Monday, February 21, 2011

El Nopal, the Miracle Plant

Mexico is probably the only country in the world which features one of its healthiest plants in its national emblem. We all know the ubiquitous image of an eagle with a snake in its beak, wings still spread wide and ready to land on a nopal, the cactus indigenous to the New World. Its name comes from the nahualtl word nopalli.
The eagle seems to be landing on this inhospitable plant with its sharp needle like thorns with ease as if it would be the most comfortable place to devour its catch. What made the ancient inhabitants of Mexico think the plant was good to eat? Desperate need for food in a barren environment, ancient wisdom, instinct or some higher connection? We will probably never know. We do know that the nopal has been cultivated for millenniums and treasured as a special gift of nature. With modern science we have learned that the plant is a nutritional reservoir like no other plant for which the Aztecs, besides food and beverages, had many other uses as well. Building materials, fire wood, glue, stiffening cloth, strengthen mortar, fences and religious ceremonies. Diego Rivera famously mixed the colors for his murals with nopal sap. Dishes containing game eggs, wild meats, fish, seafood and the New World stables, without we can not imagine the culinary world today, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, chile and squash were prepared with nopal much in the same way we find today.
500 years after the Spanish conquest, what was once an amazingly healthy nation now sadly has one of the highest cases of diabetes and obesity in the world. To understand the full impact of this statement, consider this scenario: When Hernán Cortéz arrived in Tenochtitlan, what is now Mexico City in 1519 his crew of Spaniards were quite a sorry lot to look at. The long sea voyages without fresh food left them in a poor state of health. Plagued by chronic nutritional deficiency diseases had left them balding and nearly toothless. Personal hygiene, such as bathing or clean clothing was not something they practiced. And here they came face to face with a people that had shinny black hair, beautiful taut completions and a splendid set of teeth and high standards of personal hygiene that involve bathing at least daily. Their clothing was dyed in brilliant colors, many never seen before. When news of these very healthy people reached Spain’s, King Phillip, he dispatched his trusted personal physician, Dr. Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-1587) to the New World to find out what was the special medicine that made these people so healthy. After 7 years of travels and documenting indigenous plants and foods with the help of his artist-traveling companion, Dr. Hernández concluded there was no medicine; it was the diet that made the people so healthy.

Verrines, a Great Party Idea

A Delicious, Beautiful and Easy to Make Party Idea

On my recent trip for a family reunion to Germany, I was often served Verrines when visiting friends. The “Euro Hostess with the Mostess” today is lavishing her culinary imagination on these visually beautiful concoctions.
The word Verrine is a combination of the French Vere (glass) and Terrine. The idea is not exactly new (there was the layered puss café and the sundae, and here in Mexico the addicting seafood cocktails), but it certainly has caught on with a vengeance in Europe, to the point where French glass manufacturers are designing special glasses for this current craze in food presentation. As a former caterer I immediately saw this trend to be an ideal item for easy and successful entertaining. You can layer just about anything in a glass, savory or sweet; it looks beautiful and can be done in advance of serving. The only rule is to make sure that you place softer layers on top of more sold ones to keep the distinct layers. The space they take up in the refrigerator is minimal compared to trying to store any other ready to serve individually portioned-out dishes or platters.
My first inspiration for making a Verrine when I got back to San Miguel de Allende, my home town, was inspired by locally available ingredients.
The deliciously creamy ricotta that my favorite cheese lady sells at the Juan Ramirez market was a good start. In my never-ending research into Mexican cuisines, I had discovered a recipe for a ricotta (requeson) preparation from Chihuahua. It puzzled me because it was nearly identical to a recipe that I savored when in Germany called Bibbeles Käs. In the Mexican recipe tomatoes, fresh chile and cilantro had snug in, replacing the traditional caraway seeds and chives in the German version. There for a meatless Friday meal in catholic parts of the country it was served as a meatless option on freshly steamed potatoes and it is one of my favorite food memories. I am guessing that the Mennonites, many of German origin, must have brought the recipe with them to Chihuahua.
For the Verrine I deconstructed the recipe, giving this current culinary trend a try. I seasoned the ricotta only with salt and pepper, steamed some potatoes, cut them into cubes and layered all the other recipe ingredients in a glass. The result was so delicious and beautiful; I ate the prop after taking the picture.
Let your creativity go! Guten Appetit!

Ricotta Dip “La Soledad” Style
Requesón “La Soledad”

From: Guia Gastronómica Mexico Desconocido, Comida Chihuahuense

This is a very easy to make dip to be served with chips, on toast, steamed potatoes or vegetables. You can store it for a few days, however add the onions only before serving or they will overpower the flavor of the dip.

1 pound ricotta or requesón
½ cup milk or as needed
1 cup tomatoes, diced in ¼ inch cubes
¼ cup onions, finely chopped, rinsed with cold water and well drained
3 or to taste jalapeños, finely chopped
¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped (if you have chives, they are even better)
Salt to taste

If the ricotta is crumbly, stir in as much milk as needed to make a smooth paste, a little thicker than sour cream.
Add all the other ingredients and mix well.
For a fuller flavor, let rest in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes

Note: For the Verrine I made the ricotta a bit firmer so the other ingredients would not sink into it and stay layered.

UNESCO and the Mexican Kitchen

(photo UNESCO)

Last summer, when it was finally official, every time I had a captive audience I would excitedly announce: Mexican Cuisine has become the first UNESCO cuisine in the world!
Reactions to my enthusiasm were generally a polite cheer, but more a puzzled look. What exactly does that mean? We certainly have heard much about UNESCO designations in the last years, first for San Miguel de Allende and Atatonilco in 2008, then for the Camino Real al Dentro 2010. And now food?
UNESCO - The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization was founded 65 years ago, shortly after World War II, with the goal to promote peace, social justice, human rights and international security through international cooperation on educational, science and cultural programs. Among it’s many pursuits, one of UNESCO's most publicly visible and known efforts is its World Heritage Centers which identify cultural, natural and mixed sites to be protected all over the world in an effort to promote the maintenance of cultural, historic and/or natural heritage in those places for others to see. However, according to UNESCO: "The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”.
These fragile elements of our cultures need to be preserved before they are lost forever, and our future generations should be called upon to continue to be their guardians. Because of this added dimension to the “cultural heritage” definition, a dedicated group of Mexican women chefs and food historians started in 2003 to propose to the UNESCO committee that ancient heritage cuisines should also be included in the intangible group.
At the annual IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) convention in 2003 in Montreal, Canada I first heard about their decision. After an intense day of lectures and presentations, I was relaxing with my Mexican peers and they told me about their plan. I was awestruck by the idea, but then also not too surprised. These Mexican women chefs are a gutsy, intelligent group and fiercely determined to save their culinary heritage. Through the years I followed their progress, which seemed to be a very slow uphill struggle. Sadly, in 2005 their proposal was turned down, but it did not stop them from trying again, this time with even more determination. Maybe because of the rapid changes in the culinary world that we are experiencing, -with all the rush to “global fusion” -it has become more apparent that an effort to save our heritage cuisines is urgent before we loose them forever. Mexico has already lost 70% of its indigenous edible plants since the conquest. Then, last November 14, the official announcement was made in Nairobi, Kenya: the proposal had been accepted. This is part of the description in the text from the UNESCO documents as they relate to Mexican cuisine: "Traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain: from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating”.
Of course a spectacular fiesta for the international conference attendees in Nairobi was in order. Crates of food were shipped for its preparation, they contained 5 kg dried shrimp, 2 kg chilmole paste, 6 kg achiote paste, 2 kg meat marinade, 12 kg canned chipotle, 1 pound dried epazote leaves, 2 kg avocado leaves, 20 kg mole poblano, 10 kg pipian verde and much, much more. Of course corn, in all its different stages was the glorious centerpiece of the presentation. Tamales, gorditas, quesadillas, tinga poblana, chochinita pibil, assorted moles and more were served at the festive celebration and emotions were running high. This was much more significant than winning an Olympic Gold Medal. Mexico and the Americas have given the world some of its most beloved foods (chocolate!) and in turn during its bicentennial celebration year Mexico received for its gifts this so much deserved global recognition. Muchas flelicidades y que viva la cocina Mexicana!
I invite you to go on a discovery tour of this amazing cuisine. Start with going to YouTube; type in “foods of Michoacan” and you can watch the10-minute documentary presented to the UNESCO committee. “America’s First Cuisines” by Sophie Coe is fascinating read. My cooking classes are also always seasoned with many interesting and delicious food facts. For all UNESCO activities go to