Mexican Food Recipes

Mexican Vanilla Beans

In San Miguel de Allende, Tomás, a much recognized indigenous gentleman from Papantla in Veracruz, always in his white, wide-bottomed pants, white shirt, straw hat, and colorful scarf goes from restaurant to restaurant, and daily makes his way along the rows of visitors sitting on the benches in the jardin. He holds out an array of Mexican manta cloth shirts for sale. And, sometimes, along with his big smile, he announces, “Hay vanilla, hay vanilla!” or, “I have vanilla!” Sometimes he has little plastic bottles of vanilla extract for sale at the princely sum of 80 or 120 pesos, depending on size. Other times, he has vanilla beans, and that is such a treat. They come from his homeland and are quickly bought by those who know their value.

Since the blossoms of the vanilla orchid last only one day, and where cultivated, must be hand-pollinated that very day, it is a miracle to be able to have them at all. In nature, only the Melipone bee pollinates the vanilla orchid. After fertilization, the beans take about six weeks to ripen, and they then endure a quick bath in very hot water to stop the ripening, are dried, and put out to cure in the sun for up to nine months to reach perfection. Whatever he asks for his vanilla beans, (about $2.50 USD each) they are worth it.

The Aztecs flavored hot chocolate with these richly fragrant pods, which they called tlilxochitl, or black flowers, and Cortés took this new world prize back to Spain with him, right along with gold and silver.

To make your own vanilla extract, split two vanilla beans down the center and cover them with 1/2 cup of vodka and let this sit, covered, in a glass container, for about two months. Use it the next time you make your favorite cookies, ice cream, brûlée, or puddings, and you will notice an unbelievable difference. Just keep replacing the vodka, teaspoon per teaspoon, as you use it and the beans will last a long time. Double your pleasure by chopping up a vanilla bean, putting it in a couple of cups of sugar and let that sit for six weeks or so and use in recipes or your morning coffee. No one will ever guess your secret ingredient, but it is guaranteed they will ask.

The next Comida Méxicana will be about chocolate. Did you know that in the court of Moctezuma chocolate was used as currency?

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Refried Beans

Since beans are only fried once, it seems a misnomer, but somehow they have come to be known as re-fried beans. Eschewing the lard unless you live on a rancho and that is what you have, either put a little butter, corn oil or rendered bacon fat in a skillet (or not, if using a teflon pan) and sauté half of a finely chopped onion, minced garlic to taste and (optional) a diced serrano chile or two. Remove the white membrane and seed the chilies When this mixture is soft and golden, add 3 or so cups of the beans from the olla and about one cup of the broth. Use the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher to turn this mixture into a creamy paste as you mash and as the broth evaporates over medium heat. You can then serve refried beans as a side dish with either an uncooked tomato salsa or crumbled queso fresco topping, or as a bocadillo (a little mouth-full) flipped from the “pancake” out of the skillet into a roll, and served with tortilla-chips and salsa.

Don Genaro, a veteran of the revolution, and no stranger to famine, says that there is no such thing as “bad beans.” He demonstrated by taking a batch of beans that had started to go “off” by putting them in a colander and rinsed, rinsed, rinsed, and rinsed them until the water ran clear and there was no odor to the beans. (This wouldn’t work if meat had been used in the preparation.) Then, he popped them in the skillet with the lard, onions, garlic and chili mixture and fried them up! Try that next time your in the middle of the desert and the beans in your saddlebag are going “bad” on you.

Do you know what famous fresh condiment is on most Mexican tables, both at restaurants and at home, from first egg in the morning right through the evening meal yet shouldn’t be refrigerated and is at its best immediately after it is prepared? Find out next Thursday in Comida Mexicana.

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Nothing Fishy Here!

So here we are back in our favorite Mexican cafe. We now know that there are many ways to order soup, such as caldo, sopa, sopa seca, and crema. We remember that we are going to “pay the waiter,” and not tell him we “want to peg him.” You are on your best behavior and alert for those humiliating mispronunciation moments. It is lunch time, and you are in the mood for a sandwich. You see a list of tortas, or sandwiches, offered on the chalkboard over the service bar. You are offered tortas de queso, (cheese), tortas de res, (beef), tortas de pollo (chicken), and even hamburgeses, or hamburgers. But you are in the mood for a tuna fish sandwich, so you ask if you they have tuna. “Claro qui si, señor!” Of course we do, sir. And, you want that on whole wheat, or trigo entero, please. In a short time you are served a lovely sandwich on whole wheat bread, with lettuce, tomato, and a layer of crimson, thinly sliced rounds of prickly pears, or cactus fruit.

Tuna: atún

Prickly Pears: tuna

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Lágrimas en El Caldo – Tears in the Soup

As with many large, traditional families, it is the youngest daughter’s responsibility to never marry and to live with and care for her parents in their declining years. And that is how Tita, youngest daughter, the cook for her family, and the protagonist of Laura Esquivel’s book Like Water for Chocolate found herself in the sad position of preparing the wedding feast for her lover Pedro and his bride. He had married her very own older sister. Understandably, tears were flowing in the kitchen on that day. The groom managed a quick visit to the kitchen to present Tita with a bouquet of roses and declared his undying love in spite of being caught up in a marriage of convenience with her sister. Tita knew no one could be allowed to see those roses as there would be questions, so she stirred them into a sauce for the quail she was preparing, creating on the spot Codorniz en Salsa de Pétalos de Rosas, or Quail in Rose Sauce.

The dish she created, infused with her tears, the roses given to her by her lover, and her voluptuous and unfulfilled sexual longing, had quite an effect on the guests at the wedding banquet. In fact, Tita’s Codorniz en Salsa de Pétalos de Rosas served as an aphrodisiac for them, and they ended up behaving in ways that were quiet a departure from their normal sedate lives.

The idea of the mood of the chef influencing the mood of the diner is not new and certainly not just another example of Laura Esquivel’s delightful story telling ability, known in painting as well as writing as “Magical Realism.” In this case she is drawing deep into the well of her heritage. In times gone by many an indigenous man would see his wife or mother pounding her frustrations into the masa, or stirring her anger into the beans and the man would refuse to eat, perhaps feigning indigestion, for fear the frustration and anger would be transmitted to him through the food. And the women also knew to take some quiet time to sort things out before heading for the kitchen. It’s a good thing Warren Hardy’s staff is always in a good mood when they present coffee, tea, and cookies at the morning break to the students taking the Warren Hardy Foundation Course.

In most traditional indigenous tribes in the United States, women to this day do not prepare food for their families when they are “on their moon,” or menstruating. This is not because they are “unclean” as some have supposed, but rather an ancient and profound understanding of the mood swings caused by hormonal changes at this time. Maybe this is the origin of the custom in some restaurants when a smiling chef comes out of the kitchen and greet the diners. Reassurance. Maybe it is more important for our digestion to meet the chef of our favorite restaurant than it is to be on good terms with the waiters! Magical Realism lives.

Did you know that at one time drunkenness was punishable by death in Mexico? Find out more in next weeks Comida Mexicana.

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