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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Ocho Tostadas is Much More Than Eight Tostadas

Early October on the west coast of Mexico does not mean falling leaves and cooling temperatures. Venturing out of the cool of the house for an errand run to Puerto Vallarta is not an attractive prospect. Until Ocho Tostadas comes to mind. Lunch! We get to have lunch in Puerto Vallarta! Yes! I want to go to town today! I don’t care if it’s a humid 92 degrees. Now that shrimp cocktail is fixed in our thinking for today’s lunch, 92 farenheit, (“feels like 101”, says weatherdotcom) is no deterrent. Cool camarones, here we come.

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Shrimp cocktail took some getting used to when we first came to Mexico. Brothy. Warm. With catsup instead of horseradish sauce.  Some things you just have to accept as a difference in culture, and cóctel de camarón is one of them. Peeled shrimp are served in their cooking liquid, with a healthy topping of chopped tomato, onion, cucumber, avocado and squeezed lime juice. But for us, hold the catsup. And order it cold.

We sought shade in Ocho Tostadas and began with a starter of fresh, delicious ceviche on crisp tostadas, totally blanketed with perfectly ripe, sliced avocado.

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Our favorite hot sauce, Salsa Huichol, added heat and color. Ocho Tostadas, like many restaurants in Mexico, does not skimp in the bottled hot sauce department. And among the table offerings, there is invariably Maggi, a hydrolysed vegetable protein based sauce used to impart a meat flavor. Its ubiquitous presence is one cultural anomaly I haven’t got my head around yet. Nor have I ever tried it.

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As fluent as mi esposo is, when he asked for the fresh veggies on the side, our waiter thought he meant broth on the side also. So Russ was served this beautiful dish of brothless shrimp, which was nothing to complain about; we knew it would become so much more.

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A quick word to our waiter set things right for my order. Next came generous servings of cool broth for Russ, and cut-up vegetables and excellent tostadas for both of us. They will always bring more veggies, for — what has become for us — a liquidy, cool shrimp salad, full of good things. Perfect for a hot Fall day.

Cócteles can also be ordered with octopus, snail or scallops, or any combination of these, including shrimp. We have tried all the combinations, and have settled on shrimp cocktail as the favorite. But don’t let our tastes stop you from trying something new.

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Tostadas always accompany cóctel de camarón and Ocho Tostadas prides themselves in their proprietary tostadas, a new concept for us. They were so good — corny, crisp, with a light taste of salt on the surface. Russ tried, but our waiter would not divulge the maker. He did send us home with a bag full, much to mi esposo’s delight. The rest of the menu looks inviting, but so far we can’t get past the cocktails and ceviche tostadas.

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If you go to Ocho Tostadas, or have a Mexican shrimp cocktail anywhere else, I suggest you order it cold, not hot. And ask them to hold the catsup.

Mariscos 8 Tostadas (its proper name) has three locations in the Puerto Vallarta area, and has recently opened in Guadalajara. We ate at the marina location on the corner of Calle Quilla and Calle Proa. They are also at 344 Calle Niza in Colonia Versalles, and in Nuevo Vallarta at Junto al Antiguo Delfines. In Guadalajara, you can find Mariscos 8 Tostadas at 1053 Avenida Terranova. Check Trip Advisor for map locations. Open 11 am to 6 pm, seven days a week.

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Corn tortillas, old world and new

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We were in the state of San Luis Potosí some years back, in the very small town of La Plazuela, when we came across the tortilleria — the shop that makes fresh corn tortillas. Every Mexican town has at least one tortilleria, but this one was special. The tortillas were being made from freshly ground, dried corn, instead of packaged Maseca, the corn flour usually used. We watched the grinding process, and waited around for the hot tortillas. Ay caramba, were they good! I don’t think we have had tortillas made from corn kernels ground on site since.

Amadeo, a resident of La Plazuela, ate egg tacos every morning made with these tortillas. He was a poor man, and when I saw his breakfast, I realized there wasn’t more than a small smear of cooked egg in each taco, essentially tortillas flavored with a bit of egg. His large meal of the day was tortillas with beans, and he told us that he was lucky he liked beans and tortillas so much, since that was the food God gave the poor of Mexico.

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Corn tortillas date back to pre-Columbian times, and still figure prominently in traditional Mexican cuisine. Then as now, the corn kernels are first soaked in an alkaline solution of lime (known as cal in Mexico) and water. This softens the outer skin, which is then rubbed off by hand. This process is known as nixtamalization. If you buy a bag of Maseca in Mexico, that is what the word nixtamalizado on the package means.

Despite the growing popularity of spongy Bimbo bread, tortillas are everywhere. They are the basis of quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, enfrijoladas and much more. These days, they are more likely to be made from the dry masa mix, rather then freshly ground, dried corn. There is no comparison between the flavor of the two, but a corn grinder is not a usual household applicance, even in Mexico. So we all eat tortillas made from Maseca, though today’s modern Mexican youngsters probably do not even know what tortillas made from freshly ground corn taste like. No doubt, in the remote villages of Mexico, the real tortillas are all they know.

For some reason, my dear chief taster has had this fantasy that his esposa will some day slap masa between her hands and make corn tortillas for him regulary. Maybe this has something to do with a wish to return to simpler times. With a tortilleria only a block away, this is one fantasy that is not going to happen. Or so I thought until he gave me a beautiful, wooden tortilla press as a gift. What else could I do, but make tortillas for him. This one time.


Do you have a tortilla press and a mate who thinks you are going to slap together fresh tortillas for breakfast? If so, buy a bag of Maseca, or better yet, go to your local tortilleria and buy some fresh masa. That’s what I did. A half kilo of fresh masa cost six pesos, the same as a half kilo of tortillas. In other words, it cost the same for an equal weight of freshly cooked, steaming tortillas as it does for the masa, leaving me to go home, press the tortillas, then stand over a very hot griddle. But if making corn tortillas will make your day, here’s how to do it.

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If you live in a town with a tortilleria, buy fresh masa. One pound (one-half kilo) will make twelve to fifteen tortillas. If you are not lucky enough to live near a tortilleria, buy a bag of Maseca or Quaker Masa Hariana de Maiz and follow the instructions on the package. Their instructions call for 2 cups of masa mix, 1 1/4 cups of water, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir together, adding water in small increments if the dough is too dry and cracks when a test tortilla is pressed, or adding more masa if it is too wet and sticks to the plastic bags in the press.

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Whether your masa is fresh from a tortilleria, or mixed at home, pinch off enough dough to roll a ball in your hands that is slightly larger than a walnut. Keep the balls covered with a towel or plastic bag so they don’t dry before they get to the griddle or comal.

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Lay a plastic bag on your tortilla press, set a ball of dough in the center, cover that with another plastic bag, and bring down the upper part of the press with moderate pressure. That’s it — remove the tortilla from the bags and place on a very hot, unoiled griddle. After a few minutes, when brown spots start to appear on the under-side, turn it over. It will start to puff a little. Cook another minute or two, until small brown spots again appear underneath. Don’t overcook or it will be crispy. We are after soft tortillas.

Once you can stand back and survey your handiwork, you are ready to make quesadillas, Baja fish tacos or enchiladas rojas. The side of the tortilla that puffed up is called the “face” and experts say it goes inside a taco or quesadilla, because it may peel off. Once I have the tortillas cooked and off the griddle, I can’t tell which side is which. But, I’m no expert.

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The two illustrations at the top are from the Florentine Codex and the Mendoza Codex, repectively.

Chiles en nogada with fresh fruit

If you have missed me, I’ve missed you, too, but it’s just been too hot to be in the kitchen this summer. El Día de la Independencia, September 16, brought me back from the brink of forgetting that I even have a food blog. Chiles en nogada, the traditional dish served for Mexican Independence Day, helped reacquaint me with mi cocina mexicana.

A year ago, I featured Chiles en Nogada the way they are traditionally made in Mexico — with dried fruit. For something different, this recipe features fresh fruit instead of dried, with a golden delicious apple and a sweet, juicy peach. I think plums and pears would be great in this, also. With all the beautiful fruit in the markets this month, the possibilities are endless.

My taster-in-residence says these chiles en nogada are delicious, but for a real test, he would need to taste them side by side with the dried fruit version. At least that’s what I think he said between mouthfuls of stuffed poblano. His sly smile means he really wants me to make more, with either dried or fresh fruit. He’s not particular.

Chiles en nogada are usually garnished with pomegranate seeds, something hard to come by in our little town. I substituted an unusual fruit, Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa), that grows in our yard. Its color replicates the pomegranate seeds, but its flavor resembles a sweet cranberry. If you are in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and walk along the Marina Riviera Nayarit, you will see hundreds of Natal plum bushes lining the walk-way, bright with aromatic white flours and red, little plum-like fruit.

The word nogada is Spanish for “sauce of pounded walnuts”, according to Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary. The creamy, white walnut sauce adds a mellowness all of its own. Don’t bother trying to peel the walnuts, as many recipes recommend. It is too tedious a chore and really not necessary.

Chiles en Nogada with Fresh Fruit
  • 6 poblano chiles
  • 3 medium tomatoes (.75 lb./340 grams)
  • 1 medium onion (6-7 oz./220 grams)
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup (1 oz./30 grams) finely chopped walnuts or sliced almonds
  • 1 apple, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 peach, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml.) ground cinnamon
  •  1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups (360 ml.) crema (Mexican sour cream), crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 3/4 cup (180 ml.) walnut meat
  • salt to taste
  • pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
  1. Roast and peel poblano chiles. Carefully slit down center and remove seeds. Set aside.
  2. Roast and peel tomatoes. Squeeze out juice, reserving the liquid. Finely chop tomatoes. Set aside.
  3. Saute onion and garlic until tender.
  4. Add ground meat and cook until no longer pink.
  5. Add tomatoes, 1/4 cup walnuts (0r almonds), fruit, bay leaves, cinnamon, oregano, salt and pepper and simmer for ten minutes. Do not allow to cook dry. Add reserved tomato juice or water to maintain some moisture. Remove bay leaves.
  6. To make the sauce, combine crema or sour cream and 3/4 cups walnuts in blender until smooth. Add a little milk if it is too thick. Salt to taste.
  7. Generously fill chiles, spoon walnut sauce over top, and garnish with pomegranate seeds.
  8. Serve hot, cold or room temperature.

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Mole Verde con Pollo for Cinco de Mayo

Mole Verde con Pollo marks a milestone for me, as I have never had a recipe for chicken on this blog before, and I have not eaten chicken in over ten years. Until now. I could not bring myself to eat anything that had been raised in cramped cages, denied sunshine and fed who knows what.  A local reader, knowing of my chicken hang-up, told me that the same store where I buy range-fed beef also carries chickens from a local ranch. Several years ago, when I asked about chicken at this store, they could not tell me it was supplied locally. It seems things have changed, so chicken is back on our menu. Russ is glad.

With fortuitous timing, another reader, Cecil, sent me her grandmother’s recipe for Mole Verde con Pollo. Compared to most, this mole (MOH-lay, with an accent on the first syllable), is easy to make, having fewer ingredients, and it has a lighter taste. The dark moles can be heavy. This is not to say they aren’t wonderful, but they are fairly intense. Mole verde is less spicy but with its own notes of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos and epazote. Russ says he’ll eat it as often as I make it.

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There are many different types of moles, spanning a rainbow of colors: yellow, red, black, green, plus pipián and almendrado. They all contain chiles, but they don’t all use chocolate. Mole Poblano, a dark mole from Puebla, does include chocolate. Mole Verde does not. I think you will like how easy it is to prepare and its fresh, light flavor. It’s what we are having for Cinco de Mayo, an almost non-event in Mexico, but celebrated big time by the grocery stores in the U.S.

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Pumpkin seeds — pepitas — are a common snack in Mexico. You can buy them raw or already toasted and salted. What we think of as pumpkins in the U.S. and Canada are seldom seen in Mexico. (And that means no jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween in Mexico, either.)  Pepitas are really squash seeds. For this recipe, start with raw seeds, pepitas or pumpkin seeds, and toast them lightly until just starting to brown.

Unless you are all fired up about using your molcajete, pulverize the cooled, toasted pumpkin seeds in a coffee grinder. Wipe out any coffee residue first. Or better yet, keep a coffee grinder dedicated to spice and seed grinding.

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Mole Verde con Pollo

  • 1 large chicken, cut into pieces and simmered in 1 quart (1 liter) water until tender
  • 3/4 cup (100 grams/3.5 oz.) ground toasted pumpkin seeds
  • 8 medium-size tomatillos, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved
  • 4 serrano chiles, seeded or not, according to taste (seeds are the hottest part of chiles)
  • 4 poblano chiles, skinned, seeded and chopped (see link below)
  • 4 romaine lettuce leaves, chopped
  • 3 sprigs cilantro, chopped
  • 3 sprigs epazote or parsley, chopped
  • 3 cups (700 ml.) chicken stock, strained, from cooking the chicken
  • 1 tablespoon (20 ml.) vegetable oil
  • salt to taste
  1. In a medium sized pot, simmer tomatillos, onion, garlic, serranos and 2 cups of chicken broth for 5 minutes, or until the tomatillos are soft.
  2. Pour tomatillo mixture into a blender jug and add poblanos and lettuce. Puree until smooth.  (Hold lid on firmly with a dish towel to prevent a hot explosion of liquid.)
  3. Add ground pumpkin seeds, cilantro and epazote and puree again until smooth, stirring seeds into mixture if necessary.
  4. Heat vegetable oil in a large pot.
  5. Pour blender contents into the pot while stirring, and stir in remaining one cup of broth.
  6. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning on the bottom. Salt to taste.
  7. Ladle a generous spoonful of mole into soup bowls, add a piece of cooked chicken, and spoon more mole over chicken.
  8. Serve with rice or warm corn tortillas.

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