Spicy fig jam (Mermelada de higo con chile)

mermelada de higo con chile en yogur (fig jam over Greek yogurt)

I have a love affair with figs and fig jam. A few summers ago when I was visiting Mexico City, my suegra and I went to the Mercado Coyoacán to pick up some handmade tortillas and oranges for making fresh-squeezed juice. As always, we strolled through the market at a leisurely pace, taking in all the sights and smells of all of our favorite stalls.

One of her favorite stalls, run by a wrinkled old lady, had an abundance of just-picked figs. The viejita stood in the middle of the aisle with her hands cupped, filled with figs as she cried, “Higos! Higos!”

We stopped to say hello to the woman and she cut open a fig to show me the inside. It was perfectly pink. She must’ve seen the look of excitement on my face because she stuffed two figs in my hand and said they were a gift to enjoy. She gave my suegra a few as well and after thanking her profusely and buying a few oranges, we were on our way.

higos (figs)

I don’t recall seeing fresh figs often in the grocery store while I was growing up  in the Midwest– and I’m not sure if that’s the reason why they fascinate me so much now, as if I have a lot of catching up to do or if, like many things, I’ve just gained a new appreciation for them while in Mexico. Figs have been growing in Mexico for centuries; the Spaniards are credited for bringing them to the New World in the 1500s.

If you pay attention to the produce in the grocery store or at your local farmer’s market, you may have noticed figs are in season right at this time of year. Recently, a friend who lives in Los Angeles mentioned that she had an over-producing fig tree. Jokingly, I told her if she wanted to get rid of some of her extra figs, she could send them to me and I’d put them to good use. After a few emails, the figs were on their way to me in the mail. They arrived perfectly bubble wrapped in a box and as she had picked the figs before they were ripe so they’d survive being shipped cross-country, they were just starting to ripen. … 

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RAJAS CON CREMA

rajas con crema

Rajas con crema, a hearty dish made with poblano chiles, onion, Mexican sour cream and a little bit of cheese, is a favorite in my house. And by favorite, I mean that over the last few months we’ve been eating it at least once a week. As one friend puts it, “anything that comes out of your kitchen at least once a week has got to be good.”

There are two tests for me to know if I’ve made a good batch: first, whether I get a “que rico,” and second, whether I get a “pica.” I know it’s particularly yummy when I get a groan with the first bite and a “pica bien rico!” According to José, rajas con crema are the best when the poblanos have a spicy bite, but they’re not too hot. Usually you can tell how hot the poblanos are when you’re removing the seeds after roasting because the heat will burn your skin and if you breathe in too deeply, you might cough. If those two things don’t happen, sometimes I skip the vinegar and water soak after roasting the chiles. If you soak them too long and all the heat dissipates, the chiles are a little sweet rather than spicy but still delicious nonetheless…. 

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CHILES EN NOGADA

ChileEnNogada

chile en nogada

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day—a statement that usually surprises my non-Mexican friends. Every September, I practically go on a two-week blitz campaign to educate my friends about the real Mexican Independence Day.

The celebration technically begins on September 15th, La Noche del Grito. People all over Mexico gather in their town squares and many watch on television as the clock strikes eleven and the president shouts “Viva Mexico,” and the crowd echoes back the same. “Viva la independencia!”

It’s a grand display of national pride; much like the Fourth of July with the fireworks, parades and parties. I always love watching it on TV, seeing the zócalo in Mexico City filled to the brim with people.

This year, I was standing in my living room with a hand full of queso fresco as I watched El Grito. I was in the middle of making a special sauce, and just as the clock struck eleven, I was about to put the cheese into the blender with milk and walnuts. I didn’t want to miss the big moment, so there I was, cheese in hand, watching my TV and trying not to drip on the floor.

If you’ve never seen El Grito before, here’s your chance:

For 2009, I decided to make my own chiles en nogada, a very typical (and somewhat labor intensive) dish served around this time of year that showcases the colors of the Mexican flag. When I told my suegra my plans weeks before, she asked if I’d be able to find all the ingredients. I had to go to a few stores in order to get everything, and actually, the only ingredient that was difficult to find was a decent-looking pomegranate.

This recipe is from a traditional Spanish-language cookbook by Susanna Palazuelos I received as a gift from my suegra a few years ago, and is adapted to our liking. The original recipe calls for some ingredients I don’t care for so I adjusted portions and some substitutions, but the core of the recipe is still the same. The results were excellent and I even shared some with a few Mexican friends here in Chicago who had never before tasted this very traditional dish.

Walnuts WEB

nueces

RECETA:

  • 10 chiles poblanos
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
  • 1 pomegranate, seeds reserved
  • A few sprigs of parsley to decorate each chile

NOGADA

  • 1 ½ cup walnut halves
  • 1 ¼ cup milk (2% or whole; you will use 1 cup of the milk to soak the walnuts)
  • 1 ½ cup Mexican cream (crema de leche espesa)
  • 10-12 ounces of queso fresco
  • 2-3 tbsp cane sugar
  • a big pinch of salt

PICADILLO

  • 1 lb pork loin, cut into a few sections
  • 6 cups water
  • about 1/3 of a white onion (a big slice)
  • 7 cloves of garlic (3 whole, 2 crushed for the pork broth; 2 crushed for the picadillo)
  • 1 bunch of fresh flat parsley, divided (3/4 will go in the broth, ¼ will go in the picadillo)
  • 1 to 1 ½ tbsp salt
  • ¼ cup of vegetable oil
  • ¾ of a cup of white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large red tomato, peeled, seeds removed and finely chopped
  • 1-2 apples, peeled and finely chopped (yields about 1 cup)
  • 1 large pear, peeled and finely chopped (yields about ¾ of a cup)
  • 1 large peach, peeled and finely chopped (yields about ½ a cup)
  • ¾ cup golden raisins
  • ¼ cup almonds, blanched, peeled and finely chopped
Picadillo WEB

picadillo

THE NIGHT BEFORE: Blanch the walnuts for about 5-7 minutes, let cool slightly and peel the skins off. This is the most important part of the recipe not to cheat on, because the skin is bitter. It will take you awhile to do it, but trust me, you don’t want to leave the skins on. Put the skinned walnuts into a measuring cup and cover with 1 cup of milk, cover with saran wrap and leave in the refrigerator overnight. It took me about 1 hour from start to finish with prepping the walnuts.

Measure out ¾ of a cup of golden raisins and rehydrate them by covering with water (room temperature). Let them rehydrate overnight. Drain the water in the morning and reserve the rehydrated raisins until you are ready to use them.

DAY OF:
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the walnuts out of the milk and into a blender. Pour about ¾ of the milk into the blender. Discard the rest. Add the Mexican cream, fresh milk, sugar and salt to the blender. Crumble the queso fresco over the ingredients in the blender so it is easier to incorporate (you want the sauce to be completely smooth with no lumps). Blend until very smooth. Pour into a container and refrigerate.

To prepare the relleno, fill a pot with 6 cups of water and add the slice of onion, 3 whole cloves of garlic (peeled but not chopped), 2 cloves of peeled and crushed garlic, the little bunch of parsley and ½ tbsp of salt. Bring to a boil and add the pork loin piece by piece. Allow it to boil gently for about 15 minutes and then let it simmer for about 40  minutes or until the pork is fork-tender. Remove the meat from the broth and let cool a bit. Shred by hand or with a fork and set aside. Reserve about 1 cup of broth. (Use the rest for another recipe like soup if you wish—you just  made pork stock.)

I suggest you chop everything for the picadillo first.

Start with the garlic: crush 2 cloves and add to a large pan. Chop ¾ of a cup of white onion and add to pan. Peel and remove the seeds from the tomato and then finely chop. Set aside in a prep dish. Chop the ¼ of a bunch of parsley left and add  to prep dish with tomatoes.

Peel and finely chop the apple, pear, peach and blanched almonds. Set aside in another prep dish.

Heat your pan on the stove with the ¼ cup of oil. Add the garlic and onion and cook for about 4-5 minutes on medium heat or until the onion is transparent, but be careful not to burn it. Add the chopped tomatoes and parsley (distribute evenly in pan) and let cook for about 5 minutes without stirring it. (That’s why you need to distribute it evenly in the pan.)

Stir the oil, garlic, tomatoes and parsley briefly. Incorporate the rest of the salt (1/2 to 1 tbsp), the apple, pear, peach, raisins and almonds and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the shredded pork loin and the reserved broth. Continue cooking at medium heat for 7-10 minutes or until the fruit has cooked and the mixture looks thickened. Let the picadillo come to room temperature and reserve.

RoastedPoblano WEBRoast the chiles over an open flame and peel them. Make a large cut down the side of each chile, making sure to not break them or rip the skin. (I suggest using latex gloves for the next step.) Using your fingers, carefully remove the seeds from inside the chile and then use the knife to remove any large veins. If you need a full tutorial with step by step instructions on how to roast them, you can reference my post on how to roast poblano chiles.

In a large bowl, dilute 2 tbsp of sea salt and 1 tbsp of white vinegar with water to completely cover the chiles. Let them soak for 40-60 minutes. This will take a little bit of the heat out of them if they are too spicy. After soaking, rinse the chiles with cool water and pat them dry as much as possible with paper towels. With a spoon, add a little bit of the relleno to each chile, being careful not to overfill them.

While the chiles are soaking in the salt, water and vinegar solution, cut the ripe pomegranate and reserve the seeds in a prep dish. To remove the seeds without making a mess, slice the pomegranate with five cuts but don’t slice all the way through. Submerge in a bowl of cool water, pull apart the slices and remove the seeds gently by hand. Rinse gently.

Pour the nogada over the chile filled with picadillo and sprinkle the pomegranate seeds on top. Garnish each chile with parsley and serve at room temperature.

semillas de granada

semillas de granada

HOW TO ROAST POBLANO CHILES

Step-by-step instructions on how to roast poblano peppers using a gas stove, comal or  barbecue grill from theothersideofthetortilla.com

a fresh poblano chile before roasting

Over the years, I’ve been asked many times how to roast poblano peppers. It’s easier than you think, but takes a little bit of time because you have to roast, sweat, peel, seed and devein them to prepare them for use in a dish. Poblano chiles are used for a number of Mexican dishes such as chiles rellenos, chiles en nogada and rajas con crema, to name a few. I can’t think of many dishes I make without roasting the poblano chiles first, which gives them a more robust flavor. Poblano peppers are also called chile poblano, poblano chiles or, in some cases depending on the region, pasilla chiles. (These are not to be confused with the dried pasilla chile.)

I sometimes make the mistake of using my bare hands to peel, devein and remove the seeds of a poblano chile because it doesn’t smell too spicy. Usually each time I do, I get fooled and the back of my hands feel like they’re burning for the rest of the day. A few times, I’ve scratched my forehead only to feel the searing sensation and have a little red raspberry spot to show off my mistake.

You can save yourself from the burn by wearing fitted latex gloves.

There are several methods for roasting chiles. The two ways I prefer are over a direct flame or on a hot comal. Either way, be sure not to burn the meaty flesh of the chile or it will have a bitter taste. With both methods as the skin starts to blister, you’ll hear what sounds like little zaps of electricity or sizzling—that’s normal.

ROASTING POBLANO PEPPERS OVER A FLAME

  • Place 1-2 chiles directly on the stove burners over a medium flame. Turn with kitchen tongs as each side blisters until the skin is toasted and blackened, but it should not blacken so much that it starts to peel or turn into ash. It should take a few  minutes per side and about 10-12 minutes total, depending on how large they are.
  • You can also follow this same method  on a barbecue grill to roast more peppers at once.

ROASTING POBLANO PEPPERS ON A COMAL

  • If you don’t have a comal (a flat, thin, and usually round or oval shaped pan for cooking tortillas), use a cast-iron or heavy non-stick skillet. Heat over medium flame and add 2-3 chiles to the comal. Turn them until the surfaces are toasted and blackened. The amount of time it takes will depend on whether you have a gas or electric stove and the thickness of your comal or skillet.
Step-by-step instructions on how to roast poblano peppers using a gas stove, comal or barbecue grill from theothersideofthetortilla.com

Roasted poblano pepper

HOW TO SWEAT THE CHILES

Place the chiles in a sealed, plastic Ziploc bag to “sweat” for about 15 minutes. (You can also refrigerate the chiles for a day or two after sweating if you are not ready to peel, devein and remove the seeds for use.) Sweating has two purposes: first to remove the skin and then to cook the chile a bit further in its own vapors to acquire the characteristic taste of a freshly roasted chile. Have a bowl or plate ready to hold the skinned chiles.

Put on your latex gloves.

After 15 minutes, open the bag and one at a time, pinch part of the skin so it tears and peel it off. Remove the skins from each chile and transfer them to the bowl or plate you have waiting. Discard the skins.

HOW TO SEED AND DEVEIN POBLANO PEPPERS

To devein and remove the seeds, cut a slit along the side of the chile. Use your fingers to dislodge the seeds. Pull out what you can with your fingers and then using a slow but steady stream of cool water, rinse the inside of the chile. This should flood the rest of the seeds out if you knocked them loose but couldn’t remove them with your fingers.

Feel for any thick veins along the side of the chile. Using a small paring knife (and being careful not to pierce the skin) gently cut the veins away from the skin. Pat the chiles dry with a paper towel to remove any extra moisture inside and out.

Now the chiles are ready to prepare for a dish.

COCHINITA PIBIL

taco de cochinita pibil

taco de cochinita pibil

Earlier this summer, I found myself searching every ethnic food aisle and every Mexican grocery store in Chicago for Chata-brand canned Cochinita Pibil. Having had it before, I knew it wasn’t as good as the real thing but I was yearning for that delicious achiote-flavored pork. Sadly, it was nowhere to be found. In a moment of desperation, I even searched the internet to see if I could order it from somewhere—finding out I was going to have to pay nearly $10 for a 14-ounce can, plus shipping.

All I could think about was the last time I’d eaten cochinita pibil in Mexico. After a big Christmas celebration with our extended family in Mexico City, we took a trip to Cuernavaca to ring in the new year with my husband’s parents and sister. We spent our vacation playing Mexico City Monopoly (with properties like Xochimilco and Chapultepec instead of Park Place and Broadway) and endless hours of domino. Laughter and shouts of “tramposo!” could be heard any time it was suspected that José was cheating…which was often, because he always likes to win.

On our way back to Mexico City, we stopped at a Yucatecan restaurant called El Faisán, where my suegros often visit after spending a weekend with friends in Cuernavaca. It was the first time both José and I had been there.

I know if El Faisán wasn’t as authentic as anything you’d eat in Mérida, my family wouldn’t eat there. They suggested I try the queso relleno which had a picadillo-style mixture incorporated into the cheese; it’s a favorite of one of our tias. My cuñada ordered sopa de lima and shared it with me. But what pleased my palate the most was an order of three little tacos de cochinita pibil. In fact, we ended up asking for three orders, and there was a mad scramble to get more than one little taco each. Paired with a tall, ice-cold glass of horchata to drink (another one of my favorite things), I was in little piggy heaven.

José was skeptical when I ambitiously said I was going to make cochinita. “In a regular oven?” he said, “it’s gonna be yucky.” In the Mayan language, “pib” means an underground pit for cooking, and that’s the traditional way to make cochinita pibil. Obviously that would be difficult to accomplish living on the sixth floor of a condo building in downtown Chicago, where we have no backyard. But when all was said and done and he tasted his first little taco, he gave me his standard stamp of approval—two thumbs up—and his blessing to make it again.

chile habanero

chile habanero

RECETA:

SALSA DE HABANERO Y CEBOLLA

  • 5 habanero peppers, roasted and finely chopped
  • Juice of  ½ an orange
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp white vinegar

Roast habaneros in a skillet on medium heat until they start to get a few dark spots. Cut top off the pepper and discard stem. Finely dice the habaneros.

Mix the diced habaneros with the chopped onion in a bowl (or directly in the container you intend to store the salsa in, preferably in a glass jar). Pour juices over the habaneros and onions and then add the vinegar. Toss lightly to moisten and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. Keeps refrigerated for about 5 days.

COCHINITA PIBIL

  • 3 lbs pork shoulder, cut into large stew-sized chunks
  • 2 large hojas de platano (banana leaves; if you can’t find them fresh, you can usually find them in the freezer section with other ethnic foods. My grocery store carries Goya brand frozen banana leaves)
  • A roasting pan
  • Aluminum foil, preferably heavy duty

Marinade:

  • 100 grams achiote paste (one box, also called annato seed paste)
  • 1 ½ cups fresh squeezed orange juice
  • 2 cups fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • A big pinch of salt
  • A little freshly ground pepper if desired
limones, achiote 7 naranjas

limones, achiote y naranjas

Cut achiote paste (comes in a block) into small chunks. Put into food processor with orange and lime juices to break up the paste and fully incorporate into the juice. Add the garlic, salt & pepper to the juice.

Pour into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag and add the chunks of pork. Remove air and seal the bag. Place the sealed bag in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight (about 12 hours).

In the morning, remove the meat from the juice and reserve the juice. You can put the meat and the juice back into the refrigerator until you’re ready to start cooking.

To prepare the banana leaves, turn your stove burners on low heat and place the leaves over the flames. You need to heat the leaves enough so they are pliable, but you don’t want them to cook and turn brown. The leaves will turn a brighter green when they’re heated through.

Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

cochinita pibil before cooking

cochinita pibil being wrapped in banana leaves before cooking

In a roasting pan, place the banana leaves one over the other like a cross. Transfer the meat directly into the pan on top of the banana leaves. Pour about half of the reserved juice over the meat—the juice will help steam the meat so it becomes very tender. Gently fold the banana leaves over the meat, being careful not to rip them but so that the meat is completely enclosed within the banana leaves. Cover the roasting pan tightly with two pieces of foil. It’s important that steam won’t escape, so make sure the foil is really secure.

Place on the middle rack of the oven, once it reaches 325 degrees. Cook for about 2 ½ hours, or until meat is tender enough to shred gently with a fork.

Shred all the meat.

The meat can be served as a main dish itself, with side dishes such as fried plantains, black beans or rice, and as tacos or on panuchos (smaller, fried tortillas, with refried black beans in the middle). If you’re going to make them as tacos, spread refried black beans on the tortilla and then place the meat on top of the beans. Garnish with salsa de habanero y cebolla.

Yields 4 servings (3 tacos each).

SALSA VERDE (Cooked and Raw)

Tomatillos GAL

tomatillos milperos

Salsas are the lifeblood of just about every Mexican dish. They can be cooked or raw, made in the blender or in a molcajete. Salsa can make or break any dish, add a special dimension of flavor or even make a dish edible (you wouldn’t eat chicharrón without cooking it in salsa to soften the dried meat).

The simple combination of tomatoes (jitomate or tomatillos/red or green), chiles (of any variety) and other ingredients like onion, garlic and spices is essential to many traditional dishes in Mexican cuisine. Salsa verde is certainly a staple in my house, whether it’s cooked and used for guisados like chicharrón en salsa verde, or raw salsa used for garnishing tacos.

You’ll notice this same cooked salsa recipe will be used over and over again in a number of dishes you’ll read about here and I’ll reference back to it often and sometimes modify it (for example, when making chilaquiles, I substitute fresh chicken stock in place of water).

In Mexico, we’ve eaten similar recipes to mine at many of our favorite restaurants, though some places use epazote in their cooked salsa (an ingredient I don’t use). In Chicago, we haven’t found a place that makes salsa verde the way we like it—or anywhere near it, really. Because of this, we sometimes order take out from our favorite Mexican restaurants and bring it home to eat it with our own homemade salsa.

Chile Serrano WEB

chiles serranos

 

Salsa verde (cooked)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Salsa verde (cooked)

How to make Mexican cooked green salsa.

Ingredients

  • A little over 1 pound of small (milpero) tomatillos, dehusked & thoroughly washed
  • 3-6 serrano chiles (depending how spicy you like it; start with less and add them to increase heat), stems cut off
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 1/4-inch slices of white onion
  • A big pinch of Kosher salt

Instructions

  1. First, remove the husks and wash the tomatillos well. You’ll notice they’re sticky, which is a sign of ripeness, and probably slightly dirty under the husk. Sometimes I find that warm water isn’t enough, and I use a few drops of dish soap diluted in a bowl of warm water. Then I put the husked tomatillos in the bowl and gently rub each one in the slightly soapy water to remove the dirt and sap. Rinse them well in cool water to remove any soap residue.
  2. Fill a pot with water (large enough to fit all the tomatillos) and bring to a boil. Put the tomatillos in and cook in the boiling water until the tomatillo flesh begins to get transparent.
  3. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatillos to a blender. Add the onion, garlic and salt.
  4. Cut the stems off the serrano chiles and cut each chile into a few pieces so they’re easily chopped in the blender. Start by adding 2 chiles to the blender with about ¾ of a cup of water and blend on high (liquify or puree) until smooth and the chiles and tomatillos are completely incorporated. Taste the salsa to see if it’s too hot; if it needs more chile, add them one at a time, blending & tasting the result until you are happy with the level of heat from the chiles.
  5. If it seems the salsa is not quite liquid enough, add another ¼ cup of water. The salsa will reduce slightly when cooked.
  6. Pour blender contents into a saucepan and heat over medium flame until the salsa boils, occasionally stirring. Remove from heat and allow to cool before storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Notes

Stores well in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for about 10 days.

http://theothersideofthetortilla.com/2009/08/salsa-verde/

Tip: for extra flavor with salsa verde cocida, you can also add 2 strips of chicharrón (with meat still attached) to season the salsa. You should add the chicharrón during the end stage when you cook the salsa until it boils for a few minutes, then remove from heat and allow to come to room temperature before storing to infuse the chicharrón flavor. This flavor infusion method only works with the cooked salsa.

Salsa verde cruda (raw green tomatillo salsa)

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Salsa verde cruda (raw green tomatillo salsa)

How to make Mexican salsa verde cruda (raw tomatillo green salsa)

Ingredients

  • A little over 1 pound of small (milpero) tomatillos, dehusked & thoroughly washed
  • 3-6 serrano chiles (depending how spicy you like it; start with less and add them to increase heat), stems cut off
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 1/4-inch slices of white onion
  • A big pinch of Kosher salt

Instructions

  1. First, remove the husks and wash the tomatillos well. You’ll notice they’re sticky, which is a sign of ripeness, and probably slightly dirty under the husk. Sometimes I find that warm water isn’t enough, and I use a few drops of dish soap diluted in a bowl of warm water. Then I put the husked tomatillos in the bowl and gently rub each one in the slightly soapy water to remove the dirt and sap. Rinse them well in cool water to remove any soap residue.
  2. Put the raw tomatillos directly into the blender with all other ingredients. Add the chiles to taste, starting with 2 and adding more if necessary. If it's too dry, add a few tablespoons of water to the ingredients and blend well until smooth.
  3. Serve immediately and store any leftovers in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Notes

Stores in an air-tight refrigerated container for up to 3 days.

http://theothersideofthetortilla.com/2009/08/salsa-verde/

  • What do you do differently in making your salsas verdes or where is your favorite place to eat a dish that includes salsa verde?
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