About 15 years ago, taking a break from my sophomore year of college, I sat in a wood-smoky guest house in the hills of the Nepalese Himalayas talking with some Americans about "home" and what we missed. When it was my turn, I said, a little pretentiously and not a little lost in life, "I miss Mexico more than I miss the United States. There's just more to miss."
I went on wistfully, as if conjuring up an actual memory. And, with a description of Mexico that brings to mind four little guys in mariachi outfits waving tirelessly from the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland, I waxed eloquent about the colors, the clothes, the music, the food.
I'm half Mexican. I was born in Mexico, to an American mom and a Mexican dad, but was raised in San Diego by my mother. The sorry truth of the situation is that, except for the peanut butter marzipan and chicle inside my birthday pinatas, I knew nothing about Mexican food. I didn't even know that Mexicans ate tamales for Christmas, which is something like not knowing that Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving or hot dogs at a baseball game. When, well past college, my Mexican family and even my gringo friends were introducing me to Mexican fare I'd never even heard of, I began to feel ever so slightly ashamed, as if I really didn't deserve the title, "Mexican."
I was so oblivious to the riches of Mexican cooking that for years I cooked Christmas dinner in San Diego for the entire Mexican side of my family with a subtle sense of superiority--as if the filet mignon, roasted potatoes and apple cobbler that I prepared were knocking their epicurean socks off. It never even occurred to me to ask them to bring a dish. Or that if I had, I might have received something other than a stack of warm corn tortillas--foods I would later read about in Diana Kennedy books. They combine European and native influences, these savory dishes calling for cinnamon, dried fruits and nuts and made using a molcajete y tejolete--a Mexican mortar and pestle. From my native Tijuana are such favorites as chiles en nogada, roasted chiles filled with picadillo, a spiced meat and nut mixture, and topped with walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds, a combination comprising both the colors of the Mexican flag and the traditional red, white and green of Christmas.
It was New Year's Day in 1994 when my eyes were finally opened to the extraordinary culinary world of even the most humble Mexican household. I'd just dropped my sister, Christy, off at the Tijuana airport when I stopped by my father's house to visit. My father's wife Grace answered the door and invited me in. As tears filled her eyes, she told me that my dad was in bed and not well. Following our Christmas Eve dinner the week before, my mom, Christy and I had talked about how we thought this would be his last (he was 75, after all, and had lived hard).
As it turned out, it was. But Grace was 30 years younger than my dad and nobody suspected that she had inoperable cancer growing inside her and that it also would be her last. She left to awaken my dad and then stayed in the background reheating leftovers from the party they'd had the night before, as I sat with him at the kitchen table. I tried to think of things to ask him, or to talk about, fully aware that our time was running out. Meanwhile, Grace appeared with a big aluminum roasting pan filled with tamales, the product of half a week's labor by her and two of her sisters. She pointed out the tamales de puerco (pork), de pollo (chicken), de rajas (chiles) and tamales dulces (sweet tamales). "Dulces? " I asked. "Tamales?" I had never heard of sweet tamales, which she quickly told me are served at any fiesta. The sweetness of them--stuffed with pineapple, raisins or sweet bean paste--was subtle against the sweetness of the masa, just barely crossing into dessert territory.
Until that afternoon, my relationship with Grace had been limited to polite conversation. This was partly because she spoke no English and my Spanish was very limited. But we also had nothing to talk about. Suddenly we had this shared interest: the food.
"Aye, mi hija," she said. "You don't know tamales dulces?" And then she shot my dad a look as if to say, "Shame on you! What kind of Mexican girl have you produced?" "Do you know mole?" she asked. I nodded. And then admitted that I hadn't the first idea how it was made. She gave my dad the look again, this time scolding him with a shake of her head and, "Aye, Carreno! Sin verguenza! " At her insistence that I watch her toast pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds and peanuts in a dry skillet, the message was clear: Every self-respecting Mexican girl must know how to make mole.
Last year, my dad and Grace both gone six years, I finally worked up the courage to do what I'd often wanted to do since that afternoon. To take Grace's sister, Rosita, up on her invitation to join them for their Christmas Eve party that started at 9 and lasted well past midnight. I arrived in Tijuana a few days before, because she'd also promised to teach me how to make tamales.
Early on our first morning, Rosita and I sought out the Mercado Hidalgo, in the modern Zona Rio section of Tijuana. With the colorful pinatas, bunches of plantains and various sizes of dried chiles hanging in the stalls, we could have been anywhere in Mexico. We bought knobs of jicama, both fresh and dried chiles, bunches of cilantro, bags of limes, and banana leaves, cornhusks and masa for tamales.
And, as it had been with Grace, food became the center of our shared universe. I asked Rosita how to make rice pudding, my childhood favorite, and she shrugged her shoulders and looked at me as though I'd asked her how to make toast. "Milk, sugar, cinnamon--and rice. She proceeded to rave about my dad's three-milk flan (fresh, evaporated and sweetened-condensed) that she continues to make from his recipe. And she told me stories about his daily life, how in the evenings, when he heard the bell of the comote (sweet potato) boy walking his cart through the streets, he'd run out--or, as he got older, send one of the children out--to get some.
For the next few days, I helped Rosita in her tiny kitchen. We had pots on every burner, and bowls on every countertop, the latter filled with the soaking cornhusks or the resting bunuelo dough. I squeezed in to stand at a table she had set up for the tamale assembly, and she showed me how to fill and wrap the cornhusks.
Christmas Eve morning, I walked in to Rosita's kitchen for coffee as the last tamales were steaming. The house had a sweet, smoky smell from the chiles she had roasted before dawn, which would later be stuffed with picadillo. She called me to the stove and lifted the lid on a giant pot of peeled sweet potatoes in a bubbling bath of melted piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar). The sweet potatoes weren't traditionally part of their feast and had been made specially for me. She insisted I sit down as she served up a bowl: chunks of the still-hot sweet potatoes cooked well past tender in a pool of syrup, with milk poured on top. This was just the way my dad liked them, she explained, standing back to watch as I took the first bite, knowing that somehow, with these lessons and with this food, she was giving me my dad, and giving me Mexico.
THE TOAST OF TIJUANA Chiles en Nogada
From "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico,"
by Diana Kennedy
For the chiles:
6 poblano chiles (pasilla chiles can be substituted)
1 cup fresh pomegranate seeds
Place the chiles directly onto a high flame and let the skin blister and burn, turning occasionally to get all sides. Wrap chiles in a damp cloth and leave them for about 20 minutes. Remove and slip off the burned skin. Make a slit in the side of each chile, taking care to leave the top part around the base of the stem intact. Carefully remove the seeds and veins. Be sure to wear latex or rubber gloves when handling the chiles. If you should touch the chiles, wash hands repeatedly and be careful not to touch eyes.
For the picadillo (minced meat):
3 cups cooked boneless pork (see recipe below)
4 tablespoons lard or the fat from the broth
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
5 whole cloves
1/2-inch stick cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins
2 tablespoons blanched, slivered almonds
2 heaped tablespoons candied fruit, chopped
2 teaspoons salt
11/4 pounds tomatoes, peeled and seeded and slightly mashed
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the lard and cook the onion and garlic, without browning, until they are soft. Add the meat and let it cook until it begins to brown. In a molcajete, or mortar, crush the spices roughly. (You can use a spice blender for this, or even a standard can and a shallow bowl will work.) Add crushed spices, along with the rest of the ingredients except the tomatoes, to the meat mixture. Cook a few minutes longer. Add tomatoes and cook over high heat for about 10 minutes, or until fairly dry, stirring occasionally so that mixture doesn't stick.
For the pork:
2 pounds boneless pork, cut into large cubes
1/2 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon salt
Place the meat into a large saucepan along with the onion, garlic, salt and enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, lower the flame and let simmer until tender, about 40-45 minutes. Do not overcook. Let the meat cool in the broth. Once cooled, strain the meat, reserving the broth. Shred or chop meat finely and set it aside. Let the broth get completely cold, skim off and reserve the fat.
For the walnut sauce:
Cold milk to cover walnuts
1 small piece of white bread, crust removed
1/4 pound queso fresco
1 1/2 cups thick sour cream
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Remove the thin, papery skin from the nuts, place in a small dish, cover with cold milk and put in the refrigerator to soak overnight. Blend all ingredients together until smooth.
Stuff the chiles with the picadillo. Pour the walnut sauce over them, leaving some of the chile showing on each side. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.
Classic Mole Sauce
Yields about 11/2 quarts of sauce
1/4 cup unsalted butter or lard
1/2 onion (peeled and chopped)
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon whole allspice
2 whole cloves
3/4 ounce pasilla chiles (roasted, stems and seeds removed)
3/4 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup raisins
3 tablespoons peanuts, toasted separately
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted separately
3 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted separately
3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, toasted separately
1 3.1-ounce bar of Ibarra chocolate (available at Mexican markets)
1 corn tortilla, fried or toasted and crushed
1 slice of white bread, toasted and crushed
2 quarts chicken broth
Melt the butter or lard in a saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is soft. Add spices, chiles, prunes, raisins, peanuts, sesame seeds, almonds and pumpkin seeds and continue to cook, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes. Place in the bowl of a processor fitted with a metal blade, or in a blender. Add the tortilla and bread and puree, adding a little chicken broth to get a smooth mixture. Return to heat and add chocolate, stirring so that the melted chocolate doesn't stick. Add the rest of the chicken broth and continue cooking for another 30 minutes, until sauce is the consistency of thick gravy.
Red Chile Pork Tamales
From "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," by Rick Bayless
Makes 16 tamales
For the filling:
16 medium dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded and each torn into several pieces
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cumin
11/2 pounds lean boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
For the batter:
11/4 cups pork lard (or vegetable shortening), slightly softened but not runny
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 pounds (4 cups) fresh coarse-ground corn masa (available at Mexican markets) or 3 1/2 cups dried masa harina, mixed with 21/4 cups hot water
1-11/2 cups chicken broth
1 package cornhusks
Preparing the filling:
In a blender or a food processor fitted with a metal blade, working in batches if necessary, combine the chiles, garlic, pepper and cumin. Add 3 cups of water, cover and blend to a smooth puree. Strain the mixture through a strainer into a medium (3-quart) saucepan. Add the meat, 3 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt. Simmer, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the pork is fork-tender and the liquid is reduced to the consistency of a thick sauce, about 1 hour. Use a fork to break the pork into small pieces. Taste and season with salt if necessary. Let cool to room temperature.
Preparing the batter:
With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the lard (or shortening) with baking powder and 2 teaspoons salt until light in texture, about 1 minute. Continue beating as you add the masa (fresh or reconstituted) in three additions. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add 1 cup of the broth. Continue beating for another minute or so, until a half-teaspoon dollop of the batter floats in a cup of cold water. (If it floats, you can be sure the tamales will be tender and light). Beat in enough additional broth to give the mixture the consistency of soft cookie dough. You may not need to add any broth if using fresh masa. Taste the batter and season with additional salt if you want. For the lightest-textured tamales, refrigerate the batter for an hour or so, then re-beat, adding enough additional broth or water to bring the mixture to the soft consistency it had before.
Preparing the cornhusks:
Submerge the cornhusks in a dishpan, sink or bucket and cover them with hot water. Let them stand 1 hour or longer until they are softened. Just before using, rinse each cornhusk separately and remove any silk. Drain well and pat with paper towels to remove excess water. If the husks are too wide for the size tamale you want, tear off one side. If the husks are too narrow, overlap two husks to make a wide one.
To fill the tamales, place a cornhusk in the palm of your hand, point toward you. Place a spoonful of dough in the center and spread it slightly. Leave a half-inch margin around the edge to allow for folding the husk. Place a little filling on the dough and spread it slightly with your fingers. Fold the sides of the husk to the center, enclosing the filling completely. Some cooks like to spread a little more dough over the filling before folding the cornhusk. Fold the pointed end under, keeping the seam on the outside. Wrapping the tamale in additional husks makes sure they will remain sealed while steaming. To close the tamales, tie the pointed side with a string or a torn strip of cornhusk.
Steaming the tamales:
Steaming the tamales can be done in batches in a collapsible vegetable steamer set into a large, deep pot, with the steamer rack high enough that tamales will not touch water. Pour an inch or so of water into the bottom of the pot. Stand the tamales next to each other on the rack with the closed end down. Set the lid in place and heat the water to a boil, steaming the tamales over a constant medium heat for about 11/4 hours. Watch carefully to make sure that all the water doesn't boil away and, to keep the steam steady, pour boiling water into the pot when more is necessary. Tamales are done when the cornhusks peel away easily from the masa. Let the tamales stand in the steamer off the heat for a few minutes to firm up. For the best-textured tamales, let them cool completely, then steam them again for about 15 minutes to heat them through.
Preparing and steaming tamales in foil:
Place masa and filling just above the center of a 9-by-7-inch piece of foil. Fold foil in half, enclosing masa and filling completely. Fold edges twice to make a secure seal. Stand tamale folded edge down on a steamer rack over water in a large pot. Cover the pot and steam for 1 hour or until the dough pulls easily from the foil.
2 1/2 pounds jicama
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup orange juice
3 large sweet oranges, segmented
Peel the jicama and cut into 1/4-inch cubes. Add the cilantro, salt and orange juice and set aside for at least an hour. Just before serving, add orange wedges and toss with your hands.
Bunuelos Serves 6
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/4 cup water
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup water
1/8 teaspoon aniseed
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Place flour, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the egg and butter, pulsing until mixture resembles pie dough. Add water, a little at a time, stopping when the dough just holds together but is not sticky. Cover dough with a damp cloth and set aside to rest while making the syrup.
To make the syrup, put all of the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10-20 minutes, or until mixture has thickened into a syrup.
To make bunuelos, divide the dough into 6 equal portions and form it into balls. With a rolling pin, roll the balls out as thin as possible, like a flour tortilla. Heat oil in a deep fryer or deep skillet to 375 degrees. Place a piece of shaped dough in the deep fryer. Cook 2 or 3 minutes, or until golden brown, on one side before flipping it over to cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Put onto paper towels to absorb excess grease.
After all six are fried, spoon syrup over them, dust with cinnamon-sugar mixture and serve immediately.
Comotes de Rosita
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 pound piloncillo (available at Mexican markets) or you can substitute 1/2 pound light brown sugar and 1/2 pound dark brown sugar mixed together
1 stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf
Water to cover sweet potatoes
Cut sweet potatoes into 1-inch disks and soak in water for about 1 hour. If the piloncillo is in chunks, put in plastic bag and break up with hammer. In a 3-quart saucepan, layer the sweet potato disks and piloncillo. Add cinnamon, bay leaf, enough water to cover and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Cover and simmer gently 1 to 11/2 hours. Boil gently uncovered 30 to 45 minutes longer to reduce to a syrup. Do not stir. Serve warm in small bowls with milk or cream.
Food styling by Christine Masterson