Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Un Gringo Cocinero En Cuernavaca Parte 1

Yo era un cocinero gringo para una familia Mexicana de Cuernavaca.

How it started, below...

I first arrived in Cuernavaca to attend the Fénix Language Institute in February, 1992. The Institute lodged me in the home of Sra. Amelia (a later photo, to the left.) and Sr. José, their two older sons, Gustavo and Pepe; and sweet sixteen daughter, Liz.

The family had escaped México, D.F. after the earthquake of September, 1985, and bought a two-storey house, with rentable apartments behind in the northern part of Cuernavaca. Don José continued to work for some years in el D.F., coming home on weekends. Unfortunately,
at the time of my two-week stay he was in the hospital. I was not to meet him until a visit the next year. This memorable man deserves a blog post of his own.

The two weeks at the school was what I needed to help hone my Spanish skills, but the home stay provided a great environment to practice a more vernacular Spanish. Amelia liked to teach me refrains and proverbs, while Gustavo taught me some colorful slang.

Meals were included, but I was greatly disappointed at first by the bland, White Bread offerings. There was not a chile in sight. We seemed to be eating a great deal of white rice and milanesas (bread pork or beef cutlets, the Mexican schnitzel), and white bread toast. The reasons for this atypical diet soon became evident.

There were other student guests in the house, two young women from Minnesota. One was suffering Culture Shock while the other did her best to support her friend. Their food interests were unlike mine. The one with CS was comforted by peanut butter spread on sliced white bread. She wouldn't eat the clean, healthful salads the Amelia prepared. White rice and plain spaghetti were about as daring as she could eat. (It could be that she was also suffering "Las Turistas", but we didn't speak of such things.)

After three days of tough, boring milanesas and Midwestern-oriented White Bread Food, I was getting worried that I'd never get any really good comida casera Mexicana. So, I started a conversation with Amelia, expressing my food interests.

She asked me what of the Mexican repertoire I liked. She shook her head "No. Mucho trabajo." when I suggested tamales. Somewhere in the discussion I said, "cochinita pibil". At that, her eyes lit up. "Mi esposo es Yucateco. Me enseñó como preparar cochinita pibil."

My interest in this marinated, slowly baked pork dish, sparked her to begin preparing it over a 3 day period. I got to invite my principal language instructor, Marco. My two Minnesotan housemates absented themselves from this fabulous comida. At least one was aghast that I could contemplate eating something that had reposed overnight unrefrigerated in a basin of spicy, tangy marinade. They went out for more cocteles de aguacate and a margarita or two. (Too bad for them. More for us.)

The pork, swaddled in banana leaves, cooked slowly for many hours in a roaster on the gas grill on the patio. Meanwhile, Amelia made delicious frijoles negros. Cebollas moradas en vinagre and salsa de chile habanero (if I recall correctly) for a condiment. Tortillas were readied and heated.

Our meal began with shots of mezcal and we proceeded to the succulent, tender and aromatic
cochinita. It was easy to stuff ourselves. This was a dish that we could gladly eat over the next three days. The barriers were broken. I was keen to make some baked specialties, which I would do in the pre-dawn hours in the kitchen below my humble apartment.

Video how to make Puerco (Cochinita) Pibil; sexy, funny, not entirely authentic, but good. (Lo contiene algunas malas palabras)

Here's a link to Rick Bayless' recipe for La Verdadera Cochinita Pibil (serves 35).

Note that ours wasn't pit cooked, but was still delicious.
But, Liz' 16th birthday was approaching, and she was more than happy if I would make pizzas for her birthday dinner. The challenges were many, but I was flush with reckless enthusiasm. so I took on the task.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Nutty Honey Sticky Buns

I got the nutty notion to make sticky buns yesterday. After Googling, "World's Best Cinnamon Roll", I decided that I already had more know-how than most of those recipe writers (and copy-and-pasters).

My ideal cinnamon roll should be light, tending toward fluffy, with a tender crumb and a distinct, but not heavy cinnamon sugar filling. Raisins are o.k., but quite superfluous. A simple powdered sugar and water icing, lightly flavored with vanilla and lemon zest is sufficient for this type.

The sub-category, the ultra rich, nutty and gooey sticky buns with pecans, or, second best, walnuts, should be heavily glazed by the sticky bun caramel schmear. All is rich with real butter.

My Google research came up with all sorts of baffling recipes. Some had no eggs. Others, no milk. Some had an insufficiency of fat in the dough; calling, for instance, for a tablespoon of oil.

I rejected all those, and turned by favorite source book, "The Fanny Farmer Baking Book", by Marian Cunningham.

Two sweet dough recipes are given; a standard one, rich with eggs, milk and butter; and a potato sweet dough, which promises to be lighter and fluffier though milk less.

Why not combine the best of both for optimal results? I do that a lot. The problem is, while moving from one recipe to another, I skipped over the sugar, the very thing that makes it a sweet dough. I rationalized that because of all the enriching, sweet fillings and toppings that
the dough would carry, the small amount of sugar in the dough would never be missed. (I was a bit dazed from having just awakened from a nap. That's my excuse. Or maybe I DID put in the sugar. )

I was right: after the bulk dough spent the night in the fridge, I let it come towards room temperature for a couple of hours, then rolled it out. It was very easy to work with.

I patted
on and spread 1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, then a heady blend of dark brown sugar and cinnamon. (Why had I ever used white sugar for this before? It's much better with brown sugar.)

Then I prepared the schmear for the 3 cake pans. One and 1/2 sticks more of softened butter, a little over a cup of brown sugar, 3 tablespoons of honey (dark corn syrup is usually called for, but honey tastes so much better), a tablespoon of flour; blending well. I added a tablespoon or two of very hot water to smooth it out.

This schmear coated 3, 9 inch round cake pans very generously— a bit too much, so that there was overflow and burning of the excess during baking. That's why I put the cake pans on foil lined baking sheets, and another sheet in the bottom of the oven.

Each schmeared pan got a generous handful of pecan halves distributed more or less evenly. The pans hold 8 cut medium sized buns. One pan got only 7. This is a constant in making these. They almost never come out even in number. The cut buns should be lightly pressed into the shmeared pans to help them coalesce during the final proofing (rising).

proofing on top of the stove as the oven preheated to 350º-375º F., they were ready to bake in about 45 minutes. Thirty minutes oven time saw them mostly done, but with a lot of smoke from burning glaze overflow.

Usually, when the cake pans of buns are inverted onto aluminum foil or parchment paper, they need to return to the oven for 4 or 6
more minutes to finish browning the gooey bottoms.

It's prudent to wait 5 minutes or so for the buns to cool before eating them. The hot glaze is tenacious and unrelenting in burning the tongue or skin.

They are wonderful. We ate 3 for breakfast, then I carried 4 to Sra. Chucha and family.
There's more left here, some to eat soon and some for the freezer.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Hotel Real Palmira Pátzcuaro

The Hotel Real Palmira is surprisingly located along Calle Obregón, below the mercado entrance on Plaza Chica. The congested street has until now been more notable for its ferreterías and the Correos midway to the next corner. (The corner, incidentally, where the yet unopened new mercado structure lies fallow.)
Note that the entrance is up a set of stairs over the lower level parking garage.

In my three visits, I've never seen a guest in the hotel, but it's new
and has yet to make the guidebooks. (By the way, a double room starts at
a very reasonable $650 a night.)

Here's a slideshow for your visual delight.

My wife and I had been in the hotel before, just to look around, escorted by a friendly staff member. I thought of the restaurant there for a possible Mens' Breakfast. With that in mind, four of us got together for a tryout.

Again, the staff was accomodating and friendly in showing us the attractive architecture and decor. The centerpiece is the magnificent patio, a relaxing and comfortable place for gatherings large and small.
The balcony level restaurant, 'El Rincón', hold 42 diners in a more intimate setting, but one can also dine on the patio.

We ordered breakfast, available a la carte or as paquetes desayunos, averaging $70 pesos for the latter. They include juice or fruit, a main dish and coffee.

Service was fine. (We were the only guests in the restaurant.) The food was attractively presented, but there were several shortcomings in the meal. The coffee, described as "normal coffee" by our waiter, I would call "weak". The accompanying papas fritas were barely warmed up after passing through the frying oil.

The main dishes were pretty good. Plating presentation was attractive.
Some came with average frijoles refritos and a diced vegetable medley
(lukewarm). E. and I both had a pretty tasty aporeadillo (like machaca
con huevo with salsa or chiles mixed in). R. had chilaquiles verde. They
looked good to me. S. ordered Huevos a la Mexicana, which she described
as "o.k"

Our orange juice was freshly squeezed and tasty. The tortillas were just
passable, as they were unusually tough. I suspect they'd been heated in
a microwave oven.

Overall, it's a lovely place to breakfast, but it disappointed us that the food, and especially the coffee, is not at the same high level of quality as the beautifully restored building. We hope that the food quality will improve as more people stay there or use the ample spaces
for special events.

I'd tentatively rate the restaurant, on a 1 to 5 scale: 5 for
ambience/decor; 4 for service, and 2.5 for food. Averaged out, 3.8.
To be fair, it would need more visits over time to get a fair

Location and contact info.
Obregon #10, Centro Historico
Pátzcuaro, Mich, Mex.

Telefono: 434 3421037 y 434 3421295

Fax: 434 3421037

Obregon #10, Centro Historico

Pátzcuaro, Mich, Mex.

Telefono: 434 3421037 y 434 3421295

Fax: 434 3421037

email: hotelrealpalmira@hotmail.com


Sunday, March 01, 2009

El Día de las Albóndigas

El Día de Las Albóndigas was first established here at the Rancho, a tradicíon begun by our landlady, Sra. Chucha B. and me.
(Photo from another source.)

I was planning to pay our rent, then go next door to our gringo neighbor's house, in whose refrigerator freezer I store surplus foods, to pick up a container of "Italian" meatballs in home made tomato sauce.

But while paying the rent at Casa Chucha, I smelled the rich and mouthwatering aroma of the comida she was preparing. When I asked what was cooking, she said, "Albóndigas". I suggested a swap so that we could sample each other's meatballs. She agreed, and anticipated the arrival of a sample in the next hour or so.

She explained that hers were made with rice, marjoram, hierba buena (mint), other herbs I forget, and tomato. No chiles, as the visiting grandson is only 3 or 4 years old and not yet accustomed to comida picante.* She plans to serve the albóndigas in their broth, I think, with nopalitos. (Prickly pear cactus pads cut into strips. De-spined, of course.)

These nopalitos are served as a salad.

I started the water boiling for the pasta, so I could offer her some with the meatballs. I had only 8 meatballs here, with more in the freezer, but we didn't need very many.

*I wonder at what age Mexican children are introduced to chiles in order that they become accustomed to them.

She came over with the albóndigas, simmered in a tasty soup with lots of carrots (cut lengthwise as is the custom here), a little potato and some chayote. The meatballs themselves were delicate of texture, with a surprising kick of ¿black pepper? when I bit into the first one. Overall, very light and tasty.

My defrosted "Italian" style meatballs, in red tomato sauce were richer, spicier and heavier. I could only eat one of mine after two of hers. And these meatballs were more lightly seasoned than I usually make.

The nopalitos were coarsely chopped, cooked with tomato and onion and a little touch of chile perón (also called chile manzano). They were refreshing, as nopales tend to be. The leftovers will go into this mornings huevos revueltos con queso.

Lo siento, pero no
les puedo ofrecer algunas recetas para mis albóndigas ni de la Señora. It's because I use recipes as a guideline from which to spring into creative variations.

I will offer the following guidlines:
  • I use a ratio of 2:1 ground beef and ground pork, with extra fat added for juiciness.
  • A kilo and a half of ground meat yields about two dozen medium sized meatballs.
  • A cup or two of fresh bread crumbs are soaked in just enough V-8 Juice to cover.
  • Two eggs to a kilo y medio of meat.
  • The seasonings are finely minced onion, a little garlic, basil, marjoram or oregano, fresh parsley if available, and salt and pepper. A couple of tablespoons of finely grated Parmesan type cheese is a tasty addition.
  • The last recipe I used, from Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan, instructed to roll the formed meatballs in fine, dry breadcrumbs before frying. I consider this unneccessary after doing it once.
  • I almost never fry the meatballs, but bake them on a PAM sprayed, rimmed baker's half sheet or similar receptacle. At a temperature of 375ºF, they take about 25 minutes to brown. It's unnecessary to turn the meatballs during the baking, but it can't hurt to turn the pan once.
  • I usually have a quick, medium or light tomato sauce prepared, in which I simmer the meatballs for about 20 minutes after they brown in the oven.
Las abóndigas a la Mexicana are prepared very differently. I may write about Sopa de Albóndigas and Albóndigas al Chipotle at another time.

¡Buen provecho!