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The Mexican kitchen: a taste for all seasons

Karen Hursh Graber

Seafood

One of the most fascinating aspects of exploring the cuisine of another country is the process of becoming acquianted with the history, customs and traditions that are an intrinsic part of the cultural landscape of cooking and eating. In Mexico, festivals, rituals and personnal commemorations are all important events in terms of celebrating with food and drink, but the daily meals are the focal point around which la vida cotidiana - everyday life - revolves. Mealtimes, and especially the main meal of the day, are treated as special intervals, to be approached with relish and respect for the work that went into their preparation. This attitude toward food is something that has played a part in defining Mexican culture since pre-Hispanic times.

This article is a sample chapter from Karen's book: The Mexican Kitchen: A Taste For All Seasons

Mexica Manners and Mealtime Etiquette

In a society as tightly structured as that which dominated Mexico when the Europeans arrived, culinary practices delineated class divisions as well as ethnic ones. The Mexica, rulers of the empire and standard setters for correct social behavior, had firm rules regarding table manners, which set the upper classes apart from those who had not been instructed in proper etiquette. Eating a tortilla with the first three fingers of the right hand was imperative, and some of the other rules that Mexica matrons enforced in their homes could be right out of the pages of Emily Post. "Don't stuff food into your mouth, don't slurp, and don't make faces" were some of the admonitions that children received from their mothers, who were in charge of every aspect of the meal, from its preparation to proper serving and polite dining.

The women were the ones who strictly observed the culinary rules, for it was said that the women fed the family and the men fed the gods. And possibly no god was better fed than the emperor himself.

Bernardino de Sahagún, in the Florentine Codex, describes the banquets he witnessed at Moctezuma's palace, where three hundred dishes a day were prepared for the emperor's personnal approval and satisfaction. In addition, another thousand were cooked for the rest of the royal household. Seated on a leather cushion, using a folded tortilla as a scoop, the great ruler took small tastes of the parade of delicacies which passed before him, all kept warm over small charcoal burners. The feast was always followed by a drink of chocolate, a luxury for only the very wealthy, since cacao beans themselves were a form of currency.

In spite of the array of food offered to the emporer, and the variety of produce grown on the chinampas, or floating gardens, the Mexica stressed moderation in eating and drinking, drawing a clear line between satisfaction and gluttony. It was said that a good cook was an epicure, a taster, and a frequent hand-washer, while the bad cook an indiscriminate glutton, "sweaty and crude." In fact, the people the Spaniards found when they arrived in what is now Mexico City probably put more emphasis on the hygienic aspects of food preparation than the inhabitants of medieval Europe, where court cooks placed greater value on presentation than on the quality of the food itself.

Marathon Meals of the Spanish Colonials

The baroque court cuisine of sixteenth century Spain featured such bizarre delicacies as birds that were sewn back into their feathers and plated with silver and gold. The extent of the elaborate food traditions which the Spaniards bought to the New World is best illustrated by a description written by Bernal Diaz of a banquet held by Cortes and the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Mendoza, in Mexico City's zocalo, or main plaza, in 1538. This meal-to-end-all-meals went on for days, with various tableaux, including the seige of Rhodes, staged as backdrops to the feasting.

Although stating that he could not remember every dish served, the list of foods Diaz does provide is enough to suggest indigestion just in the reading of it. After the roasted kids, hams, quail pies and doves came stuffed chicken, empanadas, mutton, beef, pork, turnips, cabbage and garbanzo beans. To drink there was mead, spiced wine and chocolate, followed by a cheese, olive and native fruit course rounding out the meal for those who had not yet collapsed.

While this meal is an extreme example of culinary excess, its description is a good preparation for accounts of the food traditions that developed during the Viceregal period and on into the nineteenth century in Mexico. Guillermo Prieto, in Memoria de mis tiempos-1828 a 1840, writes his memoirs of growing up in a well-to-do family in Mexico City where, even after the fight for Independence, the Spanish meal traditions prevailed among the upper classes and firm boundaries existed between what could be eaten in the privacy of the family circle and what could be eaten in view of others.

Although the Spanish disdain for the indigenous staple corn had slowly given way to appreciation of the delicious popular foods made from it, tamales, enchiladas and other corn-dough based "native" dishes were considered unfit to be eaten at a main meal, and never in front of visitors. This relegated them to a place at only the most informal family meals, usually almuerzos ligeros, light brunches. Prieto himself seems to have eaten anything that was offered to him with great gusto, and his descriptions of the meals served in his time sound rather like an all-day eating contest.

He recalls being awakened each morning at about eight in boarding school with a breakfast of a sweet roll and a cup of steaming hot chocolate, served in bed, whose caffeine content propelled him toward the next meal, brunch, served at about ten. This usually consisted of a mole or stew, an egg dish and perhaps a piece of grilled meat or chicken. This was enough to tide him over until the main meal, served in the afternoon, which consisted of at least five courses. This meal was accompanied by wine for the wealthy and pulque for the middle class and was followed by a siesta, after which another jolt of caffeine in the form of chocolate was needed to whet the appetite for the late afternoon merienda, which consisted primarily of sweets and baked goods, and was a form of socializing akin to high tea. The fifth and final meal of the day was a late supper served at about ten at night and which might feature a salad, a stewed meat or chicken.

Although Prieto himself was known as a voracious eater, his typical meal-packed day was not unusual in Mexico. Foreigners, however, were overwhelmed by the frequency and size of the meals. The Journal and Correspondence of Edward Thornton Tyloe, 1825-1828, and Oliver Percival's Mexico City: An Idler's Notebook, both expressed stunned amazement at the quantities of food they were expected to eat.

Meals were, and still are, of great importance in keeping family life intact. The meal pattern itself was a kind of framework, regulating the schedules of all family members. Meals also reflected the seasons of the year, as evidenced by the fruits and vegetables being served, and the Catholic religious cycle of holy days, with strict rules of fasting and abstinence during Lent, and the prohibition of meat on Fridays. Many of the meal traditions established by the Spaniards are still followed today, although they have, of necessity, been adjusted to suit modern lifestyles.

Modern Mexican Meals

A look at the food traditions of both the pre-Hispanic people and the Spanish colonizers, as described in the chronicles and memoirs that exist to this day, reveals the modern Mexican meal to contain elements of both. Certainly the inclusion of corn in its myriad forms as a significant contribution to the daily diet is a vital culinary link to Mexico's pre-Hispanic past, while the structure of the meals still incorporates customs of the Spanish colonials. Here, then, a look at the meal times and customs in Mexico today, followed by recipes suitable for each meal:

Desayuno: Breakfast
Most Mexicans are early risers, and eat a light breakfast at home, usually around eight o'clock, before going off to work or to school. This may consist of fruit, pan dulce - sweet bread - and atole - a thick, corn-based, flavored hot drink, or coffee. Cold cereals, the same ones popular north of the border, have invaded Mexican grocery shelves in recent years and become popular with those who can afford them. A more economical, and filling, alternative is a stop at the tamale vendor's cart, where there is usually a choice of fillings, differing somewhat from region to region. The most common choices are sweet tamales, or those filled with mole sauce and bits of meat, or slices of chile. Most of the tamale carts offer atole and leche de arroz, a rice-and-milk drink, along with the option of having the tamales served in a thick French-style roll called a bolillo. The roll, tamale, and thick drink may sound like a very starchy combination, but many of the people standing at the tamale carts eating this meal will have to work for several hours before their next one, because they may not have the chance to eat brunch.

Almuerzo: Brunch
Although not possible for everyone, due to work and school schedules, it's a great way to bridge the gap between the light, early breakfast and the afternoon comida. School children are generally given a mid-morning break to eat a torta or sandwich brought from home, and the older students can be seen walking along the street eating a treat from the bakery or ice cream stand between classes. A regular almuerzo, though, is more like a good Sunday brunch, with either an egg dish, such as huevos a la mexicana, scrambled with onions, tomatoes and chiles, or a filling order of chilaquiles, a delicious dish consisting of lightly fried tortilla strips smothered in either a red or green salsa and garnished with shredded chicken, cheese, cream and onions. Some hungry souls even order steak or other grilled meat for brunch. Almuerzo is a nice, social meal to eat in a restaurant.

Comida: The Main Meal
Translating comida as "lunch", as is often done, doesn't really do it justice, for it is nothing like the gringo version of lunch and is served later than most gringos would eat lunch. It is more like the old-fashioned mid-day dinners that people ate in the United States back when a larger percentage of the population was living in small towns or on farms and the three daily meals were called breakfast, dinner, and supper. Although some businesses in Mexico City have recently adopted nine-to-five office hours, the great majority of people eat comida at home. Even in large cities, businesses usually close between two and four in the afternoon, the traditional comida time span, and there is a rush to crowd onto buses and colectivos as people of all ages make it home for the main meal.

Comida, more than any other meal, is still structured much as it was a hundred years ago. It starts off with a soup course, called the sopa aguada, which may be anything from a clear broth to a rich cream soup.

This is followed by the sopa seca, which is either a rice or pasta dish. Although rice would normally be served with the main course in many other countries, Mexican tradition dictates that it be served separately.

Next comes the main course, which may be a meat or chicken guisado - stew - or mole, meatballs in sauce, pork loin in adobo, chiles rellenos, or any of countless other regional specialties. Vegetables are usually incorporated into the main dish, such as in stews, rather than being served as a separate course.

The main course is followed by beans, for those who still have room for them, and many do. Next comes dessert, most frequently a lighter dessert than the cakes and pastries that serve as between-meal treats.

Often dessert consists of flan, gelatin, or fruit in syrup. While pitchers of fresh fruit drinks, aguas frescas, have traditionally accompanied the comida, they are being replaced more and more with powdered fruit drink mixes and soft drinks. A fresh, home made fruit agua, such as jamaica or tamarindo, is a wonderful accompaniment to the many flavors found in the comida.

Merienda: Tea Time/Cocktail Hour
While merienda is almost never referred to as such, the Spanish custom of the early evening pick-me-up is still alive and well, and may take the form of tea time or cocktail hour, depending on the mood and social circumstance. Between five and eight, the cafes and bars fill up with people getting off work or just meeting to socialize. This isn't a meal as such, but rather a snack in the form of coffee, tea or the increasingly popular capucchino, often taken with pastry, or, alternatively, cocktails and botanas, which are most often salty "munchies" such as peanuts toasted with chile and garlic. The term merienda has become almost as antiquated as the colonial custom of having friends in for this snack, which has taken to the cafes instead. It is, however, sometimes used to refer to the light meal given to very young children before being put to bed for the night.

Cena: Supper
The last meal of the day, cena can be anything from comida leftovers to a meal in a small restaurant or café. Called the "meal of love" during colonial times, cena is still a popular venue for dates, and couples can been seen in restaurants, holding hands over plates of food, at around nine or ten at night. When eaten at home, cena is often an impromptu affair, with some creative combinations of whatever is on hand. Eaten out, it is often taken in the form of night-time street food, which is clearly different from day-time street food. In the morning there are tamales, atole, and a bit later on, gorditas and molotes, corn-cake type snacks.

Tacos, however, rule the night. Tacos arabes, al pastor, and tacos de carnitas, tacos de higado, de buche, and tacos de suadero, among others, all of them different names for various types of meat which are taken from the grill sizzling hot and stuffed into tortillas, to be garnished with chopped onions, cilantro, guacamole and salsa. Sometimes, for a light, at-home cena, people opt for the chocolate, sweet rolls and coffee normally associated with morning.

Sunday: Something Special

With most people home from work on Sundays, many forgo the early desayuno and opt instead for a big brunch. Chilaquiles, chicken with mole sauce, platters of tamales with a variety of fillings, are all apt to be found on the Sunday brunch table. Many butcher shops feature freshly-cooked pork rinds, to be taken home and incorporated into the almuerzo, and with many towns having a Sunday market, the best of the season's fresh fruit is likely to be part of this meal.

After a visit to one of the many parks, museums, and other public attractions (museums in Mexico are free on Sundays) there is no rush for an early comida, and the main meal is often begun as late as four o'clock, instead of the usual two or three. Whether eaten at home or in a restaurant, it is a long, leisurely affair, with the best that the region, season, and budget have to offer. The sight of a large Mexican family having Sunday comida in a restaurant is awesome indeed, and something to make the above-mentioned Guillermo Prieto proud. Whether it be the late-summer season for chiles en nogada or time for spring's Lenten seafood offerings, families take advantage of the best of the local bounty, and display an insurpassed appreciation for it.

The long comida does not preclude cena, only postpone it, and on Sunday nights people in nearly every town in Mexico stroll the zocalo, permitting the children to stay up well past their weekday bedtime, sampling what the vendors have to offer. Boiled or roasted ears of corn in colors ranging from nearly white to deep blue-green, often garnished with grated cheese and ground chile, as well as thick, salsa-soaked, chicken or pork-filled rolls called pambazos, compete with King Taco to tempt the taste buds and provide a satisfying conclusion to the day of rest and relaxation.

For ordering information: karenhg@mexconnect.com


Recipes

 

Desayuno y Almuerzo: Breakfast and Brunch Suggestions

  1. Café de Olla: Mexican Coffee
  2. Atole: Mexican Breakfast Drink
  3. Conchas: Shells - A Mexican Sweet Bread
  4. Huevos Ahogados: Poached Eggs in Poblano-Tomato Sauce

La Comida: Recipes for a Traditional Five-Course Menu

  1. Sopa de Ajo: Garlic Soup
  2. Arroz Blanco Con verduras: White Rice with Vegetables
  3. Pollo en Salsa de Almendra: Chicken in Almond Sauce
  4. Frijoles de la Olla: Beans in Their Own Broth
  5. Flan de Coco: Coconut Flan

Merienda: Tea Time Nibbles or Cocktail Snacks

  1. Torrija: Cake in Syrup
  2. Botana de Atun: Tuna Cocktail Canapes

Cena: For Those Late Night Cravings

  1. Taquitos: Fried Filled Tortillas
  2. Elotes: Mexican-Style Corn-on-the-Cob

 

Desayuno y Almuerzo: Breakfast and Brunch Suggestions

Café de Olla: Mexican Coffee

In Mexico, coffee is generally taken sweet, and the traditional recipe calls for it to be flavored with sugar and cinnamon in the pot, or olla, before it is brought to the table. It is drunk late at night as well as in the morning, and served at just about any time people need to spend the night en velas- literally"by candle light" -meaning to stay up all night. Many visitors to Mexico get so addicted to this coffee that they find out how to prepare it so that they can continue drinking it at home. It has a distinctive flavor of its own that does not require the addition of milk.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons medium-grind coffee
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar or piloncillo, or to taste

Bring the water to boil in a medium saucepan, add the coffee, cinnamon and sugar and continue boiling for 30 seconds. Remove cinnamon, stir and strain into mugs.

Serves 4.

Atole: Mexican Breakfast Drink

Atole is a nutritious corn-masa based drink, with a history that goes back to the Aztecs, who flavored it with everything from honey to chiles, depending upon the occasion and, at times, on the desired affect, because atole was held to have curative properties when prepared with certain additions - chile for colds and weakness of the heart, epazote to strengthen the entire body. Some of the ancient atoles were made with chia rather than corn, but in modern Mexico corn masa is the base for atole, and many instant atole mixes made with cornstarch are available in supermarkets in a wide range of flavors.

Ingredients:

  • 6 ounces fresh corn masa or masa made with masa harina
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Dissolve the masa in the water, strain it into a medium-sized saucepan, add the cinnamon stick and bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for about 15 minutes, or until the mixture thickens.

Add the milk, sugar and vanilla, and bring the mixture to a boil once again, stirring to prevent scalding. It should have the consistency of heavy cream. Additional milk may be added to thin it if desired.

Remove the cinnamon stick and serve hot in mugs.

Serves 6-8.

Variation: Fruit atole Add 1/2 lb. fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, peaches, gueva, mango) pureed and strained, just as the atole is coming to its second boil, after adding the milk.

Conchas: Shells - A Mexican Sweet Bread

Sweet bread - pan dulce - is an important, and sometimes the only, part of breakfast, and is also occasionally served as a light supper, almost always accompanied by hot chocolate or coffee. There are said to be over five hundred different varieties of sweet bread in Mexico, with some estimates going as high as two thousand. The fact that the same bread may be called by many names, according to region, probably accounts for the higher figure; however, the following shell- shaped pastries are nearly always called just that, conchas.

Ingredients:

  • 6 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 package active dry yeast (.25 oz.)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 5 cups sifted flour
  • 2 eggs

For the topping.

  • 2/3 cup flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup lard or vegetable shortening
  • 3 egg yolks

In a small saucepan, combine the lard or vegetable shortening with the milk and heat to 110º F.

In a large bowl, combine the yeast, salt, sugar and 2 1/2 cups of the flour. Add warm milk mixture and combine thoroughly. Turn onto floured board and knead. Work in the eggs and enough of the remaining flour to form a stiff dough, and knead until the dough is smooth, elastic and not sticky.

Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a greased bowl, cover it with a clean tea towel and let it stand in a draft-free place until doubled in bulk, approximately 20 minutes.

Punch the dough down and turn it onto a floured board. Knead 5 minutes, then divide the dough into 15 equal portions, shape into balls and place them on greased baking sheets.

Make the topping by combining the flour, sugar, lard and egg yolks in a bowl.

When the topping is well mixed, divide it into 15 portions, shape them into balls and flatten to form small pancakes.

Place a "pancake" onto each ball of dough, and score with a knife to resemble seashells.

Conchas are usually scored both lengthwise and crosswise, but may also be scored in curving parallel lines to resemble scallop shells, or in concentric circles.

Cover the sweet rolls loosely with a tea towel and allow them to rise another 40 minutes, or until doubled in bulk.

Bake in a preheated 350º F oven until lightly browned. This should take about 30 minutes, but begin checking after 20 minutes, because the conchas will become hard if overbaked.

Makes 15.

Huevos Ahogados: Poached Eggs in Poblano-Tomato Sauce

This delicious and visually appealing egg dish is served at almuerzo in Mexico, but would be fine for an earlier breakfast, especially if the sauce is prepared in advance.

Ingredients:

  • 4 roma tomatoes
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 medium white onion, peeled and sliced
  • 4 cups water
  • salt to taste
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons oil, divided
  • 3 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and deveined, and cut into strips
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 cup grated asadero, jack or mozzarella cheese

Place the tomato, garlic and onion in a blender with 1 cup of the water and salt to taste.

Heat one tablespoon of the oil in a saucepan, strain the tomato puree into it, add the thyme and bay leaf and cook, stirring, for 15-20 minutes. The sauce will thicken as the flavors develop.

Add three cups of water to the sauce and bring it to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. The sauce will have thinned considerably with the addition of the water, necessary for successful poaching.

While the water is coming to a boil, saute the chile strips in the remaining tablespoon of oil and add them to the sauce.

Carefully crack the eggs, one at a time, onto a large spoon and slide each from the spoon into the sauce.

Cover the saucepan and cook until the egg whites are done, 3-4 minutes.

Turn off the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the eggs, cover until melted, and serve immediately. Frijoles de olla (below) are a good accompaniment, along with fresh, hot tortillas.

Serves 6.

 

La Comida: Recipes for a Traditional Five-Course Menu

Sopa de Ajo: Garlic Soup

This wonderfully fragrant soup, in addition to being a delicious first course for the comida, could be served, accompanied by a tossed green salad and some crusty bread, as a gringo-style lunch or light supper. My daughters regard it as a great comfort food, especially when they feel flu-y.

Ingredients:

  • 1 head garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-2 arbol chiles, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, drained and seeded
  • 2 roma tomatoes
  • 1 quart hot chicken or vegetable broth
  • salt to taste
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten

For garnish:

  • Croutons made with French bread sauteed in butter
  • Crumbled queso fresco or feta cheese
  • Chopped parsley

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the oil and butter, add the garlic and saute until just golden.

Puree the chile and tomatoes and add the puree to the garlic.

Cook until thick, add the broth and bring to a boil. Add salt to taste.

Lower the heat and add the eggs in a thin stream, stirring constantly.

Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with croutons, cheese and parsley and serve immediately.

Serves 6 as a first course.

Arroz Blanco Con verduras: White Rice with Vegetables

The rice or pasta dish is the second course of the comida, and can be either boring or not, depending on the cook. I like to vary the colors and textures of a comida so that, for example, with the red tomato-based garlic soup, above, I would serve something other than a red tomato-based rice or pasta dish. The following recipe is made especially flavorful by the addition of cream cheese, widely known in Mexico as queso filadelfia, from the best-selling name brand.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups milk, divided
  • 2 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 cup rice, soaked in warm water, thoroughly rinsed and allowed to dry
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferrably corn oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 green onions or scallions, including green part, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms
  • 1 cup water or broth
  • 1 sprig epazote (optional)
  • 1 cup cooked or thawed corn kernels
  • salt to taste

In a blender, puree 1/2 cup of the milk with the cream cheese and set aside.

In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan or cazuela, heat the oil, add the rice and saute, stirring, until it forms clumps.

Add the garlic, onion and mushrooms and continue to saute, stirring, until the rice separates into individual grains.

Add the water or broth and epazote, and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer until the water has just been absorbed.

Add the cup of milk that was not blended with the cheese, cover again, and continue to cook over low heat until the milk has just been absorbed.

Remove from heat, stir in corn, pour the cheese mixture over all, cover and let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Serves 6.

Pollo en Salsa de Almendra: Chicken in Almond Sauce

This dish is easy but elegant, and makes a good make-ahead company meal, as well as a delicious every-day comida. It may be prepared in advance and reheated, covered, over low heat.

Ingredients:

  • 1 3 1/2 -4 lb. chicken, cut up into serving pieces
  • 1/2 medium white onion, studded with 2 cloves
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 6-8 whole black peppercorns
  • water to cover
  • salt or powdered chicken boullion to taste
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferrably corn oil
  • 4 oz. peeled, blanched almonds
  • 4 hard-boiled egg yolks
  • 4 slices day-old bread, torn into pieces

Place the chicken, onion, garlic, peppercorns, water to cover and salt or boullion to taste in a stockpot, bring to a boil, lower heat and cook until the chicken is tender, making sure to remove breast pieces when they are just cooked through, since they will become rubbery if cooked the same length of time required for dark meat. Remove the cooked chicken, strain the stock and reserve.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet, add the cooked chicken pieces and saute until golden. Remove and keep warm, covered.

Place the almonds, egg yolks, bread and 1 cup of the reserved broth in a blender and puree. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in the skillet, add the almond puree and cook, stirring, 5-10 minutes.

Add broth as necessary, a little at a time, to form a medium-thick sauce. Return the chicken to the pan and heat through. Serve the chicken covered with generous helpings of sauce.

Serves 6.

Frijoles de la Olla: Beans in Their Own Broth

This is the classic bean dish which is brought to the table in a large bowl or clay cazuela after the main course has been eaten, for those who would like to help themselves to more food. It is the basis for innumerable other dishes, such as refried beans, ranch-style beans, and bean soups. In the north and central parts of the country, pinto beans are popular, whereas black beans are more commonly served in the south. Vegetable oil may be used in place of lard, but the beans will not have the same authentic flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups dried pinto beans, sorted and washed, soaked overnight and drained
  • 1 medium white onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons lard
  • 2 sprigs epazote
  • 4 quarts water
  • salt to taste

For garnish:

  • Chopped onion
  • Shredded cheese
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Chopped fresh green chiles

Place the beans in a large cazuela - clay pot - or stockpot, with the onion, garlic, lard, epazote and 4 quarts of water. Do not add salt until the beans have finished cooking. Cover and cook for four hours or intil tender.

Alternatively, the beans may be cooked in a pressure cooker - olla express - as is frequently done nowadays in Mexico, following manufacturer's instructions.

When the beans are done, remove about one cup of them and mash or puree them with some of their liquid.

Add the mashed beans back to the pot, and continue cooking a few more minutes, until the mashed beans have thickened the bean broth a bit.

Add salt to taste. Serve the beans in the clay pot or an attractive, heat-proof bowl, with the garnishes served separately so that each diner may add them to taste.

Serves 6.

Flan de Coco: Coconut Flan

This is a quick, easy and delicious dessert. Like any flan, it needs to be prepared in advance and refrigerated. There are many instant flan mixes in Mexico that are now widely used by housewives-in-a-hurry, but none of them is as good as home made. This one, although requiring only a few minutes of preparation time, tastes like it took much longer.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/3 cups whole milk
  • 1 2/3 cups sweetened condensed milk
  • 3 eggs plus 3 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup sweetened, flaked coconut

Mix the milks, eggs and vanilla until well-combined. Stir in the flaked coconut and pour the mixture into 6 individual custard cups or a larger flan mold. Place the cups or mold in a large baking pan, and fill it with water to a depth of 1".

Bake in a preheated 350º oven for 30-35 minutes, or until a knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. A flan mold will take longer to bake than individual cups. Allow to cool then refrigerate at least two hours before serving.

Serves 6.

 

Merienda: Tea Time Nibbles or Cocktail Snacks

Torrija: Cake in Syrup

If your late afternoon-early evening refreshment takes the form of a coffee or tea break, this dish goes well with either and is easy to make for unexpected company. Although sometimes translated as "French toast", torrija is sliced cake, fried and served in syrup. This is very easy to do with store bought pound cake, one of the staples of Mexican corner groceries.

Ingredients:

  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 6 slices of pound cake
  • 3-4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup Tres Coronas or other sweet sherry
  • 3-4 allspice berries
  • 1 stick cinnamon

Beat the egg whites until frothy, fold in the yolks and dip each slice of cake into the egg mixture. Melt the butter in a large skillet and fry the cake slices, two or three at a time, on both sides, adding more butter as necessary. Place on paper-towels.

In a medium saucepan, boil the sugar and water together until a syrup is formed. Add the sherry, allspice berries and cinnamon stick, lower heat and cook another 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Place the cake slices in the syrup and continue to simmer another 5 minutes. Remove them carefully and serve in dessert dishes.

Serves 6.

Botana de Atun: Tuna Cocktail Canapes

If a cocktail is more your idea of an early evening pick-me-up, something salty, rather than sweet, is served with it. In Mexico, canned tuna and sardines are among the most popular foods to accompany an impromtu round of drinks. They are easy to keep on hand and lend themselves to many variations. The following recipe can be prepared quickly for drop-in guests and is served with crackers.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cans tuna, drained
  • 2 firm-ripe avocados, cut into small cubes
  • 2 jicamas, peeled and cut into small cubes
  • olive oil and lime juice to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and serve with crackers. This is also a good filling for stuffed tomatoes, and makes enough to stuff 6 large tomatoes. Another way to serve it as a snack is to roll it in lettuce leaves, folded like little tacos.

 

Cena: For Those Late Night Cravings

Taquitos: Fried Filled Tortillas

In Mexico, tacos are soft and taquitos are crispy. Tacos are garnished by piling on the chopped onions, salsa, and other condiments before folding over the tortilla, and taquitos are fried first and garnished on the outside. Just about any filling, like the leftover chicken from the comida, can be used in taquitos. Any cooked salsa (as opposed to salsa fresca, which uses chopped raw ingredients) that you have on hand can be used to top it, along with Mexican crema, créme fraîche, or sour cream. Guacamole, if you have some, is also a nice garnish for taquitos, which are eaten with the fingers.

Ingredients:

  • 12 soft corn tortillas
  • 2 cups shredded cooked chicken, beef or other meat
  • lard or vegetable oil for frying
  • 1- 1 1/2 cups red or green salsa
  • Mexican crema, créme fraîche or sour cream

Divide the shredded chicken or meat evenly among the tortillas, roll them tightly, and fasten with toothpicks. Heat the lard or oil in a large skillet, add the taquitos and fry until golden brown on the bottom, then turn and fry the other side. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve with salsa spooned on top, and a garnish of crema.

Serves 6.

Elotes: Mexican-Style Corn-on-the-Cob

This is one of those street foods that's so easy to make at home, but more fun to eat as you walk along, holding the wooden stick on which the corn is skewered, juice dripping down your chin. The combination of condiments may seem unlikely at first, but it's another one of those foods that foreigners get addicted to once they've tasted it. If you don't have a chance to try this in Mexico, serve it at an outdoor party. It would be especially easy to do at the beach or on a camping trip, since all that's needed is a pot of boiling water or a grill.

Ingredients:

  • 6 ears of corn, boiled or roasted
  • 1 1/2 cups mayonaise
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese (the kind in the shaker can, not freshly-grated)
  • chile piquin powder, or other powdered, dry chile, to taste

Immediately after taking out of the water or off the grill, insert a wooden skewer into the wide end of each cob of corn, slather with mayonaise, sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese, and dust with chile to taste.

Makes 6 servings.



(Return to Introduction.)


THE MEXICAN KITCHEN SERIAL COOKBOOK

Published or Updated on: February 26, 2009 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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