Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Aromas y Sabores 2011: Chile Education in the Land of the Mennonites

Chef Patricia Quinatana in an ocean blue traditional Raramuri dress at Hacienda de Bustillos, Chihuahua.

Our previous day learning of the depth of Chihuahuan cuisine had me lost in thought as we entered the city of Chihuahua--this trip opened another portal into the wealth of Mexican cuisine. We may never now how profound this cuisine is in such a large country with so many undiscovered traditions.

We started our morning at La Casona, a 19th century mansion that was built for general Luis Terrazas. It's a splendid place in Chihuahua's capitol for a breakfast of Mexican classics. But on a tour that had each of us consuming enough calories to put a bear into hibernation, I grabbed a coffee and escaped with a few bus mates in tow for a market visit.

In Chihuahua, the local taco faves are ubre(utter), bistec(steak), and tripas(tripe). Tacos aren't the main street food here; that would the famous northern-style burritos: thin homemade flour tortillas filled with a local guisado(stew). These burritos are in the taco family--they are tacos.

Our second stop was my favorite cheese stand in the Mercado Popular del Centro. The queso menonita, or Mennonite cheese is made by the descendants of the original Dutch-Canadian Mennonites that arrived in the early 1920's by invitation of Mexican president, Alvaro Obregon. You can find commercial brands of Mennonite cheese all over Mexico and even in the US, but this is the good stuff from small ranches in nearby Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua--home to the largest Mennonite community in Chihuahua.

There are cheese here you won't find anywhere in Mexico like the cheeses of Delicias, Chihuahua, and a regional style of queso ranchero.

The queso pura leche has a light flavor of barely spoiled milk.

Queso Parral from another small town we visited on this trip is perfect for quesadillas. The regional cheeses of Mexico are alleles for the various strands of culinary DNA found all over Mexico: enchiladas, snacks made with masa, chiles rellenos, etc. What's lost in Mexican-American cuisine are these subtleties--there's no such thing as just enchiladas mexicanas. There are enchiladas chihuahuenses, oaxaquenos, poblanas, sinaloenses--it's all regional. In Chihuahua the Mennonite cheeses and other local types help define the cuisine.

Chiles are also a strand of DNA. Personally, I feel a strong attachment to these Chihuahuan chiles. They are delicious and responsible for my favorite recipe of rajas con crema. The chilaca is a long, green chile that is similar to the Anaheim but with a fuller flavor. It's simply divine in rajas con crema.

During this leg of the trip Chef Patricia Quintana gave us an impromptu lecture on Chihuahuan chiles on our bus. It had the energy of a press conference at the signing of a major peace treaty. Chile fever was in the air.

The chilaca is used extensively in its green, fresh form, but the Chihuahuans don't use the yellow form fresh; they dry the yellow chilaca to make chile de la tierra. In other states the yellow chile would be called chile güero in its fresh form.

The ripened red chilaca is also dried and called chile colorin, or chile colorado.

And the hardest working chile in Mexico, the chile pasado, gives Chihuahuan cuisine its greatest star. It's brilliant in braises, stuffed chile dishes, and stews. The fresh chilaca is roasted, peeled, then dried to make a chile pasado: it's smoky, powerful, and earthy.

These a chiles with big northern flavors that helps make Chihuahua one of the greatest traditional cuisines in Mexico.

After our brief, but informative trip to the Mercado Popular we caught up with Aromas y Sabores at the Governor's Palace for an expo of Chihuahuan food products. Here we found cheeses, beef producers, beef jerky companies, and my favorite sotol to date. Sotol Coyame has been around since 1970--sotol is the local agave distillate made from the sotol, or desert spoon--and isn't known outside Chihuahua. Until it makes it to the states, I've a bottle at home to keep me company.

I grabbed a couple of bottles of salsa Chihuiriwa from a local maker of hot sauces that is a fine brand for home use. The expo was impressive and a gave us a close and personal look at the hometown goods.

And the buffet continued at Hacienda de Bustillos in Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua for more samples of Chihuahua's dishes and food products. I enjoyed the lovely asadero cheeses that give the quesadillas of Chihuahua their much deserved fame. The chile relleno with chile pasado again showed the importance of this chile in Chihuahuan gastronomy. You better believe we had carne asada, rajas con crema, machaca, and a variety of foods made from the ranches own apple orchard. There's nothing like being outdoors on a ranch with a grill full of slabs of rugged beef cuts for carne asada, with waiting hands armed with hand rolled flour tortillas.

Before heading on into the domain of the Raramuri, we caught a glimpse of Mennonite life in Cuauhtemoc at the Mennonite house, a museum and shop. There was a Mennonite family visiting from Canada at the house that I spoke with who said that they were born in Mexico but then joined up with the Mennonites living in Canada. With them was a group of women dressed for a different time in their floor length plain dresses that only exposed their weathered faces, and coarse feet.

A more modern Mennonite woman spoke with us as Mexico City reporters climbed on top of one another to ask questions I'm sure these people are familiar with. I was taken with this woman's streak of rebellion (she spoke of her dislike for the traditional dress and roles that Mennonite women play)but noticed that although she looked like a modern woman, she had neither a manicure nor a pedicure. These women live a beauty product-free life, which seems almost impossible in the year 2012.

The level of abstinence and ascetic lifestyle of the Mennonite will forever fascinate the outsider--it gives you the chance to examine your own lifestyle. We can live without these things, I guess, but I do long for a modern beauty bathed in perfume, painted with cosmetics, with shiny skin from scented lotions, and armed with sexy, shaped nails.

Since this day, this trip, my eyes have become sharper. This pattern of a cuisine based on national foods that are regionally focused by cheeses, tortillas, and chiles, with unique local dishes can be easily translated to the casual visitor if you get out and explore a bit. Check out the markets first; do this every time you visit a new Mexican city, or town. In the markets you'll find the pulse of the local cuisine.

By nightfall we arrived in Creel, and began a beautiful journey into the culture of the Raramuri, known as the Tarahumara. I had seen the Raramuri around town in my many trips to Chihuahua, and also on this trip, but our next few days would be a gift from the gods.

Aromas y Sabores 2011

Monday, March 26, 2012

Confessions of a Reverse Coyote in the LA Weekly

photo by Ann Fishbein--property of the LA Weekly

Check out my first review in the LA Weekly--it's my story on how Tijuana became the next food media star. [LAW]

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Tijuana in Food and Wine Magazine, by Damien Cave

This month in Food and Wine Magazine, I take Gulf War II war correspondent, Damien Cave, on a hard core food tour of Tijuana. The street food embedded writer hung with me for every bite of our 10 stop food crawl that lasted about 36 hours.

Check out were we went here on a Super Foodie's Tijuana Tour.