Friday, September 25, 2015

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms Omelette

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms Omelette
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In the last hot days of summer, a cool evening breeze sweeps across the region and starts signaling the beginning of fall and the change of seasons.  The arid countryside dresses in a festival of flowers in bright reds, oranges, lilacs and whites.  All over Mexico, the american southwest, and down towards Guatemala and El Salvador, one particular plant performs a spectacular show pointing towards the sky as if to appeal to the stars with a grandiose plumage of white flowers shaped like bells.  They make their way high on a plant of long, evergreen, pointy daggers that could very well function like swords.  It's a stark contrast of delicate flowers and firm, strong spears that have tips like needles.  

Izote (Yucca) Plant in Bloom
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In México and all of Central America, it is called Flor de Izote or palma, but in the American Southwest it is called the yucca plant.  The general name yucca can apply to many species of trees and shrubs that are found mostly in the desert.  There are other common yuccas like the Mohave and the Joshua Tree, which can grow up to a majestic 60 feet high.  The izote or yucca plants will only bloom when there is pollination by the nocturnal moths which come out at night to feast on the nectar in the most perfect conditions.  

For hundreds of years, ancestral Mexican natives knew about the many uses for the flor de izote.  The green, dagger swords have been used for fiber in making mecate (rope), huaraches (sandals), mats, baskets and cloth.  The roots were cooked to make soap.  The fruits and blossoms were eaten raw or cooked as well as fermented to produce a beverage for sacred rituals. 

Rock Band U2 for The Joshua Tree Album Cover (1987)

When the famous rock band U2 (based out of Ireland), started to record their fifth studio album, which was released in 1987, they wanted to depict a theme  which would evoke a sense of location with spiritual imagery, ancestral open spaces, and the sacred land of the natives before any conquering.  Lead vocalist Bono’s travels to Mexico, Central and North America led him to eventually decide on the land bordering Mexico and California in the Mohave Desert.  For the band, the yucca plant or the joshua tree represented a plant that bloomed in the desert for a show of flowers once a year, yet at the same time it depicted freedoms and ideals, the rain, the dust and spiritual drought which they believed was in need of attention around the world.  They named their album The Joshua Tree in honor of the great ancestral desert plant which gave them the inspiration for many of the songs on their album.  It is a song that defines a restless spirit on the quest for sincerity and down home roots in lyrical ancestry.  It depicts a peaceful place in which there is nothing but sweet smelling earth and its not divided by races, governments, flags, streets or colors.  Its a place where everybody is one.    

These last summer days, if I came out at night I could see there were silvery moths flying around the yucca plants in my garden.  The plants had started to bloom and open their blossoms from the bottom up.  The breeze whispered softly and moved the petals and I could smell the perfume of the wet, soft earth.  Each morning, I came out to see even more blossoms had opened.  I left the plant to bloom for as long as possible. I wanted the moths to keep coming back for more nectar and do their work of pollination before I cut the blossoms to enjoy in a dish.    

The following is an old recipe for an egg dish that has been cooked traditionally during the last days of summer when the blossoms are available.  The blossoms are light and crunchy with an almost artichoke taste.  They’re very good raw in salads, cooked in soups, or sautéed in many dishes like guisos or moles.  They can even be lightly stir fried and served with a grilled dish like fish, chicken or steak.  

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015 
Flor de Izote (yucca) Omelette 

Ingredients

10 to 20 Izote (yucca) blossoms)
1 jalapeño or serrano chile sliced
1/4 small onion or 1 spring onion sliced with the greens diced
2 eggs beaten
2 tbsp of water
1 green epazote leaf (optional), diced
1 tablespoon of Mexican crema
fresh cheese or Mexican queso fresco
Manchego cheese for grating on top
salt and pepper to taste
oil

Remove the stems from the blossoms and wash in cold water, drip dry.  Beat the eggs with the water in a small bowl.  Heat enough oil to coat a 7 to 10 inch nonstick omelette pan over medium high heat.  Sauté the onions, sliced jalapeños or serranos and diced epazote leaf until wilted.  Pour in egg mixture and sprinkle the salt and pepper.  Mixture should set immediately at edges.  Drizzle the Mexican crema.  Gently push cooked portions from edges towards the center so that uncooked eggs can reach the hot pan surface.  Add the fresh cheese or queso fresco.  Cook on low heat until the top surface of eggs is thickened and no visible liquid remains.  Serve open on a large plate.  Add additional raw blossom petals and grate aged Spanish manchego cheese on top.  


Manchego cheese adds a buttery texture to the omellete.  It is a Spanish cheese that comes from the La Mancha region of Spain.  It is made from the milk of sheep of the manchega breed.  It is generally aged from 60 days up to two years.  It's so delicious sprinkled on the omelette.  Enjoy the omelette with a good cup of coffee, café de olla or even a chilled glass of champagne outdoors where you can feel the cool morning breeze.



Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Flor de Izote (Yucca) Blossoms
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

From Cooking to Brewing - Dark Chocolate Milk Stout

Dark Chocolate Milk Stout Craft Brew
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Having a passion for cooking and an even greater passion for food almost always leads me to remember the healthy, hearty liquids that one might accompany with our meals and celebrations such as wine, champagne, spirits and beer, especially if they’re during memorable experiences.  There are others such as milk, tea, coffee, chocolate, fruit juices, etc.  But what lead me to another culinary adventure in the kitchen comes from old memories of an uncle that used to brew beer in México.  

My uncle had a big, bellowing belly that he proudly displayed unashamedly and wiggled like gelatin when he laughed or even coughed loudly, both were practiced religiously almost every other few minutes.  His snowy white hair and mustache were not always well kept, but he was an amusing raconteur.  He narrated the stories of his days working at a big brewery as well as other stories living on a big ranch.  

As a child, all I could imagine was him stirring a huge vat of mash (roasted grains) wearing a big dusty hat.  The vat is a huge container where crushed grain is mixed in with hot water and turned many times until it reaches a certain temperature.  Once the proper temperature is reached, it turns into wort that can be boiled, so that it can later ferment and become beer.  Then I would imagine him swimming in fermented beer and pouring beer into hundreds of little dark bottles that were perfumed with droplets of salty sweat mixing in with the beer as he capped the bottles.  He claims he put all the labels on the bottles by dipping the label in beer so that they would stick good to the bottle.  I guess beer is what beer does and I couldn’t help myself from shaping my imagination any better, as his way of telling the stories was always on the tall, tale side.

On one occasion we were invited to the annual beer festival which was held at the brewery.  We were warned by my mother that there might be some "unusual" odors due to the fermented beer.  Upon arrival, I was delighted by the smell of beer but I was shocked to find that there wasn’t a big swimming pool full of beer, nor was there a big slide to slide on that that made cottony foam in the pool.  All day prior to arriving, I was looking forward to sliding with my head first down.  There were hug vats containing mash and others that contained large amounts of beer ready for bottling.  My uncle tried to amend my disappointment of the absence of the pool full of beer, by letting me jump on the mountain of grain that was sitting there ready for roasting to start the next batch. 

Everyone present for the celebration sampled the beer and as the eating, and the dancing, and the accordeon music went on, so did the drinking.  In those days it was always a live ensemble band and especially in the northern part of the country, the accordion was a big feature.  The drinking did not exclude the little ones.  So, I guess I must have drank at least one full bottle of a dark, black beer that smelled like coffee and dirt.  I must have drank at least three drops of my uncles sweat in that bottle.  I don’t remember my age, but I remember I spilled beer on my white dress and socks.

Boiling the final extract for a Dark Chocolate Milk Stout
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
In my own kitchen I began the process of brewing beer.  I guess it all began with those delightful memories of my childhood.  My father always believed that a good beer was like good bread.  It will never allow you to thirst or starve.  My mother being a good cook, believed in the process of fermentation and in good, hardy marination with beer which she called “ranch style”.  The grill was constantly loaded with all sorts of good cuts of meat having previously been marinated with herbs, spices and beer.  Corn that was grown right there was also grilled.  Life was good at the ranch, and the beer is still flowing.  

Now, in my own kitchen I ventured from cooking to brewing.  For this batch I made an artisanal recipe that I acquired from the Northern Brewer.  It’s a traditional chocolate milk stout that has been brewed with lactose sugar.  The lactose will not ferment by the yeast but it adds an incredible creamy, milky, rich velvety sweetness.  On it’s secondary fermentation, I added bold, dark, pure exotic cacao.  I did not use the cacao seeds from the pods directly, but it was in ground form.  The cacao smells wonderful when it is being mixed in with the beer.  Once bottled, the final conditioning takes quite a long time.  It will be many weeks but the outcome is delicate, chocolatey, dark, with a hint of earthy coffee.

When finally at it’s perfect ripeness, the beer is poured, it explodes an earthy aroma.  It laces the glass with a rich espresso color and soft creamy foam with a hint of caramel forms thick at the top.  I think I did just fine, and I have my uncle to thank for instilling in me the love of craft beer.  Sadly, he passed away on his ranch in Hacienda San Jose, in August of 2013.  His name was Eustolio Alanis, and we lovingly called him “Tio Toto”.       

Bottling the brew after several weeks of fermentation.
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mexican Impossible Cake with Purple Sweet Potato (Chocoflan)

Mexican Impossible Cake with Purple Sweet Potato (Chocoflan)
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
During colonial times, kitchens in México were glistening with amazing delicacies that mixed indigenous ingredients and traditional cooking methods with those brought over by the colonizers.  It was in 1518 that the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in the Yucatan peninsula and was awed at the rumors of flavors unique to the newly found land.  In every remote kitchen, there happened a culinary marriage of flavors that Mexicans of the times raised to high levels.  For native cooks, cooking was a daily ritual of ceremony.  Enigmatic dishes and fruits of the season were offered to the Gods on impressive altars decorated with fragrant flowers and burning copal incense.  Spanish cooks upon their arrival, were fascinated by the alchemy that occurred in the kitchens and by observing the techniques, they learned how to blend the flavors of the newly discovered ingredients with those that they brought from the old world such as milk from domesticated animals.   

One favorite Mexican delicacy is the pastel impossible or impossible cake.  It is one of the many captivating sweets that has a long tradition and a marked history.  The exquisite dessert consists of a fluffy layer of chocolate bread and a layer of velvety egg custard called flan, baked together in a steam ban marie.  They’re not baked separately but at the same time, one over the other.  What makes the dessert a culinary caveat is that the batter for the bread and the batter for the flan do not mix while baking.  The airy bread layer ends up on the bottom and the denser flan layer ends up on the top when turned over from it’s mold.  That’s what makes the cake almost imposible, hence the name.        

It is no coincidence that chocolate, indigenous to Mexico, was a favorite ingredient for savory dishes as well as for sweet.  Chocolate was obtained from the roasted cacao pods and for the Aztecs, it was a gift from the gods worthy of important and sacred ceremonies.  For the Spanish colonizers, the sweet steamed milk and eggs, cooled and served with a sugar caramel, turned over in native clay pots was a perfect and refreshing dessert.  This is when the marriage of this dessert really occurs.  Apart from the chocolate, the Aztecs had one other secret ingredient that the conquistadors favored: the vanilla bean.  It was the native fragrant essence, filled with intrigue and passion that the Aztecs used as medicine and for flavoring in foods especially the favorite drink: xicolatl or chocolate.  The ancient Totonaco Indians whom inhabited the Gulf coast near Veracruz, were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla.  The ruling Aztec kings required payment in taxes from the Totonaco tribes in the form of the dried vanilla pods which were extremely secretly guarded, but not for long after Hernán Cortez’s arrival!

Purple Sweet Potatoes
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
By the 1600’s chocolate and vanilla beans were a highly sought after commodity being traded all over the world.  Meanwhile, in the kitchens in México, dishes were being finessed and perfected making it one of the most important gastronomies in the world.  For the pastel impossible or impossible cake, also commonly called chocoflan, it clearly became a possibility appreciated all over latin america, Europe and even in the Philippines, another Spanish colony where many ingredients from Mexico were introduced.  In the Philippines, the Impossible cake or chocoflan is even made with purple sweet potatoes or yams called ube which were also introduced from the Americas as in the recipe that follows.

Ingredients:

For the bread batter:

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups of cooked and mashed purple sweet potatoes or yams
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup of milk (more or less)


For the flan batter: 

1 cup of sugar for caramel
3 eggs
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 (8 ounce) package of cream cheese



Mashed Purple Sweet Potato
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Directions:

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 1 cup of sugar until liquified and caramelized.  Carefully pour hot syrup into a 12 inch tube mold or bundt pan, turning the dish to cover the bottom evenly.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

For the bread batter:  In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add mashed purple sweet potatoes and vanilla.  Beat until well blended.  Add eggs, one at a time (the batter will look curdled).  Add 3/4 cup of milk.  Add flour mixture to potato mixture.  Beat on low until combined.  If batter is too thick add a little more milk.  The batter will be thick and dense.  Pour batter into the tube pan.  

Next, make the flan batter:  In a blender add the 3 eggs, condensed milk, evaporated milk, vanilla and cream cheese.  Blend until smooth.  Pour batter on top of already poured bread batter in the tube pan.    The batters may appear to mix when that flan mixture is poured on top but they completely separate while baking.  Place pan in a large roasting pan and add about 1 inch of water.  Place in oven and bake for about 60 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Cool cake completely.  Chill overnight if desired.    

To serve, insert and run a knife along edges and carefully invert on a serving plate.  Serve with a drizzle of condensed milk if desired.   

Friday, September 4, 2015

Tyler Florence's Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas

Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas, Recipe by Tyler Florence
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
One of the most celebrated food events in the country is the Savor Dallas culinary festival.  Once a year, in a week long celebration, the most talented chefs, mixologists, craft breweries and expert sommeliers from around the country are invited to curate a kaleidoscope of flavors from all over the world for a celebration of the senses.  

Several years ago, I was invited to attend as event and food photographer for two culinary
exhibits featuring world famous chefs Tyler Florence, from the Food Network and one of Mexico’s most beloved food ambassadors, Zarela Martinez from Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.  In the culinary world, there's a festive atmosphere among chefs.  Food is the main course followed by plenty of cheer, love and friendship.  Food never fails to unite people in an intoxicating magnetism.  I was lucky to be a part of the event and sample delicacies from these beloved chefs.

Here is a recipe from Tyler Florence's book, Real Kitchen.  It’s a recipe that qualifies as easy and homey.  Or as Tyler Florence puts it, down-home practical and totally doable.  It requires great, simple ingredients and the natural flavors speak for themselves.  This is a great dish to serve on a Sunday night.  It’s classy and understated and even better with a good glass of wine. 


Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas

Ingredients

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound assorted mushrooms, such as 
  Portobello, crimini, and chanterelle, sliced, stems removed
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry, white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
8 cups Chicken Stock, heated
1 cup frozen and thawed sweet peas
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Fresh flat leaf parsley for garnish
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place a large, deep skillet over medium heat and drizzle with a 3-count of oil.  Add the onion and garlic, and cook stirring, for 5 minutes, until soft.  Toss in the mushrooms and herbs; cook down until the mushrooms lose their liquid and are lightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the rice and stir for a minute or two, until the grains are well coated and opaque.  Season again; seasoning in stages makes the rice taste good from the inside out.  Stir in the wine and cook a minute to evaporate the alcohol.  Pour in 1 cup of the warm stock.  Stir with a wooden spoon until the rice has absorbed all the liquid; then add another cup.  Keep stirring while adding the stock a cup at a time, allowing the rice to drink it before adding more.  You may not need all the stock.  Taste the risotto.  It should be slightly firm but creamy— definitely not mushy, but not raw either.  Fold in the peas, butter, and Parmigiano cheese.  Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with parsley to finish the dish up.  Risotto doesn’t like to sit around, so serve immediately.  

Reference: 
Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen
Tyler Florence
Clarkson Potter/ Publishers New York, New York
©2003

By Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mexican Wedding Cookies (Polvorones)

Mexican Wedding Cookies (Polvorones)
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Making your family happy is not that difficult, especially if you make your home ambience a little more festive with special treats that summon everyone to always rush home after a full day of work or school.  Remember, food is happiness!  You don’t have to be a pastry chef or have an encyclopedic catalog of recipes and be master at them.  All it takes is a little ingenuity, sensibility to flavors, a few tools, good, natural ingredients and you’re on your way to transform your kitchen into a food paradise.  

I love cooking, but I don’t always have the time to bake and make pastries or desserts.  But I love to eat the sweets and fruits that I grew up with.  In Mexican culture, it’s very evident that there is a passion for desserts and tropical fruits that always end a savory meal.  Sweet empanadas, pan dulce or Mexican sweet bread, crystallized or dried fruits and an assortment of repostería or pastries are also a big custom for the meriendas, or light meal in the afternoon.  

Don’t be surprised to see huge markets all over the country with some dedicated only to sweet shops.   Thru the centuries, each region and pueblo (town) developed their own particular specialties, from the sweet almond-paste sweets from Saltillo, in Coahuila, to the borrachitos (tequila jellies) from Guadalajara and the almond pastries filled with coconut from Durango.  Crystallized strawberries are a specialty of Irapuato, in Guanajuato, and camotes (yam-sweets) are found in Puebla.  In the central plaza or square of Toluca, under the portales (stone arches lining the square), a huge array of sweets is displayed in little baskets.  In Linares, Nuevo Leon, you can find many shops making small little packages wrapped in red wrappers called glorias.  They’ re an exquisite dulce de leche with pecans (goat’s milk caramel).  They're heavenly little glories!  

With the growth of sugar cane plantations in many regions producing a raw byproduct of the refining process called piloncillo, and the cultivation of vanilla, many sweets were being made with these fine, glorious ingredients.  Piloncillo is a hard molasses that comes from sugar refining.  The liquid molasses that is spun out from the raw sugar is reheated and crystallized into small, conical molds the size and shape of pestles, like the ones that are used to grind in the molcajete grinding stones.  The deep, rich flavor of this dark sugar characterizes many of Mexico’s sweets.  

One particular sweet that is so simple to make and one of my favorites are the Mexican Wedding Cookies or Polvorones.  There are legendary convents where these sweets probably originated from.  They were very popular on wedding occasions since vanilla and pecans or almonds were an expensive luxury and therefore, reserved for those occasions.  I remember attending plenty of weddings and even quinceañeras (sweet fifteen parties for girls) where the host placed a small basket full of the little cookies in the center of the table as a centerpiece .  It’s such a marvelous aperitif, except don’t forget to wipe your mouth with a napkin or else risk walking around with powdery white sugar all over your mouth.  

They’re so simple to make and you don’t even have to wait for a wedding to enjoy them.  Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

1 cup butter (room temperature)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons of vanilla
2 teaspoons of water

Directions

In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar.  Add vanilla and water.  Add the flour and pecans, mix until blended.  Cover and chill for at least two hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Shape dough into balls.  I like to leave them not so rounded and smooth so that they look like rustic stones.  That way I’m reminded of a very traditional Mexican song by Cuco Sánchez, “Grítenme piedras del campo”, and I can sing along as I shape the cookies.  Place on an un-greased cookie sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes in the oven.  Remove from the pan and cool completely.  When cookies are cool, roll in confectioners’ sugar.  Enjoy with hot chocolate or even a light cocktail, dessert wine, or champagne.  


The Mexican Gourmet 
Authentic Ingredients and traditional Recipes 
From The Kitchens Of Mexico 
by Maria Dolores Torres Yzábal   


By Leticia Alaniz © 2015