Mexican Cooking Class

When we arrived to Mexico in August, the restaurants were advertising chiles en nogada, a seasonal dish that also commemorates Mexican Independence. There are variations to the legend of the dish’s origin, but it is generally believed that it was created in Puebla for the military commander Agustin de Iturbide, as he passed through the town on his way to Mexico City after signing the Treaty of Cordoba, which freed Mexico from Spanish rule. The prevailing legend credits the Augustine nuns of the Santa Monica convent with creating the special dish that used local ingredients and incorporated the colors of the Mexican flag. Chiles en nogada require fresh ingredients, and the season runs from August through September although we found that some places continued serving the dish throughout October.

Chiles en Nogada at the Azul Historico

The first time I ordered the dish, I had no idea what to expect. The stuffed chile was roasted, battered and fried and covered in a sweet, creamy sauce. The chile was lukewarm and the sauce was cool – was this how the dish was meant to be served or had it sat too long under a heat lamp before being sauced and brought to the table? I wanted to make sure that I was tasting the dish in all of its glory, so we called the waiter over for clarification. He assured us that the dish was served properly and I got down to the business of enjoying every bite. I loved it! It was savory and sweet, crunchy and smooth – each bite was perfect. I resolved to enjoy the dish weekly throughout the season.

Love at First Bite

Once my culinary quest began, I noted that no two chiles en nogada were the same. They all started with a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with a meat, fruit and nut filling that was covered in a creamy walnut sauce  and festooned with pomegranate seeds. But only my first one was battered and fried, the fillings varied considerably in the meat to fruit ratio and, at one restaurant, you could order sweet or savory sauce or both. I had both, naturally, and decided that the sweet sauce was definitely for me. Similarly, discussions with locals confirmed that every family has its recipe that it swears is the best. One of Matt’s co-workers was delighted that I loved the dish so much and sent home some of his family’s batch for us – delicious!

I met Chef Paulina at an event in early September, and when she told me that she was teaching a chiles en nogada cooking class, I was sold. The class was postponed a month due to the earthquake that rocked the city, so I was suffering from chiles en nogada withdrawal by the time the class was rescheduled for late October. This was my second Mexican cooking class and both started the same way – I showed up at a stranger’s house and was instantly made to feel welcome by the assembled women. The first cooking class was as equally wonderful as Chef Paulina’s class, but it included stiff margaritas, so no blog post about that one!

Fun with New Friends!

Despite our propensity to chit-chat, Chef Paulina put us to work. In addition to chiles en nogada, we were also making tinga de pollo, agua de tuna and a salsa. First up was a chat about the fresh ingredients and how to peel those pesky walnuts. Not crack, people, peel! Thank god that Chef Paulina had already done that step. She then dropped a chicken breast in a pot of water and added salt, garlic, onion and, later, a cinnamon stick to prepare the chicken and a stock for the tinga. The chiles were placed to roast on the open flame and we peeled, diced and sautéed the ingredients for the filling.

With the exception of the acitrón, the candied flesh of the biznaga cactus, the ingredients for chiles en nogada were not exotic, just numerous. Even with her purveyor connections, Chef Paulina made a few substitutions from the written recipe due to the quality of the ingredients this late in the season. The first big test of our skills came when we were each provided a roasted pepper for us to seed, remove the membrane and peel off the charred skin. It became obvious why restaurants merely roast the pepper quickly so it doesn’t char and leave the skins on! We all managed to end up with fairly intact peppers.

While we were struggling with our peppers, Chef Paulina casually tossed a few tomatoes, slices of onion, garlic and a serrano chile in a frying pan. We students panicked, looking at our recipes – what was this?! She laughed and told us it was just an easy salsa to use to top the tinga tostadas. While you can prepare a salsa with the same ingredients without roasting them, it gives the salsa more depth if the ingredients are roasted before blending. She also started sautéing the onions, garlic and chipolte for the tinga. Ultimately, Chef Paulina would add a puree of tomatoes, chicken stock, raw onions and the sautéed chipolte to the onions and now-shredded, cooked chicken and allow it to cook down until the liquid was absorbed. The blender got a workout as the sauce for the chiles en nogada was easily made by tossing the ingredients into the blender and processing until smooth (but not too smooth).

Lots of Notes!

After a quick lesson on agua de tuna – which has nothing to do with fish as “tuna” in Spanish means prickly pear, or cactus fruit – we were ready for assembly. Chef Paulina explained that the tinga de pollo could be made into a taco or a tostada. If made into a taco, only the chicken tinga would be added to the soft tortilla shell. As a tostada, the tinga was topped with crema (a less-acidic, more liquid sour cream), panela cheese, lettuce and salsa. She laughed at our Tex-Mex ways of overstuffing a taco and explained that it was not done here.

Tinga de Pollo

As we enjoyed the tostadas, Chef Paulina prepared the chiles en nogada for us to take home to share with our family. It was a great class: Chef Paulina was a patient instructor, everything was delicious and I met some new friends in the process.

Lest you think only a professional chef can pull off these recipes, a few days after the class, I gave chicken tinga a shot.

The dish came together easily. I was pretty excited when I learned that fresh corn tortillas at my local grocery store were $.67 for about 40 of them! Of course, we ultimately gringo-ized our tinga tacos and added panela cheese and lettuce. They turned out great! Maybe next year I will have a chiles en nogada party… or maybe I’ll just keep eating them in restaurants.

Día de Muertos

Several years after both of my parents had died, they both appeared in my dream one night. The dream was nothing special: we were milling about doing normal things in my final childhood home. No words of wisdom were spoken or cryptic message divulged. I woke up so happy as though both had visited me after so many years apart. That is Día de Muertos.

Final Christmas

Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is actually celebrated on 2 days in Mexico – November 1 and 2 – and is when the path between life on earth and the afterlife is open. This allows the dearly departed to return to earth to visit their living family. The living entice their dead relatives to visit by setting up altars (ofrendas) in their homes dedicated to their beloved – their pictures, favorite foods, mementos, sugar or candy skulls (calaveras), pan de muerto (sweet bread with a cross of “bones” on the top), candles and flowers. Or you can try to entice the famous – we were told of ofrendas for JFK, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, among others. Marigolds provide the dead a path back to the living and are everywhere in the days leading up to the holiday. November 1 is the day for departed children and November 2 is for adults. Families will celebrate in their homes or in the cemetery where their loved ones rest. Unlike Halloween in which the dead are feared, Día de Muertos is when the dead are welcomed. And who wouldn’t want to see their deceased loved ones, if only once a year? Matt and I did not make an altar this year as we didn’t fully understand the holiday, but next year we will be inviting our deceased loved ones to pay a visit.

Catrina on Our Door

A new tradition for Día de Muertos in Mexico City is a fantastic parade. Spawned by the James Bond movie, Spectre, which (apparently) begins with a (staged) Día de Muertos parade in Mexico City, the municipality now sponsors a parade. Matt and I headed into the city early on Saturday to check out the scene and get a good spot. We were rewarded by happening upon the staging area and getting a good look at the floats before the parade began.

After wandering around for 3 hours, we secured our spot an hour before the parade and were not disappointed. What an amazing spectacle! It began with a moment of silence and a moving tribute to the earthquake victims and rescuers.

The next part of the parade, “The Living Dead,” was a walk through history and began with Mexico’s pre-hispanic roots.

Next up were the Spanish Conquistadors and the Widows’ Altar.

The colonial period was represented with some great dancing and costumes.

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A devil chasing an angel provided some comic relief and some interesting, but inexplicable (to me and my Spanish teacher) costumes followed.

Revolutionaries put on a show and then the press got a nod.

The next part of the parade – Carnival of Skulls – continued the fun.

Carnival of Skulls

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A wonderful introduction to Día de Muertos and a great celebration.

And Now for Something Completely Different

We left the Galapagos Islands for the opposite end of the spectrum: Mexico City! A city* of 9 million people, with a metropolitan population of around 22 million, Mexico City is a booming metropolis filled with parks, plazas, museums, shopping malls, world class entertainment and fantastic restaurants. The Mexica people (Aztecs to us) built their capital city of Tenochtitlán in 1325. The city is over 7,000 feet above sea level but was originally built on an island. As a result, it continues to sink at a rate of up to 4 inches per year. Conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s, and renamed Mexico City, it is the oldest capital city in the western hemisphere. After the cultural desert of the Galapagos, we are thrilled to be back in an environment where traditions abound, the climate is temperate and there is  more to do than go to the beach.

México!

We live in Cuajimalpa, the most western “delegation” or borough of Mexico City. Cuajimalpa is situated in the Sierra de las Cruces mountains at an elevation of 8,900 feet. It was a separate rural town until being engulfed by Mexico City’s urban sprawl. As a result, it has a local feel, similar to our home in Cajamarca, Peru, but minus the farm animals. We are not in a fashionable ex-pat district of the city, although there are both McDonalds and Starbucks within a couple of blocks of our house (not that those make it fashionable, just typical). While it takes us about 45 minutes to get into the city, Matt has 3-minute, door-to-door walking commute that can’t be beat in a place where 1 1/2 to 2 hour commutes are not uncommon. A large, Walmart-owned supermarket is around the corner, but the neighborhood also has a Saturday open air market, which are called tianguis here, and there is a permanent market about a mile from our house. There are countless shopping malls throughout the area, with a few nice ones 15-20 minute car rides from our house. With some very minor exceptions (decaf black tea, parchment paper, Shout colorfast sheets), we can find pretty much everything we want or need in the city. What a difference that has been compared to our last two moves!

We learned from our other moves that it is best to get settled in quickly by buying what we need to make our home comfortable. We spent our first two weeks here going to the mall or some big box store almost every day. It wasn’t that we had more than a car-load of things to purchase, but when you don’t own a car, you can only buy what you can carry. One day, in a Home Depot, Matt looked at me and said, “Are we in Wauwatosa or Mexico City?” Apart from the language, it is hard to tell when you are in American stores that look exactly the same. We were lucky to have our shipment from the U.S delivered 2 1/2 weeks after we arrived – it felt like Christmas! We didn’t waste any time and had a chair reupholstered, paintings framed, our apartment painted and our artwork hung. We are having a media console and end table built and have a few more odds and ends on the wish list, but it feels like home.

It hasn’t been all work since we arrived. I joined a book club and knew it would be a good fit when 50% of their titles matched the titles my Milwaukee book club has read. I’ve met nice people through the club and the International Women’s Club. While the drive time from the city makes it rare that we go there on a week night, we head to the city most weekends. Depending on who is counting, Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world, so we have plenty to choose from. In addition to visiting several permanent collections, we have seen a Pablo Picasso – Diego Rivera exhibit and an Andy Warhol one, complete with a reproduction of the Factory’s balloon room. Mexico City is famous for a movement to bring art to the people via enormous murals so those pop up in plenty of places too. But my best museum visit thus far was when our friends, Beth and Chris, were visiting last week because we were going to the U2 show and we ran into Bono at the Soumaya Museum! He was incredibly gracious with his fans and I even shook his hand. What a great brush with fame!

Cosmopolitan Panoramic

While I know that we are in the honeymoon phase with Mexico City, so far all signs point to it being a lasting love affair!

*   Mexico can refer to three political units. First, the country, officially the United States of Mexico. Next, the State of Mexico, which is one of 31 states in the union. Finally, Mexico City, or the District Federal (D.F.), which is separate from the State of Mexico and its own federal political unit, like Washington, D.C. in the U.S. While in 2016 the city’s name was changed from Mexico Distrito Federal of Mexico to Cuidad de Mexico (Mexico City, CDMX), many people still refer to the city as D.F.