In the kitchen

Your Secret Ingredient: Oregano Indio

Did you know our Oregano Indio is back in stock? The cooperative had all kinds of trouble getting it to us but now we have lots and the future looks bright. 

Did you see this video about the people who grow and harvest your oregano? I would watch it with you but I can't see it without starting to cry. It's a happy kind of crying. Some people are just wonderful and are trying to do the right thing. 

Homeward from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

Buy Oregano Indio at Rancho Gordo. 

A Little Trick: The Bean Mash


If you want to add some creamy goodness to your beans without adding good cream, try taking about half a cup of your cooked beans and some of the broth and mash it with a fork in a bowl. Now add it back to the pot and stir well. Your clear bean broth is now soupier and richer. 

Frankly, I love clear bean broth when the beans are heirloom and fresh but a fellow likes a change once in awhile. This is also a nice trick for vegans who aren't eating cream, yogurt or other dairy products. The mashing doesn't taste like dairy but the texture does seem a little more indulgent. 

The beans in the photo are Domingo Rojo. 

Mazano Chiles Steamed Like a Tamal: Diana Kennedy's Chile Canario en Pilte

Manzano chiles are also known as Peron and apparently in Oaxaca, Canario

They look like habeneros but they have much more flesh and a less tropical, but no less delicious, flavor. They are powerful but not quite as humbling as a habanero. The seeds are black and shouldn't be eaten. I've fermented the chiles and they were incredible. 


Every time I look at Diana Kennedy's Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy I find something different. Her recipe for Chile Canario en Pilte is simple and completely new to me. From the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, it's easy to like, especially if you have access to yierbasanta. 


I've had banana leaves in my freezer for months, waiting for something to be done with them. A quick rinse under warm water made them pliable enough to cut and fold. A longer soak might have been better but I was impatient. 

Six manzano chiles were cut in quarters with the seeds removed. Diana calles for thinly sliced scallions but I had to do with onions cut into half moons. All is tossed with sea salt. 

On each banana leaf went several yierbasanta leaves (also known as hoja santa or acuyo, depending on where you are in Mexico) topped with the chile/onion mixture. 


The banana leaves are folded up into a nice rectangular package and then tied. 


This is a beautiful clay steamer from Los Reyes Metzontle. We import them as part of the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Prjoect. I about plotzed when I first saw it. We now carry two sizes. The larger is better for a big tamal party and while at first I thought the smaller version would be kind of silly, it's the one I use more often, for steaming things like this and everyday vegetables as well. 


A banana leaf is placed on the bottom and then the packages are stacked up, ready for their sauna treatment. 


After about 35 or 40 minutes (probably less in a metal steamer), the aroma is heady. The chiles are soft and onions are infused with both the chile and the yierbasanta. There's nothing quite like it. 


I had made some blue corn tortillas and even stuffed some of them with refried black beans. This chile relish was perfect for them. 


Later at dinner, I made a simple pork tenderloin and thought to bring out the Chiles en pilte. All was fine until I hit a very hot one. The heat was unbelievable and I had to excuse myself for a moment. When I returned, I went back for more. 


More Fun with Fresh Xoconostle

Our local market again had xoconostle, the super sour prickly pears that are loaded with good nutrition and are a hoot to cook with. 


If the light in my kitchen looks angelic, it's because it is! A foggy morning makes my photos look as if a professional took them. 

These are the xoconostle roasting on a clay comal (pan). You can see that the pan has a slip of cal on it to protect the clay. This is handiest for making tortillas but I have a dedicated comal to tortillas, another for vegetables and another for chiles. I'm a little obsessive and I love my toys.


It takes a while for the fruit to roast, even on a moderate heat. They should be soft and hissing as they release some of their juices, but not burnt. 

Cut them in half and scoop out the seeds and center pulp. I put them in a pitcher with some honey and water and in about a week I should have some mead. 


I had company this morning. 

My friends in Hidalgo use the skins in their salsa and I've started doing the same. I was in a rush this morning, so I threw the xoconostle in a blender with some onions, garlic and fermented serrano chiles I'd made earlier, with a splash of water. 


The resulting salsa is plenty sour so there's no need for limes. I have pork chops in the fridge for tonight and I think they have a date with this salsa. 

Fermenting Chiles

Everyone seems to have fermenting fever these days and I'm no exception. Kraut, beets, kombucha and kimchi are all my companions in the kitchen. I'm sure this is a healthy thing but even if it isn't, I love the off-the-grid self sufficiency and the delicious flavors. In the unlikely event that kombucha is the equivalent of a Pepsi, I still choose the homemade drink. 


In the photo you can see my latest batch of serrano peppers, onions and garlic in a 5% brine. I used to add some dried Mexican oregano but I didn't like the way so much would float to the surface and the whole point seems to be to keep everything submerged. Adding later actually tastes better to me. The fermentation takes about a week but I like to keep it going as I can. Too long and the chiles can turn to mush. This isn't a horrible thing. You can just gently strain the jar and put the remaining vegetables into the blender and call is salsa. 

The top of the Mason jar is secured with a very clever gadget called Kraut Source. I was in on their initial Kickstarter funding and it's one of the very few new gadgets that has stood the test of time. I have three and I'm considering more.


Breakfast at the Hacienda

I just came back from co-hosting our last Beans Tour (The Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Food and Agriculture Tour and Workshops) in Hidalgo. I'm sad to say goodbye to this project but I'm more than happy to linger over the photos, especially of the food! 


The first morning. Waiting for the guests. 


Chabela and her kitchen staff prepare the masa treats. This morning, it's tlacoyos stuffed with refried beans and cheese and sopes, topped with several different ingredients. (Tlacoyos can be many things, depending on where in Mexico you are.)


It's starts with the masa. Without it, you're off to a rocky start. 


What did you have for breakfast?


One of many, many sopes I consumed that first morning. 

Asparagus-Bean Broth Soup

Excuse me if this was your idea and I've unknowingly borrowed it, but I had about three bunches of asparagus bottoms in my fridge. I snap them and let them break where they want naturally, usually about three quarters of the way down and I make the asparagus as a vegetable and save the woody bottoms until inspiration hits. 


I have been a pressure cooker kick lately so I cooked about three bunches worth of woody stems with plenty of water and some sal mixteca for about 30 minutes on high pressure. After a quick release, I tool the asparagus out and worked it through a food mill, leaving rich delicious liquid below and all the woody fiber in the mill. 

In a soup pot I sauteed some onions and garlic in a little olive oil and once soft, added a spoonful of dried porcini mushroom powder from the Wine Forest. This made a thick paste. Then I added the liquid from the pressed asparagus and about a cup of leftover bean broth from a pot of Ayocote Morados I had in the fridge. 

Obviously you can use a different bean or omit it all together. I love the porcini powder but you could omit it and maybe add some soy sauce of fish sauce or nothing. If you don't have a food mill, you could push the puree through a sieve,, using the back of a wooden spoon to help but for my kind of cooking, I find I use a food mill a lot. I've tried something similar with an immersion blender but there's little worse than fibrous strings ruining an otherwise velvety soup. 

The bigger point is many people through away their bean broth and woody vegetable waste but I was able to make it into several swell meals. 

Meeting the Great Traditional Chefs of Michoacan

I was rather shocked when I got the invitation to be a judge for the Encuentro de Cocineras Tradicionales de Michoacan. I’d attended the event a few years ago and just loved it. About 60 women set up temporary kitchens in a park and the public was invited to buy tickets and sample their traditional dishes, which were competing for a good cash prize. Most of the cooks were indigenous women, many of whom traveled through very dangerous country to attend. They mostly cooked on huge clay cazuelas and comales over a wood fire. Even though many of the cooks made similar dishes, it was amazing to taste the difference of each woman’s touch.


After looking in my Spanish dictionary to confirm that jurardo did indeed mean judge, as I thought, I accepted the invitation. What choice did I have?


The event itself is very well organized by a team under the supervision of the State Secretary of Tourism, Roberto Monroy Garcia, a gregarious and charismatic leader who seems at odds with one’s vision of a stuffy, bureaucratic Mexican government official. He knew when to be respectful of visiting dignitaries and he knew when it was time to pass the mezcal and relax a little. His staff was casual but never unprofessional and you always had the feeling that the welfare of the cooks was the most important thing, and that celebrating them was the reason we were all there.


They say that it’s the journey, not the destination. It’s hard to believe now but as I was packing to go to Morelia for the event, my destination was to get past it so I could come back to work. At Rancho Gordo, we’re on the verge of solving some very serious inventory issues (as those of you who have tried to order Royal Coronas and other favorite beans have discovered). We’re also moving ahead with a website makeover and adding staff dedicated to customer service. It’s exciting to finally see the business you’ve imagined in your mind for so long, coming into full fruition. Sure, a trip to Mexico is always appreciated but my loopy head was more looking forward to a new Rancho Gordo website. Oh, how the mind loses perspective!


Now, back to the main event. The general public was allowed in for free over the three days, and could purchase tickets to sample the wares from any of the contestants. Some of the women were natural salespeople and others seemed very shy. They were all supported by local culinary students who seemed just as in awe of the women as the rest of us were.


There were dinners and events and lots of chances to play but it was made crystal clear to the judges: When we were dealing with the cooks, all play was over. We were expected to be on time and ready to taste the moment we were scheduled. This was out of respect for these women who had traveled so far and had so much riding on the results. Less than all of our attention wouldn’t have been fair.


One’s immediate reaction to the festivities might be: How great. These women, who probably don’t have the most wonderful lives, especially these days of narcos, bad economies, and lack of opportunity, come to Morelia and they are queens for three days. But the attitude is a little condescending. The women seem to understand their value and don’t need us tourists to validate their talent. They obviously appreciate the opportunity and they are somewhat tickled and confused when a group of chefs crowd around like groupies. But for the most part, they have a real sense of who they are, what the culture is, and it’s we tourists who gain as much, if not more, for their being in Morelia.


I didn’t eat one less than wonderful thing the entire time, but I do remember in particular a taco made with charrales (minnows), smothered in an intense green sauce and served with a tri-colored tortilla. It sounds so ordinary on paper but it was magic. Also stuck in my mind is a gordita invention that was a layer of masa patted with refried beans, ripped in half and one part put over the other, then the sides were folded, and then finally covered with masa. What looked like a nice fat sope or gordita was in fact a multi-layered bean-and-masa treat. The fish wrapped in tamal corn husks and then poached in a broth with hoja santa and aromatic vegetables was also a surprise, and I think I have a new party dish.


Arguably, the queen of the event is Benedicta Alejo Vargas. It seems that whatever she cooks is destined for greatness. It’s a real joy to watch her work. As she grinds nixtamalized corn for masa on her metate, you see the hard kernels fall apart from the pressure of the volcanic rock and yet her fingers fly daintily, helping stray pieces of corn back into the mixture to become masa. She shapes her tortillas with confidence but there’s always time for a gentle pat or push. It’s almost like she’s infusing her food with love, as corny as that sounds, but one taste and all traces of cynicism are gone.


While I loved seeing all the adulation for Benedicta, I couldn’t help but feel the success has complicated her life. I had the impression that she just wants to do good and share her kitchen, maybe even help outsiders understand her culture, and serve God. This all happens, but people (me included) have the need to hug her, tell her how wonderful she is and take their photos with her when she probably would rather get back to lovingly forming tortillas and gorditas with her delicate yet strong hands. Once in a while, when swarmed by a group of fans, she breaks her steady smile and flashes a look that almost seems to say, “Somebody help me here. This isn’t what I signed up for!” but of course she’s too gracious to say something so unappreciative and the smile returns and she tolerates the adulation.


I can’t thank my hosts enough for this amazing experience. Lucero Garcia Medina was running the show and her passion for the cooks was never far from the surface. Aliz Reyes helped this fumbling gringo arrange the trip and practical day-to-day matters and America Pedraza scared the crap out of me and made sure I was never late, but she always did it with humor and believe me, if I were needing help, I'd want her on my team. She also refused to try and understand my English and in the end, made me a better Spanish speaker. I think the world of her!


I also had the chance to eat out and there were many memorable meals. A fabulous dinner at Tata from chef Fermin Ambas was a highlight. Cynthia Martinez’ San Miguelito makes me want to fall in love with someone, anyone, with its romantic atmosphere and delicious food.


Lucero Soto of the famous LU Restaurant was kind enough to remember I was “the bean guy” and had a rare bag of beans waiting for me in my room when I arrived. (Sadly, I thought it was weird granola and bit into it after a mezcalito or two.) The Sopa Tarasca she serves at her restaurant is the version to beat.


Finally, I want to mention my fellow judges. What a nice group of really smart, really fun people. These kinds of things can be deadly but you could feel the collective love for the cocineras from everyone involved.