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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CHAMPURRADO

champurrado

There’s this place in Mexico City where my suegro loves to eat. It’s a little family-owned restaurant called Merendera Las Lupitas, and he’s friends with the owner.

Las Lupitas is situated on a corner in Coyoacán facing the Plaza Santa Caterina, in a two-story white building with these beautiful, dramatic thick cobalt blue accents around the windows. They have a heavy, rustic wooden door, and inside there’s colorful papel picado strung across the ceiling. Lots of local art adorns the walls.

What I love about this place is that it’s so traditional. The menu is pretty basic and the atmosphere emits a feeling like you’re eating in a relative’s home. Even the placemats, dishes and furniture are very modest. But don’t be fooled by all the simplicity–each dish on the menu packs as much satisfaction as that of a fancy restaurant, minus the attitude and the cost.

Among the number of delicious, traditional items on the menu there, my suegro almost always orders a mug of atole at the end of his meal.

masa

Atole is a hot drink, made with a nixtamal (corn) base from dissolving masa in water, sometimes with piloncillo, and heating until it becomes thick. It’s a stick-to-your-ribs type drink that’s guaranteed to keep you warm. It can come in many flavors; vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are most typical.

You can usually find quickie versions in a powdered packet in the grocery store, and they taste OK if you’re in a bind and can’t make the real deal. But the packets typically use powdered cornstarch as a thickening agent, so they lack the depth and flavor produced by using real masa as the drink’s base. The chocolate version is called atole de chocolate or champurrado…. 

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GUAYABAS EN SANCOCHO (AKA GUAYABAS EN ALMÍBAR)

Mexican guayabas en almíbar. Get the recipe on theothersideofthetortilla.com.

Guayabas en sancocho, also known as guayabas en almíbar, is a delicious dessert of guavas stewed in a cinnamon and piloncillo syrup.

I love the smell of ripe Mexican guavas. Their creamy white flesh and tropical fragrance are simply intoxicating. They remind me of this one particular little stall that sells fruits at the Mercado Coyoacán where my mother-in-law likes to shop. Whenever I visit Mexico City, I’m always eager to tag along with my suegra when she needs to grab something from the mercado because I love walking among the vendor stalls discovering new things.

José also likes the smell of guayabas–but for a different reason. You see, as a big brother, José has always dabbled in a serious form of sibling rivalry. My cuñada, on the other hand, can’t stand the smell or taste of guayabas. The smell actually makes her wretch. A few years ago when we were visiting around Christmastime, we bought a big bag of guayabas for making ponche navideño. I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

RELATED RECIPE: Ponche navideño… 

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PONCHE NAVIDEÑO

ponche navideño

First, I know it’s the end of January. I know there are 10 more months before you will likely try this recipe out, but I couldn’t let another day pass without sharing it with you because it gives me such warm, fuzzy feelings and memories of being back in Mexico with our family. And with the cold weather we’re having in Chicago right now, I need all the warm and fuzzy I can get! Typically, this is a holiday punch, but in my house we’ve been drinking it all winter long.

This recipe for ponche Navideño comes from José’s abuelita Elda, who passed away in 2006. While I never met her, I’ve always felt like I had due to the abundance of stories I’ve heard about her and her cooking. This past Christmas, my suegra taught me how to make her mom’s ponche recipe and someday I’ll teach my own children this holiday family favorite. I also learned that most families have their own recipe, so keep in mind this recipe isn’t the only way to make it. In fact, for a long time, nobody in our family knew that the secret ingredient in abuelita’s ponche Navideño was Bonafina (a store-bought orange drink similar to Sunny Delight or Tampico Citrus Punch)…. 

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CHURROS

In the U.S., I’ve seen several different versions of churros. Make no mistake: none of them are very authentic. Some make my stomach churn at the thought (think theme park churros filled with chocolate or fruit-flavored goo), while others are passable for some quick cinnamon-sugar satisfaction during a desperate moment. It’s important to fry the pastry dough just right because if they’re over-fried, they’re just no good.

Churros WEB

churros

Several years ago when José and I were still dating, I made my first trip to the legendary Churrería El Moro in Mexico City. Founded in 1935, this cultural culinary gem is more than just a 75-year-old churro depot. It’s an incredible experience. The storefront has a big glass window so you can watch the churros being made. That alone makes it worth the trip. In fact, even famous Chicago-based chef Rick Bayless is rumored to have stood outside El Moro for hours upon hours when planning the concept for his new quick eatery, Xoco.

The waitresses at El Moro wear mustard-yellow diner uniforms with white trim and aprons. The blue, white and yellow patterned tiles, stained glass and yellow stucco walls inside are elements of any dream I have had dealing with churros ever since. (Yes, I dream about churros.) It’s all a part of the experience. With four types of hot chocolate to choose from and for the equivalent of a few dollars, you can’t go wrong when ordering churros y chocolate, especially in the chilly winter months. … 

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CAFÉ DE OLLA

I vividly remember the first time I really tasted café de olla. It was a sunny summer morning in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco district and I was eating brunch with my then-boyfriend and his parents at a well-known restaurant (side note: I would later marry him). I say “really tasted” because I know that a few times earlier in my life I’d had some bastardized versions—God-knows-where in the Midwest—that just had cinnamon in it and were called “Mexican coffee,” or worse, actually passed off as café de olla by name on the menu.

In terms of food and beverage experiences, this first taste of real café de olla was a pivotal moment in the way that I viewed coffee. It suddenly became more than a morning caffeine fix, laced with milk and sugar. The restaurant, El Bajío, has become one of my all-time-favorite places and is known for its truly traditional Mexican fare. They serve their café de olla in a beautiful tiny earthenware mug that resembles a larger olla. If you’ve never seen one, an olla is a big lead-free clay pot that is glazed on the inside for cooking and typically painted with a folk art design on the outside.

El Bajío also introduced me to many traditional foods that I’d never eaten before and changed the way I felt about Mexican cooking. So, I suppose to say it changed my view of coffee is certainly an understatement. It introduced me to a host of new flavors and ideas; it made me want to learn to cook traditional Mexican food and toss out any Americanized recipe I’d ever made. It is for the above reasons that I chose café de olla as the first recipe to share here.

If you’ve not been to Mexico City, you likely haven’t heard of El Bajío. Founded in 1972 by Raúl Ramírez Degollado and Alfonso Hurtado Morellón, the restaurant is now run by Carmen “Titita” Ramírez Degollado, who took over when her husband passed away in the late 1970s.  El Bajío has six locations: the original, Cuitláhuac, and five others. Of the many times I’ve had the pleasure to eat there, I’ve only ever visited the Polanco location but my husband has been to both the Cuitláhuac and Polanco dining rooms. Usually when we go to El Bajío with family, it’s to the one in Polanco.

To read more about the restaurant and to view their menu, you can visit El Bajío online.

When I returned to Chicago that summer, one of the first things I did was make the trip to a Mexican grocer in Pilsen to find piloncillo and start experimenting. Named for its cone shape, piloncillo is unrefined brown sugar, a result of the cristallization of two types of sugar cane. It’s also known as panela or panocha, though I wouldn’t walk into a store and ask for it using those names; you may get some strange looks due to the slang meanings.

Some people like to flavor their café de olla with whole cloves, aniseed or allspice. I did a bit of research and there are even some weirdos who put semi-sweet chocolate in their café de olla—guacala. (A Spanish expression reserved for a supreme form of icky.) Not me; I like to keep it pretty simple.

Now, every time I drink café de olla, I close my eyes with the first sip and remember the start of my journey into traditional Mexican cooking. I hope you’ll enjoy my recipe below, and please feel free to leave comments with your thoughts, fond memories of café de olla or what you do differently in your recipe.

RECETA:
If you don’t have an olla (and most güeros don’t) you can steep the coffee directly in the saucepan and strain before serving. I often use a 32-ounce French press to avoid spilling while straining the loose coffee grounds and cinnamon sticks from an olla; the instructions below are for steeping with a French press. If you use a saucepan or an olla, it is best to use a fine mesh sieve over a serving carafe to filter out the coffee grounds and cinnamon sticks. If you don’t have a fine mesh sieve, you can use a regular-sized sieve with some cheesecloth to catch the grounds.

  • 3 ¼ cups water
  • ½ cup whole coffee beans
  • 2-3 sticks of cinnamon
  • 3-4 small cones of piloncillo
  • 1 tsp unsulphured molasses (optional, but adds a nice depth)

Boil the water in a medium saucepan. When the water is at a rolling boil, add the cinnamon sticks and piloncillo. Allow it to boil for a few minutes and then reduce to medium heat, stirring until the piloncillo is completely dissolved and you can smell the cinnamon. Remove from heat and let it sit to steep the cinnamon for 3-5 minutes.

Grind the coffee beans to a medium-coarseness (make sure not to grind too fine or you’ll get sludge at the bottom of your cup). It’s important that the coffee is as freshly-ground as possible.

Remove the cinnamon sticks and reserve. Pour the liquid mixture into the French press carafe. Pour coffee grounds over the liquid and push the press down just enough to fully wet the grounds, then pull up so the grounds are released and begin to steep. Allow it to steep for about 5 minutes. Pour into a small coffee cup. If you’d like, add a cinnamon stick to your cup for a little extra cinnamon flavor.

Yields 2 servings if you use big mugs or 4 servings if you use small coffee cups.

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