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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Salsa revisited

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Since we moved to the mountains of Jalisco, “the most Mexican of Mexican states”, I have no excuse for not getting salsa on the table pronto. Salsa may be the accompaniment to almost everything served on a Mexican mesa. And isn’t bottled salsa more popular than catsup in the U.S. now?

Cook’s Illustrated, that wonderful food magazine, did a review of bottled salsas a number of years ago and concluded that, really, while some commercial salsas are acceptable, nothing compares with home made salsa. And almost nothing is easier.

If you aren’t making it regularly, we’re revisiting salsa to break down any barriers that make you reach for the bottle on the grocery shelf instead of making it yourself.

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To begin with, you don’t need a recipe, scales or measuring cups. A grill helps, but isn’t necessary. A blender makes quick work of the job, but a sharp knife will also do nicely. If you insist on a recipe, go back to previous salsas from Cooking in Mexico — Salsa Ranchera, and Salsa Verde, to get some idea of the taste you are after and the  quantities of each ingredient.

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A few weeks ago, I had some tomatoes that had been around long enough to become over-ripe.  Deep red, with a few wrinkles, a little soft. They made the best salsa I’ve had in a long time, with an intense tomato color and flavor. Lesson learned: use over-ripe tomatoes, not those that that come home insipid, pale, and firm.

Tomatoes have the wonderful ability to continue ripening the longer they sit around, provided they are not refrigerated. Now I let tomatoes sit on the counter as many days as it takes for them to be almost too ripe, but just right for salsa.

Yesterday we stopped at a little tienda in Mascota for tomatoes and cilantro to go with the grilled chicken and tortillas we had just bought. (Alejandro and Ana sell the best charcoal grilled chicken every Sunday out of their house.) The freshness of these tomatoes was questionable, but I had such a hankering for tomatoes, I didn’t care. This morning the remainder continued to ripen, getting softer by the minute. Salsa time.

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Here’s a little primer on tomato salsa procedure. Pick your method: 

#1. Grill the veggies (tomatoes, onion, chile and garlic) until soft and starting to blacken, then process in a blender.

#2. Char the veggies in a skillet on the stove, process in a blender.

#3. Finely chop raw veggies, and serve salsa uncooked.

#4. Process in a blender until slightly chunky, then sautée in a skillet with a little oil.

Using the same ingredients, each will produce a slightly different salsa, each method is used in Mexico, and each is delicious. Regardless of your choice, don’t skimp on salt.

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For a no-recipe salsa (or sort of recipe, I guess, because I’m giving you approximate amounts), use 3-4 large roma tomatoes, or more if they are smaller, half an onion, 1-3 serrano or jalapeño chiles, and several cloves of garlic.  I prefer method #1 above, because I like the blackened bits grilling produces. Plus, I have a great view from the grill.

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If you aren’t up to grilling,  just chop everything finely for a fresh salsa. Or throw in the blender and process until still a little chunky, and then sautée in a very hot skillet with enough neutral oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring. With any of the four methods, use a little bit more salt than you think you should. That’s it.

Be sure to have a big bag of corn tostadas on hand for dipping, or serve salsa in a dish along side tacos, Huevos a la Méxicana, grilled meat, you name it.

Mario, our yard guy, jack of all trades, and friend, sat down to dinner with us recently. His eyes lit up when I put a bowl of salsa in front of him. He proceeded to smear salsa on hot corn tortillas, fold and eat them in quick order, calling them “Tacos Catalina”, Catalina being the name my Mexican amigos use for me. It was a seal of approval from him. I knew my salsa was bueno.

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Notes:

Seed chiles for less heat. Use one chile to start with. It may be so hot that you won’t need to use more.

For grilling, pre-heat the grill, then wipe with an oiled paper towel, holding it with tongs.

As the vegetables start to char, remove from the heat. The chiles will blacken first, the onion last. Don’t discard the blackened skin (except for the garlic). It adds a charred flavor that no store-bought salsa can duplicate.

If you choose grilling, don’t separate the cloves of garlic. Leave them together in their husks to prevent their falling through the grill. When blackened and soft, squeeze out the pulp and discard the skin.

For fresh, uncooked salsa, add some chopped cilantro.

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The Rio Mascota near our house

Returning again, this time with White Bean, Celery, Poblano Soup

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How many times will my patient readers allow me to make a comeback? Your reception of this recipe will be my answer to comeback number two.

I have not, as you might be thinking, been lolling on a Mexican beach instead of tending my blog. Since you last heard from me, we bought a new home and moved.

Last November we packed up our belongings in a home we had lived in for sixteen years (one can sure accumulate a lot of material goods in one small house in sixteen years!) and moved in early December to a home in the mountains in the state of Jalisco. While only a three-hour journey by road, it is a world away, exchanging sand and palm trees for mountain vistas with pine and oak. From sea level on the Bay of Banderas to 4,600 feet elevation in the Sierra Madre Mountains, with a lake view thrown in for good measure.

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The excessive and increasing summer heat on the coast, plus the growing bustle of our once quiet little beach town, were the motivation to find a more peaceful setting. The environs of Mascota, long a favorite for weekend getaways, is our new locale, and we love it.

Shortly after our move, my sweet father passed on at the age of 95, and I went back to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to spend several weeks with my mother and help her adjust to life without my dad.

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After returning, unpacking, sorting, sewing new curtains, and taking time to honor my father with loving memories, it is finally time to return to writing about what’s happening in my cocina.

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An unseasonal cold front moved in last night — maybe a last hurrah from El Niño — bringing rain and chilly winds. They say be careful what you wish for, and I had wished for soup weather many times during our sticky years on the coast. Thank goodness I still have a wool shirt and a down vest from our New Mexico life. I’m wearing both right now, something I never thought would happen in Mexico.

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Not exactly a traditional Mexican recipe, but a comforting bowl from my Mexican kitchen, here is a white bean and celery soup inspired by a large bag of organic, but stringy, celery that has been in the fridge long enough to apply for residente permanente. The tough celery strings dissolved in the simmering pot, leaving behind a smooth and flavorful soup that is one to make again. Roasted poblano chile gives this soup its Mexican credentials.

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Poblano chile is a great addition to many dishes, but I find myself sometimes skipping the poblanos because I don’t want to stop in the middle of preparations to roast chiles. Lately I have started roasting a dozen chiles at a time on the gas grill outside and popping them into the freezer when cool, a few to a freezer bag. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to peel the skins, which slip off easily after thawing, scrape out the seeds, and chop or slice for the preparation in progress.

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Croutons are made by toasting slices of sturdy, homemade whole wheat bread, which are then drizzled with olive oil and cubed. The reflection in the toaster gives this loaf away as made in a bread machine. See the telltale hole left by the kneading blade? The bread machine is a savior when good whole wheat bread can’t be had for love or money in any of the local stores.

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“Chicken” flavored vegetarian boullion cubes, brought home from my summer trip to the U.S., round out the flavor. The custom officials at the Puerto Vallarta airport must wonder at, and be amused by, the culinary contents of my suitcase.

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White Bean and Celery Soup

makes 3 servings

  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 8 stalks celery, thinly slice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling on finished soup
  • 2 cups water and 1 chicken or vegetarian boullion cube
    OR 2 cups vegetarian or chicken broth
  • 2 cups cooked white beans
  • 1 large poblano chile, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Whole wheat croutons
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
  1. In a heavy bottomed pot, sautée onion and celery in olive oil over medium heat until onion is translucent, about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2.  Add garlic and cook 30 seconds more, stirring.
  3. Add water and boullion cube (or broth) and beans. Bring to a simmer and cook 20 minutes.
  4. Mash some of the beans with a fork to thicken the soup slightly. Stir in chopped poblano chile. Salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Ladle into bowls and garnish with croutons, grated parmesan cheese, and drizzle with olive oil.

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I love readers’ comments, and I always reply, but I should let it be known that our new home comes with one drawback — no Internet connection. This means I will go into our nearest town, Mascota, to publish this recipe, and will not be able to reply to comments until my next town visit. Life is more peaceful — and productive — without hours wasted on Facebook, but we hope to be connected later this year. Or so we are told in the land of mañana. If you are inclined leave a comment, you will hear back from me eventually. Maybe today, maybe … mañana.

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Bread of the Dead

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Mexico has a special relationship with the dead that we northerners can find disconcerting. We understand Halloween and all that goes with it, including skeleton costumes, excess candy  and scary cemeteries. We don’t always understand how families in Mexico can celebrate Day of the Dead at cemetery graves decorated with candles and marigold flowers, and favorite food and drink of the deceased enjoyed by all, including the departed. Children run around and play among the gravestones, while their parents and grandparents share special dishes, laugh and chat. One may see images of La Catrina, the elegantly attired female skeleton who laughs at death, and sugar candy skulls decorate the alters. At this time of year, death seems front and center, not tucked away behind social mores.

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Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is the most iconic food for Días de los Muertos. This lightly sweet, rich bread, similar to brioche, can trace its origins to Spanish bakers who immigrated to Mexico in the last century. This makes sense, given that Mexico does not have its own tradition of baking, but rather adopted desserts and recipes brought to the New World by Spanish nuns and later by immigrants.

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In the few weeks leading up to Day of the Dead, Pan de Muerto is in all the panaderías and grocery store bakeries, even at Costco, where they were handing out generous slices the other day. I won’t go so far as to say we can make a lunch of Costco’s samples, but Russell and I can come pretty close, and Pan de Muerto made a perfect dessert after other bits and bites were sampled last week.

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Orange blossom water and anise seed are the two signature flavors of Pan de Muerto. Surprisingly, I found a bottle of orange blossom water on my shelf, purchased on a trip to the U.S. for a now forgotten recipe. This distillation is made from the blossoms of bitter orange, and has a strong floral aroma that mellows as it bakes. If you don’t have orange blossom water, use grated orange zest instead for a citrusy aroma. In Mexico, orange blossom water is known as agua de naranjo or agua de azahar.

Green anise seed was new to me. I’m familiar with star anise used in Asian cooking, but did not know that green anise seed is from a totally different plant. This is the anise used for making absinthe, the green colored liqueur.

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If you are familiar with my baking by now, you know that I generally use 50% whole wheat flour. To my taste, this adds much to the flavor — a nuttiness and sweetness found only in fresh whole wheat flour. Use all white flour if you prefer, which is in step with most Mexican baked goods.

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My breads and cakes always have a charming (or embarrassing) homemade look, though this loaf pushed the envelope in the homemade category. When Russell saw my loaf come out of the oven, he kindly said it looked muy rústico. After his first bite, he said it reminded him of his Polish grandma’s babka.


Pan de Muerto — Day of the Dead Bread 

  • 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./118 ml.) whole milk
  • 3 oz. (85 g.) unsalted butter
  • 2 large strips orange zest, minus white pith
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or 2 tablespoons grated orange zest)
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1  1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 cups (8.5 oz./228 g.) white all purpose flour
  • 2 cups (9 oz./250 g.) sifted whole wheat flour, bran reserved for another use
  • 1/4 cup (1.75 oz./50 g.) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons anise seed (known as anis in Mexico)
  • 1  1/2 teaspoon salt
  • oil for bowl and pan
  • Topping: 1 oz. (28 g.) melted butter and 1 -2 tablespoons sugar
  1. In a small saucepan, warm milk,  butter and orange zest until butter melts. Remove from heat and discard zest. Whisk in orange blossom water and beaten eggs.
  2. Blend yeast, flour, sugar, anise seeds and salt in a large bowl. Gradually add milk mixture, stirring with a large wooden spoon. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, knead by hand for about 10 minutes until smooth. If too sticky to handle, add flour a tablespoon at a time. If too dry, add water or milk by the tablespoon.
  3. Turn into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise until double in size. Punch down, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
  4. The next day, remove dough from refrigerator and bring to cool room temperature. Save aside a small amount of dough to form “bones” and “skull” (sometimes called a tear). Form ball of dough, slightly flattened. Roll 3 small balls of dough into ropes for the “bones”, and shape to form bony segments. Place “bones” across the loaf, with the “skull” or “tear” pressed into the center. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost double in size.
  5. Bake in a pre-heated 350 F./180 C. oven for 30-40 minutes, covering with foil in 15 minutes if top browns too quickly. When done, a tap on the bottom of the loaf will make a hollow sound. Or bake until interior temperature measures 190 F/88 C.
  6. Brush with  melted butter and sprinkle with  sugar.  Serve warm.

Notes

~ For my readers in Mexico, I have found Espuma de Chapala to be the best whole wheat flour brand in the grocery stores here. It comes in a plastic-lined bag for freshness, and is high in protein, which corresponds to its gluten content, making it great for bread baking. It needs to be kept refrigerated to discourage rancidity, as do all whole grain flours.

~ I used my KitchenAid stand mixer to knead the dough for about 8 minutes. Use your hands, a KitchenAid mixer, or a large enough food processor for mixing and kneading, following dough instructions for mixer or processor.

~ Like other rich egg breads, this bread is best the day it is made. If it lasts longer, toasted slices are almost as good as freshly baked.

~ Thank you to Rachel Laudan for the information about Spanish bakers in Mexico If you are interested in reading more on the history of Pan de Muerto, I recommend her blog, A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics.

~ This recipe was primarily adapted from a recipe in Fine Cooking, by Fany Gerson. Other recipes to check are at Pati’s Mexican Table and The Mija Chronicles.