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.

For the Record, Zapata Said It In the 20s

Everyone is sharing the quote "I would rather die standing than live on my knees." and attributing it to one of the Charlie Hebdo editors.

It was Zapata who said it. 
Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas.- Emiliano Zapata.

And it referred as much to the church as it did to freedom in general.

It doesn't lessen the horrible events in Paris but I think it should be known. 

When Life Gives You an Earthquake, Make Beans

Like most people in the Napa Valley, I just want to get this last earthquake behind me. I'm tired of thinking about it: the lost money, the damages, that initial view of our floor here at Rancho Gordo with bottles of hot sauce, pecan oil, bars of chocolate, broken pottery and all the new books that sat in this diaster stew. You want to acknowledge what you've been through but it feels like there's a fine line between that and indulgence. I just want to get back to normal. Everyone's speed to normal is different but I'm ready. 


For me the best way to get back to normal is over my stove cooking for family and friends. This last weekend I decided to venture back and it was a happy experience. It's silly but making beans took me to normal! I decided to cook my beautiful Flor de Junio beans from Mexico and turn them into Charro beans. 

I cooked them first with just sauteed onion and garlic, using olive oil. While they cooked, I heated up four pieces of bacon and then fried some more onions and some finely chopped fresh serrano chiles in the bacon grease. As I did, I fell in love with the little green chile pieces and how pretty they looked in the bacon fat. I also added a red bell pepper that I'd previosly roasted and peeled. Can you tell I'm still a little out of it? But better still, as I sauteed the vegetables that I'd later put back into the beans, it dawned on me that after 54 years, I finally think I'm a pretty good cook. After the beans were mostly cooked, I added a can of beer, the bacon and the sauteed chiles. I also added some of the reduced tomatoes from my overflowing CSA box, but not too many. I wanted to the beans to be the star, with some help from the bacon, and everything else a supporting player. 

I served them for dinner and I can say they were incredible. Flor de Junio are solid but tender and perfect for this kind of dish. Having some freinds over for dinner with a few family members, serving beans, pouring wine, listening to good music and plenty of laughs felt like normal. The work isn't over but I'm back. 

Movie Review: Chef

Saw "CHEF" over the weekend with my two kids One loved it, the other hated it but on reflection hated the audience more than the movie. I agree somewhat. The lady next to me had plenty of rose perfume on, had a glass of wine and liked to talk to her friends during the movie ("Oh, look! It's Robert Downey!") She gets a solid A for recognizing all the celebrity cameos. 

I like to joke that I haven't been to a movie theater to see a current film since 'Yentl' and this month I've been to two! (This one and 'Fed Up')

The Very Good: For me, it was spooky at times. Here is a middle aged man who is dealing with weight gain, an obsession with food and dealing with how to be the best father he can be with a demanding career. He loves Latin music, food and often wears a guayabera shirt. I feel so outside the mainstream normally and this film was pretty much for me. 
The food always looked good and authentic. The front of the house and back of the house back and forth felt real and his relationship with his son was really well done, for the most part. 

The music was mostly Latin Boogaloo with some salsa and New Orleans funk thrown in, all tied into the story. I would have bought the soundtrack except I had most of it already. This version of Sexual Healing is great. 

SPOILER ALERT! Only read the following if you've seen the movie. 

The Not so good: How come someone who looks like Jon Favreau has the two hottest actresses in Hollywood playing his love interests. Scarlett Johansson and Sofía Vergara ar both great but it's a stretch. One on a fluke, maybe, but those two? No way. 

Why were permits an issue in Miami and nowhere else? Could a truck pull into the French Quarter in New Orleans and set up shop? I don't think so. 

After the trip with his son, there is no way he would have had that talk with him and it wouldn't have taken a Vine video to make him realize he can do better with than without him. It felt very phony to me and simply a set up for drama, which was disappointing after a mostly realistic movie that still managed to be "feel good". And the nice pretty bow at the end with the blogger reviewer was so unneeded. Why couldn't he have found happiness on his truck? Why did the reviewer give him carte blanche to do what he wanted with his own restaurant and he ends up still making Cuban sandwiches and pedestrian Latin food? The whole point was supposed to be for him to show of his reported brilliance from 10 years earlier in a restaurant? It was all clearly a way to wrap it all up but it took it from a great movie to a nice movie. 

If you love food, it's worth it. But be prepared for a let down of an ending.

An Experiment with Blue Corn Pinole

Yunuen from Xoxoc has told me that the pinole could be used as a sort of breading on cutlets. It sounded weird but what the heck, right? 


I thought it kept the turkey breast pretty juicy but I wasn't in love with the flavor. It was O.K. and different but not something I'd pursue. My 15 year old loved it and asked me to make it again. Go know. 

I think next time I'll make it more like a traditional schnitzel and do the flour, egg and then pinole dips. 

Heirloom blue corn pinole at Rancho Gordo. 

A Day in the Bean Fields

We just got back from a little roadtrip to the beanfields and on the whole, we're looking good for the new season. There's nothing more beautiful to me than a beanfield. It's full of hope and potential. The reality is often different but for a moment, you can imagine each of the flowers turning into pods which hold the beans for that special dinner you're going to make with our harvest. I think it's romantic. 

These are the scarlet runner flowers, which are edible and tasty!


....and a field of scarlet runners


Yellow Indian Woman, also known as Buickeye. 


A secret Italian cannellini we'll "unveil" later in the year, suggested to me by Marcella Hazan. I'm really happy they are doing so well. 


A happy field of Rio Zape: 


Immature Rio Zape


Red Nightfall, just hitting their stride:



A New Retail Outlet for Rancho Gordo: How We Got to Here

About 13 years ago, I was growing tomatoes and Mexican herbs for my little stand at the Yountville and Calistoga farmers markets. I thought I'd try beans because my tomatoes were taking to long to ripen and then it seems as if I blinked and now Rancho Gordo has a store in the San Francisco Ferry Building! 


I'd been approached before, first to open a small kiosk and later, for a full store. I wanted to do the kiosk but the beans are so heavy and I just couldn't imagine how to backstock all the product. If I was going for it, I wanted to go all the way. I knew I wanted my Mexican movie posters somehow incorporated and I knew I wanted to be able to offer all the great things we've been importing from Mexico. 

Molly had been working for us since she was 16 or so. She'd come after school and file or bag beans. She was very sweet but I didn't pay her much attention. Slowly but surely, if a customer would come into the store and there was no one to help, Molly would jump at the chance. She's a very smart cookie and over time became one of our most valuable employees. She likes to cook (a gift from both of her parents) and the customers trust her. When she announced she was moving to San Francisco, making her manager of the store seemed logical and a gift. 


Molly worked with Kornell, our numbers guy, and together they created a POS system, worked out all the computers, hired the staff and basically figured out how to run the place. 

I knew I wanted the look of store to reflect our vintage aesthetic but I also knew this needed to be a mainstream store. The beans are confusing enough. I didn't want the environment to scare people off. I called my old friend Carrie Brown (of Jimtown) who is brilliant with colors and after I told her I liked a pallet of brick red, forest green and saffron yellow, she thought about it, saw the space and smiled. She came back with the current pallet, which is more of a tomato red, a celery green and a mustard yellow. My inner conservative wouldn't have chosen it in a million years but everyone loves it and I think it's very clever. 

Jim, who works on our bean procurement with our farmers, balked at the price of some of the fixtures and finishes and ended up doing them all himself. I never doubted him but what he delivered at a fraction of the price makes me want to do a little happy dance. 


As all the pieces were coming together, Elizabeh, who has been doing our Saturday market for years, decided she was done with Saturdays at the ferry building and then changed her mind when she thought of all the friends and customers she's known. She works with her brother Craig at their Ponsford's Place bakery in San Raphael (Craig is known as a kind of "bread whisperer" in key circles) and now you can find Elizabeth working for us and bringing in a new batch of their bean turnovers, which are delicious and happen to vegetarian. 

So everything fell together, the staff at the ferry buidling have been great and our neighbors are incredible. We're already talking about ways of helping promote each other's business and it looks like we'll have local ice cream icon Humphrey Slocum just down the corner by Christmas. 

Last night was an opening party and I can tell you it was a relief to finally see my friends and customers and have a glass to celebrate. It's been a fast trip, relatively, but I do feel like I've never worked so hard to be so lucky. But I have a great product, wonderful staff and enthusiastic customers so I really am lucky! 

Garbanzos in the Pressure Cooker: I'm Almost a Convert

Many of our favorite customers swear by the pressure cooker. I find it too violent and inconsistent. I know I'm irrational but there you have it. 


I was home with a cold and thinking it would be nice to have chick peas to play with. I think the worst part of the pressure cooker is the dead-tasting bean broth. There has been no evaporation and no air and I always feel they are second rate compared to slow-simmered beans in a pot. But with garbanzos, who cares? Even simmered chick peas have an uninteresting broth. So what difference would it make? 


Into my pressure cooker pot, I added about a cup and a half of dried garbanzos (they were Rancho Gordo, so I knew they were "fresh"), some onion and a little bit of oil. I was going to skip the oil until I remembered something about cooking beans without oil can gum up the safety valves or something like that. Old wives tale? I brought the pot up to pressure and then cooked them for exactly 25 minutes and then shut the heat off, allowing them to release naturally. 


I forgot about the beans and when I did remember, I rushed to open the pot. I expected to have to cook the peas for another 20 minutes or so but I was shocked to find each chick pea cooked to perfection! No splitting and no hardness. Less than hour from having the idea to table and cooked beans were mine! 

I made hummus. I made a soup from Mexico with chicken, chipotles and garbanzos and then I even made this little salad with chorizo, roasted red bell peppers, garbanzos and good olive oil and lemons. 


I'm not giving up my clay pots but I am keeping an open mind!