Discover Mexico’s Comida Cuaresma (Lenten Food) and Viernes de Dolores w/ Seven Seas Soup recipe

(Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist and co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.)

The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday and the forty-day holy interval ends with Holy Week (Semana Santa). This year, Lent started on February 18th and ends on April 2nd. The Spanish word for Lent is Cuaresma, from the word “cuarenta” (forty), as this traditional period of abstinence corresponds to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness (the six Sundays are not counted). In Mexico, the custom had been that adults only ate one large meal daily, and meat is still not eaten on Fridays during Lent. Mexican households shop for and prepare what is known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods), many of which are not well known outside of Mexico. Throughout the country (and in some specialty Latino markets in San Francisco’s Mission district), market stands (puestos) offer large dried shrimp for broths (caldos) and small dried shrimp for patties (tortitas), perfect heads of cauliflower for cauliflower fritters (tortitas de coliflor), seasonal romeritos (a spinach-like green, follow this link for recipe), cactus paddles (nopalitos), lima bean soup (sopa de habas), as well as thick, dried slices of Mexican bread rolls (bolillos available in San Francisco at these Panaderias or Mexican bakeries) for capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding). Recipe for Seven Seas Soup, a hearty Lenten main course soup, follows this article.

Viernes de Dolores
In a custom that was widespread in colonial Mexico but has survived only in the villages of the lowlands of central Mexico, the sixth and final Friday of Lent is Friday of Sorrows or Viernes de Dolores, falling this year on March 27th. It is a day of devotion to the pain and suffering of the Virgin Mary at the loss of her son. The secretary of the U.S. Legation to Mexico in 1841 described the festival of Mary as follows:

There is scarcely a house in the city where a little shrine is not erected and adorned with a profusion of glittering ornaments and blooming flowers. Glasses and vases of colored waters flash amid numerous lamps and wax candles: while the splendid jewels of the mistress of the mansion adorn the sacred image. The floors of the dwellings are strewn with roses, leaving a path for visitors, and music and refreshments welcome all. . . . In this gorgeous display, there is considerable rivalry.

Today, where the custom is still observed (the following description is from the town of San Miguel de Allende), the Virgen de los Dolores is honored with beautiful altars on this day, many with images that show her hands clasped at her breast, her face streaked with tears. In some, she has a sword through her heart. With an icon of the Virgin at the center, the altars include flags or drapes in purple signifying mourning, white candles for purity, chamomile for her humility, bitter oranges for her sorrow, fennel signifying the betrayal of Jesus by his disciples, and gold foil representing her joy in the knowledge that Jesus will be reborn. These altars typically appear in the town plazas and churches as well as in homes. Some are small but others occupy an entire room, which has been cleared of furniture for this purpose. Often, similar to Día de Los Muertos or the nativities of the Christmas holiday period, the entire family labors for days perfecting every detail, down to village scenes at feet of the icon of Mary.

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Photo by Joven_60

Public fountains are cleaned and filled with fresh flowers, chamomile, fennel, and purple papel picado (Mexican cut paper banners) and white and gold foil. Also, pots of pale wheat grass are grown without light to produce a pale yellow plant that is then exposed to the sun over the course of Cuaresma, turning it a bright green, a reminder of the Resurrection and renewal of life. Homeowners hand out treats, which include candied chilacayote (a kind of squash), which has been served on this day for nearly three hundred years.
Seven Seas Soup / Sopa  Siete Mares
(Serves 4–6)
Guajillo Sauce Base ( see A below)
¼ lb dry shrimp or pulverized shrimp
2 large sprigs epazote (or cilantro)
3 quarts fish or chicken stock + 1 cup fish stock or 1 fish stock cube
Salt and pepper to taste
6 small boiling potatoes, diced ¾ inch
4 large crab legs
1 lb oysters, cleaned
½ lb clams, cleaned
12 medium-large shrimp, deveined
12 oz cod or halibut cut into small chunks
1 cup carrots, finely chopped
1 onion finely, chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped
2/3 cup finely chopped Spanish white onion
½ cup cilantro
2 large Mexican limes, cut into wedges
Add the guajillo sauce base, powdered or dry shrimp, and epazote to the broth in a pot and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper; add fish stock (or if you are using cube, stir until well dissolved). At this point you can remove the dry shrimp if you added whole dry shrimp. To finish the soup, add the potatoes, carrots, onion, celery and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are nearly tender, about 8 minutes. Add cod,chunks, crab legs, oysters, and clams, and simmer until the shellfish open, about 3 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook 1 minute more. Remove from the heat, cover and let stand 3–4 minutes. For garnishes, chop onion and cilantro, cut the lime in wedges, and place in a serving bowl. Serve the soup in large, warmed bowls, passing the garnishes separately.

Screen shot 2015-02-27 at 11.17.54 AM

Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl

A. Guajillo Sauce Base
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
6 medium-large guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 tbsp oil
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 Spanish white onion

(Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist and co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.)
The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday and the forty-day holy interval ends with Holy Week (Semana Santa). This year, Lent started on February 18th and ends on April 2nd. The Spanish word for Lent is Cuaresma, from the word “cuarenta” (forty), as this traditional period of abstinence corresponds to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness (the six Sundays are not counted). In Mexico, the custom had been that adults only ate one large meal daily, and meat is still not eaten on Fridays during Lent. Mexican households shop for and prepare what is known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods), many of which are not well known outside of Mexico. Throughout the country (and in some specialty Latino markets in San Francisco’s Mission district), market stands (puestos) offer large dried shrimp for broths (caldos) and small dried shrimp for patties (tortitas), perfect heads of cauliflower for cauliflower fritters (tortitas de coliflor), seasonal romeritos (a spinach-like green, follow this link for recipe), cactus paddles (nopalitos), lima bean soup (sopa de habas), as well as thick, dried slices of Mexican bread rolls (bolillos available in San Francisco at these Panaderias or Mexican bakeries) for capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding). Recipe for Seven Seas Soup, a hearty Lenten main course soup, follows this article.

Viernes de Dolores
In a custom that was widespread in colonial Mexico but has survived only in the villages of the lowlands of central Mexico, the sixth and final Friday of Lent is Friday of Sorrows or Viernes de Dolores, falling this year on March 27th. It is a day of devotion to the pain and suffering of the Virgin Mary at the loss of her son. The secretary of the U.S. Legation to Mexico in 1841 described the festival of Mary as follows:

There is scarcely a house in the city where a little shrine is not erected and adorned with a profusion of glittering ornaments and blooming flowers. Glasses and vases of colored waters flash amid numerous lamps and wax candles: while the splendid jewels of the mistress of the mansion adorn the sacred image. The floors of the dwellings are strewn with roses, leaving a path for visitors, and music and refreshments welcome all. . . . In this gorgeous display, there is considerable rivalry.

Today, where the custom is still observed (the following description is from the town of San Miguel de Allende), the Virgen de los Dolores is honored with beautiful altars on this day, many with images that show her hands clasped at her breast, her face streaked with tears. In some, she has a sword through her heart. With an icon of the Virgin at the center, the altars include flags or drapes in purple signifying mourning, white candles for purity, chamomile for her humility, bitter oranges for her sorrow, fennel signifying the betrayal of Jesus by his disciples, and gold foil representing her joy in the knowledge that Jesus will be reborn. These altars typically appear in the town plazas and churches as well as in homes. Some are small but others occupy an entire room, which has been cleared of furniture for this purpose. Often, similar to Día de Los Muertos or the nativities of the Christmas holiday period, the entire family labors for days perfecting every detail, down to village scenes at feet of the icon of Mary.
Public fountains are cleaned and filled with fresh flowers, chamomile, fennel, and purple papel picado (Mexican cut paper banners) and white and gold foil. Also, pots of pale wheat grass are grown without light to produce a pale yellow plant that is then exposed to the sun over the course of Cuaresma, turning it a bright green, a reminder of the Resurrection and renewal of life. Homeowners hand out treats, which include candied chilacayote (a kind of squash), which has been served on this day for nearly three hundred years.
Seven Seas Soup / Sopa  Siete Mares
(Serves 4–6)
Guajillo Sauce Base ( see A below)
¼ lb dry shrimp or pulverized shrimp
2 large sprigs epazote (or cilantro)
3 quarts fish or chicken stock + 1 cup fish stock or 1 fish stock cube
Salt and pepper to taste
6 small boiling potatoes, diced ¾ inch
4 large crab legs
1 lb oysters, cleaned
½ lb clams, cleaned
12 medium-large shrimp, deveined
12 oz cod or halibut cut into small chunks
1 cup carrots, finely chopped
1 onion finely, chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped
2/3 cup finely chopped Spanish white onion
½ cup cilantro
2 large Mexican limes, cut into wedges
Add the guajillo sauce base, powdered or dry shrimp, and epazote to the broth in a pot and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper; add fish stock (or if you are using cube, stir until well dissolved). At this point you can remove the dry shrimp if you added whole dry shrimp. To finish the soup, add the potatoes, carrots, onion, celery and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are nearly tender, about 8 minutes. Add cod,chunks, crab legs, oysters, and clams, and simmer until the shellfish open, about 3 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook 1 minute more. Remove from the heat, cover and let stand 3–4 minutes. For garnishes, chop onion and cilantro, cut the lime in wedges, and place in a serving bowl. Serve the soup in large, warmed bowls, passing the garnishes separately.
A. Guajillo Sauce Base
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
6 medium-large guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 tbsp oil
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 Spanish white onion
½ tsp Mexican oregano
1/8 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp tomato purée
On a comal or hot griddle, dry-roast the unpeeled garlic until soft (10 minutes); cool and peel. Meanwhile, dry-roast the chiles on another area of the comal; open them flat and press down firmly with a spatula so they are evenly toasted. After a few seconds, flip and press them down to toast other side as well. Place chiles in a small glass bowl, adding boiling water. Rehydrate for 10 minutes and drain water, reserving it. In a sauce pan, heat oil and sauté celery and onions; cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. In the food processor add sautéed onion, celery, oregano, black pepper, drained chiles, garlic (skin now removed) and ½ cup of chile water. Purée in blender, add water as needed to achieve desired consistency (paste should have the consistency of a thick salad dressing). Strain mixture and reserve. Heat the oil in a heavy, large pot over medium high. Add the purée to hot oil (be careful about splatter), sauté, stirring for about 5 minutes.

Posted in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A JOURNEY TO MEXICO IN A PLATE FOR VALENTINE’S DAY

Mexican cuisine is replete with ingredients that are considered to have aphrodisiac properties, which makes easy it to create menus which  transport dinner guests with a hint of the exotic and making the meal even more special and memorable. Designed to be presented plated (restaurant-style). Menus from $80/person*.

Avocados– the Aztec name for the avocado tree was Ahuacuatl, which surely refers to the shape of the fruit as it hangs on branches, as this translates as “testicle tree.” Catholic priests prohibited their consumption, finding them sexually obscene.”

Shrimp, crab or other seafood– while the aphrodisiac qualities of seafood may be exaggerated, foods that are high in zinc, like oysters (which contain a very high level of zinc) – are a known stimulant for the prostate and therefore an aphrodisiac for men in particular.

Chiles– according to the OralFix Aphrodisiac Cafe (of the New York Museum of Sex) website, which is full of tasty tidbits that are perfect as you plan your romantic evening; “The earliest record of chile pepper use comes from archaeological investigations in the Valley of Tehuacan, Mexico, and dates to about 6,500 BC. The use of chiles as an aphrodisiac was common in both Aztec and Inca cultures, and recorded by early Spanish explorers after contact in the 16th century AD.

Chocolate– The famous Aztec emperor, Montezuma was known to drink an ancient beverage called atextli. “Although few written records survive, Francisco Hernandez (1514-1587 AD), a naturalist and court physician to the King of Spain, recorded a recipe for a chocolate-based aphrodisiac … made from a thin paste of cocoa beans and maize, mixed with macaxochitl (Mexican Pepperleaf) and tlilxochitl (Vanilla)” before visit his numerous wives (according to the OralFix Aphrodisiac Cafe website). Maybe that is where the concept of the potent Latin lover originated! There is some real evidence to support the theory that the phenethylamine found in chocolate, when release in the brain may be involved in some temporary sexual attraction and arousal.

DINNER MENU

APPETIZER

SCALLOP CEVICHE

with shaved coconut, mango and marinated in lime juice with coconut milk

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SOUP

CHILLED AVOCADO SOUP

avocado soup

OR

CREAM OF GREEN CHILE SOUP

SALAD

CLASSIC OR KALE CAESAR

Did you know the Caesar Salad was invented in Mexico?!

ENTREE SELECTIONS

QUAIL IN ROSE PETAL SAUCE

Rose Hibiscus Chicken

Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from the book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes. All rights reserved.

Even the name sounds romantic.

This dish, made with almonds, rose petals and tunas or prickly pear,

which is the fruit of the nopal cactus;

was made famous in Laura Esquivel’s best seller, , Like Water for Chocolate

OR

TEQUILA-ORANGE FLAMBEED SHRIMP

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A dish as spectacular as it is delicious (see photo, above),

first shrimp are sautéed in butter seasoned with orange rind with a hint of serrano chile,

then flambéed tableside with tequila añejeo

dessert

CHOCOLATE CHIPOTLE FLOURLESS TORTE

topped with Candied Rose Petals

Posted in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes | Leave a comment

Tamales step-by-step: Diagrams, instructions and a bit of history

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Nahua woman preparing el Zacahuil (tamal gigante). Photo by Jorge Ontiveros – Ethnographers report up to 370 different kinds of tamales , including el zacahuil, which is 3 feet long, weighs about 150 pounds, and requires most of the leaves of a banana tree to wrap it. While almost all tamales are steamed, a few are distinctive in that they are baked either in the ground or in a bread oven. Other tamales that are distinctive include those made by the Otomi people near San Miguel de Allende, which are pastel-colored and fresh fish clapiques of the coast, prepared since the time of Moctezuma II. Photo by Jorge Ontiveros, from the book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes. All rights reserved.

Tamales, of course, are a traditional favorite this time of year in Mexico, and are served whenever friends and family gather, starting from Dia de La Virgen de Guadalupe all the way through Dia de Los Reyes or Three Kings’ Day on January 6th, and even beyond on Dia de La Candelaria or Candelmas (Feb. 2nd). The following is excerpted from my book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl)

 Tamales: A Historical Look

Tamales are an essential part of many Mexican festivals. Preparation is complex, time-consuming and an excellent example of Mexican communal cooking, where this task usually falls to the women. Preparing tamales is a ritual that has been part of Mexican life since pre-Hispanic times, with special fillings and forms designated for each specific festival or life event. Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagun, considered one of the father’s of culinary history, wrote in an amazing 1590 text based on personal observations, detailing that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamalli (in Nahuatl):

“Salted wide tamales, pointed tamales, white tamales… rolled-shaped tamales, tamales with beans forming a seashell on top [with] grains of maize thrown in; crumbled, pounded tamales; spotted tamales, white fruit tamales, red fruit tamales, turkey egg tamales; turkey eggs with grains of maize; tamales of tender maize, tamales of green maize, abode-shaped tamales, braised ones; unleavened tamales, honey tamales, beeswax tamales, tamales with grains of maize, gourd tamales, crumbled tamales, maize flower tamales. These were passed around in a basket at banquets, [and custom mandated that they] were held in the left hand”[9] <END SIDEBAR>

A Step-by-Step Guide to the Ancient Art of Making Tamales

  1. First, to prepare the cornhusks: Rinse and soak them in a sink full of warm water for about 2 hours. You will need to carefully separate them when they get soft. Try to not tear cornhusks. It is easier to make the tamales if the husks are in one piece. After the husks are soft, shake to remove excess water and pat them dry with a paper towel.
007-1-tamales

Drawings by Verriclay

  1. To fill the tamales: Pick up one husk; lay it across your hand, wide part of the husk should be facing your body and thin part outside (think of a triangle, the thin part should be away from your body and the thick part toward you).
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Drawings by Vericlay

3. Scoop up about 2 tbsp. of masa dough with a spatula, and then smear the husk creating a 1/8 in. thick layer. Cover about 2/3 of the husk with masa; leave 1/3 uncovered on one side.

4.  Similarly, cover the bottom 2/3 of the husk, and leave the top 1/3 uncovered. You need to leave the top and side uncovered so you can fold it up later.

5. Now, lay several husks out on the counter as you put the masa on them, between five and ten husks.

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Drawings by Vericlay

6. Add the meat or stuffing of your choice. Take about 1 tablespoon of meat, or the desired stuffing, then lay it on the masa dough about one inch from the left edge, do not over stuff the tamal, as you will need to consider room to close it.

7. To fold:Starting on the left side roll the tamal all the way to the right edge.

Now, fold the top of the husk over (think of an envelope) and lay tamal on the counter, fold facing down.

007-6-tamales

Drawings by Vericlay

            To Cook: In a steamer pot, add about 2 cups of water, then start piling the tamales so they stand upright. The folded end of the tamale should be on the bottom. Try to fill the pot so the tamales do not fall over and begin to unfold. Cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil, then reduce to medium low heat and cook, covered, for 2 hours. Check water several times as you will need to add water frequently, so as not let your pot to run out of water.

Corn Tamales /Tamales de Elote

An abuelita (meaning “grandmother” but also a term used to refer to the oldest generation of women in the village) describes how the women gather to carry on a tradition that has been passed through the generations, making tamales de elote:

“Three pair of hands, work together, seamlessly …in a process [that] includes husking the corn, cutting it off the cob, grinding the kernels in the molino [mill] with pieces of cinnamon, breaking fifteen eggs and separating out the yolks, opening cans of sweetened condensed milk…[and beating] all the ingredients together in the masa for a long time…. Next we fill the husks with the masa [dough]… sprinkle raisins on top. Finally we fold the husks to enclose the dough.”

Corn Tamales

(Makes approximately 35 tamales)
3 ½ quarts (14 cups) fresh corn kernels
1 cup corn meal
1 cup butter
1/2 cup lard or shortening
1 tbsp. baking powder

1cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tbsp. salt
70 cornhusks; wash and pat dry
fresh salsa of your choice

Use a blender or food processor to create a purée from the corn niblets (uncooked). Transfer corn mixture to a large mixing bowl with the corn meal, beat by hand adding butter and lard slowly. Keep beating, for 5 minutes adding sugar, eggs, salt and baking powder. Beat for an additional 20 minutes using an electric mixer on slow or by hand until smooth, set aside and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Prepare tamales by adding a couple of spoonfuls of the mix in double corn husk (so using 2 overlapping husks), and fold the tamale according to instructions (above). Serve these with your favorite fresh salsa, crema Mexicana and queso cotija.

            To test the consistency of masa, drop a small ball in a glass of water, if it floats, it is ready. To make sure there is sufficient water in the bottom of your steamer pot when cooking the tamales,  put a penny in the water. The penny should rattle the entire time that the tamales are steaming– if the penny stops rattling, you know that you need to add more water.

Posted in Holiday Traditions and Recipes, Mexican Cultural Events | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Mexican Bar, Mission Eateries | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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            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

11/3 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.

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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.

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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!

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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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Molinillo

Posted in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Holiday Traditions and Recipes, Mission Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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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.

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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).

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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”.

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