Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Chilacayote Empanadas

Yesterday, Memorial Day 2013, I wrote in my journal:

On a day like today my son was buried, at the very front of neat, diagonal rows of tombstones. The empty, verdant field in front of his grave where his mother and father gasped in anguish at the sight of his casket on that day, is now a fully populated landscape, filled with the lost dreams of young lives ripped away from this earth so early, so incomprehensibly. The rows grew from Alex's grave in all directions, of those young who still lived, breathed, and dreamed they would survive, when Alex was lowered into the ground. So much was lost and buried forever, never to be found again.

I could not bear to write about celebratory food. I longed to write about memories of times past, memories that didn't tread anywhere near the symbols of this day. Would you humor me with my recipe for empanadas which I learned from my aunt in Mexico? Because...after that moment in our lives seven years ago, we ever so slowly learned to live again, and food once again became the expression of love that it had always been. These chilacayote empanadas are truly special, divine little folded pockets of love, flaky on the outside with a golden, angel-hair surprise spilling out of every bite. My elderly aunt, Leyla, prepared the filling in the little town of Marfil, Guanajuato, recently, and then packed the jars filled with the angel hair chilacayote in her suitcase for her bus ride to San Miguel de Allende where she visited us. It all reminded me of those days so long ago in Laredo when the aunts arrived with bags full of delicacies from Monterrey, Puebla, or Villaldama.

Chilacayote is a squash that favors a mountain micro climate, very common in the area around San Miguel de Allende; its mottled sage green color is a delight to the eyes, and, as it turns out, you can prepare a million different things from chilacayote, just take a look online.

One of my favorites is candied chilacayote and another is agua de chilacayote. Anyway, Tía Leyla arrived with the cooked, amber colored angel hair chilacayote filling and it was a perfect beginning for a tray of empanadas. We put our aprons on the next morning and got to work, cranking out dozens of empanadas ready to offer friends arriving at our house from out of town later that day. I lost myself that day in the good moments shared with a beloved aunt and the conviviality of those days that followed with friends that came and went, exclaiming over our seemingly endless supply of

Chilacayote Empanadas

Recipe Type: dessert

Cuisine: Mexican

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 15

This recipe is on the difficult side but well worth it if you can find chilacayotes where you live.

  • a 5 lb chilacayote (more or less)
  • brown sugar or piloncillo (you will measure half the weight of your baked squash)
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • grated peel of one orange

  1. Cut the chilacayote in half and bake covered for one hour in a 350 degree oven.

  2. Remove from the oven and scoop out the flesh.

  3. You don't have to remove the seeds, they're good for you!

  4. Weigh it and place in a large pot covered with water, half the weight in sugar, the cloves, the stick of cinnamon and the grated peel of the orange.

  5. Cook at medium heat for about 45 minutes until it all caramelizes and the water evaporates.

  6. Take care to stir often so it doesn't stick.


The recipe for the pastry is here: http://culinarianexpeditions.blogspot.com/2011/11/floria-pumpkin-empanadas.html

Friday, April 12, 2013

Fava Bean Soup

After a week's worth of splendid weather in San Miguel de Allende and festivities with family and friends leading up to Easter Sunday, getting back to the classroom has been, frankly, difficult. I love my job as a teacher and always delight in seeing my students after a long break. But I'm also thinking of my trip over Spring Break, the recent memories like the sun warming my back.

In San Miguel, the furiously twittering birds entice you out of your bedroom early in the morning. From the rooftop you observe the glory of each morning and consider the day's promises. Time's awastin', mi vida, levántate, the melodious birds also seem to be telling me.

This year, we had a special visitor. An elderly aunt who took a nine hour bus ride all the way from Monterrey to be with us. Tía Leyla is our regiomontana (a native of Monterrey, Mexico) Mary Poppins. She has the profound wisdom of her years and the exuberant energy of a 20 year old. She's a powerful storyteller, weaving tales from a remote past, she vividly brings to life the village where my father was born in Mexico. Each morning we made coffee and set the table, taking pleasure in small things, reminiscing, grateful for the opportunity to be together for what was left of our vacation.

Tía Leyla is the kind of person who makes you believe things will be alright; she calls everyone hijo or hija, even the cabdrivers. She has a wise nugget of wisdom for every occasion. She writes poetry (and recites it!). She is kind, intelligent, and a devoted Catholic. If you suspected that she is perhaps is little overzealous in her religious devotion, you would see her differently after a few days in her company. She doesn't preach, she practices and does so quietly. You will never hear a cross word or complaint coming from her.

So, if I bring you these Lenten specialities after Easter, you will forgive me because I did 'seize the moment' by spending this quality time with my aunt.

Let's start first with fava bean soup. Fava bean soup is something eaten in Mexico especially during the period of Lent and it's something we ate often this past week. My aunt and I prepared it with fava beans we bought at the Tianguis outside of San Miguel. There is a buttery, creamy texture to this bean soup that makes it very special.  You will find it very easy to make with the dry fava beans you find at the grocery store here. You can even make it with canned fava beans, but you will get a creamier texture if you make them yourself.

Fava Bean Soup

Recipe Type: soup

Cuisine: Mexican

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 6

It is magic to watch these homely looking dried beans become this velvety, elegant soup. If you can make your own chicken broth for this, it's better, if not, use commercial broth. If you can make your own beans, it's also better, if not, use canned beans. But just try this soup, it's delicious!

  • 5 cups dry fava beans
  • 3 roma tomatoes, chopped finely
  • 1 medium sized onion, chopped finley
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • olive oil to cook tomatoes, onion, and garlic
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • salt to taste
  • cilantro for garnish
  1. Soak the fava beans overnight.

  2. Place them in a pot and cover them completely with fresh water.

  3. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat, cooking them for about 2 hours.

  4. Add the chicken soup; it should be a soupy, lumpy, creamy texture.

  5. Separately, cook the onion slowly until it is almost transparent.

  6. Add the tomatoes, and garlic and cook this mixture covered until it is practically dissolved.

  7. When it is completely cooked, add this mixture to the pot of beans.

  8. Cook for another 20 minutes, adjust for salt.

  9. Serve in bowls as a first course, or in ramekins, as an appetizer, garnished with cilantro.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mixing Cultures: Capirotada for Alex

Our son was raised in a household where his Italian father and Mexican mother reigned in the kitchen with battling cuisines. The Italian cuisine won the battles more often than not, but never to anyone's disadvantage. Frankly, during these last thirty-five years of marriage, it has become as easy for me to cook a good risotto as an arroz a la mexicana. So, often it's me cooking Italian with a wary eye to my husband who is known to slip into the kitchen at the least expected moment in a badly timed effort to straighten up the kitchen counter, inadvertently sabotaging my cooking (ie; throwing down the disposal a pound of orange sections from which I've just removed the membrane and put aside.)

Needless to say, meals have been important to us. Through the years we learned to settle for Mexican breakfast: taquitos, quesadillas, atoles, frijoles, huevos a la mexicana. But the rest of the day has often been reserved for Italian family favorites. It hasn't always been easy to 'mix' things, though, because one always wants to reproduce things as they were in our taste bud memories. One morning, discovering I was out of corn oil, my husband and I argued about whether I should mix olive oil with refried beans. The conversation went something like this:

Me (with fanatic conviction): I'm not cooking my pinto beans with olive oil!
My husband (testy): Why not?
Me: Not gonna do it!
Alex (attempting to mediate with the hope of getting breakfast at some point): Papá, she doesn't like to mix her cultures.

So, Alex had gotten to the crux of the matter, as usual. He was mostly right. I've liked to keep my cuisines compartmentalized. But, here, to honor and remember my baby who was born in April almost 32 years ago, I've made a special capirotada. Capirotada is a Lenten-Passover bread pudding that has been made in Mexico in a myriad of ways. The three main ingredients that give this dish its Mexican essence are dark brown sugar (piloncillo), cinnamon and clove.  It is not a typical bread pudding with egg and milk and usually falls limp and floppy on the plate. I've adapted the recipe, keeping the three main ingredients but adding milk and egg to give it the elegance of the mold it is baked in.

I've used my husband's homemade Italian bread which is slightly sour, but you can use any good quality artisan bread. In addition, I have added orange peel and walnuts that bring to mind the desserts of Italy. The fragrance of orange, cinnamon, and clove will fill your kitchen for hours.

Alex, your teasing, lop-sided smile is always with me in the kitchen...looking over my shoulder, prodding, taste-testing, keeping my wine glass filled, putting on my favorite salsa music to cook by. How precious, how short, how bittersweet, the times we shared...



1 large egg
1 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
4 cups water
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cloves
1/3 cup walnuts
1 small loaf French bread or any artisan style bread sliced and left to harden and then toasted, torn up into small chunks and placed in a bowl
3 tablespoons butter
zest of one large orange
2/3 cup whole milk or heavy cream
To garnish: crème fraiche, clotted cream, or Mexican crema if you can find it.

In a saucepan bring the water to boil with the sugar until it dissolves. Add the cloves and cinnamon, cooking at a boil for about 20 minutes, until it becomes syrupy. Remove from the heat, discarding the cinnamon sticks and cloves, adding the butter to melt in the hot syrup. Add the zest as an effusion of flavor into the hot syrup. Let it sit for 10 minutes.

In a bowl beat the egg and the milk or cream together. Pour slowly into the warm syrup mixture taking care not to curdle the eggs. Stir well.

Pour the syrup, egg and cream mixture into the bowl with the bread. Be sure to moisten all the bread with the poured liquid. Add walnuts. Pour this into a buttered flan dish.

Cover with foil and bake for about half an hour at 375 degrees. Remove the foil for 15 more minutes to brown the Capirotada. Set aside for 10 minutes before serving. It can be topped with crème fraiche to counterbalance the sweetness of the piloncillo.

Option: add ½ cup yellow raisins when you pour the syrup, milk and egg mixture into the bread.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Recipe Review: Diana Kennedy's Lenten Beans

I recently purchased Diana Kennedy's book Oaxaca al Gusto, a 400 page tome on the indigenous food of Oaxaca, which, in many cases, is unknown even to many Mexicans outside of these valleys. Here you will find recipes with the fundamental building blocks of the food of the region: chocolate, chiles, and corn. And, as Adriana Legaspi has argued, these meals are not just a means of nourishment, but, rather, an important way to understand how they fit within ancient traditions practiced by the community.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Hot Meal On the Go: Sincronizadas Gringas

This summer I will take my middle school students to San Miguel de Allende and already the menu of what they'll eat dances in my head. It should be authentic but not too exotic, healthy, but appealing to even the least adventurous 13-year-old. Some things are just going to look mysterious to them, but they will not leave Mexico without tasting mole in the Oaxacan style. The experience at the table is another facet of the culture,  another dimension of the country and its people. Hence, missing out on the gastronomic opportunities is a total loss, no matter how many hours of Spanish you offer students.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Part 2: Preserving the Mexican Identity Through Prehispanic Cuisine

Adriana Legaspi is dedicating her life to the preservation of Mexican culture and identity by promoting the importance of traditional ingredients and dishes.  She runs the Gastrotour of Malinalco which offers participants hands-on cooking classes and tours of the market in Malinalco to buy organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

What follows is the second part of our interview with Adriana Legaspi.

How have processed foods affected the average diet in Mexico?

Unfortunately, the diet of the average Mexican has reached an extreme point. In fact, the problem of infantile obesity is particularly egregious; we hold the dubious title of  the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world. Fats in fried food are added to our main carbohydrate, corn. The fats add flavor to tacos, quesadillas, tlacoyos, memelas, sopes, etc. but also tons of calories to the daily diet of thousands of office workers and blue collar workers who eat out everyday.
Despite the provenance of a precolumbian diet where animal fats were practically non-existent, (as were refined sugars other than fructose and honey from bees or ants,) we cannot conceive nowadays of a life without our daily ice cream, candies of all types, sweetened cereals, commercial foods, dairy products laden with salt and other chemicals to preserve them. And the worst of it is the ubiquity of junk food and the deplorable fast-food companies that arrived in Mexico 20 years ago and have made a killing far beyond their wildest expectations. Adding to this situation is the decrease in physical activity of the average Mexican, whether it be the rural person who has come to the city or the office worker, neither of whom has the opportunity to walk or exercise.

Traditional food, on the other hand, has ritual meaning and a built-in societal code of reciprocity such as communal cooking on saints' days or for weddings. Today, all of that has been lost. Mole, for example, is eaten not just for festive occasions, but rather anytime and everywhere. In the past, food like this, as well as all manner of desserts, was reserved for important events.

During colonization, the local tradition of corn gave birth to dishes like the guajolota, which is nothing more than a gastronomic aberration. It is a corn tamal inserted into a wheat bread roll, accompanied by corn porridge.  Millions of Mexicans eat guajolota for breakfast.

The precolumbian diet was healthier than today's and the public health problem we're facing is undeniable. Schools and universities are doing their part to control the availability of junk food but the all-powerful interests of transnational corporations are difficult to reign in. Mexico is the number one per capita consumer of soft drinks in the world, over and above the consumption of the United States, despite our genetic propensity for diabetes. Health care and the cost of treating chronic disease arising from this lifestyle and diet will bankrupt us if something radical is not done soon.

If you could have an impact in what people eat in Mexico today, what would it be?

Simply that people should reconsider the native crops and integrate them into their diets in the manner of the native pre-colombian peoples: a preponderance of vegetables or food derived from vegetables, greatly reduced in protein derived from animals, the use of steam, oven, and comal as cooking strategies to eliminate fats and sugars.

What region of Mexico appeals to you most as a chef/cook and scholar?

In the mesoamerican way of thinking, life was one unit integrated with the sky, the underworld, life among the living and among the dead, nature, the seasons, the earth, biology, and our spiritual life. When you know this, you also know that all wealth and interest varies according to where you are.

To go to Oaxaca or Michoacan where the local ethnic groups are so present and their cuisine is so varied and colorful is an indispensable condition for anyone who, like myself, is devoted to this subject. But it's no less important to visit what was once known as Árido América (the desert states of the northern part of the country) where the pitahaya cactus blooms in flaming colors only after a rain, and in the same state of Hidalgo, in the Valle del Mezquital, seat of the Otomí tribe, you will find a magnificent variety of local resources related to the maguey, to insects, small animals, and cactus flowers.

Regarding the more personal, I cannot help but mention Malinalco, where I direct the prehispanic gastrotour and where I teach about this topic. Malinalco is a privileged area, a point of transition of two climates, one being

subtropical and the other  being high montain terrain. It is a microclimate in and of itself, where almost every native crop can grow, such that its market is a reflection of this in the precolombian manner: zapotes, mameys, calabaza flowers, chayotes, papaya, pineapples, nances, capulines, tejocotes, guava, quelites, wild mushrooms, cacahuacintle corn, cactus dressed for cooking, zompantle flowers, and so many more things that amaze the eyes. Those who participate in the tours tend to focus on photographing the markets more than anything else.

Here is where I hope to spend the rest of my days (although never in retirement) but, rather, having left the city, waiting for you to come and visit me so that we can walk its cobblestone streets, visiting its market and cooking a precolombian meal.

*Photos courtesy of Adriana Legaspi.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Rolling Out a New Life with Tortillas de Harina

On a warm spring day of my youth, a bowl and rolling pin marked the beginning of my new life as an independent woman.  I was heading off to college and my mother took me to Woolworth's in Laredo, Texas to make the purchase.  The bowl was a sturdy green ceramic that couldn't have cost more than two dollars and the rolling pin might have cost even less, a far cry from some of the things I crave nowadays from places that sell gourmet cookware.

Through the years and through all my moves, I carried them around with me like a passport, a reminder of who I was and where I came from, until I finally lost track of both the bowl and the palote (rolling pin). But the shopping trip to buy them remains one of the fondest memories I have of my mother.

I imagine it was a bittersweet moment for her; I was her first-born daughter and the first to travel far away to study. She knew I would probably never again live at home, not to mention in the same town. Yet she didn't betray her emotions. I did not understand what she must have felt that day until I became a mother myself.  All these years later, I remember we bought the bowl and palote and celebrated the joy of the moment over a fountain coke at the drugstore counter.

We bought the bowl and the palote to make sure I would have the tools necessary to amasar, to prepare the dough for the daily morning ritual of making the tortillas needed to accompany breakfast. In time, as a busy student and later as a working mother, I would come to abandon the idea of having to make them from scratch.  The fat content in the shortening traditionally used in flour tortillas also became a reason to go without. I began to prefer corn tortillas that I bought at the grocery store. The flour ones became a special treat to look forward to when my mother visited.

Corn tortillas are the norm in most of Mexico. However, in northern Mexico and along the U.S. border, both wheat flour and corn tortillas are eaten; wheat are for breakfast and corn for lunch and dinner.

I've adapted this recipe from my mother's, cutting the quantity for shortening in half and substituting with peanut or canola oil for health considerations. Also, in my house, we didn't stack our flour tortillas.  We liked them flaky, so we separated each one, leaning them against the inside of a basket where they could cool slightly without becoming sweaty or gummy. And we would eat them like that, fresh, warm, and delightfully flaky.
Tortillas de Harina/Flour Tortillas

Author: Gilda V. Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 4

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
  • 1/2 cup warm water

  1. In a large bowl mix the salt with the flour.

  2. Add the shortening and oil and mix thoroughly with your hands.

  3. Form a dough by adding the water slowly with one hand as you mix the dough with the other, until a soft dough is formed.

  4. Roll out the tortillas and cook on a warm griddle, turning on both sides.

  5. Place in a basket without stacking them as they come out.

  6. Serve immediately with eggs, beans, etc.