Recipes from Mexico

My friends from Mexico met me at the airport in San Antonio for the two and a half hour drive south of the border. There were varied amounts of English spoken among the group. That never bothers me because my Spanish is so very pathetic. I appreciate anyone who can communicate with me. But, one question was very important and the answer was crucial. "Do you eat meat?" I was informed that if I said no, they would turn the truck around and drop me back at the airport. It isn't easy to be a vegetarian with Mexican friends. Fortunately, I'm not and I wasn't dropped off at the airport. Instead, we headed for a steakhouse.

I asked my friends if they ever ate at a Taco Bell while in the States. They scoffed at the idea. They knew what real Mexican food is supposed to taste like and you didn't find it north of the Rio Grande. There were several kinds of taquerias on the drive south. I smiled as we zoomed past them. I knew from experience that I was in for a treat once I saw the huge flag of Mexico at the border crossing into Piedras Negras.

My first cooking lesson started almost immediately upon arrival. Well, actually, it started right after the nap that happened immediately upon arrival. I followed Gaby's parents into the kitchen for a lesson on how to make sincronizadas. I had no idea what that was, but as it turned out, it was sort of like a Mexican version of a ham and cheese grilled sandwich. It was easy to make, and oh, so delicioso!

While the sandwiches were in preparation, Papa Gaby asked if I liked "chile". Now, when you ask someone from the United States if they like "chili", they always think of piping hot soup with beans and meat (and hopefully topped with grated cheese and/or sour cream). That's not what it means in Mexico. If you ask someone in Piedras Negras about "chile", they are talking about salsa with chile peppers in it. Mama Gaby made her salsa with half of a chile pepper in it. Papa Gaby knew that fire is always better. His salsa had three different kinds of chile peppers in it.

The surprise to me was none of the peppers were jalapeños. Those little bits of fire are sliced up and reserved especially for nachos. Mama Gaby used a long, skinny, green serrano pepper. Papa Gaby used 7 serrano peppers, 6 sun-dried red chile de árbol peppers and 1 chipotle pepper. And, one small hint if you want to cut down on the fire. Take out the seeds before you make your chile.

I think it would be culturally insensitive to buy ready-made salsa in Mexico. And, after I saw how easy it is to make, I don't think I can ever buy ready-made ever again. You only need a blender and a microwave. In Papa Gaby's recipe you use red and green tomatoes. I wasn't really sure if green tomatoes are just not ripened or if they are supposed to be green. As it turned out, they are smaller than regular red tomatoes and supposed to be green. Anyway, cook up the two medium tomatoes (cut in half) along with six or seven green tomatoes as well as the chile peppers for a minute and a half in the microwave. Next, pop them into the blender. Add half a chicken bouillon cube, a dash of salt, one small onion, and a handful of fresh coriander. Hit the blend button. Well, you might want to put the lid on the blender first. It's my kind of recipe. That means I can do it with success. No mess. No fuss. No measuring. No complaints.

Now back to those sandwiches. Start with a fresh tortilla. I usually think of tortillas as flat bread about the size of a plate. I never saw those in Mexico. Mama Gaby used mini tortillas about the size of a soup bowl. The recipe calls for a tortilla, one piece of deli sliced meat, another tortilla, some cheese (your choice of variety), and one more tortilla. If you want to repeat layers, that is fine and extra delicious. Grill it up on the stove top with butter on both sides of the sandwich. Hey, I said it was easy.

If you stopped there with your sincronizada, it would be basically that ham and grilled cheese sandwich I was talking about but with better bread. However, in Mexico you top everything with chile salsa, a dollop of sour cream and a hot pepper. I started with Mama Gaby's mild salsa and quickly moved on to Papa Gaby's fire. It was just the right amount of hot. I was in Mexican heaven and it was just my first meal south of the border. There would be a lot more chile. And, as it turned out, I surprised nearly every Mexican who ate with me. I could eat hotter chile than any of them. I explained it was because they were tourists and I lived in Mexico. But truth be told, I give credit to life in Africa. Spices were so hot in Liberia that I cried every time I ate for the first three months. Nothing in Mexico was African hot.

Scroll over to see what happens next.

I heard on television that Mexico replaced the United States as the most over-weight population on the planet. Well, it was easy for me to understand. There is no such thing as bad Mexican food and so much of it included cheese and sour cream. I tried to maintain a minimum of self control with a "one plate per meal" rule. However, my friends ate at least four times a day. There was breakfast, lunch, an afternoon meal before or after siesta time, and then and evening meal. How was that possible?

Ten days into the trip I finally learned the truth. It wasn't possible. My hosts said that they, too, weren't used to eating so much. The four meals were standard, but not the quantities consumed. This feasting was partly due to the holiday and partly due to my visit. As soon as I learned the truth, there was no trip to yet another magnificent restaurant the following evening.

All the feasting still didn't keep me from asking about food. One of my English speaking hosts at school, Moises, said his personal favorite Mexican dish was stuffed poblanos chiles. They were huge, green peppers that seemed to be a local favorite. I saw them stuffed with a variety of goodies including cheese, beef, pork, walnuts, pecans and raisins.

I had my first stuffed pepper only hours after discussing them with Moises. My favorite celebrated the colors of the Mexican flag: green, white and red. The green pepper was topped with sour cream and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. I first tasted it at an Independence Day fiesta but Mama Gaby, Gloria, made it for me for my final celebration in Piedras Negras.

Stuffed Peppers in Walnut Sauce, Chiles en Nogada
Piedras Negras, Mexico
Ingredients for the Filling  
  1/2 pound ground beef   1 tomato, peeled, seeded, chopped
  1/2 pound ground pork   salt to taste
  1/2 medium onion, chopped well   1/2 plantain, peeled and chopped,
  1 clove of garlic, minced   ......(optional)
  3 cloves, ground   1 medium apple, peeled, diced
  1/2 teaspoon cinnamon   1 peach, chopped
  1/2 cup pine nuts   1 pear, pealed and diced
  1/2 cup raisins   1/4 cup oil
  1/2 blanched almonds   8 poblano peppers
Ingredients for the Walnut Sauce    
  7 oz walnuts (about 1 3/4 cup)   1 cup milk
  3 oz. goat cheese (or sour cream)   1/4 cup sweet sherry (optional)
  cinnamon to taste   seeds from one pomegranate to
  1/2 Tablespoon sugar   ......garnish
Ingredients for the Batter    
  oil for frying   1/2 cup flour
  6 eggs    

Preparations for the Filling: Even with my completely limited cooking experience, I am still quite comfortable in substituting or eliminating ingredients. So, if you only want beef, or you would prefer all chicken, substitute away. I guess, there are enough fruits and vegetables in the mix that you could even go vegetarian. However, in my experience in Piedras Negras, nobody in Mexico goes vegetarian. Anyway, thoroughly cook up your beef, pork and onion with some oil in a large frying pan.

Stir in the garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Then, take a moment to stop and smell the roses, er . . . spices. You're going to have a "delicioso" smelling kitchen. After your fragrance break, add the pine nuts, raisins, almonds and tomato. Salt away to your heart's content. And, if you listen to your heart and blood pressure, you probably don't use much at all. Simmer everything for 20 minutes to get rid of some of the juices. Fortunately, you don't have to stir it continually, but you do need to do it occasionally.

Finally, add the plantain, apple, peach and pear to the mix. Cook it up for two to three more minutes. And, yes, you are allowed to munch on some of the fruit before you toss it in the frying pan. When the time is up, remove the pan from heat and cover it with a clean towel (instead of a pot lid) and allow it to cool.

Preparations for the Peppers: This is the part that scares me. You have to roast and blacken the peppers over a high heat flame. My guess is a gas stove is going to work best for this. Of course, I don't have gas. So, my frying pan will have to do. Naturally, I only own one and it's already filled with pepper stuffing ingredients. I'll survive this.

Place the freshly roasted and blackened peppers on a damp cloth to cool a bit. When you can safely handle things without burning fingers, you need to peel off the blackened skin. Then, slit the pepper from near the top to near the bottom, maybe giving yourself about half an inch either way. Remove the seeds and veins. The newly emptied peppers need to soak in water with a bit of vinegar and salt for 15 minutes. While they are soaking, there's time for some kind of Mexican drink. I suggest ice tea with peach. That was readily available in Piedras Negras. If you are thinking of something stronger from Mexico, you don't need my suggestions.

Refreshed after your fifteen minute break, dry the peppers with a paper towel.

It is now time to stuff the peppers. They aren't Christmas stockings that you want filled and overflowing. These colors may match the season, but don't overstuff your peppers.

While you heat up your oil, beat the egg whites until they make stiff peaks. Then, stir in the yolks one at a time to make a fluffy batter. I'm going to have to yield to the expertise of people who write recipes here. If the mix has egg whites and egg yolks all together, my inclination is to mix them all at once. I really can't believe deep down in my heart that it would make that big of a difference. Anyway, whip the ingredients up and then salt to taste.

Pour the flour onto a plate and roll your stuffed peppers in the flour. You don't want the stuffing to pour out of the pepper and into the flour. If that happens, you didn't listen to my instructions about over stuffing. (You only do that at Thanksgiving.) Once the peppers are covered in flour, dip them into the egg mixture and give those little poblanos a very good coating.

Fry them up in a frying pan until they have a golden brown color. Then, place them on a paper towel, or several paper towels, to soak up that extra oil. After all, you want that pepper as healthy as possible before drowning it in cheese or sour cream.

Preparations for the Walnut Sauce: After the stress of the peppers preparation, this next step is easy. Toss all the ingredients in the blender. That means your walnuts, cheese, sugar, milk and cinnamon are all going to be nicely blended together. I'm fairly sure that my hosts didn't use sweet sherry. I'm also fairly sure that they used sour cream instead of goat cheese. Options. Options. Options.

If you peel the walnuts, your sauce will be whiter. If you simply can't be bothered peeling walnuts (like me), your sauce will be browner. It may not be as patriotic, but it saves so much time and I can't imagine it will taste any different. I vote for less white - and work - every time. However, if you are a purist with time on your hands, peel the walnuts in advance. Possibly it would be a good time to prop your feet up with one of those Mexican drinks that I didn't mention.

The dish may be served cold, warm or hot. My hosts prepared the peppers hours in advance and then warmed them in a microwave before serving. The pepper was in the middle of the plate and then the walnut sauce poured on top just before serving. Garnish the sauce with pomegranate seeds. You may add grated parsley for extra green. I never saw it that way in Mexico.

In my not so expert cooking opinion, the poblano chiles at my grocery store are half the size of the ones in Mexico. I imagine it would work almost as well to use a large bell pepper. But, hey, you have to use the green ones.

Since Moises was the start of my stuffed pepper quest, I also had to ask him for his wife Sonia's recipe.

Another Poblano I met along the way, but not Sonia's
Sonia's Stuffed Peppers
Piedras Negras, Mexico
Chiles to serve Eight
  8 roasted poblano chiles   1 potato, peeled & chopped
  1 pound ground beef   1 cup tomato puree
  1 pound ground pork   salt to taste
  oil for frying   1/2 bouillon cube
  4 cloves of garlic   1/2 cup chopped parsley
  1 medium onion, minced   and you may want to think about this,
  3 chopped carrots   .....4 cups of sour cream for the sauce
Salsa to go with your Peppers    
  6 guajillo chiles   a little bit of oil
  3 tomatoes   salt ot taste
  1 clove of garlic   1/2 bouillon cube

Just like in the previous recipe, roasting peppers puts me in a panic. You have to roast, de-vein and clean your poblano chiles. Honestly, I've never roasted a chile in my life and I certainly never thought of deveining one. But, just like last time, clean off the blackened skin, slit the peppers open, and clean out the insides.

The next step is more manageable. Fry up the meat with some oil to get rid of the pink. After all, we all know that if it is still pink, it is still alive. Then, add the garlic, onion and vegetables. Next items to go into the mix are the tomato puree, salt, bouillon cube, and parsley. Cook them until the vegetables are cooked. Of course, I would prefer a time for this step, but experts in the kitchen would know when everything is properly prepared. We all know I'm no expert in the kitchen. But, when the vegetables are cooked, stuff them into the peppers and set them aside.

Everyone seems to make their chile salsa a little differently. Microwave the chiles with the tomatoes and garlic for a minute and a half. Pull out your trusty little blender, add the microwaved goods to a little oil, season with salt and half a bouillon cube. This sauce is for looks as well as taste. Spread a little of it on each plate before placing your stuffed pepper in the center. Then, finally, cover your dish with cream. Now, in my original recipe, it said 1/2 liter of cream. When I asked about that, I was told it meant sour cream. Then, I had to check on 1/2 liter. That's four cups! I would never use half a cup of sour cream per poblano chile. So, once again, feel flexible to eat a little healthier and live a little longer if you so desire. It's still going to taste great.

Copyright 2013 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.