Seven layer bean dip

The Super Bowl deserves something above and beyond the usual guacamole and salsa. Don’t get me wrong. Well prepared, these two standards are always welcome. But since Russ has been looking forward to this game all year (five weeks), something out of the ordinary would be nice. Despite all the typical Mexican elements, Seven Layer Bean Dip is not from Mexico, originating in Texas with one of its first print appearances in Family Circle magazine in 1981. Always called Seven Layer Bean Dip, it turns out that the seventh layer is loosely defined and usually whatever you wish to use as a garnish. Some recipes add cooked ground beef and call that the seventh layer. A garnish of chopped cilantro and red onion works for me. To be honest, it’s more like a six and a half layer dip.

In our part of Mexico, it’s tomato and avocado season. We have a bounty of locally grown, organic tomatoes and avocados. The tomatoes are going into the freezer, and were eating guacamole almost every day to keep up with the rapidly ripening supply. I’ve never frozen tomatoes before, but it sounds easy. Pop into zip-lock bags, and they’re good for a year.

I have a bone to pick with most recipes that give the preparation time as 20 minutes, 30 minutes, when you know darn well it’s going to take at least an hour. Recipes are able to do this is by listing the ingredients as how they are to be prepared. Minced, chopped, peeled, refried, grated. One of the most popular recipes online states preparation time for Seven Layer Dip as 20 minutes. One look at that, and you can be assured that the clock starts once every ingredient is prepped according to the recipe list. But I don’t buy grated cheese, minced onion, sliced olives. Some of you may buy canned refried beans or salsa in a jar. But you have the option, if you have the time, of doing everything from scratch, and ending up with the freshest flavors.

Seven Layer Bean Dip serves 6-8

  • 2.5 cups (16 oz/453 g) refried black beans
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin (comino)
  • 4 ounces (113 g) grated cheese (I use half sharp cheddar and half manchego)
  • 1 cup (4 oz/113 g) sliced black or Greek olives
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 2 serrano or jalapeño chiles
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (237 ml) salsa fresca
  • 3/4 cup (6.5 oz./184 g) sour cream
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • Tostadas or tortilla chips
  1. Heat refried beans until starting to bubble. Stir in cumin. Salt to taste.
  2. Grate cheese and set aside.
  3. Slice olives and set aside.
  4. Make a simple guacamole by blending mashed avocado, minced serrano or jalapeño chiles, lime juice and salt.
  5. Make salsa or open your jar.
  6. In a shallow dish (I used a glass 9″/22.86 cm pie plate) spread hot beans. Cover with grated cheese, then sliced olives, guacamole, salsa, sour cream and finally, garnish with chopped cilantro and red onion.
  7. Serve with sturdy tortilla chips.

© 2009-2021 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

All photos and text are copyright protected. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.

Tequila balls

Holiday food traditions are enduring and endearing, wherever we expats find ourselves in the world. The foods we associate with Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Ramadan follow us as we relocate, and keep the holidays normal and familiar. And boy, do we need a sense of normalcy this year. Here in Mexico, I still make treats at Christmastime that we enjoyed decades ago when we lived in the U.S., but ingedients not found in Mexico (or our little town of Mascota) have been swapped out for close substitutes. Pumpkin pie is now made with calabaza (Mexican winter squash); mincemeat pie filling is homemade, instead of from a Cross and Blackwell jar; and tequila balls, formerly known as rum balls, are moistened with our state of Jalisco’s renown tequila. I think it’s called being flexible, and expats learn to be good at that.

Graham crackers aren’t common in Mexico, if they even exist here at all. But Hony Bran crackers come pretty darn close. After twenty-two years living and cooking in Mexico, the taste of graham crackers has become a distant memory and Hony Bran fills the gap when a graham cracker pie crust is needed. Or tequila balls.

And then we moved to Mascota five years ago and discovered their two CBTa stores, retail outlets for locally made foods, like dairy products of all kinds, preserved fruit, coffee, and cookies galore. I don’t know how cookies came to be a Mascota thing, but locally made galletas (cookies) are in every little store. Galletas de avena y salvado (cookies with oats and wheat bran) are hearty cookies, not too sweet, that just taste like they have to be good for you. They even look healthy. With that kind of reasoning, we have no problem eating a lot of them. CBTa stands for Centro de Bachillerato Tecnologico Agropecuario, the name of Mascota’s technical high school that teaches trades. Don’t ask me why the “a” in CBTa is lower-case. Some things we gringos are not meant to know.

So tequila replaced rum, galletas de avena y salvado replaced Hony Bran, which had already replaced graham crackers, and tequila balls became a new Christmas treat in Mexico.

If you are in the U.S. or Canada, use graham crackers (or any other dry cookie). If you are in Mexico, use Hony Bran crackers. If you are my one reader in Mascota (hola, Maria!), use galletas de avena y salvado from the CBTa store.

This recipe was adapted from my tattered Joy of Cooking cookbook for “Rum Drops, Uncooked”. This recipe is so easy, your child or grandchild could help roll the balls. No baking required. Joy instructs us to let the balls ripen for 12 hours, to disperse the alcohol flavor, I guess. But with less than 1/2 teaspoon of tequila per ball, any lingering alcohol taste is not a problem for this alcohol abstainer. I suggest you ignore the final recipe instruction, as I do. It’s Christmas, after all!

And now, the popular request from last week’s post on Star Fruit Upside-down Cake. Well, requested twice.  “Would love a pic of your campesino tree”, in reference to our Christmas “tree” that’s really a dried flower stalk from the Blue Agave plant, the agave from which tequila is made. There are no green boughs or pine aroma in our house, but it’s our tree, and seems to have become an annual tradition for us, along with tequila balls. It’s only as I type this that I realize how the request for photos of the tequila Blue Agave “tree” nicely dovetails with the recipe for tequila balls.

The mother agave plant begins to die when it produces the flower stalk. But life continues when seed pods and plantlets fall to the ground. The photo on the right shows both still attached to our tree, adding its own decorations.

Feliz Navidad, dear readers. I appreciate each and every one of you. I wish you good times and good food with your loved ones. Safe holidays!

Tequila Balls

  • 2 cups (7 oz/200 g) graham cracker crumbs (use food processor or rolling pin to crush)
  • 1 cup (3.6 oz/104 g) finely chopped walnuts (use food processor, or knife)
  • 3/4 cup (2.6 oz/75 g) sifted confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar, or azúcar glass in Mexico)
  • 2 tablespoons sifted, unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 (22 ml) tablespoons honey
  • 4 tablespoons (60 ml) tequila
  • Additional cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar to coat balls
  1. Thoroughly blend all dry ingredients.
  2. Warm honey and blend with tequila.
  3. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients for an evenly moist consistency. Mixture should clump together when squeezed in your hand.
  4. Roll into small balls. I formed balls about 20 grams in weight, for a diameter of 1 3/8″ (3.5 cm), but roll whatever seems the right size for you.
  5. Roll balls in cocoa powder and/or confectioner’s sugar.
  6. Store in an air-tight container for 12 hours “to ripen”.

© 2009-2020 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

All photos and text are copyright protected. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.

Star fruit upside-down cake

We decorated the Christmas tree this week, which is the official beginning of the holidays in our house. It’s not really a tree in the botanical sense of the word, but the cut-off, dried flower stalk of an agave plant. This is what campesinos use for their Christmas trees in Mexico, so we have been told, and it sounded like a good idea to us. With real pine trees, from Oregon no less, starting at $100 in Puerto Vallarta, our agave flower stalk is convenient (our lower front yard) and cheap (free). Once the tree is decorated, it’s my cue to start Christmas baking. Russ’es fruitcake is doused with spirits and spirited away, hidden from him until Christmas week. Tequila balls, aka rum balls north of the border, are ageing, and a bright, star fruit upside-down cake seems Christmasy with its golden, crosscut slices.

Star fruit, also known as carambola in Spanish speaking countries, are from tropical regions, but somehow one is thriving in our neighbor Chuy’s yard at 4,000 feet elevation in the mountains. In keeping with the local spirit of generosity, we received a large bag, too many for two people to consume. We are doing our best, eating star fruit every day in fruit salads, and now in an upside-down cake.

My favorite upside-down cake recipe is from Joy of Cooking, well used, stained, and somewhat tattered. It was my first cookbook, and is still the one I turn to most often. Where else could you read about steaming fresh bracken fern or making oxtail soup? Some of the recipes may be dated, but so many have been tried and true through the decades, and the recipe for Skillet or Upside-down Cake (page 607 in my 1967 edition) is one of them. The sweet-tart star fruit made a great cake topping. I confirmed this by eating two slices in a row.

Joy of Cooking calls for beating the egg whites, then folding in the other ingredients for an airy cake. As is my norm, I substituted whole wheat flour and used considerably less sugar. Years ago, I began decreasing sugar in baking recipes and found that taste buds easily adjusted. The palate’s senses are relative, it seems. What was once an OK sweet level is now so cloying in its excess. Use white flour and quadruple the sugar if you prefer the original recipe.

Star Fruit Upside Down Cake serves 8

  • 1/4 cup (2 oz/57 g) butter, plus 1 tablespoon (.5 oz/14 g) butter
  • 1/4 cup (1.8 oz/55 g) brown sugar
  • 6 oz (170 g) star fruit, sliced 1/4″ (.64 cm) thick, seeds removed
  • 1/4 cup (28 g) dried cranberries
  • 1 cup (4.4 oz/125 g) whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup (1.78 oz/50 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. If using a 9″ (23 cm) cast iron skillet, melt 1/4 cup (57 g) butter over low heat, stirring in brown sugar until sugar is dissolved and mixture is foamy. If using a cake pan, melt butter in a small saucepan and stir in brown sugar until foaming. Spread evenly in cake pan.
  2. Place sliced star fruit closely together, filling gaps between slices with cranberries.
  3. Pre-heat oven to 350F (190C).
  4. Sift flour, baking powder and salt in small bowl, and set aside.
  5. Whisk egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar and vanilla in small bowl.
  6. Beat egg whites at low speed until frothy. Add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition.
  7. Fold in egg yolk mixture.
  8. Fold in flour mixture, 1/4 cup at a time, until there is no visible dry flour.
  9. Spoon batter into pan over fruit, smoothing it level.
  10. Bake for 30-40 minutes, checking with a toothpick for a dry crumb.
  11. Let rest in pan for 2-3 minutes. Slide thin knife around inside edge of pan and carefully invert onto plate, scraping out any butter/sugar that remains in pan.
  12. Serve warm or cool with crema, crème fraîche, or Greek yogurt. It goes without saying that slices are wonderful for breakfast with coffee or tea.

Notes ~

~ Star fruit is a fall and winter fruit. It is fully ripe when the ribs are starting to turn brown. The thin, outer layer of brown ribs can be removed with a vegetable peeler. A sweet aroma also indicates ripeness.

~ Slices make attractive garnishes on fish and other main dishes, and combine well with avocado and orange juice for a refreshing salad.

~ Whole wheat flour should be fresh, otherwise it can have a bitter flavor. For this reason, it’s best kept refrigerated. When fresh, it has a nutty, sweet flavor compared to white flour, which has no flavor at all. Anything baked with whole wheat flour not only tastes better, but has a higher nutritional content because the bran and wheat germ have not been removed. In Mexico, Espuma de Chapala Harina Integral is my choice for whole wheat flour, though it needs to be sifted for cake baking to remove the bran. Save the bran for muffins.

© 2009-2020 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

All photos and text are copyright protected. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.

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.

© 2009-2020 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

Chile Chili con Carne

Chili con Carne with Black Beans and Poblano Chiles

I returned from the cold north land hungry for a warm bowl of chili con carne. It’s not Mexican cuisine, but sometimes we expats need familiar comfort food from home.

Chile, the picante vegetable that has its origins in the Americas, only has one correct spelling in Mexico. Aberrations like chilli and chilie occur north of the border, causing confusion to many and consternation to those like me who are sticklers for correct spelling. Chili con carne, the pot of well-seasoned beans and meat spelled with an “i”, further adds to the confusion. If we go back to the source of the word for the vegetable, to Nahuatl, the language spoken by the people of the Mexican Highlands when the Spanish arrived, we find chili. Confused? Don’t be. Just stick to the contemporary Spanish spelling for the vegetable: chile. And if it’s a pot of beans and meat: chili.

Now that the issue of spelling is out of the way, there are two more matters to discuss: whether to soak beans or not, and how to cook them. Mexican cooks don’t pre-soak beans. They just add beans to water and get on with the cooking. No soaking or draining for them. I pre-soak beans, but I’m not always organized enough to think of doing this the day before, so I use the quick-soak method, which means to bring beans and plenty of water to a boil, turn off the heat, cover the pot and leave the beans to soak for one hour. Then drain and cook with fresh water.

Pre-soaked beans are thought to be less musical and more digestible. And take less time to cook. I’m all for anything that takes less time and fuel. North of the border, kidney beans are preferred for chili con carne, but any bean will make a tasty chili. Today, I’m using a combination of organic black and flor de mayo beans.

Mexican cocineras use their trusty aluminum pots or clay pots for cooking beans. Earthenware clay pots absorb the odors of the foods for which they are used, so savvy mexicanas dedicate one clay pot to beans, another for chicken, one pot just for chocolate, and so on.

Lately, my love affair with the clay pot has waned, and I’ve been using the pressure cooker to make tender beans in thirty minutes. The beans are pre-soaked in a small pot that is then placed on a metal trivet or rack in the larger pressure cooker. Beans can also be cooked directly in the pressure cooker, but care must be taken that the pot does not cook dry and that the beans do not burn, as some pressure cookers have thin bottoms.

My pot of chili con carne contains chiles poblanos, one of my favorite chile peppers found throughout Mexico. Thick-walled, rich green in color, and not too hot, they are often used for making chiles rellenos, but can be a stand-in for bell peppers when making chili con carne. This is one of the few times they are not blistered and peeled.

Thanks to a recipe I came across in an issue of Consumer Reports years ago, I learned to add vinegar to a pot of chili con carne. This one addition makes all the difference. Maybe it does nothing more than provide a balance to the sweetness of the tomatoes, but it is an essential taste adjustment.

Chili con Carne

  • 2 tablespoons (60 ml.) olive oil
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) range-fed lean ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large poblano peppers ( or 1 large bell pepper) chopped
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) finely chopped tomatoes (or 1 16-oz. can)
  • 4 cups (1 liter) cooked beans
  • 1-2 tablespoon (30-60 ml.) chile powder, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoon comino (cumin)
  • 1 cup (8 oz/.25 liter) water
  • 1 tablespoon (60 ml.) cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • crushed tortilla chips and chopped cilantro for garnish
  1. Heat oil in a large skillet or pot over medium heat.
  2. Cook meat, onion, garlic and poblano until tender and meat is no longer pink.
  3. Add all remaining ingredients, except vinegar and salt. Simmer 30 minutes.
  4. Add vinegar and simmer 15 minutes.
  5. Salt to taste.
  6. Serve garnished with crushed tortilla chips and cilantro.

Vegetarian version: omit meat and add two more cups of cooked beans. This beany chili con frijoles was a favorite during my vegetarian years.

Bean Notes:

Large Mexican grocery stores are stocking more and more organic foods. A common organic label in our part of Mexico is Aires de Campo. They are certified by BioAgriCert America, an organization based in Bologna, Italy, which controls and monitors organic foods in the Americas, Japan and Europe. Aires de Campo sells organic beans and brown rice, as well as other foodstuffs like preserves, agave syrup and honey. My packages of black beans and flor de mayo beans (a pink bean also known as mayflower bean and nightfall bean) include the information that they are from the state of Zacatecas and certified free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and toxic residues. It is so great to have organic beans and rice available, that even if they cost a little more, I’m more than happy to support this market.

Flor de mayo is a tender bean with a delicate flavor that is not well known north of the border. South of the border, it is a common bean that is greatly preferred in the central areas of Mexico. It can be purchased on the internet from native seed companies.

It is so easy to reach for the can opener and have beans or refritos on the table in minutes, but like so many other familiar foods, canned does not compare to freshly cooked. Yes, it takes more time, but once you make a few pots, you will see how easy it is and how much better they taste.

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