Category Archives: Mexican

Dressed to impress

Last Sunday, September 16th, was Mexican Independence Day. I’ll admit, the only reason I knew this is because a month or so ago, I found a recipe for something called “Chiles en Nogada” on Saveur online. Their description was enough to make my mouth water: “Traditionally made in Puebla to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on September 16, these chiles have a minced pork filling enhanced with chopped fruit, and a creamy walnut sauce.”  Essentially, it’s roasted poblano peppers, stuffed with a picadillo, covered in a creamy walnut sauce, and topped with cilantro or parsley and pomegranate seeds. I’m going to go ahead and just give Mexico the win on this “let’s-make-food-colored-like-our-flag-to-celebrate-our-independence” competition.

Chiles en Nogada has such an explosive combination of flavors that I’ve never experienced before. The sweet-savory filling of pork and fruits combined with the mildly spicy poblanos all tied together with a walnut-queso fresco-crema sauce is so, so good. Seriously, how do people come up with these things? I unsuccessfully trekked far and wide to find a pomegranate and was on the verge of not even bothering with the recipe when Braeden, the smart one that he is, said “Why can’t you just buy some pomegranate juice and make it a syrup to drizzle on top?”

Seriously, how do people come up with these things?

So, here we are. But please, please, please don’t wait until another September 16 rolls around to make this. This is a dish worthy of any celebration. (Or, as Braeden also said after eating: “You have to make this for my parents the next time we cook for them.”) So take note, ladies and gents – if you want to impress someone, this is what you make.

Chiles en Nogada
adapted from this and this

Notes: I was lucky and had some really good pork shoulder roast which I cooked in the pressure cooker for an hour until it was a juicy, tender perfection. You could use leftover roast pork if you happen to have any, or if you want to make this a bit faster, try a pound of ground pork. (Or, I suppose, another ground meat like turkey or chicken.) You will almost definitely have leftover filling – I had grand plans of using it to fill won-ton wrappers, but ended up completely satisfied eating the filling for lunch later in the week.
Also – if you do find a pomegranate, by all means use the seeds instead of making the pomegranate syrup. I think the tart, juicy pop of the seeds would’ve made this dish all that much better.
One more thing – This is a rather involved recipe, but if you make the walnut sauce the night before, and roast the peppers while you’re making the filling, it’s not too terrible. Starting with already cooked, leftover meat would help, too.

Walnut Sauce
makes enough sauce to cover 6 poblanos
Time: about 40 minutes – do this the night before if possible.

  • 4 oz. (about a cup) walnuts
  • ½ cup milk
  • 6 oz. queso fresco
  • 1 cup crema or sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon agave nectar
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Place walnuts in a 2-qt. saucepan, and cover with water; bring to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. The original recipe says to take the skins off the walnuts, because they can be bitter, but after feebly attempting to rub off the skins, I gave up. (And it still tasted grrrreat. I include this step because I think it helped soften the walnuts.) Bring milk to just under a boil in same 2-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat, and add walnuts; let sit, covered, to soften nuts, 30 minutes or longer. Transfer walnuts and milk to a blender along with queso fresco, crema and agave. Purée until smooth and thick, at least 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, transfer to a bowl, and cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Important: I took the walnut sauce out of the refrigerator when I started making the filling, so that it could come to room temperature. I didn’t think I would want a too-cold sauce, but at room temperature the heat from the stuffed peppers warmed it perfectly.

Pomegranate drizzle
If you can’t find a pomegranate, make this to drizzle over top. Start this when you start roasting the peppers – it takes at least 40 minutes to reduce.

  • 8 ounces pomegranate juice
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in a tablespoon of water

In small saucepan, simmer/lightly boil pomegranate juice over medium heat until reduced by at least half, about 30 – 40 minutes. You can keep reducing until it gets syrupy, or if you’re impatient like me, stir in the cornstarch mixture to quickly thicken the drizzle. Set aside until ready to use.

Time – at least 45 minutes

  • 6 poblano peppers

Heat broiler to high. Place poblanos on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil, turning, until blackened all over, about 20 minutes. Transfer chiles to a bowl, cover tightly (you can use the foil that was lining the baking sheet) and let sit for at least 20 minutes, until skins slip off easily. Peel peppers; cut a slit down the length of each chile and carefully remove the seeds, leaving the stem and pepper intact. Set aside until ready.

Time – about 2 hours, including time spent cooking pork. About 1 hour if pork is already cooked, or if using ground pork. I cooked the pork first, then started making the filling once the poblanos were blackened and steaming, pre-peeling.

  • 1 pound pork loin, roast, etc. (I had a 2.5 pound pork roast and just cooked it all, saving the rest for another recipe)
  • 1 large onion (white or yellow), halved – roughly chop one half, finely chop the other
  • 2 tablespoons neutral flavored (aka not olive) oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or cilantro
  • 3 plum (or 1 large heirloom) tomato, finely chopped
  • 1 tart apple (such as Bramley, Haralson, Earligold, or Granny Smith), peeled, cored, chopped
  • 1 peach, peeled, pitted, chopped
  • 1 medium ripe (starting to brown, but not all the way black) plantain, peeled and chopped
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • salt and pepper to taste

1. Cook pork. If starting with pork loin, roast, etc.:  Chop the pork into 2-inch chunks, then in a large saucepan bring pork, the roughly chopped onion half, and 3 cups of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Season with salt, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook about an hour, until pieces are tender and cooked through. (If you have a pressure cooker, simply cook at whole roast with 2 cups water, onion, and a little oil for an hour at high pressure, natural release, then once cool enough to handle, chop pork into chunks).  Once pork is done, reserve 1/2 cup of cooking liquid and discard the rest.

2. In same saucepan, heat the 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add the other half of finely chopped onion and cook until translucent and soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and parsley/cilantro and cook until tomatoes start to break down, another 5 minutes. Add pork, cooking liquid, and fruits to the pan, stir occasionally, and cook until the fruits are cooked through and everything thickens, about 10 – 15 minutes. Taste and season as you like with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Set filling aside until ready to use.

And now what you’ve been waiting for,

1. Take a pepper, and stuff with the filling. I probably used a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of filling per pepper. (They were quite stuffed).

2. Cover stuffed pepper with walnut sauce.

3. Drizzle or dot with pomegranate syrup; sprinkle on a little cilantro or parsley.

4. Repeat with other peppers.

5. Devour.

This would be lovely served with rice or some good, hot flour tortillas, but we just ate two peppers each and called it a (very stuffed) night.  And by the way, leftovers warm up nicely in the microwave.

I know this recipe is a lot to handle, but it’s completely worth it. I hadn’t even planned on writing a post (hence the lack of pictures), but you needed to know that this exists. And you need to make it.



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Lost in Translation, but Still a Good Reason for a Fiesta

First, the name of today’s recipe: Burritos Ahogados….I have to admit it’s kind of a funny name – little drowned donkeys!  Some people say burritos get their name because they resemble a burro’s ear, but a better explanation seems to be that the tortilla can carry a load of good-to-eat filling.  Traditional Mexican burritos are actually quite simple and not super-stuffed, but the American version, sometimes known as a California burrito, is a whopper.  And this fat little donkey, filled with the leftover Chipotle Chicken and Saffron Rice from our last post and drowned in a zesty sauce, is perfect for Cinco de Mayo.  Our Burritos Ahogados are really more of a Mexican-American/southwest-influenced taste than they are a traditional Mexican recipe, and Cinco de Mayo is also a much bigger deal in the U.S. than it is south of the border.


If you’re wondering how Cinco de Mayo became such a big deal in the first place, it all started one day back some time in the late eighties.  Representatives from the Mexican Restaurateurs’ Association, the California Avocado Commission, and all of the major salsa and tortilla chip manufacturers got together with a laudable goal in mind: let’s make more money.  Of course, if you are selling something, one logical way to improve profits is to increase sales.  These clever marketers figured out that the time was right – multicultural education was becoming a big thing, “ethnic” was suddenly cool, and besides, how hard can it be to create an appetite for delicious south of the border flavors?  The group’s brilliant plan was to tie their products to a big holiday celebration, so after a quick perusal of the calendar and a review of possible Mexican history events to commemorate, they settled on Cinco de Mayo.

Of course, I’m making all that up, but the fact is, where I grew up in a Mexican-American community (and went to school with many kids from migrant families who were deeply connected to traditional Mexican folkways and lived in Mexico for part of every year), no one I knew ever even mentioned Cinco de Mayo.  Long about the nineties, however, there was sort of a renewal of latino pride that was matched by a greater general interest in all kinds of celebrations of cultural heritage, and all of a sudden Cinco de Mayo became a big and contagiously fun fiesta in many areas of the U.S. even though it is not commonly observed in Mexico outside of the state of Puebla.*

But enough background, let’s get to the recipe!  As I mentioned, this dish is made from leftovers, so if you haven’t yet tried our Chipotle Chicken with Creamy Tomato Bacon Gravy, get right on it and you’ll be glad you did (but be sure to save some of the chicken, rice, and sauce for the burritos!).  All of the measurements are approximate, and burritos really lend themselves to improv, so feel free to toss in some tender pinto or black beans, small chunks of fried potatoes, sautéed peppers, corn, or whatever else you have on hand.  After the burritos are filled you drown them in a smoky creamy sauce made from the leftover chipotle bacon tomato gravy and bake them for about 20 minutes.  That does something pretty amazing to store-bought flour tortillas, and the best way I can think of to describe them is to compare them to crepes.  The quantities below will make six jumbo burritos.

Chipotle Chicken Burritos Ahogados

  • Chipotle chicken pieces (OK to leave some of the gravy sticking to it) – I probably used the equivalent of a large breast half, but it was mixed light and dark meat
  • 1 to 1 ½ cups cooked rice (I used saffron rice cooked with leeks, but plain rice or seasoned sopa de arroz would be fine)
  • 1 cup shredded sweet potato (this was half of a small one and I cooked the other half in the microwave, mashed it up, and mixed it into corn muffin batter – really good!)
  • 6 large flour tortillas
  • 1 cup creamy chipotle tomato bacon gravy
  • 1 cup milk

Spray a 9 x 13 or thereabouts baking dish with cooking spray and preheat the oven to 350 F.

Dice the chicken up and combine it with the rice, shredded sweet potato, and anything else you want to add; if you have leftover gravy besides the cup you’ll need for the burrito sauce, you could also stir some of it into the chicken mixture.  I usually warm the chicken mixture in the microwave before filling the burritos so they will get done faster in the oven.

Heat the tortillas on a comal, griddle, or in a non-stick frying pan for a minute or two to soften them (it works well to do two at a time, turning every few seconds and flipping each one so both sides are exposed to the hot surface); stack the warm tortillas and generously fill them with the chicken mixture.  Work quickly to keep the tortillas from drying out and cracking, and to shape, fold along one side, both ends, and then the other side (see photo).  Place the burritos seam side down in the baking dish.

Blend the gravy and milk, and you can use an immersion blender if desired to make the sauce smooth if there are big tomato chunks in the gravy.   Warm the sauce in the microwave or on the stove and pour it evenly over the burritos to cover them completely.  Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the filling is good and hot.



*Yes, I see those raised hands waving and hear the eager requests for the true story of the Batalla de Puebla, which was an unexpected early Mexican victory during the French Intervention (which happened back in the 1860s because Mexico suspended payment on its debts to France, triggering a French invasion and occupation that might have caused the U.S. to try to act on the Monroe Doctrine if we hadn’t had too many troubles of our own in 1862).  The whole thing ultimately ended badly for the French.  The Día de la Batalla de Puebla is commemorated to this day in the state of Puebla, but it is not really a significant occasion in the rest of the Republic.


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A Tale of Two Chickens – and One Hooks Up with Chipotle

I was never the type to skip to the back of the book to see how it turns out, but I can’t help dropping a spoiler here: the end of this story is my new absolute-favorite-of-all-time chicken recipe.  Our tale began when a friend emailed and said she made a delicious chicken recipe she found online.  She thoughtfully included the link for Honey Dijon Chicken Thighs, assured me that I would love it, and said I had to try it.  I think she’s right, and I will (try it and also love it, I’m sure).  In fact, as I was reading the recipe I was mentally checking off ingredients – check, check, check – yes indeed, I had everything I needed to put it together that very day.

But then (rising action here, if you are plotting the plot as we go)….I started clicking around in the same website, Our Life in the Kitchen (by the way, what a nice blog!), and that is when the real protagonist emerged: please allow me to introduce our main character, Chicken Thighs with Tomato Bacon Gravy.  At this point its personality develops as all good characters do, and the story evolves into a combination thriller, romantic comedy, and fantasy.  I added chipotles in adobo to the tomato bacon gravy for a serious zing of flavor excitement, we REALLY loved it, and it’s funny what a difference a little addition like that can make to turn an already good recipe into something downright magical.  There’s something about the smoky flavor combination of chipotles and bacon that does supernatural things to ordinary chicken and tomatoes, and if this recipe were a book I bet it would be a bestseller.  Not only that, we’ve included a side dish and vegetable suggestion to round out the meal, and in the next few days we’ll publish a sequel to use the leftovers in another main dish that is every bit as good as the first one.

Smokin’ Hot Chipotle Chicken with Creamy Bacon Tomato Gravy
Adapted from the Chicken Thighs with Tomato Bacon Gravy recipe by Our Life in the Kitchen

  • ¼ pound bacon, diced
  • 1 small onion, diced (I like a sweet onion for this recipe, but red would also be nice)
  • Boneless skinless chicken pieces (I used two breast halves and two thighs and that was enough for two very generous servings – like I said, we really liked it – plus a six-serving yield from the follow-up recipe coming soon to make use of the leftovers; if you want more than two big servings the first day, just add a couple of additional chicken pieces, and the rest of the ingredient quantities can stay the same)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive or corn oil, if needed
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 14.5 can chopped tomatoes
  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ cup water
  • 2-4 chipotles in adobo, minced
  • Salt to taste, if needed (wait until the end to salt, because you might not need it with the saltiness of the bacon)

In a dutch oven or large heavy frying pan with a lid, brown the bacon chunks over medium heat until they are crisp (don’t use a nonstick-coated pan, because you want to build up a nice layer of crusty drippings that you’ll later deglaze and turn into fabulous gravy).  While the bacon is frying, mix together the cumin, coriander, and pepper and rub it into the chicken pieces (I cut the chicken pieces in half and also split each breast portion horizontally because they were quite thick).  Remove the bacon pieces but leave the drippings in the pan; brown the diced onion until it is nicely caramelized and remove from the pan.

Now brown the chicken pieces, adding a little olive or corn oil if the remain bacon drippings don’t look like enough to do the job (resist the temptation to move the chicken pieces around in the pan right away – let them start to get brown first and then you’ll be able to turn them without having the meat stick).  After both sides are brown, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the chicken is done and tender, about 15 minutes.  Remove the chicken pieces to a plate (the bacon and onions could go on the same plate instead of using a separate bowl like I did).



Sprinkle the flour over the drippings in the pan and let it cook for a couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes with their juice and use a metal spatula to scrape up the browned layer of drippings that is sticking to the pan.  Blend in the milk and water, and break up the tomato chunks a little by mashing with a fork (or use an immersion blender).  Taste as you go while you are adding the minced chipotles – I used four and the result was very spicy (and we do like it hot), so you might start out with two or even one if you are serving the dish to little ones….if you don’t use a whole can of chipotles, they keep for a long time in the fridge and you can also freeze them individually with a little adobo in small snack-size plastic zip-top bags.

Return the chicken, bacon bits, and onion to the gravy mixture, spooning some of gravy over the chicken pieces, and cover with a lid.  Let the chicken simmer on very low heat for another 10-20 minutes while you are finishing up the rest of the meal.  Taste a bite to see if it needs a little sprinkle of salt, then serve with rice with fried plantains and a green vegetable or salad.



Rice with Fried Plantains

  • 1 firm plantain, sliced thinly
  • 2 tablespoons olive or corn oil
  • ½ cup chopped leek or onion
  • 1 cup long-grained rice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Pinch of saffron (mine comes in a pre-measured 1/100 gram packet)
  • 2½ cups hot water

Fry the plantain slices in the oil, turning to cook both sides until they are golden and crispy (you can use the same pan you’ll cook the rice in, doing the plantain slices in batches if they won’t fit in a single layer).  Remove the plantain slices and hold at room temperature.

Add the rice and chopped leeks or onions to the pot and stir to coat with oil.  Cook, stirring frequently, until many of the rice grains are golden and the leek or onion is tender (you can prepare the plantain and rice up to this point ahead of time, or during the time you are browning the bacon and onions for the chipotle chicken).  Grind the salt and saffron threads together in a mortar or use the back of a spoon to grind against the side of a small round cup or bowl.

When the chicken has about 20 minutes to go, add the saffron and salt to the rice and rinse the mortar or cup you ground the mixture in with the 2 ½ cups hot water, pouring it over the rice pan to get all of the saffron residue into the rice.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and cover with a tight-fitting lid.  Let the rice cook for about 15 minutes or until it is done and fluff with a fork.  Top each serving with slices of fried plantain.

Sautéed Broccoli Stem

This is a quick and delicious way to use the part of a broccoli head that is often discarded.  One good-sized stem is enough for two servings.

Cut the florets from the stem and reserve them for another use.  Slice off the dried end of the broccoli stem and hold the stem upright on a cutting board.  Use a paring knife to thinly peel the stem, then cut the stem lengthwise into several sticks and slice thinly.  If it doesn’t look like the stem will yield as many servings as you want, cut up some of the florets to add as well.

Sauté in a little olive oil until the pieces of broccoli stem are tender-crisp and lightly browned, about five minutes.  Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and serve.

The recipe we’ll post next time is perfect for an easy Cinco de Mayo meal – besides the leftovers from today’s recipe you’ll need some flour tortillas, a sweet potato, and some milk.  As a friend of mine often exclaims after a particularly good meal, “good groceries!”  Come on back!


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Perfect for catching up – Empanadas

A few (plus a few) weekends ago, my best friend Kelly visited. Kelly and I both studied in Moscow together, where we began as simply classmates, but grew over a love of food, tea, and photography exhibits to become dear friends.  Also, we randomly met Diane von Furstenberg. Kelly is in law school now (so proud of you, Kelly) and we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but quickly got to drinking refreshing drinks, eating delicious Mexican food, and creating some unforgettable empanadas.

The empanadas were fairly labor intensive, but totally and completely worth it. We made the dough from a recipe I had written down several years ago, in a recipe-collecting notebook I bought back in my Cracker-Barrel-country-store-obsessed days.  (They just have so many cool trinkets and unnecessary things, you know?) I have no idea where the recipe comes from, as it is simply titled “Mom’s Empanadas.” Mom doesn’t know, either, but we decided it tastes too good to care. You might see the recipe is also not very complete in its directions. …I don’t know if you’ve noticed before, but I’m not always the best at giving precise directions. I’m more the type to eyeball when measuring (except when baking, usually) and for this blog, that means I give directions like “just add to taste!” or “use your imagination!” If you’re the type who prefer, or even need, precise directions, then you’re in luck; Kelly faithfully took notes as I added and tweaked the ingredients and spices, so you can fearlessly recreate these delicious empanadas on your own.

Or, you know, use your imagination and go where the wind takes you.

We made two fillings – one savory, the other sweet. The savory filling is modeled after a picadillo from Pati’s Mexican Table. It’s incredibly moist, and has just the right spices to warm you to your core. If you have any left over, which I did, it’s very easy to just eat it on its own, straight from the pan. Or if you have a little more self-control, it’s also good mixed into some rice for another meal. Then again, it’d make a really good topping for polenta, or even tacos or tostadas or even some beefed up molletes.

The sweet filling is so very simple, inspired from some peach and guava empanadas I tasted at a local empanada shop. (Julia’s is also most likely responsible for inspiring me to make empanadas in the first place.) Both types of empanada are baked, and their crust is wonderfully flaky. They also reheat surprisingly well in a microwave, but I’m willing to bet they’d fare even better after a short time in a low-heated oven.

Make ahead note: The dough should be made at least 30 minutes before you want to assemble the empanadas, as it needs a little time to rest and chill in the refrigerator. You could also make it the night before, and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Then again, as with most doughs, you could also freeze it, tightly wrapped, for a month or so.

Mom’s Empanada Dough

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, chilled
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup (give or take) cold water
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • a few sprinkles of turmeric, optional (it’s a trick Kelly learned from the Jamaican version of empanadas)

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl; set aside. Cut in butter and shortening with a pastry blender or two knives or a fork. Add the vinegar and as much water as necessary to form a dough (we ended up using a cup of water exactly). (Also, this is much like making a pie crust, where you don’t want too too much water or the dough will be kind of gummy. I think this dough is slightly more forgiving than pie crust, though, so don’t fret too much.) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or overnight (see note).

Filling #1 – Picadillo, of sorts

  • 3 ripe Roma tomatoes, skinned (slash an X in one end, dip in boiling water for 15 seconds, remove, and the skin slips right off), and pureed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, roughly chopped
  • pinch of ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or more) of cumin (we used at least 1 teaspoon)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • other seasonings to taste: spice mix, garlic, ground coriander, etc
  • 1 pound (give or take) ground turkey
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or water)
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
  • salt, to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon)
  • optional: up to 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch, to help thicken sauce

Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium heat; add onion and cook a few minutes until translucent. Add spices and cook for about a minute; add turkey and saute, stirring occasionally, until browned, 8 – 10 minutes. Add pureed tomato and let cook an additional five minutes, to get the raw tomato flavor out. Add broth (or water, if using) and stir around, then let cook for 15 minutes. The filling should start to thicken; if you think it is too dry, add more broth or water. We decided to add the cornstarch to ensure the filling was still saucy but not watery – soggy empanadas aren’t the best. Add walnuts and raisins and taste to check the seasoning, then add salt and adjust seasonings to your taste. Once the filling is at the desired consistency and taste, turn off heat and set aside to fill. Or, you can make this ahead and refrigerate for 3 or so days (or, freeze it).

Filling #2 – Guava and cream

This one is easy: buy some guava paste from a Latin grocery store (or maybe even the Hispanic section in a big grocery store), and buy some cream cheese. Once your dough is rolled out, simply spread a tablespoon of cream cheese and a slice (1/8 inch thick) of guava paste, fold over, press, and bake as directed below. You could also add more filling if you want, but I like my crust to filling ratio with sweet fillings to be more equal and less overwhelmingly sweet. You might be wondering about that turmeric we added to the dough and then proceeded to use for our sweet empanadas: we didn’t even notice it was there. Just do it.

Empanada assembly:

Now for the easy, albeit time consuming, part!

  1. Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. Have a little dish with water ready to use for sealing the empanadas.
  4. Roll dough 1/8 inch thick, cut into 4 or 5 inch circles with a cookie cutter, biscuit cutter, clean aluminium can, or large German Bierstein. Whatever it takes.
  5. Place about 1 1/2 tablespoons of filling on one side of a round, dip your fingers in the water and rub around the edges of the round; fold a side over to the other side and press with a fork to seal.
  6. Repeat with others, and place on prepared baking sheet.

Your first empanada might be a little…gushy. It’s ok. It will still taste wonderful, and just add less (or more!) filling next time.

Bake empanadas for about 15 minutes, until the crust is golden and cooked through. Be sure to let them cool, or you just might burn your mouth on the extremely hot steam that inevitably comes blasting out as soon as you break open one of your creations. If, however, you can’t seem to wait long enough to let them cool, know that your mouth will heal, and your tummy will love you.

If you find yourself with a free day and a good friend, make empanadas. They’re perfect for sipping wine and catching up on all that’s passed. Also, to make up for April’s small amount of posts, look out for another post tomorrow!



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Breaking the mold – a Mexican Casserole

I’m always surprised when I hear people say they don’t like casseroles, but then I realize they are talking about those canned cream soup, crumbled hamburger, frozen vegetable, and Tater Tot concoctions.  Unfortunately, somehow that is my husband’s frame of reference, and it’s a hard sell to whip up enthusiasm for a casserole around here.  Nevertheless, when I saw a recipe in the Washington Post for a Meaty Tamal Casserole, I had a feeling about it.  The recipe was part of an article by Patricia Jinich, chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC.  She also appears on the PBS program Pati’s Mexican Table and has a website/blog.  Periodically, Pati and the Mexican Cultural Institute put on a popular Mexican cooking demonstration and tasting dinner, and one of Kara’s birthday presents from us this year was a ticket to the March demo and dinner (which will be the topic of a post in the near, near future).

The combination of ingredients in Pati’s casserole recipe sounded wonderful, but I happened to glance at the comments after the article and one reader pointed out the calorie count – 740 per serving (!).  Now, my philosophy is everything in moderation, but I decided to lighten the recipe up some.  My first thought was to substitute vegetables for some of the meat, and I also used a trick I learned from Sonia Ortiz of Cocina al Natural and made the masa by combining equal amounts of yogurt and masa harina plus some water to get the right consistency.  It worked perfectly and made a big difference in calories – I used 1½ cups whole-milk yogurt (about 225 calories) for eight generous servings, while the original recipe used 1¼ cups butter (more than 2,000 calories) plus a quart of chicken broth for 12 servings.  I’m not a dietician, but I estimate just using the yogurt instead of butter and broth saved around 250 calories per serving.



I was scaling the recipe down in quantity as well as calories, and the first time I made it I used 2½ cups of masa harina.  We really liked the casserole but the masa layers were a lot thicker than needed, so on my second attempt I cut back to 1½ cups and that was just right for my big oval casserole dish.  I used ground beef the first time around, and this last time I used some leftover cooked chicken.  I liked the chicken even better, but if you want to go with beef, use a pound of extra-lean ground (browned and drained), and swap beef broth for the chicken broth.  For the vegetables, choose something fairly sturdy, because the casserole filling will bake inside the masa for an hour and you don’t want the vegetables to turn to mush.  We really liked the carrot and chayote combination – chayote is a mild-flavored squash and it keeps its texture during long cooking much better than zucchini.  You could also use frozen corn and peas, added to the filling mixture right before you pour it into the masa-lined casserole dish.  In this recipe, I think it’s nice to have at least part of the vegetables be something slightly sweet, so other good choices would be some kind of winter squash or red bell peppers, and you could round it out with green beans or mushrooms.

Before I get to the recipe, just a note about the seasoning: the dried chiles give a wonderful flavor and texture to the sauce, and you really can’t get the same consistency with chili powder.  The taste is full-bodied but still quite mild, so if you want more of a tongue tingle, blend in a couple of canned chipotles in adobo in addition to the guajillos and anchos.  I adjusted some of the other seasonings to suit my preference (just a little garlic in a seasoning blend, no cloves, etc.), and it also seemed to take a fair amount of salt (but I didn’t measure).  The raisins and olives are key components; I used a mix of golden and black raisins, and I didn’t have pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives so I used the rest of a jar of black olives that had been hanging around in the fridge since Christmas.  The olives turn sort of fruity tasting when cooked, and the raisins lend the perfect note of sweetness.

Chicken Tamal Casserole
Adapted from a recipe by Pati Jinich of Pati’s Mexican Table

For the filling:

  • 4 guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed
  • 4 ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 to 2½ cups vegetables (any combination) cut in bite-size pieces – I used two sliced carrots and a sliced chayote
  • 1½ cups chicken broth
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked chicken, diced
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped black olives
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts (slivered almonds like in the original recipe would be good but I didn’t have any)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon seasoning blend, such as Goya Adobo (or use some oregano and fresh garlic)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the masa:

  • 1½ cups masa harina
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ cups plain yogurt (I used 3.5% fat)
  • ½ cup water or more if needed
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder, if desired (I used several shakes of Don Enrique Pico de Gallo seasoning blend)

In a heavy 3-quart or larger dry saucepan, toast the chiles over medium heat until they become fragrant, turning frequently.  Add the two cups hot water, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes until the chiles are very soft (stir occasionally).  Pour the chiles and water into a blender and let cool while you are making the rest of the filling.

In the same saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until they are tender and golden; remove from the pan and set aside.  Pour the chicken broth into the pan and add the carrots.  Heat to a simmer and cook for about five minutes, then add the chayote and cook for another five minutes, or until the vegetables are crisp-tender.

Blend the chiles until you have a smooth puree.  Pour the mixture into the saucepan, add the cooked onions and the rest of the filling ingredients, and season to taste.

If you plan to bake the casserole right away, heat the oven to 400 F. while you are mixing the masa.

Baking dish prep: this quantity was just right for my Corning 2.8 liter oval casserole (about 8 x 11 x 3 inches).  If the dish you choose doesn’t have a lid, you can use heavy foil to seal tightly during baking.  The first time I made the casserole I had trouble getting the top layer of masa on evenly, so I experimented and came up with an easy solution.  Trace the outline of the baking dish on a piece of baking parchment and cut it out – you’ll spread the masa on the parchment to get a smooth thin layer (you could also use a banana leaf if available, and that would give a nice additional subtle fragrance and flavor to the masa topping).  Spray the casserole dish generously with cooking spray.

To make the masa, combine the masa harina with the salt, baking powder, soda, and chili powder (if desired).  Stir in the yogurt and water, beating well.  The mixture should be light and fluffy, so add more water if needed.


Spread about a third of the masa mixture on the parchment paper, using a butter knife or small silicon spatula.  Spread the rest of the masa in the casserole dish – it is easiest if you do the bottom first and then the sides, and it doesn’t matter if the mixture doesn’t go all the way up the sides.


Pour the filling into the masa-lined dish, then flip the parchment over onto the filling (just take a deep breath, aim, and flip).  Leave the parchment on during baking, and it will peel right off when the masa is done.  Put the lid on or cover tightly with foil – just like with traditional tamales, the masa is cooked with steam.


At this point you can go ahead and bake the casserole or refrigerate it for up to a day.  If you are preparing the dish ahead of time, remove it from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you plan to put it in the oven.   Bake at 400 F. for an hour, then carefully pull off the parchment (watch out for hot steam), put the lid back on, and let it sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving.

This casserole is nothing like the school cafeteria chili con carne topped with cornbread “tamale pie” from my childhood.  I already mentioned my husband’s normal reaction to casseroles, but this meal prompted contented sighs and repeated exclamations of “This is amazing!”  I tend to be skeptical about claims that a dish is even better after a day or two, but in this case it is true.  The first day, there were occasional slightly sweet bites, but by the next day the flavor from the raisins had permeated the sauce and created an even more delicious blend.  I felt a little guilty eating the leftovers in front of my office mates after they both commented on how good it smelled.  This is Mexican comfort food at its best – I hope you’ll give it a try!


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Looking for a New Mexican Treat? Try Pineapple Tamales

First things first: allow me to introduce my friend, Doña Sonia.  She doesn’t know she’s my friend yet, but I think I‘ll email and tell her.  Sonia Ortiz is the woman behind Cocina al Natural, and if you speak Spanish and enjoy delicious Mexican food, you’ll love her recipes and videos (if you don’t speak Spanish, check out the website anyway – use Google translator for the recipes and watch the videos to see the techniques).  Sonia’s short videos always start with a friendly greeting, something along the lines of “Hola, amigos, I invite you to put on your aprons and let the inner chef we all have inside come out!”  Isn’t that a nice thought?   For a semi-regular food blogger I have to admit I don’t have much time to read food blogs, but I make a point to see what’s new on Cocina al Natural at least every couple of weeks, and every recipe I’ve tried has been delicious.

The recipe for pineapple tamales I’m sharing today is from Sonia, and they are a terrific introduction to sweet tamales if you’ve never had them before (or if your experience was like mine, with a tía who used to make a heavy version packed with raisins and nuts for the holidays….sort of like fruitcake in that they are probably good if you have acquired a taste but I never really did).  I made the pineapple tamales almost exactly like Sonia, and I’ve added one more tropical flavor with an optional coconut cream sauce.

One more thing about the tamales before I get to the recipe: they are very low in fat!  Traditional tamales rely on a good amount of lard in the masa (corn dough).  Modern cooks often substitute shortening and/or butter, which still results in a high fat and high calorie food.  Sonia’s trick is to combine masa harina with plain yogurt, which yields a light and flavorful masa with a texture that is very similar to the traditional high-fat version.

The basic procedure is pretty simple, but you’ll want to make these tamales when you have about three hours available (half of that time is for steaming, and you won’t need to give it constant attention).  As for equipment, you need some kind of steamer with a tight-fitting lid.  My Fagor 8-quart pressure cooker pot with the steamer basket and glass lid is perfect, but before I got it I used to rig up a steamer in a big pot by balancing a round cake rack on four small tomato sauce cans with both ends cut out, and that worked just fine.

Pineapple Tamales

  • 30 dried corn husks for tamales (plus extras for the steamer if you are using a rack)
  • 2 cups fresh pineapple chunks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cups plain yogurt (I used 3.5 % fat)
  • 3 cups masa harina
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Extra yogurt or milk if needed to give masa a spreadable consistency

Soak the corn husks in hot water for about twenty minutes while you are preparing the masa.

If the pineapple chunks are large, cut one cup of them into smaller pieces and set aside.  Finely chop the other cup of the pineapple chunks and pour the chopped pineapple and juice into a medium bowl.  Add the sugar and stir to dissolve, then mix in the yogurt.


In a large bowl, combine the masa harina, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.  Stir the yogurt mixture into the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.  The resulting masa should be of a spreadable consistency but thick enough that it won’t drop off the spoon right away if you take a spoonful and hold it upside-down over the bowl.  The consistency you end up with will depend on how juicy the pineapple is.  If the masa is too thin, let it sit a while and it will thicken up; if it is too thick, mix in a little extra yogurt or milk (you also might need to add a little partway through spreading the masa, as it tends to thicken anyway).

Remove the corn husks from the water.  Squeeze the excess water out and put the husks on a kitchen towel.

For each tamal, spread about two tablespoons of the masa into an approximately 5” square on the inside of a corn husk (on the end with the straight edge – you can go to within ½ inch of the straight top edge; see the photos and it will make more sense, or you can always watch Sonia Ortiz’ video).  Different cooks have their favorite ways of spreading masa, and what works best for me is actually a butter knife.  Place a row of 5-6 small pineapple chunks in the middle of the masa square, then bring the sides up to meet and fold over to one side.  Fold the pointy end up, and if desired, tie loosely with a narrow strip of corn husk (not strictly necessary, but the tamales will look neater and stay together better).


That’s really it!  Once you have assembled all of the tamales, stand them up pointy-folded-end down in a steamer basket, or if you are using a rack, first cover it with several layers of corn husks so the tamales won’t fall through the rack, extending the husks up the sides of the pot (put about three inches of water in first, or as much as you can add and still have the level be below that of the rack or basket).  If the tamales don’t completely fill the basket, leave it open in the middle and tilt the tamales slightly so they rest against the sides of the basket or pot.  If needed, you can wad up some foil to fill in spaces so the tamales will stand up better, or you can put a tempered glass measuring cup in the middle and fill it with water to generate more steam.

Once all the tamales are in the steamer, bring the water to a boil and then reduce the heat until you have a steady simmer.  You want a lot of steam but not a hard rolling boil.  Steam for about 1.5 hours, checking after an hour and adding more water if needed.  To test for doneness, pull out one tamal and if the husk peels away from the masa, it is done.

Cocina al Natural recommends serving these tamales as a dessert or snack, accompanied by coffee or hot chocolate, and I think that sounds like a fine option.  But let’s think about the ingredients: corn flour, fresh fruit, yogurt, and relatively little sugar per tamal – sounds like a good breakfast food to me!  Once the tamales are cool, place them on a tray in the freezer, and once they are frozen, pack into a large freezer bag.  I made a batch of pineapple tamales a while back, and I’ve had them for breakfast several times a week since then (just under a minute each in the microwave on high power brings them back to a fresh-from-the-steamer state of deliciousness).

If you want to serve the tamales for a dessert or snack, may I suggest a topping of fast and easy coconut cream sauce?  Oh go ahead, have coconut cream sauce for breakfast, too!  Here’s the recipe:

Coconut Cream Sauce

  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 14-oz. can coconut milk, well shaken
  • 1/3 cup sugar

Pour the beaten eggs through a strainer into a medium-sized heavy saucepan and then whisk in the coconut milk and sugar.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly and starts to boil.  Serve warm.



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When You Have a Poblano Sighting…

I love the gastronomic adventure of living in Germany, but as I may have mentioned, there are a few tastes of home that I really miss.  I can generally find jalapeños and serranos, but poblano chiles are something of a rarity.  Fortunately, there are several of us who look out for each other: whenever one of us spots poblanos, that triggers the alert.  One day a while back, I went with Deana and Gariann on a Saturday outing and the topic of poblanos came up.  That very week, Deana saw some and bought enough for all three of us.  Last time, I saw them first and called Gariann from the produce aisle.  Deana was on vacation, but Gariann passed the message on to Pat, who was tied up and wouldn’t make it to the store for at least four hours.  Knowing the poblanos are a hot commodity around here, Gariann went and bought her own plus a dozen for Pat.  Did I mention poblanos run around $6-7 a pound here?  So yeah, we pay a couple of dollars each for them….the first time I kind of winced as I bought $20 worth, but I decided since I don’t think twice about an occasional 0.2 liter glass of soda that costs three euro (yep, $4.00+ for less than seven ounces), two dollars a pop for poblanos is all relative and ultimately reasonable for treat.

Well, it’s poblano feast time around here.  Some of my chiles were roasted and frozen for future use, and I have three recipes to share – two are super-easy and the other one is well worth the effort.

The first step is to char the skin and then quickly steam the chiles by wrapping tightly so the blistered skin will peel right off.  I generally cut a slit in the poblano and cut away the seed clump before charring, but it is also fine to do it when you are peeling.  I have the best luck charring over a hot (450 F.) gas grill – turn every couple of minutes to char evenly and they’ll be done in no time.  Then put them on a plate, cover tightly with foil, and let them sit for about 15 minutes before pulling the skin off with your fingers.  I also know people who hold individual poblanos with long tongs over a gas stove burner.  If neither of those options is possible, you can char the peppers by turning frequently in a hot frying pan or put them a few inches from a hot broiler and keep a close eye on them.

To freeze the poblanos, you can put them on a plastic-lined tray in the freezer and then transfer to a freezer bag after they are frozen, or you can first cut the chiles into strips, which are called rajas (rrah’-hahss) in Spanish.  To use in recipes, thaw the chiles at room temperature for an hour or so.

The first recipe doesn’t really have a name.  I guess we’ll call it…

Poblano Potato Cakes

  • 2 medium baked potatoes, cooled and peeled
  • 2 poblanos, stems, seeds, and skins removed (char and steam as described above), cut into narrow strips
  • Salt, pepper, and Mexican seasoning to taste (I use Don Enrico brand Pico de Gallo seasoning mix)
  • 2 tablespoons potato flour (or substitute all-purpose flour)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ½ cup bread crumbs
  • Corn oil or other vegetable oil for frying

Use a coarse grater to grate the potatoes onto a plate.  Stir in the poblano strips and season to taste.  Sprinkle on the potato flour and mix lightly with a fork to combine (I believe potato flour is the same as potato starch – in German grocery stores it is labeled Kartoffel Mehl and it is used for potato dumplings).


Spread half the bread crumbs out on another plate or cutting board; heat a thin layer of oil in a frying pan (use a pan that is at least as big as the plate full of potatoes).  Pour the beaten egg over the potatoes and mix with a fork to combine.  Divide the mixture into four portions and press together into patties.  Lift the patties with a pancake turner onto the crumbs, then sprinkle the rest of the crumbs on top and press them in.


Fry the potato cakes until golden brown, turning once.  Serve plain or with your favorite topping (I like crème fraiche mixed with Tapatio hot sauce).  The quantity given will make four side servings, or you could eat two of the potato cakes with a salad and call it a meal.

Next up, we have a nice easy and satisfying pasta dish.  It’s great when you want to take something for a potluck that is OK microwaved to reheat, and it also hits the spot whenever some cozy comfort food is in order.  This pasta dish could best be described as “rajas con crema meets mac and cheese.”  I’ve made it with a couple of different kinds of sturdy pastas: fregola sarda, which is solid little nuggets of pasta, is really good, and this time I used casarecce – I liked how it held the sauce, and the shape seemed to go well with the chile strips.  Macaroni or rigatoni would be fine but leave it a bit chewy so it has some substance.


Poblano Pasta

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 ¼ cup milk
  • Good melty cheese, quantity to taste (I used three thick sandwich-size slices of gouda – munster or gruyere would also be good)
  • ½ teaspoon salt (maybe more, depending on the cheese)
  • 2 poblanos, seeded, peeled, and sliced (see instructions above, before the recipes)
  • 8 ounces pasta cooked al dente
  • ¼ cup crème fraiche, if desired

Cook the flour for a few minutes in the butter, then stir in the milk and whisk over medium heat until it starts to thicken.  Add the cheese and salt and whisk until melted and smooth.   Stir in the chile strips and pasta and crème fraiche if you are using it.  You can serve the pasta straight from the pan or turn it into a baking dish and bake for about 20 minutes at 350 (it might need a little more milk if you do that).

The last recipe needs a little background.  Not long ago, Gariann had a milestone birthday, and she and her husband had a Thai cooking party to celebrate the occasion.  Well, two of the guests were the afore-mentioned Pat and her partner Sue, Thai cooks extraordinaire.  And guess what Pat, Sue, and Gariann taught us how to make?  Thai scotch eggs – yes, really!  I’d never heard of them before, but I guess they are really a thing.  And let me tell you, they were delicious!  You start with boiled eggs and wrap them with a red curry-spiked ground pork mixture, then roll them in panko crumbs and chopped peanuts, and they are deep fried and served with a coconut milk-peanut sauce.  Well, I’ve gotten into traditional Scottish fare since our Christmas trip to Edinburgh, and after the Thai party, I got to thinking about other possible variations, and not surprisingly my thoughts turned to a Mexican influence.  And that, my friends, is how I came up with….

Poblano Scotch Eggs

  • 4 eggs
  • 2 poblano chiles, seeds, stems, and skins removed; cut each chile in half lengthwise
  • 1 pound ground pork (use unseasoned meat, not sausage)
  • 1-2 tablespoons Tapatio bottled hot sauce (or your favorite brand)
  • ¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • a generous bunch of cilantro, chopped
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • ¼ – ½ cup finely chopped peanuts or pistachios, if desired

Cook the eggs to the desired degree of doneness – for hard-cooked eggs, put them in a pan of cold salted water and bring to a boil; as soon as the water starts to boil, take the pan off the heat and cover.  After 9 minutes, drain the hot water and fill the pan with cold water.  Peel by gently cracking all over; it is easier if you can find the little hollow spot on the big end of the egg and work your finger under the thin membrane that surrounds the egg.  Soft-cooked eggs are harder to handle, so use extra care if you like them that way.

Once the eggs are peeled, wrap each one in a long strip of poblano and secure with a toothpick.  Combine all the seasonings with the pork, then mix in about half of the beaten egg.  I started out with a tablespoon of Tapatio and a half teaspoon of cayenne, and then I took about a teaspoonful of the mixture and cooked it in a pan so I could taste the spice level.  We like our spicy food to have a kick, so I bumped up the heat with more Tapatio and cayenne – if you like a milder spice, start out with less seasoning and cook a little bit so you can taste test and adjust accordingly.  My poblanos were very mild, but if you have hotter ones you might want to cut down a little in what you add to the meat.

To cover the poblano-wrapped eggs with the pork mixture, divide the pork into four portions and pat each one out on a square of wax paper or parchment paper.  Think of an interrupted Mollweide map projection as you are patting the meat out, but you don’t need to worry about exact precision.  Place an egg on the meat and use the parchment to bring the meat all around the egg and press it together, then repeat with the other eggs and you will end up with four softball-sized meatballs.  If you are making one of these Mexican scotch eggs for someone who doesn’t like poblanos, simply skip the chile-wrapped-around-the-egg step (as I did in the photo below).


Put the bread crumbs on a plate and drizzle with melted butter, mixing to blend evenly.  Beat the tablespoon of milk into the remaining half of the beaten egg – you’ll coat the meatballs with the egg, and it is easiest to do if you have a small round deep bowl (like the one in the photo, an ice cream dish from Ikea).  After you dip the meatballs in the egg mixture, roll them in the crumbs and then, if desired, in the chopped nuts, pressing the crumbs and nuts into the meat.


Now here’s the easy part – instead of deep-frying, I baked the meat-covered eggs on a rack at 375 F for about 45 minutes.  The little bit of butter in the crumbs gave me a nice crunchy crust without the mess of frying, and it also is more economical since it takes quite a bit of oil to have it deep enough to do the job.

I didn’t try the microwave for leftovers, but reheating in the oven (uncovered) gave very good results.  One of these eggs makes a very generous serving, so depending on the rest of the menu you might go with half an egg per person.  These are really good with a spicy tomato or tomatillo salsa, rice, a simple roasted winter squash, and a crisp green salad.  Mexican scotch eggs are fun to make with people, so get a few friends together and try something new and delicious.


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Warm Up a Winter Day with Chicken and Pecan Mole

The “mole” in this recipe isn’t referring to a unit of measurement in chemistry and certainly not to a furry little animal that might try to dig up your lawn (speaking of the little critters, did you know moles have extra thumbs….and a couple of other interesting characteristics?).  Mole (pronounced mo’-leh) is a delicious Mexican sauce most commonly made with some kind of broth, different kinds of chiles, peanuts or other nuts or seeds, fruit such as plantains and raisins, tomatoes or tomatillos, toasted bread or tortillas, and chocolate.  You might have heard of mole poblano from Puebla or the famous seven moles of Oaxaca, but that is just the beginning.  Locales from Mexico City to Nayarit have their own special moles, and they are all delicious.

This mole is my recreation of a dish I had once when I was traveling with Janessa.  I have such fond memories of that trip – maybe because she was a cute fourteen-year-old and I was in my thirties, and everywhere we went, people asked if we were sisters (nothing like that has happened to me for a while now!).  One evening in Guanajuato I had mole hidalgüense (the name means it is from Hidalgo, a couple of states to the east), and it was so good I asked how to make it.  The cocinero came out and rattled off the ingredients and briefly recounted his method while I scribbled down as much as I could.  His quantities were vague, but I think this recipe matches my memory of the taste pretty closely.

The recipe has quite a few ingredients and several steps, but nothing that requires constant attention so it is not too labor-intensive.  The recipe makes a big batch of mole, since I like to simmer the chicken in the sauce rather than simply pouring a little on top.  For a smaller quantity of sauce you could cut the recipe in half, or freeze the leftover sauce and it is wonderful to have on hand as a base for a hearty soup or stew or as a sauce for enchiladas (thin the sauce with a little broth or water, and I guess technically we should call them enmoladas rather than enchiladas).  And if you want to try your hand at easy tamales, shred up some of the chicken in the sauce and you are almost halfway there.

I’ve included a range of quantities for some ingredients.  I use the lesser amount for a mild mole when I am cooking for others and add more chiles for a medium-hot flavor when it is just us.  Don’t be too timid – the sauce might taste spicy at first, but by the time it simmers with the chicken for a while, it will mellow out a lot.  If you want the mole to be really spicy, the best way to bump up the heat is with more chipotles in adobo.

Chicken and Pecan Mole

  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2-3 dried guajillo chiles with stems, seeds, and veins removed
  • 1-2 dried ancho chiles with stems, seeds, and veins removed
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1-2 cloves peeled garlic, halved
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 cups hot water
  • 1 small sweet potato, peeled and sliced, or half of a large one
  • 1 small can sliced pineapple with juice (the Mexican cocinero probably used fresh pineapple)
  • 1 cup pecan bits or halves
  • 2-3 pounds chicken pieces (I use skinless, boneless breast and thigh portions cut into large chunks, but it is more traditional to use chicken pieces with bones in)
  • 1-3 canned chipotles in adobo (or more to taste)
  • 1-2 ounces 70% chocolate, melted (the cocinero probably used a disc of the kind of chocolate they use for hot chocolate)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • A little brown sugar, honey, or agave nectar if needed (it depends on the chiles and chocolate – you don’t want a noticeably sweet flavor, but a little sweetener might be needed if the mole has a bitter edge)

Sprinkle the flour over a piece of foil on a baking sheet and toast it in a 300 F. oven for about 10-15 minutes, until it smells like well-done bread (my dad says toasting the flour is the most important step in making mole).  Set the flour aside.

Heat the guajillo and ancho chiles in a large heavy dry pan, turning frequently with tongs until they soften some (use a pan that will be big enough to simmer the chicken in).  Set the chiles aside, then add the oil to the same pan and cook the onions until they are translucent and beginning to brown.  Add the garlic, salt, oregano, and cumin.  Continue stirring occasionally and cook for a few more minutes until the oregano and cumin are nice and fragrant.


Slowly pour in the hot water, then add the guajillo and ancho chiles, sweet potato and pineapple slices with juice, and pecans.  Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the chiles and sweet potatoes are quite soft.  Using a large slotted spoon, scoop everything out of the broth into a blender (it’s OK if you miss a few chunks of onions or pecans).  Add the chipotles in adobo and just enough of the liquid to allow processing and blend to a puree (it will still have some texture from the pecans and that is normal).

Add the chicken pieces to the remaining broth in the pan and add more water if needed to cover.  Simmer until the chicken is starting to get tender, then remove it from the broth and strain the broth.  Pour most of the broth back into the pan and add the pureed mixture, then add the extra broth if needed to get a consistency like thin gravy.

Melt the two tablespoons butter in a small pan and use a small fine sieve to sift in the toasted flour.  Cook for a few minutes and then blend it into the mole mixture.   Stir in the chocolate and let the sauce simmer for a few minutes.  At this point I check the seasonings by dipping a little piece of chicken in the sauce and tasting, since it is easier to blend in salt, sweetener, or more adobo before you have all of the chicken in the pan.  Then go ahead and add the chicken and simmer with a lid on for another 40-50 minutes, stirring occasionally, or you can transfer to a covered casserole dish and bake at 300 for an hour, or if you are cooking ahead of time, refrigerate and finish cooking in the oven later (or use a slow cooker and it will be fine all day on low or ready to serve after about four hours on high).  Taste again before serving in case it still needs another correction in seasoning.


Chicken and pecan mole is good with a traditional sopa de arroz or plain white or saffron-infused rice, and it is also delicious rolled up in a flour tortilla.

One more tidbit: the expression “holy mole” possibly can be traced to the legendary origins of mole poblano.  The nuns in the Convent of Santa Rosa were said to have invented mole using odds and ends from their meager store of food so they would have something to serve to a visiting archbishop.


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Polvorones By Any Other Name….Are Still Delicious!

This basic cookie is known by many different names, including butterballs, sand tarts, almond crescents, and Russian tea cakes.  According to an online food history timeline, during the 1950s the recipe started to appear in American cookbooks as Mexican Wedding Cakes, and there is some speculation that the new name was a response to Cold War fears of anything connected with Soviet Russia.  I’ve been to quite a few Mexican weddings and eaten more than one cookie at the festivities, but instead of polvorones they were usually anise-flavored bizcochos (good if you like anise, but it’s not my favorite).  My hunch is that some cookbook writer knew of bizcochos as a traditional wedding cookie and thought polvorones were the same thing, and that’s how polvorones came to be known as Mexican Wedding Cakes.

Whatever you call them, polvorones are amazingly good.  The recipe is a simple ratio I learned from a woman named Gracie that I worked with a number of years ago, with a couple of additional tricks I’ve picked up over the years.  The first secret is to lightly toast the flour ahead of time (in the oven) – I got that one from my dad, who learned it from one of his neighbors – it imparts a nice “golden” flavor clear into the center of the cookies without having to bake them so long that they become hard.

The other secret will be no surprise to Janessa and Kara, because they know how much their dad loves buttered popcorn, and he has a flavor trick of his own that he came up with way before all the cool cooks started using it: browned butter.  Somehow Jerry seems to have a knack for making popcorn right when I’m about to start cooking something (funny, he says it’s the other way around).  There is usually some butter left when the popcorn is perfectly buttered, and once I had the idea of mixing the still-liquid browned butter with the sugar as I was making cookies.  The result was delicious, and now I almost always brown the butter for any kind of cookie, letting the sugar and browned-butter mixture solidify before creaming it like normal.

Gracie, the source of the original recipe, insisted on butter and told me to stay away from shortening or lard, which was what her mother-in-law used.  Last summer when we were back home, I bought some polvorones from a Mexican bakery that were made with lard.  Those cookies had a great texture and were actually more traditional (they tasted exactly like the ones I’ve had in Mexico), but Gracie is right, the butter version is much better.

Traditionally the dough for polvorones is rolled thick (½ inch) and cut into hearts, circles, or diamonds, but I like to keep it simple so I form the dough into a 2-inch log, wrap it in plastic and chill it.  Then it’s a simple and non-messy slice-and-bake operation that makes the finished cookies perfectly tender since the dough isn’t absorbing extra flour during rolling.

By the way, polvo means dust or powder in Spanish, so the name refers to the delicate crumbly texture and the dusting of sugar on the cookies.

  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup almond meal
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Powdered sugar to dust over the top (or granulated sugar mixed with cinnamon)

To brown the butter, melt it in a medium saucepan and stir frequently until it is bubbling steadily.  Continue cooking and stirring until the milk solids in the butter start to turn brown.  There is a very fine line between perfectly browned and burned, so watch it closely and take it off the burner as soon as it looks and smells brown.  Blend in the sugar and chill until the mixture until it is somewhat solid (half hour or so, or you can let it sit at room temperature for several hours).

To toast the flour, spread it evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven (325 F.) for about 25 minutes, pulling it out to stir it up and re-level every five minutes.  Sometimes it takes a little less time, depending on the humidity level of the flour – the flour won’t actually turn brown, but it will have a golden-brown smell and might be a little bit darker (more so if you are using unbleached flour).  Let the flour cool while the butter-sugar mixture is solidifying.

When the butter mixture is solid, transfer it to a mixing bowl and cream with an electric mixer until it is light-colored and fluffy.  Add the vanilla, then mix in the toasted flour and the almond meal.  If you are using unsalted butter you can also add a pinch of salt, but if you have salted butter you probably won’t need more salt.

Shape the dough into several logs about 2 ½ inches thick.  Wrap in plastic and chill for an hour or more (the dough will keep in the refrigerator for a week since it contains no eggs, and it can be frozen for months).  When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 F.  Slice the dough ½ inch thick and place one inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Bake until light golden, about 10 minutes.

The cookies are very delicate, and it is helpful to carefully slide the cookies, baker’s parchment and all, off the baking sheet to cool.  Sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar and let the cookies cool for an hour or more before you move them to a serving plate (of course, you can always eat them straight off the paper).  As I mentioned, the dough freezes well.  I’m an experimenter when it comes to desserts, and as we all know, you win some and you lose some.  This cookie dough is a nice last-minute addition to have on hand any time of year in case another dessert doesn’t turn out – polvorones are the perfect accompaniment to fresh berries or a dish of sherbet in summer, and they are also a very good addition to a Christmas cookie tray.


Sweet Dates – in a Quesadilla

It’s holiday baking time, so I made some cookies and candy over the weekend and I’m happy to say a couple of the recipes are worth publishing (as soon as I make them again and take a few pictures).  One experiment didn’t quite reach my expectation, but all was not lost – the flop included a date filling, and since I had some of the filling left after giving up on the cookies, I turned it into one of my favorite kinds of quesadillas.

This quesadilla is good with breakfast, as an appetizer, or even for dessert – it is sweet, but not too sweet.  Not only that, it is a really delicious flavor combination and very easy to make.

Date Quesadillas

  • 2 flour tortillas per quesadilla
  • chopped dates (about 1/4 cup per quesadilla)
  • water (2-3 tablespoons per quesadilla)
  • ricotta cheese (2-3 tablespoons per quesadilla)
  • shredded mozarella (2-3 tablespoons per quesadilla)
  • butter for browning the quesadillas

Cook the dates in water until they are soft and have a thin paste consistency – about 10 minutes.  Spread one tortilla with a thin layer of the date paste and spread the other one with ricotta.  Sprinkle the ricotta side lightly with mozarella (just enough to fuse the two tortillas together when the cheese melts) and top with the date tortilla.


Heat a nonstick skillet.  Lightly butter the top side of the quesadilla and place butter-side down in the pan.  Cook until light brown and then turn to cook the other side (there will probably be enough butter in the pan, but add a little more if needed).  Cut into wedges and serve.


This date quesadilla is a variation of one I’ve eaten in Mexico, which was made with guava paste thinned with a little water and requesón in place of the ricotta.  I wanted to make the original quesadillas once for a breakfast at work, but I couldn’t find guava paste at the time.  Dates were the best substitute I could think of, and I actually like the date quesadillas better so that’s how I always make them now.

The quesadillas are another great party food – guests always come in and ask how they can help, so set up an assembly line with one person spreading dates, another spreading ricotta, sprinkling mozarella, and assemblying, and a third person frying the quesadillas in a big frying pan.  The quesadillas are so good (and easy), your guests will be glad to know how to make them!


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