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Under the Amate Tree : A Time for Tortas

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, Friday afternoon was the time to prepare for the weekend trip to the countryside. The whole house would be turned upside down and the kitchen, with its frenzied atmosphere, became the center of our world.

I will never forget those indescribable scents coming from that large room with tall stone walls, reminiscent of a monastery. Although it was equipped with very modern aluminum furniture and cabinets, the stove was topped with the traditional clay pots called cazuelas that held chicken bubbling in mole, another clay pot of black beans and a flat black comal, or griddle, to toast the chiles, tomatoes, garlic and onions for the salsa.

My mother was always busy supervising the work at the kitchen: Sending someone to the bakery to buy teleras and bolillos , the rolls required to prepare tortas , and making sure the car was properly packed with pillows, blankets, sheets and all those things one needs for a weekend in the countryside.

My brother, my sister and I were each allowed to invite one friend to spend the weekend at the ranch. On Fridays we’d make fast decisions on whom to invite and get the permissions from our friends’ parents.

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My father was a doctor in the small, picturesque town of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. A lover of nature, he used to say that if he didn’t leave the town for the countryside, he could not stop thinking about the patients he had seen throughout the week. In those days, doctors would pay home visits to their patients regardless of the day and time.

He was the physician in charge of the garrison of the Mexican army stationed in Cuernavaca. Then he became the doctor of the poor--and the rich.

My father refused money for his services if the patients were poor; they paid him instead in their own way. Because most of them lived on ranches, the gifts were usually edible: chicken, lamb, rabbits. Even some parrots and a big tarantula in a jar made their way to our house.

Fortunately for the well-being of the family, there were also many patients who paid him with money, sometimes even U.S. dollars.

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Starting in the 1930s, many famous foreigners settled in Cuernavaca. Authors like Malcolm Lowry and D.H. Lawrence wrote novels in that sun-splashed setting. Later on, in the ‘50s, there was a romance about the town that lured actors like Tyrone Power, heiress Barbara Hutton andpsychologist Erik Fromm. Because Cuernavaca was still a relatively small town and my father spoke English fluently, some of these celebrities made him their doctor.

For our weekend outings, my father would take us all to Chiconcuac, a tiny town not far away in the state of Morelos, for a respite of fresh air, good food and relaxation. At the very center of the ranch there were two magnificent amate trees under whose shade we would eat. There was also a mango orchard that ended at a magnificent 18th-Century aqueduct built by the Spaniards. Underground springs ran throughout the town, and we were lucky to have two streams crossing our property.

The ranch was modest and simple, equipped with only the bare essentials. There was a small adobe construction with three small bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen with a wood-burning stove. To keep things cool in the warm tropical weather, we carried a German portable refrigerator. The rustic environment taught my mother to be practical and bring along the kind of food that would survive the heat and the trip.

We would leave Cuernavaca on Friday evening, and always our first stop in Chiconcuac was the small grocery store named Al Pasito Pero Llegan (Slowly But Surely They Come).

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For us children, it was the place where we could buy delicious sweet bread, pan dulce , sprinkled with pink sugar. We would eat the sweet bread with chiles cuaresmenos en escabeche , pickled jalapen~os, prepared by Dona Lolita, wife of Don Filomeno, the owner of the small shop and the most respected man in the tiny town. My father always had something to talk about with Don Filomeno.

Once we were settled in the house, we could hardly wait to eat the big item of the weekend: the tortas prepared in the house in Cuernavaca and brought along to Chiconcuac wrapped in napkins and packed in wicker baskets.

One of the principal ingredients for an authentic torta mexicana is the telera , a cousin of the bolillo, a distant cousin of the French baguette. Teleras are sold throughout Los Angeles and are recognized by their shape, which resembles a tortoise shell.

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The simplest torta is the one of ham and cheese, and it can hit the spot after a long morning of activities. The torta de pollo con mole is rich in flavor from the thick traditional mole sauce made from dry chiles and chocolate. We also ate delicious tortas filled with roasted pork or made of chorizo with egg. The humble sardine torta and the peculiar Milanese (breaded steak) torta were popular in our family as well.

On Saturdays, my father would wake us early, around 4 a.m. We would sip fresh orange juice, then eat a piece of sweet bread or two with hot chocolate before setting off on a long walk. Sometimes we’d head along dirt roads to the cantaloupe fields, where the flowery scent of the fruit hung in the air. Or my father would take us to the local hacienda, at one time owned by Tyrone Power, where sugar was processed and the factory let off sweet perfume of the freshly ground piloncillo.

Later, we would visit the houses of friends to swim or to climb trees.

With all of these activities, it was only natural that we would come running back to the house famished, ready for a delicious meal. My mother would be waiting for us with sopes filled with chorizo and potato and topped with cream and green hot salsa prepared in the molcajete , or mortar. It was just enough to keep us going until the next meal.

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Around 3 in the afternoon, we would set huge tables with colorful traditional tablecloths. I remember my mother’s china from Talavera in Puebla and the blue-blown glasses from Tlaquepaque. All were set on the big table adorned with bougainvillea under the immense shade of the amates for the main meal of the day. It was customary to start with a botana composed of a variety of Mexican appetizers--maybe small quesadillas made of cheese, flor de calabaza (zucchini flowers) or the corn fungus huitlacoche , and, for the adults, the typical shot of tequila.

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The menu of the main meal varied from week to week, but it often included chicharron, or pig skin, in chile verde and rajas, or strips of chile poblano with cream.

Whenever it was available in town, we would have lamb barbacoa , a delicious meal that is prepared in a pit dug into the earth. Another specialty of the region is cecina , grilled dried steak. Both the barbacoa and the cecina were served with a salsa borracha that is prepared with chile pasilla , orange juice, onion and pulque . There were also nopalitos (cactus) salad and Mexican rice made with tomato, carrot, potato and peas. And frijoles de la olla were essential.

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In the afternoon, we were ready to go horseback riding or to practice driving in a beat-up old pickup truck along the dusty, unpaved roads. Every once in a while, my sister and I would steal a kiss from one of my brother’s friends or walk along the edges of the aqueduct testing our balance. To cool off in the dry heat, we went for swims in the cool, clear water holes, the streams or the small pool my father built.

When night fell, we’d sit in the patio under the stars singing Mexican songs, with my mother playing the guitar, or we’d simply chat forever about everything and nothing.

Come Sunday afternoon, we would be exhausted but spiritually ready to face another week of work and school. There were no answering machines in those days, but the list of messages my father would receive upon his arrival in Cuernavaca was enormous. As far as I know, nobody ever died in my father’s absence, and he was able to enjoy those beautiful weekend days in the countryside, eating and enjoying nature and his family.

Now I live in Redondo Beach and remember those happy days with nostalgia. My only consolation is that whenever I go to Cuernavaca, I can still relive the weekend picnic, albeit in a different way.

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My father died in a car accident in 1965. The property in Chiconcuac was sold a long time ago. My brother lives in Monterrey and my sister lives in Cuernavaca. My mother and the small German refrigerator keep traveling every weekend to a picnic at another house in Morelos, one that she shares with her second husband. The house, built in 1777, is on a beautiful property that used to be a sugar hacienda called Santa Cruz.

Whenever nostalgia strikes, we can go to Santa Cruz and enjoy those magnificent sopes in the morning and the great meals that are prepared for the dozens of friends that continue to drop by every weekend.

In the meantime, a cheaper and faster way to satisfy my yearnings is to prepare tortas in the good old-fashioned way.

ROAST PORK TORTA (Torta de Puerco)

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ROAST PORK

1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled

1 large onion, chopped

Freshly ground pepper

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2 to 3 (12-ounce) bottles light beer

1 (2-pound) pork butt

Salt

Blend garlic, onion, pepper to taste and 2 bottles beer in blender or food processor until consistency is sauce-like. Smear sauce over pork, sprinkle with salt to taste, cover with foil and marinate in refrigerator at least 6 hours.

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Put pork in shallow roasting pan, cover with foil and roast at 350 degrees until tender, about 1 hour. If too much sauce evaporates, add more beer. When meat is tender, raise temperature to 500 degrees, remove foil wrapper and brown.

TORTA

8 telera buns or bolillo rolls

1 (16-ounce) can refried beans, warmed

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1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1/2 cup crema Mexicana

Chopped cilantro

1/4 cup chile chipotle en adobo, pureed

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Slice rolls in half. Spread bottom half with refried beans and top half with mustard.

Slice Roast Pork and place on bean side of roll, spoon on little crema Mexicana, then add cilantro and chile chipotle. Press roll halves together.

Makes 8 tortas.

Each torta contains about:

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553 calories; 830 mg sodium; 74 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 45 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 2.25 grams fiber;

MILANESE TORTA

2 eggs

Salt and pepper

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6 thin veal scallops, about 3/4 pound in all

1/2 cup flour

1 cup bread crumbs

Oil for deep frying

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6 telera buns or bolillo rolls

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoons mayonnaise

4 teaspoons guacamole

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1 tablespoon chile chipotle en adobo, pureed

Chopped cilantro

Beat eggs with salt and pepper. Dredge veal in flour, roll in egg batter then dredge in bread crumbs. Deep-fry in hot oil until brown, about 2 to 3 minutes, turning to cook each side. Remove from oil and drain on paper towel.

Slice rolls in half. Spread bottom half with mustard and top half with mayonnaise. Place veal scallops on bottom half, top with guacamole, chipotles and chopped cilantro. Cover with top half and squish roll together.

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Makes 6 tortas.

Each torta contains about:

616 mg sodium; 110 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 0.36 gram fiber.

SARDINE TORTA

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2 telera bun or bolillo rolls

1 (5 1/2-ounce) can sardines in tomato sauce

1/4 onion, sliced

1 to 2 serrano chiles, sliced

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1/4 cup cotija cheese

Slice buns in half. Spread tomato sauce of sardines on both halves. Place sardines on bottom half, top with 1 slice onion and 1 serrano chile. Sprinkle with cotija cheese. Cover with top half and squish roll together.

Makes 2 tortas.

Each torta contains about:

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386 calories; 967 mg sodium; 64 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 1.40 grams fiber.

HAM AND CHEESE TORTA

4 telera buns or bolillo rolls

1 (16-ounce) can refried beans, warmed

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1/2 cup crema Mexicana

3/4 pound sliced ham

1/2 pound sliced manchego or Jack cheese

1 cup chopped lettuce

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2 tomatoes, sliced

1 avocado, sliced

1 onion, sliced

1 (4-ounce) can sliced jalapeno chiles en escabeche

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Slice rolls in half. Spread refried beans on bottom half and crema Mexicana on top half. On bottom half, place ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, onion and chiles. Cover with top half and squish roll together.

Makes 4 tortas.

Each torta contains about:

814 calories; 2,217 mg sodium; 104 mg cholesterol; 44 grams fat; 60 grams carbohydrates; 43 grams protein; 5.08 grams fiber.

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CHICKEN MOLE TORTA

If you’re short on time, you can buy an already prepared mole paste, available in most Latino markets. Heat the prepared sauce, then add the shredded chicken and cook it long enough for the meat to absorb the flavor of the mole.

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken

2 onions

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4 cloves garlic

Salt

8 ancho chiles

8 mulato chiles

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2 pasilla chiles

1 slice stale bread

1 stale tortilla

3 teaspoons sesame seeds

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1/4 teaspoon anise

2 whole cloves

3 black peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

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3 tablespoons oil or lard

6 telera buns or bolillo rolls

1 avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced

Combine chicken, 1 onion cut in half, 2 cloves garlic and 1 teaspoon salt in medium soup pot. Cover with water and set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and reduce heat just to maintain simmer. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Cool chicken in broth, then refrigerate.

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Later, skim fat from top of broth and remove chicken, reserving broth. Remove skin from chicken and discard, then remove meat from chicken bones and reserve. Strain stock and set aside.

Cut slit in ancho, mulato and pasilla chiles and remove seeds and veins. Toast chiles on comal or griddle over medium heat until slightly brown and fragrant. Remove and set aside.

Cook remaining 2 cloves garlic and remaining onion on hot griddle until slightly blackened on 1 side. Remove and set aside.

On same griddle, toast stale bread and tortilla. Remove and set aside. Toast sesame seeds and anise on griddle until fragrant.

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Place toasted garlic, onion, bread, tortilla, sesame seeds and anise in blender along with cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon stick and process into paste. Paste should form small ball if pressed together.

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat, add paste and cook through, being careful not to burn paste.

Process chiles in blender and add cooked paste. Add at least 2 cups strained chicken broth to thin sauce and process until ingredients are combined. Taste and correct for salt. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 40 minutes, stirring to keep from sticking.

Add shredded chicken to sauce and cook long enough to absorb flavors, about 20 minutes.

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Slice rolls in half. On bottom half, spoon chicken mole and top with avocado slices. Cover with top half and squish roll together.

Makes 6 to 8 tortas.

Each of 6 tortas contains about:

611 calories; 491 mg sodium; 98 mg cholesterol; 35 grams fat; 44 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams protein; 2.02 grams fiber.

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