Monday, December 19, 2011


Having promised an old family recipe for tamales previously in Never a Year without Tamales, I'm delivering on the promise now, just in time for Christmas.  As you will see in the ingredients section, ahem...yes, there is manteca (lard), I'm afraid. I do apologize for this, there's just no other way. Once a year is not going to hurt you, right? Be not and be merry and celebrate with these very special tamales.

Also, I feel I need to make a disclaimer about the work involved in making tamales. It will take you two days. And the first time they may not turn the way you want. You may have to "practice." On the positive side, it's a beautiful family tradition to cultivate. At this time, far flung relatives, young and old, will get together in one house and begin the tamalada, chatting, laughing, and sharing stories of the past and present, finally sitting down for a feast in the spirit of the season. (Photographs courtesy of Laura Lee)


Recipe Type: Entree, Main

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 16 hours

Cook time: 5 hours

Total time: 21 hours

Serves: 10

The recipe calls for a masa, (dough) purchased from Fiesta, a well known Houston chain of grocery stores selling Mexican products. This dough is fresh corn dough, nixtamal, but you can make your own corn masa following the instructions in a package of instant corn flour like Maseca, for example.


  • 10-12 dozen:

  • 6.0 lbs. Roast Pork if doing only pork tamales and/or portion of venison, if you are lucky enough to have some

  • 10 lbs. Masa (buy the freshly made from Fiesta. It comes in a 10 lb. Plastic bag)

  • You will just need to flavor it with salt, lard and pork stock)

  • 2 tubs Armour Lard (1 lb.ea.)

  • 12 chile anchos (shiny ones)

  • 2 bags corn husks (6oz.bags ea.) or 1 lb. bag

  • 1 box black raisins 15 oz.

  • 1 tsp. Cumin

  • 5 Garlic cloves

  • Salt




  1. On medium heat, begin cooking the pork in a deep pan of salted water and 2 garlic cloves (about 2 tsp. salt).

  2. Also cook the venison in a separate deep pan with 1 garlic clove and the salt.

  3. Cook about 2-1/2 –3 hours or until the meat flakes off easily with a knife.

  4. Save the stock from the pork. It will be used later.

  5. Discard the stock from the venison. S

  6. et the meat aside to cool off.


  1. Use gloves to remove the seeds from the chiles.

  2. Boil them in a pan of water.

  3. Cook until skin begins to come off.

  4. They will turn a pinkish color. (Do not rub your eyes!) You do not need to pull the skin off the chiles.

  5. Put chiles in the blender or food processor with 1-1/2 garlic cloves.

  6. Add stock from the pork pan.

  7. Blend into the sauce. The sauce should not be very thick or very watery, just somewhere in the middle. It will be added to the meat.

  8. Once the meat is done, chop up very very fine (use a cleaver) and cook together in approx. ¾-1 cup lard in a frying pan with the chile ancho sauce.

  9. Add one level tsp. of cumin.

  10. Add more stock and salt to taste.

  11. Add enough stock so it’s like a picadillo, a little bit watery.



  1. Put corn husks in warm water and let soak for a couple of hours, then rinse and separate.

  2. MASA (10 lbs)

  3. Put masa in large bowl and begin to knead with 1/8 cup salt, 1 cup lard and add pork stock little by little to make soft.

  4. Keep kneading and add a little meat to add color.

  5. Add more lard and salt to taste; you will build biceps doing this.


  1. Spread masa all the way to the edge of each corn husk thinly, as if you were spreading peanut butter.

  2. Add meat in a thin strip, not in center of tamal, but closer to the side that will be rolled first. Then dot with 3 or 4 raisins and roll up.

  3. Use a tamal pot purchased from Fiesta.

  4. This pot will have a steamer lid in it. Fill with water up to the line where the steamer lid goes.

  5. If you do not have a tamal pot, get a very large deep pan, measure ahead of time how many cups of water it will take to fill up one inch inside of pan.

  6. Then dump the water out of the pan. Line bottom of pan with a few left over corn husks. Start filling pan with tamales, standing up.

  7. This can be done easiest by leaning them against one another.

  8. Once you have a pot full of standing up tamales, add the number of cups of water you had counted before to the pan.

  9. Place damp cloth over tamales, cover, bring to boil and then reduce to medium heat. Tamales should be ready in about 1-1/2 hours. However if you have another layer of tamales standing on top of the first layer, it will take approx. 3 hours to cook.

  10. If you have masa left over and no more meat, fry a can of refried beans and make tamales with that.

  11. If you still have masa left over, you can make sweet tamales.

  12. Add sugar to the masa to taste, along with 2-3 crushed cinnamon sticks.

  13. Make a little ball with the dough, add some raisins, flatten the ball of dough a bit and fold a corn husk around it.


*Get the masa that is already prepared at Fiesta and buy it on the same day you are spreading it on the corn husks.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Camotes con Leche

Being a teacher at a boys' school where we sit at the table with our students for lunch, I have an unusual opportunity to observe the appetites of these hungry boys. There are those boys who are willing to eat the meals prepared by the school staff, which on most days are healthy, tasty, and presented appetizingly. Then there are the boys who perplex me with their fixation on eating the same cold sandwich of processed meat, rubbery cheese or a limp peanut butter and jelly, day after day. To me the question is whether this is nature or nurture. Does early exposure to different foods, their natural colors, textures, and smells make a difference for a child's developing appetite? Is it like a second language where if you get it early enough, you internalize it?

I am not a nutritionist, a pediatrician, nor a child psychologist, so I'm left to ponder this. I do know that as a child of my generation and region (the border to Mexico), I had no choice but to eat food in its most natural state. My mother didn't have the choice of reaching into a pantry filled with several varieties of Corn Flakes, Fruit Loops, or Lucky Charms; and actually, I'm thankful for that. In the winter, our breakfast might be atole de avena or maís. Another favorite was a poached egg in its shell with the top broken off (to be used as its own cup) with salt and pepper stirred into it with a toothpick. Not to be beaten for its basic simplicity was the baked sweet potato smashed into a bowl of cold milk my mother often served us. The texture of the sweet potato, or camote, as it is called in nahuatl, was smooth and creamy; the color was bright orange or straw colored and the taste of the cold milk against the steamy-hot sweet potato created an odd hot/cold sensation that added to the magic of this taste.

As it turns out, many nutritionists, including those at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) believe that the single most important dietary change for children would be to replace fatty foods with foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as...yes...the very plain and simple camotes we ate when we were little. According to the CSPI, sweet potatoes are considered at the top of the nutritional scale among vegetables. They are high in dietary fiber with naturally occurring sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

So, I submit that eating well doesn't need to be complicated, and teaching your child to be curious about food doesn't have to be impossible. And starting early is key. But, as a caveat, I would also venture to say that, for your three year old, the presence of colorful boxes and bags in your pantry might possibly be too much competition. Or maybe not.

Camotes con Leche

Recipe Type: Breakfast

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 5 mins

Cook time: 1 hour 30 mins

Total time: 1 hour 35 mins

Serves: 4


  • Sweet potatoes, whatever quantity you prefer

  • Milk, to add to the bottom of your bowl of hot, smashed sweet potatoes


  1. Bake the sweet potatoes at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or more, until they are completely soft and the peel begins to separate from the sweet potato

  2. Spoon some of the sweet potato into a bowl of milk and smash it so that it more or less blends with the milk.


I prefer to buy the thin purple skinned sweet potatoes in the belief they are sweeter and faster to bake since they're not huge.
Bake a large quantity and keep them in foil in your refrigerator for up to a week until you're ready to heat them quickly in the oven.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Carrot Soup

My mother was born near the beginning of the Great Depression in the dusty cattle town of Sonora, Texas, to parents who never quite assimilated. My Mexican grandparents had crossed the border into the United States to escape the violence of the Mexican revolution but, for a variety of reasons, they never returned to their mother country.

I've often wondered how the family handled Thanksgiving in those early years, whether they celebrated it at all when they first arrived in Sonora.  I'm sure the turkey thing bewildered them and pumpkin pie, too, since in Mexico pumpkin was something they put in their empanadas or made into calabaza en tacha, not into an open-faced pie. Who knows if my grandparents ever prepared a Thanksgiving meal such as we know it today, Norman Rockwell-style. Their main concern was finding a way to feed eleven hungry mouths in a place where Mexicans were regularly rounded up by the U.S. authorities and sent back to Mexico.

Years later, when we celebrated Thanksgiving in our home in Laredo, my mother would invite my aunt and her family who  lived at the time in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. My Mexican relatives joined us for what was a yearly American tradition in our family. It didn't surprise me as a child; I took it for granted. But it fascinates me now to know that my mother absorbed Thanksgiving and other American traditions so readily.

This year, I spent Thanksgiving in Houston with my sister and her family.  I immediately noticed that she'd unwrapped and placed on the table the whimsical ceramic Puritan figurines that once graced my mother's table.  I chuckled and remembered  past Thanksgivings, thinking of loved ones and how, even absent, they influence our lives.

My son would have loved the recipe here, an elegant carrot soup that my good friend, Doña Beatriz of Casa Carmen, makes  from chicken stock.  I made it after Thanksgiving with a stock made from leftover turkey bones.
Carrot Soup

Recipe Type: Soup

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 8


  • Turkey or chicken stock

  • 1 ¾ lbs of carrots unpeeled, chopped in 1 inch sections

  • 2 tablespoons thyme

  • Sea salt to taste


  1. Boil the chopped carrots in the clear stock until they are completely soft, about 10 minutes.

  2. Strain them out of the soup and place in a blender with a few ladles full of the soup.

  3. Blend until it is completely smooth, then return the blended carrots to the soup pot.

  4. Add thyme and boil for another 15-20 minutes until the soup acquires a velvety consistency.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanks for Thanksgiving

Photo courtesy of Joe Duran a.k.a. Uncle Joe
I’m sitting by the window on a rainy autumn day.  The leaves have fallen from the trees, save for a few stragglers, and I already miss the way the vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds look against dark branches and blue skies.

This is comfort-food weather and a homemade soup is gurgling on the stove while I listen to a talk radio show about the origins of Thanksgiving.  One of the guests is food historian Andrew F. Smith who dedicates a chapter of his book, Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine, to the real Thanksgiving story.  I hear him say that the Pilgrim-centric Thanksgiving story is a complete myth (no surprise) but I'm flummoxed when I realize how little I know about the holiday I've celebrated every year since I can remember.

It is true that in 1621 the Pilgrims and a group of local Indians shared a meal together, but it was unplanned.  The colonists had just harvested their crops and the then-governor declared it a holiday.  This happened concurrent with a treaty signing between the English colonists and local Native American tribe of which ninety members paid a surprise visit to the colony and shared in the festivities to consummate the treaty.  But this was not a regular occurrence and it was not referred to as Thanksgiving.  Rather, the Pilgrims celebrated many days of “thanksgiving,” a tradition with religious underpinnings that the Europeans brought with them to the New World and which entailed spending the day in solemn worship.

Over the course of the next two hundred years, the religious tradition of giving thanks to God after the fall harvest became more secularized.  In 1841, Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister, published a research paper about the colonists, adding commentary in a footnote that the 1621 event was the first of many Thanksgiving feasts.

Twenty-two years later, Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer who believed that if the nation celebrated a holiday together (at the time there were only two national holidays, George Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July), its people were destined to be united in all things.  She thusly published a novel in which she wrote a scene about a quintessentially festive dinner of roasted turkey, cranberries and pies, the model for the modern-day Thanksgiving meal.

Hale gained notoriety and became an influential writer and editor with a broad readership.  Over the years, she successfully lobbied Congress and other politicians to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.  In August of 1863,  at the height of the Civil War and just after the battles at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, victories for which the North was surely thankful, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday.

All of this makes me reflect on how traditions and cuisines evolve over time, shaped by socio-political trends and cultural milieux like beach glass smoothed by ocean waves.  I think about how this happens when immigrants arrive and assimilate in any new country.  According to Smith, the
[r]apid adoption of the Thanksgiving myth has less to do with historical fact and more to do with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  In the face of this great wave of immigrants from so many lands, the public education system’s major task was to Americanize them by creating a common understanding of the nation’s history, in particular an easily understood history of America.

America is a melting pot, as the saying goes, and I'm thankful for its diversity of people and ideas, important ingredients in an open and democratic society.  I'm also very grateful to be the product of two cultures and for all the perspective that this affords me.  And while Thanksgiving isn't the result of two different communities coming together in appreciation of their cultural differences as we were taught in grade school, I nonetheless appreciate the evolution of a holiday that brings people together to share a home-cooked meal.

So, this year, I say thanks for Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Alba's Carrot Salad

My husband's cousin, Alba Carbonaro, is an accomplished cook and personal chef. Her Carrot Salad of Maghreb is from the region of Northwest Africa, including Tunisia, where Alba was born and raised. But the fragrance and flavors are also undeniably familiar to the Mexican palate: garlic, pepper flakes, cumin, and cilantro. When I tasted it for the first time it felt like a tangy recombination of the spices I grew up with. This dish (slightly adapted here) will have everyone asking to "pass the carrots" at your Thanksgiving table.
Alba's Carrot Salad

Recipe Type: Side Dish

Author: Adapted from Alba Carbonaro's Recipe

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 10 mins

Total time: 30 mins

Serves: 8


  • 1 lb carrots (you don't have to peel them)

  • 3 tbsp olive oil

  • 2 tsp ground cumin or 3 tsp whole cumin which you grind in a mortar (or molcajete) for a fresh taste

  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole

  • 1/4 cup water (use the water from the boiled carrots)

  • 3 tbsp white wine vinegar

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves


  1. Cook the whole carrots(without the green part) in salted boiling water until they are tender, about 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness of the carrots. Drain well and cut them into ¼ inch rounds

  2. Add the olive oil to a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, cumin, and red pepper flakes and heat until aromatic, about 1 minute.

  3. Add the warm carrots, 1/4 cup water and vinegar. Simmer over medium heat until the liquid is absorbed, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Remove the garlic pieces and season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and add the fresh cilantro. Serve warm or at room temperature.


If you refrigerate it, be sure to bring it to room temperature before serving.

Roasted Beets with Orange Slices

Roasted Beets with Blood Orange Slices

Recipe Type: Side Dish

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 30 mins

Total time: 50 mins

Serves: 2 - 4


  • 1½ lbs beets

  • 4 blood oranges (or regular oranges)

  • ½ cup walnuts

  • ½ cup chopped cilantro

  • cup water for the bottom of baking pan

  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil to drizzle

  • Sea salt


  1. Preparation:

  2. Remove the greens and wash the beets thoroughly. Place them on a baking dish in which they all fit snugly.  Pour the water into the pan so that it covers about ¼ inch of the bottom of the pan. Drizzle the vegetables with the oil. Sprinkle with salt to taste and cover with aluminum foil. Cook at 350 degrees for approximately 45 to 60 minutes until you can pierce the beets with a fork all the way through.

  3. While the beets are cooking, remove the peel from the oranges with a sharp paring knife. Cut in slices, starting from the end of the orange. Put aside.

  4. Remove the beets from the oven and peel them. Quarter them and arrange them in a serving dish.  Add the orange slices, cilantro, and walnuts.  Taste again for salt, toss carefully, and drizzle with more oil if needed.

Floria's Pumpkin Empanadas

Recipe Type: Dessert

Prep time: 45 mins

Cook time: 8 mins

Total time: 53 minsHome

Serves: 8 to 10


  • Filling

  • 2 15oz cans of pure pumpkin

  • 2 cups of brown sugar or piloncillo

  • 1 cinnamon stick

  • 10 cloves or 1 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice

  • Dough

  • 4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt

  • 4 tablespoons of sugar

  • 1 tablespoon of cinnamon

  • 1 1/4 cups of vegetable shortening

  • 1 cup of tepid water

  1. Cook the pumpkin with brown sugar/piloncillo and spices at medium heat for 15 minutes.

  1. Let it thicken a bit.

  1. Remove the cinnamon sticks and cloves (optional). Set aside to cool.
  1. Preheat the oven at 375 degrees.

  1. Mix the flour, salt and spices together in a bowl.

  1. Place the flour mixture in a food processor and add the shortening.

  1. Once the shortening is dispersed throughout the flour (it should look a little like corn meal), slowly add the water. (Add more or less water, as needed.)

  1. The dough should be moist and mold easily.

  1. Mold into a large ball and wrap in plastic.

  1. Place in the refrigerator for at least a 1/2 hour.

  1. Remove the dough and dust the surface of a counter or other space with a little flour.

  1. Roll out a small ball of dough until it is relatively thin.

  1. Cut out circles that are three to four inches in diameter.

  1. Add a tablespoon or so of the pumpkin mixture and fold.

  1. Use the prongs of a fork to seal the edges.

  1. Bake on each side for 4 minutes.
Also, I was left with a surplus of pumpkin filling, so I made a second batch of dough in order to use all of the filling called for in Floria's recipe.




The empanadas are delicious as described above. I added an egg wash and dusted some sugar on them toward the end of the cooking time. This gave them a pretty color and added a little texture.

Roasted Potatoes in Chile de Arbol Oil

Roasted Potatoes in Chile de Arbol Oil

Recipe Type: Sauce

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour 20 mins

Serves: 4 to 6


  • 1/2 cup olive oil

  • 3-4 chiles (chile de arbol)

  • 1 tablespoon sea salt

  • 3 lbs potatoes

  • 10 sprigs fresh rosemary with stems removed


  1. Place chiles in small pot of boiling water.

  2. Allow to boil for 3 minutes.

  3. Turn off the water and cover; let rest.

  4. After 10 minutes, blend the chiles, adding the olive oil, salt, and rosemary.

  5. Peel the potatoes, cut them into wedges or cubes and place in a bowl with the chile mixture, making sure the potatoes are coated with the oil.

  6. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about an hour, moving them occasionally so they brown on all sides.

Adobo para Guajolote a.k.a.Turkey Rub

Adobo para Guajolote a.k.a. Adobo Turkey Rub

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 10 mins

Total time: 10 mins


  • Ingredients:

  • 10 sprigs rosemary with stems removed

  • 1 ½ tablespoons sea salt

  • 8 cloves garlic with skins removed

  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper

  • 1 cup olive oil

  • zest one lemon


  1. Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend.

  2. Rub all over the turkey before placing it in the oven to roast.

  3. Soak a cheese cloth in the adobo and place it on the breast of the turkey while it's cooking.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tomates Horneados

Tomates al Horno

Recipe Type: Side dish

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 10 mins

Cook time: 1 hour 30 mins

Total time: 1 hour 40 mins

Serves: 8

These tomatoes are simple to make and beautiful to look at and have an incredible taste.

  • 10 medium-sized firm tomatoes cut in half

  • Sea salt

  • Olive oil to drizzle

  • Dried oregano to sprinkle on tomatoes

  • Parsley or cilantro for garnish

  • Water to drizzle the bottom of pan


  1. Arrange the tomato halves on a baking pan or a cookie sheet that is not completely shallow

  2. Sprinkle the sea salt and the oregano

  3. Drizzle with olive oil evenly over all the tomatoes, as well as over the entire pan.

  4. Add a little water to mix in at the bottom of the pan to provide a little moisture.

  5. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about an hour, then turn off the oven and leave the tomatoes there to cool off slowly for about half an hour.

  6. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley or cilantro.


These tomatoes can be made ahead of time and served at room temperature. Also, when they are placed on the baking trays, you can add red pepper flakes to add another dimension of flavor.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Membrillo on My Mind

When I was little, membrillo was one of the many gifts our Mexican relatives brought when they visited. I took it for granted. So many years later and so many miles away, I remember this delectable dessert and the loving hands that brought it to my family in Laredo. I remember in particular, Tía Lupita, an elderly, widowed aunt on my father's side who traveled  hundreds of miles by bus at least once every three months all the way from her home in Puebla to visit us. I remember her deeply-lined, smiling face, her wrinkled hands, her warm embraces...and the bags bearing boxes of sweet potato candies wrapped in wax paper, bricks of membrillo, obleas, cinnamon sticks, piloncillo, and beautiful gold religious medallas for all of us.

I was intrigued by the fruit itself from which membrillo is made. Quince or cydonia oblonga was held in high regard by the ancients. For the Greeks quince was a ritual offering to a bride, quince was Paris' gift to Aphrodite, and ancient Roman cookbooks are filled with recipes using quince.

Nowadays, anything can be found at a specialty foods store, even membrillo, but nothing beats the taste of your own. If life hands you a quince tree and you don't know what to do with the stone-hard fruit, make membrillo! But making it is not for the faint-hearted. You'll need some time to spare. Transforming the boiled cream-colored meat of the quince into a fragrant sliced, amber paste shaped into a little brick and arranged with slices of manchego will make your day.
Chopped quince 

Quince paste


Recipe Type: appetiser, dessert

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 15 mins

Cook time: 1 hour 40 mins

Total time: 1 hour 55 mins

Serves: 15


  • 4 quince (about 3 lbs)

  • sugar (about 3 cups, roughly the equivalent of the boiled quince)

  • stick cinnamon

  • 1 lemon cut in half

  • 1 bean vanilla


  1. Peel the quince and cut in half to boil it with the cinnamon, the vanilla, and ½ of the lemon.

  2. After about an hour, when it is soft, drain the water, discard the lemon, the vanilla, and the cinnamon and cut out the cores of the quince.

  3. Cut into smaller pieces and either smash it with a bean smasher or, to be more efficient, throw it in a blender or food processor.

  4. Measure it and put it in a large pot with an equal amount (or a little less, if you prefer) of sugar. Into this mixture add the zest of the leftover, uncooked lemon half.

  5. Cook it for about 40 minutes, at a medium heat, stirring constantly until it turns a pinkish, amber color.

  6. After it has thickened into an almost solid mass, pour it into a container and let it dry on its own. After a few hours it will have set into a shape that is easy to slice.

  7. Slice it thin and serve it with equally thin slices of manchego cheese.


Ripe quince is yellow.
Serve as an appetizer or as an after-dinner dessert with a nice Prosecco.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Crazy for Figs

My husband thinks my behavior in the vicinity of figs is a little outrageous. Let's face it, I'm crazy for figs, I can be a little obsessive. In fact, driving through Italy where fig trees seem to grow wild everywhere, I have been known to screech, “Fiiig treeee!!!” My husband, accustomed to this zaniness and wanting this to be over quickly, will pull over while I clamber through snake-infested weeds so I can pluck the delicious prize: ripe and luscious figs. I grab as many as my sticky hands can hold and cram a few in my mouth, darting back to the car, my husband's annoyance mitigated only by the sheer delight of sharing this "manjar de los dioses."

My earliest memories of eating ficus carica was in the hot, dusty Northern Mexican town of Villaldama, Nuevo León, the ancestral home where my father would take my sister and me on a train ride from Laredo to visit our grandmother, Mamá Manuelita. The interior courtyard of my grandmother's modest colonial house was overgrown with fig trees which surrounded an old well in the center. Our cousins would join my sister and me in the shade of the courtyard where we would sit eating the mushy black fruit with the glistening, ruby-red center.

Is it any wonder that here in Maryland I've been successful in growing these trees? They consistently yield a bumper crop each year, providing me with the challenge of figuring out a million ways to use them after I tire from eating them off the tree or pushing them onto friends and neighbors. So, after making jams, tarts, and sorbeto de higo all summer, I've been enjoying them now in November, taking them out of the freezer, already peeled and ready to roast in the oven.  This simple recipe with honey and citrus peel syrup, is one that has probably been around since the time of Adam and Eve.

So, in the spirit of the great Aesop's Fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, all you grasshoppers out there, take heed from the ant and freeze some figs next year so that in the middle of the fall (or winter) you can pull them out and make this really special dessert for your Thanksgiving or Christmas table.

Honey Roasted Figs

Recipe Type: Dessert

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 30 mins

Cook time: 45 mins

Total time: 1 hour 15 mins

Serves: 8

Figs, the first food to be cultivated by humans, even before wheat, are very rich in calcium and other nutrients.


  • 1 ½ lbs fresh or frozen figs, peeled

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • zest of one lime, one lemon, one tangerine and one orange

  • 2 tablespoons honey


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

  2. Place the figs on a baking dish that may be used to serve them.

  3. Sprinkle the sugar and drizzle the honey.

  4. Bake until the sugar caramelizes, 40-50 minutes.

  5. Serve at room temperature.


Reconstituted dried figs may be used but the baking times will differ.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Remembrance: Pan de Muertos

When I was younger, I dreamed of my hometown, Laredo, Texas, almost on a weekly basis. I roamed its streets, looking for my house, feeling anxious because I could no longer find it. I took buses that dropped me off at streets I no longer recognized. I knocked at houses where no one knew my family. I walked up and down Kearney Street, looking for the mesquite tree that grew in front of our house, not recognizing anything. To add to my anxiety in this recurring dream, I knew my loved ones were waiting for me to arrive from this long trip home. Funny how dreams are a tapestry of our aspirations, our worries, and our sorrows.

Last night after many years, I dreamed again of going back to Laredo. It was a collage of symbols, of the surreal, of longing, and of loss. In the dream I found my son under the mesquite tree in front of my house, waiting for me. My mother's white dishtowel flapped from one of the branches.  My son was dressed in camouflage as he extended his hand to me to tell me, as he always did, that everything was alright. He led me inside the house where his grandmother and the rest of the family was waiting, gathered around a table bedecked with foods that we all knew he liked.

It comforts me to believe that our dearly departed and beloved come back to be among us on November 1, Día de los Angelitos, and November 2, Día de los Muertos. But the truth is, I always feel close to my son. From my second story window, on this beautiful fall day, I look down at the brightly colored leaves scattered below and can almost see him, looking up at me, proudly stepping out of his new car as he did a few years before he deployed to Iraq.

It was comforting to prepare this simple egg bread, Pan de Muertos. I've woven together recipes belonging to different relatives in Mexico with my own knowledge of bread baking. The result is a very easy brioche-type bread that is not difficult to make and it doesn't stray much from the traditional bread of Mexico. It is an orange blossom and anise-scented, barely sweet, airy bread. Sweetness, love, remembrance, lament...all are part of this ritual. It's hard to believe I'm here, blending, kneading, baking this bread in this quiet house, thinking of my son and all those who did not return from a war that finally ended, much too late.

A whispered Why? floats in the air, unanswered, and the yeast continues to do its work.

Pan de Muertos

Recipe Type: bread, desert

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 3 hours

Cook time: 45 mins

Total time: 3 hours 45 mins

Serves: 8

Dear readers, The error in this recipe has been corrected.


  • 1/2 cup warm water

  • 1/4 cup butter, room temperature

  • 3 cups unbleached flour

  • 1 packet yeast

  • pinch of salt

  • 2 teaspoons anise seed

  • 1 tablespoon orange zest

  • 3/8 cups sugar

  • 2 jumbo eggs or 3 small eggs, room temperature

  • 2 tablespoons orange blossom water

  • granulated sugar for sprinkling

  • For the glaze: 1 oz cone of piloncillo and 3/4 cup water and juice of one orange


  1. In a large bowl mix the sugar, flour, anise, salt and ½ cup of the flour and then mix in the butter.

  2. The eggs, the water, and orange blossom water should be combined in a separate bowl, mixed well, and added to the first mixture.

  3. Add another ½ cup of flour.

  4. Add the yeast and another bit of flour until you have gradually added the rest of the flour and a dough is formed.

  5. Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 3 minutes.

  6. Place the ball of dough into a bowl large enough to allow the dough to rise and cover with a slightly damp dishcloth.

  7. Cover the bowl with a lid so that the heat and moisture will allow the dough to rise.

  8. Let it rise near a warm area for about 1 hour and a half.

  9. Punch down the dough and shape it into a large ball, leaving small pieces of dough to form the ball on top and the four rolled pieces that form the 'bone' shapes.

  10. Let this shaped dough rise for another hour in a warm spot of your kitchen.

  11. Brush the glaze on it, (see below), sprinkle with granulated sugar and place in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until it is a golden brown.


For the glaze:
Bring a 1 oz. cone of piloncillo to boil in about ¾ cup of water until it dissolves, let it boil until it thickens, add the juice of one orange, cook for another 3 minutes; then let it cool before brushing it on.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tacos de Huitlacoche

This past Columbus Day (also known as Día de la Raza in Latin America and Indigeneous People's Day in the United States) weekend I was back in San Miguel de Allende visiting friends and taking advantage of the long weekend. The weather was delicious with nightly rains quenching the hillsides and leaving the cobblestones glistening in the morning sun. The rains are also responsible for the abundance of huitlacoche, a corn fungus that Mexicans consider a delicacy.

In Mexico, huitlacoche enjoys the same culinary standing as truffles do in Europe, though it doesn't grow underground and isn't as costly.  The high regard for huitlacohe is an ancient sentiment.  The Aztecs revered all forms of maize, especially huitlacoche, a Nahuatl word some linguists decipher as meaning "ravens' excrement."  It is true that huitlacoche is not exactly pretty; the deformed, irridescent, and spongy kernels are powdered with black spores and look a little like, well, bird droppings.

Fresh huitlacoche is not hard to find in Mexico.  I saw a young woman selling it right on the cobb but often I buy it from Josefina, my elderly friend from the sierra, who removes it from the cobb and sells it packaged in baggies.

Huitlacoche's taste is difficult to describe; the flavor is not quite like porcini or truffles, but there is some similarity.  Fresh is better though difficult to find in the United States.  Canned huitlacoche is more readily available, which requires a longer cook time to dry out the liquid.

Doña Beatriz

This recipe belongs to Doña Beatriz, a legendary cook from Casa Carmen in San Miguel de Allende.  She doesn't put cheese in her tacos but to add cheese, cut thin slices of a soft cheese like queso de Oaxaca or Monterrey Jack and warm it on a corn tortilla, topping the quesadilla with cooked huitlacoche.

Photos of tacos courtesy of Kelly Castellanos-Evans

Doña Beatriz's Tacos de Huitlacoche

Recipe Type: Appetiser

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 5 mins

Total time: 25 mins

Serves: 2 to 4


  • Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups of huitlacoche

  • 2 roma tomatoes

  • 1 small onion

  • 1 clove chopped garlic

  • 1/2 cup canola oil (approximately)

  • Fresh cilantro

  • Salt to taste

  • Corn tortillas


  1. Clean the huitlacoche by removing the tiny stems or feet (la patita) from where it is attached to the cobb (these have a slightly bitter taste).

  2. Cook the onion first until it is soft, then add the roma tomato; cook until it dissolves, then add the huitlacoche.

  3. Cook this mixture for about 10 minutes, until it is all softened, add salt to taste.

  4. Warm your corn tortillas on both sides on a comal.

  5. Place a spoonful of the mixture, garnish with a slice of fresh tomato or a slice of avocado and chopped cilantro and serve with your favorite salsa.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Salsa Pico de Gallo

Molcajetes are a type of mortar (molcajete) and pestle (tejolote) made from basalt.  Use of the molcajete in Mesoamerica dates back 6,000 years and remains ubiquitous in Mexican cooking today. Molcajetes are versatile tools;  they can be used to grind chiles, herbs, and spices, thereby releasing essential oils and flavors.  Because they are made from volcanic rock, they may be heated and used to serve stews, meats and other foods that taste better at higher temperatures.  They also function as attractive serving pieces for guacamole and salsas.

Pico de gallo, for instance, is a quick salsa that can be found on nearly every Mexican table at mealtimes, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner.   (La Madrina recalls that preparing it was the first duty she was given as a child.)  It's simple, fresh and zesty and the perfect accompaniment to a variety of Mexican dishes.

Pico de Gallo

Recipe Type: Salsa

Author: Gilda V. Carbonaro

Prep time: 10 mins

Total time: 10 mins

Serves: 4

  • 3 firm, large tomatoes, chopped small, into cubes

  • 1 regular-sized white onion, minced

  • 1 serrano pepper, minced

  • 5 or 6 sprigs of cilantro, roughly chopped

  • salt to taste

  1. Grind the minced serrano pepper into the molcajete.

  2. Add the chopped ingredients: tomato, onion, and cilantro to the molcajete, add salt to taste and stir.


Add or diminish the amount of serrano pepper, as you prefer. Or use another type of pepper, like jalapeño if you can't find serrano.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Salsa Challenge

In the U.S., most restaurants serve a variation of salsa ranchera and sometimes salsa verde, but there are many other exquisite and nuanced salsas to explore.  Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico contains recipes for over twenty different salsas, including a fiery salsa de chile habanero.  She writes
It would be unthinkable to sit down to an authentic Mexican meal and not find a dish of sauce or some pickled jalapeños on the table; they are as common as salt and pepper.  I suppose it is not surprising given the great variety of chiles that are cultivated--and some grow wild--throughout Mexico.  There is a great difference, too, in the heat level, color, taste in chiles both fresh and dried.  The ways in which chiles are prepared, and the ingredients with which they are combined, are highly regional...I doubt that any other cuisine has such a variety of "condiments."
I enjoy making homemade salsas.  I find that the taste tends to vary slightly with each batch, the outcome dependent upon the ripeness of the tomatoes, the types and amounts of chiles I use and whether the vegetables are roasted or blended raw.

Homemade salsas, whether green or red, raw or roasted are utterly fresh.  Which is why it's hard to understand the seemingly huge demand for bottled salsas sold in stores.  (Some even claim that salsa outsells ketchup as America's favorite condiment!)  It takes very little time to blend the vegetables raw or roast them first and throw them into a blender.

Readers are hereby challenged to reach for the fresh tomatoes, tomatillos and chiles in lieu of who-knows-how-long-they've-been-on-the shelf bottled salsas!  Here are a few recipes to get you started:

Salsa Three Ways

Recipe Type: Salsa

Author: Gilda Claudine

Prep time: 5 mins

Cook time: 20 mins

Total time: 25 mins

Serves: 4 to 6


  • 5 Ripe Tomatoes

  • 5 tomatillos

  • 2 avocados

  • 1 habanero

  • 2 Jalapeños or chiles serranos

  • Cilantro

  • 1 small onions

  • 1 clove garlic

  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. On a comal or cast iron pan without oil, roast the tomatoes and chiles.

  2. Once the vegetables charred, cool and remove some of the burnt skin.

Salsa de Habanero

  1. Place 1/2 of a habanero (de-seed for less heat), 1/2 clove of garlic, 1/4 raw onion and 3 large tomatoes in a blender or food processor.

  2. Blend until the ingredients are smooth.

  3. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Salsa Roja

  1. Place 2 jalapeños, 1/2 clove of garlic, two large tomatoes, a bunch of cilantro in a blender or food processor.

  2. Blend until the ingredients are smooth.

  3. Add salt and pepper to taste
Salsa Verde with Aguacate
  1. Place roasted tomatillos, roasted serrano peppers, 1/2 clove of garlic, a bunch of cilantro, 1/4 onion (optional) and 2 ripe avocados in blender or food processor.

  2. Blend until smooth.

  3. Add salt and pepper to taste

A few things to keep in mind:
The jalapeños and serranos can be used interchangeably.
Adjust the spice level accordingly by using more or less chiles in each recipe.
The salsas may be stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Beans

Maybe the end of summer is awakening in me a craving for slightly more substantial foods because I seem to have beans on the brain lately. Or maybe it's having just returned from Mexico where beans are, of course, a staple and found in abundance.  Whatever the reason, while friends and family were preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, I found myself sifting and stirring these frijoles negros con epazote.

My Hurricane Beans are simple but delicious, which goes to prove that most of the time, the simplest way is the way to go.  Too many ingredients and too many steps can sometimes over complicate a healthy and delicious meal. I grew up eating mostly pinto beans but I've grown accustomed to black beans during my frequent travels to San Miguel de Allende where Doña Beatriz of Casa Carmen Bed and Breakfast prepares the black, glossy legumes like no other cook.

Doña Beatriz

Doña Beatriz garnishes them with fried tortilla strips which adds to flavor and texture. Unlike many cooks, she does not soak her beans overnight; she  simply throws them into boiling water (after carefully picking out bits of dirt and rinsing them) lowers the heat o a simmer and covers them. The beans cook for 2 ½ to 3 hours until they are completely soft. You don't need to check them constantly, as long as you've left them on a low flame and covered. Midway through the cooking process, add salt to taste and an unpeeled clove of garlic. If you run low on water, add only boiling water to the pot.

What gives these beans their signature flavor are the sprigs of epazote thrown in when the beans are almost ready. Epazote can be found dried or fresh at Latino stores or you can even grow your own as my neighbor, Leslye, does...lucky me!

Hurricane Beans a.k.a. Black Beans with Epazote

Recipe Type: Side Dish

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 15 mins

Cook time: 3 hours

Total time: 3 hours 15 mins

Serves: 6-8


  • 1/2 cup olive oil

  • 4 cups black beans, cooked

  • 4 to 5 oz of pancetta or bacon chopped into little chunks

  • Salt to taste

  • Several sprigs of epazote

  • 2 – 3 corn tortillas cut in strips and fried to a golden brown


  1. Brown the bacon/pancetta in the olive oil slowly until it is golden.

  2. Add the cooked beans and bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes, adding water if it is not soupy enough.

  3. Add the epazote and cook for another 5 minutes.

  4. Serve garnished with the fried tortilla strips.

Beans can be cooked and then frozen after cooling them, thereby giving you the freedom to prepare them in whatever style you prefer, whenever you like.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fideos y Frijoles

Basil sprouting out of the stone next to a wild milkweed plant in Casa Carmen Bed and Breakfast in San Miguel de Allende.

To be in San Miguel is to experience total hospitality, civility, gentlity, and beauty. Whatever this maligned country of Mexico is undergoing, this place is certainly an oasis. I am once again enjoying the warmth of Casa Carmen, the bed and breakfast here in San Miguel de Allende where I bring my students for a Spanish immersion program every summer.

This week, my husband and I are here together, visiting friends and enjoying the many culinary delights the city has to offer.  My husband is an Italian who is passionate and knowledgeable about cooking.   Being married to him these many years, it is no surprise that in this Mexican-Italian marriage there is so much blending of what we both love.  For example, pasta and beans.

In Mexico, it is hard to avoid beans in all their different forms. Here at the market, I always find pale green frijoles peruanos (Peruvian beans) and make a dish that would be welcome on any table in Italy. It is a replication of a dish called pasta e fagioli, an Italian peasant food.  All of the necessary ingredients can be found in Mexico or in the States. Of course, the pasta itself can be any kind of small pasta. This dish is a marriage of cultures and convenience and, I must say, a love match. I'll call it Fideos y Frijoles a la Italiana.

Fideos y Frijoles a la Italiana

Recipe Type: Soup

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 3 hours

Total time: 3 hours 20 mins

Serves: 4 to 6

  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped pancetta or bacon
  • 1 stick celery, minced
  • A few celery leaves roughly chopped
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 large carrot, chopped or minced
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped finely
  • 4 cups (approximately) of white navy beans or cannellini, or pale green Peruvian beans
  • 1 cup small pasta or broken spaghetti
  • Salt to taste in sauce and in pasta water
  • 1 cup basil leaves

  1. Drop them in boiling water and turn down the heat.

  2. When the water is at a low simmer, lower the heat and cover the pot with the lid slightly shifted to allow some steam out of the pot.

  3. Let them cook at a low temperature for about 3 hours. About midway through the cooking, add a clove of garlic and salt to taste.

  4. If you run out of water, add more, but you should only add boiling water. Adding cold water will make the beans hard.

  5. The beans should be soupy when they are ready and very soft.

  1. In a pan, brown the bacon in the olive oil until golden brown.

  2. Sauté the celery and carrot in the same pan for a few minutes then add the garlic.

  3. Add the tomatoes and continue to sauté for a few minutes, then cover and keep on low heat until all the ingredients are "guisados" (cooked in the oil).

  4. Take a small portion (about a cup) of the beans and put them in the blender so that you can thicken the soup in the beans.

  5. Put these blended beans back in the pot.

  6. Add the bacon, carrot, tomato, etc. sauce and cook for 5 minutes.

  7. Put the pasta in boiling, salted water in a small pot and, before it is completely soft, strain it and add it to the beans. Let it cook for another 5 minutes. Don't let the pasta get too mushy.

  8. Serve in deep bowls and garnish with sprigs of basil.

My mother always cooked beans in a clay pot, but any stainless steel pot will do the job. You can shorten cooking time by soaking the beans overnight, throwing out the water the next day and cooking them in fresh water. Also, if you have a high quality extra-virgin olive oil on hand, drizzle a bit on the served plate. You will get the scent of the oil plus the fresh basil as you take your first spoonful.