You Had Me At Guacamole

I once made guacamole with horseradish.  Really.

It was 1977 and I was living in San Francisco.  I had had Mexican food once in New York, but now on the West Coast I was eating it all the time.  So when invited to a birthday party, I said I’d bring guacamole. I don’t know if I couldn’t find a recipe (?), or if I couldn’t find an ingredient, but I used horseradish to spice it up. What else could you expect a nice Jewish girl from New York to do?

Everyone loved it.

I didn’t make guacamole again for 28 years, in 2005, when we moved to San Miguel de Allende. We lived – full-time — in San Miguel for a total of seven years; two years at one time and then five another time.  We moved to San Miguel after we had visited the city for approximately four hours, maybe less. But in that brief time, we fell in love with the city.  We went home, quit our jobs, sold our condo and lots of our stuff, and moved. In our mid-fifties, we dropped out. I guess better late than never. We didn’t know a soul in our new city.

I was so excited about this adventure, especially the food and cooking. For years I had read food magazines, learning about different food cultures. I pictured myself going to the food markets, joking with the vendors, squeezing the produce, going home and making a fabulous meal from my purchases.

The reality was a bit different.

The first thing I learned was that water seemingly takes forever to boil in San Miguel, a town more than 6,000 feet above sea level. I quickly learned to put the water on for pasta a good half hour – or more – before I needed it.  And don’t even ask about my baking recipes.

Then it was the buying of food.  It wasn’t just the money-handling, but also the quantity.  I decided, very early on, to make a pork roast. I went to the butcher, and in my very meager Spanish, asked for eight kilos of pork.  Luckily, one of the butchers knew English and told me that amount would be way too much. I bought two kilos and thanked her profusely. I don’t know what I would do with over 16 pounds of pork! The lovely pictures in my magazines of tourists shopping in foreign food markets did not prepare me for the reality of the markets.

Mexicans are accustomed to buying locally grown food and most of the fruits and vegetables sold in the markets are local. Most produce is seasonal and grown not more than 25 miles away. The broccoli in this area is outstanding, as is the lettuce. I buy avocados that are ready for use today or tomorrow. And they are creamy and tasty.

Now, in San Miguel, we have the option of buying fresh, organic fruits and vegetables straight from the farmer. Organic farming is not new in Mexico. Eighty-five percent of Mexico’s organic produce is exported, five percent is sold as organic and the remaining ten percent is sold as conventional produce. Mexico has the highest number of organic farms worldwide. I wanted to learn how to cook this great produce so I took a “market class.”  The teacher took us to the market where we were introduced to some of the very different fruits and vegetables, such as chayote, nopales and mamey, that are found locally.  And who knew that tuna is not a fish, but the fruit of a cactus plant?  After the market, we went back to the kitchen to cook some of our purchases. That’s where I learned how to make great guacamole.

Once I got my guacamole-legs, so to speak, I started to accumulate some traditional Mexican cookware.

The first thing I bought was a comal. Traditional comales, which were used by Aztecs to cook over an open fire, are earthenware griddles primarily used for cooking tortillas. In cities and restaurants, metal comales are more commonly used. I own two metal comales and I don’t know how I ever survived cooking without one. I use a comal to roast garlic and it has proven to be the easiest and quickest way I’ve found to do the job. I place unpeeled garlic cloves on a heated comal and turn the cloves every so often. In about 15 minutes, I have roasted garlic cloves. And I didn’t have to heat up an entire oven to do it!

Oh, the oven. I really need to talk about Mexican ovens.

Traditionally, Mexican cooking does not use an oven.  But this is changing, so I had an oven. In New York, I cooked on a gas stove and oven.  I would light the pilot light for the oven with a match. I had no fear.  I carried my courage to Mexico.  But sometimes the pilot in the oven didn’t quite catch so the gas was released, but no fire.  I knew you had to wait some time – a half-hour is usually good enough – but I was in a rush one day and tried re-lighting the pilot too soon.  My large dog, Duke, was by my side, as he always is when I cook. I lit the match and heard a BOOM!  My eyebrows were slightly scorched, but I was otherwise okay.  However, Duke leapt in one bound to the sofa, about ten feet away, and sat straight up, watching me.  I’ve never seen a 90-pound dog move so quickly.

I was more careful from then on.

I’ve been talking a lot about cooking and not a bit about eating.  And what is a cook without an eater?  Mexicans eat their main meal, called Comida, midday, around 2 pm or so.  We followed this eating pattern and loved it.  San Miguel boasts many good, inexpensive restaurants and we tried most of them. The food we ate in Mexico spoiled us for the mediocre and huge portions in the United States.

Now, back to cooking.

You cannot cook a true Mexican meal without a blender. Today, any Mexican kitchen worth its margherita has a blender, perhaps two.  More important than a food processor, a blender blends the chiles, garlic, and liquids to make salsas.

A molcajete (mortar) is not really necessary to make guacamole, but this tool does seem to make the guacamole taste better.  A molcajete, with its companion tejolote (pestle), is made of volcanic rock and comes in a dazzling array of sizes, from tiny ones for spices to huge ones that make guacamole for a fiesta.

Most Mexican mole and pipian sauces require the grinding of spices and nuts. Traditionally, the molcajete was used to grind spices and the metate, also crafted from volcanic rock, was used to grind nuts and maize (corn) to make masa for tortillas. Today, some purists still use a molcajete to make guacamole, but few modern Mexican kitchens use either a molcajete or metate to grind spices or nuts, choosing instead, to use an electric spice/nut grinder. To make any kind of mole or pipian sauce, you need to toast the nuts and then grind them to a paste. I’ve been using my old standby coffee grinder and it works very well.

A tortilla press is also not a necessity, but it is fun to use. Many Mexicans, especially those in the rural areas (campos), still make tortillas in the traditional manner—by hand.  However, most Mexicans nowadays, if they do make tortillas, use a tortilla press.

Although you can buy tortillas, rather cheaply, there is really no comparison between a store-bought tortilla and a freshly made tortilla. One of the best things about making your own tortillas is that you can turn those tortillas into antojitos, which translate literally to “little whims,” the simplest one being a small quesadilla, which you can top, or fill, with guacamole.

So, I know – hope – you want to know how to make great guacamole.  It’s easy. Get out your comal, heat it over a fairly high temperature, place some onion, a serrano chile and a garlic clove on it.  Heat until charred.  Chop the charred ingredients and add them to mashed avocados, sprinkle with salt and mix in some fresh lime juice.

By the way, don’t bother adding horseradish. You are in Mexico, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What I Eat When I Eat Alone

I know that there are lots of people who live alone and eat alone all the time. To those people, I apologize for making a somewhat big deal about eating alone.

At one time, my sister said to me, “When the kids are gone and Ron and I are alone, I’m not going to cook anymore. It doesn’t make sense to cook for only two people.”

“But Mark and I are only two people and I cook all the time, “I answered.

“You like to cook, “she replied.

I know that as one of a twosome, I find some joy in being alone and eating alone. Whenever Mark is gone, I plan my meals so that I eat the foods that he doesn’t like. I also don’t cook. Yes, that is true. I don’t cook – I buy foods, eat out and graze for the time he is gone.

One thing that I always turn to when I’m alone is herring. As I write this, I can almost taste it. I love herring in every way:  In wine sauce, in cream sauce, rolled up. Every which way you could think of. When I was young, I would watch my father eat lox and herring and whitefish. (Not all at the same time.) I was appalled! How could he eat that stuff?

And now, I love herring. How much life changes and surprises us!

I always try to buy (or make) some dolmas – cold rice wrapped in grape leaves – when eating alone. I could eat quite a few before I got tired of them.  Sometimes when I know I’ll be alone, I make a pot of ratatouille. I could eat it for lunch and dinner for days on end. I especially love it on an English muffin, with some cheese melted over it. An instant pizza.

But most of all, I like to eat bits and pieces of things when I’m alone. Not exactly cooking, but creating a meal out of what’s around.

Mark, who almost never cooks for us, always cooks for himself when I’m not around. Odd.

My friend, Diana, who lives alone and eats alone a lot of the time, cooks for herself just about every day. During the summer months, she grows tons (I mean that literally) of basil and cooks it on pasta with tomatoes or in capresse salads.

In San Francisco, after I left my first husband and was alone, I hardly ever cooked. I heated tortillas over the flame of my gas stove and then slathered butter on it and rolled it up. Yummy!  I also ate cheese with good bread every Friday night with my dog, Dennis. That was quite the treat for both of us.

In Reno, I often bought a jar of caviar (a very dusty jar!) and ate it with my cat, Lorraine.  We were in heaven!

I guess I don’t really eat alone; I always eat with my pets.

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Testing Recipes

Testing recipes is a different kind of chore.  I usually write up the recipe and then make it according to the recipe. Any changes are noted on the recipe. 

But what do I do with all that food? Have a party, of course!

My friend, Leslie, helped me test some appetizers that may go into my next book – Entertaining Food. We made a dish that Leslie has made many time – Antojitos (Mexican for snacks). We also made some Mediterranean taquitos, using goat cheese, caramelized onions and roasted peppers.

This recipe is great because you can modify it easily to your taste and have fun with it.

Here’s Leslie’s recipe for Antojitos. Play with it!

Antojitos

Makes 24

12 6-inch flour tortillas

½ cup cheese (cheddar, jack or mix), shredded

1 tomato, diced

1 cup red bell pepper (1/2 of small pepper), diced

1/3 cup green onion (2-3 onions), diced

1 cup black beans, canned and drained

¼ cup salsa

1 teaspoon chili powder

 

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly grease mini-muffin tin, or use non-stick.

Using a 3-inch cookie cutter (or equivalent), cut each tortilla into round pieces. Insert the pieces into the muffin tin cups.

 

Mash the black beans with salsa until creamy.

 

Put approximately 1 teaspoon of the bean mixture into each tortilla cup. Add ¼ teaspoon red pepper, green onion and tomato to the cups. Put a pinch of chili powder on top of each cup.  Top with cheese.

 

Bake for five minutes, or until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbly.

 

 

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What are we getting all steamed up about

Editor’s Note:  Another great blog post from home bread-baker, Alan Fishman

When you stop by a bakery, especially a French bakery where the baguettes are fairly authentic, the breads that you’ll see, by and large, are going to have a sheen on the surface of the crust.  Why is that?  The glistened surface is the product of steam.

Most professional bakeries have a steaming device built into the bread oven.  Baguettes are loaded into the oven, door closed and steam is injected into the oven.  Steam cools the surface of the dough long enough so that the crust doesn’t set too quickly.  This allows the scored dough to expand and bloom open to create the ear or (French) grigne.  The secondary effect is to allow the surface to caramelize.  And this is what gives the bread that characteristic sheen.

My wife overheard someone at work talk about liking “tender bread”.  Not my cup of tea.  I like a dark bake with a crusty crust and a crunch to the exterior of the bread.  And maybe that’s why I love toast so much.  I once told my sister-in-law that if she didn’t know what to get me for a present, she could give me toast and I’d be happy. With reference to people’s individual tastes, my father used to say “that’s what makes the world go ‘round”. Okay, now that I’ve covered most familial bases I can move on…

There are different ways to introduce steam into a home oven, some of which provide adequate steam.  As many ways as I have fingers and toes (still 20 as of last count).  An efficient and popular way these days is to form a boule (ball) and drop it into a Dutch Oven which has been heating up in the ~480F–500F degree oven for 45–60 minutes. Quickly cover and bake for xminutes, then removing the cover to let the bread “set” and complete baking.  The moisture from the dough will create its own steam.

I like to shape baguettes, and tend to stay away from the Dutch Oven. So what to do, what to do? As you can see from the first picture, I use a metal pan loaded with lava rocks, which has been heating up with the oven all along.  After loading the baguettes, I pour ~2 cups of very hot water into the pan and close the oven door immediately, not to be reopened for ~12 minutes to allow the steam created to do its work. Words of caution: place a towel over the oven door window so that the relatively cool temperature of the water doesn’t create a cracked glass door, do wear an oven mitt that covers at least your wrist, and finally – do not open the oven door to peek at your masterpiece, else all of that hard earned steam will scamper away!
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Picture 2 demonstrates a properly steamed baguette.

 

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Picture 3 illustrates what happens when there isn’t sufficient steam and the surface doesn’t caramelize.

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Baking Bread

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is written by a good friend and excellent baker, Alan Fishman

I woke up this morning and planned on baking some bread.  What folks these days call “artisan bread”.  Now, maybe it is, but I won’t call it that.  That’s because anything and everything can be deemed “artisan” even if it comes off a big factory production line.  It’s like calling something “old fashioned”.  Like from 1980 or 1880?

When I say that I planned on baking some bread, I don’t just mean that I awoke and I had this bright idea and some gumption to bake today.  No, no.  In this case “plan” doesn’t mean that at all.  Plan means that two days ago I mixed some levain* starter, yesterday morning I mixed almost all of the dough ingredients, and according to the recipe, today is the full mix and bake day.

Some breads can be done in a single long day, some over the course of two days, and some, like this one, take a bit more planning and an extra day.  Of course it doesn’t require 72 hours of toil.  In this case the first day consisted of a 15 minute prep and then an overnight maturing of the levain starter.  Yesterday was a 20 minute hand mix of almost all of the ingredients.  And for this particular bread, a levain baguette inspired by Phillipe Gosselin’s long cold retardation baguettes at his Parisian bakery, today was the 4 hour work day.  Which consisted of hand mixing in the remaining ingredients (in this case the salt and small amount of water), letting the dough rise and then the divide, pre-shape, final shaping (rolling the baguettes) and final rise known as the proof.  And then, and then – finally baking the baguettes.  All controlled by the kitchen timer.  In fact, in the world of breads, life’s rhythms and chores are set to the ticking of the kitchen timer.

Now, I’ll get it out up front that what I do in my spare time as my tasty hobby is done without the help of either a bread machine or a mixer (with one exception).  I’m not knocking the products, I’m just shooting for something else, something that I can put my hands on, and in, from the first.  I get a certain satisfaction out of the craftsmanship and handwork of mixing, rolling and scoring (the slashes) baguettes.

If you’ve made it this far, then you are either a food enthusiast or couldn’t find anything better to do with your morning.  Hopefully the former.  And this would seem to mean that you neither view good bread as that bleached white stuff that we all grew up with way way back, nor as just a vehicle to bulldoze your peas onto a knife.  And you also don’t believe that all of the holes in the crumb (interior) of the bread are a way of cheating the paying public out of a full loaf of bread.

The pictures are of my morning’s work. 

*levain = sourdough = masa madre = lievito madre

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Happy Hour

I love Happy Hour.  What’s not to love? At the end of the day, you sit down with your loved one, perhaps a friend or two, have a drink (martinis!) and a snack or two.

Of course the real trick is not to eat, or drink, too much and spoil dinner. Most of the time, we’re controlled and just have one drink and a small treat. But sometimes we go all the way and eat way too much. Then we skip dinner.

We started our Happy Hour tradition the first time we lived in Mexico. Before that time, we worked and didn’t have the time to have a Happy Hour.  After arriving in Mexico, we realized that all our old rules, habits and traditions were no longer viable. We could start new ones. So, we did.

Every afternoon, around 5 pm or so, we’d sit in our small courtyard and have a happy hour. Now, we sit in our back courtyard, or sometimes in our living room, to have our happy hour. It just depends on the weather. Sometimes it is too hot outside, or wet during the rainy season. This time of year, it is very pleasant out there and we often have our happy outside.

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In our first Happy Hour repast in Mexico, we just had some cheese and meats, with a cocktail. We’ve since expanded our offerings.

I like to grill some bread, swipe it with a slice of garlic and then a bit of olive oil. Sometimes I have grilled peppers to place on the bread, with or without some cheese. I usually grill the peppers on the bbq while I’m grilling dinner. I char the peppers, put them in a plastic bag, and then peel the skin off. They are very sweet this time of year.

I also roasted some cherry tomatoes. They are also very sweet and nice to put on grilled bread.

Lately, I’m into tapenade. I love it on the grilled bread with a thin slice of the roasted peppers on top and maybe some burrata cheese. Yum!

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Ladies Who Lunch – Part 2

Yesterday was my turn to make lunch for my friends. I decided to make something new and experiment.

I had read a great ravioli recipe in the New York Times that I wanted to try. It used ricotta cheese, which I decided to make from scratch. The lunch was on Monday so I made some homemade ricotta on Sunday. Ricotta is so easy to make that you’ll wonder why you ever bought it. In fact, you can make it more quickly than going to the store and buying it.

Basically, you boil whole milk (8 cups), add a cup of heavy cream, if you want, and a teaspoon of salt. Bring to about 200 degrees, almost a boil. Lower the flame to low and add 3 – 4 tablespoons of white vinegar, or fresh lemon or lime juice. I usually use lemon juice. Curdles will form almost immediately. Spoon the curdled milk off into a sieve lined with cheesecloth, set over a bowl. Let the ricotta drain for 15 minutes or so. It will stay fresh in the refrigerator for a few days, or you can freeze the ricotta.

How easy is that?

I followed Melissa Clark’s recipe and then made a version of my own. We all enjoyed both versions, both of which I served with some store-bought pesto.

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Here’s the recipe for my version.

Ricotta Ravioli

½ cup fresh ricotta cheese, about 4 ounces

1 egg

¼ teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1 egg, beaten for egg wash

Cornmeal, for dusting

1 package wonton skins

Mix ricotta, egg, lemon peel and nutmeg in a bow.

You can use the wonton wrappers as they are, or you can cut them into rounds. Because I felt that the squares were a bit too large, I used a cookie cutter to make rounds.

Lay out six wrappers, brush with egg wash. Mound ¼ to ½ tablespoon of mixture in center of wrapper. Cover with another egg-brushed wrapper, sealing with your fingers. Make sure you push out any air. Repeat until you’re out of filling or out of wrappers.

I placed the finished ravioli on a baking sheet, dusted with cornmeal. Put in the refrigerator until ready to use.

When you’re ready to cook, place the ravioli in boiling water for 2 -3 minutes, until cooked through. Drain well.

 

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