Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Getting ready...

Preparations for Día de los Muertos are in full force. Stores, banks, restaurants, even bars are decked out with seasonal decorations. In most cases, Halloween staples such as jack-o-lanterns, spooky ghosts, witches, grotesque masks and slutty costumes take their place side by side with the more traditional Día de los Muertos images: colorful sugar skulls, la Catrina (the female representation of death normally appearing in festive pre-turn-of-the-century attire, including a fabulously huge and colorful sombrero) and skeletons of all sizes performing every thinkable human action—playing backup guitar for the rock band at the local Irish pub, riding bicycles, eating the typical Pueblan cemita, dancing in fancy party attire.

I have been really interested (and more than a little amused) by the ways in which both of these holidays are embraced by Cholulans, albeit to a different extent depending on generation, education and income level and general worldview.

One sign that the spooky season blurring the line between death and life is upon us: starting Monday, young children have been scouring restaurants and stores for generous adults, toting their little pumpkin pale or shoebox cut out with a jack-o-lantern face in hopes of receiving dulces or a moneda. A second, more sure sign: a college Halloween costume party Saturday. YES!!! Got to see some of those slutty costumes in action, plus a few creative ones. Namely, wolverine in a full-faux-leather suit and metal claws, Marie Antoinette and even Uncle Sam, courtesy of a Notre Dame study abroad student. I, on the other hand, was “bad” Sandy from Grease for the—count it— THIRD time in my life. Although I did sport some killer and perfectly in character red heels to offset my dire lack of originality. In the end, a great night with some new friends that brought back great memories with old friends (dance parties and copious picture-taking prompted by drinking college-level amounts of, ahem, refrescos? Somehow rang a bell.)

And in the panadería, we (ok—they) have been working overtime night and day to produce enough hojaldras to satisfy the demand.

La Blanca makes several varieties. The typical golden brown pan de muerte topped with sesame seeds ranges from small to very large, the larger varieties filled with raisins, nuts and cream. The large, filled ones run around 200 pesos or more!

The other variety is baked without the egg wash and sesame seed topping and is brushed with melted butter and covered with sugar after baking.

After a taste-test today, I have to say I’m a huge fan of the sugar variety for dessert. You can’t complain when you cover a butter-and-lard-heavy dough that somehow becomes deliciously light and fluffy with butter and sugar. (Who else mixed butter and sugar as a topping for plain white bread as a kid for dessert? Come on, fess up, you know it was delicious….this is better).  The sesame-topped variety is also delicious with a subtle buttery and floral flavor (we throw in esencia de azahar, orange blossom essence, that gives the hojaldras this smell and flavor).

 I have now observed every step of the process, from making the starter, the dough itself, the multi-step assembly of the shaped dough, the egg wash and sesame-seed sprinkling, the baking, the butter and sugar application. My shoulders ache from rolling hundreds of balls of dough (compared to the thousands my co-workers pound out).

But with extra workers in each shift to handle the load, every table covered with hojaldras in various stages of preparation and each of the four ancient ovens working, the bakery is buzzing, full of life and camaraderie. (For example, today I toasted with Netito, trying mezcal for the first time, sipping in between applying bone-shapes to the baking sheet after sheet of dough. Good stuff, but now I know where it gets its reputation.) When we finish preparing the mid-afternoon batch, we all sit together and eat la comida, continuing the jokes and teasing that are always sprinkled in the daily chitchat and resting our feet. Soon enough, it’s back to work. Most of the guys are working eleven-hour days, but all are happy to do so, making good money and doing something they know is worthwhile.

Other exciting, research-related developments. My neighbor Nico’s family friend is an anthropology professor at UDLA. We all met for pizza (Argentinian, mmmm), including her student who just wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Mexican children’s perceptions of death. Five straight hours, at the pizza place and later over espresso at Nico’s and even later at my place, talking about death with this newly-minted postdoc. Nerd as I am, I relished this mini re-entry into the world of academia, which I swore I would never miss after turning in my thesis. Got a great new resource, as well as her bibliography and a PDF of a more-relevant dissertation chapter. She was really jealous as well as impressed that I had already attended novenarios, as she was never able to experience any similar service in a Mexican home during her research months here in Cholula and Puebla. HaHA! Talking with Isabel put into perspective just how cool my experiences thus far have been, and how this fellowship really does open up opportunities by being so flexible.

I said preparations were in full force these past few days, but they really were today as today, the 28th, is el Día de los Accidentados, the day of those who died accidental deaths. Tonight these spirits are supposed to come visit their homes to enjoy the ofrendas set by their relatives.

This afternoon, Sra. Zanella and I, along with about a thousand of our closest Cholulan friends, went to the market in search of bright orange cempasuchil and velvety purple terciopelo flowers, candles, incense, fresh fruit, candy figurines, traditional Pueblan candied fruit, papel picado and other goodies to make up our ofrendas. 

Stall upon colorful stall of ofrenda makings supplant the market’s normal vegetable and fruit stands.

We bought our traditional Pueblan dulces, the sugary or honeyed figs, calabaza en tacha, and dulce de chamote, de calabaza, de tecocotes from a woman who makes all these recipes at home every year just for this season.

 Sra. Zanella made up my mind for me about putting up my first ofrenda; I have almost all of my supplies to set up an ofrenda to my dad and my brother Tony tomorrow (I’m missing a nip of J&B scotch for dad and a Toblerone candy bar for Tony). I’m not expecting a visit, but I do think it’s a nice way to honor both of their memories, as well as to actually participate in the holiday that has intrigued me for so long and is largely responsible for me ending up in Mexico in the first place. 

I do have a couple of recipes to share in the midst of all the pre-Día de los Muertos excitement: huevos con epazote y chile and chayotes rellenos. Both involving ingredients I’ve written about before, but with a little more elaboration with each.  First, I continue my love affair with Mexican breakfast egg dishes with huevos con epazote y chile. 

Most people would not find scrambled eggs topped with a blended salsa made of “Mexican tea,” otherwise known as the pungent herb epazote, and charred and broiled chiles serranos a dish meant to ease their way into their day. And they would be right. If you are looking for a slightly sweet, mild, soothing breakfast dish, this is not the recipe. Go and fix some walnut and raisin oatmeal and come back to this post another time. This is a wake-you-up-with-some-zing kind of breakfast. You will be fully aware of your taste buds when you are through. That said, it is fully worth trying for the adventurous, those willing to bring out a blender before having their morning coffee. I used an immersion blender, but I would recommend following the recipe and pulling out your blender to protect you from the chile serranos. As soon as I turned on the blender, my eyes began watering and I started sneezing, a result of the air-born chile particles. Needless to say, I was a little nervous about the recommended chile-to-egg ratio, at three chile serranos asados to two eggs. But after being charred and softened on the comal, blended with the fresh epazote and paired with cool, creamy avocado slices, the spice level was just right. In the end, the flavor was distinct but strangely addicting. Not sure if it will make it into my regular rotation, but huevos con epazote y chile did not disappoint.

 I rewarded my adventurous spirit with a big steaming glass of café de olla. I finally have a picture of the piloncillo, the cones of dark brown sugar, and the canela.

One day I made chayotes rellenos for a late lunch, using more dairy products than should be allowed in one recipe (I had all said dairy products on hand; I am my mother’s child). Remember how I said the scarily spiny yet surprisingly subtle chayote takes on the flavor of the other ingredients? Obviously it was delicious. Look below for the recipe. It speaks for itself.

Huevos con epazote y chile
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Serves 2

2/3 cup water
6 serrano chiles, broiled until soft and roughly shopped (alternatively, broiled and charred on a comal)
1/3 cup firmly packed, roughly chopped epazote
salt to taste
3 tbs vegetable oil
4 large eggs

Put the water into the blender jar, add the chiles, epazote, and salt. Blend to a rough-textured consistency (This is when you will be happy that you lugged out the blender instead of your handy immersion blender.)

Heat the oil in a large skillet, break the eggs into it, add a little salt, and stir just to mix. Cook the eggs over medium heat, folding them over so that they cook evenly until well set. Pour the sauce over the eggs and continue cooking, without stirring, still over medium heat, until the sauce has reduced and seasoned a little—about two minutes.

Chayotes rellenos
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Serves 6

3 chayotes, about 1 pound each
2 tsp. salt
2 heaped tbs. unsalted butter
2/3 cup finely chopped white onion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 large eggs, well beaten with salt and pepper
6 ounces queso fresco, crumbled
12 small strips of chihuaha cheese (you can substitute a mild cheddar, gouda or queso fresco)
2/3 cup thick sour cream or crème fraiche

If your chayotes do not happen to be precooked like mine I buy in the market, cover the whole, fresh chayotes with boiling salted water. Bring them to a boil and then let them cook covered over medium heat until they are just tender, about half an hour.

Drain and let them cool. When cool enough to handle, cut into halves (hold the chayotes with a rag or some other aid to protect you from the sharp spines) and scoop out the flesh carefully, removing the pithy core and seeds, leaving the skin intact. Mash the flesh well and leave it to drain in a colander.

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Melt the butter in a skillet and cook the onion and garlic over medium heat until translucent. Add the eggs and sir them until just set.

Add the mashed chayote flesh and let the mixture for a minute or so over low heat. Stir the crumbled queso fresco into the mixture until melty and well distributed. Stuff the reserved shells. Top with strips of cheese and sour cream and heat them through in the oven before serving.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Families baking and breaking bread

I am super late posting for last week, but I can explain! Besides having epic uploading issues, I've also been pretty busy. In between going out for drinks or dancing with neighbors, climbing small mountains with new friends, yoga, running and dance classes, I fit in a lot of cooking, at home and with Sra. Zanella. But even more exciting, I did a lot of baking! I started working at Panadería La Blanca, a bakery somewhere around a hundred years old, opened back when there were only three bakeries in all of Cholula and when Cholula itself was nothing but an ancient Mesoamerican religious site, a gravel-road pueblita with one tucked-away restaurant. Now, someone sells pan dulce around almost every corner; internet cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs abound. But La Blanca and its brick ovens have been producing tortas and pan dulce using the same family recipes for as long as anyone can remember, not excepting my ninety-two year old co-worker Yobardo who has worked at La Blanca since 1939. 

 I also work alongside Netito, the grandson and great-nephew of the two brothers and co-owners. Netito is being apprenticed, learning the ins-and-outs of baking the countless types of pan dulce under more experienced workers. (He is the third Ernesto in the family, hence “Netito.” Funny thing is, he is a former college football player, weighing in at approximately 230 pounds and 6’3”. I love how ironic Mexican diminutives can be.) This fourth-generation family bakery is the real deal. I’m in baked-good heaven!

Within ten minutes of arriving, the workers had me kneading and shaping, topping, spreading and dipping. I came home six hours later, worn out but wearing a goofy grin to go along with my flour and dough covered clothes.

 I’ve been back almost every day since, practicing various techniques and becoming fairly decent at a few. Today I tried my hand at shaping cuernos, croissants. My co-workers only had to correct a few, not bad for a first try.

One night Israel, Netito’s uncle —I need a family tree diagram to accompany this post— let me watch while he prepared the dough for los hojaldras or pan de muerto, the bread of the dead sold in huge amounts in the days preceding Día de los Muertos. 

Hojaldras are light, airy and slightly sweet, topped with sesame seeds and shaped to resemble bones. High season begins in a few days, when we’ll be producing thousands of these festive breads day and night in preparation for the first and second of November. Israel divulged that business has been slow this year—no surprise there—and that sales are down, especially to local restaurants and businesses that are now opting to replace part of their daily orders for cheaper, commercial bread. The bakery is counting on the high hojaldra season, when out of tradition and respect for the dead, people buy bread for their ofrendas when otherwise they might forgo that morning pan dulce to make up some of the lost profits.

A long day in the panadería requires a hearty breakfast to make it through until la comida, especially with all the butter, flour and sugar around. One morning I prepared nopales, cactus paddles that are very popular here. 

The nopales con huevo were delicious, a great variation on the endless Mexican egg breakfast theme. Nopales are mild and clean tasting, giving a fleshy and refreshing contrast to the savory egg, as well as a little more texture and bite. 

I also come home with an appetite. One afternoon I used up the rest of the cactus paddles sitting in my refrigerator to make nopales al vapor, inviting my neighbor Nico over as my guinea pig. We ate them as a taco filling with fresh corn tortillas and queso fresco. 

The recipe called for a lot of epazote, the herb also known as Mexican tea, with a pungent flavor that is hard to stomach at first whiff, but cooks down quickly to add nice flavor to black beans, quesadillas, soup, you name it. Quintessentially Mexican, also supposedly relieves the gaseous quality of black beans. Thumbs up all around once you give it a shot.  I was a little nervous as Nico took his first bite, but he complimented me on the lack of slime (a major factor in preparation, and why small, tender nopales are preferred) and the flavor.

I took a break from the bakery on Saturday to prepare chiles en nogada with Sra. Zanella to bring with us to Pachuca on Sunday where the two sides of the family would reunite after thirty years. A big day requiring a special dish. I wrote about this rich and complex festive dish when I first arrived, but now I know why many families only prepare them once a year: they take a ton of work! First, roasting, peeling and de-seeding the (twenty-five!) chile poblanos, peeling and dicing pounds of fruit, slowly cooking ground beef into an aromatic concoction with tomato and onion, nuts and raisins and all the diced fresh fruit. Then filling the chile poblanos with the picadillo, closing them with toothpicks, covering them with flour, bathing them in foamy, beaten egg, and frying them in hot oil.

But that’s not the end! We brought the chiles with us the next day to Pachuca, reheating them in the oven, and waited to make the nogada, the blended sauce of milk, queso fresco, almonds, pecans, brandy, sugar and cinnamon, fresh the day of the big meal. Finally, we peeled the fresh pomegranates for the colorful topping. After finishing up in the kitchen, we joined Sr. Canal’s aunt, cousins, and extended family in the living room. I felt privileged to be able to witness this reunion: Sr. Canal fondly wrapping his arm around his aunt’s shoulder on the couch, Sra. Zanella getting to know this side of Sr. Canal’s family for the first time in years, meeting their cousin Enrique’s children. I felt all warm and fuzzy, although it could have been the 3 o’clock tequila aperitif. Sra. Zanella and I breathed a big sigh of relief when Sr. Canal’s aunt, the woman responsible for making this family recipe for years, took her first bite and nodded her approval. 


 With a starter of sopa de pasta with a chipotle sauce, a glass of wine, and coffee and date and nut cake for dessert, the chiles en nogada were divine and deeply satisfying. We all sopped up the nogada left on our plates with bolillos, rolls from a local panadería. Before we left, Enrique’s son Jorge invited us to his wedding in November. I’d like to think our chiles en nogada had something to do with the invitation.

Nopales con huevo
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Serves 4

2 tbs. vegetable oil
1 pound nopales (about 3 ½ cups) cleaned and diced
8 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped white onion
4 serran chiles, finely chopped
salt to taste
3 large eggs

Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and add all of the ingredients except the eggs. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan from time to time. (I uncovered the pan and gave the bottom a good scrape every once in awhile.) Cook for about 25 minutes (weighing both the slime factor as the nopales give off juice and your level of hunger in the morning) until the mixture is slightly moist and well seasoned. Break the eggs into the nopales (I like to lightly beat them before, even though it results in an extra dish to wash) and stir until set.

Nopales al vapor estilo Otumba
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Makes 2 ½ cups, enough to fill 12 tacos

2 tbs. vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 lb. nopales, cleaned and diced
1 large scallion., finely chopped
2 jalapeño or Serrano chiles, thinly sliced
salt to taste
2 large sprigs epazote, roughly chopped

Heat the oil in a skillet or large, heavy saucepan. Fry the garlic, without browning, for a few seconds. Add the rest of the ingredients except the epazote. Cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the nopales are almost tender.

Remove lid and continue cooking over slightly higher heat until all sticky liquid from the nopales has dried up—about twenty minutes (The nopales will turn from bright to a duller green). Stir in the epazote about three minutes before the end of cooking time.

Serve with hot tortillas and top with crumbled queso fresco.

Chiles en nogada
Sánchez family recipe, passed down from Abuelita Sara to Sr. Canal's aunt Cristina Castellano Sánchez
Makes 25 medium to large chiles en nogada

Before we began, Sra. Zanella found Sr. Canal’s family recipe handwritten in her recipe notebook. Amounts were approximate at best, directions only partly recorded. The rest was done from memory. I took notes and photographs throughout the process to produce this recipe. We were missing the pine nuts for the filling and the parsley garnish. No one noticed. 

Most traditional recetas pueblanas for chiles en nogada call for pork, but Sr. Canal’s family prefers ground beef.

25 poblano chiles (about 1 ¾ lbs.)

2 lbs. of ground beef
6 Roma tomatoes, broiled, de-skinned, and diced
½ large white onion, finely chopped
¾ lb. small, paler peach (not large, brighter orange variety), peeled and cubed
¾ lb. apple (Fuji or similar apple would be appropriate), peeled and cubed
¾ lb. perón (small, slightly green apple resembling a pear), peeled and cubed
¾ lb. pears (if possible, a small, sweet variety), peeled and cubed
2 large plantains, peeled and cubed
2 heaping handfuls each:
roughly chopped pecan
roughly chopped blanched almonds
pine nuts
approx. 4 tbs. vegetable oil

For the batter:

All-purpose flour

11-12 eggs, whites and yolks separated
½ tsp. salt
vegetable oil for frying

Once again, Sr. Canal’s family recipe differs in that the traditional walnut sauce is replaced by a sauce of pecans and blanched almonds. The flavor was just as rich with the same subtle nutty flavor.

2 heaping handfuls of blanched almonds
2 heaping handfuls of pecans
3/4 lb. of queso fresco
2 cups whole milk (or to desired consistency, the nogada should be liquid but not runny)
2 tsp. cinnamon
4 tbs. sugar (added one at a time, to taste. Should be fairly sweet but not overwhelmingly so)
2 tbs. brandy or sherry

Seeds from 3-4 pomegranates
¾ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves

Begin by preparing the chile poblanos, charring them over gas burners. Allow them to sweat for 20-25 minutes, then peel and rinse. Open each chile along one side, removing seeds and veins. Set aside to drain.

While chiles sweat, begin peeling fruit. Rinse and cube into bite-sized cubes (This results in a chunkier, more interesting filling where the individual ingredients are apparent rather than a homogenous mush.) Set aside. (Try to find a friend to help and give company, at least for this part!) Be sure not to let the chiles sweat for longer than half and hour during this laborious process; the chiles will become very soft and delicate, making the rest of the preparation more difficult.

In the largest, heaviest casserole you have on hand (if you don’t happen to have a huge Mexican earthenware cazuela somewhere in your pantry), heat oil—enough to cover the bottom of your pot. 

Cook the onion over medium heat until translucent; do not brown. Add roasted tomatoes, simmer for a few minutes. Mash tomato and onion mixture until fairly smooth. (The tomato and onion merely season the meat and do not figure prominently in the filling). Add the ground beef, raisins, pecans, blanched almonds and pine nuts, mixing well. Cook until aromatic, approximately twenty minutes, stirring occasionally and scraping bottom. If the meat begins to stick, lower the heat. 

Add the fruit, mixing well. Cook, covered (we merely set the largest cover we had into the cazuela), mixing occasionally until the fruit becomes tender, gives off some juice. Be sure not to overcook and end up with mushy fruit.  Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Fill a plate with flour. Fill each chile with a generous amount of picadillo, making sure to fill the length of the chile. If you are unable to close the chile with either side of the opening slightly overlapping, remove some picadillo. Secure with a toothpick the length of the opening. Roll the filled chile in the flour, set aside on a large platter.

Heat generous amount of vegetable oil in a large frying pan. Separate 5-6 egg whites from the yolks. Beat the egg whites with ¼ tsp. of the salt until they reach the soft peak stage. Add approximately 1 tbs. of flour, beating to incorporate. Add the yolks and incorporate, beating to a foamy mixture. Grab each chile, one at a time, by the stem and dip through the foamy egg mixture.  (If the chiles were allowed to sweat for too long, they will be too soft and will have to be dipped by hand or using two forks. Also, the floured chiles might become doughy and stick to the platter. If this is the case, dust with additional flour before dipping in the egg.) Fry the battered chiles, one or two at a time, turning each chile three times. Splash the hot oil onto any part of the chile with egg-batter left uncooked, especially near the stem. Drain for a few seconds along the edge of the pan, set onto platter with paper toweling. If you have a steamer, place the steam rack on top of the platter and use for draining instead. If the egg mixture becomes too liquid, take a moment to beat again. The foam gives the fried batter a light texture that soaks up the nogada. When the egg mixture runs out, clean the bowl and start fresh with the remaining eggs, separating the whites and beating them first with ¼ tsp. salt and flour, then adding the yolks. Finish frying remaining chiles.

For the nogada, blend blanched almonds, pecans, crumbled queso fresco, sugar to taste, cinnamon, and whole milk. The nogada should be slightly textured, liquid but not runny (stick-to-your-ribs consistency). This will require at least two batches. Set aside in a large bowl and add the brandy or sherry.

Peel pomegranates, extracting the seeds.

Serve one
chile to a plate, allowing everyone to ladle as much nogada as they like, passing the pomegranate seeds and parsley to garnish as well. Serve with fresh rolls to soak up remaining nogada.

Note: Can be made ahead and reheated in oven for about 10 minutes at 350° F on cookie sheet lined with paper towels. The nogada should be made fresh. Consulting Diana Kennedy’s notes, she claims the chiles do not freeze successfully, but Sra. Zanella has been freezing and reheating her chiles for years. With all the work required, it’s nice to set aside 5 or so to reheat and eat at a later time, when the party and hassle are over. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Week in which I eat a lot of meat and cheese

My apartment sounds like the silence of the lambs. Except, instead of innocent lambs screaming at the slaughter, I have mosquitos, a swarm of them, and while I can only see and kill a few, I know they’re there. Their screaming gives them away.  It’s a dog-eat-dog-world out there, and I plan on spending the next few hours killing me some mosquitos, otherwise I’m waking up swollen with welts.  And itchy bites do not make for easy concentration in a Monday-morning yoga class.

Between swatting outbursts, I decided to arrange a Mexican cheese taste test, fairly simple given that I have four, FOUR, types of cheese waiting in my refrigerator right now. What can I say, I am a lover of all things cheesy, be it dairy product, bad joke, boy or eighties power ballad.

Queso número uno (starting from the left): Quesillo. This cheese has figured prominently in my time so far in Cholula, namely in the finger-licking good quesadillas made at my favorite restaurant stall inside the market building and on top of cooked chayote to give it some kick.  White, salty and stringy, this cheese makes a good snack raw and melts into stringy goodness.

Número dos: Queso Manchego. In reality, this cheese has no right to call itself manchego, the true stuff coming only from La Mancha, Spain (home to no less than Don Quijote himself). The Mexican version is also made from sheep’s milk, but I have yet to see it cured and aged to the drier, harder consistency and the developed flavor that made me fall in love with true manchego. Also what makes the Spanish cheese such a perfect accompaniment to jamón ibérico or, when that stretches the wallet too far, jamón serrano. (I also love that traditional Spanish dessert of manchego paired with quince paste, membrillo) But alas, Mexican cheeses are mostly simple, fresh affairs. Not that I’m complaining! Queso Manchego is softer and less developed to be sure, but still has good flavor.

Número tres: Queso Chihuahua. Softer and milder than the Manchego. Supposed to melt really well due to the high fat content (think soft cheddar). I plan on using it to top a tortilla and vegetable casserole on the agenda tomorrow.

Número quatro: Queso fresco. A white, salty, soft and crumbly cheese made of cow’s milk. A cheese with many uses: eaten straight, crumbled on top of appetizers, sliced to make a melty filling for enchiladas or chiles. I plan on, ahem, exploring this cheese’s many facets.

And there are many left to try, including but not limited to: queso panela, queso asadero, queso añejo, queso cojito (just grated cheese to top various antojitos).

I also tried Queso de Puerco, not really a cheese at all but, rather, headcheese—a favorite deli meat in various European countries. In other words, all the goodies from the pig’s head, including ears, and any meaty bits, congealed with the naturally gelatin of the skull. The smell is reminiscent of bologna, but there is no mistaking the various textures that makes up this delicious deli meat—it’s all in plain sight. It made a great torta with mayo, sliced tomato, onion and avocado and the slightest spread of salsa de chipotle.

That oddly-named foodstuff is a nice segue into the real theme of this week: meat; slow-cooked, juicy meat and various tender and fatty animal parts, all wrapped up in freshly-made tortillas, topped with a little diced onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salsa roja or verde, and gobbled down greedily between glugs of fruity, sugary refresco.

Wednesday was Gustavo’s birthday. After some obstacles and failures I will refrain from relating here, including struggling to wrestle control over my ancient oven with nigh a temperature gauge and foolishly using some very-odd smelling butter bought from a butter mountain at the market (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), I succeeded in baking my favorite chocolate cake from Molly Wizenberg’s fantastic blog Orangette and equally delightful new book A Homemade Life. But that’s not the exciting part, just the part where I brag a little. The exciting part was accompanying Sr. Canal and Sra. Zanella to buy carnitas, buche and cueritos for Gustavo’s birthday. Pork and pork parts. That I can live with. Now, tripe and intestinal bits have never really been my favorites, I often think this meat has the texture you would expect it to and tastes just a little too, well, bodily. But buche, pig’s esophagus, was delicious. Tender and yielding, never chewy, juicy, with a delicate pork flavor. Cueritos are yet another incarnation of cooked pig skin. In contrast to the fried chicharrón—a great snack and potato chip alternative—or the soft, almost disintegrating gelatinous chicharrón stewed in sauce, this pork skin was tender yet still substantial, slow-cooked and flavorful; as anyone who knows his textures can attest, a Jello Jiggler wins hands-down when up against your dish of run-of-the-mill, flimsy Jello.

The next day, after a late night celebrating Gustavo’s birthday, Bush, Sr. Canal and I loaded up in the Chevy and headed to Pachuca. Sr. Canal’s dentist appointment was merely a pretext, the real reason for this expedition was the highway-side barbacoa, mutton (borrego) slow-cooked, seasoned and wrapped in maguey leaves, in an earth pit, covered with rocks and dirt to seal in the heat overnight. It seems that the best food in Mexico is found next to some highway. 

On the way to the appointment, Sr. Canal got out of the car, crossed multiple lanes of traffic to the median and yelled to the cook to save us some panza, his favorite. When we rolled up an hour and a half later, there was more than enough panza, both verde and roja, waiting for us. We started with consomé, or broth. I was expecting a mild meat broth of some sort, much like the consomé de pollo I had sampled before.  Instead, I was greeted with a fragrant, rich broth with a few garbanzo beans in the mix. The onion, lime, and salsa added to taste lightened the nearly-intoxicatingly rich broth. As Sr. Canal saw my eyes widen with the first bite, he chuckled, exclaiming “¡Jugo de carne, puro jugo de carne!” Pure meat juice. Literally; a pan is placed underneath the slow-cooked borrego, capturing the juice that runs down from the meat, which is served as a first course. 

Next, a platter of barbacoa, panza verde and panza roja covering a cooked maguey leaf, served with small, green, fresh tortillas, onion, cilantro, and the universal salsa verde and salsa roja. Now I know I said I have never been much of a tripe fan, but this mixture of odds and ends changed my mind. Esophagus, stomach, heart, and who knows what else, all chopped up and mixed with flavorful sauces. I liked the stuff more than the straight barbacoa. Probably had something to do with the high fat-content. Makes for great eating. In the photo, the panza roja is closest and to the right, panza verde in the middle, and the barbacoa to the left and back.

After this mind-numbing gluttony, we loaded back into the car to continue our expedition. We first visited the sixteenth-century aqueduct, built by indigenous hands to bring fresh water to the Franciscan convents built in the region. 

Next, on a tour of the countryside in search of ex-haciendas. We saw several up close, but many more tucked up under distant hills.

We also saw our fair share of campesinos herding cows and sheep.

We returned home, fat, happy and tired.

These meaty feasts were a much-welcome change from the eggs, yogurt, cereal, chicken broth and tortillas I had been living on for three days, huddled on my couch with a fever. I guess those antibiotics my doctors prescribed were a good idea after all. Although the same medication is available here, over the counter. As a result, I have no recipes to offer. Cooking was far from intriguing this week. Eating, on the other hand, never fails.