My first formal job, after switching careers from political analysis to cooking, was as chef and cooking instructor of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington DC. This was 2007. A year before, I had created a curriculum that aimed to open, one class at a time, a window into Mexican cuisine, history and culture for anybody living north of the border. What I didn’t know, when I began preparing it, was that classes were to be for a crowd of 100 people…
A cuisine as rich and diverse as Mexico’s needs for us to make an effort to preserve what has been passed on. But, you also have to keep an open mind to new ideas that may in turn become classics. In that sense, I find the kitchen to be one of the most humbling places because food is always growing and evolving and taking you along, if you let it. You get to constantly learn, apply what you learn, share it, and then start all over again. Take tamales for example. I have made countless kinds from all regions of Mexico and from different historical times.
I have been to Oaxaca countless times. Yet, for all the times I can count, none have been enough. Right after I get back home, I am dying to go back. No wonder I had been eager to bring the crew to have them experience all I kept telling them about. And mostly, so they could help me capture it to bring it to you.
During the summer months, which is the rainy season, gigantic blackberries take over the culinary stage in the town of Valle de Bravo, Mexico. They can be the size of a plum, bursting with wine colored juice that is at once sweet and tart and addicting. Literally every morning, women come down from the mountains and valleys to the town’s market with buckets of these fresh picked gems. What to do with them? One of my favorite things is to use them as a topping for cheesecake.
My favorite mango, by far, is the one called Ataulfo in Mexico. It also goes by the name of champagne or honey mango in other countries. When ripe, its meat is intensely golden yellow with a nice thick bite. It is juicy and has a lightly tart, yet intense, sweetness that is hard not to love. Different from other mangoes, it is not fibrous at all.
Ok, yes, hot dogs are originally yours, America. But we Mexicans have found a way to make them our very own, too. We love hot dogs so much that they have also become part of our street food. This isn’t something new. Not even from a decade ago. Hot dogs have existed in Mexico for at least a century. So right next to a taco stand, you are likely to run into a hot dog stand.
More like a pound cake, pan de arena’s texture is really perfect. When you slice it, it feels like it came from a professional bakery. With just the right amount of moist and just the right amount of crumbly. It may be that because the texture is so evenly moist and crumbly throughout, it got named after sand. Its taste is also so well balanced. Just enough sweetness and a buttery taste that gets nuanced, but not over powered, by lime zest and lime juice. Yet it doesn’t taste citrusy at all.
There is no bear in this soup. Nor is the soup named after any bear. In fact, there are zero bears to be found in the state of Chihuahua, where this soup comes from. Yet, I admit Pepe was right, it is a spectacular soup, and it is called caldo de oso (or bear soup). It turns out caldo de oso is insanely popular in Chihuahua. The thing is, it is not to be found in restaurants, but in homes.
This meal makes for a beast of a taco. Well, quite a few beastly tacos. Melt in your mouth chunks of short ribs, braised in wine and pomegranate and topped with a scoop of a one of a kind guacamole, get tucked into warm corn tortillas. The guacamole has a mashed ripe avocado base seasoned with fresh ginger, jalapeño, shallots and a dash of lime juice, then tossed with salty chunks of queso fresco and sweet and juicy pomegranate seeds. You can garnish the final thing with chopped fresh mint.
Tamales are practically required on so many December holidays. Take Posadas. And Christmas. Not to mention New Year’s. Wait, of course, that spills over to January with Día de Reyes. Then it continues in February for Día de la Candelaria… It seems to me that the tamal coloradito is particularly festive because, aside from tamales screaming out for celebration on their own, this one is filled with quite a stunner of a mole sauce. And moles are cause for celebration, too! Pair the two into one bite, and you have a happy crowd.