The Magic of Masa

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If you’re interested in a serious project, you can make the best tortillas you’ve ever had by soaking and washing dried hominy — corn that has been treated with slaked lime — then grinding it to produce masa, or “dough.” Then you press out small discs and griddle them. Do that, and you’ll have my admiration.

Or you can do what so many people do: Start with masa harina, or “masa flour,” which you mix with water and a little fat. The dough takes five minutes to make (it’s better, but not essential, to let it rest for a while), and the pressing and griddling is simple and fun. If you buy a handy tortilla press, you can skip rolling or hand-pressing, but you don’t need one. (You can also buy freshly made masa, sold at many Latino supermarkets, which will also save you a step, and whose quality is usually quite high.)

Read the rest of this column and get the recipes here.

Posted in Mexican

The Puebla International Mole Festival

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Last week I was lucky enough to get to speak at the International Mole Festival in Puebla, Mexico. Why Mexico? My interview with Mexico City food writer Lesley Téllez (copied below and originally posted here) explains a bit about my relationship with Mexico and its food. Also, be sure not to miss Lesley’s recap of the first day of the festival (look at the pictures and you’ll see why I had to go).

Q: When did you first start traveling to Mexico?
A: I don’t know, 30 years ago. But seriously, really seriously, it’s been five years. In the past five years it’s become a priority.

Q: Why?
A: It should’ve been a priority all along. I saw the error of my ways. Look, you can’t go everywhere. It’s important for me to see as many things as I can see, globally. But my early loves were European and Asian cuisine, and I’d say I was first Eurocentric and then I spent a great deal of time in the late 90s/early 2000s traveling in Asia. I don’t have to apologize for this, but I mistakenly put Mexico not at the top of the list. But it’s worked out fine. It’s still here.

Q: What first captured your attention in Mexico in terms of the food?
A: It’s a really interesting question because the first couple of times I came here, I went to the Yucatán. Without being cruel, I would say that it ’s not — the way Yucatecan cuisine is presented to visitors is not the best. Yucatecan cuisine is spectacular in its soul, but it’s very hard to find that. Very hard to find it. Because Yucatecan cuisine is Mayan cuisine, and what’s sold in most restaurants in the Yucatán is not that. But I only learned that recently.

I think what really attracted me was street markets and street food in Mexico City. I have friends who’ve been kind enough to schlep me around and show me, probably starting eight or ten years ago.

And I have been nowhere. Let me say, I know more about Poblano food than about anything else, and I don’t know anything about a lot of them. So I’m totally a real beginner.

Q: Yeah, I was originally surprised to see your name on the list of speakers. I’d seen in some of your columns that you’d visited Mexico, but I didn’t know you had such an affinity that you’d actually come here to talk in Puebla.
A: Well. I’d go talk in Bhutan where I’ve never been, because an opportunity to talk to a big audience is an opportunity to talk to a big audience. You just get there early enough to not be an idiot about the food. And I have to say I’m not an idiot about Poblano food.

Q: You repeated yourself in your talk, when you mentioned innovation in Mexican food. You said twice that Mexican food does not need to be tinkered with. Why?
A: Because it’s really good. I mean that’s an easy answer. How are you going to make this food better? By adding soy sauce? By adding more cheese? By what? By turning it into pizza? If someone’s going to tell me I’m having a mole poblano pizza, that’s nice, but let’s not have that be a symbol of Puebla. What’s going to make it better? GMO corn and mass-produced masa is not going to make it better.

Posted in Mexican, Travel

Taste, Adding More Chorizo if Necessary

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By Daniel Meyer

I recently moved to the stretch of 5th avenue in Brooklyn where Mexican food is king. Leaning out my front door I can see crates of chiles and cactus, giant plastic tubs of watermelon juice, and can smell gorditas deep-frying in corn oil (off-putting, strangely enough.) Brussels sprouts don’t exist here, (I checked) but tomatillos literally spill out on to the supermarket floor. Chorizo, like Entenmann’s or Little Debbie, sometimes gets its own display at the end of the aisle. It’s very comforting to see a community tailored so perfectly to the needs of its own home cooks.

Back to that chorizo, the fresh Mexican kind. I’ve eaten it only sparingly since I moved here; in a way, it’s so easy to get that I’ve stopped wanting it. I made it once, (pork shoulder ground in the food processor, mixed with plenty of paprika, cayenne, cumin, coriander, and garlic, and fried until crisp) but that was about it.

This week I needed some to test a recipe: chipotle-spiked sweet potato mac and cheese with crunchy chorizo crumbs. It made me remember how I like fresh chorizo best: as a garnish. Literally. Peel away the casings and fry the meat, breaking it up into little bits with a wooden spoon, until crisp. Use it to top gratins where you might otherwise use breadcrumbs, sprinkle over sliced avocados with lime juice, on eggs, on soup, toss into salads or roasted vegetables, (it’s even great on oatmeal with some cilantro and scallions.) Having a bowl of it cooked and ready to go in my fridge this week has been quite productive, though dangerous going forward: it’s as easy to find here as salt.

Posted in Mexican, Recipes

The Best Little Tortilla Soup in Texas

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The chili harvest of West Texas, southern New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, begins in late summer and lasts through the first hard frost. You can encounter the smell of chilies roasting anywhere, with the frequency and randomness I associate with leaves burning in New England. I didn’t know this until I went to New Mexico, where I’d traveled for the Hatch Chile Festival, an event every native or long-termer politely advised me to avoid. (“Well, it’s a nice drive,” they’d say, and they were right about that.)

But I didn’t need to go to Hatch — the self-proclaimed chili capital of the world — to find these roasted chilies. At many farms, supermarkets, farmers’ markets and street corners in Las Cruces, people buy green chilies by the mesh sack — 8 pounds, or 20, or 40 — and then pay someone with a gas-powered, hand-cranked, lotto-drum-like steel basket to roast them on the spot. The smell is intoxicating, as the peppers tumble around in the roasters, their seeds popping from the intense heat. It takes just a few minutes to roast 20 pounds.

I didn’t just smell these chilies, of course; I ate them. A lot of them. I had chilies stuffed (rellenos-style), pulverized (in salsa) and chopped with pinto beans (inside burritos). All fantastic.

(Read the rest of this article here.)

Posted in Mexican, Travel

Sweet Potato Chips & Tomatillo Pico

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By Freya Bellin

The farmers’ markets are overflowing with produce lately, bridging the gap between summer and fall. Last weekend there were still some rogue peaches, plenty of sweet tomatoes, peppers galore, and the first sightings of pumpkin. 

This recipe reflects that transition perfectly. In an ode to the peppers and bright herbs of summer, this pico de gallo is fresh, spicy, and bright. The tomatillos add a sweet-tart, crunchy element. I couldn’t resist chopping up a couple of small golden tomatoes to throw into the mix. The sweetness was a welcome addition, if you have some extra lying around. Meanwhile, the cumin dusted sweet potato chips are a preview of fall’s warm, sweet flavors. The thinner you can slice them, the better (I got some help from my food processor), but if they’re on the thick side, just make sure to cook them longer. You really want to see some browning and warping before you take them out of the oven; otherwise, they won’t crisp up when they cool. These are perfect for a crowd, and way better than your average old chips and salsa. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Mexican, Produce

Not Your Usual Steak Fajitas

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By Freya Bellin

These fajitas are like the sweet, spicy, crunchy distant cousin of the fajita you know now. The recipe breathes some fresh air into the standard fajita by adding crunchy jicama and carrots, plus the sweetness of pineapple. The flavors are unexpected, but they work together beautifully. Make sure to do your chopping ahead of time as things move pretty fast once you start cooking. I like putting each ingredient in its own separate bowl, ready to be dropped into the pan. You’ll only need one large skillet for cooking everything, which means easy cleanup too. Serve with plenty of cilantro and guacamole or salsa. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Mexican, Recipes

Loaded Guacamole with Chicken Kebabs

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By Freya Bellin

It seems like everyone has his or her own guacamole secret. I can always be counted on to use a lot of garlic, a little jalapeno, cilantro, and lime. But it’s always fun to add something new here and there, and this guacamole is in fact loaded with extras. I was pleasantly surprised by the unusual addition of shredded lettuce. It adds heft, almost like a guacamole salad, and cuts some of the richness of the avocado. Most importantly, it makes an excellent base for these kebabs, which are very easy to prepare. The simple marinade gives the chicken and veggies a nice kick, and the grill adds that signature smokiness. I made a little extra marinade and put some all-veggie kebabs on the grill, too. Mushrooms, eggplant, and zucchini are all great for grilling, in addition to the veggies in this recipe; really, anything goes. Try adding pineapple or other fruits for a sweet variation. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook. Continue reading

Posted in Mexican, Recipes

Fish Tacos with Wilted Cabbage

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By Freya Bellin

There’s something about fish tacos that just screams summer to me, and, true to form, the flavors in this taco are fresh, simple, and nearly beachy. Tomatillos are a great choice here if you can find them. They taste fruitier than a tomato, and very tart and crisp, almost like a Granny Smith apple. The tomatillo and avocado combo makes a great simple salsa, and serves as a nice contrast to the soft, slightly spicy cabbage. I used purple cabbage for the color, but green cabbage would work also. For the fish, any thick white fillet is fine. I used a combination of halibut and striped bass, but go with whatever looks freshest. A cold beer (and a beachfront view) makes this meal even better. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Mexican, Seafood

Giant Quinoa “Tamale” with Tomatillo Salsa

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By Freya Bellin

This recipe may sound like a far cry from a traditional tamale; here, there are no corn husks, no dough, and no meat. But somehow the flavor and consistency of a real tamale is achieved. I will admit that mine definitely didn’t come out as the instructions suggested it would. You need to really grease the pan if you want the mixture to emerge in loaf form. Adding a little fat to the quinoa, either in the form of cheese or a little oil, might have helped the quinoa layers set and stay together better. Of course, it will taste just as good if it spills out into a giant pile, as did mine, but appearance-wise it will be lacking some elegance. 

No matter—this dish was delicious, if not beautiful. The cheese layer melts in the oven and the outer edges of the quinoa crisp up nicely, although the real highlight for me was the tomatillo salsa. As mentioned below, it could be reserved and used for other dishes as well. The tomatillos are pretty sweet, and you can adjust the spiciness depending on the pepper you use. Make a little more than the recipe calls for; you’ll want to have some extra. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Mexican

Charred Stuffed Poblanos

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By Freya Bellin

Stuffed peppers are among the most fun foods to serve because of the surprise factor. It’s like opening a little culinary gift. And in this recipe, the stuffing is so good that you may want to make extra to eat on its own or to serve on the side. Spicy scallions, sweet raisins, crunchy almonds, and just-melted cheese? It doesn’t get much better. If your peppers are big enough and you’re careful to avoid overflow, you can probably stuff a little bit more of the cheese mixture into them than is called for below. Anything hanging out too close to the open flame will burn, though, so make sure that the peppers stay closed up.

This recipe does require a delicate touch when rotating the poblanos. The smaller you can keep the stuffing opening, the less likely you are to lose stuffing when you flip them. An even char on all sides really helps the bitter skin peel away nicely.

Poblanos are on the mild side as far as peppers go, but they do still have a kick, so be cautious, especially when handling the seeds. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Mexican, Produce