Really, what are the secrets to great ethnic cooking? They are the little tricks your Italian grandmother or your Indian mother did in the kitchen; small things, one special ingredient that only your uncle used in his sauce or your great aunt added to her famous cookies. I have been privileged to learn some of the secrets shared by the women of Tenango de Valle, Mexico, where I am building my guest house Casa La Tia. They are secrets passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. And since I live in the Mission, I have access to many of the same ingredients they use in Mexico, although usually not quite as ripe, sweet, natural, spicy…. you name the taste quality you are seeking, and ingredients sourced in usually Mexican mercados have more of it!
Of course, some cooking secrets are never shared; for example, no señora who produces molé will share the exact proportions of each of the red (for molé poblano) or green (for molé verde, yes, there is green molé and its a rare taste experience) chiles that are ground and spices that are added to produce this Mexican specialty. But most “secrets” are steps that are taken without even thinking twice, ingredients that are almost jump into the mix themselves, they are so second-nature to the cook. Seems, there are plenty of these to go around (i.e. the key to a truly great salsa is roasting, not boiling the tomatoes- see Of Chiquihuites, comals and cazualeas...; or adding tomatillo husks to nopalitos keeps them from turning color- see Mexican Cuisine redefined: gourmet and upscale...).
The secret to that rich, creamy and just-sweet-enough custard that is perhaps the most Mexican of desserts, flan, is Queso Fresco. By the way, there is a vast variety in the quality of this creamy cheese from Mexican grocer to Mexican grocer (and as much as I appreciate that Cacique has spread the word about Mexican cheese throughout the US, Cacique brand queso fresco, found in many chains like Safeway and Lucky’s is a last resort option, for those who don’t have access real Mexican grocers). The best is in the Mission found at either La Palma or at Chicos both on 24th between Florida and Harrison. Quickly checking a dozen or so “best flan” recipes, not one of them mentioned it. So it must be a secret!
By the way, flan is prepared in the recipe for which calls for a a baño maria, a double-boiler treatment detailed below, that was introduced to Mexico by the French during their brief occupation of that country, from May 1846-July 1848, known more correctly as the French Intervention. If you have ever wondered about the origins of the Cinco de Mayo holiday, its roots lie in this brief period of French control over Mexico. Perhaps the most lasting impression that remains of that period in Mexican history is what is called “La Comida Afrancescada”. According to MexConnect.com, “French cooking techniques and the Mexican ingredients [were believed to make] an excellent gastronomic combination. Native Mexican ingredients like squash blossoms, and avocados were just perfect for the French style mousses, crepes and soups. The empire of Maximilian and the presidency of Porfirio Díaz were influential in promoting the French style of cooking in the Mexican cuisine. An interesting find about the French influence on Mexican cuisine is a menu dated March 29, 1865, which is written in French. It includes a five course meal including two soups, five fish and shellfish dishes, five meat dishes and side dishes, desserts, champagne and French, Hungarian and even Rhenish wines. ”
“Secret” Flan Recipe From Tres Señoritas Gourmet
2 lbs. Queso Fresco
1 can condensed milk
1 can evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
4-5 tablespoons sugar (for caramel)
Mix all ingredients in blender (except sugar)
Put the sugar with about 10 drops of water into a small pot on stove top, stirring constantly until coffee colored, taking care not to burn. Pour this caramel mixture into the bottom of your mold. . Add the blended mixture and make your baño maria by setting the mold into a deep baking pan (for baked flan) or deep saute pan (for stove top) with water taking care not to fill to the point where the water can get into the mold when boiling. Cover the mold with aluminum foil. Cook for 1/2 hour (use 250° oven) or until the knife comes out clean when inserted. Allow to cool at least 1/2 hour before reversing the mold, serve warm or cold.