Saturday, October 20, 2012

I Yam What I Yam

I got into one of my periodic baking frenzies yesterday. It wasn't enough to make peanut butter cookies and gingersnaps, but I was compelled to go on and use up the two or three cups of cooked camote (Mexican yam) I had in the fridge.

Camotes in the raw. Ewww!
Camotes cooked. Yummm!
In past years at about this time, I'd make Pumpkin Quick Bread, from a recipe in The Fanny Farmer Baking Book, by Marion Cunningham. (See page 557 in the hard bound edition).

It's not difficult to see that cooked yam, sweet potato or camote can be subbed for pumpkin, making a few small adjustments.

This is the recipe from The FFBB. My changes are in italics.

Preheat oven to 350º F
Grease and flour two 9x5x3 inch loaf pans. (I used two frames of Wilton 4 loaf individual quick bread pans, which are a little tricky to make it all come out all right. The use of parchment paper pan liners would be useful, but I don't have any of the right size.)

Dry Ingredients:
3 1/2 cups of flour
2 tsps baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder (I started to get the two leaveners reversed in proportion, but corrected in time. Pay attention!)
1 1/2 tsps salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg (I grated nutmeg and guessed at the amount.)
1/2 tsp ground cloves
(I am surprised by the omission of ginger in the recipe, so I added
1 tsp powdered ginger and
about a tsp of grated fresh ginger root, the latter to the wet ingredients.)
2/3 cup vegetable shortening. (I use Cristal Manteca Vegetal, if I can find it in the supermercado.)

Wet Ingredients

2 to 2 1/2 cups mashed cooked pumpkin (substitute yam or camote amarillo.)
4 eggs, slightly beaten
2 1/2 cups of sugar (YES! Not a mistake.)
2/3 cup milk, or more.
2 tbsps grated orange zest (optional.)
1 cup chopped pitted dates. (The original recipe calls for dates, but I think they are too cloyingly sweet, nor did I have any on hand. I subbed sweetened dried cranberries "CRAISINS", which I almost always keep on hand.)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts. (Best if lightly toasted then cooled before chopping. TIP: put the cooled, toasted nuts in a heavy plastic bag, such as a Zip-Loc, close the bag, run a heavy rolling pin over a few times. Don't crush the nuts too finely. Leave some textural interest.)

Sift or whisk the dry ingredients  together on a sheet of parchment paper or in a separate bowl.
Mash and puree the camote if it isn't already, using the flat paddle attachment on your mixer.
Add the shortening, eggs, sugar, milk, cranberries or dates and walnuts. (I usually wait to add the fruits and nuts until after the dry ingredients are incorporated.)

Add the combined dry ingredients to the blended wet ingredients and incorporate thoroughly, without over mixing.

Divide the batter among the prepared pans.
Bake loaves about 1 hour, mini loaves about 30 minutes, and muffins about 18 to 20. Ovens vary, and I also recommend exchanging the positions of the breads at about midway in the baking.

When a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, or the bread springs back at a light finger touch, they are done. They should be lightly brown. The color is not as orange as when made with pumpkin.

Cool on a rack and unmold carefully.
Quick breads at Horno Los Ortiz, Morelia

Admit it: some of you read this blog mostly to see what sort of wacky, surreal video may come as the prize in the package. I searched for a Popeye cartoon, with the theme, "I yam what I yam", but nothing appealed. However, I did find this cartoon with a stereotypical Mexican setting. If you are not a PC sensitive soul, you may enjoy it.

WARNING: moderate but persistent violence; racial and ethnic stereotypes, cantina setting. Duration: about 6 minutes of frenetic, insane action.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ode To Joy

Another form of food storage
With this post, I'm returning to a familiar topic: food storage containers, their selection, purchase and management.

We have come a long way from the way in which my late dear mother-in-law stored leftovers: in teacups with broken handles, waxed paper, or I daresay, a fragment of napkin on top?

It is my opinion, based on my experiences: the attractive sets of storage containers, often at attractive prices, just lead to frustration and heartbreak. See example below.
Avoid! Avoid!

What's wrong with that set? You may well ask.

What's wrong is that there are no two pieces alike, so that for practical usage, it has extremely limited utility. What do you do when the 1 pint container is needed but is already in use?
The Pyrex glass bottom is a cool feature it would seem, but in reality it's a flawed concept.

Why? Because when you need to bake something, there's a strong chance that the container is already holding something in storage, and thus is unavailable.

My advice: Don't use your baking and cooking dishes for storage. Get separate containers for the latter. They are two independent functions.

There are also different shapes as well as sizes. That bodes ill for when you want to stack some in your fridge or freezer.

The DON CUEVAS FOOD STORAGE CONTAINER SYSTEM, developed after years of hard earned experience, addresses these questions in a practical way.

For a starter kit, buy 8 to 12 containers of exactly the same type, brand, shape and capacity. I'd start with the 850 ml Joy cuadrado.
Larger containers, buy half as many containers that are as close to twice the capacity of the first ones. "Four to six". Better to err on the conservative side, until you get a better idea of your storage needs.

Buy as many containers, again, same shape and style, of half the capacity of the first.

Use these for a while until you get a feel of the ebb and flow of storage containers in and out of use. Then buy supplementary containers, always of the same brand, always of the same conformation, and differing only in their capacity.

Here in Mexico, we have discovered "JOY" food storage containers, made by Joy Técnica Plástica. They are available at Wal Mart and other popular outlets. They are sturdy, the lids come in various colors (and try not to mix up the colors of lids amongst containers of the same size. It adds to confusion.) They are not too expensive.
Here's their web site, specifically the page of square food storage containers:

JOY in use

I see by the web site that the containers come 12 to a case. That's probably how we should have bought them, especially the most useful for us, the 850 ml. size. But we didn't know that back then.

I'll end with more bits of advice: NEVER, EVER get a competing brand or style from the one from which you have started. It's really frustrating to search for a correct lid amidst a variegated collection.

DON'T use opaque containers, such as yogurt comes in. You won't be able to readily identify the contents.

Avoid fancy closures, such as the 4-piece snap-lock Rubbermaid item which my wife insisted on buying to hold some cured olives for our flight from Newark to Mexico City. A couple of plastic bags, one inside the other, could have done as well, at far less cost. It's possible that the container cost more than the olives. Now we have this ungainly box with fancy closure. It just is in the way, not to mention that it takes too long to open. Overengineering in action.

I looked it up on the Rubbermaid web site. It's called a Lockit.

Here's a picture:
Nifty, but RESIST!

If you follow my counsel, your food storage frustrations will be minimal. Your kitchen will be suffused with Joy.

Musical Accompaniment, Conservative Version here.

Musical Accompaniment, Goofy Version below.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

American Pie

 When blogger Steve Cotton was visiting Pátzcuaro recently, he wrote about having an excellent chicken pot pie at the Restaurant La Esquina del Sol, We had originally read about it from The Unseen Moon of Felipe Zapata,.

Dining at the Esquina del Sol is something like going to a suburban restaurant in the northwest Arkansas Ozarks. But this post is not a review of the restaurant.

I knew that if these two caballeros recommended it, it must be good. But as an experienced cook, I have my pride, and I have made chicken pot pie several times in the past. It can be challenging to get all the ingredients lined up, assembled in good order, and baked to be served at the right moment. But if carried out well, the results are very worthwhile.  I wanted to make it for a company comida, and to exceed my previous efforts.

For my basic text, I went to James Beard's American Cookery. There is a straightforward old fashioned CPP recipe. I found a more elaborate version on the Net. Elements of another recipe from SAVEUR were referenced.

I'll break down this ambitious project into its primal elements.

Chicken stock. The real stuff, made from chicken bony parts, giblets and aromatic vegetables. You need to do this well in advance, so it's out of the way and you can remove the layer of fat from the surface.

Chicken meat. I prefer to work with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I like the boneless, skinless chicken breasts by Bachoco, as sold in Costco. I may try muslos (thighs) next time. I used one package, about 1 1/2 pounds, and with the supporting vegetables, it yielded one large and one small CPP.

Vegetables. Carrots, onion and celery are requisite. Baby onions (cebollitas), mushrooms and peas are nice enhancements, but increase the complexity of the project. So do potatoes, but they may be worth the effort. You could use papas chicas, (baby potatoes, but avoid the purple ones, as the dye comes off in the cooking water. On the other hand, they will be tedious to peel.)

Pastry crust. A good, made from scratch, lard-butter-flour crust, rich enough to be tasty but sturdy enough to hold up.

Here's the recipe referenced above, with my changes noted. (You do know that Don Cuevas is seldom satisfied to follow a recipe as is?)

Chicken Pot Pie - James Beard
(My notes are in italics.)

1 bunch parsley — pluck the stems off and discard, except when using in stock making.
1, 3–4-lb. chicken — I used 2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which do not need to be simmered longer than 12 minutes, covered, then left covered off heat for 30 to 60 minutes.
1 pint pearl onions, blanched and peeled— use "cebollitas"
2 carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2" slices
1/2 lb. potatoes, peeled and cut in 1" dice— Two, medium potatoes
1/4 lb. sugar snap peas, trimmed—Unavailable, so I used 250 grams frozen peas and carrots
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped—Live it up! Use two.
1/4 lb. white mushrooms, quartered—1 pound, or 500 grams
4 TBS butter—Keep plenty of butter handy. You'll need it.
2 TBS all-purpose flour—More, probably.
1 cup heavy cream— Here's a trick: I don't use cream, believe it or not, as it's too rich. I used Nido brand Leche Entera en Polvo, dissolved in water. It's plenty rich and good tasting. 

Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp. Tabasco
A pinch or two of leaf thyme is nice.
1 recipe Pot Pie Pastry— The recipe below is good, but I made a couple of significant changes .
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 TBS water

Chop enough parsley to fill 1/4 cup; set aside. Place remaining parsley, chicken, and half the onions in a large pot with water to cover; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat; simmer 30 minutes. Remove chicken; cool. Pull off meat in like-size pieces; place in a large bowl. Return bones to pot; simmer 1 hour. Strain stock; return to pot over medium heat. Cook carrots, potatoes, sugar snaps, and remaining onions in stock, in batches, just until tender, adding as cooked to chicken. (You can do it this way, or you can make a separate, dedicated and richer chicken stock in advance.)

Preheat oven to 450°. Cook garlic and mushrooms in 1 TBS of the butter in a small skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add to chicken mixture. In the same skillet, melt remaining 3 TBS butter and sprinkle in flour. Stir constantly over medium heat, 2–3 minutes. Stir in 1 cup stock until thickened. Remove from heat and add cream. Add chopped parsley, and season to taste with salt, pepper, and Tabasco. Gently stir sauce into chicken mixture.

Prepare pastry. Line a 9" pan with pastry (notes), fill with chicken mixture, and cover with top pastry. Crimp edges, cut a vent in top, and brush with egg wash. Bake 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°, and continue baking until crust is browned, about 35 minutes.

1. I do not use a bottom crust, thereby avoiding the possibility of a soggy bottom. You can do as you like.

2. Another tip is to let the pie filling cool before assembling it.

3. Another is to bake the pies on a lipped baking tray with aluminum foil or baking parchment underneath, to make cleanup much easier.

Pot Pie Pastry


3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps sugar, optional
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 lb. chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup chilled shortening —I used manteca de cerdo (lard), from our favorite carnicería. This makes a very flaky short crust.

Sift flour and salt into a medium bowl. Add butter and shortening, and cut into flour with a pastry blender or two knives until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in 4–5 TBS ice water, until dough just holds together.

Divide into 2 uneven balls: two-thirds for the bottom crust and one-third for the top. Pat each into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour to allow the dough to rest.

Roll out on a floured surface to fit a 9" pie pan. Fill and bake according to pot pie recipe.

SERVES 6 – 8
Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery - Saveur Issue #8

Here's the larger of the two chicken pot pies that I made. I suggest bread and butter pickles as an accompaniment. Unfortunately, I forgot to put them out.

Chicken Pot Pie
We accompanied the pie with other dishes.

Boston Baked Beans and Brown Bread. Kind of superfluous, but good.
Fat and mayo free cole slaw

Since I was making pies, I made a Deep Dish Apple and a Peach Pie.

It was all the epitome of American comfort food.
Amazingly, we had very few leftovers, as we gave our guests some to take home. 

Friday, October 05, 2012

It's Not Easy Being Green

Amphibious Exercises at Mariscos La Güera

From the New Yorker Magazine
Sunday, September 30, 2012, we joined friends for another comida at La Güera, our favorite restaurant in Pátzcuaro. It was after 2:00 p.m. on  Sunday, the busiest day of the week. The day before, I had requested a special dish not on the menu: Guatape Verde de Camarones. Judith Melgoza, the owner and our friend, agreed to make it. There were some doubts as to whether my wish would be realized, but after a confused exchange with our waitress, we suspended our hopes and ordered regular apps. 

Then, suddenly, Judith appeared with a smile, and a chowder cup in hand with two spoons, to give us a taste of a green, herbal sauce. We approved, and our waitress served the six of us two large plates of Guatape. The dish was good, although lacking much of the desirable anise-like taste of hoja santa. 

When I had made Guatape a few years ago, I overdosed the dish with too many pungent herbs as well as a strong shrimp shell stock. That error was compounded by overthickening the sauce. See the recipe below.

Guatape Verde de Camarones "La Güera"
Guatape Verde de Camarones. Adapted from "Mexico—The Beautiful Cookbook".

3 chiles poblanos, quitan las semillas y membranas

4 tomates verdes, sin cáscaras

2 tazas de perejil fresco

3 hojas pequeñas de hoja santa

4 tazas de agua o de caldo de camarón

1/4 taza de aceite de olivas o de manteca

1 cebolla grande, finamente picada

1 1/2 cucharas soperas de Maizena, suspendida en un poco de agua tibia.

sal y pimienta blanca

1 kilo de camarones crudos, preferemente con sus cabezas intactas

jugo de un limón 

Modo de hacer

En licuadora, haz puré de los chiles, tomates verdes, perejil y hierba santa con el agua. Pase por un tamiz y pon al lado.

Caliente el aceite en una cacerola grande, pon la cebolla y acitrona. Añadie el puré de chiles y hierbas, freir hasta que llega a hervir, añadie la Maizena suspendida en agua. Cocine hasta que se espesa.

Pelar solamente los lomos de los camarones y añaden al la olla. Los cocinen 5 minutos. Sirvelos calientes, con arroz blanco si quieres, unas gotas de limón sobre el guatape. 
We appreciate the efforts of Judith and her staff. When the cuenta arrived at the end of the meal, we were surprised and pleased that we had been given the Guatape "cortesía de la casa".
Gracias a la muy generosa y amable Sra. Judith.

Judith Melgoza, left
What came next might serve as a caution. It’s best not to go to your favorite restaurant at peak times. Not only were we there at the peak hour on Sunday, it was also the festive weekend of the Founding of Pátzcuaro. So, we'll give La Güera the benefit of the doubt.

Less than a month ago, we tried the Ancas de Rana (frogs’ legs) at Mariscos La Güera in Pátzcuaro. They were tender, perfectly seasoned and cooked. The time was around noon on a Friday.
But yesterday, they were dry, stringy and tough. You can compare them in the photos.

August 31
September 30
Similarly, our friend Ron’s Filete de Salmón was thin and overcooked. It was a real contrast to the first time we’d tried it, a couple of months ago, when it was thick and moist. (Another factor may be that on the earlier occasions, we’d ordered the large portion and this time the smaller).

Mark’s Coconut Shrimp, though, was satisfactory, if a bit pale in color. Mariscos La Güera does best what it knows best. That is, tostada appetizers, shrimp dishes, cocteles de mariscos, and pescados. (Except salmon, apparently.)

Perfectly cooked Coconut Shrimp- on another occasion
I suppose it was the frogs’ legs that started our conversation on achoques, or neotenic Lake Pátzcuaro salamanders. They are used by the Dominican nuns of the convent of Nuestra Señora La Virgen de Salud to make a syrup, Jarabe de Achoque. It’s said to be sovereign in soothing coughs and sore throats. Later that evening, there followed an email exchange on achoques and the more common axolotl. Mark and I both reminisced briefly on the use of the word, “axolotl” in early issues of Mad Magazine. Mark’s wife, Nancy and their friend, Nancy H. both tasted the Jarabe de Achoque and said it was good. There is even axolotl poetry.
Axolotl/achoque is not on the menu at La Güera
As we finished our meal and paid our bill at the restaurant, I again admired the sharp and snazzy uniforms of the waitstaff. They are modified white tunics with rows of buttons topped by a Mandarin collar. While the ones with white buttons are nice, the black buttons really snap to attention.

Waitress at Mariscos La Güera Campestre
I also glanced into the kitchen, where the cooks were wearing the bright orange Mariscos La Güera T-shirts. It must have been hot as well as busy in there, and none I saw were wearing what I call the “surgeon’s” uniform, swathed in whites with skullcap, but of course, they were wearing surgical masks to protect the customers’ health.

So here's updated ratings on Mariscos La Güera. Matriz at Federico Tena at Libramiento Ignacio Zaragoza, Pátzcuaro. Open every day except Christmas and New Years, 11-6, approximately. Ideal time, between 12 and 2.

(A branch location, Mariscos La Güera Campestre, at kilometer 46.6, carretera Morelia- Pátzcuaro. Huge customer capacity, the size of aircraft hangars. Good food, service a bit more leisurely, as servers have farther to walk from kitchen to table. Rarely as full as the matriz, in our experience. Salon de eventos available. Plenty of free parking; cars washed.)

RATINGS (Applies specifically to la matriz.)

Food: ***1/2 sometimes, ****+

Service: ****+

Ambience: informal, casual, cozy.

Price: -$-$$

Hygiene: ***** (To my knowledge, best organized and probably best hygiene of  any Pátzcuaro.)

Other: Regrettably, a 10% service charge is now included in the bill. We prefer to tip more, so we do.

Best menu items: cocteles de camarones o pulpos, ensaladas de mariscos, micheladas, tostadas, aguachiles de camarones (lime "cooked" shrimp salad), brochetas de camarones with bacon, onion and sweet peppers, camarones empanizados, camarones para pelar, camarones empani-cocos, pescados enteros al mojo de ajo, al ajillo; filetes al gusto. 

Odd items: any fish a la Veracruzana. Not really bad, just a starkly, minimalist interpretation of a lush classic; crema de camarones: AVOID! Tacote de mariscos: great concept, but unfortunately, the seafood filling is under seasoned and tasteless. Caldo de Huauchinango: only if you enjoy slowly and carefully picking tiny bones out of the fish and your mouth.

Torta de filete empanizado: this may have improved over the years due to an upgrade from tilapia to mero (grouper). The tilapia was soft and tasteless, the mero fairly meritorious. Any dish prepared "a la diabla" may be a hit or a miss. I have had good ones but also really bad ones, with a thick, floury, cheesy tasting sauce.

En fin: we love Mariscos La Güera, its staff and its friendly, gregarious owners. We have to continue to adjust to certain occasional inconsistencies in the food. Go during the week, or go early. Stick with the regular menu items. Nearly any shrimp or whole fish dish will be good to great.

Clockwise, from upper left: Camarones y Pulpos a la Diabla; Camarones Empani-Cocos; Mojarra Al Mojo de Ajo
Entradas for a group; ceviches, guisado de marlin (****!) and tiritas de pescado. These are among by favorite apps.
A beautiful Ensalada de Mariscos; presentation varies. I don't eat raw shellfish in México, but you can request it without.
Approximate location of Mariscos La Güera matriz

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