Friday, December 23, 2011

Fields of Onions

“Only he can understand what a farm is, what a country is, who shall have sacrificed part of himself to his farm or country, fought to save it, struggled to make it beautiful. Only then will the love of farm or country fill his heart.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

I remember how hard the life of a farmer is, especially after having lived it, and it came back to me in full measure when I saw the results of the recent frost we experienced here in the Bajio.

At the Ex-Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, where I now work, we were ready to harvest the little yellow patty pan squashes, nasturtium flowers and heirloom tomatoes amongst other vegetables. Despite the thick protective plastic covering they turned to mush overnight due to the freeze (-4˚C/24˚F). I fried some of the unripened green tomatoes for our lunch but they just did not taste as delicious as usual, knowing they were a rescue effort from a disaster.

However sad this loss was, there was a much bigger one looming in the distance in the large onion fields of the hacienda.

A group of field workers had been hired to begin harvesting the tons of onions that were ready for market. The kitchen staff was busy cooking hearty meals to bring to the workers in the fields. Hundreds of sacks of onions were quickly piling up and then packed onto delivery trucks.

After the freeze, the green tops of the yet-to-be-harvested onions, having dutifully protected the onion bulb, turned into a yellow brown mush and left the onion bulbs vulnerable to damage by the next round of frost and to also become sunburned, which meant developing into a very undesirable shade of green. The loss would be devastating in many ways; hundreds of hours of lost labor, money invested and a scarcity of onions for the consumer.

With the speed of an ambulance a large truck carrying thousands of yards of a white cotton-like, non-woven material was brought in and spread over each of the endless rows of onions. Despite the grim situation, the fabric created a surreal image; the large white strips of cloth covering the ground waved in the wind like dancers veils, while the wind stirred the dried earth into dust that defused the sunlight.

The sun warmed the onions and the most aromatic fragrance was released. All I could think about were my favorite onion dishes: French onion soup, onion tart and Indian-style caramelized crisp onion strips.

But most of all, it reminded me off how volatile growing crops can be. In this case, Mother Nature did not need to create a dramatic natural disaster such as floods, hail or storms. Just the subtle drop of a few degrees in temperature was all it took to cause great damage in the fields, not just for the Ex-Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, but for all of the farmers in our area. 

The recipe for onion soup is from The Art of Mastering French Cooking by Julia Child. I personally like to place my cheese croutes on top of the soup and melt the cheese under a broiler.

Onion Soup
Soupe à l’Oignon
For 6 to 8 servings

1 1/2 pounds (680 grams, about 5 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions

3 tablespoons (40 grams) butter

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon salt 

1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar (helps the onions to brown)

3 tablespoons (25 grams) all-purpose flour

2 quarts (2 liters) boiling beef or other stock

1/2 cup (120 ml) dry white wine or dry white vermouth

Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons cognac or brandy (optional)
Rounds of hard-toasted French bread (see recipe)
1 to 2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese

Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in a heavy bottomed 4-quart saucepan, covered for 15 minutes.
Uncover, raise the heat to moderate, and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown.
Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.
Off heat, blend in the boiling liquid. Add the wine, and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning.
Set aside uncovered until ready to serve. Then reheat to simmer.
Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Pour into a soup tureen or soup cups over the rounds of bread, and pass the cheese separately. 
Garnishings for onion soup
 Croutes- hard toasted French bread

12-16 slices of French bread, cut ¾ inch thick
Olive oil or beef drippings
A cut clove of garlic
Place the bread in one layer in a roasting pan and bake in a preheated 325˚F/160˚C oven for about half an hour, until it is thoroughly dried out and lightly browned.
Halfway through the baking, each side may be basted with a teaspoon of olive oil or beef drippings; and after baking, each piece may be rubbed with the cut garlic.

Croutes au Fromage cheese croutes
Grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese
Olive oil or beef drippings

Spread one side of each croute with grated cheese and sprinkle with drops of olive oil or beef drippings. Brown under a hot broiler before serving.

Bon Appétit!

Eggplant­­— Large Purple Eggs?

Thanks to Michael Scott, who grows a great variety of unusual and delicious vegetables at Rancho Las Palmas near Atatonilco, visitors to the Saturday Organic market will now be able to find out how eggplant, the large purple one that most of us know, got it’s name. In his crate are little round white ones, and that is the answer. There are many varieties of eggplants that come in different colors and shapes. Purple, green, white and orange – small marble seized, golf ball seized, egg seized, long narrow sausage like ones and the large pear shaped ones.
Botanically the eggplant (Solanum melongena) is classified as a fruit and belongs to the family of nightshades, it is remotely related to the tomato and potato.
The eggplant originated in India and continued it’s global voyage on to southern and eastern Asia where it has been cultivated and much appreciated for over 4000 years. From there it was taken to the Arabic and Mediterranean countries. It was the small white, egg seized one that was first introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages and it’s name Eggplant stuck in English speaking countries, even as the more familiar purple ones were introduced later. In France it was named after the color purple, aubergine. The Spanish, who named it "Berengenas" (berenjenas in Mexico) believed it to be an aphrodisiac, its name translates to “Apple of Love”. They introduced the eggplant to the Americas, mainly to Brazil as early as 1650. Eggplants were still unknown to the United States for another 150 years. Thomas Jefferson introduced them to the United States in 1806 from France were he had enjoyed them very much. To this day a prickly, white Eggplant is still grown in Jefferson's preserved Virginia Garden at Monticello. Jefferson was not only a founding father of the United States, but also a legendary horticulturist who championed new vegetable varieties to his country. Despite his efforts, the eggplant for a long time was only an ornamental plant in the United States, until immigrants from eggplant loving countries arrived and tuned the garden ornaments into their favorite dishes. Last year the US imported about 140 million pounds of eggplant, 80% of which was grown in Mexico.
Go to the recipe tab for my "Eggplant and Potato" recipe.

Friday, October 7, 2011

In Praise of the Green Onion

It is hard for me to understand the horror of having onion (or garlic) breath. To swish your mouth with chemical liquids, you all know the blue stuff I am talking about, to eliminate the fact that you just have enjoyed one of the most ancient delicious vegetable known to man, is cruel taste punishment.

The onion is one of the earliest consumed bulbs by man dating back about 5000 years. The Egyptians treasured them immensely, Greek Olympian contenders and Roman doomed gladiators believed in the strengthening power of onion by rubbing their bodies with its juices.
Christopher Columbus on his 1492 expedition to the New World brought onions, not wanting to miss them away from home. However, strains of wild onions already grew throughout North America and Native American Indians ate wild onions raw or cooked, for seasoning or as a vegetable.
Here in Mexico the markets always have a large display of the green onion bundles, referred to as Mexican bulb onions (scallions in the US). In restaurants or street stalls where tacos are served, a plate of green grilled onions are served as a side with plenty of lime wedges for juice to squeeze over them. They are grilled without oil but take on an almost buttery taste. The green tops are usually used as a handle to hold on to the bulbs for munching on them, but not eaten.
As a person that hates waste, imagine my delight in finding this recipe from of our local state of Guanajuato. Indigenous and colonial food roots run deeper here than is generally known. I am out there exploring the culinary frontiers for you.
If you like authentic Mexican food, keep exploring with me.

Green Onion Soup
Sopa de rabos de cebolla
 Makes 8 servings

            6 cups                 onion greens, chopped coarsely
            ¼ stick                butter
            2 Tablespoons    vegetable oil
            6 cups                 chicken broth (or vegetable)
            1cup                    sour cream (crema)

For garnish:
            3                        white rolls (bolillos or firm white bread)
            ¼ stick               butter
            3 Tablespoons   vegetable oil

Melt the ¼ stick butter in a 4 -quart sauce pan, then add the chopped green onions and fry them until wilted. In a blender process the onions with 3 cups of the chicken (or vegetable) broth until very smooth. Press mixture through a strainer back into the saucepan and add the other 3 cups of chicken (or vegetable) broth. Bring to a boil and let simmer on a low flame for about 5 minutes. The soup can be made in advance up to this point and refrigerated. Just before serving reheat and add the cream. Do not let the soup boil after you have added the cream as it might curdle.

The Garnish:
Cut the bolillos or bread into ½ inch cubes and toast them in a large frying pan in the butter-vegetable oil mixture over medium heat, stirring often. The cubes should be crisp and golden on all sides. These can also be done in advance and kept in an airtight container until serving.
Place them in a serving bowl with a spoon and pass them with the soup.

Guia gastronómica méxico desconocido #11, comida guanajatense

You say Tomato and I say Tomahto.

We are so lucky to finally have local growers produce tasty, succulent heirloom tomatoes. Red and yellow cherry tomatoes, wrinkled dark red brandy wine, bright yellow ones and even a sprinkling of green zebra have been spotted. Since I am next to the Via Organica plant stand, I noticed a brisk sale in their tomato plants and customers stop by to report on the growing progress of their plants. The tomato is another gift from the New World and it is a tragedy to see what we are offered today on a commercial level. Tasteless and hard, prematurely picked green and gassed with ethylene to turn them red, all for the sake of long distance travel and year round availability. So, how can we make the most of our local crop as long as the season lasts? Tomato sauce is on top of my list because it can be added to so many dishes, pasta being the most favorite one. Homemade ketchup is another favorite. Dill pickled cherry tomatoes make a great accompaniment for meat dishes. However, these methods require canning, which is more effort than many are willing to invest in. Oven-dried tomatoes are absolutely delicious in salads and pastas, even in off-season winter guacamole. If you are in the habit of having afternoon tea (that’s the fancy one, high tea is the substantial savory fare for hard working folks), then here is an old-fashioned recipe for you that is absolutely delicious and you can keep several jars in the refrigerator for weeks. Tomatoes for the longest time had an identity crisis, is it a fruit or a vegetable? The use as a vegetable seems to have settled the dispute by cooks but this sweet recipe will have your friends coveting an invitation to your afternoon teas. Don’t forget to bake some fresh scones!

Tomato-Orange Jam
Mermelada de Jitomate y Naranja
Makes about 2-3 cups

2 lbs ripe tomatoes
2 medium navel oranges
1 slice of quarter coin size of fresh ginger (or ¼ teaspoon powdered)
2 inch strip of lime rind
1 cup sugar

Skin the tomatoes by dropping them into boiling water for a few seconds, and then plunging them into cold water, the peel will now come off very easily.
Cut the tomatoes across in half, and squeeze out the seeds if you wish, it is not necessary. Cut the tomatoes into ¼ inch cubes.
Make orange wedges by peeling the orange and then cutting out the “flesh” between the membranes.
Combine tomatoes, orange slices, ginger and sugar in heavy saucepan and cook covered for 20 minutes. Uncover, add lime rind and slowly boil for about 1- 1½ hours until the mixture has a thick syrupy (jammy) consistency.

Fill hot into a glass jar with a screw top lid, and then cool completely before refrigerating. This will keep in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks, if you do not consume it faster.
If you like to can, you can multiply the recipe to your liking and preserve it with proper canning methods. This way it will keep for months without refrigeration

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pesto - pronto!

Handy little containers of pesto in your freezer
 Right now is the height of the growing season for all things edible. The stalls at the Saturday organic market are brimming with all kinds of wonderful fruits and vegetables. Since there is a limit to how much we can eat, the thought of preserving some of the foods comes up. Canning, of course, is the most efficient way, however few are inclined to go though the efforts of doing so. Drying is a good way to save some items, especially fruits. Freezing is not much an option; except there is a terrific way of saving the flavor of basil for a long timemake pesto and freeze it. There is no cooking involved; all you need to do is switch on your food processor and pesto! There are many herbal pastes now calling themselves pesto but the original version is from Genoa in Italy. It is traditionally made in a mortar with a pestle, from which the sauce’s name is derived. The ingredients are basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil, that’s it. Store your pesto in small containers, enough to have an instant seasoning for pasta, grilled vegetables, meats, seafood, sandwiches (mix it with mayo) or when extended with oil and vinegar you get a great salad dressing. Walnuts can be substituted for the pine nuts; in case of allergies you can leave out the nuts and still have a great sauce. The garlic, cheese and olive oil you can also buy right at the market with your basil. The pine nuts and handy containers you find at Bonanza. ¡Buen provecho!

6 1/2 cups         basil leaves, packed
3/4 cup             Parmesan (or pecorino), cut into chunks
6 tbsp.              extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp.               pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 cloves            garlic, minced 
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 
Place the chunks of cheese in your food processor and pulse until it looks like grated. Remove it and set aside. Then place basil leaves, half of the olive oil, pine nuts and garlic in the food processor and pulse until you have a fine paste. Drizzle in the rest of the olive oil while the processor is running. Scrape down sides of the processor container, then add the grated cheese and pulse a few times. You should have a smooth paste by now, if not add more olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Granada—the Fruit—the City—the Song

 Its pomegranate, granada season, most apparent for mny of us with the offerings of chiles en nogada during this month when Mexicans are celebrating their independence on September 16. The jewel-like red seeds used for garnish of the dish gives it its festive sparkle and completes the red, green (cilantro or parsley) and white (walnut sauce) colors of the flag. 
The brilliantly red seeds are now also offered are at all the Mercados in town. Here they are filled into clear plastic beakers and placed next to the whole fruits, which is sometimes cut into 4 wedges, revealing it’s supposedly 365 or more jewel-like seedsAs patriotic as chile en nogada appear to be, the pomegranate came a long way from its country of origin, that is Persia, today’s Iran. It has been cultivated there for over 4000 years. It is depicted in old paintings as a symbol of fertility and when you break one open, it becomes apparent why.
Other than humans, foods have historically been the next most enthusiastic long distance travelers, many times hitching free rides as seeds in the pockets of their explorers. From Persia the pomegranate made it’s first voyage  to India, then Asia, Egypt and many other sub-tropical climates where it thrives well. In Spain the fruit was especially treasured and the city of Granada, after several previous name changes, was eventually named after the fruit as the trees grew there in abundance on its hill sides. 
Luis Melendez, Spain 1771
As we know, what the Spanish conquerors of the New World did not find in there, they brought with them. In their goodie bags they also had walnuts, nuez de Castillo, from which the creamy white sauce is made that smothers the stuffed chile. The filling of the chiles, the picadillo, is a classic Moorish/Spanish combination of meat, fruits and “warm” spices. The cilantro sprinkled on top came into Mexico via Acapulco from Asia on the mighty and forbiddingly powerful Manila Galleons, los naos de china. So the only indigenous part of this patriotic dish is the chile. However, considering the many gift this country has given to the world, it is a dish resulting from a fabulously harmonious exchange of flavors, a 400 year old food fusion so to speak. 
Chiles en nogada can be a bit challenging for home cooks to prepare, but if you like pomegranate seeds, there are many other ways to use them. My friend Diana Kennedy gleaned a recipe for an unusual guacamole form a family in Comonfort that is easy to make and will most likely become your most favorite way of preparing guacamole. It uses fruits in season including pomegranates and is amazingly delicious and looks beautiful. It holds-up very well, so it can be made a few hours in advance if you are planning to serve it to guests. Treat yourself to the blue corn tortillas that the women from the campo sell at the Mercado San Juan de Ramirez to mop-up this divine but seasonal treat.
The reason you might have shied away from using pomegranates could be not knowing how to manage getting the seeds out of its hard peel. Visions of red splattered clothing and kitchen walls might have deterred you, but here is an easy way to prevent all that., After you see how easy they are to peel, you might just want to start eating them, as long as the season lasts, for breakfast, lunch and dinner because the fruit has an abundance of health properties and —don’t forget the Grenadine for concocting your Kir Royal, sipping it while Augustin Lara is singing his famous composition of “Granada”. This should send you into sheer pomegranate bliss.

A Clean and Easy Way to Peel a Pomegranate

Step 1: Cut the crown end of the pomegranate
Step 2: Lightly score the rind in several places.
Step 3: Immerse fruit in a bowl of water
Step 4: Hold fruit under water and break sections apart, separating seeds from membrane. Seeds will  sink while rind and membrane float
Step 5: Skim off and discard membranes and rind
Step 6: Strain seeds (arils)

For Diana Kennedy's guacamole recipe go to Recipes.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Come to CASA's Margaritaville

Sip’n vote tonight at the 4th annual CASA Margarita Contest and fundrais
CASA's spectacular roof terrace
Tequila has gone from hooch to haute and lately mescal is not far behind. Tonight (July 29. 2011) about 25 of San Miguel’s top restaurants will show just how serious they are about crafting the best margarita for you. And you will be the judge for choosing the best. If one of your personal missions would be to find out who serves the best margarita in town, visiting all the different restaurants might be a daunting task. However, tonight you can try all of them in one sitting under one roof, to be exact, on the roof of the CASA (Center for Adolescents of San Miguel A.C.) facility in Santa Julia with its breathtaking 360 view. There will be live music to dance to, botanas created just for the occasion by yours truly, door prizes and fabulous auction items.
CASA has a special reason to celebrate this year; the organization has been in operation for 30 years. If you ask why celebrate with a margarita contest, here is my personal view. The German author Goethe ended one of his most famous poems with (my rough translation): “daily work-evening guests, dour weeks-happy fiestas, this be your future magic words” (Tages Arbeit, abends Gäste! 
Saure Wochen, frohe Feste! 
Sei dein künftig Zauberwort). It is my life’s motto. Nadine Goodman the founder of CASA who is originally from New York, has relentlessly worked long days and many hard weeks and years to realize her extraordinary vision of providing a better life for mainly adolescents and single mothers in her adopted home of San Miguel de Allende. However, the fiestas have been far apart.
In a way that is why I think a margarita festival is a wonderful way to celebrate. Tequila is Mexico’s national beverage and I see a parallel with the development of CASA and the production of Tequila, seriously I do, read on. 
  -Producing tequila or mescal is very hard work and takes years of endurance and patience. The agave from which tequila or mescal is made can take up to 8-12 and sometime 20 years to grow before it is ready to be harvested. It has to withstand droughts, pests and rot in all those years. 

  -CASA has endured strong resistance to its juvenile pregnancy prevention efforts, domestic violence awareness and gender discrimination. 
  -Once the agave is ready to be harvested, its spiny leaves are cut off, making the core look like a pineapple. These are then placed in big ovens where they are steam-cooked. 
  -When CASA started its midwife-training program, it was put through the steamer for years with strong opposition from the medical field.
  -After this, the steamed and crushed agave cores are left to ferment. 
  -CASA persevered and kept all of its programs going. 
  -The final process is distilling the fermented agaves into the pure spirits that is Tequila or Mescal. 
  -CASA now, after 15 years of hard work, is the first and only midwife school in Mexico to grant a professional certificate to its graduating students. 

Good things take time, so sip your tequila slowly and don’t ask for aged tequila, as you can see it has already aged in the plant.
A fond thought also goes out to Miss Margarita, whoever she was, for being the inspiration for one of the most popular cocktails on the planet. Tonight the classic version will compete side by side with new exotic versions. There will also be non-alcoholic beverages offered for the designated drivers. Come and join the fun and cast your vote for the best. Be a CASA supporter.       

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rice is Nice

“Rice Is Nice,
that's what they say,
Rice Is Nice,
throw some my way,
Rice Is Nice on any day,
Twice as nice when violins play.

Rice is Nice by The Lemon Pipers

The lyrics to this popular 1960s song refers to having rice thrown at you at your wedding. This is an ancient custom, symbolizing good wishes of fertility and for a bountiful new life together.
 Rice grains
Now when served a portion of rice, one rarely thinks about the importance rice has played in the history of civilization. It is one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world. As with any transition for humankind from hunter-gatherers to farmers, it was the beginning of a civilization.

Here in the Americas the same occurred with the cultivation of maize (corn). Both grains were taken on a global journey and became an integral food in most countries of the world. Corn and rice with wheat are today the worlds most widely grown grains.

Rice has its origins in China; from there it was taken to all Asian countries and India. Alexander the Great supposedly brought rice to Greece where it was named oryza. I think any food that traveled from Asia to Europe that we have no clear records of, for example, pasta, got shoved into Alex’s luggage. Whichever way, rice moved on to North Africa and with the Moors from there to Spain. The Arabic word for rice, al-ruz, became the Spanish arroz.

When rice was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish explorers through the port of Veracruz, the climate in this coastal area proved to be ideal for growing rice. To this day, the state of Veracruz is the largest producer of rice in Mexico.

As with many other foods introduced to the New World, rice soon was flavored with the native tomatoes, chiles and corn. Combined with Old World onions, garlic, peas and carrots, sprinkled with the Chinese import of cilantro, rice became a culinary favorite and one of Mexico’s signature rice dishes.
Arroz a la Mexicana
 Rice also became a menu staple as sopa seca (dry soups), the equivalent of the Italian pasta course, sopa aguada (wet soups) and and accompaniment to the main course. For dessert, rice was served as arroz con leche (rice pudding).

Fast forward to the present with the alarming rise in incidents of obesity and diabetes in Mexico. The government has begun a nationwide campaign to promote increasing the consumption of rice, including the addition of fresh vegetables and fruits. Despite the assumption that the Mexican diet consists of rice, beans and corn, its rice consumption is very low compared to other countries. Asian countries consume about 400 pounds of rice per capita, the USA about 24 pounds and Mexico only 17 pounds.

Rice has lost its appeal in restaurants and the upper middle class desires the more trendy pasta. No offense against pasta, but it can’t hold a nutritional candle to rice. Rice, is with no doubt, a super food.

If you are in a rice rut (it is not a disease) then look to all the fabulous ways rice can be prepared from recipes the world over. Grilled Japanese rice balls, risotto, rice omelets, rice cake, horchata (rice drink) and then some.

Come join me at this Saturday’s Fiesta Arroz, Pan y Vino at 1:30 PM where I will help you to get out of your rice rut by showing new, exciting and easy ways to prepare nice rice.

Published as an article in La Atención, San Miguel de Allende, July 1. 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Amazing Amaranth Village

The amaranth's red and green seed heads are filled with tens of thousands of tiny seeds.

Imagine you are an astronaut on a space mission. Your ration of Tang, the fake orange juice, and your squeeze-tube meals have ran out because you were hungrier on this trip than you thought. What do you do? You break out your emergency stash of amaranth seeds. 

Well, this might just be a curious daydream for space travel lovers. However, it is a real fact that the US astronauts carry amaranth seeds on board of their missions. It is lightweight and has a long shelf life, useful attributes for space travel, but most important of all; this ancient grain, with its origin in Mexico, is one of the world’s few complete foods. 

The indigenous people of Mexico appreciated this grain more than corn, and worshipped it as a special gift of nature. For their ceremonial tributes to the amaranth grain, huautli in the nahuatl language, they sculptured figurines out of the seeds, and at the end of the rituals they broke them into small pieces and passed them around to the worshipers. Eating the seeds symbolized the assurance for a successful new harvest.

The newly arrived Spanish Catholic clergy, observing this, thought their ritual of Holy Communion was being mocked, consequently, they angrily outlawed the cultivation of amaranth under penalty of death. Removing one of the most nutritious grains from the indigenous diet caused a massive epidemic of malnutrition and starvation. For centuries amaranth was not cultivated as a crop in Mexico because of this taboo, yet interestingly, the plant was taken to nearly every corner of the world by early explorers. Even today it is still appreciated around the globe for its health properties, beauty and color. 

Amaranth is a very resilient plant and almost impossible to wipe out, with each flower producing about 60,000 seeds. The plant needs very little water and will grow in almost any soil without care. With present renewed awareness of its nutritional benefits, commercial cultivation is beginning to be developed again in Mexico, primarily in the state of Puebla, where it originated more than 7,000 years ago.

To find out what happens to the seeds once they are harvested, 15 curious persons from San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro recently traveled to a small village near San Juan del Rio in the state of Hidalgo.  Arriving at  the gate of the amaranth processing plant, we were greeted by a wildly waving man, dressed in blue hospital scrubs, Dr. Benito Manrique de Lara, the director and mastermind of this unique operation.Twenty-six years ago, after working for many years in India and Europe, Benito (as he is generally referred to and a native of Columbia) found himself in the middle of nowhere in Mexico with an offer (more like a challenge) to restore an amaranth processing plant that had fallen into ruins. 

The nearby village had no water, electricity or roads. The houses were made of stones and any found materials and its inhabitants, families left behind by the nearby ex-hacienda after the revolution, were mostly illiterate. These were the only people Benito had close by to help him, unless he would recruit more skilled people from within several hours of commuting. Benito decided make a primary investment in human capital and began working with what he had on hand, and then bringing the amaranth plant back to life. The villagers, with Benito’s encouragement, literally build a new life for themselves. Their hamlet soon had water, electricity and roads. Once the basic infrastructure was in place, they began simultaneously to build the factory and continued work on their village. 

Today they have a church, school, ball courts, a health care center, a daycare center, a zócalo for fiestas, a social center and a media room with access to computers. Their homes are now solid constructions with enough yards and greenery around to grow vegetables and keep chickens, burros and cows. The children in the village, thanks to their amaranth formulas and fresh foods, have zero malnutrition, one of the very few rural places in Mexico able to claim so. 

The progress of the village went hand in hand with the construction and development of the factory. Again, this was all done with the original village population. Some machinery for processing the amaranth was either too expensive or did not exist and Benito challenged his crew to come up with designs for the needed equipment. Experimenting with little toy models at first eventually resulted in the construction of very sophisticated and highly functional huge machinery.

Covered in blue from head-to-toe for the tour.
After we had donned blue coats, hats, facemasks and booties and walked though a wind chamber, we finally got to see the operation. We were struck by how spotless the building was, you could practically eat off the floor!

Benito explaining the specialized machinery in the amaranth factory.
Benito explained all the different machinery to us and what they do. Some amaranth seeds get popped, literally like popcorn, which are then made into the candy called alegría.

Amaranth seed cakes (Alegria)
Other seeds go through a process where the protein is separated from the seeds, mixed with other ingredients and made into baby formulas and different flavored atoles. All products are developed in house in their custom laboratory and they leave the plant fully packaged ready for sale.

Baby formula created with amaranth seeds.
Just when we thought we could not get any more impressed, all of our mouths dropped open in disbelief when Benito told us that all of the 70 employees rotate their position in the plant everyday! They all know how to do every task, including lab and office work. 

Meticulously kept seed records.

The cooks in the village were very gracious and prepared lunch for us with an amazing array of flavorful dishes. Each cook proudly told us what she had made from the fresh vegetables, chickens, beans and corn. There were handmade tortillas, tamales, chilaquiles, amaranth greens, salsas, flautas, crisp cabbage salad and lots of fresh ranch eggs, just to mention a few.

Beans with lettuce and egg garnish

And if that was not enough, they sent us off with a big goodie bag with popped amaranth (great for breakfast cereal), atoles (comforting on cool mornings), and amaranth marzipan.

What an amazing experience. My account is by far only a rough sketch of our experience as the details could nearly fill a book.  I hope that you get a glimpse of what can be done with dedication, determination and trust in the human capacity to learn. Benito is my hero!

If you are interested in joining me for another trip to Utopia, please contact me.

This article was published in La Atención June 17, 2011

Hiding behind an amaranth plant in Chicago.

This amazing amaranth grew in Rick Bayless' Chicago garden. The following year there was amaranth growing within blocks of his garden. A testimony to the plants hardiness; the seeds withstood  the brutal Chicago winter. 

Dear amaranth friends,

I know you all remember Dr, Benito Manrique de Lara, the ebullient and enthusiastic founder of the utopian amaranth village we visited.  With great sadness I was told by my friend Ada, my initial connection to Benito, that he died yesterday of a heart attack in his sleep. He was only 54 years old but he showed us in his short life time that a peaceful, respectful and productive existence among human beings is possible. 

My heart goes out to all the people in the village of Huixcazdha which Benito with his faith and trust in their capabilities lifted from extreme poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition  to a meaningful, healthy and dignified existence. They all have lost their guide and father to a better life.

I hope that Benito's work will be able to continue. I will keep you informed with any news. 
I do not have all of the tour peoples email, please pass on the information to friends you knew were on the tour.

I made these amaranth green tacos today for Benito, they were seasoned with the salt of my tears.

Hugs to you all,
May 2014

I am so sorry to hear this very heartbreaking news.  I am currently in the Bahamas and did not get your message immediately.  What an amazing man, I can’t believe he is gone and at such a young age. (54) He lived life to the fullest and demanded everyone around him do the same. What a great spirit - thank you for bringing him into my life through the amaranth tour.  

Abrazos my friend,


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mexico, Cocina Abierta

Alajandro Ruiz, Casa Oaxaca, Oaxaca

It has been nearly a year now that I attended this incredible inspirational 3 day seminar at the university of Anahuac in Mexico City, one of the most prestiius universities in Mexico and also head quarter of  the Cordon Bleu French cooking school. I was staying with my friend Ruth Alegria in her Condessa digs and early mornings we braved the Mexico City traffic for the three days to hear what was new in the culinary world in Mexico. Well, a lot, as you can read in the article, but what was just as great was visiting with culinary friends.
The "cool" Californians. Benito Molino from Manzanilla restaurant in Ensenada y moi, formerly of cool Los Angeles
 Ruth Alegria, my gracious hostess

 Diego Oka, "Wunderkind" chef if there ever was one. He is opening restaurants internationally for Peruvian star chef Gaston Acurio. Mind you he is 24, I want to adopt him. I met him at La Mar restaurant in Mexico City's very tony Santa Fe. I am still pining for his Peruvian "causa".
Causa, yummmm
 Ricardo Muños, long time friend, restaurateur and Mexican food historian par excellance. Also owner of Azul y Oro at UNAM and in the trendy Condesa in Mexico City.

Article published in La Atención, July 2, 2010

With Mexico’s cuisine earmarked to become one of the first in the world to gain UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designation, the Conferencia de Mexico Cocina Abierta (Conference of Mexican Open Kitchen), held at the University of Anahuac (also the headquarter for the French Cordon Bleu cooking school) in Mexico City from June 2-5, could not have been more timely.
On opening night, at the fabulous new St. Regis Diana hotel across from the landmark Diana Fountain, chef, restaurant owner, culinary historian and radio host Ricardo Muñoz Zurita gave an eye-opening presentation about the indigenous foods of the Americas. The list is long and it was interesting to see how, by now, many countries in the world have appropriated imports from the New World as their own trademark foods. Ireland the potato; Italy, tomatoes and corn for polenta and Indian, Thai and Sichuan food are synonymous with chiles. Even if the USA is in the New World, many do not realize that its beloved peanuts and popcorn are indigenous, along with beans, squashes, avocados, vanilla and the queen of all the treasures: chocolate. This is just to mention a few of the more than 50 foods.
The second day of the conference began with a demonstration by Chef Francisco Méndez from restaurant Tapasbar. His food was a harbinger of what was to come over the next three days. Even though tapas are a quintessential Spanish style of bar snacks, Chef Francisco used popular Mexican botanas (appetizers) for his inspiration. A black bean tamal baked in a banana leaf is served on a crusty toast round, topped with salsa boracha (literally: drunk salsa) and crema (Mexican crème fraiche); a skewer with meat al pastor (gyro style) is placed upright into a toast round covered with fresh tomatoes grated over it, then drizzled with a pineapple salsa. This delicious bite pays tribute to the taco al pastor (shepherds taco), served traditionally with a slice of pineapple.
Eduardo Osuna from Casa Poniente in Celaya followed with his presentation of gorditas stuffed with crabmeat and garnished with an egg yolk-like sphere of salsa Valentina (popular brand of a Mexican commercial salsa). To make this, the chef used a bit of new fangled chemistry based on natural ingredients. I can’t wait to go to his restaurant (Celaya is a 40 minute drive from San Miguel de Allende) and try his intriguing signature fish dish. A catch-of-the-day fish fillet is cooked with a medley of vegetables and hoja santa butter (an indigenous anise flavored herb), in a clear see-through pouch. The pouch is presented and opened at the table for the guest to be able to inhale the escaping fragrant smells.
French chef Thierry Blouet, from Café des Artiste in Puerto Vallarta, showed that using his French skills and working with Mexican ingredients can produce the most superb mouthwatering dishes. His transparent lobster ravioli perfumed with cardamom and finished with a chile poblano sauce was a masterpiece that would have made Escoffier smile.
My good friend of 20 years, Carmen “Titita” Ramirez Degollado, owner of the 38-year-old “El Bajio” restaurant, urged all the “youngsters” to continue to study their culinary roots. This she demonstrated by preparing the most healthful and delicious pre-Columbian green mole based on a profusion of leaves and herbs and served over a bed of steamed chayote and calabacitas  (zucchini). Aquiles Chaves, from restaurant Ló in Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco, where cacao (chocolate) trees grow, made the audience swoon with the smell of roasting cacao beans, which he crushed and served as a garnish for seared fillet of red snapper nestled in an ancho chile sauce and accompanied by yucca (cassava root) slices sautéed with tequila butter.
At the very opposite end of the country, in Monterrey (bordering the US), one of Mexico’s best chefs, Guillermo Gonzáles Beristáin is letting his culinary ambitions loose in seven restaurants, including house-label wines to match the food. His avocado roll nestled on a sheet of sangria gelatina (sangria jello) and sprinkled with chicharrón (fried pork skins) crumble would definitely be on my list to try if I were to visit Monterrey.
Internationally acclaimed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, who dethroned France’s long-term dominance as culinary world masters, was represented at the conference by his brother Albert Adrià. The sheer artistry and craftsmanship of both of their work is revolutionary. It has gone beyond food, cooking and feeding to alchemy, science and mind boggling artistry. Desserts of pain strikingly created replicas of fruits are turned into molds made from fruit essences to fool your palate; what looked like a strawberry that was served on your plate, was actually a combination of fruit purées of the most intense explosions of flavor. To me, it seemed to be a very sophisticated version of what I grew up with in Germany. We made look-alike foods from marzipan, which included all kinds of fruits, vegetables and even sausages. They looked very real, real enough for me wanting to put mustard on my marzipan sausages!
 I could fill an entire issue of La Atención if I were to report every one of the amazing chefs that showed their enthusiasm for Mexican ingredients and dishes with a new and fresh touch in the three days of the conference. What saddened me was that I did not meet any SMA chefs or restaurateurs at this inspiring event.
We must live up our UNESCO heritage standards and put this magical historic town on the international culinary map as well. In turn, it could draw much-needed tourist business. We have such an abundance of fabulous locally-produced ingredients at hand, why not prepare them a way to showcase their quality and honor the relentless work and dedication that the local farmers and producers put towards giving us these superlative ingredients.