Friday, December 21, 2012

Part 1: Preserving the Mexican Identity Through Prehispanic Cuisine, An Interview with Adriana Legaspi

There is a movement afoot in Mexico to preserve the traditions of its indigenous cuisine and the ancient knowledge of the use of curative herbs. It involves the rescue and preservation of the ingredients, methods, and utensils common in the pre-colombian past of Mesoamerica in the hopes that they do not flicker out of existence in our lifetime. With globalization and the proliferation of fast food franchises, it is no surprise that these ancient traditions are becoming a distant memory. In twenty-five years, who will know how to prepare tecorral tea, muicle, tlacoyos, or tamales de atepocate or know what they are, for that matter?

Enter Adriana Legaspi, founder of Gastrotour Prehispánico Malinalco, an anthropologist of the palate and a woman on a mission to preserve these traditions. She is neither the first nor the only person in Mexico bent on what Adriana calls "the ethnogastronomic rescue" but she certainly stands out with her passion and conviction.

A multi-faceted business woman who is not only proficient in the kitchen, Adriana also has degrees in communications, political science, and public affairs. Many years ago, she and her husband purchased a weekend home in the cobble-stoned mountain village of Malinalco outside of Mexico City. Adriana found herself in her element, naturally drawn to the wizened old 'doñas' in the ancient market of Malinalco, chatting, learning recipes and listening to their stories of old times and ways.

With encouragement from friends and with a penchant for social causes, Adriana founded a project which would direct her seemingly boundless energy toward two goals: to preserve the culture and identity of the region and to help the women with a much needed income. This was the genesis of the Gastrotour Prehispánico of Malinalco.  The tour consists of a hands-on cooking class on weekends, starting with a visit to the market in Malinalco to buy organic fruits, vegetables and herbs grown by the seller herself at zero kilometers. She invites her guests to observe the fauna and the flora depicted on a convent wall, thus ensuring a thorough understanding of the historical backdrop of the food they are preparing.

What follows is the first of a two-part interview with Adriana about her work to preserve the Mexican identity through its prehispanic cuisine:

When did you first become interested in cooking?

The truth is that I'm a product of a generation that did not hold cooking in high regard because it was associated with a lack of culture or professional status. I am the first generation of female college graduates in a family where the women had always considered marriage and the running of a household as the first priority.  My sisters and cousins began to take on minor professions in banks. The more professional we felt, the more we shunned the kitchen. Nevertheless, I'm a descendent of Italian immigrants to Mexico on my father's side for whom food and its preparation were of utmost importance in daily life. The quantity, the quality, freshness, uniqueness, and delectability for a traditional community in Northern Mexico where we lived, set us apart. As soon as I began my career in the hospitality industry, my own personal history became relevant as I found myself charged with the responsibility of organizing unique dining experiences at the empresarial level.

How did you come to get involved in the gastronomic tours of prehispanic cuisine in Malinalco?

This is a very long story whose chapters played out slowly starting from the first moment I arrived in Malinalco with my husband over 20 years ago. In spite of the enormous cultural offerings we enjoyed living in Mexico City, on weekends we spilled out of the city in search of open spaces and fresh air. That's how we ended up in Malinalco on many a weekend enjoying lunch in the subtropical climate of this town 88 kms from Mexico City.

We often ate at a restaurant called El Tecorral situated in a grand old house dating from the 17th century where we took in the gardens, the climate, and the people. Soon we found ourselves buying a property in a place where every neighborhood had its Caocalli or Teocalli typical of Indian villages with a prehispanic past. The Augustin monks who arrived in Malinalco to evangelize in the 16th century built the Convento de la Transfiguracieon del Señor and directed every barrio to have its own saint and chapel. Ours came with a chapel; we purchased it from a seller who still has a a Nahua surname: Donaciano de la Fuente Tecayahuatl.

Little by little I became involved in the life of the town, admiring its geography, its ecology, and naturally, its cuisine. I became aware of the strength of its indigenous origins and the pride in its traditions evident in daily life. Imagine a prehispanic market where you can find tlacoyos, a type of oval tortilla filled with fava bean paste or ricotta spiced with chilies, cooked on a clay comal by vendors like Doña Carmen. I started, then, to make a mental inventory of all that grabbed my attention to begin my ethnographic research. I began interviewing the elders, finding and documenting ingredients, looking for their existence in a precolombian past. The rest came naturally.

I felt the need to help the economic possibilities of the women of the market who rely on their own meager income. The weekend visitors were not necessarily buying their products; hence, the beginning of my classes: to teach my students the importance of this food, its contextualization, the value in its freshness, helping these students to understand who we are and why we eat as we do. Then, going home to turn the ingredients into a meal.

Why do you think it's important to get back to authentic roots in mexican cuisine?

First of all, because the Mesoamerican diet is healthy... and because to eat guided by prehispanic and Mesoamerican principles of when to eat something is healthy.  Eating guayabas before and during winter, for example, provides the body with the vitamin C necessary for the immunological system to withstand the freezing weather of the central high plains of Mexico.

What is the attitude and/or interest now of the professional (upper and middle) classes in Mexico regarding authentic prehispanic cuisine?

Well, in reality, I think there is growing interest throughout the world, among those who can afford it, to eat authentic and traditional food. The designation of Mexican food as a world heritage cuisine has made it stylish, and chefs throughout Mexico are recuperating the tastes and recipes, creating them with modern techniques and charging exhorbitant prices.

To be continued...

*Photos courtesy of Adriana Legaspi.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Our Pecan Tree

With the arrival of his firstborn daughter, a young father planted a nogal seedling.  The land was barren and stony but the nogal thrived.

Two more daughters were born and, over time, the three sisters grew to play in the shade of the tree's broad branches, climbing, jumping, and staining their clothes with its caramel-colored sap.  The girls gathered the tree's savory pecans, cracking them open and eating them as they played.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pipian Verde with Guajolote (Turkey)

I appreciate Thanksgiving for the way in which the holiday brings together friends and family and reminds us to give thanks for each other and the goodness in life.  But I still often think about how Thanksgiving came about and the ways in which it misrepresents the relationship between America's first colonizers and its native people. (See our post about the origins of Thanksgiving here.)

Interestingly, none of the Hispanic countries (those colonized by Spain) of the Americas have such a holiday as far as I know. The Mexican mestizo soul is complex and opaque. Most Mexicans identify proudly with the indigenous people who blended with the Spanish colonizers to create the mestizo race. (However, don't be surprised to hear epithets hurled at either the indigenous culture or at their European ancestors when a little Tequila is going around. Mexicans know how to make light of these "problems of the psyche!")

This Thanksgiving, I thought it would be appropriate to give you a recipe that is quite possibly prehispanic and can be made with the native bird of the Americas and of this holiday: guajolote (nahuatl for turkey). I had to go through a stack of old handwritten recipes to find it. It's Tía Oralia's recipe for pipian verde, a kind of green mole, which is usually made for chicken. I see from my notes that she was dictating it to me and I was barely keeping up with my writing, but the essentials are here. It looks like my pipian sauce needed more broth, just add as you like to get the proper texture and serve this with a good white rice and warm corn tortillas.

To all those with a loved one who did not return from Iraq or Afghanistan, may your bounty of friends and relatives help dry your tears and  fill the void of the empty chair at your table.

Pipian Verde with Guajolote (Turkey)

Recipe Type: main, fowl, sauce, mole

Cuisine: Mexican

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 4

Pipian verde goes perfectly on a bed of white rice, cooked Mexican style.

  • 1lb tomatillo
  • 1 serrano chile
  • ¾ cup raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 2 cloves peeled garlic
  • 1/2 onion
  • 1 sprig epazote (optional)
  • 3 green leaves, approximately, from radishes, swiss chard, kale, or collard greens
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup roughly chopped cilantro (without stems)
  • 1 chicken cut up or 6 turkey drumsticks
  • salt to taste
  • 3 cups chicken or turkey broth
For broth:
  • 3 carrots
  • 2 sticks celery
  • 1 onion
  • salt to taste
  • 1 cut up chicken or 6 turkey drumsticks

  1. Bring water to a boil and place cut chicken pieces or turkey drumsticks, bringing the flame down to a low simmer.

  2. After about ½ hour, place the vegetables in the skimmed broth and add salt.

  3. Continue to cook at a low simmer for another 45 minutes, partially covered.

  4. Set the broth aside when it's ready, strain it and pull out the chicken or drumsticks, placing them on a plate, to be used later.

  5. Start preparing the pipian by browning the pumpkin seeds and the clove of garlic in half of the oil on a skillet for about 3 minutes, until they are puffy; take care not to burn them, as this will make them bitter; keep the flame low.

  6. In the meantime, boil the de-husked tomatillos with the serrano pepper and onion for about 10 minutes. (You can also broil them if you prefer)

  7. After this all cools, put the tomatillos, the serrano, the garlic, the sprig of epazote and the toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) in the blender with about a cup of the cooled broth, blending it until it's as smooth as possible.

  8. Place this mixture on a skillet again with the last half of the oil and begin to cook it again, to amalgamate it for about 5 minutes.

  9. Place the cilantro in the blender and the leaves of green along another cup of the cooled broth and blend together.

  10. Add this to your mixture in the skillet and add remaining broth, slowly to get the consistency you want.

  11. Add the pieces of chicken or turkey to your skillet and make sure you are able to turn the pieces so they can all be coated with the sauce.

  12. Cover and cook for another 5 minutes at a very low flame, checking that nothing sticks or the sauce doesn't become too thick.

  13. Arrange on a plate with a good white rice and warm corn tortillas.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Memory in a Soup - Dia de los Muertos

I have lived seven Novembers without him and somehow survived them in different ways.

We knew that November 2005 could be the last with our son, Alex. He was about to deploy to a raging battleground in Iraq for the second time. Our hearts were heavy and so he asked that we celebrate Thanksgiving twice, once on the Thursday and again on Friday. So we did. We went around the table articulating our thanks for special things in our lives. When it came to Alex, he looked at us and thanked us for having been his parents and loving him as we did. Then he left, and we would never again be blessed with seeing this child, this man, whom we loved so much.  We would never see him grow old, become a father, raise children and teach us things only our children can teach us. Our lives would change dramatically.

Last year I began to practice a remembrance of Alex through the Día de los Muertos tradition, finding comfort in the connection to this prehispanic ritual. I made pan de muertos and set up an altar with ofrendas arranged with things Alex might have liked. In fact, I have begun doing this with the children I teach. They also set up altares to their loved ones in my classroom, gaining a hands-on understanding of the spirituality of this day and the mystery of life.

This year I've made the usual things in remembrance: empanadas, hojarascas, capirotada, and pan de muertos. The empanadas, especially, are for my mother, who comforted me in this loss through her profound understanding of my sorrow. But today I'll post something that can't be put in an ofrenda: a soup I began to make for Alex after he started eating solid food as a baby.

Last night I ate this soup, savoring slowly the taste and texture of the alphabet-shaped pasta, the flavors of the vegetables, and I was transported back to those days that went by much too quickly.

Memory in a Soup - Dia de los Muertos

Recipe Type: Soup

Cuisine: Mexican

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 4

The browning of the vegetables enhances the taste of the soup, but if you prefer not to have the additional olive oil in the soup, just skip this step and throw the vegetables directly into the boiling broth until they are soft.

  • 8 cups of chicken broth, either homemade (preferably) or commercial
  • 3-4 carrots, minced
  • 1 stick celery, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3/4 cup alphabet pasta
  • 1 onion minced as finely as possible
  • cilantro or parsley for flavoring at the end
  • 2 leaves of any greens like kale or escarole (chopped very finely)
  • olive oil to coat the pasta and brown it in a pan (about 2 tablespoons)
  • olive oil to soften the onion, carrot, celery, and green leaves, (about 2 tablespoons)
  • Salt to taste
  • Pepper grindings to taste
  • Optional: one lime and a few crumbled totopos (corn tortilla that you fry yourself, don't bother buying any)

  1. Brown the pasta with the oil in a thick pan at a low heat, about one minute, it will brown quickly.

  2. Brown the peeled garlic, onion, celery, carrots, and green leaves separately in the other 2 tablespoons of oil with a low flame for about 5 minutes. Add a little oil if you need to.

  3. Combine the pasta and the vegetables in a large pot with the broth already boiling and boil together for about 15 minutes.

  4. Check for salt, add pepper grindings if you like, and garnish with cilantro or parsley.

  5. Serve in a bowl for your child and add fried, crunchy corn tortilla, and a few drops of lime juice squeezed into the soup at the last minute.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fall Harvest Rice

Fall is at its peak here in the mid-Atlantic. Autumn leaves are falling, each shimmering leaf a memory of the last year, bringing on a melancholy I wear like comfortable pajamas on lazy fall mornings. I look out the window with my hands wrapped around my coffee cup and think, We are the product of all the autumns we've lived.  We are hopefully wiser and stronger, more capable of understanding the mysteries of life, more able to withstand the coming winter.

I've gone to the farmer's market  here in Bethesda to forage for the last of the fall harvest: diminishing supplies of lima beans, lonely cobs of silver-white corn, a few forlorn Honey Crisp apples. I feel the start of cold weather—a hint of winter's magificent presence—and know I should fill my bag with sweet potatoes, pumpkins, turnips, maybe a pot of marigolds.

But the lima beans and corn are what I need to prepare an aromatic rice my friends love, down to the last toasted grain at the bottom of the pan.  The dish is a hybrid: part Mexican, part Spanish, perhaps only the tiniest bit like an Italian risotto. Powdered turmeric and pimentón de la vera (Spanish smoked paprika) gives the rice its yellow color and a healthy quantity  of cumin gives it a nuanced flavor. Also, I use a paella rice which is short grained, similar to risotto rice.
Fall Harvest Rice

Recipe Type: Side Dish

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 8-10


  • 2 cups short grained rice

  • 8 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 onion minced finely

  • 1/2 red bell pepper cut in thin strips

  • 1 tablespoon powdered pimenton de la vera

  • 1 tablespoon turmeric

  • 1 tablespoon cumin

  • 2 envelopes powdered chicken soup concentrate

  • 1 cup lima beans

  • scraped corn from one cob

  • 6 cloves peeled garlic

  • cilantro for garnish

  • salt to taste

  • 5 cups water (or chicken broth if you prefer not to use powdered soup)


  1. Rinse the rice and drain out the water as much as possible.

  2. Put 5 tablespoons of the oil in a large heavy bottomed skillet and place the rice to brown.

  3. Let it brown, at medium heat, moving it with a spoon for about 3 minutes.

  4. Add the minced onion and stir until the the onion has softened, about 5 minutes.

  5. In the meantime, place the strips of red bell pepper and the cloves of garlic in a pan with the other 3 tablespoons of oil and saute them, until softened and the garlic is golden.

  6. Now, to the rice, add the 5 cups of water, the turmeric, the pimenton de la vera, the powdered chicken soup, the salt and the strips of bell pepper and garlic.

  7. Bring to a boil uncovered, and after 5 minutes, add the lima beans and the corn.

  8. Check for salt and bring the heat down to a very low simmer.

  9. Cook for another half hour approximately and cover loosely for the last 10 minutes.

  10. Garnish the top of the skillet with the cilantro or if you are serving it on a special dish, wait until it cools for 10 minutes.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Blue Corn Pozole

As I gathered the ingredients for this post, I thought about a woman my family once knew in Laredo.  Her name was Ana María.  She was born in Nuevo Laredo and moved to the U.S. side of the border after her marriage to a Laredoan. Ana María was an eccentric woman who made it clear in subtle and not so subtle ways that she belonged to Nuevo Laredo's well-connected families.  However, in Laredo, Ana María and her husband were as poor as church mice.  That is, until the 1980's when gas drilling along the Rio Grande made overnight millionaires out of ordinary people like Ana María and her husband.

My parents had become friends with Ana Maria and her husband some time after I left Laredo. But I remember many funny stories about her and how my mother tolerated some of her crazy ideas.  Finally, I met her during a trip to visit my parents. She was a natural beauty, albeit with a strong belief in heavy black eye liner and pitch-black hair dyed to match.  Within no time, she told me she knew all the "right" kind of eligible, young men from Nuevo Laredo for me to meet. She was truly from another time and place!

What brought Ana María to mind as I planned this recipe was how much she loved pozole.  She often invited my parents over for pozole--too often for my mother, who didn't care much for it. It's not a northern Mexican dish and my mother just didn't understand it. She would often describe how she had avoided another pozole dinner at Ana María's by offering to cook dinner at our home so that she could have some control over the menu. My mother had the nagging suspicion that  Ana María's real intention was to end up with a dinner invitation rather than have to cook.

I was always curious about the dish, never having tasted Ana María's famous pozole all those years. Later, during my trips to Mexico, I found many occasions to savor it. There are many versions of the hearty soup and, unlike my mother, I soon became a fan of pozole!

Last month, some friends from New Mexico brought me some dried blue corn kernels. I used them in this pozole recipe in place of canned hominy that is traditionally used. Normally, pozole is served with satellites of garnishes, little dishes of items that can be added to the soup: chopped white onion, sliced radishes, chopped cilantro, sliced limes, and thinly-sliced romaine lettuce. I like to add strips of fried tortilla as well.

Dried Chile Guajillo
My pozole recipe might be too spicy for little children who have not grown up with spicy food but it's substantial enough to serve as a main course. The flavors and textures are like few things I've ever had; the meat of the pork is tender, the corn kernels are chewy and the flavor of the chile guajillo cooked into this thick soup is deep and earthy.  And adding a squeeze of lime and the chopped cilantro creates a bright contrast with the savory flavors of the soup.
Blue Corn Pozole

Recipe Type: soup

Cuisine: Mexican

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 6

Fall and winter is the perfect time for a hearty soup like pozole.


  • 6 or 7 guajillo chili pods, deveined and seeded

  • 2 cups dried blue corn which has been soaked overnight

  • 2 lbs pork shoulder cut into 1 inch cubes

  • 10 cloves garlic roughly cut

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dry oregano

  • 1 tablespoon cumin

  • 4 bay leaves

  • Garnish: finely chopped romaine lettuce or cabbage, minced white onion, limes, cilantro, radishes, and tostadas, or fried corn tortilla strips

  1. Soak the corn overnight and then add salt and boil it at a simmer, covered, for about two hours in about 1 quart of water or enough so that there is enough liquid to soften the corn; add more water if it begins to evaporate too fast.

  2. While the corn is cooking, remove the seeds and stems and devein the guajillo chiles, then place them on a heavy skillet or a comal at low heat until they soften, about 5 minutes or less.

  3. After the chilies are soft, place them in a pot of about 5 cups boiling water , set aside to soak, covered, in this water for about 20 minutes.

  4. Place the cubes of pork in a large, heavy bottomed stock pot and brown for about 6 minutes on a medium to high flame.

  5. For an additional 3 minutes and at a lower flame, add the cloves of garlic to sweat as the meat browns. Add salt.

  6. Pour the boiled corn pozole along with its liquid into the stockpot with the seared pork and garlic cloves.

  7. While this is cooking, place the chilies along with their liquid in the blender, and blend. Do this little by little so the blender lid doesn't pop off with the expansion of the liquid.

  8. Add this red liquid into the stock pot and add the oregano, crumbled bay leaf and cumin.

  9. Place the pot lid at a tilt, check for salt and cook at a simmer for about three hours. Check the liquid frequently to make sure the result is brothy.

  10. Fill small plates with garnishes: minced white onion, chopped cilantro, thinly sliced radishes, sliced limes, thinly sliced romain lettuce, and fried strips of tortilla. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fall Pickling

A harvest moon will soon be hovering over the horizon, imbuing us with the golden, hazy memories of autumns past. We will sit by our bonfire, warming ourselves as every orange tongue of flame lights our faces and the images of years gone by come to life. Sitting around a fire in the fall with friends and family is a custom we never tire of. In this circle around the fire, gazing into those hypnotic flames, as surely it's happened since the beginning of time, we reflect, we laugh, sometimes we sing, and, certainly, we always eat.

This past weekend, with the hint of fall weather in the air, spectacular blue skies and crisp weather, we decided at the last minute, to have a carne asada for friends in the garden. There were salsas to prepare and grocery shopping to do.  Never backing away from further complicating my life, I decided to make pickled vegetables and serranos for us to nibble on while the fire got going. My parents always had jars of these things in Laredo. (Who would ever show up to our house without a jar of pickled peppers in hand?) My parents ate them in great quantities, plus you found them on every restaurant table in Nuevo Laredo, it was the equivalent of the ketchup bottle you would find here in a fast food restaurant. But it's not fast food, and it is something good to have in your refrigerator (or pantry if you trust your canning skills).

So, if you have a bounty of peppers, now is the time to put them in vinegar along with carrots, small onions, cloves of garlic, and marble sized potatoes, if you can find them.
Fall weather pickling

Recipe Type: appetiser

Cuisine: Mexican

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 8

As you canning experts know, you can add or subtract any variety of vegetables to this, for example zucchini and pearl onions, etc.


  • 4 cups marble sized potatoes

  • 1 cup serrano or jalapeño chiles

  • 6 cloves peeled garlic

  • 5 carrots, cut into thick slices

  • water to boil the vegetables

  • white or apple cider vinegar to add to the boiled vegetables

  • aromatic herbs: bay leaf, oregano, and thyme
  1. Place the potatoes, chiles, carrots, and garlic in a pot of boiling, salted water that is about one inch over the level of vegetables.

  2. Cook slowly, uncovered with a low boil.

  3. They should be cooked after about 10 minutes: check the carrots, or the potatoes for doneness.

  4. Drain most of the water and add the vinegar. It should be approximately half water, half vinegar.

  5. Cook for another 5 minutes, adding the bay leaf, sprigs of oregano and of thyme.

  6. Pour into canning jars and store in your refrigerator after they've cooled.

  7. Serve in bowls as an appetiser.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chiapas Pork Roast on Mexico's Independence Day

In the U.S., it's widely believed that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day. However, Mexicans celebrate their independence on the 16th of September, the day that the criollo, Father Hidalgo, rallied the indigenous masses in the town of Dolores with "el grito"-- the shout urging them to overthrow the oppressive yoke of colonial Spanish government.  The ensuing fight for independence would last ten years.

On the 15th of September every year, the president of Mexico stands at the balcony of the Palacio Nacional to commemorate this moment. There is a sort of call and response that takes place before the explosion of fireworks. It goes like this:


¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!

¡Víva Hidalgo!

¡Viva Morelos!

¡Viva Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez!

¡Viva Allende!

¡Vivan Aldama y Matamoros!

¡Viva la independencia nacional!

¡Viva México!

¡Viva México!

¡Viva México!

The thunderous roar of the crowd's response is exhilarating and the excitement reminds them they are hungry and thirsty. Naturally, food abounds in celebrations like this where families have gathered afterwards at friends' homes for such traditional fare as mole or chiles en nogada. Further south, in the Chiapas area, perhaps you'll find a roast pork that's been cooking for hours ready for the moment when famished guests arrive after celebrations.

My sister, Laura, makes the best one I know of. Here's her recipe.

Photo by Laura Lee

Chiapas Pork Roast

Recipe Type: Main Course

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 6-8

  • 4 dried chiles anchos, cleaned of seeds and veins

  • several sprigs fresh thyme

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 1 tablespoon peppercorns

  • 4 cloves (whole)

  • 2 tablespoons allspice

  • 1 stick cinnamon bark

  • 5 cloves peeled garlic

  • 2/3 cup vinegar

  • 1 ½ tablespoons salt

  • 5 pounds pork roast (shoulder, with outer layer of fat, if possible)

  • 1 cup very hot water

  • 2 cups thinly sliced white or bermuda onion (for the garnish)

  • 1 cup thinly sliced radishes (for the garnish)

  • 2 cups thinly sliced romaine lettuce, dressed with oil and vinegar (for the garnish)
  1. Cover the chilies with the very hot water and leave soaking for 20 minutes.

  2. Drain and place in a blender jar.

  3. Crush the herbs and spices and add them, as well as the garlic, vinegar, and salt to the blender.

  4. Blend until smooth, add water if necessary to blend into a smoother consistency: a loose paste.

  5. Pierce the meat all over with the point of a sharp knife.

  6. Smear the meat with this mixture and let it marinate in the refrigerator for about 4 hours, but preferably 24 hours.

  7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  8. Put the meat in a covered casserole dish and cook for 1 hour.

  9. Turn the meat, scraping the paste that is sticking to the bottom of the pan and diluting with about 1 cup of warm water and cook for another hour still covered.

  10. Turn the meat again and cook for another 2 hours, or until it's very tender, but keep basting with the pan juices.

  11. There will be plenty of sauce left in the casserole when the meat is cooked.

  12. Serve the meat sliced with some of the sauce from the pan drizzled on top and with plenty of onion rings, cilantro, sliced romaine lettuce and warm corn tortillas.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Aguas Frescas: Mexican Thirst-Quenchers

In the hot summertime, Mexicans reach for a fragrant, ripe fruit juice, freshly dissolved in a blender with ice water to quench the thirst and hydrate the body. Why consume outrageously sugary soft drinks by the gallons, when you can just as easily get hooked on the real thing? Natural fruit with nutrients such as Vitamin C and E and antioxidants you can find in fruits such as mangos, canteloupe, and papayas, to mention a few?

In Mexico these natural, fresh fruit juices known as aguas frescas (“fresh waters”) are found in open-air markets in gigantic transparent glass jugs, lined up and ready to be ladled into a glass.

Aguas frescas are drunk from the spring until the early fall and can be found in every region of Mexico as well as in the US wherever Mexican culture abounds. They are not exactly smoothies because water and a small amount of sugar is added to the fruit pulp, and they are not just made from fruit, but also from seeds such as tamarindo or chia (a kind of sage grown by the Aztecs). An agua fresca can be made from flowers as well, such as the one called jamaica, made from hibiscus flowers. One of my favorites is horchata, made from rice, originating in Spain, quite possibly via the moorish occupation.

Some great places to find agua frescas:

• Jugos Acapulco – Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, CA
• Paradise Aguas Frescas – Tucson, AZ
Taqueria Jalisco – Clovis, NM

If you can’t find aguas frescas near you, try making them yourself. To make any basic agua fresca, start out with a very ripe and sugary cantaloupe, or watermelon, mango, or pineapple, for example, and blend 1 part fruit and 2-3 parts water. Even with water added, the essence of the fruit in all its glory refreshes the palate. Strain or don’t strain, and add sugar to taste. Squeeze limes for a slight citrus punch to the agua fresca and serve cold in icy-frosted glasses.

Here are a few other recipes:

Jamaica and Chia


This article originally appeared on The Menuism Blog here:  Aguas Frescas: Mexican Thirst-Quenchers.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Papaya for Dessert

I've always wondered why people feel each meal should be topped by a sugary, calorie-laden dessert, either store bought or homemade. Don't get me wrong, I love a good apple pie in the fall with a rich vanilla ice cream, or a pear tart as my friend, Ania, makes it. But to eat a heavy dessert every time you sit down for lunch and/or supper? Is it any wonder we have the problems we do with obesity and the health problems related to it?

The after-meal dessert is something that U.S. children have come to expect. Is it a missplaced sense of prosperity that makes us eat this way? Did we eat this way in the 50's? In Laredo?  If so, I don't recall. We baked cookies or buñuelos for special occasions, made cakes for birthdays, ate ice cream on hot summer days, or pan dulce especially when it was cold outside, and had a feast of desserts at Thanksgiving. But after every meal? I shudder to think of how much I would struggle with weight now if I had grown up gobbling desserts after every meal. As it is, it's not easy.

I notice the less advantaged people of Mexico in my visits and the wholesomeness of much of their diet. They can't afford pies, doughnuts, soft drinks, frozen things in boxes and packages. They must depend on food at its origin: the vegetables, the legumes, and the fruit. And often the meat is cooked into a soup and accompanied with tortillas. It's ironic that some of these people with a few pesos a day eat a healthier meal than some of our more advantaged children here in the U.S., let alone those who fall through the cracks here.

If I could do anything to change the meal planning in the school where I teach, I would advocate serving dessert only once a week and offer the student a plate of fruit after their mid-day meal. There would be a revolt to be sure; sugar cannot easily be taken away. But at some point peace would prevail (I think) and these children who are accustomed to such a high intake of sugar in one day would become accustomed to living with less of it, becoming healthier adults as a result.

Papaya is an example of what we ate at home as a snack or something to offer a guest on a hot day, or simply a dessert after a meal. What's there to prepare? You just peel a cold papaya, remove the seeds, chop or slice and arrange on a platter. Papaya is one of the fruits that contains the highest concentration of Vitamin C, potassium and beta-carotene. The custom in Mexico (or Laredo) is to serve a platter of papaya with salt and lime juice, squeezed at the last minute. Its sublime tropical flavor on a summer day beats any baked dessert anyone can put before you.

Simply Papaya

Recipe Type: dessert, snack

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 5 mins

Total time: 5 mins

Papaya is the perfect, healthy dessert or snack that comes wrapped in its own 'skin'. Just peel and arrange on a beautiful platter and dazzle the eye with the color and the palate with the taste! Serve it as it is done in Mexico, with salt and lime to lend complexity to the fresh taste.


  • papaya

  • salt to taste

  • Mexican limes


  1. Peel the papaya and remove the seeds.

  2. Cut in slices or 1 inch cubes.

  3. Arrange on a platter and squeeze lime and sprinkle salt before serving.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

One Way to Get Your Greens

I'll bet you didn't know those weeds that grow on the side of the road are not only edible, but also delicious.  I'm referring to verdolaga or common purslane (portulaca oleracea), which can be the bane of the gardener or a treasure for the discerning cook.

What's more, this succulent weed is incredibly healthy. Verdolaga contains high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and is a great source of Vitamin C and some B-complex vitamins. Here in central Mexico where I often travel, verdolaga is everywhere: on the side of the road, growing lushly (albeit wildly) in clay pots, and in the market.

The best part of eating verdolaga is that you can't beat the price. In my case, it's free because it grows abundantly next to a lime tree in a large pot. No complaints from me about the wayward growth of tangled verdolaga, ready for my kitchen and my palate!

Verdolagas a.k.a. Purslane

Recipe Type: salad

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 10 mins

Total time: 10 mins

Serves: 4

  • 4 cups of washed, chopped verdolaga

  • 1 or 2 firm, but ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges or strips

  • ½ red onion, cut into thin slices

  • 1 avocado cut into strips

  • 2 limes

  • ½ cup chopped cilantro

  • ½ olive oil

  • Rock salt to taste
  1. Mix the verdolaga, tomatoes, onion, and cilantro in a salad bowl.

  2. Arrange the avocado.

  3. Sprinkle rock salt.

  4. Drizzle olive oil.

  5. Squeeze the juice of both limes and serve.

You may prefer to thoroughly mix the oil, salt, and lime juice before arranging the avocado slices so that all the leaves of the verdolaga are smeared with the dressing.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Simply Rajas

Poblano peppers, roasted with the outer skin removed

Rajas. They’re not your everyday condiment. They don’t come in cans or jars (at least not the good kind). And they don’t make themselves. You have to intend to make them. You must plan ahead. At least a little. Why is this, you ask? Because the main ingredient is a fresh chile poblano.

Cooking fresh (or dried) chiles usually requires roasting, de-seeding, and de-steming. The roasting process is important in that it's easy to burn the chiles. The goal is to char them so that the flavor seals in and the skin is easy to remove when cooled. If you’ve never worked with fresh chiles before, I suggest you “cut your teeth” on a rajas recipe.

Now, there are many different rajas recipes out there. Some include sautéed garlic and onions, others a mixture of cream and white cheese. The recipe included here is typical of Zacatecas, a state in central Mexico, and one that I prefer because it highlights the flavor of the poblano pepper.

And best of all, you only need three ingredients.


Recipe Type: Condiment

Author: Gilda Claudine

Prep time: 30 mins

Total time: 30 mins

  • 6 Poblano peppers

  • 1 white onion

  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed Key Limes

  • Salt to taste
  1. In a broiler or on a griddle, roast the peppers.

  2. Allow them to char slightly and remove from the heat.

  3. Place them in a plastic bag and allow them to "sweat."

  4. Once the peppers have cooled, remove them from the bag and pull away the outer skin.

  5. Cut in half and remove the stems and seeds.

  6. Cut into 1/4 inch strips and set aside.

  7. Cut raw onion into 1/8 inch thick slices so that they are slightly thinner than the peppers.

  8. Marinate the peppers and onions in the freshly squeezed lime juice for at least one hour in the refrigerator.

Serve as a complement to tacos, eggs, enchiladas. Sprinkle with a bit of queso fresco.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sour Orange Marmalade

This summer, while traveling in Italy, I came upon a wild sour orange tree at a friend's house. Since sour oranges are hard to come by, I couldn't pass up the chance to grab a few and to make sour orange marmalade.

In Mexican cooking, sour orange juice is used, among other things, in cochinita pibil. Since it's difficult to get access to sour oranges, we buy the bottled sour orange juice for this. But here I was in Italy, loaded up with these superb oranges, and not exactly in the mood for cochinita.

Even though we were surrounded by all types of citrus trees in Laredo, where I grew up, my mother never made jams or marmalades. From my own experience, however, there are few things more appealing than spreading your own marmalade on a piece of buttered toast. The bright orange, purple and ruby shades of apricot, raspberry, strawberry, or plum jams in little jars are a summer bounty and an opportunity not to be squandered.

Needless to say, I've had to learn on my own the art of jam/marmalade making. It's not hard unless you decide to make jam for an army. My advice is to make a manageable amount, so the task doesn't become a total chore and to experiment with different fruit/sugar ratios until you find the balance you like. But remember, it's the sugar that makes the fruit transparent and gorgeous, as well as providing the 'preservative' so your jam won't spoil. The rule of the thumb is one to one, in other words, the same amount of sugar to the amount of fruit.

Sour Orange Marmalade

Recipe Type: Condiment

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 30 mins

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour 30 mins

Serves: 10

Reaching in your pantry or refrigerator for a jar of your own jam or marmalade is just pure magic. Opening the lid brings back the summer sun under which that fruit grew to warm you later in the winter.

  • 7 sour oranges (or regular oranges)

  • Sugar (a quantity that after measuring the amount of orange peel is the equivalent amount, approximately)

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Wash the oranges thoroughly, using a brush to scrub well.

  2. Cut the oranges in half and juice them well, setting aside the juice and seeds.

  3. After juicing, cut the peel into thin strips with a sharp knife.

  4. Boil the seeds in a cup of water for about 10 minutes, in order to use the pectin from the seeds for your marmalade liquid.

  5. Strain the liquid from the seeds (discard the seeds) and put in a pot along with the orange juice and the orange strips.

  6. Simmer the orange strips for about 20 minutes.

  7. Add the equivalent amount of sugar as the amount of orange slices you had and cook for another 30 minutes.

  8. When it looks translucent and the liquid has a certain thickness to it when you spoon it out into a place, it is done.

  9. Stir in the vanilla.

  10. Spoon into sterilized jars (boiled in a pot of water for about 15 minutes) and seal.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Lime Leaf Agua Fresca

Dear Reader:

We hope you are standing by waiting faithfully, patiently, and in utter suspense for the latest entry to our blog. Which Gilda is to blame for the recent lapse? Well, La Ahijada was off to Yale on a writing seminar. And as for me, the end of the school year is a big change of gears. I was frantically turning in grades and focused on the final, pesky details involved in taking a group of active 14 year olds to a small, historic town in Mexico.

The two weeks in Mexico are now a self-contented blur. The students basically took over the town. They made extraordinary leaps in their knowledge of Spanish, made meaningful friendships, played soccer, and performed community service. Also, these boys tried traditional Mexican food and (gasp!) survived for two weeks without soft drinks. I put down the initial near insurrection by simply putting on my ear plugs and then plying them with some of the aguas frescas I remembered from my childhood, so good, so healthy, so icy-cold on a hot day. The whining for Cokes tapered off to barely audible murmurs by the end of the trip as the boys had gone through gallons of agua de jamaica, horchata, hoja de limón, agua de sandía, guanábana, tamarindo, or guayaba. I even heard some boys talking about how limonada made with real limes is just incomparable to anything out of a bottle or can.
I hope you find this unusual agua as delicious as I have found it. It has the green freshness of the leaf of the lime tree. If you have access to lemon leaves, rather than lime leaves, you'll be able to make an equally delicious agua. Perhaps you don't have access to citrus leaves at all, so as a last resort, you might look for a store or market that sells limes or lemons with the leaves still attached.

Lime Leaf Agua Fresca

Recipe Type: Beverage

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 10 mins

Total time: 10 mins

Serves: 6

This is a refreshing summer drink you can make if you have access to fresh lime or lemon leaves.

  • About 25 lime leaves without stems

  • 3/4 cup sugar

  • 10 leaves of mint for garnish in each glass

  • juice of two limes or one orange

  • 8 cups water
  1. Using a blender, blend the lime leaves in 2 of the cups of water and the sugar

  2. With a strainer, pour into a pitcher and add the other 6 cups of water

  3. Adjust for sugar, and squeeze the 2 limes or the one orange

  4. Stir, add ice and pour into glasses garnished with sprig of mint.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Aguachile to Celebrate Summer

No hay fecha que no se cumpla, plazo que no se venza, ni deuda que no se pague.

This is an old Spanish saying which roughly translates as: time marches on, and the day we thought far on the horizon appears suddenly and irrevocably.

I've thought about this saying at different points in my life when eagerly awaited moments finally arrived. Yesterday was one of those moments and, if truth be told, it repeats itself punctually every year.  School ends and another fresh crop of students graduates and heads off into the world. My colleagues and I celebrate with mixed feelings as we watch our former students embark on new journeys.  They are wayward leaves thrown into the turbulent and haphazard river of life, hopefully well-prepared to bear the triumphs as well as the disappointments that will surely come their way. We teachers have done our job, given them the tools, taught them to, as my teacher friend from Maine always says, "begin with the end in mind."

My colleagues and I, needless to say, are now in a different mode. We still have meetings to attend but we are giddy (as we are every year) with the expectations of our summer leisure time. We laugh easily, we tell jokes, we are relaxed and at ease.  The stress is gone and we all talk of summer travel, of books we'll read.  I, for one, will be back to San Miguel de Allende, first with students and then on my own with my husband. What makes a summer in San Miguel so attractive is the temperate climate and laid-back character of the community, especially coming from the competitive atmosphere of Washington DC.

As I eagerly await my San Miguel summer, I make one of the dishes I regularly order at La Sirena Gorda in the center of town on calle Barranca. It's a type of ceviche common on the Pacific coast that is a much spicier version of regular ceviche. This is a perfect example of dishes you will only find in Mexico, exquisite in taste and low in calories.

So, the fecha (date) is here for you to try something new. The fecha at hand is the glorious beginning of the summer with all of its delights.

Aguachile for the beginning of summer

Recipe Type: Appetiser

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 15 mins

Total time: 15 mins

Serves: 4-6


  • 1 lb small shrimp, deveined or small scallops

  • 2 serrano chilies or 4 jalapeños, chopped roughly with stem removed

  • 1/2 cup cilantro

  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

  • juice from 6 limes, approximately

  • 1 cucumber, for garnish

  • 1/2 small red onion, sliced thinly for garnish

  • 1 sliced avocado for garnish

  1. Blend the chilies, cilantro, lime juice, and salt.

  2. Pour onto the deveined shrimp and place in a bowl in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes.

  3. Peel and cut the cucumber into 4 strips and slice thinly.

  4. Arrange the shrimp and the aguachile sauce on a place and garnish with the cucumbers, sliced red onion, and sliced avocado.

  5. Add more salt if necessary.

  6. Serve on good quality corn chips or tostadas.

Smaller shrimp work better in this recipe and if they are butterflied it results in a better texture because the lime works more quickly on the raw shrimp. This is a recipe that separates the men from the mice! Have a cold beer ready to put the fire out. Fire eaters, you will love this. The rest of you, and you know who you are, just remove some of the serranos from the recipe if you prefer.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shrimp in Jícama Wraps

In case you haven't noticed, Mexican food is becoming more "haute cuisine."  It's come a long way from the tacos, burritos, totopos, and refried beans often found in typical Tex-Mex restaurants.  In fact, the complexity of authentic Mexican food, as it differs from region to region in Mexico, has always been an adventure to explore and vastly different from much of what passes as Mexican food in the United States.

A crop of young, dynamic Mexican chefs is taking Mexican cuisine to new heights, developing recipes that are on par with dishes found in the best restaurants in Spain, France, or Italy.  Take, for example, shrimp in jícama wraps, a menu item I recently came across in San Miguel de Allende. It's a perfect appetizer: light, elegant and perfect when paired with a good beer or white wine. You'll find the contrast of the crunchy, juicy, jícama to the cooked flavor of the shrimp and the tartness of the lime absolutely divine. For the pico de gallo, required here, you will need to access my recipe in La Madrina's Salsas. Some of the chopping can be done ahead of time, but not too far ahead, (only a day at the most) because the freshness of the ingredients is key.

I tried these wraps tonight on a certain guinea pig I know who crowed that this version of Mexican food is a little frou frou in his humble opinion. But he made short work of it all and I was hard pressed to make them at a good tempo to keep up. Anyway, as I reminded him they're just appetizers! 

Shrimp in Jícama wraps

Recipe Type: Appetiser

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 15 mins

Total time: 35 mins

Serves: 4


  • 20 medium sized shrimp, deveined with skins and tail removed

  • juice of 3 or 4 limes

  • pico de gallo (see this blog for pico de gallo sauce)

  • extra cilantro for garnish

  • jícama sliced paper thin for wraps

  • sea salt

  • toothpicks

  • 1/2 cup flour to dust the shrimp

  • 1/2 cup oil


  1. Rinse and dry the shrimp, devein and remove skin and tail.

  2. Dry the shrimp with paper towels.

  3. Dredge the shrimp lightly in the flour until it is all covered and sprinkle with salt.

  4. Peel the jícama and slice in paper thin slices.

  5. Prepare a pico de gallo as found in this blog and set aside.

  6. Cook the shrimp in the heated oil in a heavy skillet, (the hot oil should not cover the shrimp.)

  7. Turn it until it is cooked on all sides, about 15 minutes.

  8. Place the shrimp on each slice of jicama, spoon onto it the pico de gallo, garnish with more cilantro, squeeze the lime on it, and add more salt if needed.

  9. Roll the jícama and fasten with the toothpick.

  10. Guests can make their own if you provide the ingredients on the side for them to wrap their own.


Another version of these is julienned or cubed mango and grated ginger, minced serrano pepper, lime juice and cilantro in place of the pico de gallo, wrapped with the shrimp in the jícama wraps.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day Buñuelos

On Mother's Day six years ago, I lost my son, my only child, to the war in Iraq. Every Mother's Day, since that day, I have felt unable to write for this blog about anything else besides what this loss has meant to me. How could I? Our children, for better or for worse, define who we are. At whatever age, they are the sun around which our lives revolve. The loss for me, then, has meant reworking the way I live my life, to find purpose, meaning and direction in the chaos. And to learn to find joy again.

So, on this Mother's Day, I think about my own mother and the gift of optimism that she left me. She taught me to persevere in the face of utter hopelessness. From Floria I also learned that there is a moment when one must not shy away from calling something what it is: she taught me to have the courage to speak the truth even when it's inconvenient to the listener, let alone to me; indeed, she taught me to fight for what is right. She taught me to dream, to believe in myself. My mother gave me my 'mother tongue,' Spanish, even though we were Americans living in Laredo. She understood it was our identity that no one could take away. I inherited from her that 'radar' to 'read' a person, that my son also displayed; a certain sixth sense to understand what someone is saying between the lines. Whatever I am today, I owe partly to her. But there is also much owed to my child, whose wisdom taught me so much. That is what motherhood does, it turns us into complex human beings who learn from the children that are entrusted to us for that brief moment in time.

For now, I am blessed with other people's children, these young children, my students, who look to me for guidance and consolation (and instruction in Spanish) for the short time they pass through my life. And there are the young adults whose lives are interwoven into the fabric of my life, who are more or less contemporaries of Alex and about whom I fuss and worry and offer solicited or unsolicited advice. Life goes on...if I look up from my laptop, out the window, I can see my little poet-philosopher Marine, an image on a ray of light, on this sun-dappled morning, nodding approvingly, smiling, holding out white roses for me, wishing me a perfect Mother's Day.  I'm still a mother, after all.

My recipe for buñuelos is my mother's who made them on occasions when my little friends came over. She would make them with lemonade for us. Enjoy

Mother's Day Buñuelos

Recipe Type: Dessert, postre

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 10 mins

Total time: 30 mins

Serves: 6

Buñuelos should be light and airy. These fritters are best when you roll out the dough thinly and drop them into very hot oil. They make a perfect after-dinner dessert with tea, hot chocolate, or even a prosecco or dessert wine.

  • 1 egg

  • 2 cups flour

  • 1 tablespoon shortening

  • 1/2 cup water

  • 1 tablespoon sugar for dough

  • oil for deep frying

  • 2 tablespoons sugar per 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon for dusting
  1. Mix the flour and sugar in a bowl.

  2. Make a well in the center of the flour and drop the egg and shortening.

  3. Mix well with your hands until it attains a corn meal consistency.

  4. Add the water a little bit at a time (you may not need it all) and knead until you have a pliable dough.

  5. Let the dough rest for about 1/2 hour in the refrigerator.

  6. Divide the dough into balls about 1/2 the size of golf balls and roll out thinly; or if it's easier, you can roll them out larger and cut into four wedges, but be sure to roll them out thinly on a floured surface.

  7. Heat oil in a skillet and fry the dough quickly on both sides until it is puffed up.