Friday, March 18, 2011

Kirsten's Cooking Classes in San Miguel de Allende

What I most of all like to show in my classes, no matter which cuisine, is that making tasty meals with fresh ingredients is so easy and healthy.
When teaching students from other nationalities here in Mexico, I like to give them a deeper understanding of Mexican cuisine and culture.
Please go to “UNESCO in the Mexican Cuisine post.” You will be surprised.
Mexican Food:
Options for classes range from making crisp and delicious salsas and rich tasting seasonings, traditional holiday meals to complex moles. Seasonal ingredients are always a helpful guide for choosing the menus for my classes.
Italian, French, German and Scandinavian cuisines and more. My father had an exceptional love and interest in food, which I gladly became part of. His native Bavarian dishes were his first love
and later he collected recipes on his travels to France, the Mediterranean and Morocco. I became his sous chef early in life when he was cooking at home.
When living in Denmark, my mother’s home country, I gained a deep appreciating for its cuisine.
I read Babette’s Feast by Karen Blixen when I was 10 years old and I think it paved the way for my pursuit of culinary explorations for the rest of my life.

Single Subjects:

Pasta making, baking (bread, cakes, cookies), preserving and freezing.
As we are looking to a future concerned with saving energy, there are many ways to preserve foods without it. We can learn by looking back.
Inner Beauty:
As we are finding out more about how beneficial healthy eating is, learning how to prepare delicious healthy meals is in big demand. Healthy eating can be practiced in any cuisine of the world.
Outer Beauty:
There are many wonderful remedies in your kitchen that also can be used as beauty products. As an example, I always tell the story of Estee Lauder, who concocted her first beauty products in her kitchen.

Day trips to food producers, such as cheese makers
a mole factory, honey co-ops or wine makers will give an up close insight into locally produced organic and artisinal products.

All cooking classes are 55. USD or Mexican Pesos at current exchange rate. Payable in cash. Sorry, US restrictions no longer allows deposit of US checks in Mexico.
Classes are 2 to 2 ½ hours long, followed by a meal or tasting with non-alcoholic beverages. Recipe booklets are included.
Excursions vary depending on location, but generally are more or less the same as classes.
Class Format:
Classes require a minimum of 4 students. They are mostly demonstration style with some hands-on experience.
Classes can be taught in English, broken; but understandable Spanish, German and Danish.
Class Schedule:
Until further notice, classes and locations are by appointment.
I am also able to travel to other locations, I am comfortable with TV apperances or addressing a large audience.
Please contact Kirsten West Classes require 4 days advance notice; excursions depend on availability of location
Buen Provecho! Bon Appetit!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Of an Other Green-White-Red Revolution

The Mexican flag with its green, white and red colors as we see it today was designed in 1821 by Augustin de Iturbide, then emperor of the new nation of Mexico. It replaced the red cross of Burgundy flying over what was, until then, New Spain. The empire and Augustin were short-lived, but his flag to this day flutters proudly everywhere in Mexico. However, long before 1821 another Mexican green, white and red “revolution” took place in the rest of the world, in the culinary world to be exact.
Green is for chile. It is, by now, widely known that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed off into the unknown in search of a more direct seaway to India to obtain black pepper, which, at the time, fetched a price weighed in gold. For him to have returned with a boatload of pepper would have made him and his investors very rich. To his disappointment, all he found were chile. When he returned to Spain, to assure funding for his next voyage, he claimed to have almost reached India– he named the native inhabitants where he had landed Indians and the chilli (the Nahuatl spelling) became known as the chilli pepper. On his next voyage to what we now know was the Caribbean, the native population quickly realized he did not come with good intentions and they tried to drive out the invaders by throwing “chile bombs” over their fortress walls. These were squashes filled with smoldering dried chile and their biting smoke made it almost impossible to breathe. It was a very effective weapon, but not enough to keep out the invaders with their guns and horses. When brought to Spain, the chile seeds first took root in aristocrats’ gardens where they were treasured as a novel ornamental plant. In monasteries, they were cultivated for medicinal purposes. Soon, farmers started to grow the plants for culinary uses; they had discovered that chile spiced up their rather bland foods just as good as the black Asian pepper, which had been too expensive for them to buy. It became known as the “poor man’s pepper”. From there on, the chile went on a non-stop voyage around the globe. It spread quickly over Europe, especially in Italy, Hungary and the Balkans. Some of those countries started to breed milder varieties of chile to be eaten as a vegetable. The result we now enjoy as bell peppers. The Portuguese spice traders introduced chiles to the Ottoman Empire and India. Today, it is hard to imagine chile being absent from the cuisines of India, Thailand, China, Hungary and Spain and many others.
White is for potato On the outside, the potato is not white but it is because of its delicious white inside that it is treasured. For more than 7000 years potatoes had been a cultivated and very important food of the people in what is now Peru and Chile. Mexicans also had been eating a wild growing variety of potato. The Spanish conquers in Peru did not pay much attention to the potato when they arrived, until they noticed that the native miners were eating chuñu, a dried form of potatoes which can be stored up to 10 years and still be fit for consumption. To keep ships’ rations from spoiling on the sometimes 6-month-long voyage between the continents had always been a grave issue. Therefore, the Spanish began using chuñu on their ocean crossings. In this manner, the potato reached Spain. As with other imported plants, the potato spread over Europe first as an ornamental plant. This seems to have been a safe way to get acquainted with foods unknown. French queen Marie Antoinette adorned her hair with its purple flowers. The tubers were not considered fit for human consumption and were used only as animal food. Crop failures and wars caused frequent famines in most European countries and therefore, the poor people were encouraged by their rulers to eat potatoes. But they did not trust the ugly brown root. Eventually, they were forced. Emperess Catherine the Great of Russia ordered her subjects to eat them. In Germany, the Kaiser restored to an old trick: he planted a potato field at which he posted guards to prevent theft. This made the potatoes seem special and soon, the people began stealing the potatoes with the guards conveniently looking the other way–exactly what the Kaiser wanted! The introduction of the potato to North America was through a British governor in the Bahamas, who sent a gift box of them to a friend in the northern colonies. But once again they were met with suspicion and it took the endorsement of president Thomas Jefferson, who served them to guests at the White House, to slowly bring the potato onto the peoples’ tables. Historians are divided over how the potato reached Ireland. Some say via an English person from the colonies, others say after it had already reached England it was taken to Ireland. All agree that it was not Sir Walter Raleigh as the popular song claims. Once the potato became a popular food there was no stopping it from covering the globe. Ireland became identified with the root; in Idaho, it is the official state vegetable. Then we have French fries, gnocchi, potato pancakes aka Kartoffelpuffer, Roesti, Latkas, Boxty, Daruni, Aloo-ki Tikki, Gamjajeon– the list is long. It’s hard to imagine potatoes missing from the foods of the world.
Red is for tomato. Of all the foods from the New World, the tomato was among those considered most suspicious. Its lush, shining, intense red color spelled danger and when introduced to the Old World, it was met with the greatest resistance and suspicion. One reason could be that the smell of the tomato plant, which is nothing like what the tomato itself tastes like, is not an inviting smell to some. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the first person to be an objective observer in the New World, described how women in the markets of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) were blending tomatoes, chile and pumpkin seeds into what seems most likely to have been a salsa. Had the world paid attention then, we would not have had to wait 450 years for salsas to beat ketchup as the most popular condiment in the US.
Surprisingly though, Italy resisted the tomato as a food for the longest time, and today no other country is more emblematically associated with the tomato than Italy! When it arrived in Italy from Spain, the tomato was thought of as either poison or an aphrodisiac. It was also referred to as a “poor and defective food”. In Sicily, an island that suffered from chronic famines and welcomed anything edible, tomatoes were eventually added to their pasta water. Today, tomatoes are called pommodoro in Italian, meaning golden apple, because some of the imported varieties from the New World were yellow. Most other countries use its original name of tomato, while the French misheard the term as pommo d'amore, or love apple. Until the arrival of tomato sauce in Italy, spaghetti was coated only with a bit of cheese and picked up with fingers. The customary way to eat spaghetti was then to hold them up high over one’s face and suck them in. (Little kids learning to eat still prefer this method). This all changed with the addition of tomato sauce, it became messy to eat this way. Because of that, Italians began to use the fork, which up until then had only been used as a serving utensil but not as part of an individual table setting as we know it today. Just as with the chile and potato, can you imagine tomatoes missing from the foods of the world?

Could the color of the eagle in the Mexican flag symbolize the brown of chocolate? Leave room for dessert.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Color of Red

RED - the Color of Desire and why Mexico has a lot to do with this.
On Valentines Day the world is coming up roses, red roses. Other than giving our Valentine red roses and red hearts, chocolate boxes with red ribbons enjoy a brisk business and restaurants offer romantic dinners with seductive red berries for desserts. Red on this day is all about love. Yet, this is only one aspect of red, the one color that in my opinion has a seriously split personality. Throughout the ages in all cultures of the world red has represented power, status, wealth, fame, courage, the divine, good luck, prosperity, but also danger, sin and the forbidden. The cardinal vested in his scarlet garment and the red devil greeting you in hell; it’s enough to make you see red.
Blood and its intense red might be one of the reasons for mans fascination with the color. To be able to create the same shade of red for textile dyes and artists paint has been a millennium quest for man. This brilliant color that is abundant in nature on flowers, animals, the plumage of birds, fire and sun sets, eluded them. Roots, minerals and insects have produced shades of muted red or ochre in the past, they were very labor intensive to obtain and many pounds of these pain strikingly harvested products were needed to dye a small amount of fabric. These often proved to fade over a short period of time. Only the very rich and powerful and successful artists could afford these expensive pigments for their clothing and paintings.
This all changed when the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortez entered the market of Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City). Not only was he and his men dazzled by the never before seen display of foods, but what captured his attention more than anything else were the white cotton gowns the natives wore, interwoven with the most vivid colors they had ever seen. Among them was the brilliant red the old world had unsuccessfully tried to produce. When asked to see the dye, Cortez was presented with a sack of silvery grey granules, the seize of what today we might compare to cracked wheat.
They named the dye “grano cochinilla” or cochineal (dactylopius coccus, a scale insect). The Aztec rulers held the dye in very high esteem and demanded a yearly tribute of 40 sacks of granules and 2000 red cotton blankets.
Mexicans are known for putting what is considered a plight to good use. A very good example is huitlacoche, the corn fungus, considered a delicacy in Mexico. Non-Mexicans have labeled it as corn smut when it appeared on their ears of corn and tossed out in disgust. However, today it is marketed as the truffle of Mexico and served in fine dining establishments throughout the world.
The cochineal female bug sets up house on the nopal, a cactus (opuntia ficus-indica),they then cover themselves with a waxy white coat for protection against the elements and from deadly predators, mostly ants. Its body produces a liquid, carminic acid, which is a brilliant red color. Rather than considering it a pest, chewing away on one of their most important foods, Mexicans scraped the bugs of the nopal, dried them in the sun and used the “grano” to dye their textiles red. This is the amazing red dye the entire world had been searching for.
If the Spanish did not find the riches they had hoped for in their explorations, the red dye became for the next 200 years one of their most lucrative exports from the New World. Upon its first appearance in Europe and Asia the dyestuff caused a major sensation. Nations of the world wanted to find out what grass produced this wonder grain and some of the most ridiculous pursuits followed. Only after the invention of the microscope was the secret bug inside the “grain” revealed in 1694. Spain needed to fiercely protect its cochineal monopoly; the red dye was in big demand. Their ships with the precious cargo were prone to piracy and daredevil spies risked their lives trying to smuggle nopal hosting cochineal bugs out of Mexico. However these attempts all ended disastrously. The bugs did not enjoy the long sea voyage in damp quarters and if they survived, they did not like the new host nopal, the cactus already exported from Mexico to many other countries at an earlier time. Deadly predators who did not mind the carminic acid in their bodies also spelled the end of the efforts of transplanting the desired bug to new places. These failures enabled the Spanish to successfully control the cochineal trade for almost 200 years and the fortune they gained was equal to the export of silver extracted from the abundant mines in Mexico.
The rich of the world swaddled themselves in brilliantly red clothes, wove carpets, covered furniture and walls in their castles and patrician homes. Artists such as Rembrandt were able to paint portraits of their benefactors in their red finery.
What finally brought the Spanish monopoly to an end was the chaos of the Mexican 1810 revolution. The cochineal production had previously moved into Guatemalan territory, which at that time was part of Mexico, but became independent after the revolution. Spain’s empire was crumbling and they lost control of Mexico. After having been established in Guatemala, the cochineal production rapidly spread into South America, Spain, North Africa and the Canary Islands. Sadly the success for these countries was short lived. With the discovery of the aniline-based synthetic dyes, the cochineal trade practically collapsed over night. Very little demand remained to supply the artisanal dye industry and artists paints.
When in 1970 it was discovered that the synthetic red dye #2 used in many food products was carcinogenic, new demand for the natural and safe cochineal emerged. Today beverages, jam, jelly, ice cream, sausages, pies, cakes, cookies, dried fish, yogurt, cider, maraschino cherries, tomato products, chewing gum, pills and cough drops are some of the food items brightened with it. Cosmetic rouge and lipsticks has cochineal as its main color ingredient.
Happy Red Valentines Day.

If you would like to find out more about cochineal: in Oaxaca Rancho La Nopalera –Tlapanochestli in Coyotepec is a showplace for demonstrating how cochineal is produced.
For the complete intriguing history of cochineal you might want to read “A Perfect Red” by Amy Butler Greenfield (Harper Collins).
Negroni, my favorite red drink is made with Campari, which is as brilliantly red as cochineal gets.
1 oz gin
1 oz Campari

1/2 oz Sweet Vermouth (if too tart, add one ounce of this)
Fill cocktail shaker with ice.

Add gin, Campari and sweet vermouth in cocktail shaker.
 Shake vigorously (until your hands can’t stand the cold any more) and strain into a cocktail glass.

Garnish with lemon twist or orange twist.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Do you know this vegetable?

The challenge of a quiz always seems to be popular. In order to make food more interesting to my students, I came up with these quizes (is that the plural?). Some were eventually published in our local paper La Atención. Here is one, let me know what you guess.

During hot summer days we seem to be craving salads and vegetables more than any time of the year. This vegetable in question falls into this preferred group. Ever since it was first cultivated, it had its travel bag ready to go. It now spans the globe and there is hardly a county where it is not cultivated, short of areas where it’s too cold for any vegetable to grow.

It is among the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables and archaeologists have found evidence of it growing around human dwellings near the Thailand-Burma border dating to 7750 BC. —and that places it pretty close to the dawning millennia of agriculture, so at present, it looks like we’ve been intentionally growing it for nearly 10,000 years. Its non-stop voyage continued to India, the Middle East and when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the Old Testament relates that, among the things they lamented leaving behind was the it vegetable.
It does like a lot of sunshine and even the Romans had to work at growing it. The Emperor Tiberius planted the plant in carts and had his slaves wheel the carts around to keep the plants in the sun. The Sun King of France cultivated it in his Potager du Roi, (the King’s vegetable garden) under glass to make sure it was served at his table every day when it was in season.
Most of southern Europe came to love this vegetable, including Spain. When Columbus set sail for one of his voyages to the New World, he had seeds on board that were planted in what is now Haiti. Here is where the history of this vegetable takes an interesting turn. When the first Spanish explores then traveled to North America with some of the seeds, it was readily accepted by the native American Indians too. By the time the north European settlers arrived they thought the vegetable was indigenous to the Americas. At the time of their arrival it had not reached all of the European countries yet.
The many uses today range from it being eaten raw, cooked, preserved and a favorite diet food as its calorie content is only 13 per cup. It also can be helpful in reducing skin swellings and sunburns. I have found no aphrodisiac attribute attached to this vegetable, as with many former quiz foods, but there is a famous restaurant in Chicago that makes a very delicious --margarita with it.

A Culinary Phoenix

In 1968, Josefina Velazquez de Leon was the preeminent culinary personality in Mexico. However very few people 42 years later know who she is. She has been likened to having been the Mexican Julia Child but her accomplishments were by far more groundbreaking than Child’s. I believe the most accurate comparison is with Martha Stewart. Both women started their careers as cooks and moved on to become amazingly innovative and successful entrepreneurs.
Born in 1899 on hacienda “El Pabellón” near Aguascalientes, Josefina was the oldest of four daughters born to Juan Luis Velázquez de León and Maria Peón Valdez.
The family enjoyed a very privileged life on the hacienda, as well as a comfortable home in Mexico City where they moved to in 1905. She received an education emphasizing penmanship, respect for the Catholic Church, and French cooking- common practice with the Mexican elite at the beginning of the twentieth century.
When Josefina was born, Mexico was ruled by Porfirio Díaz, the man who would rule the country for 34 years with an iron fist. His corrupt and dictatorial practices in part provoked the beginning of an insurrection which would become the Mexican Revolution. For 10 long years, Josefina witnessed the destruction of the revolutionary battles, endured the “year of the hunger,” in 1915 and lost of the family hacienda as a result of agrarian reform. Her father died in 1921 of a heart attack, likely brought on by the loss of his fortune.
Close to her thirtieth birthday, Josefina married Joaquín González, a businessman twenty years her senior. When her husband passed away after a mere 11 months of marriage, she needed to find a way to create an income.
Post-revolutionary Mexico was not an easy time for women. The new Constitution of 1917 gave women equality before the law with the same rights and duties as men in regard to managing their own businesses. Yet married women still needed their husband’s or father’s permission to work, and were still responsible for domestic chores and care of their children.
As a childless widow, however, Josefina was able to independently pursue her own business goals and deal with authorities without the permission of husband or father.
Of all of the exquisite schooling received, cooking now served her best. In 1933, she converted the lower floor of her home on calle Abraham Gonzales into a cooking school “Academia de Cocina Velázquez de León” (Velázquez de León Cooking School). To do so, she turned to a new business concept for it’s time, she asked for sponsorship from General Electric.
Running a cooking school, however, was an uncertain endeavor for Josefina, given that women had almost no presence in the Mexican workforce of the 1930s. The only cooking school of that time, catering to the upper middle class, was managed by a Spaniard in Mexico City. Furthermore, she didn’t have any formal training in cooking, nor had she received an academic education. Yet despite all of these challenges, Josefina had confidence in her skills and forged ahead. By word from enthusiastic students, she quickly developed a large and loyal following among society ladies. Not only did they learn how to cook and run a proper household in an efficient manner, it was one of the few activities they could enjoy away from their homes without being chaperoned.
Throughout her career, Josefina developed a keen business sense. She understood how to find financial support by advertising various food products and kitchen equipment. She wrote articles for ladies magazines and ventured into her own radio and TV shows. She initiated nutritional programs in cooperation with the government and supported many charities.
In 1946 she started her own press. The first cookbook, she published, Manual Práctico de Cocina y Repostería (A Practical Manual of Cooking and Baking), became a big success. During her lifetime Josefina wrote about 150 cookbooks, including a bilingual volume aimed at North American cooks titled
Mexican Cookbook devoted to American Homes
She had enormous energy, a life full of long days and few holidays. She taught in the mornings and evenings, tested new recipes in the afternoon and wrote cookbooks until late at night.
When a new sense of national pride swept the country after the revolution, Josefina began to teach less French and more Mexican recipes. It was not an easy hurdle to overcome since tortillas, tamales and many other treasured dishes were considered peasant food and definitely not to be served in upper class homes. Yet she was relentless in her determination, traveling widely in her own car to all regions of the country, documenting recipes.
I asked my friend and the foremost authority today on Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy, if she had a chance during her stay in Mexico in the 1960’s to meet Josefina. Although she had not, through Josefina’s cookbooks, then widely sold, she became aware of the distinct regional culinary differences, inspiring her for her own 50-year long odyssey in Mexico, resulting in the publication of eight cookbooks. As a foreigner Diana did not look at Mexican food as peasant food and celebrated it’s flavors as “peasant food raised to an art”. For her efforts, she was decorated with the highest honor that Mexico bestows on foreigners, the order of the Aztec Eagle. Regretfully Josefina got none of such highly deserved recognition.
During a fundraising appearance in Veracruz, she became ill and died shortly after at the age of 68 on September 4. 1968, four weeks before the devastating student uprising in Tlatelolco, the former site of the spectacular Aztec market in the city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).
Josefina’s sisters to tried to continue in her spirited efforts but did not succeed. The cooking school was closed down and the equipment placed out in the street for whoever wanted to take it.

Puplished in La Atención, San Miguel de Allende, Friday, April 30, 2010

When I was working with Rick Bayless, testing recipes for his cookbooks, I first discovered Josefina in his amazing collection of Mexican cookbooks. It was interesting to see how she started publishing mostly French recipes at the beginning of her career. However, as national pride in Mexico grew after the revolution, her recipes became more and more Mexican.
Last year, when Mexico celebrated its bicenntenial year of their revolutions, I was asked to create a historical menu for a gala dinner for the Young Presidents Organisation, to be held here in San Miguel de Allende, the cradle of the revolution for independance. I suggested to honor Josefina, the Phoenix that rose out of the ashes of the revolution.

On one of my snooping trips in the wonderful San Miguel antique stores I had the good fortune of finding 10 of Josefinas small booklets featuring monthly menu suggestions. They were hidden under a stack of magazines form the 40ties that I had amelessly shuffled through. I was just about to put them back when my heart jumped as I spotted a familiar cover. I could hardly contain my excitement as I went to pay for them. They were 10. dollars the bunch, less that half of one book on the market, if one can find them.

Here is the menu that was served for 150 guests.

Sopa cemoso de calabaza de Castillo con chile ancho fritos
A creamy squash soup accented with the nutty flavor of the ground squash seeds, garnished with fried chile ancho strips and soft boiled quail egg

Main Course
Pollo en Mole Verde Exquisito
Of the many moles, this recipe is generally not very well known but very popular in the Bajio. The combination of fresh poblano chiles, tomatillos, romaine lettuce and parsley, accented with rich Moorish nuts and spices sets it distinctly apart from other moles

Papas Fritos con Tocino
Roasted potatoes with crisp bacon

Acelgas con Zanahorias a la Mexicana
This wonderful sautéed meddly of swiss chard, carrots and tomatoes are a perfect compliment to the dinner plate.

Tortillas de Nixtamal
House made tortillas from ground corn

Mousse de cacahuate y jarabe de tuna
Galletas de ajonjoli

This unusual peanut mousse is quintessential Mexican since the peanut and prickly pears is are indigenous. The delicate sesame cookie elevate the dessert from delicious to divine.

Buen Provecho