoes, about 10 ounces (283 g), finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup (2.4 oz/68 g) minced red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 – 2 jalapeño or serrano chiles, seeded and finely minced
  • 1/2 cup (.7 oz/20g) cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Mix all ingredients. Adjust salt

Notes ~

~ For breakfast, serve molletes with a fried egg on the side. Russ wanted his with a scrambled egg on top (pictured below). And additional salsa verde, just because. I don’t know if Mexicans add eggs to molletes, but it worked for us.

~ On one of our trips to Mexico, before we made it our home, we came across a panedería with a wood-fired oven in the little town of Ciudad Fernández, in the state of San Luis Potosí. Such crusty bolillos, with a hint of wood smoke. Twenty-some years later, those bolillos remain a delicious memory.

~ The double “l” in mollete is pronounced as a “y” sound. Mo-YEH-tay. Bolillo is pronounced bo-LEE-yoh.

© 2009-2021 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

Quesadillas any way you want them

Cleaning out the fridge used to mean a soup day. Recently, it has become a quesadilla day. As long as the two basic elements of quesadillas are present — tortillas and cheese — you have free reign to add any leftovers taking up fridge space. What to do with the little piece of roast chicken that is hardly enough to make a sandwich? Or the piece of fresh panela cheese that needs to be used up because fresh cheese just does’t stay fresh for long?

Our fridge was harboring small dishes of leftover chicken and rice with mushrooms; quinoa with spinach; Russ’es deconstructed golumpki casserole of cabbage, mushrooms, bulgar, and ground beef held together with tomato sauce; and a small dish of pinto beans. Sure, I could stick little dishes and packages in the freezer, but they tend to languish there for too long.

We had the foresight to stock up on whole wheat tortillas last month when we did the biggest ($$$) grocery shopping of our marital history. The headlines were already on the horizon. We knew it was time to fill the pantry and freezer, and lie low. And by good fortune, we had a surprising variety of cheese on hand. Tillamook sharp cheddar, goat cheese, fresh panela, Oaxaca string cheese, gruyere and gorgonzola, the latter two gifts from a friend when she cleaned out her Mascota kitchen to return to Chicago. Never in our marital history have we had such a cheese abundance.

I got all the leftovers lined up, took stock of which cheese would pair best with which leftover, and started heating the griddle.

Quinoa with spinach was paired with Oaxaca string cheese, the chicken, mushrooms and rice with cheddar; gruyere topped the golumpki casserole leftovers; and panela was matched with the roast chicken bits and sauteed mushrooms.

Fifteen minutes later, we were eating quesadillas topped with a little bit of leftover salsa for lunch. With a side of salad or soup, ideally leftover soup, this would be substantial enough for dinner. If you make too many, they keep well in the fridge for several days, but then leftovers become a concern again.

Apple quesadillas, one with goat cheese, the other with gorgonzola, made a wonderful dessert. Almost any fresh fruit can be used. Mango with brie is exceptional. Someday I would like to try a ripe pear with camembert.

Other fillings I’m thinking about are bacon, avocado and tomato, a riff on BLT. Cook the bacon first, of course. And potato with cheddar. Russ would want me to add saurerkraut to that one. The possibilities are endless.

After Easter, we had leftover lamb and roasted vegetables. Why not? They made excellent quesadillas with manchego cheese.

Russ likes to say, “I bet no one else is eating this”. Nope, most likely no one else was eating golumpki casserole and gruyere quesadillas. At least not today.

CLEAN OUT THE FRIDGE QUESADILLAS

  • Whole wheat, white, or corn tortillas; 2 tortillas per quesadilla
  • Cheese, thinly sliced or grated, about 1/2 cup per quesadilla
  • Tasty leftovers from the fridge
  • Salsa, optional
  • 1 apple, thinly sliced, to make 2 dessert quesadillas

Spread as many tortillas as will fit on your griddle, or in a large skillet, in one layer. Top with cheese, leftovers, then cheese again. (The two layers of melted cheese serve as the “glue” holding everything together.) Top with a second tortilla for each quesadilla. Cook over medium heat until the underside has browned. Cook about 5 more minutes until the cheese is melty and the new underside has brown speckles. Remove from griddle and cut into quarters. Serve with salsa if you wish.

Notes ~

Whole wheat tortillas are much more flavorful than white tortillas, and fortunately Pepe’s, our local grocery store in Mascota, stocks them. They freeze well, and thaw quickly.

Quesadillas, literally “little cheesey things”, originated in central and northern Mexico, and were traditionally made with corn tortillas. Flour tortillas are more commonly used in northern Mexico. If you think my fillings are outlandish, there is even a pizzadilla, made with pizza toppings.

© 2009-2020 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Making ricotta cheese, sort of

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Living in Mexico can be eye-opening — provided you keep your mind and eyes open. I was reminded of this when I  first made requesón cheese, the name for ricotta in Mexico. It’s sold at all the cremerias here, but it’s so easy to make, plus home-made ricotta is much smoother and cheaper than store-bought.

Rural living in Mexico has a lot of pluses, one being that we can buy raw milk, sometimes so fresh it is delivered warm from the cow. As much as I would like to drink raw milk, I always pasteurize it first. It still remains unhomogenized, with a thick layer of yellow cream on the top.

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The eye-opening part of making ricotta occurred when Ruby, our house cleaner, tasted my ricotta and politely declared it “requesón lite”. What? I had followed the recipe from America’s Test Kitchen to the T. She patiently explained that requesón is made from suaro, the whey collected from cheese making, not from whole milk.

This explains why American ricotta recipes start with whole milk. After all, how many of us have a small herd of dairy cattle, make vats of cheese every day, and then have 10 gallons of whey to use for making ricotta?  No, I didn’t think so.

Our favorite way to eat ricotta is spread on toasted seed bread, the so-called “Life Changing Bread” from My New Roots.

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Unless you have your own herd of milk cows, here is how to make ricotta, even though Ruby probably thinks I’m cheating.


Ricotta/ Requesón

makes about 350 grams or 12 ounces

  • 2 quartst/2 liters whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons/30 ml. white vinegar
  • 1/6 cup/ 40 ml. lemon juice
  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat milk and salt over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching.
  2. When milk reaches 165 degrees F./ 74 C., remove milk immediately from heat and add vinegar and lemon juice, stirring gently. Extra cooking will result in curds too firm for ricotta.
  3. As soon as curds form and the whey becomes mostly clear and yellow, pour into the cheesecloth-lined colander. It will take between 5 seconds and 10 minutes for the curds to form. If curds do not form, gently stir in more vinegar, one tablespoon at a time.
  4. Allow to drain for only a few minutes, until you have a spreadable consistency. Upend the cheesecloth into a bowl and stir the ricotta with a fork, breaking up the curds until it is smooth. If you would like it more moist, stir in a few tablespoons of reserved whey. Refrigerate.

Notes

~ Have everything ready before the milk heats — vinegar and lemon juice measured, colander lined with cheesecloth and set over a large bowl.

~ If using commercial organic milk, don’t use milk labeled UHT (Ultra High Temperature). The curds will not form as readily or as well.

~ Don’t use Meyer Lemons, as they are not acidic enough. Even regular lemons can vary in their acidity, requiring more lemon juice to curdle the cheese. All vinegar, instead of any lemon juice, supposedly can make the milk curdle sufficiently, but I haven’t tried it.

~ Don’t throw out the whey! It’s great in smoothies, soups (so I read), and for bread making. My chickens like it, too.

~ Make an easy and impressive Raspberry-Ricotta Cake with this recipe from Epicurious.

© 2009-2019 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Chiles Rellenos — poblano chiles stuffed with cheese and served with tomato sauce

A Classic Mexican Recipe

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Chiles are the essence of Mexico. Vibrant in color and intense in flavor, they are found in many Mexican dishes. Chiles Rellenos, a Mexican classic, feature poblano chiles stuffed with cheese, dipped in egg, then fried until golden and served in a shining pool of tomato sauce.

Chiles Rellenos
Makes 6

  • 6 thick-walled poblano chiles
  • 1/2 lb. (230 grams) cheese of your choice, cut into 6 wedges
  • 1/2 cup (50 grams) all purpose flour
  • 2 lbs. (900 grams) fresh tomatoes (or canned tomatoes — see note)
  • 1/2 medium onion
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoon dry Mexican oregano
  • salt to taste
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • mild vegetable oil for frying

1. First, blister and peel the poblano chiles.

Mexican Potato Salad with Three Chiles 001

2. While poblanos are steaming, cut tomatoes into quarters or eighths, depending on their size, and squeeze out seeds. Strain seeds, saving the juice. Roughly chop onion and garlic.

3. Purée tomatoes, juice, onion and garlic in blender. Fry the sauce. (Yes, you read it right. “Fry” is the verb used in Mexican cookbooks to describe making a cooked salsa.) Bring 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a moderately high temperature in the  skillet, add the tomato mixture, and stand back — it will spatter and spit a bit, but will calm down as you stir it. Add dry Mexican oregano (not Greek oregano) and stir occasionally while simmering  for 15 minutes. Salt to taste, but don’t skimp on the salt. Too little will result in a flat-tasting sauce.

4. While the sauce is simmering, peel and seed chiles and stuff with wedges of cheese. If the piece of cheese is not too large, you can slightly fold the flap of chile over the other side of the slit, sealing the cheese in. The cooked egg batter will hold this flap closed.

5. For egg coating: beat egg whites with 1/4 teaspoon of salt until stiff but not dry. Fold in beaten egg yolks. This is the chile coating. There is no flour added.

Chiles Rellenos -- Poblano Chiles Stuffed with Cheese and Served with Tomato Sauce -- A Mexican Classic

6.  Keeping the flap closed, roll each chile in flour, without getting flour inside the chile. (Mexican cocineras use a toothpick to hold the slit closed.) The idea is to completely cover it with flour so that the egg has something to stick to. Then dip each chile in the beaten egg to completely coat it.

7. Use enough oil in your skillet for a depth of 3/4″ – 1″. Heat oil to 350 deg. F. (180 C.). Fry two chiles at a time. If you try to do more, the first chile in the pan will start to burn while you are coating the others. (I learned this the hard way.) Turn the chiles over after 30-45 seconds in the oil, or until they are golden brown on all sides. Place on several layers of paper towels to absorb oil. Keep warm on a hot plate or in a 200 deg. F. (95 C.) oven while you batter and cook the remaining chiles. While cooking the chiles, keep the tomato sauce hot.

8. When all are done, spoon hot tomato sauce into individual dishes or in a large platter and arrange chiles rellenos on the sauce.

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Notes:

~ Mexican cookbooks recommend a variety of cheeses for Chiles Rellenos, including Oaxaca string cheese, Mozzarella and Monterey Jack. A good cheddar is assertive enough to stand up to the flavorful chiles and tomato sauce. For this recipe, I used Tillamook Extra Sharp Cheddar from Costco.

~ To make the preparation of this dish more manageable, make the sauce and blister and peel the chiles the day before.

~ Be prepared for a wide range of heat level. Poblanos are generally a mild chile, but every now and then they veer off the heat scale.

~ When selecting poblanos, look for those that are flat with two sides, rather than three sides. This shape allows for less cooking time when blistering and frying.

~ In the winter, it may be impossible to find fresh tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes. If this is the case, you will do better using canned tomatoes, which usually have a good flavor.

~ There are no rules in cooking (baking is a different matter). If you want to fill your chile relleno with crab and mornay sauce, or well-seasoned black beans and shrimp, please invite me to dinner.

~ Leftover chiles rellenos, re-heated, make an excellent sandwich filling. In the market of a small town, we had tortas de chiles rellenos — bolillos, the common bread roll of Mexico, filled with cheese-stuffed poblanos. With this memory to prompt us, we had  left-over chiles rellenos in bolillos for lunch at home. Split the bolillo horizontally and pull out the soft center to make room for the chile. Spoon some hot tomato sauce onto both sides of the roll. Muy delicioso!

~ Today’s Spanish lesson: This dish is often misspelled as “Chile Rellenos”. If Chile is singular (without an “s”), so too is the descriptive word, “relleno”. Chile Relleno or Chiles Rellenos are the correct spellings.

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