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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.


A Beautiful Runner Bean from Michoacan: Ayocote Purepecha

I will soon be writing more about a recent trip to Morelia that changed me in a lot of ways. For now, I wanted to introduce you to some lovely beans that chef Lucero Soto, of the famed Lu restaurant had waiting for me in my hotel room when I arrived. 

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This is a single beans with many colors. I suspect it's an Ayocote (Phaseolus coccineus), but Lucero told me it's not. It came from Purepecha farmers in the countryside outside of Morelia and it was incredibly thoughtful of her to remember my relationship with beans and take the trouble to have them greet me in the hotel room. She even told me this but I was checking in and not really listening and when I got in, I thought, What strange trail mix these Mexicans have! A day or so later, I was wanting a snack, so I opened the bag and started munching. This wasn't trail mix or granola. These were beans. 

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When cooked, they were delicious. A little starchy and with very thick skins. We had them this last Sunday, along with a pork dish I invented and some asparagus. All agreed it was a fine meal. 


What to Do With a Pot of Beans No. 3: Bean Soup with Roasted Red Pepper and Kale

Yes, that's been the flu that has been knocking me down. But I get right back up! Thanks in part to some leftover beans!

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This was entitirely based on what was in the fridge. Leftover Ayocote Morados with lots of bean broth and not so many beans, a jar of Trader Joe's roasted red bell peppers, some kale that was left in the "Crisper" drawer of my fridge and salt. Once heated, I added a spoonful of yogurt. It was incredible! Proof again that when you start with good ingredients you can make some simple magic. 


What to Do With a Pot of Beans No. 2

I had a small about of cooked heirloom beans left. I had used most of them for a salad, so I had very few beans and lots of bean broth. 

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I added a little water to get the pot to soup level and then added some chopped potatoes. After about 15 gentle minutes on medium heat, I had bean and potato soup. Salt, herbs and anything left over in the fridge would be welcome. 

This is why one should cook heirlooms. Commodity beans would have required a ham hock or a bouillon cube. Good heirlooms just need water and time. 


Make Mine Moka!

As a teenager, I never understood it's appeal. My father's dependence on it first thing in the morning seemed at odds with my flower child persona I was indulging at the time. I learned to like coffee on my first trip to Amsterdam. I reinvented myself as a sophisticated European mistakenly born in California and good coffee with a cheese toast in cafes over the canals affected me deeply. Then I went to Italy and my indulgence became a happy habit. 

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For me, coffee means Italy. Obviously a good barista in a bar is what it's all about but at home, I keep coming back to the stovetop Moka. I believe I bought my first one in about 1980 and have mostly stuck with the instructions given by Marcella Hazan in her seminal The Classic Italian Cookbook (now best enjoyed as The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.)

The trend now seems to be for lighter, less bold coffee but I'm in the Italian and French roast camp and so far nothing has inspired me to change sides. I have been reading a lot about different techniques lately and I have read numerous times to preheat the water before adding it to the water chamber. I have trouble wrapping my head around this concept. From start to finish, this is a quick process. For the record, I will now document my morning routine.

I'm going to state the obvious just in case this is all new to you. I mean no offense but I've heard some doozy stories over the years. 

Start by filling the bottom chamber with fresh water up to the point of the escape valve. Don't go over. Have the water just meet the bottom. 

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Now add the filter that holds the coffee. You want a finer grind but not as fine as espresso. At my local coffee merchant, I have to ask them to grind it at "5". At one particularly particular place, they insist on knowing what my technique will be. If I say Moka or stovetop espresso, they always seem to grind it too fine and this seems to clog up the works and not all the liquid comes out and sooner than later I have to replace the rubber rings. 

Following Marcella's advice, I gently fill it up with coffee, one very small spoonful at a time. There's a gentle mound when I'm finished. You screw the top on but it's very important that you place it from directly above the pot. It's easy to kind of slide it in from the side and take out the mound and make a mess of things. Top down. Screw into place. 

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Now I have always closed the lid, added medium heat and then waited for the noises that let me know we are done. Marcella suggests that as soon as the coffee starts coming out of the spout, you turn the heat down to very low. I do this if I'm thinking about it but after all these years, I'm just happy to have coffee in the morning without a lot of fuss. I have been reading that you should make the coffee with the lid open as the closed lid can create diluting steam. All of my Mokas seem to be fine with this but I have had models in the past that sputtered so much that it would make a mess. I can't really tell any difference but I do enjoy the view of the coffee streaming out that I've adopted it at home. 

Once you hear the noise, you cut the heat and wait for gurgling to end. 

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Meanwhile, I have a trusty $16 milk frother. You fill it about a quarter full of milk and very low heat at the same time you're making the coffee and the timing is perfect. I add some of the hot milk to the mug with some sugar and mix. This probably isn't needed but I think it keeps the coffee warmer, longer. Romans say, Life is too bitter not to take sugar with your coffee. I, of course, use our piloncillo. Then I add the contents of the Moka. 

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Finally I froth the milk and add it to the mug. In Italy, this would be three servings. I'm not in Italy and I'm rather needy so the whole pot works for me. 

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If you don't want to invest in the milk frother, you can whisk the hot milk or you can just heat up some milk in a pan and call it a day. Cold milk will chill the drink too much and the flavor is better if the milk is slightly scalded. 

A new pot is a sad thing. It take about 2 weeks to really be fabulous. Such is life. Once suggestion I read on the internet is to reuse the coffee grounds and keep making pots until you're happy. 

I went through a period where I loved the idea of big mugs of drip coffee (which oddly, I prefer black with no sugar) but I found myself too wired and getting dependent on the brew. I tried the French press and it wasn't for me. I did once dip my toes into the countertop espresso maker pool but it was so expensive, fussy and for me, inconsistent that when it broke about a year after I got it, I wasn't sorry to return to the Moka. 

I have no idea but I have about 6 different pots. I love their vintage look and the more you use them, the better they look and taste. The pot in the photos is an Alessi and it's very beautiful and after about two weeks, it's making good coffee. 

One more piece of advice is to buy several gasket rings and maybe even a spare filter when you buy your pot. They do wear out after awhile and you'll have the devil of a time trying to remember what size you have. 

And just for laughs, so you can put life among the foodies here in the Bay Area in context: 


Ayocote Morados in a Pressure Cooker: One Hour from Whim to Wow!

I've been cooking in so much clay lately that I thought I'd give some love to my pressure cooker. This was a gift from the wonderful Lorna Sass but I've also been reading posts from a great Facebook group of vegans who use an electric pressure cooker called the Instant Pot

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I have a regular modern pressure cooker. It's weird how quiet it is, especially having grown up with the loud, hissy rattlers of the past. It doesn't compare to clay but how else can you cook a pot so quickly with such little effort? People who live at high altitudes know that they are essential and even Mexican food maven Diana Kennedy told me she often cooks beans in a pressure cooker and then finishes them off in a clay pot once they are almost cooked through.

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Is there a prettier bean? 

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I start with onions, garlic and olive oil, just like I would with any other method. I have heard the oil prevents foaming that can clog up the release valves, but I would do it anyway for flavor. 

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The Ayocote Morados are added and water to cover by about one and half inches. Note that the beans are unsoaked. I cover the pot and "lock" it and turn the heat to high. Once the high pressure is acheived (as in the photo), I turn the heat down to low and time 35 minutes for ayocote beans. I would probably do 20 or 25 from most Rancho Gordo beans but ayocotes are extra dense and big and the farmers in Mexico aren't as consistent as we are in California. A few extra minutes with these big beans won't harm them. 

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Once the timer goes off, I cut the heat and let the pot come down in pressure on its own. I don't unlock it and I don't add cold water over top, a technique that can be used for other food. 

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Once the pressure has dropped, I remove the lid and turn the heat up to medium and allow the beans to finish and the bean broth to evaporate a little, making it extra delicious. 
I had masa on hand this morning, so I made tortillas while I was waiting. I don't want to show off, but I did manage to get them all to puff, the goal of all tortilla makers!

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The beans were gorgeous and within an hour of a whim, I had beans and tortillas, making for an excellent breakfast and a happy way to start the day. 

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Jill Nussinow, a pressure cooking evangelist and author of The New Fast Food, prefers to soak her beans before pressure cooking. I think she's right, as you get a more consistent result. She says you can also soak and then freeze, popping the frozen beans into your pressure cooker as needed. I hate freezing things and I rarely can plan to soak. The lesson here is there's no one technique and as long as you're cooking beans, I believe you are ahead of the game. 


Gearing Up for the Superbowl: Beans and Chili

We've all heard it, particularly from our friends in Texas: There is no place for beans in chili. Chili con carne means chile with meat. 

I was living in Milano and an American friend had given me a copy of the chili bible, A Bowl of Red by Frank Tolbert along with some chili powder. Even though I had never made chili in my life, the book made me homesick and inspired me to make my first pot. It was heaven and as much as I loved Northern Italian food, this was an essential part of me I didn't even know I had. 

Tolbert is of the no beans school and after making his chili, I was too. Then I started a bean company! 

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I'll be honest, I'm not in love with thick, stodgy chili where you can stand a fork upright, although as a young fellow, this canned goo made a great nachos topping. Lately however I have been experimenting with beans in chili and I think it's not quite the sin purists claim. In a pot, a cup or two adds interest and really, the bean broth mixed in with the chile sauce is magic. But they star must always be the chiles, not the meat, the beans or anything else. I don't even like to put tomatoes in it. I love pure chile flavor and the tomatoes take it somewhere else. 

Chili purists claim you must not mess with tradition but they seem to look the other way when heaping melted Velveeta over an enchilada. It's not to my liking but if it's your thing, go for it. Just don't pretend that food isn't an evolving, creative thing. I used to care, and care deeply, about these kinds of things. Now I think we should all relax a little and learn as much as we can from each other. Except when it comes to martinis. Everyone knows they should be gin and stirred and any variation should be strictly forbidden and punished by firing squad. There are limits to what we can change, you know. 


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. 

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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. 

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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.