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).

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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

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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.

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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.

2 METHODS TO REDUCE SAP:

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.

Invite a Mexican dish to your Thanksgiving table: Whipped chipotle lime yams

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The Rockettes at Thanksgiving in NYC

When I was about to enter high school, we moved from the ethnically-diverse city of New York to lily white, WASP-y Wilton, Conn. My siblings and I were abruptly yanked from our annual vantage point for viewing the Thanksgiving Day Parade, on the corner of 74th street and Central Park West; and relegated to watching this, our favorite holiday event, on television, where, in the middle of the Rockettes with their long, limber legs reaching for the sky, we were sold dish washing soap by Madge. Clearly, life would never be the same.

http://clickamericana.com/eras/1960s/palmolive-ads-featuring-madge-the-manicurist

What does this all have to do with Thanksgiving Dinner, you ask? For me, everything. My mother, in what I can only imagine was an effort to bring a little of that New York diversity to our home in Fairfield County, if just once a year, somehow arranged for various guests to join us at the Thanksgiving dinner table via some program of the United Nations. There were always several people, many of whom spoke little English and none of whom had ever participated in this most American of holidays. In their honor, instead of preparing a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner, my mother spiced up the table with food with a foreign accent. In retrospect, seems kind of counter-intuitive, but that is the part of Thanksgiving that lives on in my kitchen. In that vein, I offer you, from Mexico, Chipotle Whipped Sweet Potatoes.

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The authentic, old-school method for making Camote al Orno Mexicana (Mexican baked yams) calls for a couple kitchen tools that you will want to have if you are accumulating a Mexican kitchen anyway, a Molcajete y Tejolote or traditional Mexican mortar and pestle which you will use to pound your small block of pure brown cane sugar called piloncillo (or you can also skip all of this and use brown sugar, but there will be a subtle but perceptible difference in flavor… note, below is an alternative method, by which you can still use piloncillo without a molcajete); and handy lime juicer (both at Casa Lucas, 24th & Alabama).

Screen shot 2014-11-05 at 12.41.39 PMPiloncillo vs. brown sugar: Cones of Mexican brown sugar, available at Casa Lucas on 24th St. near Florida (also called panocha), translates as “little loaf” because of the traditional shape in which this smoky, caramely and earthy sugar is produced; it has far more flavor than brown sugar, which is generally just white sugar with a small amount of molasses added back to it. Just like brown sugar, there are two varieties of piloncillo; one is lighter (blanco) and one darker (oscuro). Unrefined, it is commonly used in Mexico, where it has been around for at least 500 years. Made from crushed sugar cane, the juice is collected, boiled and poured into molds, where it hardens into blocks. To use it, Mexican cooks break it up by throwing the bag of pilconillo on the floor. Pounding well in your molcajete or with a meat hammer while its still in its plastic baggie also work; you want to achieve a texture that is almost that of fine cane sugar. Sold in the aforementioned markets by the pound (about $1/lb), it can be used in moles and other sauces, as well as to simply sweeten coffee, or for an authentic Mexican hot chocolate.

Mexican vs. “Persian” limes: Did you know that what we often refer to as “key limes” are actually Mexican limes? Not simply the limes used for making the pies, or limes that grow only in the Florida Keys (actually primarily grown in the state of Sonora, Mexico and shipped to Florida) the key lime is a (Citrus aurantifolia Swingle) is in a class all of its own. “Much smaller than regular “Persian” limes, the key lime ranges in size from a ping-pong ball to a golf ball (about 10cm to16cm in circumference). The peel is thin, smooth and greenish-yellow when ripe. The interior is divided by 10 to 12 segments, quite juicy and has a higher acidity than regular Persian limes. Key limes have a very distinctive aroma, which makes them valuable for culinary use,” this according to keylime.com. They are yellow when ripe but usually picked green, commercially.

Camote con Chipotle y Limon (serves 8-10)

  • 6-8 yams
  • 3 Mexican limes
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • fresh squeezed juice of 3 oranges plus 2 tablespoons rind
  • 1-2 canned chipotle chiles with adobo sauce, mixed well in a blender
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 1 piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar- or substitute 1/4 cup brown sugar)
  • salt to taste

Bake yams as usual, 350° oven for 35 minutes or until tender through and through. Meanwhile, pound piloncillo well in your molcajete (or with a meat hammer while its still in its plastic baggie) until it’s almost the texture of fine cane sugar. Bring all ingredients except chipotle mix to boil and reduce to a syrupy texture. Allow mixture to cool enough to taste. Now add blended chipotle mix to taste (remember, the chile will come through more strongly after it cooks). After yams have cooled, remove skins and mash. Add syrup mixture, first removing cloves. Transfer Mixture to food porcessor and whip until smooth and fluffy, you may need to do this in small batches. Return to oven covered with aluminum foil and continue baking for 10-15 minutes more, or you can cook on stovetop, putting some butter in your saucepan first to prevent sticking. Taste for salt and chipotle, add as needed.

Treat your turkey to a side of mole: history and recipes for this Mexican “concoction”

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Did you know that turkey was part of the Aztec diet and is native to America? The Aztec word for turkey, huexoloti, has evolved to become “guajolote” in Mexico today, usually referring to a wild turkey (“pavo” is the more common, farm-raised turkey, bred for eating). It is still usual to serve a fresh-killed guajolote for a special occasion.

I was introduced to this tradition when I first visited Tenango de Valle, Mexico, more than ten years ago. My visit coincided with the 80th birthday of my host and the family, although poor, spared no expense in preparing a feast for both their visitor from San Pancho (affectionate Mexican term for “San Francisco”) and the octogenarian. Corn was taken to the molino or mill so as to prepare masa for the tortillas, made, or course, by hand. Mole and wild turkey, frijole de olla (beans stewed for 24 hours or more in a big clay pot, which imparts a subtle but perceptible flavor to the beans) and bottles of tequila populated the table. It was my first time sharing a meal in this kind of intimate setting in Mexico, and it made an impression that was to change the course of my life, although I had no idea of this at the time. I marveled not only at the busyness of the preparations, which began days before and were shared by the various <em>comadres,</em> women who made up the extended family of the host; but also as every child old enough to toddle shook both of our hands as they came in to eat, taking turns at a table that could, at best accommodate 12 but from which well over 40 people would be served that night. This was the moment when the seeds were planted, not only for making Tenango de Valle my second home (I have since built Casa de La Tia, scheduled to open September 2016, a casa de huespedes or guest house, similar to what we would call here a bed and breakfast), but also my immersion in Mexican cuisine, both as a chef and writer, and eventually my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes.

The following, along with the mole recipe (below) is adapted from that book, co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.
The Spanish Jesuits were the first ones to bring turkey to Europe, and they referred to it as gallina de las Indias (hen from the Indians). As appreciation of turkey grew among European royalty and nobles, it became as a symbol of good taste, and the custom of serving turkey for Christmas gained popularity as it was considered a feast suitable for kings and even popes. The first recipes for turkey appeared in a cookbook published in 1570, written by Bartolomeo Scappi, private chef to Pope Pius V.

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Why not celebrate the rich culinary history of the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving table by surrounding it with other dishes in a similar vein. Here is a menu with an interesting “twist”, you could almost call it “Thanksgiving a la Mexicana”. I prefer serving the mole on the side, so the uninitiated can ease their was into the Mexican specialty dish. And although in Mexico, turkey is often served with Mole Poblano, the best known of the moles, at least in this country; I have paired it with the seasonal flavor of pumpkin.

The word mole comes from the Nahuatl molli, which means concoction. This thick sauce is typically made from various chiles with any number of other ingredients, depending upon type (red, green, yellow, black, de Oaxaca, Poblano, etc.) and the particular family recipe. These can include almonds or other nuts, bread, tortillas ground up into something resembling breadcrumbs, raisins, plantains, chocolate, cloves, cinnamon, pepper (sweet and/or black), cumin ,and other ingredients. There are over 300 moles prepared in the various towns of Puebla alone, each with its special variation. It is considered the quintessential fiesta dish and typically served at weddings, quinzeañeras, baptisms and other important rites in central and southern Mexico. Recipes are closely held family secrets and passed down through the generations. It not unusual for the  (grandmothers) to hide their mole recipes from the younger women, especially their daughters-in-law.

Turkey with Adriana’s Pumpkin Mole
with fruit or vegetable stuffing (see recipes, below)
Whipped Chiptole Lime Yams
Handmade Corn Tortillas
Vegetable of your choice
Pumpkin Pie with Agave Tequila Ice Cream

Recipe for Pumpkin Mole / Mole de Calabaza
(serves 25, you can freeze unused mole for future use)
8 puya chiles
4 mulato chiles
1 cup boiling water
¼ lb toasted pumpkin seeds, hulled
7 prunes, pitted
2 large tomatoes
1 bar of Mexican chocolate
1 bolillo or ¼ French baguette, stale
2 tortillas, stale
3 cups cooked pumpkin or pumpkin puree
½ tbsp cinnamon, ground
1/8 tbsp cloves, ground
½ piloncillo
1½ cup chicken stock
1 tbsp salt
½ onion
3 garlic cloves
Hydrate chiles in boiling water for ½ hour. In a blender, mix all ingredients except onion and garlic. Add 3 tbsp of oil to a large sauce pan with chopped onion and garlic. Cook for 4 minutes, or until onion browns a little. Then add mixture from blender and cook over medium-low heat for 1 hour covered, but stirring constantly to avoid burning or sticking. Place in the oven for another 1½ hours at 350°. Add ½ cup of hot chicken stock every half hour during the entire cooking process, stirring as you do so. Adjust salt to taste and serve over turkey.

Fruit Stuffing
2 apples, cut peeled and sliced
2 apricots, cut and sliced
2 pears, cut peeled and sliced
1 onion, sliced
1 rosemary sprig
1 cup bread croutons
¼ lb butter, cold and cut in small pieces

Vegetable Stuffing
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly cut
2 cups butternut squash,
1 parsnip, peeled and julienned
1 rosemary sprig
3 garlic cloves
½ onion
¼ lb butter, cold and cut in small pieces
1 cup bread croutons
Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients well. Note- you SHOULD take care if you decide to here stuff a raw bird, cook per instructions here. If you decide to prepare your stuffing as a separate dish and not put it into the cavity of the turkey, you will want to have some hot chicken broth on hand to add to the stuffing as you are preparing it, as the juices of the turkey are not mixing with the stuffing as it cooks (which they will do if you have placed stuffing inside your turkey).

NOTE: all recipes and book contents are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission from the authors.

The “other” protein: Beans are new star of dinner with “Supper at Rancho Gordo”

My experience is that beans scare most Americans. Anything beyond baked beans, and maybe Mexican black or pinto beans as a side dish, and you’re in foreign territory. Too bad, really, because beans are absolutely packed with nutrition, are diet as well as budget friendly, and, as Steve Sando so aptly shares in his new book, Supper at Rancho Gordo, amazingly versatile.

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According to the Bean Institute, beans are, indeed, “the magical fruit:” “They are packed with protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and are low in fat. One half cup of cooked dry beans contains approximately 115 calories and provides 8 grams of protein. In addition to macronutrients, vitamins and minerals, dry beans contain several types of phytochemicals. They are rich in lignans, which may play a role in preventing osteoporosis, heart disease, and certain cancers. The flavonoids in beans may help reduce heart disease and cancer risk. The plant stanol esters, or phytosterols, contained in dry beans may help reduce blood cholesterol levels. The reduced glycemic index of dry beans helps reduce the glycemic load of the diet when served in a mixed meal.  The properties of the carbohydrates found in dry beans, along with their fiber content, make them ideal foods for the management of abnormalities associated with insulin resistance, diabetes and hyperlipidemia.  The soluble fiber in beans […] helps to lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol, especially if LDL cholesterol levels were high to begin with, without compromising the level of protective HDL cholesterol”. Wow!

4631088290_8fc9478728_zFirst, for those of you concerned about the rest of that rhyme that begins with “the magical fruit”, here’s a tip from Mexico. Adding the herb epazote (see photo just above)  to your beans as you cook helps eliminate the “toot”. But so does eating them more frequently, which brings me back to Steve’s book.

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Stunning photography punctuates home-cook friendly recipes for such tempting dishes as Caribbean Baked Beans and no less than four different Cassoulet recipes, a chapter on Wonderful One-Pot Stews travels the globe, from Indian-Spiced Beans to Creole Red Beans to Free Mexican Air Force Chile and there are plenty of Salad[s] for Supper and Soups for All Seasons as well. The book’s preface introduces the uninitiated to Rancho Gordo’s New World Kitchen, explaining what White Corn Posole / Prepared Hominy is and the difference between Mexican, European and Oregano Indio. What is even more convenient is that all of the ingredients in the “Pantry” are available on-line, on Rancho Gordo’s website or at either the San Francisco store at the Ferry Building Market or the store in Napa. A Basics chapter initiates the cook who might be less familiar with cooking any number of pantry items, from dried beans and quinoa to popcorn and chiles.

Steve Sando’s beans are magical in more than one way. “The products featured as part of the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc ProjectScreen shot 2014-11-05 at 6.29.07 PM

are the results of our two companies working together to help small farmers continue to grow their indigenous crops in Mexico, despite international trade policies that seem to discourage genetic diversity and local food traditions. And some interesting products result, like Salty Xoxonostle Strips (see photo just below). Screen shot 2014-11-05 at 6.29.36 PM

Most of us know that prickly pear cactus yield sweet, delicious fruits that taste oddly tropical, despite their preference for a desert climate. A close cousin to the common prickly pear is the xoconostle. Its fruits looks similar to a prickly pear but their taste is muy sour and muy appealing. You find them in salsas and dishes throughout central Mexico. Xoxoc takes their xoconostle and dries them naturally and in this case, salts them. The result is an addictive chewy snack for hot weather, but where they really shine is with premium tequilas and mezcal.

The salt and sour sensation replaces the traditional salt and lime! Take a sip, take a bite and then you’ll understand why we declare these little flavor bombs essential to tequila time. And they’re a lot handier than messy limes and salt cellars.

If you have a tequila fanatic in your life, congratulations. You’re lucky. Now you have the perfect gift!

Rather than just collect seeds and conduct bean trials […] in Napa”, says Sando, “it dawned on me it would be great to buy the beans directly from the farmers in Mexico who were growing heirloom varieties. On our own, it seemed next to impossible.” Teaming up with Xoxoc, a company already importing Mexican comestibles into the US, the project is a win-win.  “The amazing thing about this project has been that everybody seems to be thriving. The farmers have pre-sold their harvest and don’t have the risk of taking their crops to market. Instead of growing bland, hybrid crops for international markets, they can continue growing the varieties they know best, often varieties that have been grown for generations. Rancho Gordo customers now have access to many completely obscure and wonderful beans that would be almost impossible to try otherwise. By consuming these products, we’re creating a market that actually encourages people to preserve their local traditions”.
Supper at Rancho Gordo is available on-line at RanchoGordo.com, where you can order a copy signed by the author,  as well as at Rancho Gordo retail stores and on Amazon.

Day of the Dead in SF’s Mission district: gentrification, cultural appropriation and politics

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San Francisco’s Day of the Dead procession, which last year attracted anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 (I know, that’s a big gap! Like almost everything else that one looks to quantify in terms of change in the Mission, the response is colored by the agenda of the responder) is set to be even bigger, following right on the heels of our World Series win and being cross-promoted with Halloween bar-hopping. Let’s use the numbers from the Marigold Project website, which sponsors the Festival of Altars in Garfield Park. They projected 15,000 participants would attend event, in the 26th year of the celebration in San Francisco. When I first attended 15 years ago, my children were small. It was mostly a neighborhood celebration and we lived just a few block away from Garfield Park. The procession and subsequent gathering was family-oriented and, in keeping with the nature of Dia de Los Muertos, a cross between celebratory and respectful.

Over the years, as the fascination with the Latino culture of the Mission grew, so did the crowds. Which in and of itself, is not a problem. Many wonderful opportunities for mutual understanding and appreciation abound, as with the sugar skull making classes at Galeria de La Raza and the Pan de Muertos that appear in the Mission panaderias (bakeries) this time of year.

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Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from Celebraciones Mexicanas, History, Traditions and Recipes

But the nature of San Francisco’s interpretation of the holiday also changed; a change which has paralleled the change in the neighborhood, itself. It is exciting see to the cultural exchange, to see so many people who are not of Mexican heritage learning about and embracing something that is so Mexican at its core, something that speaks so clearly to the nature of a people. Every year, in my column in the Examiner.com, I have taken the opportunity to share something else about Day of the Dead, history, recipes, traditions. What a wonderful window to understanding. But is there understanding? Do those who participate seek to learn and appreciate, or just to imitate? This is the question at the very heart of cultural appropriation.

Wiki defines cultural appropriation as, “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, specifically the use by cultural outsiders of a minority, oppressed culture’s symbols or other cultural elements”. Jarune Uwujarena puts it very well in her blog, Everyday Feminisim, as she seeks to explore The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation“using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.” Keep this in mind when selecting your Halloween costume this year.

As a food writer, I find myself at the precipice of this phenomena because food is so very often the door through which we first walk when learning about another culture. Tell me that your first experience with anything Mexican wasn’t with a taco? In fact, the motivation for my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl) was just this. Not only did I see an opportunity for people to learn more about an amazing culture and people through the food they prepare, I was really hoping that somehow, this would bring us all closer. And here, I find myself asking, is sharing this celebration of Day of the Dead bringing us closer, or dividing us? Are we exchanging, or appropriating?

This year, more than ever, this word “appropriation” is especially loaded, as actually homes in the Mission are being appropriated at an alarming rate. The buzzword “gentrification” is so loaded that it prompts rock-throwing at tech employees riding “Google busses“. And its not just because rents are rising. Its something in the nature of the people who are moving in, expressed so well in a recent New Yorker article about the now-famous “Playground Incident”. First, the article’s author, Julie Carrie Wong, quantifies the problem, “… wealthy, predominantly white tech employees […] have been pouring into the formerly working-class immigrant neighborhoods, driving up the cost of housing, and giving the landlords increased incentives to evict longtime tenants from rent-controlled apartments. (Between 1990 and 2011, the Mission District lost fourteen hundred Latino households and gained twenty-nine hundred white ones; during the same period, the black population of the city was cut in half.) And then she qualifies it, depicting this exchange, in which, “A college student named Kai, who seems to be the leader of the neighborhood kids, explains the pickup rules [for soccer games in the park] (seven on seven, no time limit, whoever scores first keeps the field) and asks the men how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood. “Who gives a shit? Who cares about the neighborhood?,” one of the men mutters off-screen.

So the question becomes, do the throngs of folks coming to Day of the Dead celebrations in San Francisco’s Mission district “give a shit” about the culture of the event? Are the appreciating or appropriating?