Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mise en Place: A Gilda Teaches a Cooking Class

I'm madly gathering the fresh ingredients--tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, cilantro, chiles--that I'll need to teach a cooking class at Casa Carmen. Travel is by foot, mind you; I've covered many a mile between the market and my house today and not on flat terrain. When someone asks you how long it takes to get somewhere in San Miguel de Allende, the response should be: 10 minutes downhill, 25 pesos (by taxi) uphill.

What's more, it's never a straight shot from any two places, because you always run into someone you know and, before you know it, you've taken a detour for churros and chocolate. Life here is slow and hurried at the same time. Slow because you take time for friendship, hurried because if you want to get anything done, you need to limit your leisure time.
But, today, I'm on a mission.  I'm staying focused.   Even the most basic lesson about sauces that appear frequently at the Mexican table--pico de gallo, salsa de molcajete, and a salsa made with dried guajillo and cascabel chiles--require preparation!

So many sauces, so little time. We'll start with a visit to the Ignacio Ramirez market to identify some of the ingredients and then return to Casa Carmen to roll up our sleeves.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Happiness is a Wild Avocado

I've packed a set of handpainted cups from San Gimignano, a weathered cutting board, two old cork screws, a pair of mismatched dishtowels and assorted kitchen knick knacks no one wanted when my two sisters and I divided our mother's things after she passed away. My husband has packed his own treasures: his Pavoni coffee machine, his pizza peel and, of course, some basic tools. We've packed our hearts in these bags.

I'm on the plane looking down below at Mexico's majestic mountains, at a land where we will eventually live.  Squinting down at the winding roads below, I wonder how many times my family has been back and forth across this forsaken land, led by whatever heart wrenching forces drove them to first leave from north of the Rio Grande to travel south, then from south to north and now, in my case, from north to south once again. The spirits of the women in my family who preceded me, surely must be waiting with a welcoming rebozo in hand to drape around my shoulders for the chilly mountain nights I will encounter. “Hija, por fin has regresado” they'll whisper to me.

I long to take in the vibrant colors and smells, the riotous noise of the perennial fiesta, the lament of the ubiquitous mariachi, and most of all, a quintessential feeling of belonging. A part of me wants to hold on to what I leave behind, but the pull is strong to look forward and not back. For now, my adrenaline is pumping, thinking about the friends I will visit, the trips to the market I will make, the food I will prepare, and the restaurants I will try in San Miguel de Allende, the place I will someday call home.

I arrive and one of the first things I find are glossy-black, wild avocados.  My aunt Gloria used to call them aguacates criollos. They have a thin, aromatic peel that can be eaten along with the creamy green meat. The peel tastes somewhat like Thai basil.

What to make?  Wild avocado tacos.

Buy only the smooth black ripe ones. Slice them in long thin slices. Arrange them in warm corn tortillas and top them with fresh cilantro, salt, and finely chopped onion. Squeeze lime juice and sprinkle with salt. Go up to the rooftop with a cold beer and take in the view of the glittering night sky or devote your gaze to the glow of the Parroquia below. And make a wish.

Note: If you don't have access to wild avocados, use ordinary avocados. (But don't eat the peel, for heaven's sake!)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Message in a Molcajete


I want to tell you a story. It's been part of the lore of our family. It's about a molcajete. This is a story I would have told you, along with many others about our family but, child, we simply ran out of time.

So many years ago, your grandfather, Rogelio, returning safely to Laredo from the Second World War, proposed to your grandmother, Floria, or Lita, as you used to call her when you were learning to speak. A wedding was planned in a poor neighborhood just a few blocks south of the bridge in Nuevo Laredo. The bride's family was humble and, therefore, the wedding party was not large. As the story goes, or as Lita used to say, there was a little girl in the neighborhood who wanted badly to attend the wedding. This little girl, who must have been around eight years of age, according to Lita, appeared at the backyard wedding reception with her best dress and a wedding gift wrapped in newspaper.

The gift was a molcajete that Lita came to treasure probably more than any of the more costly gifts she received. The identity of the little girl is lost in time and hopefully no calamity befell the household in Nuevo Laredo that discovered its molcajete suddenly missing.

This pumice stone mortar and pestle has sat quietly resting on its three legs, when not in use, like a witness to the years we lived in your grandparents' house. I began to use it when I was just a child myself when I helped Lita cook. And when I left home, Lita let me have it. Its black porous surface has an almost smooth texture from so much grinding and I can attest to contributing to its smooth edges these past ten years. If it could talk, what stories it could tell.

Hijo, I'm writing you a recipe for Salsa Molcajete, a sauce Lito, your grandfather, made very often quite early in the morning. Lito was an early riser and he would inadvertently annoy his three sleeping daughters by getting up at 6 a.m. On a Saturday morning, he would roast serrano peppers for his breakfast sauce until they started smoking. Unfortunately, the smoke from the chilis would get us all coughing. Poor Lito...he just wanted to make a sauce quickly, not taking the time to slowly roast the chilis. I'm laughing at the memory of the commotion and yelling that would break out of the bedrooms as my sisters and I would wake up coughing to the smell of smoking chilis slowly wafting into our bedrooms. Throughout the house you could hear the three of us yelling "Papá!!!" Then Lita would join the fray, "Rogelio!!!"

Needless to say, the molcajete has been around for a lot of our family stories. It would have been around for yours too.

Salsa de Molcajete

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 15 mins

Cook time: 5 mins

Total time: 20 mins

Serves: 4

Grinding roasted tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and onion in a mortar, gives them a complexity of flavor you wouldn't otherwise get.


  • 2 cloves peeled garlic

  • 1/2 white onion

  • 1 extra large tomato

  • 1/4 teaspoon seasalt

  • 1/4 cup cilantro

  • juice from one lime

  • 1 serrano pepper (or you can subsitute a jalapeño)


  1. Dry roast the garlic, onion, serrano pepper, and tomato on a comal for about 5 minutes until they are slightly charred.

  2. Peel the tomato.

  3. In the molcajete grind the garlic, serrano pepper, onion (chopped fine) and cilantro with the sea salt.

  4. Empty the contents of the molcajete into another bowl to make room to grind the tomato.

  5. Mix everthing together again in the molcajete, squeeze the lime juice and fix for salt.


This makes a chunky sauce with intense flavors. You can add or diminish any of the ingredients according to your taste.