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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1 Response to You Had Me At Guacamole

  1. Kate Rowland says:

    A fun read, Arlene. Some 20-somethings were staying in my house in San Miguel this May and they decided to bake a cake. Thinking they had adequately lit the oven, they, luckily, weren’t in the kitchen when the oven exploded with such force the entire unit flew from it’s seating and was destroyed. They had only lit the pilot light. I now have a new oven, needless to stay, but it still doesn’t automatically light fully when the pilot light is lit. It’s a Mabe, which locals call “Maybe”.

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