An essential cooking tool in Mexican kitchens, a comal is a flat plate or griddle, typically made with cast iron and a rim around the edges. They are usually round and found in many sizes, though there are some rectangular versions too. There are also comales made with aluminum, and in later years it has become quite popular to use the non-stick/teflon versions as they are more user friendly.
Comales were traditionally made, for centuries, with clay. In the countryside there are plenty of homes and fondas that still use clay comales and tend to have one for making tortillas and corn masa foods and another for charring or toasting vegetables and spices.
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Growing up in Mexico City, my sisters and I used to prepare exotic meals, perfumes and potions for the inhabitants of our enchanted forest. That was our dog, the bluebird, snails, butterflies and ladybugs that happened to peek into our backyard and witness our extravagant mess. It also included any family friend who happened to stop by and become a willing victim. We sometimes offered cooking classes too.
My mother set us up in the backyard on a big blanket with random pots and pans, while she cooked laborious weekend meals. There was a fig tree, an apple tree, a peach tree, a couple of what we called Chinese orange trees and tons of azaleas and herbs that offered an immense array of witch-crafting material. But among our most prized ingredients were dried jamaica flowers, known here as hibiscus flowers, stored in a big jar in the kitchen.
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No matter how hard we tried we just couldn’t stay dry.
A single step out of the plane and it all seemed part of a magical realism novel from Gabriel García Márquez. In that hot, humid and tropical pueblo, every move was slowed down in a permanent mist, which made my clothes feel damp. Under the open sunny sky, that mist was shiny and full of light as it transformed the colors from the exotic overgrown plants, colorful houses and small streets. There were cute little insects, bees and hummingbirds moving all around. Wide chubby trees offered some shade, as people walked by with no hurry, wearing earth colored hats.
And everything, absolutely everything, was infused with the lusciously sweet aroma of vanilla.
No. I don’t do drugs.
This is a true description of a small town in the region of Totonacapan in the state of Veracruz, where vanilla originated and is still heavily grown. Also where my husband and I were invited to a wedding, more than a decade ago. And it was in that small pueblo, where I tasted the best horchata I have ever tried.
Continue reading We could all use a little Horchata…
The cinnamon mostly used in Mexican cuisine is called Ceylon and it is also known as true cinnamon. It is quite different from Cassia, which is mostly found in US stores. However, as time moves on, one can find true cinnamon in an increasing number of stores here.
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Ay, ay, ay! Patita, espérate mamacita! My nanny repeated, as she snatched the hot plantain tightly wrapped in aluminum foil, from my hands. Her hands were more resistant, she insisted, as they were older and had cooked so much. She would hold my chosen package with an open hand, so the camotero (sweet potato street cart man, who also sold plantains) could tear up the foil. As the steam flew up to the skies, he poured a more-than-any-child-could-wish-for amount of La Lechera sweetened condensed milk… and so it fell, sweet ounce, by thick ounce, onto that moist, rich, filling and immensely satisfying treat. Sheer joy, that was.
I devoured it in what seemed a couple bites, just to lick the last but yummiest remains from the crumbled foil. There we were, standing on the street corner where my family lived, mischievously laughing: it was already getting dark, almost dinnertime, and no, no, no, I wasn’t supposed to be having any. Oh dear, how I miss that woman! Now every time I eat a plantain, I get a sparkle of that sheer joy.
Continue reading Three tasty ways to eat ripe plantains
Plantains are now available almost anywhere in the United States. They have the appearance of being thicker, longer and bigger type of bananas. But they are not. No wonder they are called macho bananas, plátano macho, in most areas of Mexico. Although from the same family, plantains are a different ingredient. They are starchier, meatier, firmer, milder in flavor and have much thicker skin than bananas and are better treated as vegetables in a culinary sense, since they are only eaten cooked.
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Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy has said that the Serrano chile has the shape of a bullet. One could say that it tastes like one too! Serranos are spicy. However, as with most chiles, you can pump down the heat by removing the seeds and veins.
They have, like the Jalapeños, a dark and deep green color, shinny skin and a small and thin stem. However, Serranos tend to be on the smaller side and are much thinner and appear longer.
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Pickled Jalapeños are a very popular garnish, topping or side for plenty of Mexican foods like tortas, tacos, quesadillas, grilled meats, rice, beans, tostadas… just to name some. So much so, that in many Restaurants, they are placed in the center of the table along the side of salt, pepper and a breadbasket. Many people nibble on them right out of the bowl… They are popular in Mexican Pizzerias too!
You can make your own or buy them already bottled or canned at the stores. They are so intensely used, that there are plenty of brands that carry them as a regular product. Taste does vary considerably from one brand to another, so try a couple, and see which ones you like more.
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I am not one to carry a bottle of hot sauce in my bag wherever I go. I do have an uncle that proudly does. Wherever he travels, his Tabasco sauce eagerly jumps out of his bag and splashes its somewhat flavorless heat on whatever food it happens to come across. Yep, fancy restaurants too.
Most Mexicans are picky chile eaters. Since we have so many varieties, and such varied and distinct ways to use and prepare them, we can exquisitely discriminate how and what we pair them with. We love their different flavors, textures, fragrances and personalities. It is like considering different kinds of fruits. So my uncle is more an exception than the rule.
All this to say, without any excuse, that although I am not a hot sauce bottle kind of woman, I am a pickled Jalapeño kind of gal.
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This is probably the most well known fresh chile outside of Mexico. It is extremely popular inside the country as well. It looks a bit similar to the Serrano chile, and can be used interchangeably, thus they are many times confused. They are both dark green, with a shine to them, and carry a small and thin darker stem.
However, the Jalapeño is larger, bigger, rounder and chubbier than the Serrano. Ironically, it is milder in heat and has a lighter taste. Just as most fresh chiles, its heat can be pumped down by removing the seeds and veins. Similarly as other fresh chiles, don’t buy them if they have wrinkled skin or dark brown or black spots.
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