Move over champagne- how to take your tequila shots for New Year’s Eve

Screen shot 2014-12-20 at 4.15.06 PMYesterday, a bunch of us met at South for happy hour. The $6 happy hour drink menu looked promising, the snack menu maybe a little less so… but still, this is Hayes Valley, where nothing costs $6 except maybe a croissant at La Boulange, so I was not surprised at the $4.50 Spicy Peanuts and something that translated as Potato Chips (in words, as it turned it its translation in one’s mouth was something way beyond potato chips, but more about that later).

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From the bar, I decided to go with something very traditionally Mexican: Mezcal, Sangrita and a Beer. I must admit, a committed tequila drinker, I am just beginning to understand and appreciate Mezcal (which I definitely did at South). So, for the uninitiated or novices, what is the difference between Mezcal and Tequila?

Mezcal vs. Tequila

First, all Tequilas are mezcals as mezcal is a description of all liquor distilled from the agave plant;  just as all oils distilled from olives are olive oils. Its the process and the growing region that makes the difference. Tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave plant and comes exclusively from Tequila, Mexico. So far, it sounds… well, more exclusive = better, right? Well, not necessarily. Apart from differences in quality by brand (which would, logically, be true of both liquors), there is a difference in process.

According to the blog Mezcal PhD, and author  of the book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!, “a tequila harvest and a mezcal harvest is essentially the same (with different varieties of agave).  How the piña [(the core that remains after the spiny, cactus-looking leaves are removed by the jimador with a special tool called a coa)] is cooked is where the process differs dramatically.

With tequila, the piñas are cooked in large industrial ovens, known as autoclaves, which are large, stainless-steel industrial pressure cookers. (note: there are other methods of cooking and crushing the pinas but this is the most common)…  The …artisanal mezcal … process is much more handcrafted and … has been used for hundreds of years. …[in which] the piñas are cooked in an underground, earthen pit… typically about ten feet wide and ten feet deep,

photo from Mezcal PhD

and cone shaped down to the bottom.  It is lined with volcanic rock.  A fire is started in the bottom with wood.  This fire burns to the embers heating the volcanic rocks to extreme heat.  The piñas are then piled into the pit and covered with about a foot of earth.  This underground “oven” now smokes, cooks and caramelizes the pina over a multi-day cooking process.  The picture on the left here shows a covered pit and the pinas are cooking beneath the earthen mound.  The pinas in the foreground are for show (or perhaps, they are just happily waiting their turn at glory to be smoked and turned into glorious mezcal!).  It is largely this underground baking process that imparts the smoky flavor to a mezcal”.

Sangrita and Verdita

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Sangrita is like chaser for your tequila shot, except that it is sipped alternately with your Tequila or mezcal, rather than after. We serve it when we do a Mexican Bar as part of my private chef service, Una Señorita Gourmet or at events which I cater through Tres Señoritas Gourmet.  Sangrita translates as “little blood” because of its bright red color. There are many recipes- the one served at South was a really well-balanced blend of citrus and tomato juices with a hint of salsa piquante. There were several nice surprises to my bar service, though. The first was the delightful clay caballito, or shot glass, in which my mezcal was served. The next was that the bar tender decided to serve me an additional shot of mezcal, but this time with Verdita, with which I was not familiar. It was amazing. He told me it was made with pineapple juice, cilantro and mint pressed to release their oils, and jalapeño. It was brilliant: sweet and spicy, with the bright acidity of the pineapple and the perfect balance to the lovely, smokey mezcal. I immediately went home and experimented until I could reproduce it, and just added it to our Mexican Bar Menu!

Tostadas, Papitas Fritas and Molotes at South

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Papitas Fritas at South

Tostada at South

The happy hour menu at South offers all of the above, plus Spicy Peanuts. The Papitas Fritas are a must-try and so much more than their translation implies! Light, crunchy, salty but not too, I couldn’t stop eating them.  Molotes are an antojito (you’ve gotta love the translation of this word which is something like “adorable like cravings”) made with corn masa and stuffed with almost anything from potatoes to crabmeat. The ones at South were stuffed with refried beans and topped with salsa and crema. Yummy if a bit bland for my tastes. My friend said the tostada tasted like chicken soup, and sure enough, it did. Really tasty chicken soup on a crunch tortilla and it wasn’t as though the chef didn’t have a handle on creating great flavors, the balance was perfect but it just didn’t have the kick I was expecting. Its fairly common, though, to find the usually “piquoso” flavor of that is a characteristic of some Mexican dishes “dumbed” down for the American palate. Having said that, there’s no specific topping for Tostadas, just anything delicious on top of crispy, crunchy golden tortilla. South’s interpretation is sure to please most folks. I just liked the kick I got from the Verdita a lot more than the subtlety of the tostada.

Las Posadas, contraband fruit and warm Mexican Christmas Punch (w/recipe)

(NOTE: The following is an excerpt from my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.)

Las Posadas: December 16-24

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            December 16 marks the beginning of Las Posadas (a novenario, nine days of religious observance), during which Mexican families participate in nightly Christmas processions that re-create the Holy Pilgrimage of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus on their way to Bethlehem.

Early History and the Aztec Festival of Winter Solstice


            Many Mexican holidays include dramatizations of original events, a tradition which has its roots in the ritual of Bible plays used to teach religious doctrine to a largely illiterate population in Europe as early as the 10th and 11th centuries. These plays lost favor with the Church as they became popularized with the addition of folk music and other non-religious elements, and were eventually banned; only to be re-introduced in the sixteenth century by two Spanish saints as the Christmas Pageant, a new kind of religious ceremony to accompany the Christmas holiday.[i]

In Mexico, the Aztec winter solstice festival had traditionally been observed from December 7 to December 26. According to the Aztec calendar, their most important deity, the sun god Huitzilopochtli, was born during the month of December (panquetzaliztli). The parallel in time between this native celebration and the birth of the Christ lent itself to an almost seamless merging of the two holy days. Seeing the opportunity to proselytize, Spanish missionaries brought the custom of the re-invented religious pageant to Mexico, where they used it to teach the story of Jesus’ birth to Mexico’s indigenous people. In 1586, Friar Diego de Soria obtained a paper bull from Pope Sixtus V, stating that a Christmas Mass (misa de Aguinaldo), be observed as novenas on the nine days preceding Christmas Day throughout Mexico.

Festivities in Modern Mexico

            The nine days of celebration mark the nine months that Maria carried Jesus in her womb, leading up to Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). Originally organized by the Church, at first these were celebrated as formal masses. With time they became what they are today; festivities which include singing, food and a simulation of the Holy Pilgrimage from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as Mexicans everywhere recreate the journey of the Holy Pilgrims (los Santos Peregrinos) seeking shelter.

One of Mexico’s most charming traditions, las Posadas occur between 8-10 pm each night beginning on December 16th and are truly a community affair. A re-enactment in song, families in a neighborhood each host the Posada at their home on one of the nine nights, playing the role of the los hosteleros or innkeepers. Costumed children and adults are los peregrinos, who have to request lodging by going from casa a casa (literally from house to house, this usually involves 3-4 homes) singing “Villancicos para Pedir Posadas” (“Searching for an Inn” carols), carrying small candles in their hands. Participants either carry statuettes of or may be costumed as Joseph, leading a donkey on which Mary is riding, followed by an assortment of shepherds, angels, and animals, with a star either at the beginning or the end of the procession.

As the group travels from home to home, they ask for lodging by singing the appropriate lines of the villancico. At each participating household, the residents (los hosteleros), respond by refusing lodging, with the chorus going back and forth between the two groups. When the Pilgrims reach the designated site for that night’s party, the chorus changes to “Entren Santos Peregrinos” (“Enter Holy Pilgrims”) as Mary and Joseph are finally recognized and allowed to enter. Once the “innkeepers” let them in their home, the group of traveling guests kneels around the Nativity scene and the festivities begin, marked, as in all things Mexican, by song, dance and an opportunity for each household to outdo that of its neighbors.

“The cultural genius of the Posadas is to successfully combine the affirmation of ideals like reciprocity, hospitality and cooperation with the living reality of competition and conspicuous consumption. Competition is expressed above all in an unmistakable rivalry between participants streets and barrios, whose residents derive a sense of pride if they are able to put on a lavish show.” (Stanley Brandes, Power and Persuasion: Fiestas and Social Control in Rural México, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988)

Special customs include the breaking of piñatas and partaking of Christmas punch (Ponche Navideño), tamales, and buñuelos (sweet fritters).

Villancico para Pedir Posadas (“Searching for an Inn” Carol)

(The Pilgrims…)

In the name of the heavens
I request lodging from you,
Because she cannot walk,
My beloved wife.

(The Innkeepers…)

This is not an inn,
Go on ahead
I can’t open up for you
In case you’re a crook.

(The Pilgrims…)

Don’t be cruel,
Give us charity
That the gods of the heavens
Will bless you.

Enter holy pilgrims
Receive this haven
That although it’s a poor dwelling
The dwelling…
I offer to you from the heart.

Warm Holiday Punch/Ponche

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Photo from Hispanically Speaking News

According to historians ponche comes from Persia, where they used to consume a very similar drink they called “panch,” made with water, lemon, herbs, sugar and rum. This tradition migrated to Europe and acquired the name “punch,” known in Spain as “ponche.”

Tejocotes: Contraband Fruit

14548814393_baa8c49d4c_o Hawthorn "haw" (Edible)

            Some ingredients used to make ponche are more seasonal and even exotic. Depending upon where you live, you may be able to locate fresh tejocotes, known to the Aztecs as Texocotli (stone fruit). The fruit of the hawthorn tree, these resemble crab apples, have a sweet-sour flavor and an orange to golden yellow color. Although abundant in the Mexican highlands, tejocote could not be imported to this country because of its potential to harbor exotic insects. Mexicans are all about authentic ingredients for their special family recipes, so devotees had to resort to illegal enterprise to obtain the tejocotes. In 2009, the LA Times reported that “Nationwide, tejocote was the fruit most seized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smuggling, Interdiction and Trade Compliance program from 2002 to 2006.”

Demand and seizures gave birth to a lucrative new industry, the report continued, [after] “a market vendor named Doña Maria [ a USDA smuggling control officer] how to obtain legal supplies, and he suggested that farmers grow tejocotes domestically”. And so, a successful exotic fruit farmer in Pauma Valley, San Diego County’s Valley Center added tejocotes to his crop. In 1999, Jaime Serrato, who was familiar with tejocotes from his childhood in Michoacán, started grafting trees from bud wood in his orchard and today has 35 acres of trees. Today, tejocotes can be widely found jarred or canned, and fresh during the holidays in regional Latino markets. A full report appeared in Hispanically Speaking News in 2010.

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In San Francisco, you’ll find them fresh this time of year at Casa Lucas on 24th at Florida St.

Mexican Christmas Fruit Punch/Ponche de Navidad

(Serves 10-12)

2 gallons boiling water

25 tejocotes, cut in half

2 small pears, cut bite-sized

2 cups of fresh orange juice

1 cup raisins

2 cups prunes

1- 1/3 cups tamarind pods, peeled

3½ oz. dry hibiscus

6 pieces sugar cane, cut in quarters lengthwise (available in Latino markets including Casa Lucas)

4 small yellow apples, chopped bite-sized

6 cinnamon sticks

2 whole cloves

1 star anise

1 oranges, sliced and cut in half

Wash all fruits and cut as required. In a large pot, boil water and add tamarind, hibiscus, star anise, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Boil on high for 10-15 minutes, strain mixture to remove any remain of flowers, spices or tamarind. Once strained, add all cut fruits, cook 5 minutes and add dry fruits, orange juice and sugar cane. Cook for additional 20 minutes. Serve in a mug or a clay cup, garnished with a sugar cane stick intended to be used as a spoon, and for eating the fruits.

Decorate with a half a slice of orange. Optional: add a splash of rum, cane spirit (aguardiente), brandy.


Champurrado Recipe and History: Enjoy it on December 12, Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe

(Note: the following is excerpted from my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl)

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Zapotec man dancing in front of the Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe, photo by Jorge Ontiveros

December 12: Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Every year, on December 12th, between 18-20 million make the pilgrimage to the Basilica de la Virgén de Guadalupe to celebrate her feast or saint’s day, making it Christianity’s most visited sanctuary. Thousands of Mexicans come from their pueblos to Mexico City, many on bicycle, riding through the night for long, dark cold hours. Indigenous people, young and old, make up a significant number of those visiting the hilltop. Many walk or run from their villages, some barefoot, carrying torches and banners to show their devotion and even ascend the stairs on their knees.

Small Mexican boys are dressed in peasant clothes and are called Juan Diegitos; mustaches painted on their faces. On their tilmas (a sort of poncho), the image of Guadalupe appears as she did on the cloth of Juan Diego, the humble man who to whom she first appeared, centuries ago.

The girls are dressed as la Malinche, one of the most important figures in Mexican history. An Aztec woman who bore a son to Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez (whose discovery of what is now Mexico started the chain of events that ended with the Spanish Conquest); since her son was a mixture of Spanish and Indian blood, she is widely and considered the mother of the “First Mexican”.

The traditional costume for the girls is an embroidered blouse and a gathered flowered skirt, with a brightly colored shawl called a rebozo, draped over their shoulders, their hair in long trenzas (braids). The girls carry baskets of flowers. Often, the costume includes pilgrimage essential, even though these children are too young to make the trip. They may be equipped with a costalito (a bag made from sacks from rice or flour), filled with all the necessary items, like water, a petate (a sort of rug made of palm leaves for sleeping) and easy-to-carry food like tamales; everything they might have needed were they actually making a long pilgrimage.


Atole: History and a Chocolate Atole (Champurrado) Recipe

      A traditional beverage served on Dia de La Virgencita is atole, a corn-based drink that has been part of the lexicon of Mexican food since Aztec times.

As early as 1651, the process by which atole was made was noted by botanist Francisco Hernandez in a report on the use of plants in Nueva España. :

Atolli was eight parts water and six parts maize, plus lime, cooked until soft. The maize was then ground and cooked again until it thickened

This description of Mexican atoles by Englishwoman Fanny Chambers Gooch,
written in 1887, gives us some interesting insight into the varieties of the time:

‘I found plain atole much the same in appearance as gruel of Indian meal, but much better in taste, having the slight flavor of the lime in which the corn is soaked, and the
advantage of being ground on the metate, which preserves a substance lost in grinding in a mill. . . . Atole de leche, (milk), by adding chocolate takes the name of champurrado
if the bark of cacao is added, it becomes atole de cascara; if red chile—- chile atole. If, instead, any of these agua miel, sweet water of the maguey, is added, it is called atole de agua miel; if piloncillo, the native brown sugar, again the name is modified to atole de pinolei’

There is evidence of mixing atole with chocolate as far back as the Mayan era. In the Yucatan today, where the strongest Mayan influences remain, they serve a thick, chocolate-flavored atole called tanchcua, to which allspice, honey ad black pepper is added. Although the following recipe uses milk, it is common in Mexico to skip the milk and make champurrado with water. Experiment… there are so many ways to make this!


Making atole, straining homemade masa


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Using a molinillo, a short of Mexican wooden whisk, to mix the ingredients in a traditional clay pot.

Champurrado (makes 6 small cups)

1 cup prepared tortilla masa (Maseca brand or equivalent) or fresh tortilla
masa (not tamale masa)
1 cup milk
5 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 Mexican chocolate (available in Latino markets under brand names Ibarro or Abuelita,              Rancho Gordo stocks a wonderful hand-crafted stoneground Mexican Chocolate)
1 cinnamon stick
6 oz. sugar or 1 ½ piloncillo, grated (available in Mexican markets)
1 cup milk
Blend masa with a cup of water by hand or with a blender;, be sure there are no lumps
left. Add a second cup of water gradually;, continue blending. Warm upHeat the remaining water in a saucepan. Once boiling, lower to medium heat and add cinnamon, chocolate, and sugar or piloncillo. Once the chocolate is dissolved and starts to boil, add masa mixture and stir constantly to avoid lumps and to keep from sticking to the bottom of pan. Lower heat to medium and continue stirring until masa is cooked (30 minutes), then add milk and stir for 5 more minutes. (You may want to use a molinillo to finish off your atole, it adds a lovely foam and will get out any lumps of masa that might remain.)

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At the Mexican Museum this weekend: Mezcal, Mexican food and hand-painted cazuelas!

photo-5If the fact that San Francisco’s Mexican Museum is literally like having a little piece of the Smithsonian in our backyard hasn’t let lured you (the museum is associated with the Smithsonian), surely this will: a Mezcal tasting, Mexican food and a Mercado or market, in this case selling Mexican handcrafts just in time for Christmas. Plus there’s a fascinating exhibition of Rosa Covarrubias’ personal collection of traditional Mexican cooking ware and utensils!
A Little History
The original home of the Mexican Museum was in San Francisco’s Mission District. It was founded in 1975 by San Francisco resident and artist Peter Rodríguez, “a realization of his vision that an institution be created in the United States to exhibit the aesthetic expression of the Mexican and Mexican-American people.” Since the museum’s relocation to Fort Mason it has  “amassed a permanent collection of over 14,000 art objects. This spectacular collection is unique in the nation and includes Pre-Hispanic, Colonial, Popular, Modern and Contemporary Mexican and Latino, and Chicano Art”. Soon, the Museum will move again, to its permanent home, fittingly located in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Arts District.

HC cazuela chica copy
CHRISTMEX! Mezcal, Mercado y Más
This coming Saturday, December 6, the museum will be hosting a special event, from 10am-4pm at La Tienda, the museum store, featuring specialty items from Mexico, Central America, as well as some local San Francisco artisans. “In addition to some great holiday gifts, [the museum invites you to] celebrate the season with a Mezcal tasting and delicious Mexican food. Among the items offered for sale are a stunning collection of lead-free Mexican clay ollas and cazuelas (pots and casseroles dishes) as well as serving platters and other tabletop items from Mexico by Hand.

What’s fascinating about ollas de barro (clay pots) is that, in Mexican cuisine, they are as much an ingredient as a cooking vessel. Ask any Mexican cook and they will tell you that an olla de barro (clay pot) imparts a subtle but perceptible flavor to foods. A well-made olla or cazuela is one whose bottom is not too thin, so it cooks well without burning. You should have different pots, one for beans could be a bit bigger and one for coffee that’s a bit smaller (see slide show) and cazuelas for rice and moles. For bean recipes, see my post about Steve Sando’s newest cookbook, Supper at Rancho Gordo. For Cafe de Olla recipe, click here. There are many more recipes utilizing clay pots and casseroles in the award-winning cookbook, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (by this columnist and Adriana Alamzan Lahl).


For more information on how to care for your clay pots, please see post Cafe de Olla- making coffee in a clay pot adds flavor

A wonderful way to learn more about Mexican culinary traditions is through this unique exhibit. The methods of production have changed little over time; exploring this exhibit you’ll feel the connection between what is available to you in the gift shop and the continuum of Mexican cuisine and handcrafts. “From the Rosa and Miguel Covarrubias Collection of over 2,500 objects including paintings, works on paper, ceramics, photographs and folk art, this exhibition highlights one very important aspect of the collection: Rosa Covarrubias’ traditional, personal collection of Mexican cooking ware and utensils. Miguel was an avid collector of Pre-Hispanic objects and ceramics, while Rosa became enamored with acquiring utilitarian objects for her kitchen and home. During the 1930s, she made numerous trips throughout Mexico to visit Pre-Colombian sites, buying folk art pottery from local marketplaces – items that became part of this collection”.

Cafe de Olla- making coffee in a clay pot adds flavor

Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 11.38.10 AMNote: the following is adapted from an excerpt of the book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.

If you are eating breakfast at home in Mexico, it will very likely include reheating (recalentado) whatever the family ate for dinner the previous night, plus coffee and pan dulce (Mexican pastries, follow link for guide to finding these in San Francisco). The coffee is often presented, even in restaurants, this way: a jar of Nescafe Classico (instant), a cup of hot water, plus sugar and your spoon. If you are lucky, though, it  may be prepared as Café de Olla, that is, made in a traditional clay pot and usually with a cinnamon stick (canela).

According to Equal Exchange, a website reporting on Fair Trade,  “Mexico is one of the largest coffee-producing countries in the world, and the largest producer of organic coffee, accounting for 60% of world production in 2000. The vast majority of Mexican coffee, and particularly organic coffee, is grown by small farmers in the southern-most states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. These two states also happen to be the poorest in the country, and not coincidentally, have the largest indigenous populations. Coffee is one of Mexico’s most lucrative exports and close to half a million small farmers and their families rely on the crop for their economic survival.”

Mover el Bigote México DF | Restaurante Don Chon | Café de olla

Mover el Bigote
México DF | Restaurante Don Chon | Café de olla

Cafe de Olla actually has four ingredients that contribute to is special flavor, the water, the coffee itself, the after-mentioned canela AND the clay pot. These hand-thrown, hand-decorated Mexican clay casseroles impart a subtle but perceptible flavor to foods. A well-made olla is one whose bottom is not too thin, so it cooks well without burning. Clay pots similar to the one pictured below are available at La Palma or Casa Lucas, on 24th St. and Alabama, in San Francisco’s Mission District, or from Mexico by Hand, which stocks a stunning collection of limited-edition lead-free Mexican pottery. The pot shown below,  is a “bean pot”. (An olla typical of those used to make cafe de olla can be seen right above the recipe which follows our interview with Peggy Stein). You should have different pots, one for beans (could be a bit bigger) and one for coffee. For bean recipes, see my post about Supper at Rancho Gordo.

We asked Peggy Stein, owner of Mexico by Hand, about using and caring for your ollas and cazuelas (earthenware clay pots and casserole dishes):

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Bean Pot from Mexico by Hand

Tell us a little about the pottery you bring in from Mexico and the complexities of importing it.

Under the brand name Mexico by Hand, I source exceptional and unique Mexican pottery (you can find pieces for purchase at La Tienda at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco). But it’s a bit complicated when we are asked to show proof or evidence that our pottery is lead­-free­­ when customers ask to see a seal or stamp, or some sort of certificate from the government. Because there isn’t one. Really. Though it is the law in Mexico that all pottery designed for food use be lead­-free, the Mexican government does not have an inspection system in place to enforce the law, and that’s why so much of the pottery produced in Mexico still contains lead. Of course, it is illegal to import pottery into the United States that contains lead, but the only way or our government to catch “illegal pottery” is through random FDA inspections of imports when they cross the border. Our pottery undergoes these inspections every time we go through customs, and a few pieces out of the thousands we bring in the country are in fact inspected. A box will be opened, examined for lead, and then sealed. We receive a letter from the Food and Drug Administration after each shipment saying that the pieces on our container have “been released”. Mexico by Hand clay cookware and pottery has always cleared the FDA inspections.

Can you cook with clay cookware?

Our cookware is safe for use on the stovetop and in the oven. For electric cooktops, you will need a heat diffuser. Earthenware does not like extreme temperature changes. For example, do not take a cold pot from the refrigerator and place it directly on the stovetop or in an extremely hot oven; it may crack. This is important to remember when you are beginning the cooking process in a clay pot, especially if your pot is new. When you startyour cooking with clay pot, maintain it on low heat for about 5 minutes, then, you can turn the flame up to a medium-high heat.

Here are a few more tips for caring for your clay cookware:

Is clay cookware microwave safe?

Yes, our pottery is microwave safe; but use on lower settings as it can develop hot spots on high settings which can crack the clay. We have microwaved our cups and bowls and they didn’t even get hot– they performed great.

How do I clean my clay pots ?

Clear ceramic glaze provides ease of cleaning. Just use hot water, a sponge and a gentle dish soap. For difficult areas to clean, first soak for a few minutes in hot water and then scrub.

Are my clay pots dishwasher safe?

They are dishwasher safe, but we recommend hand washing to give your earthenware the best care. Being that clay is a porous material, it may absorb dishwashing detergent which can then leach back into food that comes in contact with it.

Do I need to “season” or “cure” these clay pots?

There are many methods for “curing” clay pots. Some say you need to rub the surface with a clove of garlic after soaking it in water for 2 hours. Some of our Mexican friends say you need to cook it first with maizena (corn starch) or atole– basically corn flour. I’m not sure either of these methods are necessary. A simpler method taught to us by a Mexican chef is to just fill the pot with water, bring it to a boil and boil for at least 5 minutes. Let the water completely cool and then toss. You’re good to go! (Author’s note, I have used this method myself, but with milk instead of water).

The pot below is ideal for Cafe de Olla (but is also wonderful for beans).

olla cafe

Recipe for Cafe de Olla from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes

4½ oz piloncillo, roughly chopped (optional)

Zest of half orange, finely chopped

2 whole cloves

3-inch piece of cinnamon stick

¾ cup freshly ground dark-roasted Mexican coffee

In a clay pot or a kettle bring 9 cups of water to boil, combine the ingredients, stirring until the piloncillo is dissolved if you want to offer your coffee pre-sweetened. Let steep at least 10 minutes. Pour through a strainer before serving. For special occasions, it is traditional to add a splash of rum or brandy to the individual coffee cups.

by Vicente Villamón Canela en rama, stick cinnamon

by Vicente Villamón
Canela en rama, stick cinnamon

A victory feast menu with recipes: Nov. 20th is Dîa de la Revolución in Mexico


Mexican children celebrate Diå de la Revolucion, photo by Ute

(Author’s Note: The following is extracted from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored by this columnist with Adriana Almazan Lahl. As I write the introduction, it strikes me that I could very well be commenting on the situation in Mexico today. In fact, many say Mexico is ripe for another revolution. In that light, it especially makes sense that we, as her neighbor’s to the North, take a moment to remember a little bit of Mexican history. This entry is more personal that most I write, therefore, I have taken the liberty of using the first person in some parts of it.)

November 20th, Mexico commemorates Dîa de la Revolución  (Day of the Mexican Revolution), which began in 1910 and lasted until 1920. By some estimates, as many as two million Mexicans lost their lives in the struggle. In the era before el Revolución, there was a wide social chasm between the classes in Mexico. Although Mexican President Porfírio Díaz brought progress and modernization to the country during his thirty-four-year rule, he also permitted foreign investors to exploit the nation’s natural resources and labor force. These same investors ran businesses that frequently paid next to nothing to Mexican laborers. The conditions on Mexico’s large estates were even worse, where workers and their families were literally prisoners of the haciendas on which they lived and labored, indebted to their patrones (los hacendados or hacienda owners) for basics such as rent and food, the cost of which often exceeded their wages.

At the same time, Porfírio Díaz, enchanted by the European lifestyle, was leading the country in a direction that threatened Mexico’s rich traditions and culture, which was widely unpopular. Removing Díaz from power became a uniting force across various factions in Mexico. Emiliano Zapata was one of many heroes of the Mexican Revolution. He organized La Bola, the Revolutionary fighting force, and led the struggle which that would eventually result in a nation where the possibility of equality and hope existed for every Mexican, claiming “La tierra para es de quien la trabajae” (the land should belongs to those who work it). His famous army became known as the Zapatistas. Other well-known revolutionary figures include Francisco “Pancho” Villa, Álvaro Obregón, Victoriano Huerta, and Francisco Madero.

Traditionally, Mexico celebrates the national holiday with parades—the Army shows off their troops and artillery—followed by kermeses (street fairs), where traditional songs from the revolutionary era, called corridos, fill the air.

This year, however, there is a call for a national strike, as a reaction to the ongoing search for answers about the kidnapping, torture and, what appears to be the subsequent murder of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. According to the Chicago Tribune,

“the violent disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers college in Guerrero state has caused a political earthquake the likes of which Mexico has not seen in generations — perhaps even since the revolution of 1910…. That makes it all the more baffling how little attention most people in the U.S. have paid to the unfolding tragedy. To understand the historical significance — and the moral and political gravity — of what is occurring, think of 9/11, of Sandy Hook, of the day JFK was assassinated. Mexico is a nation in shock — horrified, pained, bewildered”.

It’s a little difficult for me, tied as I am to Mexico, its people, its food and its culture, to continue here by sharing something as benign as the menu and recipes from our book. Still, we wrote it hoping that food would open a cultural bridge between our two countries. That bridge should bring us together in good times and bad, and in that vein, I invite you to cook along side our compadres as they live their daily lives and cook and eat, even as they fight for the right to feel safe in their own country.
Dîa del Revolucion Menu
The menu presented here is reported to be the fare at the victory feast (perhaps eaten on May 25, 1911, the date when President Porfirio Diaz resigned after holding office for 35 years).  Recipes for items with a * follow below. Other recipes can be found in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes.
Entrée / Plato Fuerte
*Rabbit in Adobado/Canejo Adobado
Casseroles / Cazuelas
Bean Taquitos with Green Sauce/ Taquitos de Frijol con Salsa Verde
*Green Mole Enchiladas/ Enchiladas de Mole Verde
Beverage / Bebida
Pineapple Atole/ Atole de Piña

4009438176_df7df39e27_zGreen Mole Enchiladas / Enchiladas de Pipian (serves 4)

Many associate the word “mole” with the famous Poblano sauce, rich, brown, chocolatey with chiles. There are over 300 moles in the state of Oaxaca, alone. Here’s one of many recipes for Mole Verde or Green Mole. In fact, sauces like this, made with pumpkin or other seeds, are more correctly referred to as Pipianes, for which there is no common English usage or translation.
½ cup corn oil
3 tomatillos, boiled
3 Serrano chiles
¼ cup ground peeled pumpkin seeds
½ cups of epazote leaves or substitute dry 1/8 cup dry
½ cups fresh cilantro
½ cups of fresh root beer plant
½ cup sliced onion
¼ cup of radishes leaves
2 lettuce leaves
4 garlic cloves
½ stale bolillo bread or 4 in. long stale baguette
½ fresh poblano chile, seeded
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 pound Mexican zucchini (round)
1/2 pound small potatoes
1/2 pound clean young dried fava beans,
1/2 pound fresh peas
¼ pound fresh green beans
12 tortillas
Mexican sour cream to garnish
1 onion cut into rings to garnish
1/8 queso fresco, crumbled to garnish
salt and pepper
In a large pot add 2 tbsp. of oil and fry pumpkin seeds, once brown set aside and reserve. Repeat procedure with bread, onion and garlic, once brown, set aside and reserve. Blend tomatillos with ½ of the chicken stock, chilies and bread, onion and garlic. Pour into pot, and incorporate pumpkin seeds, simmer on medium-low heat for 20 minutes.

Blend the rest of the stock with the remaining herbs and puree, add this mixture to the pot, letting it simmer for 10 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste. Steam all vegetables: fava bean, green beans and peas. Add zucchini last so it remains al dente. Set aside and then cook potatoes until done.

To prepare tortillas to make enchiladas, heat corn oil in a pan and fry tortillas until soft, and place them on a kitchen towel to absorb excess oil. This process changes the texture of the tortilla, making it more pliable so they don’t break when rolled.

Next, dip tortilla in the mole sauce, add the vegetables and roll, add additional sauce and garnish with onion, sour cream onions and cheese.

Stirred Beans / Frijoles Maneados  (serves 4-6)
9 oz. cooked beans (pinto or black)
3.5 oz. Monterey jack cheese shredded
3.5 oz. butter
2 tbsp. chile. ancho toasted and ground
3.5 oz. queso Oaxaca shredded or substitute mozzarella
3.5 oz. chorizo
Cook chorizo and drain fat. Fry ancho chile powder in the butter. Smash beans or use hand mixer to blend beans, then stir in chorizo, ground chiles & butter mix and add cheese at the very end prior to serving, keep stirring beans until serving. Garnish with tortilla chips

Virtual tour of your local Latino market: How to prep and use cactus paddles

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Cactus Paddle Salad / Ensalada de Nopalitos Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl

This is the first in a series of posts that will focus on some of the less familiar produce and proteins you see while wandering the aisles of that Mexican grocery store you go to for avocados, bulk beans, Queso Fresco, chiles and masa. If you are like many of my friends, you skirt past an array of interesting and strange items that you wonder what to do with. I’ll be l highlighting an item each week, provide recipes and a little food history as well.

I thought we would start with something that may be more familiar…. at least many folks recognize these Baby Cactus Paddles or Nopalitos.


The Nopal cactus plant may well be the ultimate in sustainable plants: the pads are edible as a vegetable, it produces a beautiful flower and an edible fruit, the Prickly Pear, known in Spanish as “tuna” (which makes a great margarita). The Spanish for cactus paddle or cactus ear, “nopal” comes from the Nahuatl word nohpalli. Nopalito  refers to “baby cactus paddles”, which are younger and more tender. Select paddles that are bright green soft, but not limp. Smaller paddles are more tender,  but don’t despair if you can only find large ones; they are delicious too.

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You can see the cactus paddles in this coat of arms that appears on the Mexican flag. The legend below explains its significance.

The nopal’s place in Mexican history and lore is significant. In fact, the ancient Aztec name for what we now know as Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, means “place of the cactus”. According to Aztec mythology the founders of the city “migrated from the legendary Aztlán cave in the northwest desert which involved a protracted journey that eventually led to Lake Texcoco. During this migration priests had carried a huge idol of the god Huitzilopochtli, who whispered directions, gave the Méxica their name and promised great wealth and prosperity if he was suitably worshipped [….]. A decisive event in the migration was the rebellion incited by Copil, son of Huitzilopochtli’s sister Malinalxochitl. This was in revenge for the goddess’ abandonment by the Méxica but with Huitzilopochtli’s help Copil was killed. The great war god instructed that the rebel’s heart be thrown as far as possible into Lake Texcoco and where it landed would indicate the place the Méxica should build their new home, the precise spot being marked by an eagle sitting on a prickly-pear cactus (nopal) and devouring a snake. This is exactly what came to pass and the new capital of Tenochtitlán was built, the traditional date being 1345 CE” (from the Ancient History Encyclopedia).

According to the website Nopal Export, “In cases of drought, Nopal was the lifeblood of ancient cultures in Mexico for it was both food for the indigenous tribes and for their livestock. As the historical archives suggest Nopal was used to soothe wounds as it was used to stiffen cloth, purify water and waterproof paint. It strengthened mortar and was used fence off valued animals and to protect habitats from wild ones. Cattle that grazed on the Nopales were said to develop a special flavor to their meat and milk.”

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Prepared nopalitos: diced (left) and whole (right)

The wonderful thing about these are that they are already prepped- one advantage of living in the Mission, so many great Latino markets, like Casa Lucas or Chicos Produce, both on 24th St. between Alabama and Harrison. that there is actually competition which as, we all know, makes for better offers– and less potentially painful, at least in the case of cactus paddles, manual labor. In the event that you are not so lucky, here is how to prepare your nopales.

The following is excerpted from my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl).

TO CLEAN NOPALES it is best to wear thick gloves to protect your hands from the itchy spines. Trim off the outside edges that outlines the cactus paddle, then scrape off the tiny thorns front both and back sides by holding the nopal at the bottom (where it was attached to the cactus plant; this is the narrowest part) against a flat surface. Cut spines with a sharp knife at a 30° angle and carefully scrape thorns from the front and back of the paddle. (I find a vegetable peeler also works well if its sharp). Rinse thoroughly to remove any thorns and some of the sticky sap. You can then leave the paddles whole, cut into slices or dice, depending upon your recipe.


Nopales naturally produce a gooey liquid, much like okra.

1. Place nopales on a plate full of salt and let them cure covered with salt for to 45 minutes, this will reduce the mucilage (slime). Rinse well and pat dry with a paper towel.

2. wash nopales, clean them and boil in water for 20 minutes with salt and baking soda, Once cooked, rinse with cold water.  Clear sap by repeated rinsing in a colander.

Ensalada de Nopalitos (serves 6 – 8)

I lb. nopales, cleaned and medium dice*

1 small Mexican onion with greens

¼ finely diced red onion

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tomatoes seeds removed and finely chopped

1 or 2 serrano chiles

juice of 2 Mexican limes

2 tbsp. oil what kind

1 tbsp. vinegar what kind

Queso Fresco (optional)

salt to taste

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Season with vinegar, lime juice and oil, add salt and pepper to taste. Top with Queso Fresco.

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Volcanes / Grilled Cactus Paddles with Beans and Cheese Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl

Volcanes : Grilled Cactus Paddles with Beans au Gratin/ Nopales Frijoles y Queso Gratinado (serves 6-8)

8 paddles of nopal (baby cactus)

4 oz Queso Oaxaca o Manchego

1 cup refried beans

¼ cup white onion finely chopped

Kosher or other coarse salt

Fresh Salsa Verde (not the cooked version)

Buy the nopales clean of thorns or prep following isntructions above..  Cook nopales on a dry comal or cast iron pan, on high heat for 5 minutes on each side or until see dark spots.

Once the nopales are cooked, place on a baking sheet, add a spoonful of beans and a thick slice of cheese on top of each nopal. Broil in an oven at 400° until cheese is melted and starts to brown. Serve each nopal in a pond of salsa with warm tortillas, sprinkle with fresh cilantro and raw onions, season with salt.