Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cooking Class in San Miguel de Allende - Taking the Fear out of Dried Chile Peppers

The truth is this - I’ve always ignored recipes that required dried chile peppers. The dusty, shriveled chiles in the supermarket appeared old and tough. Apparently, water would revive them but I never tried. Enter Marilau Ricaud, mistress of Mexican Ancestry Cooking School in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, who promised to take the fear out of dried and fresh chiles . We signed on to learn the basics of Mexican salsas. Please note that this translates into sauces and not the chunky salsas we use for toppings or dips.

Marilau is proud of the contributions that Mexican ingredients have made to the world’s cuisine. Until the Spanish explorers returned from Mexico to Europe, there was no tomato sauce in Italy, no Swiss chocolates, and no green bell peppers (which are really poblano peppers grown in European soil). But it is the native chile peppers that have most influenced the world through traditional Mexican cooking.

Fortunately, the mysteries of dried and fresh peppers resolved as the lesson progressed. Marilau shared some basic Mexican recipes which were cooked according to prehispanic techniques. She also included two that had been handed down in her family. One of her grandfathers was French and a baker and the other hunted and cooked wild game. Marilau had been immersed in food since infancy.

At the beginning of the morning, we took notes of the rules of chile pepper salsas before starting to cook.

Never make a salsa with two different kinds of fresh peppers.
Never make a salsa with fresh and dried chiles together
You can mix dried chiles in a salsa.

Most recipes were amazingly simple with all having only 6 to 10 ingredients. The dried chiles’ oils had to be developed by toasting on a comal or flat griddle on top of the stove until the chile’s odor was released - less than two minutes. It is then soaked in warm water or other liquid before mixing with the remainder of the ingredients. After years of unnecessary angst, dried chile peppers’ mysteries were revealed.

A blender was essential as all ingredients were tossed together at some point of the process. Having only cooked Tex-Mex, I was surprised at the variety of flavors used. - whole cloves, cinnamon stick, marjoram, and thyme. Liquids included chicken broth, orange juice, and cider vinegar. Mexican sour cream had to be used as the American kind would curdle. (BTW, Mexican sour cream is available at our Wal-Mart.) And Mexican manchego also differed from ours with Gouda a viable substitute.

Marilau continued to educate us as the lesson progressed. Mexicans don’t flavor with fat. The main purpose of a chile is to spice the dish and weather and soil can affect the heat You can always add heat but never cut it. Since much of the heat of a chile pepper is in the seeds, it’s best to remove those before cooking. The discussion reminded me of the challenge our local Campbell Soup has in making a consistent Pace Picante Sauce or Salsa. They have to buy “heatless” jalapenos in order to tone down the spice.

At the end of the morning session, there were a few more instructions.

Dried chiles can’t be overcooked.
Dried chiles thicken the sauce

Never cook with olive oil
Never serve with wine - The Spanish forbade the production of grapes and olive trees because they wanted to protect their monopoly for the home country. Consequently, traditional Mexican recipes and meals don’t use these ingredients. Her suggestion - serve with beer.

We got to sample the six distinctive salsas made that morning with more directions on when to use each. The Salsa de Chile Ancho was the most versatile as it’s the familiar red sauce topping for enchiladas, chilequiles, meat, rice or even fried eggs. But the Salsa Morena reigned for pork, duck, chicken, turkey or brisquet.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to find most of the required peppers in Paris although the dried, smoky chipotle peppers were purchased at Central Market in Austin. I’m grateful to Marilau for opening up a whole new world of ingredients. She has permitted me to post one of her easiest fresh pepper recipes on my web-site - - which I hope you’ll try. For the dried pepper dishes, you’ll need to be brave or take her lessons.


3/4 lb tomatillos - be sure to take paper husk off first
1 thin slice of white onion
1-2 serrano chiles
1 bunch of cilantro (8 stems)
Salt to Taste
1 to 1/2 cup chicken broth
1 TBS vegetable oil or lard

Put all ingredients in blender except the oil. Blend until pureed.
Heat the oil and add the pureed ingredients. Cook salsa for 15 minutes.

This sauce is good for everything in Mexico! It can also be used for a soup by adding vegetables and/or chicken and more broth.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

San Antonio de Padua - How an Italian Saint Joined us in the Streets of Guanajuato, Mexico

We were happy to be there - a girls trip with Paris friends. We rented a three bedroom house with a rooftop terrace for $500 a week near the central market of Guanajuato, Mexico. The weather was almost perfect with warm days and cool evenings. The city has been designated a World Heritage site because of its lovely colonial architecture dating from when Guanajuato produced one-third of the world’s silver. Thanks to the diversion of most traffic below the city, many plazas, streets, and callejons (paved pathways) were without vehicles - perfect for strolling.

Our itinerary was unexpectedly altered at 6 a.m. on Saturday, June 12th. Loud firecrackers booms are often heard here in the morning to celebrate birthdays. But at this dawn, a volley of explosions saluted the day, followed by the sounds of an advancing band down the small, steep callejon in front of our house. Close behind, religious banners, singers, and contrite parishioners paraded down the mountain, filling the street directly below our balconies.

It was the saint’s day for the near-by San Antonio de Padua chapel. San Antonio is a beloved saint across the continents. Portuguese by birth, he joined the Franciscan monks in Italy where his powers of preaching were recognized by his title “Evangelical Doctor”. Our own San Antonio, Texas was named in his honor and Italy claims him as their patron saint. (As we age, we should call upon him often as he is also the patron saint of lost things.) He died on June 13, 1231, a date that was now being celebrated in our hood in Guanajuato 779 years later.

A room on the street had been converted into a small chapel where mass was celebrated over loud speakers. Then the festivities began with large pots of soup and tamales offering free fare to any who asked.

Neighbors gathered and visited. They smiled at us as the only gringos on the street. We danced with an old, tilted woman who smiled sweetly at her four partners. Another lovely woman answered our questions and encouraged us to participate throughout the next two days of celebrations.

After an afternoon siesta, we opened our front door and stepped into a street filled with Chichimeca Indian dancers - replete with feathers, body paint and ankle bands of nuts from the Ayoyote tree. It took our breath away. Guanajuato was originally inhabited by one of the nomadic Chichimeca tribes who maintained a fierce resistance against the Spaniards for longer than most.
They were primitive, painted their bodies, and ate only game, roots and berries. Most have been assimilated although a sliver of the population (.26%) can still speak the indigenous language. Many of their descendants were joined by other tribes in Mexico to provide authentic dress and dance for San Antonio’s day.

I talked to Rosa Maria Hernandez Maya, a 65 years old Indigenous woman, who had been dancing since she was five. Her father started the dance group in Mexico City and they still travel throughout Mexico for performances. Ironically, we were told the shields used by the dancers were to protect the indigenous people from the religion of the conquerors and a common name for the nuts used in the dancers’ ankle bands is hueseros de friar or friar’s bones. Neither sounded welcoming to the new faith nor the present celebration.

On the opposite end of the street, a popular morality play was being performed. Actors dressed as the devil, young maiden, prostitute, drunk, farmer, cowboy and others battled with a bull character. Children laughed as the bull attacked the drunk or when the cowboy lashed his whip. We were helped with the drama’s meaning by Mariano, a native who currently works in Alabama, but who returns to Guanajuato every year for this festival. He explained that in the end, all characters die except death itself - represented by the devil.

The next morning, the festival was taken out into the streets of Guanajuato with a parade to the Templo de la Compania de Jesus where another mass was to be celebrated. More Indian dancers had arrived from different tribes. Members of the San Antonio chapel participated. Women in white dresses carried the statue of the baby Jesus, men in white and black supported the statute of San Antonio de Padua, and individuals proudly displayed banners and small statutes.

They were joined by a band or two and 12 different drum and bugle corps composed of fathers and young sons. It was all quite colorful and loud.

That afternoon and evening were too crowed for us and we explored other parts of the city. The next morning was blessedly quiet with no awakening booms. Streets were clean and people returned to a normal morning’s work.

No guide books mention this festival and few tourists were present. While not community wide, the celebration was large by neighborhood standards. And for us temporary neighbors, it was a magical festival - one of those unanticipated experiences that travelers dream about - a merging of the past and present, the sacred and savage, the young and old.

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