On the Road

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. 

An Insider's Guide to Mexico City

You can imagine how many people call me for good information on Mexico City. The town has so much buzz, and for good reason. It's a little intimidating if you've never been or don't have high school Spanish behind you but it's not impossible and you are likely to have an amazing time. 

My first real trip was in the 1990s. I went alone before a friend good meet me later in the week. I had callouses on my feet from walking everywhere. I remember walking down a sunny street in the Centro, passed a Licuado store selling Mexican smoothies. I'll admit there was a skip in my step. I was independent and having a wonderful time. As I passed, a young girl yelled out from inside the store, "¡Buenas dias, guapo!" This was followed by giggling and I felt like I was on top of the world. 

I feel stupid when people ask for suggestions. All the regular recommendations are probably essential for a first time visit. The museums, the parks, Frida and Diego's house, etc, are all great. For me, meals at Contramar and Pujol are necessary but I can think of 10 other places that deserve your attention. The reality is that these days when I am in Mexico, my friends normally pick me up at the airport and whisk me off on some journey. I haven't had a chance to linger in D.F. for years. 

This is why I love Jim Johnston's Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. Jim has lived there for many years and seems to know exactly what I'll need. It's great armchair reading and even better to take with you.  The 16 walking tours will make you feel like a local in no time. 


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. 

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.

An Event in Sonoma

Last night I went to a book event at Reader's Books in Sonoma, just off the square. Kathleen Hill, Sonoma's First Lady of Good Food, is the hostess and interviewer, and we had a blast. 


The funny thing is that the bookstore thought there would be very little interest but they had to keep adding chairs as the crowd grew. We had 47 people, which isn't bad for a Wednesday night for an event in a bookstore about beans! You can't tell from the photo but the crowd goes all the way over to the right, blocked by the bookshelves. 


What was amazing (and flattering) to me was that so many of the guests knew recipes from my previous books. This event was to promote my new book, Supper at Rancho Gordo, but there were lots of questions about my previous books. It's great to produce something but it's even greater when you have people consuming it. 

Back to Veracruz: Good Food in Tlacotalpan

About 2 hours south of the city of Veracruz you'll find the very charming town of Tlacotalpan. We arrived between seasons and it was deserted and hot. I asked when was the best weather and all agreed it was November and December. Being that it was November and we found the heat almost funny, I can tell you I'm saving Veracruz for the winter. 


Yunuen's father and Uncle both told us not to miss La Flecha for a meal. My heart sank a little when we sat down. It didn't look promising, despite the torito de coco. 



Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. The food was incredible and clearly the work of someone who loved her cuisine. 


Piripituche is one of those great dishes that is somewhat simple and yet so perfect you wonder why you haven't had it before. It's basically a shrimp and crab stew with African influences. Someday I'll have to transcribe my bad notes and figure out how it was made. 


This was followed by a local sausage and a roll of black beans. With tortillas, it was heavenly. 


Somebody like Negra Modelo! 


Yunuen ordered shrimp in a AcoyO sauce. Acoyo is what they call Hoja Santa (or Hierba Santa) in Veracruz. I think I also have bad notes on this dish. 



Desserts are often the thing that don't translate between cultures but this weird, exotic one worked for me. It's a bitter Seville orange that's been soaked in sugar syrup and then stuffed with sweet, juicy coconut candy. It's insanely sweet but the bitter from the rind helps cut things. You can only eat a few bites but oh, those bites!


It was dark by the time we made our way back home and it's such a lovely walk that who could mind? 

Beautiful, Delicious Veracruz

Veracruz is a port town in Mexico. It's historically important, having dealt with incoming conquerors and trades for centuries and it just feels different than the rest of Mexico. It's not unlike going to Genova in Italy. It's a little harder and edgier than the rest of the country and I think they're both a lot of fun. 




When Yunuen (of Xoxoc) suggested that we go to Veracruz for some relaxation after an insanely busy year (with no sand or shrimp, I might add), I was all for it. My only insistence was that we go back to Antojitos Samborcito. I was having dreams from a previous trip about this place and their wonderful food. I don't think going was an issue!







What a great way to start the day! Even the baby seems to understand some great food is coming her way. Please note the fresh orange juice, which is virtually the only kind you find in Mexico. The idea of frozen, reconsituted juice is not one that Mexicans can understand easily. 



My novia! 



This is a picada. After the masa (with a touch of lard!) is flattened, its edges are pushed up and it makes a kind of mini-pizza, Mexican style. This one holds a simple salsa and some cheese but almost anything goes. 



This is a gorda. Tortilla masa is mixed with refried black beans and added again to a "touch" of lard. It's then fried somehow and the tortilla puffs up and is hollow inside but it makes a lovely thing. This version is topped with mole and soft cheese. It was as delicious as it looks. 



We had lots of what they call empandas on the trip and the chefs in Veracruz have a real way with them. Personally I think of empanadas as being made of flour (or breaded, hence the pan) and normally I'd call these more a quesadilla, but there's no cheese so they get to call them whatever they like. This once is stuffed with picadillo (a sort of ground beef hash, dotted with olives and raisins. It rocks) but they also had fish versions. 





Next time, down to Tlacotalpan. 

Hunting Heirloom Beans

(This is adapted from a guest blogger piece I did for Chronicle Books.)

One of my favorite parts of Mexico is the Huasteca region. It goes from east to west though the states of San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo and Veracruz. It’s said that when the conquest of Mexico was at its height, many indigenous people left the cities and went up into the mountains of the rugged Huasteca and they’ve never quite been able to let their guard down. The regions all share some similar food and the music is especially great.

A few years ago I was on a typical driving trip with my partners, Yunuen and Gabriel. I wish I could express how much I love these trips. We sing and laugh and eat and I see parts of Mexico that just shock and delight me. How many ways can you deep fry corn and come up with another delicious dish? Don’t even try to keep track while you’re in Mexico. We stop often to eat, inspect bean fields or best of all to climb ruins and imagine pre-Conquest Mexico. The Huasteca normally means great mountains and not so great roads. It took us hours to get to a farmer we had heard about who was growing his family’s  heirloom beans, but we didn’t mind so much. You can always stop for fresh coconuts and their juice and there’s always a meal or a snack around the corner.


We started to get excited as we got closer to the farmer. There was lots of agriculture and we even saw neat rows of beans. I was happy to see the farmers were using good irrigation water and the general state of things told us this was a farmer who cared and wanted to do good work.

Dogs barked and chickens lost their cool as we pulled up to the farmhouse. It was big news having uninvited visitors. The farmer was really thin but healthy looking and I’d bet he had a steady diet of beans, tortillas and boiled cactus paddles, all from his land. He seemed nice enough but he kept staring at me and smiling. I wasn’t sure what his motivation but it was welcome and preferable to a smirk. After pleasantries, Gabriel asked him what beans he was growing. I was prepared to hear about the varieties that had been in his family for generations and would be perfect for importing back to the states through my company, Rancho Gordo.

Still staring at me and beaming, he almost shouted, “Michigan Black!”

Michigan black is a boring hybrid that produces well but is of little interest to an heirloom bean fan. We burst out laughing at the thought that we had come all this way to get generic beans from Michigan. We apologized for laughing and did our best to leave a good impression but after the humor wore off, we had a sense of horror. Here was a farmer way out in nowhere who gave up his family heirloom bean business to grow generic black beans for an imaginary international market. How was this farmer to compete with the Chinese or the Peruvians on price? He’d given up quality and we lost some heirloom beans. Nobody wins.

It was this trip that made my bean hunting go from a fun hobby to almost an act of desperation. How many varieties are we losing? How fast can I find them? I return to Mexico about six times a year and always have an eye for my beloved heirloom beans that might need my help. I hear there are people here in California trying to produce a good balsamic vinegar. I think this is admirable but it’s a tradition that is very stable in Europe and it’s going to take generations to be competitive. Meanwhile, here’s one of our own indigenous crops and various varieties are on the verge of extinction, and we don’t even know what they taste like. This is why I love to focus on New World food, heirloom beans in particular.