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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How to Clean Nopal Cactus Pads without Becoming a Pin Cushion

It just took a few times of getting my hands full of cactus spines to decide I was never going to clean fresh nopal pads again. The spines were almost too tiny to see, even with my reading glasses. I needed those same glasses and a bright light to extract each minute spine with tweezers. The next thing I touched let me know I had missed one. Or several. From then on, I only ate store-bought nopales, because somebody else had already de-spined them for me.  A visit to my friend Linda’s garden and a taste of freshly picked nopales made me realize how much flavor I had been missing. It took Linda to point this out to me, as she removed each aureole of spines.

If you have your own nopal plant (also known as prickly pear cactus and opuntia) select young, small pads that do not yet have mature, large spines. These young pads are brighter green and usually small, though they can be large.

Anything is better when freshly picked, but something else is going on here. Nopales picked in the afternoon lack the pronounced fresh citrus, slightly acid flavor that an early morning picking can give. The difference is so great, that I was ready to brave the spines again and learn how to de-spine them under Linda’s direction so I could harvest my own in the morning. My fine opuntia specimen would no longer to be just an ornamental in my garden.

It could not have been easier, with a little attention to detail and a sharp knife. After first breaking off a pad, Linda used the knife tip to cut out the tiny spines bunched together in aureoles by shaving across them. Each aureole was slightly raised, making it easier to slice them off. Then she took off a thin slice of the edge of the paddle, where there are more aureoles. She was careful not to touch the remaining spiny aureoles as she repositioned the nopal in her hand. See the light spot at the base of each soft, green spine? That spot is an aggregation of spines so tiny, they are barely visible. That’s what was cut out.

If you are ready to rush off in the morning, after a quick cup of coffee, this trimming may seem slow going, cutting off each little aureole one at a time. It could be tedious, but Linda says she sees it as meditation, patiently focusing on the task at hand.

The morning bird calls and quiet garden setting added their own meditative qualities to the task.

When the nopal pad was trimmed of spines, Linda cut it into strips and handed me a piece to eat fresh. No salt, no lime juice. Just fresh nopal. The skin provided a soft crunch, followed by juicy, tender, slightly acid … cactus. I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say it was refreshing, lemony and like nothing else in the vegetable world. A good way to start the day.

Note:

Many instructions for cleaning nopales recommend wearing gloves, but I don’t think this is a good idea. The gloves will get full of tiny stickers, which can work through the glove or stick in your fingers when you take them off or pick them up again. I learned this the hard way.

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Eating flowers — squash blossom quesadillas

Another Sunday Market in La Cruz and another bunch of squash blossoms too beautiful to eat. I could have looked at their vase on the kitchen counter all week, but eat them we did when I made squash blossom quesadillas for lunch, using fresh corn tortillas, queso fresco from the Sunday market, poblano chile strips and epazote leaves.

Squash — calabaza — were cultivated in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, and then spread throughout the world with the arrival of the Spanish. Classic Mesoamerican clay pots mimic large squash in design, and are still seen in contemporary Mexican art work. We have a beautiful copper pot from Santa Clara del Cobre, hammered into a calabaza form.

Before chopping up the flowers, I inhaled their aroma. They smelled of squash, pumpkin and earth, like a garden. The colorful flowers add a delicate flavor that is easily overpowered, so go light on the onion and garlic. Use whatever cheese you have on hand, but the classic cheese for quesadillas is string cheese from Oaxaca. Today I used fresh cheese from the market, but other possibilities include Muenster, Monterey Jack, or even cheddar.

Squash Blossom Quesadillas

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 small bunches squash blossoms, all but 1″of stem removed, chopped; enough to measure 2 cups
  • 1/4 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • salt to taste
  • 1 poblano chile, roasted, peeled and cut into strips
  • 6 oz. cheese, thinly sliced
  • 8 epazote leaves (optional)
  • 8 corn tortillas
  1. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. When hot, add onion and cook for 3 minutes, or until translucent.
  2. Add squash blossoms and garlic, and cook until blossoms are wilted.
  3. Remove from heat and salt to taste.
  4. Heat an oiled griddle over medium heat. Place four tortillas on griddle and evenly divide squash blossom mixture among them. Add strips of poblano chile, thinly sliced cheese, and two epazote leaves to each quesadilla. Cover each one with a second tortilla.
  5. Cook about 3 minutes per side, or until brown, toasty spots appear on the tortillas and the cheese melts.
  6. Cut into halves or quarters and serve hot. (Cold left-overs are delicious.)

Notes:

North of the border, flour tortillas are often used for quesadillas, but corn tortillas are more common in Mexico.

This may be heresy to a Mexican cook, but building quesadillas in my kitchen is like making a sandwich: anything goes. I have made great quesadillas with left-over brown rice, steamed greens, a bit of steak from last night’s dinner, whatever cheese is on hand, even cottage cheese.

Epazote (Teloxys ambrosioides), also known as Mexican Tea or Wormseed, is a bitter herb used to season black beans, quesadillas and empanadas. A few months ago, I found it in a Mexican market in Minneapolis, and I hear it is becoming more common in U.S. supermarkets that cater to a Hispanic clientele. A native of Mexico, it is not eaten raw, and may be an acquired taste. There is no substitute.

A bit of etymology: calabaza is from the Persian word kharbuz, meaning melon, and the French word calabase, later calabash, is of Spanish origin.

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Vera Bakery in Bucerias satisfies the sweet tooth

Vera Bakery in Bucerias, Nayarit, is a delight for the pastry lover. Owner and baker Christian Calvento is my market neighbor at the new La Cruz Sunday Market and I wish he were my next-door-neighbor at my home in La Cruz. But if he were, I’d weigh 200 pounds by now. His pastries, cakes, and other tasty treats are so tempting, I’m gaining weight just looking at these photos.

Christian, an Argentinian by birth, came to Bucerias by way of pastry jobs with the Marriott Plaza Hotel in Buenos Aires, Disney cruise lines, and then the Four Seasons in Puenta Mita, where he worked as a assistant pastry chef for four years, learning everything he could from the head pastry chef. Bucerias was his next stop, when he and his partner, Jorge, opened Vera Bakery, named after his mother, from whom he first learned to cook as a youngster.

The menu changes from day to day, but regular items include cinnamon rolls, chocolate chunk muffins, cheesecake, chocolate mousse cake, brownies, quiches and breads. Elodia speaks perfect English and will wait on you with a smile.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much are these next four worth? All four, plus the one at the top, were taken by Christian. Uh, Christian, do you want to start taking the photos for my blog?

One of the sweeter legacies of the European occupation of Mexico is pastries. Spanish nuns and French bakers gave Mexico delightful desserts for those who tener un paladar delicado (have a sweet tooth). Culinary influence went in both directions, as chocolate from the New World traveled back to Europe, adding a new dimension to  Old World cakes and pastries.

If you pop in for a pastry, be sure to try the coffee, roasted by award-winning Bacio, a Mexican coffee company. Christian feels that this special blend of beans from the states of Chiapas, Vera Cruz and Guerrero, is the best he can offer.

Christian does special orders for birthdays, weddings, and parties. For the holidays, he will be baking Bûche de Noël, the yule log cake, a Christmas favorite in France and of our many French-Canadian visitors. Savory yule logs with fillings such as roquefort cheese with ham are also planned, as are baguettes and small, appetizer-sized empanadas.

Vera Bakery is located in Bucerias, Nayarit, Lazaro Cardenas # 101, in the same block as Mark’s. Phone: (329) 298-1962. Open seven days a week, Monday through Saturday 8 am- 8 pm, Sunday 8:30 am – 3 pm. WiFi available.

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Marissa’s — Mercado Mexicano in Minneapolis

Just when I was starting to miss Mexico — its colorful markets, sweet tropical fruit, chiles of all colors and sizes — I found Marissa’s in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What a vibrant, honest to goodness Mexican grocery store, as good as any tienda south of the border. I felt right at home cruising the aisles of produce, with selections of nopal, pineapples, tomatillos, cilantro, chiles, even the elusive epazote.

Beautiful murals cover the walls depicting agrarian scenes from the homeland, scenes that every Mexican must picture when they are so far from home, scenes that no longer exist in much of today’s modern Mexico, but still found in the interior of the country. For the murals alone, Marissa’s is worth a visit.

This is surely the best Mexican grocery store I have ever found outside of Mexico. Large, well organized, with a very extensive inventory, there is not much this store does not carry for a cocina mexicana. Every essential ingredient called for in your Mexican cookbook, plus a few non-essential goodies, like neon-colored gelatins and conchas, a favorite pan dulce, are in abundance. But maybe these are essential to cure homesickness for any mexicano far from home. Just walking the aisles took me back to my little Mexican town for a short while.

My experience with Mexican cooks has given me an appreciation for their great love of  traditional food of Mexico. The average home cook is not experimenting with Italian or French recipes. The mothers and grandmothers of the household are cooking pots of beans, buying freshly made tortillas, making fresh and cooked salsas every day — feeding their families the dishes they grew up on, the same food their mothers and grandmothers made. And if these cooks are living far from home, stores such as Marissa’s, found in every town in the U.S. where there is a sizeable Mexican population, are providing all the special ingredients for these timeless dishes, some of which have been made since Pre-Columbian times.

At Marissa’s you will find corn husks and masa for tamales, dried chile ancho and guajillo for salsas, nopal for salads, epazote to season beans. I went in looking for cajeta to make Chocoflan, and there it was. This was a busy store, testament to the many, many kitchens in this town serving up authentic Mexican food.

And like all the little tiendas in Mexico, Marissa’s also carries other essentials, such as loofahs, tortilla presses, pinatas, earthenware pots, and traditional candles.

Besides the grocery store, there is also an attached deli with an extensive, authentic Mexican menu and a bakery with pan dulce of all kinds. We had a great lunch prepared by a young cook from the city of Puebla, and took home sweet breads for dessert. If I can beg or borrow more computer time while I’m visiting, I want to tell you about our lunch. If you find yourself in Minneapolis, don’t miss breakfast or lunch at Marissa’s. This place is the real deal.

Marissa’s Grocery Store, Deli and Bakery; 2750 Nicollet, (612) 871-3628; hours Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.