Category Archives: Food & Recipes

Oaxaca Comal Cooking in Durham, North Carolina: Eggplant and Okra

Okra is one of my favorite southern foods, right along with shrimp and grits. I like it because it reminds me of nopal cactus paddles, the kind you eat. I’m always trying to figure out how to prepare so it’s not slimy! Grilling, not boiling, is a secret.

On this return from Oaxaca to North Carolina, I packed two cast iron comals in my luggage —  griddles, 8-inches and 11-inches in diameter. The bigger one does the heavy lifting for surface grilling all sorts of vegetables on my electric induction heat cooktop. (Okay, it’s not gas, but it works pretty well.)

Cooked and ready to eat, grilled eggplant and okra

Of course, you have to season the comal just like you would a cast iron fry pan: over a low heat with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil for a couple of hours until the pan surface is well-coated and the oil is baked on.

Healthy, Low-Fat, Nutritious!

Yesterday, on my regular 6,000 step walk around downtown Durham, I returned via Foster Street to find the Wednesday Farmer’s Market in full swing. Green tomatoes. Red onions. Cherry tomatoes. Green and purple okra. Tiny Japanese eggplant. I could not resist that okra and the eggplant.

The Farmer’s Market is only two blocks from my apartment-condo. Walkable, and I always have to think about how much weight I’m carrying (of the vegetable variety).

How to Prepare Stove-Top Grilled Eggplant and Okra on the Comal

  1. Wash veggies in a water bath with 1 Tb. vinegar
  2. Heat the comal on low temperature until surface is hot.
  3. Dry veggies and add to comal.
  4. Drizzle veggies with 1-2 Tb. olive oil.
  5. Grind pink Himalayan sea salt to taste.
  6. With tongs, turn and move veggies periodically until all sides are evenly browned. Watch to prevent burning.
  7. Eggplant should turn from purple to brown all over and be soft to the touch. Okra should be crunchy, not overcooked.
  8. Eat now, hot off the comal, or store and serve later with rice or couscous, tossed with chopped red onion and fresh diced tomatoes.

I use the comal for any grilled and mixed grill veggie preparation: asparagus, onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms, for example.

Eggplant cooks first. Then add the okra.

Where to Buy a Cast Iron Comal?

 

Harvesting Espadin Agave for Mezcal in My Front Yard: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Mezcaleros Hilario and Emmanuel loading agave espadin piñas

Only in Oaxaca do you wake up to find a guy cutting down agave cactus for mezcal in your front yard, Kalisa Wells told me yesterday morning.  Kalisa is house-sitting for me in Teotitlan del Valle while I’m sojourning in Durham, North Carolina.

First, cut off the sharp, spiny leaves

Kalisa is really there to puppy sit until Luz and Sombra come of age, ready to adopt out. It should be soon. Then, she’ll be taking care of Mamacita and Tia until I get back.

Kalisa Wells took all these photos! Thank you!

There has been espadin agave on the land where I live among the maize fields ever since I can remember. When I first arrived, twelve years ago, these were tiny immature plants. Omar, youngest Chavez Santiago family son, tells me these agave were planted seventeen years ago! Now, some are sending up reproductive shoots, topped with baby agaves. Bees swarm and give up agave honey. After a few months, the mother plant dies. Topples over. The dead stalk can be used for fire wood or home construction.

Farmers want to harvest the agave when it is ripe and before it sends up the stalk, when the sugar energy is concentrated in the piña, perfect for making mezcal.

When Teotitlan del Valle mezcalero Hilario and his son Emmanuel showed up to cut and dig out the piña, Kalisa took photos and a video to send to me. She keeps me informed about life around the casita. Don Federico supervised. It’s his land, his agave, and this is his cash crop.

Niss Gubaa Dau mezcal brand, Teotitlan del Valle

Seems Kalisa has been buying local mezcal from them for a while. They make the distilled brew in their patio, behind the molina (mill) across from the church and market.

Almost ready to dig out. See the video for how they do it.

They are working hard on all the agave, writes Kalisa. I hear the sound of primitive and very effective tools. I hear the Zapotec language and the smell of fresh cut agave drifting into the casita. 

Teotitlan del Valle mezcal brand contact information

Demand for artisanal mezcal has skyrocketed around the world. There are now more than 300 brands. There is worry and big buzz about whether there will be enough agave to satisfy the demand. Every food and beverage writer weighs in on this as they come to Oaxaca to sample the offerings.

What’s left — only the remains of leaves and a piña to be loaded.

Small operations, like those of Hilario and Emmanuel, are still producing home grown, home distilled mezcal for local consumption just as they have been doing for hundreds of years. Fiestas in Teotitlan del Valle are fueled by mezcal. It is de rigueur to bring a bottle as a host gift.

(Here in North Carolina, we call this beverage, moonshine, made the same way in a shiny, copper still.)

Some mezcal facts and tips:

I see by the photos that the landscape of my front yard has changed, denuded of espadin. The agave in my front yard and along the fence line is no more. Last year, I planted rows of immature espadin plants in anticipation that someday Don Federico might harvest these treasures.

Before the cutting, my garden decor.

I’ve expanded my cactus garden to include tobala, tepeztate and cuixe.  It will take them many more years to mature and offer me unlimited high desert beauty. They may certainly outlast my lifetime!

The tipsy glass of liquid gold — Pineapple Lime Mezcalita

 

 

Oaxaca to Durham–Pineapple-Lime Mezcal Cocktail Recipe: Serves Two

Is it a Mezcalini or a Mezcalita?

First you need tasty espadin joven mezcal. My limited stash in NC.

Most of the weight in my checked baggage from Oaxaca, Mexico to Durham, North Carolina, USA was attributed to three bottles of Gracias a Dios mezcal — two of Gin Mezcal and one of Cuixe (also spelled Cuishe, pronounced KWI-SHAY). I had four bottles packed and couldn’t move the luggage, so I reluctantly removed one.

(I buy my Gracias a Dios mezcal directly from Oscar Hernandez, the mezcalero, at his palenque in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, the world capital of mezcal making.) He blends the Gin Mezcal with 32 aromatics including lavendar and juniper berries, ginger and rosemary.

The first pour!

Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve experimented with mixed drinks in addition to loving the aroma and taste of mezcal straight with no flavor additives. A little sip goes a long way! Never throw back a mezcal shot. It’s not done that way.

Start with ripe pineapple (more yellow than this one) and squeezable limes.

For the uninitiated, a Mezcalini is like a Martini in appearance only. Mezcal and pulverized fresh fruit with a bit of simple sugar syrup, are shaken together with ice and strained. Then, the bartender pours the aromatic liquid into a stemmed cocktail glass. Sometimes herbs and spices are added, like rosemary or ginger, in the shaken (not stirred) motif. Serve it straight up.

The Tipsy Glass of liquid gold — Pineapple Lime Mezcalita

But, for my version of a Mezcalini, I prefer to adapt the Margarita, substituting mezcal for the more lowly (IMHO) tequila. In restaurants, I order this as a Mezcal Margarita so no one makes a mistake. I like it over the rocks with a salted rim, garnished with worm salt.

Cut off crown, then bottom, and whack the sides off.

Let’s all now rightfully call this a MEZCALITA.

The classic will be fresh squeezed lime juice, mezcal and Cointreau (in Mexico, look for Controy).

It will look like this when you trimmed off the spines.

In Mexico City, I ordered such a drink on the rooftop terrace of the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, overlooking the Zocalo. So good, I returned again. And then, once more. It was blended with fresh pineapple and lime juice.

Section into quarters, then cut out the core.

I’ve been working on perfecting the recipe here in Durham, making it for every at-home occasion I can plan. I think I finally have it down, and I’m passing it along to you.  No cheating. You can’t use tequila.

Here’s how you cut out the core. No mess.

Cut into 1″ cubes. Get your lime squeezer ready.

Pineapple-Lime Mezcalita Cocktail — Serves 2

In a blender, add together:

4 ounces of Joven mezcal distilled from the Espadin cactus

2 ounces of Cointreau

2 T. simple syrup (dissolve 2 T. sugar in 4 T. boiling water until liquid is clear)

1 C. fresh ripe pineapple, cut into 1″ cubes

2 ounces of freshly squeeze lime juice

6-8  ice cubes, or more for a slushier consistency

Add all ingredients to your blender.

Pulse your blender a few times to mix the ingredients. Then, add the ice cubes and turn speed to LIQUIFY. In seconds, your drink will be ready.

Add your ice cubes, and then …

I have two wonderful, clear, Tipsy Glasses, hand-blown by Asheville glass artist Ben Greene-Colonnese. You can order them online. Not sure where you can find mezcal where you live but definitely worth the search!

Blend on LIQUIFY, pour and enjoy.

We use this lime squeezer throughout Mexico. It’s a part of every kitchen. Mine is the cheapest and totally functional, all aluminum. I’ve had it for years. Where to buy in the USA? Amazon, of course.

At home in Teotitlan del Valle, I have a collection of many favorite brands made from wild agaves like tepeztate and tobala. Some, I bought from the distiller and they are unlabeled and not available for export.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca Inspired Sweet-Savory Orange Chicken Recipe: Mango and Carrots

My first day back in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, after a six-week Durham, North Carolina hiatus. I had to drive La Tuga, my 2004 Honda Element to Tlacolula for clutch repair, so I handed 200 pesos (the equivalent of $11 USD) to Federico and asked him to pick up a few things for me at the village market. My cupboards (and refrigerator) were bare.

On the cook top, mango carrot orange chicken

I specified only a bit of chicken, some fruit and veggies. He returned with four carrots, four Ataulfo mangoes — now in season, two onions, one orange pepsicum, four red apples, four chayote squash and some limes. The key seemed to be the number four. Oh, yes, two chicken drumsticks and two thighs equal four.

So, I give you Sweet-Savory Orange Chicken with Mango and Carrots.

Utensils: four-quart, oven-proof clay baker or stainless steel pot, paring knife, utility knife, large spoon. You might want to use a slow cooker/crock pot. That would work, too.

Ingredients:

  • 2 chicken thighs and 2 chicken drumsticks, skinned
  • 2 teaspoons salt and fresh ground black pepper, or to taste
  • 3 carrots, cleaned and peeled, sliced 1/4 inch thickness
  • 1 white onion, large diced
  • 2 Ataulfo mangoes, cut as shown in photo
  • 2 red apples, skinned, sliced thin
  • 1 orange pepsicum (sweet pepper), diced
  • 1 very small mild red chili pepper, seeded and stemmed
  • 4 cups water

Add salt (I prefer sea salt) and fresh ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients. Put pot on top of heat diffuser. Cook on slow simmer for two-to-three hours.  Serve first course as a consomme/chicken broth.  Serve second course of chicken with mango/carrot melange over steamed rice, accompanied by fresh steamed chayote or zucchini squash.

I bet you could make this in a crock pot, too.

How cut a mango: lengthwise to separate two halves from seed

Serves two to four, depending on appetites.

Some years ago, many, in fact, I owned a gourmet cooking school and cookware shop in South Bend, Indiana. It was called Clay Kitchen.  I contracted with famous chefs from around the world to teach, and taught a few classes myself. My preference, still, is to see what ingredients I have at hand and make something up. This one, today, tastes pretty darn good and you should smell my kitchen!

A remaining pepper from my winter terrace garden, seeded, crumbled

Clay Kitchen, Inc. is a memory. We were in business for just under five years during one of the roughest financial downturns of the early 80’s when interest rates on inventory climbed to over 20 percent. Pre-internet, a Google search only comes up with our Indiana corporation registration and dissolution.  There is no other documentation.

My business partner then remains an important friend now. We modeled ourselves after Dean & DeLuca in NYC and aspired to greatness. When we closed, we cried and moved on.

Bug Poetry to Whet Your Appetite: Oaxaca Inspiration

I asked my writing sisters who attended the 2017 Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat to write about their experience tasting Oaxaca edible bugs after I wrote the essay for Mexico News Daily. I just heard from Lee Schwartz, who offered up this poem as a taste bud tickler.

Birds, Bees and Witchery Grub by Lee Schwartz, New York City

He won’t eat bottom feeders,
shrimp, scallops, mollusks,
he says it’s not healthy
and religion has nothing to do with it.
I say, more for me.
As for red meat, or free range birds
he says he doesn’t need
to kill an animal to have a meal.
He’s happy with kale, tofu,
chick peas, yogurt from contented cows —
and water.

I’m not that zen. I will eat anything
that tempts me. Maguey worms on
matzoh, chicatanas on a bun.
I have no righteous reasons
to turn down fries, fructose or fajitas.
Give me some crunchy chapulines,
I love to pick the little legs out of my teeth.
Serve me stink bugs and ant larvae
down Oaxaca way,
And from Africa, termites lightly roasted,
with nutty bread crumbs is quite a delicacy.
And then you kiss me,
swirl your tongue in my mouth,
lounging on ocean bed crawlers,
scraps of ants and hoof legged lamb.
Tangled in our wet throng,
you lean in to me and taste the forbidden,
the unsavory, the agribusiness
of death and poor husbandry,
crowded pens, feathers flying.
My moist and warm cove,
the enemy you embrace,
the dreaded morsels of sustainable love.

Roasted, edible gusanos — the larvae of the maguey worm

Interested in participating in 2018. Dates are set: May 2-9, 2018. Still working on a place. Send me an email if you are interested.