Saturday, March 19, 2011

March 19

For the spring-challenged among you, here is a picture of the largest bougainvillea in our garden, about 10 feet across, taken from the second-floor balcony:

Earlier this week there was a dramatic event.  We had gone to one of the two art movies in town (there are not one, but two!) to see a 1960 Japanese film, and came out to a completely cloudy sky.  And not just clouds, but rain clouds!  And thunder!  We have seen a few cumulus clouds since we arrived in mid-January but that's it, so this was a very big deal.  We breathed in the wonderful pre-rain ozone smell, and it started to rain just as we arrived home.  About 30 seconds' worth of tentative rain.  Then the clouds blew away and it was sunny again.  It reminded me of the scene in Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources where the main character desperately needs rain for his drought-stricken carnation crop.  He is overjoyed at the lightning and thunder, but then there is no rain.  Those of you in the Pacific Northwest have more rain than you want, but here we sure could use some.

On Tuesday was of course my cooking lesson.  This week it was to learn how to make three things:  tamales, nopales or cactus salad, and a chocolate drink.  All are, as always, traditional Mexican dishes.  The first part of the lesson is going to the mercado for what we will need.  Here is the produce stall where we bought our nopales and the tomatillos (small green tomatoes that have a papery skin) that are used to make green salsa.  On the lower right you see huge piles of limes, which reminds me that our lime tree now has ripe limes!

Tamales, Champurrado, y Ensalata de Nopales
Tamales, Chocolate Drink, and Cactus Salad

Maestra de Cocina Yurina Peralta, March 15, 2011
San Miguel de Allende

Recipe for 8 people


A flat-bottomed steamer pot is necessary for this.

Dried corn husks, 2 thick bunches
2 lbs corn flour for tamales — finer than cornmeal
½ lb tomatillos (green tomatoes)
½ lb red tomatoes
4 guajillo chiles — red and dried, not very spicy
1 serrano chile — green and spicy
½ roast chicken (faster than making chicken from scratch)
1 can refried beans
1 or more cups pork lard (or could use Crisco or oil, but different taste)
1-2 tsp baking powder

Place tomatillos, tomatoes, Serrano chiles, and guajillo chiles in water.  Boil gently for 20 or 30 minutes.
Put pork lard into big bowl and mush it up with your hand until it’s pretty liquid.
Add half of the corn flour, mix by hand, and add the rest of the corn flour.  Add the baking powder.  Add salt.
Knead dough for a long time.  It should be pretty stiff.  If too stiff, add a couple of spoons of warm water from the vegetables that are boiling.  Dough is ready when a small piece of it rises when dropped into cold water.
Cut chicken into small pieces (no skin).
Remove seeds and veins from guajillo chiles.  Peel red tomatoes.  Remove seeds and veins from Serrano chile.
Put tomatoes and red guajillo chiles and salt in blender for red sauce.  Liquify and pour into small bowl.
Rinse blender, put in tomatillos and Serrano pepper and salt for green sauce.  Liquify and pour into small bowl.
Put water in bottom of steamer pot.
Take one or two large corn husks.  Flatten a large spoonful of dough in the bottom half (the stem end).  Add filling:
            Red tamales:  some chicken and red sauce
            Green tamales:  some chicken and green sauce
            Beans:  a spoon or two of refried beans from the can
      Fold sides of corn husk over snugly, then fold silk end down.
Take one or two more corn husks, place folded end of tamale at bottom, fold sides snugly, and fold the other end over so that the sauce stays inside.
Last, tear a thin strip from a long corn husk and tie it around the tamale over the most recent folded end.
As each tamale is done, place it vertically in steamer pot.
After making the first red tamale and a green tamale and a bean tamale, place a layer of tin foil between them so that nothing runs together.
When all tamales are done and are standing in the pot, wet a clean washcloth thoroughly and wring it out.  Place it over the tamales and tuck the edges into the inside of the steamer pot.  Cover the pot and place a weight on it if it’s very full.
Steam over low fire for an hour and a half.  Keep an eye on the pot to make sure steam is still rising; if not, add water.
The tamales are done when they separate easily from the corn husk wrappings.

Champurrado — the Drink of Montezuma
(pre-Hispanic traditional Mexican drink)

1 piloncillo (conical cake of brown sugar, about a cup)
½ lb corn tortilla dough (masa)
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 cake of chocolate (about ½ cup or more dark chocolate that has granulated sugar inside, not baker’s chocolate)

Put piloncillo in about 3 quarts of water in pot over medium fire.
Place the dough in about a cup and a half of water and mash up until liquid.  Takes a long time.  For a thicker drink, use more dough.
Add cinnamon to pot.
Add chocolate to pot.
When chocolate is fully melted, add dough water very slowly.  Skim out the small pieces of dough.
Cook over low heat half an hour or until the raw corn dough taste is gone.

Nopales Salad

6 cactus ears
½ onion
1 tsp dried oregano
a little powdered garlic
diced parsley
2 or 3 red tomatoes
Fresh farmer cheese (queso ranchero)

Dice nopales into small pieces.
Put olive oil in frypan, add nopales and salt.  Cactus, like okra, has a lot of gooey liquid.  Simmer, stirring often, until cactus has changed color and liquid has boiled off.  This will take maybe half an hour.  Add the oregano at some point.
Slice onion thinly in partial circles.  Dice tomatoes.  Cut parsley.  Put all in bowl.
When cactus is done, pour over onion and tomato, stir, refrigerate.
Before serving, crumble farmer cheese over the top.

Here is my friend, Roberta Bremson, here for the month of March from Seattle, stirring the nopales.  

I have to tell you, from beginning to end this lesson took four and a half hours!  I think I will never in my life make tamales etc.  It is too much work!  I certainly have a new respect for people who make tamales, especially for a living.  But hard work is good for the soul.  Here I am in the kitchen with my teacher, Yurina Peralta.

This week I signed up for a Spanish conversation class, intermediate level.  Once a day at noon, under a spreading fig tree on a flagstoned patio at the Instituto Allende, we sit and talk in Spanish.  There is Elvira, the teacher.  She is Mexican, about 50, who wears her shiny black hair in two long braids that she loops back up to her head.  If you make a mistake she says the correct thing slowly and clearly.  I understand every syllable she says.  Including me, there are six students.  Only my friend Luba and I are residents; the other four are visitors.  There is an older couple from New York:  she corrects everyone and he is unwilling or unable to incorporate corrections from the teacher, as if she had never spoken.  There is an older single woman who seems spectacularly ungifted for languages:  she is almost helpless and tongue-tied.  And there is a younger woman who may be the most fluent of all of us.  Quite a mixed bag.  Luba and I are at about the same level, less fluent than the younger woman but much more so than the other three.  The teacher asks us questions and we also pose questions to each other.  An hour seems just right, and I am proud of myself that I am finally doing this.  There is no question but that it is helpful.  I find myself much more willing now to try and say things in Spanish.  Luba says she is astonished at how well I speak after such a short time studying Spanish -- three or four months of lessons last spring -- but I am much more conscious of all the things I want to say and can't.

Last night we went to a benefit for the Waldorf School here in San Miguel.  It was only 100 pesos, about $9, so within our self-imposed limit of 150 pesos a ticket for entertainment.  It was held at a home, or rather a castle, which was astonishing.  Built in the steep hills above San Miguel, the house had four tall levels plus another level at the bottom for garden only.  From the street at the top to the street at the bottom, it must have been about 150 vertical feet of hillside.  The various levels were linked together by stairs, passageways, tunnels, and bridges, so the little boys there were hysterical with joy chasing each other around, under, and through.  

We explored most of the place -- okay, we didn't explore the owner's bedroom upstairs -- and found four or five small but gorgeous apartments in the lower levels (to rent out?) in addition to spectacular rooms on the main level, many balconies, gardens, outside sitting areas, and even an outside extra kitchen with gas burners, small refrigerator, and sink.  Everywhere were tasteful objets d'art and expensive fixtures and furnishings. This is the view out over the town.

There was also, of course, a party.  You could buy food and things to drink (that's what made the entrance ticket so cheap), and there must have been a couple hundred people drinking and eating.

Eventually, people were also dancing (not in the picture below -- no room -- but there was lots of other space to dance).  The musicians played a lot of the Beatles' music, and presumably tried to look like them, because the Beatles were the theme of this party/benefit.

There certainly are a fair number of gringos here with a lot of money.   This was a multi-million dollar house, and I honestly am not used to all this wealth.  Unlike my life back in the US, the expat community here is small enough, and there is so much volunteer work going on, that here I get to see how these folks live.  It's quite an education.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March 13

Hi, folks!

So this past Tuesday the cooking teacher, Yurina Peralta, taught me and my friend Roberta Bremson, who's here with her husband, Victor, for the month of March.  We learned how to make Sopa Azteca (Aztec soup) and Albondigas Rellenos de Huevos (meatballs stuffed with eggs).  Sopa Azteca in particular is phenomenal.  Here you go!

Sopa Azteca y Albondigas Rellenos de Huevo
Aztec Soup and Meatballs Stuffed with Egg

Maestra de Cocina Yurina Peralta, March 8, 2011
San Miguel de Allende

Recipe for 6 people

Sopa Azteca

1 chicken breast
2 large tomatoes
7 tortillas
2 large cloves garlic
epazote (Mexican herb, no English equivalent)
2 or 3 avocados
¾ to 1 lb ranchero cheese (farmer cheese), very fresh
chopped cilantro
½ onion, chopped
2 chiles Serrano, diced very small (including seeds) – spicy
½ cup crema (sour cream)
5 or 6 small limes, halved

Wash chicken breasts, put them in about 2 quarts of water over low fire
Add about a tsp salt
Dice garlic finely, add to soup.
Cute epazote leaves finely, add to soup.
Cut tomatoes in chunks, liquefy in blender, add to soup.
Cut the tortillas in small pieces with kitchen scissors.
In large frypan, heat olive oil.  Add tortilla pieces and fry until crispy, if necessary in two batches.  Remove and drain on paper towel.  
By now soup has cooked ½ to 1 hour.  Cut as much of the chicken as you want into small pieces and put into soup.
Put in small bowls and cover with plastic wrap, to serve when ready to eat:
            Ranchero cheese (squush in its bag to crumble)
            Tortilla chips
Serrano chiles
Avocados – cut just before serving or will turn brown


1 lb chopped beef
½ cup bread crumbs or ground corn flakes
½ cup milk
3 eggs
3 large red tomatoes
½ lb green tomatillos
1 or 2 chipotle chiles, fresh or canned
salt to taste

In large pot, add a little olive oil and heat. 
Peel skin off tomatillos and cut into small chunks.  Discard any brown pieces.  Blend until liquefied.  Add to pot.
Chunk the red tomatoes and blend.  Add chipotle chiles, blend.  Add this to pot.  Add salt to taste.  Simmer about ½ hour.  If water has boiled off, add a little:  texture should be thick but liquid.
Hard-boil 2 eggs.  When done, fix in cold water, peel, and cut into chunks (1/4 to 1/8 egg).
In bowl, mix together meat, 1 raw egg, milk, and bread crumbs.  Add salt to taste.
Take a few tablespoons of meat mixture, flatten in hand.  Place egg chunk in middle and wrap meat around it.  Roll in hands until round.  Drop in tomato mixture.
Simmer meatballs about half an hour.

I am loving these Tuesdays.  First is the lesson, which starts with making a list of all the ingredients, then the mercado to buy the produce and cheeses, then back to the house to make the dishes.  At about 6 PM Rick comes home, with Louis, from their Writers' Group at the Biblioteca.  This week Victor and Roberta were also here for dinner.  They will be next Tuesday as well -- and Yurina will teach us how to make tamales!

Yesterday there was a full afternoon of bluegrass, blues, and jugband music at a place out in the campo (countryside).  We were all sorry we didn't bring our bathing suits, because it had thermal pools.  Rows of chairs were set up under two big tents (tops only, not sides:  tents are essential here for shade).  250 pesos (about $22) bought you a ticket where you sat on folding chairs under the rear half of the tent; for an extra 250 pesos you could get a molded plastic chair in the front half of the tent.  We did better than all that.  Rick had the fine idea of bringing four canvas folding chairs, for us and Roberta and Victor.  We set them up at the back and heard everything just fine in much more comfort.  You may remember that Rick and I have a limit of 150 pesos for tickets to entertainment events.  Occasionally we choose to go over our limit, and the pleasure is that we rarely have to.

There was another big tent with plastic tables and chairs set up under it.  Every single table and chair had large Corona beer logos, as did the small tents over the food stalls and the molded plastic 500-peso chairs.  Corona buys extensive advertisements at every big outdoor event here.  The gate opened at 11:30 and various vendors of food were all set up.  There was chili, pulled pork, fried chicken, hamburgers, ice cream, and many other things.  Bottled water and beer cost 20 pesos (= $1.75), wine 40 pesos.  Food was from 40 to 100 pesos.  So people (mostly North Americans, for this music) strolled around, went swimming, noshed, talked with old and new friends, danced, and listened to very fine music.  It was lovely, lovely, lovely.

I've been spending a lot of time this week working on a new project.  I have proposed an adult education  program to the Biblioteca.  So far I've spoken about it to the Biblioteca's director of programs and its editor of AtenciĆ³n, the local paper, both of whom are very enthusiastic about it.  The Board meets on March 25, so before an official approval I'm just working on it unofficially.  My friend Luba, an American who's lived here for 6 or 8 years, is working on it with me.  It is great fun to work out the guidelines and to set it up!  This program would be such a good idea for San Miguel.  The town is full of accomplished people who could teach interesting courses on a wide variety of topics, and up to now, except for language and art courses, one's ability to learn something new here is pretty much limited to individual lectures.  Luba and I are calling it La Universidad de la Biblioteca!  I'll keep you informed about progress.

Monday, March 7, 2011

March 7

Here is what the largest bougainvillea in the garden looks like from the upstairs terrace.

We've been here almost two months and every morning we wake up to sunshine and blue skies.  In fact, it has not rained a drop in all this time, and the housekeeper complains with good reason about "el polvo" -- the dust.  Now that it's March the daytime temperature is in the 80s, but since it's a dry climate it's completely comfortable in the shade.  Our house, like the others, is made of stone and cement and is therefore quite cool and comfortable now.  Nighttime temperatures in the 50s are perfect for sleeping.  In the morning I wake up to sunshine in the low 60s.  I go out onto the terrace from which I took this photo, listen to the birds sing, and marvel at the brilliant colors of the bougainvillea, the geraniums, and other flowers.

The other day I noticed mosquitoes.  Electricity is expensive here, so we don't often run the motor for the fountain.  Result:  mosquitoes.  I asked on the San Miguel Civil List what people do to control mosquitoes and have been told that running the fountain only 15 or 30 minutes per day is enough to prevent larvae forming in standing water.  Who knew I'd need to learn about the life cycle of mosquito larvae?

I've been ill this past week with a cough and sneezing and really low energy level, so I don't have all that much to report.  In fact, I didn't go to Mexico City with Rick as a result.  I've been reading and embroidering pillowcases and otherwise taking it easy.  One day this week we went to the SPA.  You may recall that on our first day of the trip down here in January my cat, Lila Tov, wriggled out of her halter at a rest stop and ran away.  Many, many tears.  Reading in a comfortable chair in the evening without a cat in my lap is definitely an inferior experience.  At the SPA I learned much to my amazement that kittens have an annual season just as lambs do (learning all the time here!).  The kittens available now were four and five months old, too old.  So we will go back in a month or two or three when younger kittens are available.

And on Saturday we went to a chamber music concert that's part of a series called Pro Musica, over two dozen classic music concerts offered from October through April in a church in San Miguel.  This one was the Cuarteto Latinoamericano playing string quartets by Haydn, Dvorak, and Debussy, and it was lovely.  I especially like the fact that we can hear great concerts for 100 pesos, about $9, a ticket.  Even Rick, who normally gets restive at classical music concerts, loved it.  During the intermission we had a glass of wine ($3.50!) in the garden.  Can you imagine, an amaryllis planted in the ground and not as a hot-house flower?!

In the intermission we spoke to a woman from Pittsburgh, who has just retired after 30 years of directing an abortion clinic.  One of the most wonderful things about this town is the amazing backgrounds of the people we meet.