World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Mexico



Champurrado. Cham-purrrrr-ado. It’s sounds so fiesty. At it’s most loose it is a hot chocolate and spice drink that is thickened with corn meal. As a member of a group of Mexican corn-based drinks called atoles it is a most often compared to the Eastern-based milk tea, chai.

In it’s simplest form it is milk and piloncillo, a type of brown sugar, is brought to a boiling point while the masa harina is browned in a skillet. So simple but such a complex earthy taste. Due to it’s somewhat filling nature it can be served as a late afternoon merienda (snack) or as a simple breakfast with churros. However it is during Christmas time posadas where it is served alongside tamales that you’ll find huge pots and big crowds.

Not to wander too much here but…in 16th century Mexico, Aztecs celebrated the arrival of Huitzilopochtli, the war god, from Dec. 7 to 24. During the time of the Spanish missionaries this celebration was replaced with the European Christmas traditions to replace the pagan images with those of Mary and Joseph. Posada, a Christmas festival which plays out the search of Joseph and Mary seeking lodging, are celebrated in churches and missions with dramatic representations of the Nativity scene.

It’s probably one of the first fusion foods with the Spaniards milk and sugar marrying with the native corn of Mexico. The secret to making this comforting traditional beverage is to continually stir. The consistency should be thicker than that of hot chocolate.


Chocolate Atole

Adapted from California Rancho Cooking by Jacqueline Higuera McMahan

1/3 cup ground masa harina

1 tablespoon cornstarch

½ cup water

4 cups milk

¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed

Dash of cinnamon

1 ounce bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

1 tspn vanilla extract

Instructions: Add the masa harina and cornstarch to the cold water and whisk to dissolve all the lumps. Add the mixture to the milk and brown sugar in a saucepan deep enough to allow room for whisking. Stir over low heat. Once the champurrado has begun to slightly thicken, after 10 minutes, add the chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla bean. The tiny granules of corn should take about 20 minutes to well and thicken up. All at once it will seem, the liquid will become smooth and velvet like. Serve with the cinnamon stick. Serves 4

Rosca de Reyes


The last two weeks has seen quite of a lot of requests for this post from the archive. So here’s a piece of Rosca de Reyes for everyone all around!

Today marks the end of the Christmas holiday in many parts of the world. Twelfth Night or The Epiphany is also often referred to as Three Kings Day in some parts of the world. At feasts marking the occasion, there is often a special bread or cake with a bean, coin, or figurine baked in it. The person getting the piece with the good luck token becomes the Twelfth Night King or Queen, leading revelers in merrymaking.

The day celebrates the Biblical story of the three gift-bearing kings who reached the Christ child on January 6 after following the star of Bethlehem. According to the story, the Three Wise Men– named (Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar – presented the Baby Jesus with gifts of gold (spiritual wealth of Jesus), frankincense (the image of the earth and sky) and myrrh (for medicinal and spiritual use).

Traditionally in Mexico, Three Kings Day was the gift-giving time, rather than Christmas day. In some rural regions of Mexico it is customary for children to leave their shoes out on the night of January 5, often filling them with hay for the camels, in hopes that the Three Kings would be generous. Mexican children would awake on January 6 to find their shoes filled with toys and gifts. Today many will write a letter to the kings (or choose one king as their favorite) asking for their special gifts and will leave the letter on the eve of Three Kings Day in an old shoe, under a bed.

In many cultures the day is commemorated with a Three Kings Cake. In Germany it is known as Dreikönigskuchen and is made with pecans and fruit. The French take is Galette des Rois is a typically a puff pastry filled with frangipane (almond cream) and a simple syrup icing. Many of us are here in the States are more familiar with its colorful and close cousin from New Orleans. In Mexico and Spain the “cake,” Rosca de Reyes is a bit more brioche like and flavored with lemon and orange zests, brandy, orange flower water and almonds.

The Rosca de Reyes, "kings ring" is a crown-shaped sweet bread decorated with pieces of candied orange and lime resembling the jewels of a crown.  It is often filled with nuts, figs, and cherries. Into this bread is baked a small plastic doll symbolizing a secure place away from Herod´s army where the infant child could be born. As each piece is cut with a knife, symbolizing the danger in which the Baby Jesus was in, everyone carefully checks their slice, hopping they didn’t get the figurine as they will need to host, Candelaria or Candle mass day. This day, February 2, is exactly, 40 days after Christmas when the Virgin Mary was purified. The nativity scene is put away and the baby Jesus, in the form of a porcelain doll, is clothed in his christening gown and presented in church.

Like pan de muertos, many women still prepare the breads at home.  Today, however, more and more families go to local bakeries where small versions serving two-three people and huge breads for 20 can be bought.  Tamales and hot chocolate can also be found on the feast table at this time.

Patricia Rain’s Rosca de Reyes recipe

Día de Los Muertos


This is now the annual post for this holiday.   The image is one I took during a trip to Oaxaca during this festival period three years ago.  These handmade items are ornaments for the ritual bread made during this time. It’s also the most requested image via Google Images. I’m certain that my photograph is being re-appropriated from here to Mexico.  Good spirit karma, perhaps.

Last year during my two week visit to Oaxaca for Día de Los Muertos the aroma of sweet bread gently woke me during my stay in Oaxaca City. The inn’s neighbor was one of the largest family bakeries specializing in pan de muertos.

Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is celebrated throughout Mexico on Nov. 1st and 2nd, with some activities beginning on the evening of Oct. 31. The first evening, (Nov. 1) is for remembering los angelitos (children) who have died; the second evening is dedicated to honoring adults.

According to Chloe Sayer, author of The Mexican Day of the Dead, the festival period is a confluence of the “conquest of what is now Mexico by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century fused” with “the Aztec idea that life is but a momentary dream and the medieval European notion of death as the great equalizer, stripping the vanities and pretensions of rich and poor alike.” I think it’s a wonderful celebration of life, food and an experience that everyone should have at least once in their lifetime.

Día de Los Muertos is what happens when a conquering people show up after 1,000 years of cultural ritual. Accommodations were required for the new house guests stuck on staying. It’s a complex mix of indigenous pre-Hispanic spiritualism and Roman Catholicism which was adopted after the Spanish conquest. Today it still is a celebratory and honored time throughout Mexico and in some parts of California and Arizona. I would also say one vast difference between the two holidays is that the Anglo-Saxon holiday of Halloween is all about the scary aspect of the dead and in Mexico the dead are remembered and their lives celebrated.

The influence of traditional Aztec beliefs of death and afterlife, can be seen everywhere during this time. Each region of Mexico has it’s own cultural practices. The state of Oaxaca (wha-HAH-kah) is one of the most popular destinations due to it’s rich traditions around the period. I’d like to think it’s because of the connection of the food, family, friends and tradition. It probably has more to do with Oaxaca’s central geography in Mexico leaving it to be a bit more rural and as a result less apt to be influence by outside influences.

Unfortunately, it was a bit disappointing to me while in Oaxaca to see the influence of the Halloween holiday—and not in a positive way. According to some reports this holiday was first celebrated in the late 1960s but became even more of a presence in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s, after Mexico joined the United States and Canada in NAFTA.

The Aztecs believed that strong scents could lure the dead back to the land of the living and as a result strong scent of copal incense is used to help spirits find their way to this world. It hangs heavy in the air where ever you go–graveyards, markets, and homes–where ever there’s an altar. Flowers adorning altars and tombstones symbolize the shortness of life. The traditional flower is the zempoalxochitl (literally "twenty flowers" in the Nahuatl language but commonly known as "the flower of the dead"), a type of marigold. Arranged on the altar they may also be found sprinkled from the dead’s gravesite to the home, creating a pathway. The pungent scent also helps the guide the souls.

During this time many Mexicans participate in masked processions, and build elaborate home altars covered with marigolds, candles, and photos. Ofrendas (offerings) of the deceased’s favorite food and drink are put out. Families stay up all night awaiting the arrival of the masked muertos who arrive with a small brass band to raise the dead through dancing and a lot of mescal drinking along the way.

Along with remembrances and prayers for the deceased, it’s also a time of rejoicing, a reunion for living family members who have come from afar and for those deceased, who presumably have traveled even farther.

Food traditions surrounding Día de las Muertos include bringing food and liquor to graveyard picnics, some bring along entire BBQ grills; placing photos of deceased loved ones, candles, incense, candied skulls and religious symbols on the tombstone and also on home altars.

Food and beverage offerings differ for children and adult spirits. Children are provided with fruits, tamales and sweets such as calaveritas de azúcar, candy and dulce de calabaza, or even a small pan de muerto. Beverages may include chocolate, atole and yes, even soft drinks.

Food offerings for adults tend to be spicier. Favorites are chicken or turkey mole, tamales, enchiladas or other foods the deceased was particularly fond of. Beverages include alcoholic mescal, pulque, beer, chocolate and coffee.

Water is always offered, on the altar, after all wouldn’t you be thirsty after a long trip?

One of the most important and commonly found foods during this time is the pan de muertos, (bread of the dead) a must as an ofrendas, at the cemetery or home altars. This sweet Mexican egg bread is baked beginning from mid-October to mid-November, specifically to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

The loaves of bread, weighing any where from 1 to 2 pounds, are shaped into large circular hojaldra (puffed bread). These are then decorated with bone-shaped pieces of the bread dough called huesitos (little bones). The bones are said to symbolize perpetual life. In some parts of Mexico the bread is decorated with sesame seeds; in Mexico City sugar is sprinkled on top.

Villagers in the more rural areas outside of Oaxaca City, will often bring a large sack of flour, dozens of eggs and the other necessary ingredients including embellishments, usually ovals with various faces painted on them (picture above), and take it all to the local baker for preparation and baking. Each loaf is said to represent an individual soul.

Now for the good and bad news. This bread is addictive. That’s the good news. It’s also labor intensive. Bad news. The upside is that this recipe makes enough to satiate the obsessed. The last time I made it I was visiting my friends Samantha and Chris in Denver. I met them during the culinary tour of Oaxaca. Chris was always looking for this bread in Oaxaca. So it’s probably wise that his wife is a master at this recipe. She made it look simple. Between three of us we ate two large loaves in a 12-hour period. Chris is a King of Moles. He’ll be here tomorrow as guest writer.

What I like to do is serve it with a bowl of strong, frothy agua de chocolate so that I can dip the soft pieces of bread into the chocolate.


Excerpted from My Mexican Kitchen by Diana Kennedy

The starter can be made ahead or the day before. (Any leftover can be frozen but is best used right away.) In fact, the final mixture can be kneaded and then left overnight in the refrigerator – which I do to help it develop a better flavor – and brought up to room temperature before forming an the final rising.

Yield: 1 large bread, about 11 inches in diameter, or three small ones

The Starter

1 pound (roughly 4 cups) unbleached flour, plus extra for bowl and working surface
1 ¼ teaspoons sea salt, finely ground
2 ounces (1/3 cup) sugar
Scant 1 ounce (3 scant Tablespoons) crumbled cake yeast or 1½ scant Tablespoons
Dry yeast
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
3 large eggs, lightly beaten

Put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a mixing bowl and gradually beat in the water and eggs. Continue beating until the dough forms a cohesive mass around the dough hook; it should be sticky, elastic and shiny about 5 minutes. Turn the formed dough onto a floured board and form into a round shape. Butter and flour a clean bowl. Place the dough in it and cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place – ideally 70°F – until the dough doubles in volume, about 2 hours.

Final Dough

The Starter torn into small pieces
8 ounces (1 cup) sugar
7 ounces (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing baking sheets
1 pound unbleached flour, plus extra for board and bowl
8 egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 Tablespoons water
¼ cup water, approximately
1 teaspoon orange flower water and/or grated rind of 1 orange

4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
¼ cup melted unsalted butter, approximately
1/3 cup sugar, approximately

Liberally grease 4 baking sheets (for both breads while proofing).
Put the starter, sugar and butter into a mixing bowl and mix well, gradually beating in the flour and egg yolks alternately. Beat in the water and flavoring, you should have slightly sticky, smooth, shiny dough that just holds its shape (since eggs, flours and climates differ, you may need to reduce or increase the liquid). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a round cushion shape.

Wash out mixing bowl, butter and flour it, and replace the dough in it. Cover with greased plastic wrap and a towel and set aside in a warm place – ideally about 70°F – for about 1½ hours, until it almost doubles in size, or set aside overnight in the bottom of the refrigerator.

Bring the dough up to room temperature before attempting to work with it. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and divide the dough into two equal pieces. Set one aside for forming later. Take three quarters of the dough and roll it into a smooth ball. Press it out to a circle about 8 inches in diameter – it should be about 1-inch thick. Press all around the edge to form a narrow ridge – like the brim of a hat – and transfer to one of the greased baking sheets. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place (about 70°F) to rise about half its size – about 1 hour. Taking the remaining one-quarter of the dough, divide it into four equal parts. Roll one of the parts into a smooth ball. Roll the other 3 strips about 8 inches long, forming knobs as you go for the "bones." Transfer the four pieces to another greased tray, cover loosely with greased plastic wrap, and set aside to rise for about 1 hour.

Repeat these steps to form the second bread with the other piece of dough that was set aside. Heat oven to 375°F.

At the end of the rising period, carefully place the strips of dough forming the "bones" across the main part of the bread, place the round ball in the middle to form the "skull," and press your finger in hard to form the eye sockets. Brush the surface of the dough well with the beaten yolks and bake at the top of the oven until well browned and springy – about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the door, and let the bread sit there for about 5 minutes more. Remove from the oven, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle well with sugar.

Lovely Leftovers – Chilaquiles


Since Thanksgiving I’ve made tukey chilaquiles, which begat sopa de tortilla with turkey, and also breakfast for the week with a pecan sweet potato cranberry quick bread.

I love chilaquiles. Primavera, at the Saturday market makes a remarkable version.  In California, the Southwest and all throughout Mexico and down into Guatemala chilaquiles, pronounced "chee-lah-KEE-lehs" is a practical and tasty way to extend the life of stale corn tortillas and now turkey.

Editor’s Note: This is my entry for Slashfood’s Lovely Leftovers event.

Tagged with Recipes, Lovely Leftovers

Simple Turkey Chilaquiles (adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen)

Serves 4

Combine in a large skillet a full recipe of the sauce (below) with 2 cups of broth and about 1 1/2 cups shredded leftover turkey. Turkey should be warm before beginning next step.

Add 8 cups (8oz.) of tortilla chips (preferably thick ones), a handful of epazote leaves (can sub with 1 cup or 2 sliced chard or spinach). Cover and simmer over medium-high heat for 3 minutes, until the chips are softening.  Uncover, stir well–you don’t want mushy chips.  Spoon onto plates and sprinkle generously with crumbled Mexican either queso añejo, cotija or Parmesan.

Salsa de Chile Chipotle y Jitomate – Essential Quick – Cooked Tomato-Chipotle Sauce

Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen

Makes 2 cups

3-4 canned chiles chipotles en adobo

4 garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 1/2 pounds (3 medium-large round or 9 to 12 plum) ripe tomatoes

1 tblspn rich -tasting lard, olive or vegetable oil

Salt, about 1/2 tsp


Remove canned chiles from the adobo.

On a heavy, ungreased skillet over medium  heat roast the unpeeled garlic, turning occasionally, until blackened in spots and soft, about 12-15 minutes.  Cool, slip off the papery skins, and roughly chop.

Lay the tomatoes on a baking sheet and place about 4" below a very hot broiler.  When they blister, blacken and soften on one side, about 6 minutes, turn them over and roast on the other side.  Cool, then peel, collecting all the juices with the tomatoes.

Scrape the tomatoes and their juices into a food processor or blender and add the chiles and garlic. Pulse the machine until the mixture is nearly a puree–it should have a little more texture than canned tomato sauce.

Heat the lard or oil in a heavy, medium-size (2-to 3-quart) saucepan over  medium-high. When hot enough to  make a drop of the puree sizzle sharply, add it all at once and stir for about 5 minutes as it sears and concentrates to an earthy, red, thickish sauce–about the consistency of a medium-thick spaghetti sauce.  Taste and season with saltSauce will keep for several days, covered and refrigerated. 

Holy Mole!


Part II of the series that ran last year on Oaxaca and the Day of the Dead.  This post written by Chris Carter.  Who excels in this category of Mexican cooking, his cajeta is fantastico also!

Written by Chris Carter

As we stepped through the wide iron gates of the cemetery at Xoxocotlan Cemetery in Oaxaca City well into the evening on October 31st a brass band struck up a jaunty tune. The enclosed space, crowded with people and illuminated in candles, was beyond anything I had seen in magazines about Day of the Dead celebrations– in the United States you rarely see hundreds of people in a cemetery at night, let alone with a brass brand. I was here for two reasons—to witness this cultural ritual first hand and to master the preparation for the king of all moles, Mole Negro Oaxaqueno (black mole). This task would be facilitated through Susanna Trilling and her school, Seasons of My Heart.

Oaxaca, in food circles, is known as the land of Seven Moles. This Mexican sauce made of ground nuts, seeds, chocolate and spices takes its name from molli, from the language of the pre-Colombian Nahuatl Indians in Mexico, and loosely translates as mixture. The Mexican state of Oaxaca is famous for its seven moles, often called the Seven Sisters.

Mole (pronounced MO-lay) preparation and especially mole negro, is complex and a difficult sauce to make. It contrasts greatly with both our culinary practices and general way of life in America. Rachael Ray need not apply as this is no 30-minute meal. It can actually take days to make and generally contains 20 to 30 ingredients. It is also not a simmer all day and forget about it dish either, as it can require a couple hours of constant, attentive stirring. It can actually be heartbreaking to dump a batch of inedible mole down the drain after three days of hard work. In my case it took several of these down-the-drain experiences and a trip South to perfect the dish before I could produce a passable traditional black mole.

The difficulty of the dish is due in part to the fact that the sauce does not lend itself to the rote following of directions. The end goal for a great mole is a single deep rich flavor. How do you know if you are tasting a quality mole? You should not be able to individually identify any of the 20-30 single ingredients, which requires the deft hand of the mole maker to balance all the aspects of the sauce– the sweetness from the fruit and nuts, with the heat from the chilies, and in many cases the richness of the chocolate added to the mole. Black mole requires a step where you deeply blacken the chilies followed by igniting and burning the seeds of the chilies to give the mole the classic delicate burnt undertones that add distinctiveness and complexity. After all the ingredients are prepared they are pureed together. In Oaxaca this ability and skill is acknowledged with a “buen sazon” which according to our instructor Susanna Trilling means “good taste buds or palate, combined with a good hand for seasoning.”

“Black mole always has to be the star” according to Rick Bayless in his cookbook, Mexican Kitchen. This can be generally interpreted as serving rice and fresh tortillas on the side of the dish to sop up the sauce. In America where meat is plentiful and usually the focus of a special meal, in Mexican cooking the sauce is typically the centerpiece with the meat—turkey or chicken–as a luxury. Zarela Martinez states in her book The Food and Life of Oaxaca “an understated foil to the fascinating textures and nuances of the sauces”.

If you take the time to make the black mole recipe below from Susanna Trilling you will certainly have an extravagant, richly complex, and deeply flavored dish for a special occasion. Relative to all the contrasts between Oaxaca and America listed above, it is actually harder to make Mole here than in Oaxaca where all the ingredients can be ground for you at local molino or mill. Here are a few practical tips to make preparing and serving black mole easier and more enjoyable:  continue on for mole recipe

Photo credit: J. Brophy

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Taco Trucks

Laperla2 The flight of anxiety is now past.  As a way to celebrate I went to lunch.  This is a bit of an event in that I work in an industrial park 50 miles south of San Francisco.  I am surrounded by options such as Chili’s, Denny’s, Friday’s and Teriakyi Bowls.  There are a few places that I have discovered–that surprisingly no one here at work has ventured to. Today’s celebration was to a recently discovered Taco Truck.  I was so thrilled when I came back from lunch.  Everyone, huddled over cold pizza leftover from the senior staff meetings, wanted to know how it was that I could eat food off a truck. 

What most people don’t know is that trucks must follow the same food safety and sanitation requirements as restaurants.  It is after all a restaurant on wheels. 

Today, I had a guava juice, a birria and two carne asadas tacos on fresh corn tortillas splashed with spicy fresh cilantro and onions.  All for $5.25.  The carne asada was remarkable.  Simple pleasures after a few stressful days.

Photos:  JB (with the new Sony Cybershot–the Canon 70 has biten the dust)

La_perla1    Laperla3

Aztec Gold


One of Mexico’s gifts to the world is chocolate.

Today Mexican chocolate is made from dark, bitter chocolate mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and sometimes nuts. The end result of cooking with this type of chocolate is a “grainy” less smooth product.

The Aztec people made a wide range of drinks from chocolate combining it with honey, nuts, seeds, and spices. Chocolate was so valued it was used by the Aztecs as both a food and currency.

During the Day of the Dead festival many a soul of the living is warmed during the long nights in the cemetery with a cup of chocolate. There are many variations to the drinking of chocolate in Mexico.

Atole (ah-toh-lay) is a warm, thick drink made dense with masa or more commonly today cornmeal. It is usually served with tamales. The chocolate-flavored version of this drink is called champurrado. This drink is a bit like hot chocolate but thickened with masa and flavored with piloncillo and aniseeds. The consistency of this pre-Hispanic beverage is similar to porridge. It is also served as a dessert with churros or with pan de muertos. The drinks are whipped together using a wooden whisk called a molinillo (moh-lin-nyee-oh) although a blender will do. Agua de chocolateis Mexican hot chocolate that is made by frothing together warmed milk or water with a disk of cinnamon-laced chocolate.

Tejate is a pre-Hispanic Oaxacan specialty. Said to have been drunk by Zapotec kings it is refreshing, invigorating, aphrodisiacal, and medicinal; it is a cold drink made of dark chocolate, toasted corn, cacao, cinnamon, and the seeds and the pit of a fruit called mamey. It is surprisingly tasty.

Most of us like chocolate cake. This recipe from Rosa Mexicano, home to great fresh-pomegranate margaritas is a Mexican twist on chocolate cake.

Photo credit: Freshly ground chocolate on the metate, Oaxaca. {JBrophy (me)}

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Secretos de Salsa


Anderson Valley, in Mendocino County about 100 miles north and almost 3 hours from San Francisco, depending on the weight of your foot, is a world onto itself. A true escape, with hills covered with thick groves of redwood and live oak. It’s a great place to drive in the fall as it’s the closest I come to New England without getting on a plane. There are quant inns, wineries and picnic spots to build an entire weekend around.

Fog creeps through the valley and cools the climate making it ideal for the ripening process of cool-weather northern European grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay. The area’s population is full of ex-hippies, loggers, farmers and upscale vintners such as the Navarro Winery. The county pops up on the local news often when hippies who farm have their crop confiscated.

In a 2003 Travel & Leisure article Guy Trebay captured the local values in an article on the valley.

Along with this willed separation has come a preservation of the communitarian values that in much of America today seem about as vital as the dodo.

At some point, any conversation with an Anderson Valley local will turn to talk of potluck dinners for the rancher whose house burned down, of fund-raisers for a sick kid in need of chemotherapy. People speak with passion of pulling together to hold off the forces of monoculture and thus preserve the integrity of this extraordinarily unspoiled locale.

In California the backbone that keeps our agricultural economy going are the Mexican laborers. This area is no different. In the town of Boonville, population 975, the Anderson Valley Adult School teaches English twice a week to those new to the area from Mexico. During the three-hour class students bring snacks usually with salsa.

A few years ago the teacher Kira Brennan was looking for ways to make the school’s teaching methods more useful to the area’s large Spanish-speaking population. She came upon the idea of putting the various recipes into writing as a way to teach English as well as preserve some regional Mexican recipes. What she ended up with was a 25-recipe book titled, “Secrets of Salsa: A Bilingual Cookbook by the Mexican Women of Anderson Valley.”

According to a SF Chronicle article the monies raisesd from the sale of this collection go toward the annual cost to run the English program, which is supplemented by state money as well as grants and countless hours of volunteer work.

This collection is so endearing. The salsa recipes are given in English and Spanish, and include the sauce’s flavor profile, heat rating and serving suggestions. There are also instructions for the roasting of chiles, tomatoes and tomatillos, and for blending and grinding ingredients.

I tracked down the book through the publisher, Chelsea Green if you are interested in purchasing the book.

…continue on for Salsa Verde de Miel recipe

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Viva Mexico


Last Thursday was Mexican Independence Day. The holiday marks the day in 1810 when Miguel Hidalgo, a priest in the town of Dolores, rang the church bells and called for rebellion against the Spanish. It also began a war that would last 11 years that would end Spanish monarchy.

Generations ago my maternal ancestors came from Mexico to California. I’ve been working on learning more about Mexico, it’s history, culture and of course the food. Celebration food always brings tamales to mind.

One of my favorite foods to indulge in are tamales. A tamale is a wrapped steamed bundle of corn dough with either a savory or sweet filling. The tamale was recorded as early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. Initially, women were taken along in battle as cooks. They prepared the masa for the tortillas, the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures grew, the demand of preparing the nixtamal (corn) itself became so involved a process, that an alternative was needed for food on the go. Tamales were the next food evolution for revolutions. They could be made ahead and packed, to be warmed as needed by steaming, grilling on the comal (grill), over the fire, or placed directly on top of the coals to warm.

Tamales are simple enough to prepare but they are very labor intensive. Because of the time commitment in modern day Mexico they have become special occasion or holiday food. It’s also a way of extended family members, particularly the women, to come together a few days before the event and prepare and assemble the tamales and complex moles (sauces). The masa (dough) is prepared fresh and assembly, wrapping and tying of the bundles are done before steaming in large pots on the stove. It’s an epic effort needless to say so dozens are prepared what remains can be frozen for use at a later time.

Versions of tamales exist throughout Latin America with the recipe varying from region to region. Some filled with small, sweet beans and pineapple as they are in Sinaloa to shredded meat and red chili in Monterrey, and one of my favorites, the chicken and black mole found in Oaxaca. While the filings differentiate the types so do the wrapping–banana leaves mainly in coastal and tropical Mexico, corn husks in the north and central parts of Mexico. I’ve experimented with swiss chard with pretty good results.

Both Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless write about huge three or four foot long tamales called zacahuiles found in NW Mexico they are made with very coarsely ground masa with flavorings of red chile, pork and wrapped in banana leaves. Holy Tamale!

Here’s a list of the different regional names for tamales (tamal is the Mexican “singular” use):

Cuba, Mexico, South and Central America – Tamal

Michoacan, Mexico – Corunda

Veracruz, Mexico – Zacahull

Nicaragua – Nacatamal

Guatemala – Paches and Chuchitos

Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador – Humita

Puerto Rico – Pasteles

Columbia – Bollo

Venezuela – Hallaca

I often don’t make tamales at home. In San Francisco the Mission is filled with good spots to pick up all kinds of fresh tamales. And given that this is California there’s a few healthier interpretations such as Donna’s Tamales. These delights are vegetarian, organic, and most of them are low in fat. I’m currently in a state of obsession with what is called an Enchamale. This enchilada-tamale hybrid has a generous helping of Straus organic Monterey jack cheese, sliced black olives and yellow onions and it’s covered with Donna’s enchilada sauce. Okay, this is probably not low fat who am I kidding. It’s too good to be.

A great book that got me introduced to the process–ingredients, wrapping techniques and variations on themes– is Tamales 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Traditional Tamales. Straightforward and friendly it builds confidence as you move along in the effort. There are many illustrations. The author, Alice Guadalupe Tapp owns Tamara’s Tamales in Marina Del Rey. One thing that ruffles my feathers a bit is that she suggests using margarine as the fat. Lard is the more traditional taste and use in the preparation of tamales. Some say that the lard is absorbed during the steaming process into the husk or banana. Experiment after all that’s what cooking is all about.

If you don’t have a Mexican neighborhood where you can pick up fresh masa or other supplies a good online resource is MexGrocer. They sell ingredients such as corn husks, instant masa and the essential cooking vessel for this effort the tamaleros or steamer pot.

The key is to be organized, allow yourself enough time, invite some friends to help out and enjoy!

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I was never of the caramel sort. Most likely due to my preference for all things pure chocolate. But once I started exploring Mexican cooking, well one thing led to another and now I’ve taken to getting a firm sticky handle on caramel. Discovering cajeta and dulce de leche will do that to a girl.

Webster’s defines caramel, as, a color; caramel, the flavor, mellow and complex. It’s also a close color of my hair. Carmel can be found in many candy bars and desserts. It seems to one of the most versatile in that you can stir toasted nuts into liquefied caramel and it becomes praline or cook it with butter and spread across a smooth marble slab for toffee. According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s History of Food it was an Arab invention used as a depilatory for harem ladies. (Sweet mother!)

Distinguishing between cajeta, dulce de leche, and for that matter fangullo, manjar blanco, and arequipe can be become strained. Goat’s milk is the primary ingredient in cajeta while cow’s milk is used in the creation of dulce de leche.

Dulce de leche has gained in popularity here in the U.S. enormously through the introduction of Haagen-Dazs’ dulce de leche ice cream in Miami it outsells vanilla 3 to 1. According to company press releases it’s the second best selling flavor after vanilla.

Although cajeta hasn’t yet caught on with the public on the scale of dulce de leche I find it to be a lot sexier. Traditionally the sauce is produced by the dulceros (sweet-makers) of Celaya in Central Mexico. The name cajeta comes from the name of the small balsa-wood box or case “cajita” especially made to store the product before refrigeration was widespread.

According to Rick Bayless, in, Mexico One Plate at a Time, the goat’s milk flavor brings a more intricate flavor as it is allowed to reduce in volume through slow simmering giving it a more depth in taste and color. It takes a lot of patience and time. Homemade Cajeta is infinitely superior to store bought, as according to Diana Kennedy, the Mexican cooking maven is often degraded with the addition of cane syrup.

Editor’s note: Photosource:; continues with recipe.

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