Ponche de Tamarindo

The holidays are coming and the weather’s getting cooler, which means I’m already starting my countdown to Christmas and las posadas Navideñas in Mexico.

A few weekends ago, I attended the Kenmore blogger summit here in Chicago where I participated in a day of cooking challenges with some old and new food blogger friends. You can check out my team’s recipes at cookmore.com (but a heads up that they’re not Mexican recipes). My favorite team challenge was one where we had to create a beverage using a slow cooker. Naturally, I suggested we make a spinoff of my warm winter margarita recipe, but with a few modifications since tequila wasn’t an ingredient option.

Our creation was a spiced brandy apple cider that wowed the judges and won us the competition; my guess as to why the recipe was such a success is probably because it had more than a little piquete of brandy, wink wink. I’ve been tinkering with some new holiday recipes recently, and the challenge inspired me to adapt a ponche de tamarindo recipe with brandy that I’ve been working on for the slow cooker.

The punch has two tart elements: whole tamarind pods and flor de jamaica (hibiscus flowers), which are mellowed by the sweetness of the guava and piloncillo. The cinnamon and brandy give a woody depth, and overall, it’s a satisfying drink to warm you up on a cold night. And of course, it’d be perfect to serve for your posadas…. 

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Camotes al chipotle: A Mexican twist on a Thanksgiving classic

If you’ve spent even one Thanksgiving at an average American dinner table, you’ve likely encountered sweet potatoes or yams with some kind of brown sugar or maple syrup and a marshmallow topping. I’m not knocking the tradition—in fact, I grew up eating it and usually get a craving around this time of year—but there are lots of other interesting things you can do with sweet potatoes, in my honest opinion.

Now that everyone in my family knows about my culinary skills, I’ve felt the need to give my menu a few new touches to keep things interesting. Though Thanksgiving is not a Mexican holiday, I decided this year to give a few traditional dishes a Mexican twist to surprise my family.

Here’s a recipe I developed to dress up the traditional sweet potatoes we usually serve on our Thanksgiving table. And, with the calorie-rich menus typically served around the holidays, this recipe is a bit healthier than traditional mashed potatoes that may be made with tons of butter and heavy cream. The marsala is a non-traditional ingredient to Mexican cooking but adds an interesting depth and sweet, nutty flavor to this dish. The chipotle should add a smoky flavor, but not be too spicy. If you’re afraid your troops will stage a revolt at the dinner table for doing something too different, you can always cut out the chipotle and add twice the adobo sauce to weaken the chile flavor so they don’t notice too much that you’ve given them the old switcheroo on the sweet potatoes.

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving from our home to yours!

YouTube Preview Image… 

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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

guayabas en sancocho

I love the smell of ripe guayabas Mexicanas. 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 (consequently, also the same place that made me appreciate higos–or figs; a topic for another post). 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…. 

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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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