Monday, June 7, 2010

Our Obsession with Mexican Food part I.

I was sitting in my high school World Geography class, probably before lunchtime,watching a film on Mexico.  The narrator was talking about the foods cooked and eaten by the people of that country. There was a Mexican woman patting out flat pieces of dough, which turned out to be tortillas, and placing them on a hot piece of metal over a fire.  They looked so good!  Better yet, she filled them with beans, not Campbell's pork and beans but some other pink bean, rolled them up and took a bite. I was in heaven watching that. The closest thing I could think to do was to flatten out some Wonder Bread, spread aforementioned pork and beans onto it and smoosh it together.  That was pretty good. My brother Bob liked bean sandwiches too.  I soon forgot all about that film and quit eating bean sandwiches.
We had no exposure to Mexican style food other than my girlfriend down the street in our little town whose father was from Spain.  Her mother used to cook such exotic foods and the whole house smelled different. I now know it was olive oil, sofrito, sausages, rice and different stews.  My girlfriend's complexion was amazing. We used to hang out in her rec room listening to the Beatles first albums and just die over Paul and George while her Mom cooked. I never tasted anything but the smells were good.

I met Steve, my now husband, in Chicago and took a chance by driving across the country in his 1968 Porsche Targa. We trusted everyone in the 60's. My girlfriend introduced us and I had my student airline fare of $90. that I turned in for the cash he was eyeing for gas money. At the end of our trip he dropped me off in San Diego where my girlfriend, Janet had rented an apartment for us.  We wanted to live at the beach but the summer season wasn't quite over yet.  It was kind of fun to be in downtown San Diego in those days.  You walked everywhere and Balboa Park wasn't far.  We took the bus out to the beach every weekend to search for a place to rent after Labor Day.  In the meantime we cooked at home with our limited knowledge of how to cook.  I liked to experiment with recipes out of magazines.  Things like Pork chops with peaches which brought gales of laughter from Janet and Steve when he was visiting.  There was a Taco Bell near us.  I couldn't pronounce one Spanish word.  Not knowing the "ll" was silent(ya, not L) or the "a" was a short "a" (ah not A) made for some very interesting comments from the natives of San Diego especially those from La JoeLLa.
Janet and I decided to try a "taco" at the drive thru ie we walked thru the Taco Bell.  It was basically a crispy shell with ground beef, pretty good but where was the ketchup?  I absolutely could not eat one without ketchup for along time. Loved them that way, with chopped onions, tomatoes, peppers and ketchup.

Enter Steve as my live in boyfriend.  He had been exposed to tacos in Chicago by a man who worked for his Father, Herb, when they were Fuller Brush  salesmen. Chicago has a large Hispanic population from Jalisco. It was a direct route for the brown heroin trade.  As bad as that is, they brought with them their wonderful cuisine. He knew about salsa, shredded beef, crispy tortillas and absolutely loved them.  I guess I better figure out how to make them, I thought.  It was easy enough to get the ingredients and I had my California neighbors who were experts to teach me.  Sandi Kingery was my mentor in all things California.  We still tended to use ground beef but she brought the chopped veges into the mix as well as guacamole, shredded cheese and sour cream.  Once my palate adjusted to Bottled Mexican Hot Sauce I abandoned the ketchup, plus my then sister in law, Judy Benson would make fun of me all of the time. She made the most incredible tacos and we had mucho cervezas  and margaritas to accompany them.

Basic 1960'sTacos-
1 # Ground Beef
1 pkg. Lawry's Taco Seasoning
    Saute meat in a skillet until browned.  Add seasoning and water according to package directions.
1 pkg. yellow corn tortillas (we didn't have white ones back then)
Heat oil in a saucepan and fry tortillas until limp, using tongs, fold over and continue frying until crispy.  Drain on paper towels.

Shredded yellow cheddar cheese ( Longhorn or  Medium sharp)
Chopped onions
Shredded iceberg lettuce
Chopped tomatoes
Chopped radishes ( a bartender friend turned us on to this ingredient)
Sour Cream
Hot Sauce


We have come a long way from those days.  I do think alot of people still think these are tacos and little kids love them. My friend Rosa first introduced shredded beef into our lives.  She knew Mexican food from being raised in San Diego and traveling to Tijuana and beyond often.  Her recipe for "String Beef" is still on the same paper I jotted it down on when we worked in the Stock Broker's office in downtown San Diego, I a teletype operator and she a secretary.

Rosa's String Beef
1 1/2 lbs. stewing beef cut into 2# chunks
1 tsp. chile powder
1/2 tsp. cumin powder
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 onion, chopped
   Toss everything together in a saucepan and cover with water (not too much just to cover). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook 1 1/2-2 hrs. until meat shreds. 
Using two forks, shred meat and keep warm for tacos.

Along with going more authentic with the taco filling we found a shop on India Street at Grape where the women made hand patted tortillas. You had to get there early on the day they were made.There is absolutely nothing better than the smell of fresh hand patted tortillas.  To this day we search them out but unfortunately they come from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods so you don't get that smell.  Rosa and I used to go to another taqueria called El Indio on India street. They made the best taquitos, chips and beans. We used to take them out and eat them in her little Carmenguia (sp) car on our lunch break. There were a few other authentic mexican restaurants that we ate at including El Fonda. There I was exposed to enchiladas, tostadas, burritos and chile colorado, a red chile stew.  Our favorite place was actually up in Solana Beach in the "Garden District" which had many Mexican restaurants including The Blue Bird Cafe, Tony's and Fidels.  Fidels was the most popular.  We had machaca which is eggs and shredded beef in Flour tortillas, Steve loved Tostada Supreme which was a huge tortilla filled with meat and salad, my favorite was Fidels baked burrito.  I still make those today. Sometimes they fried them in which case they were "chimichangas".  I tried to copy these dishes with moderate success.  Let's say I didn't have the heavy "lard" hand that the cooks at Fidels did.
Sunset Magazine was another source of recipes.  They even put out a paperback Mexican Cookbook which I still have. Chile Rellenos was the one thing I learned to make from that book as well as the Salsa Ranchero that I use for many things. The taquitos on the cover always inspired me to get cooking. Jalepenos were pretty much the only chile available.  I didn't know anything about dried chiles in those days.
       Here is my latest version of Fidel's baked burritos filled with refriend beans, cheese and chile verde.
Topped with sauteed red and yellow peppers as well as onions. I made a little salsa to go with these.

Steve and I moved to Chicago, as I have mentioned in previous posts, with a good repertoire of California-Mexican recipes, techniques and my subscription to Sunset magazine.  Soon we were very popular for our Mexican dinner parties. I found the Hispanic areas where the Super Mercado's carried all sorts of ingredients. Everyone loved to give us a ride to these places knowing they would be the lucky recipients of one of my dinners.  One friend, Mary Housman, told me about Diana Kennedy a Brit living in Mexico writing cookbooks and teaching cooking classes.  Mary was an enthusiastic cook as well.  We bought Diana's first book, "The Tortilla Book" and started experimenting with the recipes. I learned how to make Salsa Fresca, adding a little red wine vinegar when the tomatoes weren't quite ripe enough. We found cilantro sold at the local grocer "Treasure Island" but it was sold by the sprig practically and wasn't often available.  That is where the Hispanic grocers came in.  I remember the first time I found fresh tomatillos. They were so cute in their papery husks.  I loved them raw as they reminded me of rhubarb.  The dried  chiles fascinated me too. Soon Diana Kennedy came to Chicago for a series of classes.  Mary and I signed up and were beside ourselves with excitement.  They were held at the Cook's Mart store run by Pat Bruno.  He carried all sorts of cool cookware and cookbooks. When Diana arrived in Chicago she had already written another "serious" cookbook  " The Cuisines of Mexico" .  This is the book she used for her classes. It opened the floodgates for what would become my future career.  We took tours in the Mexican markets learning about all sorts of dried chiles, cheeses, meats and vegetables.  I learned how to make proper salsas using those cute tomatillos.  The blender was our friend as well as the flat comal to toast them on.

To escape the wicked cold Chicago winters our friends traveled to Mexico. PuertaVallarta was the hot place then followed by Cabo San Lucas.  I loved it down there. Everyone else went for the tequila, cervezas and beaches.  I would seek out the markets and hardware stores where I found my tortilla presses, comal and numerous casuelas or casseroles.  Diana showed us the proper "ollas" for cooking beans and poaching chickens. I loved the carved wooden spoons and still have a collection of small and large ones. My little bowls for salsas, guacamole and chopped veges are still used whenever I cook Mexican.

Diana Kennedy was very fastidious.  You counted out the black peppercorns and cumin seeds before grinding them in the coffee grinder saved specifically for grinding spices. I was like a sponge absorbing all of her recipes and techniques. I wanted her to sign my books and she immediately went into a tirade about getting book covers so I didn't tear the book jacket, pointing out a wrinkle in the Tortilla Book. Yes ma am! Needless to say Mary and I were cooking up a storm much to our husbands and friends delight.  Diana was almost as big as Julia Child and James Beard. Craig Claiborne from the New York Times endorsed her and promoted her in New York where she had an apartment.  She continued to come back to Chicago and teach using the new books she had written.  We advanced from tacos and enchiladas to stews, soups, moles, tamales and many interesting little antojitos.
Here is one of my all time favorite dips based on a recipe from Diana Kennedy's "Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico".

                                  Green Pumpkin seed Dip or Sikil-P'ak
1 1/2 Pepitas or green hulled pumpkin seeds
1 serrano chile or other hot chile of choice(habenero ,if you dare, is traditional)
2 med. tomatoes
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp. chopped chives
2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

In a skillet toast pumpkin seeds until they are lightly brown and begin to swell and pop. Transfer to a plate to cool off.  Meanwhile either on a comal or in the same skillet, toast the chile and tomatoes until they are blistered with black spots.
Using your trusty coffee grinder for spices only, grind pumpkin seeds in batches with the salt until it is a coarse powder.  Scrape into a bowl. Stir in the tomatoes, chives, cilantro and toasted chile.
It should be creamy not dry.  Add a little water if it is not spreadable.

Another great tip to accompany this recipe is to toast your tortillas in the oven instead of deep frying them.  Just heat the oven to 350* and lay the tortillas on the oven racks. After about 5 minutes turn them over. Bake another 5-8 minutes until they are golden and crisp. Don't let them go too far or they will burn.  Break them up into pieces and serve with Sikil-P'ak!

I always have a bowl of Salsa Fresca on hand too:
Dice 1 tomato into small dice
Chop 1/4 white onion
Chop 1 hot chile, I now  use Serranos and maybe use more if they aren't hot enough.
Chop a few sprigs cilantro
  Mix all together in a bowl.  Add about 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar, 1/4 tsp. salt or to taste and 1-2 Tbsp. water.   Don't make it too far in advance or the tomatoes get limp. 
I never serve it the next day preferring to add it to other dishes and cook it down.

Diana Kennedy would be and still is in my culinary life.  She still teaches both in Mexico at her "Casa" or up here in the U.S. Look for Part II of this blog for more on my journey with her.



  1. Good Stuff - I remember when I first moved to NYC from LA there were hardly any Mexican restaurants...the ones that were around served everything off steam tables. They opened one of t he first Taco Bells on 3rd avenue and 44th, I was in heaven. Remember the flour tortillias in a can? My friends mom used to send them from OC.

  2. Yes I do remember tortillas in a can and used them once when I went home to Rochester and wanted to cook for my parents. Really bad! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Hi Patty, love reading your blog. Learning so much about you too! Great Mexican restaurant across the street from me here in little 'ol spencerport. Chilango's! Great authentic food and the best margarita's!
    Come to NY and we'll go there!

  4. Well, once again, you have not disappointed me! Thanks for the new recipes...I can always use new ways to "go mexican"!!!