Making ricotta cheese, sort of

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Living in Mexico can be eye-opening — provided you keep your eyes and mind 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, a 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 quarts 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. Hopefully, non-UHT organic milk is available.

~ Don’t use Meyer Lemons, as they are not acidic enough. Even regular lemons can vary in their acidity, requiring more lemon juice. All vinegar, instead of any lemon juice, supposedly can make the milk curd 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.

© 2009-2016 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Día de la Independencia at El Molcajete

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El Molcajete provided the perfect setting for our celebration of Independence Day in Mexico on September 16. Set on a lake shore. Mountains in the background. Menus in hand. This was the way to say, “Viva México!” An afternoon of eating, drinking, laughing and chatting. What better way to celebrate our adopted homeland.

A molcajete is the carved, black basalt bowl with a grinding tool, the mortar and pestle of Mexico, the first food processor in the Americas. With a molcajete, endless varieties of salsa are created, chocolate and coffee beans are ground, seeds and spices are blended into a smooth paste for mole, the rich sauce that dresses chicken, turkey, and pork.

But I digress. El Molcajete, our local restaurant, boasts the world’s largest molcajete as its namesake. A for real, carved basalt molcajete that weighs close to 8,000 lbs. (3.5 toneladas) and is big enough to make 350 quarts of salsa, is registered with Guinness World Records.

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An order of Chingaderas started us off while we enjoyed the vista and decided what to order next. A chingadera loosely means “whatever”. The menu description, “totopos sobre una cama de frijoles banandos con carne en su jugo y queso fundido“, included a lot of “whatevers”: fried tortilla chips on a bed of seasoned refried beans with meat in its broth and melted cheese. Dip in a tortilla chip and scoop up a bit of everything. Yummy.

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After commenting on how high the lake is now after a couple of rainy months, and gazing at the distant mountain whose name translates to “good for nothing”, I remembered a conversation with a neighbor a few months before.

Me (en español): Why is it called Good for Nothing?

Beto: Because you can’t do anything with it, not even climb it.

Me (to myself): A mountain has to be good for something?

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Wanting to make the afternoon at El Molcajete last as long as possible, we slowly studied the menu and discussed all the options, reminiscing about past meals we had enjoyed here.

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We had already tried the signature dish, Molcajete, a steaming, hot molcajete of seafood, chicken or beef, or a combination, with avocado, grilled onion, green chile and a nopal cactus pad, topped with local fresh cheese, and served with corn tortillas.

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We settled on Arrechera. Rather, Russ did. I had already decided I was too full after the Chingaderas to eat another bite. When his plate arrived, I took one look and my appetite returned. Sweetheart that he is, he shared it with me. Marinated, grilled flank steak, grilled onion, chile and nopal cactus pad, refried beans, and guacamole con mas totopos.  The plate was also carved from basalt and very, very hot.

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Marco, our waiter, and a local high school student, couldn’t have been cuter in his revolution-inspired outfit. He waited attentively on us, checking to see if we needed more of anything, refilling my glass with ice, bringing Russ another cerveza. The place was packed, and he managed to keep up with all his tables.

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To get to El Molcajete, go south out of Mascota toward the lake, Presa Corrinches. Continue through the small settlement of La Providencia to the lake shore where you will find El Molcajete, the first restaurant on the left.  Open seven days a week from 11 am until 9 pm. I hope Marco is your waiter.

For readers who don’t live close and are wondering where in the world this is,  Mascota is a county seat, a “municipio” in the state of Jalisco, on the west coast of Mexico, and is about two hours by car east of Puerto Vallarta. Don’t be confused by the sign in front that says Restaurant “La Terraza”. This was the former name before the record holding molcajete was acquired, and a new sign is not yet in evidence. Such is Mexico. Viva México!

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Where in the world is the shrimp cocktail sauce?

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The temperature is staying hot — too hot — here on the west coast of Mexico. Some days, I would rather not eat at all than have to cook. An easy — and cool — solution has been to prepare shrimp cocktail, cóctel de camarón, in the morning, and then assemble everything at dinner time with a minimum of time spent in the kitchen.

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This shrimp cocktail recipe is an adaptation of cóctel de camarón as it is served at Ocho Tostadas in Puerto Vallarta. Theirs is served hot with catsup, but we prefer it cold and catsup-less.  Maybe, without catsup, it isn’t a cocktail at all. Whatever it is, we love it, and it is perfect for warm weather. If you are already having chilly days, try the warm or hot version of cóctel de camarón. If we ever have a chilly day, I will also, but I may have to wait until January.

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It is not necessary to devein shrimp (see notes below). I’m telling you this now just to save you a lot of time and work. After years of working in a restaurant, where I had to devein twenty pounds of shrimp at a time, I am so happy to come to the conclusion that my time is better spent on other things,  like taste testing tostadas.

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The La Cruz fish market sells farmed estuary shrimp from San Blas, a coastal town north of us. Their trucks drive right by our front gate, but I find it more interesting to walk down to the fish market and check out the fishing boats and their catch.

Farmed shrimp sounds like a good idea, since shrimp from the ocean are dredged, a practice which damages the ocean floor and brings up lots of by-catch, fish brought up in the nets that are not intended for the market, and often tossed back into the ocean dead. As you most likely know, our choices in food purchases have consequences.
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A recipe is almost not needed. Cook as much shrimp as you want. Peel, then refrigerate in the broth. When cold, add chopped tomato, avocado, onion, cucumber and cilantro to shrimp and broth. Serve with wedges of lime, tostadas and bottled hot sauce. This is how Ocho Tostadas serves cóctel de camarón, but there is room for innovation if you are so inclined. Radish slices, torn baby lettuce, grated carrot, whatever is in your fridge and sounds good. Think of this as a shrimp salad swimming in flavorful broth. Here is a recipe if you like to have things spelled out like I do when making something for the first time.

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Cóctel de Camarón — Mexican Shrimp  Cocktail     Serves 2

  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) unpeeled, headless shrimp
  • 2 cups (1/2 liter) cold water
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup red onion, diced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • chopped cilantro
  1. Bring salted water to a boil and add shrimp. Cover and simmer for about 3 minutes, or until done. Drain, reserving broth, and peel shrimp. Refrigerate shrimp in broth until cold.
  2. To serve, divide shrimp and broth between two bowls, and top with diced vegetables.
  3. Serve with lime wedges, bottled hot sauce and tostadas.

Notes

~ Cooking the shrimp unpeeled gives a more flavorful broth, plus the peels remove more easily from cooked shrimp.

~ To devein or not to devein, that is the question. I don’t. After a bit of research, I came to the conclusion that removing the vein from shrimp is purely for aesthetic reasons. Basically, we don’t want to look at the little black line and think about what it represents. Eating the vein is not unhealthy, it is not dangerous, and because of this, many cultures do not devein shrimp. It just isn’t necessary unless you have a lot of time on your hands and have a squeamish bent.

~ For an authentic Mexican cóctel de camarón, serve warm or hot with a generous squeeze of catsup.

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Enchiladas Suizas, with a Side of Trepidation

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I could start off as though the last time you heard from me was last week, or even last month. I could ignore the issue altogether. But I’ll face it head-on and take the consequences. (Deep breath.) Here goes, my version of Truth or Dare: I haven’t posted anything new since October, 2011.

Still with me?

Since my laptop went kaput, I’m now working on a 7″ Samsung tablet, typing with my thumbs, and taking photos with the tablet. If I can get through this post on Enchiladas Suizas without wearing out my thumbs, get halfway decent photos and place them where they belong, maybe this will work. But it does have a Lilliputian quality to it, with a small screen and smaller keyboard.

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Several weeks ago,  I made a tasty dish of Enchiladas Suizas — Swiss Enchiladas for you non-Spanish speakers — and the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Gee, this would be a great recipe to share on the blog. If I were still blogging.” A few days later, while replying to a reader’s comment (yes, the comments still kept coming, and readership stayed surprisingly high during my overly long sabbatical), I read over some past comments. One reader wrote. “Thank you so much for all the information! It has fueled my passion for Mexican cooking and culture. I wish you were still writing.” That was the tipping point. I had a decent recipe, and someone wanted to hear from me again. So to Sydney, and all the others (mostly biased family members) who asked me to continue, I’m back. And here for you is a recipe added only recently to Mexican cookbooks.

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Enchiladas Suizas originated at Sanborns, a well-known department store chain in Mexico’s larger cities and towns, and known for their restaurants’ consistently good, traditional Mexican fare. The story goes that a chef at Sanborns created this recipe in 1950 when he added cream to salsa verde. His dairy-heavy enchiladas took on the name “suiza” (Swiss) as homage to the country of Alps and cows.

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I researched my cookbook shelves and could only find a recipe in a booklet by El Universal, a national newspaper in Mexico which published over a dozen recipe booklets specializing in recipes of the states of Mexico. The booklet for the state of Mexico and Distrito Federal (aka Mexico City) included Enchiladas Suizas, which is fitting, as the Sanborns in Mexico City is this dish’s birthplace. There are a number of online recipes, and Saveur’s recipe looked most appealing. Plus, I love their magazines. This is mostly Saveur’s recipe, influenced by El Universal. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

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A trip to the local tienda was first, to buy fresh crema from a rancho south of Puerto Vallarta, freshly made queso añejo — used to garnish the frijoles refritos which you may or may not choose to serve on the side, tomatillos, cilantro, and corn tortillas hot off the press. We had already brought a roasted chicken home from Costco. How we ever managed without Costco in Puerto Vallarta is hard to imagine. Did you know that the roasted chicken at Costco in the US is organic and is about as cheap as you can buy an organic chicken anywhere? Sadly, the chickens here at Mexico’s Costcos are not organic, but I am ever hopeful, as new organic items show up on their shelves almost every week.

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Enchiladas Suizas, with a filling of shredded chicken breast, encased in tender corn tortillas and smothered in creamy green sauce and melted cheese, may not go back hundreds of years in Mexico, but it is showing up on more and more menus in Mexico. I think it is worthy of my comeback recipe.


Enchiladas Suizas (Swiss Enchiladas)        Serves 4

Adapted from Saveur, July 16, 2012 issue, and El Universal recipe booklet, Cocina Estado por Estado, issue No. 10

  • 1 1/2 lbs. (680 grams) husked tomatillos
  • 2 serrano chiles
  • 1/2 medium onion, cut in half
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 large poblano chiles
  • 1 cup (1.38 oz./38 g.) chopped cilantro, including tender stems
  • 1 cup (240 g.) sour cream (or crème fraîche,  or, if in Mexico, crema)
  • Salt to taste
  • Vegetable oil as needed for skillet
  • 3 cups (12 oz./375 g.) cooked, shredded chicken
  • 1 1/2 cups (6 oz./170 g.) grated cheese (Manchego, Swiss, or mozzarella)
  • 8 corn tortillas 
  • Chopped red onion, additional sour cream and cilantro leaves for garnish 
  1. In a hot skillet, under a broiler, or on a hot grill, toast tomatillos, serrano chiles, halved onion, garlic and poblano chiles until blistered black spots start to appear. Blacken most of the poblanos.  Don’t overcook the tomatillos or they will burst and lose their juice.
  2. To make sauce, cut serrano and poblano chiles in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds with a spoon. Lay poblano and serrano halves on a cutting board skin side up and scrape off blistered skin with a serrated knife, spearing the chiles with a fork to protect your fingers from chile burn. Don’t worry if some skin doesn’t come off. Texture is good. Coarsely chop chiles, onion and garlic. Process in a blender with cilantro and sour cream until smooth. Salt to taste. Set aside.
  3. Moisten shredded chicken with one cup of sauce. Set aside.
  4. Lightly oil a hot skillet and heat tortillas, two at a time, until soft, about one minute per side. Don’t allow to become crisp. As you soften tortillas, spoon 1/4 cup of hot chicken filling down the center of each, roll up, and place in a dish. Repeat with two more tortillas, oiling skillet as necessary, until all are filled.
  5. Cover the bottom of a 9″x9″ oven-proof dish with a generous layer of sauce. Arrange enchiladas over sauce, cover with more sauce and sprinkle with grated cheese. Heat in a 350 F. (180 C.) oven until hot and the cheese has melted.
  6. Garnish with thinned sour cream (or crème fraîche or crema) and top with finely chopped red onion and a few cilantro leaves. Any remaining sauce can be served in a separate dish if more sauce is desired.

Notes

~ Tomatillos, pictured in the center of the second photo, are a member of the ground cherry family. They add a distinctive tang and tartness to dishes, and are indispensable in salsa verde. The husks are inedible.

~ When assembling, I used very hot sauce and chicken filling. This way, the enchiladas only needed to be in the oven long enough to melt the cheese. The longer the dish is in the oven, the more sauce is absorbed, which is not a bad thing.

~ Another option is to heat individual servings of two enchiladas per person on a heat-proof plate, following the same instructions above.

~ I think the best chicken enchiladas are made with breast meat.

~Left over sauce is great on potatoes, pasta, eggs and grilled meat.