September 2011 Archives

Ensalada de Bodas has the beautiful flavor and aroma of Serrano (probably my favorite chile flavor) enveloping the tang of cabbage and radishes.  Surprised that the vinaigrette has rice vinegar? ensaladabodsml3.jpg
Think about the Asian influence in that region.  The salad is from the Baja California and Sonora states in the Northwestern region of Mexico.  The map below shows the two states.  I've adapted, slightly, this recipe which is included in the Chef Iliana De La Vega Mexican regional cuisines course at the Culinary Institute of America.  I love the salad.
Recipe: (makes 6 cups of salad)
6 cups white cabbage, very thinly sliced and thoroughly rinsed
1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
2 large Chiles Serranos, thinly sliced
For the Vinaigrette:
1 garlic clove
4 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp Rice vinegar
1 Tbsp Apple Cider vinegar
1/4 tsp salt or to taste

1.  In a bowl, cover the sliced cabbage with warm salted water and let it stand for about 20 minutes or so until it begins to become translucent.  Drain well. Reserve.
2. Mash the garlic into a paste using a garlic press and mix it with the oil, vinegars and salt.
3. Combine the cabbage, sliced radishes and sliced Serrano chiles and add the vinaigrette, tossing to coat thoroughly.
Serve at room temperature.  Let me know how this recipe turns out for you.

See how close to US California are the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora.
Map Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

Chicken Poached in a Garlic-Cumin Broth

Hidalgo, in the central Eastern region of Mexico, is the homeland of the great Toltec culture.toltectula.jpg Toltec art and the huge monuments are well-known and iconic of MesoAmerica, but a lesser known fact is that the region has a delicious, distinctive cuisine.   "Ajo Comino de Gallina" is a Hidalgo dish that uses poaching as a method for infusing flavors into food as it cooks with no fat.  The French have a similar method, their Court Bouillon used to deep poach foods.CalabazPollosml.jpg

So I've used that Hidalgo cooking method to make the traditional TexMex favorite, "Calabacita con Pollo."  I hope you'll like, and I ask especially my TexMex Chef friends for comments.

Recipe:  serves 6

2 1/2 lbs Chicken, skinned, trimmed of all fat, cut into 1"cubes
1 Tbsp Garlic, minced
1/4 tsp Cumin
3 cups Water
1 tsp Salt
1 Tbsp Canola oil
1 1/2 cup Tomato, small dice
1 White Onion, sliced
1 Tbsp Chile Serrano
2 large Mexican Tatuma squash (Calabacita) 1/4" slices.  You can substitute zuchini if Tatuma is not available.

1.  Place the water, garlic and cumin In a large skillet or sauté pan and bring to the boiling point.
2.  Add the chicken pieces and keep the fire on high to bring the liquid back to a low simmer.  Lower the heat and keep poaching at a very low simmer until the chicken is fully cooked, approximately 20 minutes.
3.  Remove the chicken and hold warm.
4.  Strain the liquid with a fine mesh sieve and hold.
5.  In a Dutch oven or deep skillet heat the Canola oil.
6.  Add the onions and cook until they are soft and translucent.
calabacita2.jpg7.  While the onions are cooking, grind the Serrano chile into a fine paste using a molcajete. Add a little of the strained broth to the molcajete to lift off the paste and add to the onions.
8.  Add the tomatoes, 1 1/2 cups of the strained broth and cook this sauce, uncovered, on medium heat for 15 minutes.
9.  Add the chicken pieces and continue cooking until the chicken is heated through.
10. In a separate saucepan place the Calabacita and 1 Tbsp of the broth and cooked covered until soft, about 10 minutes.  Add salt to taste.

Serve the chicken topped with the Calabacita and with hot corn tortillas.

Gorditas are for everyone

Gorditas YES!  

Perfect for parties as interactive food where guests can fill them with a variety of fillings.
Vary the size and you can have either finger food or a sit-down meal.

But here's the misunderstood side: ingredients and methods for
1) flavorings,
2) texture and
3) fillings
have been tested over centuries. They are tied to culture and the land. When you cook these, pay close attention.  Taste fully, slowly.  It bears repeating that you are dealing not just with food but with a cuisine.

Corn or Maize "was domesticated first in Mexico around 5500 BC and it gradually spread northward, appearing first in what is now the US around 3500 BC, according to archeological evidence from a cave in New Mexico."  (Murray Berzok, 2005, p. 51.)  Native Americans devised ingenious irrigation methods as they farmed corn.

I say Gorditas are for everyone because corn is so natural here and has always been shared. Knowing our roots, we keep the tradition alive, renew it and going forward.  Send me recipes, please if you have.


mapGorditas1821.PNGI have drawn circles on this 1821 map of Mexico to show three areas where I have found distinctive recipes:  Present day New Mexico (USA), Texas (USA), and Queretaro (Mexico).

In New Mexico the Hopi and Pueblo recipes use rather slender tortillas flavored with Guajillo chile.  Down in Queretaro, the corn masa is blended with chile Ancho and cheese!  The recipe I'm sharing is one I've adapted from Texas gorditas, using  Queso Fresco.  I hope you find these Gorditas as delicious as I do.

Gorditasgriddle.jpgRecipe makes 25 small gorditas like the ones in the picture
1 lb corn flour
2 1/2 cups water, if you need a little more, add 1 or 2 Tbsp or so at a time
6 oz queso fresco, finely crumbled
Salt to taste.  I use 1/2 tspn
3 Tbsp Canola oil or as needed

1.  Combine corn flour, salt and water to make a masa. 
2.  Add the queso fresco and knead to combine thoroughly.  The masa should feel like a soft clay, the "play doh" with which kids play.
3.  Cover the masa with a damp cloth and let rest for about 45 minutes
4.  Roll the masa into 25 balls, then flatten each ball into a little gordita.  Have a bowl of water handy so that you can keep your hangs slightly moist.  This will keep the masa from sticking to your hands as you form the gorditas.    
5.  Heat a cast iron skillet or a griddle to 375-400oF and apply a film of Canola oil on the surface.
6.  Place the gorditas and cook until fully cooked and golden brown.
7.  Split apart or slice with a knife or fork and fill with the following.


--A layer of frijoles refritos
--A spoonful of Chilorio (optional)  Wonderful with only beans and the other fillings below
--a mixture of thinly sliced Iceberg lettuce and small dice tomatoes
--crumbled queso fresco.
--Salsa mexicana (I'm uploading the Salsa Mexicana recipe next week.)  You can serve them with another salsa that you like.

(1) Murray Berzok, L. (2005), American Indian Food. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Lemon-Lime Basil Shortbread Cookies

Fair Warning:  I shared these with a friend this afternoon. He bit into the cookie readily.  Then I thought he looked perplexed.
cookiesbasil.jpgIt is indeed an unusual blend of strong lemon and the savory aromatic basil.  The recipe intrigued me when I first noticed the cookies in a Bon Appetit feature-- a recipe from their test kitchen.  So I finally baked them at 7 AM today.  To me, it's a delicious sour-sweet-rich-buttery-savory-basil cookie. Not usual, perhaps odd, but I really like them.

I like food to take me, even shock me, to new, unfamiliar places -- if the path is well constructed.  I think this one is.
I'm copying the recipe exactly as it is in Bon Appetit. The citation is below.

You be the judge!  Lemme know?

Recipe:  makes 18

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar plus more for pressing cookies
  • 1/2 cup (1stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" cubes
  • 2 tablespoons sliced fresh basil leaves
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Sanding sugar (optional)
Preheat oven to 375°.
Place flour, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, butter, basil, both zests, lemon juice, and salt in a food processor. Pulse until large, moist clumps form.
Measure level tablespoonfuls of dough; roll between your palms to form balls.
Place on a large baking sheet, spacing 2" apart.
Lightly dust the bottom of a flat measuring cup with powdered sugar and press cookies into 2" rounds, dusting cup bottom with powdered sugar as needed to prevent sticking.
Sprinkle tops of cookies with sanding sugar, if using.
Bake until edges are brown, about 14-15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool.

Our link to Mexican Independence Day, September 16, is illustrated by this map that I've used in a previous blog.  This land used to be called Mexico so we celebrate our past. 
But it also used to be called Spain. 
It used to be called France. 

Before our European ancestors arrived it was Caddo, Karankawa, Tonkawa and others.  Which brings me to the realization that: I embrace ALL of my past in order to go beyond "feeding" and truly enjoy "dining."

Two examples of this are 1)  Barbacoa at Houston's "Tierra Caliente" and 2)  Hollandaise Sauce at Houston's "Danton's."

Barbacoa is Barbecue.  Andrew Warnes, University of Leeds, cites the first European mention of the native word, "barbeque," in Christopher Columbus' journal in 1492 as he observed natives roasting iguanas and fish in the Caribbean. (1)  Later the Spanish in Mexico called it barbacoa.

barbacoataco.jpgTierra Caliente serves Mexican barbacoa tacos. Mexican "barbacoa" is beef. It has a long history in this region.  It can be cooked underground (cabeza de pozo--barbacoa de cabeza) or, as the chef, María Zamano, does, on the stove with seasonings that include garlic and.  I promised her I would not talk out of school so you'll have to ask her for her delicious recipe.

María Samano and her husband, Vicente, moved to the Alabama Ice House location a little over a year ago.  Their recipes do not vary from the traditional and that is why you will find that all of the flavors harmonize beautifully.  When you bite one of these tacos, you are in the land of Mexico, Tonkawa and now Texas, with all of its traditions and spice combinations. 

TierraCaliente.jpgThis is very different from taco combinations that simply "juxtapose" ingredients inside a tortilla. Tierra Caliente recipes harmonize.  No clashing juxtapositions here.  In order to accomplish this you have to know your past, both written and oral stories, and taste it. It makes for a fuller dining experience.

The little truck is on 1919 West Alabama.  Perfect for 16 de septiembre.  I loved it.

Hollandaise Sauce
The second example is one of the Five Mother Sauces of Auguste Escoffier.  Chef Danton Nix here in Houston makes an exquisite Hollandaise. 
DantonsPartners.jpgTo do this he has the right blend of egg yolks, butter, lemon and seasonings. The emulsion is whisked together so well that the mouth-feel is sooooo velvety.  OK, I'll stop drooling. ..  And he adds a twist that is his very own, a type of red chile!
Escoffier included Hollandaise as one of the mother sauces in early 1900's basing his work on that of another French culinary giant, Antoine Careme (1800's).  A mother sauce is one to which you can add other ingredients and create derivative sauces.  The derivative that Danton has created keeps the full French flavor of butter, eggs, subtle lemon and then he adds from this land: powdered red chile.  The type of chile? Hope he'll tell me next time, but it is definitely not Chipotle.  I don't mean the paprika some sprinkle on top to color it, no. The chile is part of the Louisiana twist he gives to the entire taste pleasure.  As in Tierra Caliente, it is a beautiful harmony.   

Danton, pictured on the right, explained to me that he is a self-taught chef, that he loves the Gulf coast food he cooks.  We are lucky in Houston that he has a strong understanding and respect for French tradition and of course Cajun because this gives him the ability to create something new, local and derivative of our past. 

Yup, as I said above,
embrace ALL of our past in order to truly enjoy fine "dining."   Happy September 16th!

(1) Warnes, Andrew. (2008). Savage barbecue: race, culture and the invention of america's first food. The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia.

Together, properly cooked beans and rice are a delicious meal. Together they're also complete, nutritious protein. The recipes below rely on basic, straightforward technique. It's the way families have been cooking them at home for generations. 

Just remember 3 things: Ricesml.jpg

1) Heat develops the flavor. Pay close attention to your fire.

2) No fat. Well, ok you do actually add fat, but very little, to boost the heat. The fat also adds a nice smoothing, mellow mouth feel.  But be judicious and don't hide subtle flavors with fat.

3) Easy on the seasonings.  They are there to enhance, not dominate the flavor.

The rice is fluffy. It has a full taste with just a bit of color from tomatoes, a slight undercurrent of cumin and, most importantly, no heavy fat taste to hide the flavor.  The beans cooked as in the recipe below will have a rich, robust umami taste.

Rice Recipe

(serves 4) 


1 Cup long grain rice

Optional 1 Tbsp Canola oil

2 cups water

1/2 tsp cumin

1/4 tsp black peppercorns

1/2 tsp salt

1 garlic clove

1 small tomato, diced and crushed


1.  In a molcajete make a paste of the cumin, black peppercorns, salt and garlic.

2.  In a deep skillet (add the oil if you like to) cook the rice over medium heat until it begins to take on some color.

3.  Add some of the water to the molcajete to remove all the ingredients and pour into the rice, being careful with the splatter.  Add the crushed tomato and its juice.

4.  Bring the water to a boil, cover and lower the heat to very low.

5.  Cook, covered, for 15 minutes or so until the rice is fully cooked. Try not to remove the cover more than once as you check for doneness.

The rice will be tender, fluffy and gently aromatic of cumin and pepper. 




Beans Recipe (makes 6 cups of beans and broth)


3 cups pinto beans, picked over to remove debris then washed

6 cups water

1/8 peeled white onion

1 peeled garlic clove

1/2 Tbs salt


1.  Nothing to cooking the beans, really.  Just place all the ingredients except the salt in a crockpot and cook for 6 hours or so until they are completely tender. I do this at night and go to sleep. If you want a foolproof method of testing for doneness, hold a couple of the beans in the palm of  your hand and blow on them. If the skin peels off a bit, they're done just right. Thanks to my mother and sisters who kept showing me this. Add the salt and adjust accordingly.

2.  To make "Frijoles Refritos," place the amount of beans you want to cook in a skillet with an equal amount of water and bring to the boiling point.  Turn the heat down and cook on a medium simmer. I cringe at translating the name as "refried beans" because it induces non-spanish speakers to misunderstand and go for heavy fat frying. Eating overly greasy beans is not in our tradition. In a later post  we'll discuss when and how it was that high fat entered Mexican restaurant food in Texas.

3. Here's the flavor: Mash the beans with a masher and as you do so notice that the heat at the bottom of the skillet is browning the bean paste. This is the Maillard reaction, a complex change in the molecular structure of the protein in the beans that happens around 300 degrees Fahrenheit.  beanscrapesml.jpgKeep scraping the bottom of the skillet and brown the beans slowly.  Add a little more water if it becomes dry. The color will deepen and the flavor will become rich, hinting of bacon or beef.  The addition of oil to the skillet helps to increase the heat and the browning but you don't need it for flavor.  I don't use any at all, but you can add one Tablespoon of Canola oil if you like.  Keep browning the beans in this way slowly for about 20 minutes. Don't burn them. 

The taste will have depth.

Restaurants usually don't serve beans with such developed and sumptuous flavor because it''s easier (and doesn't require staff training)  to just purée them in a blender and serve. Some fast food places will add some bacon in the cooking for strong flavor.  I can understand having to make those decisions, but to me,  these obvious fixes seem heavy-handed and the outcome is nothing at all like the real thing.  I've worked at restaurants where I've shared this simple technique of cooking beans and it is not at all difficult for the staff.  Radical Eats, one of the restaurants where I worked, now uses this technique for their delicious beans.  It would be both more healthy and more delicious if more Mexican food restaurants served less fat and more bean flavor.

Let me know what you think. 

¡Buen provecho / Bon Appétit!


A wonderfully severe, sinister humor video art piece about food and cooking.  Don't expect the approach that:  "Video, like TV,  is a tool whose purpose is deliver food and cooks prancing about as entertainers or "stars."  Nope that would be the Food Network.  Here, the video itself is the content.  And it is a sharp critique.

The artist, Martha Rosler says "An anti-Julia child replaces the domesticated 'meaning' of tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration."

She takes kitchen utensils, one by one, in perfectly dead-pan delivery, and changes their meaning.  You won't use an ice pick in the same way again,,,nor a ladle!  Ms. Rosler made this in 1975. I think the critique speaks to today.  I think, we need more.  Let me know your reaction. 


Do you Understand my Enchilada?

Enchiladas marked special occasions in our home.  To understand them is to understand our community.


I'm glad to share this recipe because its history makes it quintessentially TexMex.   I say this for two reasons.  

1.  It grounds us in our region.  The discriminating blending of different types of chiles links us to the other communities in our geographic region who also combined chiles in different variations to make different dishes.  Think Guanajuato, Puebla, Oaxaca, etc.  

2. It integrates Texas Indian with European ingredients.   Actually its success as a fine dining culinary dish results exactly from the successful integration of native with foreign ingredients: a beautiful culinary marriage.  In this case, chiles with flour; and Mexican oregano with cumin.  The same happened in Oaxaca with mole using wheat bread as a thickener for chiles.  Thankfully, today more scholars like my friend, Dr. Mario Montano, Food Anthropologist, are documenting histories of  people and cultures who live along the Rio Grande river and these will give us a more accurate history of the origins and evolution of  such ingredient combinations.

OK, I call these Enchiladas a fine-dining dish because we savor them with sensory pleasure but also with intellectual enjoyment.  This will become clear (I hope) in the recipe. 

Recipe:  (serves 6)  --updated 9/7/11

4 Ancho chiles (on a HOT/SPICY scale of 1 to 10, this is an 8.  If you want milder, use only 2 Ancho chiles and 1/2 pasilla)

1 Pasilla chile

1/4 tsp cumin

2 garlic cloves

1/8 tsp black peppercorns

1/4 tsp salt

2" sprig of Mexican oregano  (This is actually TexMex oregano because it is cultivated in Texas around San Antonio,  Austin, then also a little farther west, and then all the way south to the Mexican states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon.  It is very different from the common European oregano.  Much more aromatic, with a brighter flavor.  You can grow it easily in your back yard as a perrenial. ....but I digress)

1/4 cup all purpose wheat flour

3 Tbs Canola oil

8 cups water

18 corn tortillas

1 white onion

2 cups shredded or crumbled cheese  (We used queso fresco but over time processed yellow cheese has gained favor.  The industrial revolution spawned Kraft's processed Velveeta cheese in 1928.  Processed yellow cheeses entered the TexMex kitchen and changed the flavors.  Be that as it may, just make sure that the cheese you use has a mild, unobtrusive flavor and has the least possible fat.  Remember it is the chiles that play the "Prima Donna" role in this dish, which is why it's called Enchiladas.)


1.  Wipe clean and remove the seeds and veins from the chiles.

2.  In a molcajete make a paste of the chiles, cumin, garlic cloves peppercorns and oregano.  Alternately you can use a blender and one cup of the water to make a very fine purée.  Just make sure there are no chunks nor granules.  This chile-spice combination is the focal point.  It is what you want to taste first and throughout.  All the other elements of the dish play  supporting and contrasting roles.

3. Finely dice the onion.  The picture shows how small the dice are.  My sister, Nieves Ortega, reminded me yesterday about how important this fine dice is.  Onions, for some reason, are a naturally delicious combination with chile.  You want your mouth to easily taste chile-onion as a principal..."yum!"  . 

4.  In a saucepan or large skillet, heat the flour and oil over medium heat for two minutes, stirring.

5. Use the water to dissolve and remove all the paste from the molcajete and add this to the saucepan, whisking all the while to dissolve lumps.  Of course if you have used a blender, add the purée and the rest of the water.

6. Bring to a boil, then simmer rapidly, for about 25 minutes until the flavors are blended and all the flour taste is gone.  The chile will thicken and reduce.  You should have about 3 cups.  Taste and adjust the salt

7.  While keeping the chile hot over medium heat,  use tongs or a spatula to place a corn tortilla in the hot chile for about 8-20 seconds until it is heated through and soft but holding its structure.  If too long, it'll fall apart.  If too short a time it will not soften properly.  You'll get the feel of it.

8.  Place the tortilla flat on a warm platter and add 2 Tbsp cheese and 1/2 Tbsp diced onions

9.  Roll them and arrange seam down on six warm plates. Repeat with all the tortillas, three per plate.

10.  Spoon about 1/3 cup of the very hot (temperature) chile in each plate and garnish with additional diced onions.

Taste these with enjoyment, knowing that each ingredient is there for a reason: to make your mouth feel complex, deep pleasure. The chile carries the dish.  Let your mind notice the differences in mouthfeel and textures.  To understand the layers of flavors, the aromas - individually and also together.   Isn't it great to enjoy food and understand the link to its people!

¡Buen Provecho/Bon Appétit!

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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