One of the tensions I’ve always struggled with in regards to cooking Mexican food is that of cooking “authentic” Mexican food with the ingredients available to me in Boston. I promise this is not another one of those posts where I complain about how much Mexican produce sucks around here. Although I’m often disappointed by…
One of the tensions I’ve always struggled with in regards to cooking Mexican food is that of cooking “authentic” Mexican food with the ingredients available to me in Boston. I promise this is not another one of those posts where I complain about how much Mexican produce sucks around here. Although I’m often disappointed by the quality of the ingredients I have to work with, every now and then I find a gem at at a local supermarket, or more often, at my local Farmers Market (AKA as the best farmers market).
This past Saturday while perusing Neighborhood Farm’s stand, I stumbled upon amaranth blooms. When I asked what the beautiful burgundy plant that I was eyeing was, I was informed that it was amaranth and my jaw dropped. I looked closely and sure enough, I could even see amaranth seeds within the burgundy blooms. The awesome worker at the stall also informed that they carried vegetable amaranth greens (for cooking) at which point I may have audibly squealed. She showed me the amaranth greens, which TBH I’d never known were a separate plant or that they could have beautiful burgundy markings like the ones below. I obviously had to buy a bunch. From the moment I saw the gorgeous amaranth greens, I knew that I’d recreate and amaranth soup I’d tried in Oaxaca. Before that soup, I’d only really thought of amaranth as the small puffed seeds that I mainly consumed as alegrias, mexican candy, and had never heard of amaranth leaves being edible.
I came home and flipped through my recipes from the Mexico trip to locate the recipe from the Seasons of my Heart cooking class. I was pleased to find the recipe but then dismayed that I did not have one key ingredient, the soup is officially titled “Caldo de Amaranto con Albondigas de soya,” but lo and behold, there was no soya, or soy textured protein (TVP) to be found in my house. This is one of those moments that normally sends me into a frenzy. Do I run to the store to buy TVP in order to stick to the recipe or do I make do with what I have? The choice in this case was easier, since soya is not a native Mexican ingredient and I was already amazed by the serendipity in finding amaranth greens that morning to begin with. I chose to make the soup with ground beef meatballs.
This might not seem like a conundrum to you. But I often tow the line between authenticity and integrity in relation to my food values. My food values aren’t fully hammered out yet but they go something like this: support awesome businesses and food practices and eat local and seasonal as much as possible. The obvious problem here is that eating locally and seasonally in Boston is often at odds with my intent to cook Mexican food. Sure, when I’m trying to cook enchiladas verdes, I can hunt down some puny tomatillos that were picked before their prime and traveled a week to get to me, but is it worth it? Often times, for me, the answer is no. When I do that, the food lacks the very freshness and flavor that I so admire about Mexican cuisine.
So I often choose to improvise and keep techniques and seasonings intact even as I sometimes have to change key parts of a meal to make it work. This a key question that I am currently wrestling with: can I somehow stay true to my desire to cook “Mexican” food, honoring the dishes that I love and admire, while eating with integrity?
There’s no easy answer and it’s something I’m continuing to think through, especially in light of my recent trip to Mexico, but last Saturday, I chose to improvise.
Amaranth leaves are mildly flavored and these burgundy hued ones yielded a light pink broth which perfectly complemented the smoky and spicy meatballs. This amaranth meatball soup was hearty due to the greens but could be paired with some brown rice to make it an even more filling meal.
Let me know if you give it a go!
Notes: Chintestle is a chile paste made with chiles pasillas oaxaqueños, not to be confused with chiles pasillas, salt and garlic and which is very common in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is my new favorite food as it is smoky and very spicy and a tiny bit goes a long way. If you don’t have chintestle, you can use canned chipotle chile peppers instead. Although you will need to use more to obtain the same level of smokiness and spice. You can also buy chintestle here if you want to give it a try. The chintestle is a little pricey but it smells and tastes like Oaxaca and there are so many uses for it. I did not have avocado leaves so I substituted those for bay leaves. Finally, I made my meatballs with ground beef instead of TVP, since that is what I had at home but if you want to make this soup vegetarian you simply need to substitute 1lb of ground meat for 1 cup of TVP reconstituted in 1 cup of hot water. My recipe, loosely based on Susana Trilling’s recipe for “Caldo de Amaranto con Albondigas de Soya” is below.
Amaranth Meatball Soup
Yields: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
- 1 large bunch of amaranth greens, washed and chopped
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- ½ onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon of mexican oregano
- 2 avocado leaves, or bay leaves
- Sea salt, to taste
- Black pepper, to taste
- 1 lb of ground meat
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- ¼ medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup bread crumbs
- 1 teaspoon mexican oregano
- ½ teaspoon of chintestle paste
- ½ teaspoon sea salt, more to taste
- ¼ teaspoon of black pepper
- ¼ cup oil
- Combine all ingredients for the soup except for amaranth greens with six cups of water in a small pot. Bring to boil. Cook for 10-15 minutes on medium heat. Then, add amaranth greens and cook another 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasons according to your taste.
- Combine all ingredients for meatballs in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Then shape into golf size balls.
- In a large pan, heat oil to medium heat and add meatballs. Fry meatballs for 5-8 minutes, or until fully cooked, turning them a few times so that all sides are evenly browned.
- Add meatballs to soup and serve.
So I’m back from Mexico after three weeks and my brain is still reeling a little. I have a lot to share but this is not that post. Things I’m enjoying right now include: not paying to use the restroom, brushing my teeth with tap water, and sleeping in my own bed. I arrived home late Saturday night and immediately unpacked all of my treasures from the trip and set them out on the kitchen table like this. Don’t worry, more than half of that stuff is for classroom use, but some, is indeed, for my own personal consumption.
Sunday morning, I went to church and came home like a haunted woman, longing for some of my favorite tastes from Mexico. I realized how much of a paradigm shift took place when I saw the bowl of nectarines in my dinning room table and immediately thought of making Agua Fresca with them. Not what I would normally do with nectarines! I proceeded to toast some chiles pasilla to make salsa for dinner which I doused over a fried egg, avocado slices and chips. Then, I dug out my concha recipe from my recipe folder, measured all of the ingredients carefully into my stand mixer, kneaded like crazy and had some sweet dough resting in the fridge within 30 minutes. Finally, I moved on to the sugar toppings and made five flavors of concha toppings: chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon brown sugar, matcha and a top secret flavor.
The conchas were a big hit with John and my neighbors, but I am still working on the previously mentioned top secret concha flavor, so I am not sharing that recipe with you quite yet. Instead, you get to try these delicious dulce de leche mochi bars! That’s right. Dulce de leche mochi bars are a thing and you can be gobbling some up in under 1 hour. After you get yourself to Hmart for some mochiko and you also stop by the Hispanic foods aisle and get some dulce de leche that is–so maybe a little bit longer than an hour–but still, these dulce de leche mochi bars are very easy to make and utterly delicious.
Before we move forward, let me say: I love mochi. If you have not been introduced to this delicious, Japanese rice cake, you are seriously missing out. Something about the plump, gummy texture and powdery coating makes me smile every time. There are many variants of mochi, even within Japanese food, but most commonly when I hear mochi, I think of mochi balls filled with bean paste and sometimes ice cream.
I don’t remember my first introduction to mochi. Perhaps it was in the form of small mochi balls served as a topping at my favorite fro yo place back when that was a thing. Or maybe it was one of my Korean friends who introduced me to “mochi” in the form of tteok, a Korean rice cake made with various grains, the most commonly used being short grain glutinous rice.
However I came to try mochi, it has quickly become one of my favorite treats. I love the subtle sweetness of treats made with glutinous rice flour like the mochi bars I am sharing with you today. The base recipe for the dulce de leche mochi bars came from my mother-in-law. She made these mochi bars, which she calls chapssal cake, for us one day and I loved how easy it was to make them and how delicious and chewy the bars were. After one bite, I immediately asked my mother-in-law for the recipe. I still have that email bookmarked and often make these when I need an easy dessert.
The dulce de leche addition came about recently because I love dulce the leche anything. After trying it on top of the mochi bars I decided to add it directly into the batter. The result was a swirly bar with caramelized edges where de dulce the leche was incorporated into the batter and baked touching an edge, a sweet addition to an already amazing recipe.
If you’re unsure about the dulce de leche, try the base vanilla recipe below first and see what you think. My friends love these and I hope you do too. Please let me know if you try these in the comments, and let me know if you have any new flavor suggestions.
Notes: You should know that these bars may feel a little goopier than normal when they’re done baking, and that is OK since the rice flour in the recipe yields that gummy, mochi texture we all love. These keep well in the fridge and firm up with each passing day. If you find them too firm the next day, pop them in the microwave for a few seconds to soften.
Dulce de Leche Mochi Bars:
Yields: however many bars you cut them into
Total Time: 1 hour
- 1lb Mochiko, or any other sweet rice glutinous flour + ¼ cup
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1 egg
- 3 cups of milk
- ¼ cup of melted butter
- ¼ teaspoon salt (only if butter is unsalted)
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla
- 1 cup of dulce de leche, more for drizzling
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Plain Vanilla Mochi batter: Mix 1lb of sweet rice flour, sugar, egg, milk , vanilla and salt. Then, add melted butter. Stir to incorporate, when the batter is a thick and uniform in consistency put one cup of batter aside for the dulce the leche swirl.
- Dulce de Leche batter: Take the reserved cup of plain mochi batter, add 1 cup of dulce de leche and ¼ cup of mochiko. Mix thoroughly.
- Alternate dropping dollops of the dulce de leche and vanilla mochi batter into your baking pan. Then create swirls using a knife or chopstick.
- Bake at 375 for 50 minutes. Mochi bars may seem a little soft and goopy and this is OK; they will get firmer over time.
A week ago on the eve of my arrival to Oaxaca my mom asked me “Do you like Oaxaca or Puebla better?”
Perhaps I was a little grumpy when I gave my mom my first appraisal of the city. Nicole and I had accidentally taken an extra long bus ride from Puebla (extra stops turned 3 hours into 6) and had wandered the streets of Oaxaca City for an hour looking for something to eat before finally making our way to La Biznaga.
That day, when I answered, I told my mom that Puebla was enchanting and romantic in a way that Oaxaca was not. But, I wisely added that it was hard to make that kind of appraisal after one day in Oaxaca.
If my mom asked me the same question now, it would be much harder to answer. Since that apathetic first appraisal of the city of Oaxaca, I was able to visit dozens of cute restaurants, artisan shops, and clothing boutiques, stroll through a few mercados within a 45 minute radius of Oaxaca, and fell in love with Oaxaca. Oaxacan art and culture seemed inexhaustible.
I feel the same way about Oaxacan food. After eating in Oaxacan restaurants, which offered delicious and inventive meals and taking four different cooking classes over the course of a week, I can confidently say that I now love mole and that Oaxacan cuisine is my favorite Mexican cuisine.
Our trip formally kicked off on Tuesday with a cooking class at Casa Crespo. We arrived to some freshly foamed got chocolate and hibiscus jam and bread. Our fellow guests piled in slowly and we eventually settled on a menu. Then we brought previously nixtamalized corn to the mill to be ground into masa for our tortillas and we went to the local mercado to purchase a few key ingredients. After a quick tour of the mercado, we came back to the cooking school where we made ceviche, a cold avocado soup, black mole, usually eaten only during wedding or funerals or other festive days, salsas and chocolate ice cream for dessert. Getting to make mole from scratch was an amazing experience. As a kid, I hated mole since I didn’t like sweet and savory combinations. Hearing about the ceremonial nature of making such a laborious meal, reminded me that Mexican cooking is best done with people and for people. It also, ironically, convinced me that I can make mole myself as a more common occurrence! More importantly, it started to change my feelings about mole. A crucial change in the land of moles.
On Wednesday we visited Susana Trilling and made one of the best meals I’ve had on this trip. This cooking class also started with a market tour, this time at the Etla market. Our tour guide, Yolanda, was a Mixteca woman married to an American. Yolanda confidently guided us through the mercado explaining to us the importance of Mexican traditions like using cal, limestone, to help break down corn for masa as well as tools, like a comal, used to cook the many ingredients needed for a mexican meal. She also gave us a tasting of SIX delicious tamales at the mercado. A tamal that really blew my mind was the tomato raja tamal. I was amazed that a tamal could be elevated to that level of creamy and silky masa, a far cry from the dry, dense tamales I usually have (sorry mom! Sorry tias!). Then we drove to Susana Trilling’s school and as we approached the cooking school, I was enthralled by the milpa, the ancient and harmonious system of growing corn, squash and beans, leading up to the school.
Once inside the expansive cooking school, we were offered a light lunch and agua fresca and then Susana went over the logistics and history of the recipes we would be preparing that day. Then, we were broken up into teams and sent off to cook our respective portion of the meal. Nicole and I ended up with the tres leches cake and I think we did a pretty good job if I do say so myself. All of that practice making avocado flowers paid off. Also, check out Nicole’s lovely piping! After a few hours of working under the guidance of Susana and her assistants we produced a beautiful meal. After all the meals were done, we sat down and were served our 5 course dinner. We started with a panucho, followed by an amaranth meatball soup, a tart beet salad, an exquisite estofado de pollo paired with chepil arroz, and finished off with two desserts, our tres leches cake and chocolate pudding. A truly outstanding meal and group of people!
Thursday, we took a cooking class with Nora at Alma de Mi Tierra. Nora, a sweet and petite woman greeted us at the entrance of the Mercado with a basket in tow. Nora explained to us the history of the region and outlined key pre-hispanic ingredients in Oaxacan cuisine. Nora then guided us through the market, highlighting other key ingredients and purchasing our supplies for the meal. When we arrived at Nora’s home we got to work right away preparing our dessert- tamales de piña! Then, we moved on to mole verde which Nora also calls Chlorophyll Mole due to the many greens that go into the sauce. The mole was surprisingly light and the bright green color immediately made it one of my favorites. After the mole we made a sesame salsa to go over our requezon stuffed squash blossoms. After all the food was ready, Nicole, Nora and I sat down to enjoy our meal and talk about food. I loved every part of that meal but I am especially looking forward to making the squash blossom appetizer again!
Friday, our week culminated in a class with Reyna Mendoza, a Zapotec woman who runs a cooking school out of her home called El Sabor Zapoteco. Although I thought that the week could not be improved further, this class was one of my overall favorites. Reyna’s quiet demeanor and gentle instruction made the day an especially memorable one. We began by walking to the local mercado to purchase ingredients, this part of the class felt like Reyna was a nice aunt who was buying treats for us to try, making me feel like a dinner guest and a friend in her home rather than a student. I was also amazed by the zero waste initiative at the mercado, good were wrapped in naturally bio degradable materials like brown paper bags and corn husks, and everyone brought their own bags.
When we arrived back to her outdoor kitchen, Reyna began the day by serving us some of the pan dulce we’d just purchased and making us some water based hot chocolate using a molinillo. We all sat around the table briefly and got to know one another and, then, we got to work. We began by making the paste for the tamal de amarillo by grinding hoja santa, chiles, and chile seeds on the metate. This experience alone made the class more than worth it for me. Kneeling before this ancient stone tool trying to mimic the effortless grace of Reyna was such a special moment for me. However cliche it may sound, I felt like I was joining the ranks of hundreds of Mexican women before me that worked with this precious tool for thousands of years. If you know if any metates in Boston, please let me know!
After grinding the chiles, seeds, and hoja santa down to a smooth consistency we moved on to our masa which Reyna made without fat. Then, we filled these tamales with mushrooms, chicken and amarillo and wrapped and steamed them in corn leaves (not husks!). One those tamales were in the steamer, we moved onto tamales de mole negro, this time cooked in banana leaves. We carefully spread the masa over the supple banana leaf, filled each tamal with chicken and mole negro and then folded and tied each tamale shut. Finally, we turned our attention to one of my favorite mexican tools, the molcajete! We used the molcajete to make two things, a green dressing for our nopal salad, and a red salsa to go with our meal. Once the sauces were made we sat down to enjoy our meal and I had FOUR tamales, a record for me. Both of the tamales were absurdly delicious. The nopal salad was one of the best I’ve had and the mango sorbet finished of the meal perfectly. Cooking with Reyna was one of the highlights of my stay in Oaxaca and I can’t wait to return for another class.
Nicole and I wrapped up the weekend by visiting a local market on Sunday and finishing up all of our shopping for our classrooms. I am, sadly, not bringing back a real metate but I am so very excited to bring back these recipes and tools for my family, friends, and students to experience. There is so much more that I could share about Oaxaca but that’s all for now.
Stay tuned for the final trip update on San Miguel de Allende next week.