Mexico and Chocolate

We got home last week from two wonderful weeks in the Yucatan Peninsula and the Mountains of Chiapas. Here’s a link to some general pictures from the trip. The picture above in a fruit stand in the city of Tulum. I was struck by the way they hang the pineapples – really cool display technique! (Yes, I’m a produce nerd!) They must grow pineapples in that region – we saw so many beautiful perfectly ripe ones for sale. One of my favorite things about visiting Mexico is the fruit – to have mangoes, pineapples, papaya, bananas that are all local and in season in February truly is a wondrous thing!

These two pictures are from the large Mercado in Merida. All over the Yucatan I noticed this style of fruit stacking – a bunch of little piles balanced into pyramids….I like it! I’m not exactly sure what these are – plums maybe? As much as I know about produce, there were definitely a lot of things that even I couldn’t identify in some of the markets that I visited.

These two pictures were taken on the road between San Cristobal de las Casas (way up in the mountains in the State of Chiapas) and the ancient ruins of Palenque. I believe it’s coffee drying. It was everywhere, mostly just in people’s front-yards – no big coffee plantations here! From what I understand, coffee in Chiapas is “shade grown” in the jungle, of which there is plenty!

I’m not sure what this machine is for – it was one of the coffee shops in San Cristobal. Their coffee was organic, local, and really good. They had 20 or so different kinds of beans, each from a particular collective of farmers.

This is another restaurant in San Cristobal, where the waiter prepared a Caesar salad (dressing and all) right in front of us. I’ve had a Caesar salad this way before, strangely enough, in Mexico -in Mazatlan on the Pacific Coast.

He started with the ingredients above…….

Mixed the dressing together: Anchovies, Mustard, Olive Oil, Worcestershire Sauce, Egg Yolk, Balsamic Vinegar, and Soy Sauce…..

Then he coated each leaf of lettuce thoroughly with dressing……………

Added Croutons and Parmesan Cheese, and it’s done! Salad has never been so fun!

We also had some sushi in San Cristobal. I know…sushi in Mexico? it wasn’t really what we were used to, but it tasted good, and it was presented beautifully! I’ve realized that when you eat things like Mexican sushi, you have to be ready to get rid of any preconceived notions about what you’re eating, and approach it with an open mind!

This was one of the most interesting dishes I had. The bottom is like a savory cheese cake, topped with a ring of sauteed squash blossoms and a cuilacoche sauce. Cuilacoche is also known as “Corn Smut,” (that’s what I grew up calling it.) It’s a fungus that grows on corn. It can either be looked at as an unfortunate infestation of a corn field, or a culinary delicacy – take your pick! It’s actually pretty good, you just have to get past it’s intense black color.

I also had the chance to try some pretty amazing Chocolate in Chiapas. this is one of the bars I bought. I randomly walked into a tiny little “organic” store in San Cristobal. It was a nice mix of local organic products, and a few imports like Peace brand organic cereal, Eden organic oils, and Amy’s brand organic pasta sauce. I would definitely shop here if I lived in the city! The lady at the counter gave me a few samples of this chocolate. I believe she said her husband makes it? My Spanish could be better, but I’m pretty sure that’s what she said. It’s pretty amazing stuff. The best way I can describe it is compared to a regular chocolate bar, this tastes like Whole Wheat Bread compared to Wonder Bread – unprocessed. It was less sweet, less creamy, but, to me, more delicious, and more real tasting.

I picked up this chocolate at the same store. It’s for making Mexican Hot Chocolate. I got about 6 of these disks…mmmm…….you just break them up and dissolve them into hot water or milk.

Here’s the label. All of this chocolate I got is from Chiapas. The really cool thing about that is that this is where Chocolate was first used – by the Toltecs and later the Maya. In San Cristobal, I bought a book (The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie and Michael Coe) on the history of Chocolate and read it while we were traveling. Apparently people in what is now Venezuela and Colombia first domesticated the Cacao plant, but they only used it for the sweet pulp that surrounds the Cacao beans, not for the beans themselves. People on the Mexican Pacific coast of Chiapas first processed the beans it into what we know of as Chocolate, and from there it spread to the state of Tobasco on the Gulf of Mexico, where the Toltecs used it, and then to the Yucatan where the Maya used it, and finally up into the Valley of Mexico where it was widely drank by the Aztecs. All these ancient cultures drank it either hot or cold. Hard eating chocolate as we know it in bar or candy shapes is a relatively recent invention and requires a lot of processing……

As luck would have it, I got home to find that someone had dropped off a sample of some organic raw cacao beans at the Co-op. I’m not sure if we’ll carry them, but I hope we do – I’d buy them! This is how cacao was known in the ancient world. The native people in Central America used them not only to make a drink, but also as a form of currency. When the Spanish showed up, they couldn’t understand what all the fuss about these “almonds” was about, but they soon figured it out! They’re actually pretty tasty plain, if you can get past the bitterness. They’ve got quite a bit of fat, but also an amazing amount of Vitamin C, Iron (one 8oz serving has over 300% of the daily recommended allowance!) and other antioxidants. I think I’m going to attempt to make an ancient Mayan version of Hot Chocolate with these…..more to come on that later……

Spring and Seville Sour Oranges

It’s officially Spring! The past few days have been beautiful – it makes me feel a little guilty knowing that 8 inches of snow just fell back home in Wisconsin, and much of the lower Midwest is experiencing intense flooding…..I guess living in California has its advantages!

I know this blog is supposed to be about food, but I can’t resist posting some pictures I took in my garden today….

This is a wild ginger flower. It’s a beautiful native groudcover, and one of the few plants that grows well in the shady parts of my back-yard.

Can you find the baby ferns? This is a Japanese Painted Fern that is just barely poking up out of the ground. It reminds me of asparagus – a good reminder that asparagus is actually a fern-like plant.

The Star Magnolia about to bloom.

This Magnolia is one of my favorite things about this house. It’s just awesome! It’s blooming especially heavily this year.

This is the view from the underside of the same Magnolia.

More daffodils….

The little vegetable garden in front. The arugula in bloom is beautiful, but very soon it’ll be time to take it down soon and make room for potatoes.

Grape hyacinths and lamb’s ear.

And now back to the food!!

This was dinner last night. After I made it, I realized how perfect an Easter meal it is – Lamb with mashed Potatoes and steamed Asparagus. I dipped the lamb steaks in egg, and then a breading made of flour, salt, pepper, and fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme. I browned it in a cast iron skillet on the stove and then baked it. The potatoes are really simple – left over boiled potatoes mashed with the same herbs, salt, pepper, lots of garlic, and butter.

The most exciting meal I’ve made in a while was last weekend – Roasted Chicken and Root Vegetables. First, I rubbed a whole chicken with Seville Sour Orange juice (more on that later,) and then with a mixture of chopped fresh Oregano, Cumin, Salt and Pepper……

Here it is before going in the oven. I stuffed the inside with some more oregano spears, the spent orange wedges, and garlic. Not actually to eat – just to season the bird while it cooked.

And here it is out of the oven. Mmmmmm. I cooked it really hot for about 25 minutes to crisp the skin up, and then on lower heat for about 2 hours.

This is the Seville Orange. I really like this little-known citrus fruit. It’s an Orange, but it’s about as sour as a lemon or lime. We saw them used a lot in the Yucatan as a garnish for grilled meats. They’re really good, but most people can’t seem to get over their sourness. They’re simply not meant to be eaten like a normal orange, and to me, that’s OK…..They’re also used for making marmalade since it has more pectin than any other orange….I’d like to experiment more with them. The juice certainly gave the chicken a wonderful flavor! I made gravy from the drippings and added some of the orange juice to that as well. It gave it a great tang!

This was the side dish – Roasted Roots – one of my specialties. You can use any combination of Root Veggies – this is of Red Beets, Chioggia Beets, Potatoes, a Rutabaga, Celeriac, and Garlic cloves. I tossed it with olive oil and oregano, and cooked it for about an hour in the same oven with the chicken. Delicious!