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.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A sweet gift for Mother

This gift for mother that I am suggesting happens also to be one of the gifts from the New World: the sweet potato (ipomoea batatus,) or camote (from the nahuatl camotli ). No, I am not mistaking Mothers Day for Thanksgiving. Read on and you will soon be off to the market to get this wonder food. True, it is not exactly the most attractive looking item for a gift. Its outer skin can be downright ugly, but it hides a true treasure on the inside.
Christopher Columbus already had camotes on board on one of his return voyages to Spain. Its sweet taste made it easy to like this New World food without hesitation, and its long-term storage capacity made it fit for the sometimes up to 6 month long sea voyage. The sweet potato is easily cultivated in tropical and warm temperate regions, grows quickly and does not need much in the way of fertilizing. Therefore not before long, it spread from Central America to many other countries, mainly the Philippines, India, China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Hawaii, just to name a few. (China is now the world's largest producer of sweet potatoes). Upon arriving in North America in the 16th century, the orange-fleshed variety mistakenly was named a yam, a completely different plant, which is originally from Africa, and not often found in US or Mexican markets. The sweet potato also is only very remotely related to the potato. The white and orange varieties became very popular in the US, mostly in the South, because of favorable growing conditions. During the Civil War it became to be one of the main staples for the fighting soldiers. This delicious and nutritious food was always inexpensive and therefore became associated with poor people’s food. This might have been one reason for its loss in popularity. Only as part of the traditional Thanksgiving menu did the sweet potato have staying power. However, by loading this holiday dish with excess ingredients, such as butter and sugar, did all but drown its healthy properties. In 1904 per capita consumption was 22 pounds, in 2004 only 4 pounds. Consumption has slowly increased to nearly 5 pounds in 2007. Now that its many healthful properties are becoming better known, consumption could dramatically rise.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest named the sweet potato, referring to the orange-fleshed variety, the most nutritious vegetable. Sweet potatoes definitely have a reputation among health food advocates as being one of the most densely nutritious (but surprisingly low-calorie) foods on the market. Sweet potatoes are packed with massive amounts of vitamin A, a nutrient considered critical in maintaining proper eye health. One sweet potato contains nearly eight times an adult's daily need of this important vitamin. It also contains significantly higher amounts of calcium, iron, vitamin E and protein in one serving, than the daily recommended amount. One of the wonderful benefits of the sweet potato is that diabetics can enjoy it as a sweet treat too. The list is long, if I have wetted your appetite for wanting more information, I recommend searching the Internet.
No doubt, orange sweet potatoes do a body REALLY good.
Now what can you do with them? A lot.
Sweet potatoes are available in Mexico almost all year round, since they keep well in storage in between harvests. If you plan to store them, you must pick the ones free of blemishes or damaged skin. Keep them in a dark cool place (I keep mine under the sink in a basket), never in a plastic bag or in the refrigerator. There they actually develop an unpleasant taste. When baked, they freeze very well. For a fast addition to your meals, bake a bunch in their skins in an 400F oven for about an hour, or until they are soft to the touch and start to exude their juices. When completely cooled, wrap them individually in clear wrap and freeze them. My friend Diana Kennedy, the foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, has a recipe in her book “The Art of Mexican Cuisine” that calls for just baking them and then packing them down in a dish and letting them sit over night. The next day they are ready to be eaten as a treat, including the skin. This way you will have the full nutritional benefit because many of the nutrients are also located in the skin. BCC (Before Coca Cola) many Mexicans still remember their childhood breakfast comfort food, a lump of baked camote dropped into a glass of milk. What a sweet and healthy way to start the day.
On one of my first visits to Mexico I was startled by a sound similar to the one a little train made that I commuted on to school in my native Germany. It was the camote vendor and his movable cart! In typical Mexican fashion of re-purposing items, a converted steel drum functioned as an oven in which to bake camotes. The whistle was powered by releasing steam from the oven. How much color and health a camotero, as the vendor is called, would add to the streets of San Miguel if we would invite him back?
Recipes for sweet potatoes are tumbling out of my head; hashed browns, muffins, crepes, vichysoisse, and salads (see recipe). Ice cream? Oh yes, with fresh black berries!
Do you think mom (dad too) will like this? I think she will love how much you care about her well being in such a delicious way.
Happy Mothers Day, which is really every day. Mothers are the pillars of civilization.

Sweet Potato Salad with Caramelized Onions, Watercress and
Guajillo Chile Dressing
Enselada de Camote con Cebollas Caramelizadas y Chile Guajillo

What makes this salad so delicious is the wonderful dressing. However if you have your own favorite homemade dressing, it will work just as well. Remember, if you use a commercial dressing, all the healthy properties of this dish will be wiped out in one fell swoop because of all the harmful addatives they contain. (KW)
Serves 8

For the Guajillo Chile Dressing:
¾ cup vegetable oil, olive oil or a mixture of the two
2 medium (1/2 oz. total) dried guajillo chiles (you can also use New Mexico chiles)
2 garlic cloves peeled and cut into quarters
¼ cup sherry vinegar (balsamic adds sweetness, champagne or white wine vinegar adds lightness, but the richness of the sherry is my favorite)

1 large onion, cut into ½ inch cubes
3 medium (about 2 pounds) sweet potatoes (camote amarillo), peeled and
cut into ½ inch cubes
2 bunches watercress (or verdolaga or your favorite greens)

Pour oil into a very large (12 inches) skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the chiles and garlic. Turn and stir until the chiles are toasty smelling, about 30 seconds (if the oil isn’t too hot). Remove from the heat.
Transfer the chiles to a blender jar (leave the oil and the garlic in the pan). Add the vinegar and a scant teaspoon salt and blend 30 seconds. When the oil and garlic are cool (5-10 minutes), add to the blender, set the skillet aside without washing. Blend the dressing until smooth. Pour into a jar with a secure lid.
Return the skillet (it will have a light coating of oil) to medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring regularly until soft and richly browned, 9-10 minutes. Add the sweet potatoes, ½ cup of the re-shaken dressing and 1 tsp salt. Stir well. Cover and cook until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover, remove from heat and let cool-most of the dressing will be absorbed into the potatoes. Taste and season with additional salt if necessary.
Break the large stems of the watercress (you should have 8 loosely packed cups). Divide among eight plates, forming it into “nests”. Scoop a portion of the sweet potato mixture into each nest. Drizzle a little dressing over the watercress. Serve right away.

Recipe by Rick Bayless from “Mexican Everyday”
Article published in La Atención, San Miguel de Allende, May 6, 2011