Friday, January 17, 2014

Journey through Diana Kennedy's Mexico

Diana Kennedy's My Mexico contains over 300 recipes. First published in 1998, the book is, by Diana's own admission, 'highly personal.' She has a story for almost every recipe she has collected over the years; some are fascinating, some are funny, some are chilling, and all of them are delivered in her inimitable voice.

Kennedy's stories drive the book's organization, which is divided by regions (e.g., the Gulf Coast) rather than any particular kind of recipe. With Google's new Maps features, we've plugged in some of the towns in which Diana dined with both friends and strangers to draw inspiration for the recipes in My Mexico. You can click on the location pins in the maps and glimpse the variety of recipes found in the book. After the excerpt below, you'll find a recipe for a delicious snack from Michoacán.

Warning: Navigating these Google maps may lead to increased appetite for the likes of torrejas de frijol (bean fritters in chile sauce), hongos guisados con yerbabuena (mushrooms cooked with mint), or mole de iguana negra (yes, it's what you think it is).

Access the Google map below here: >>

Access the Google map below here: >>
From the book:
San Pancho—How I Got There

It is the beginning of May, and the hottest month of all, as I sit down to write this book in my ecological house in San Francisco Coatepec de Morelos, known locally as San Pancho. The sky is hazy with heat and the dust stirred up by the sudden gusts of high winds, with occasional palls of smoke from a forest fi re in the mountains to the east. Oft en these fires are purposely started by clandestine agents scouting timber for the greedy timber merchants who can then go in to clear and to cut or by farmers’ unattended burning of last year’s stubble to prepare the land for planting. The hills to the south and west are brown and bare in sharp contrast to the brilliant green valley, where the dam provides irrigation to the low fields around it. This is the month when tempers flare and explode, when young blades and old machos drink up a storm and give primeval screams or shoot off their rounds of ammunition as they saunter through the lanes of San Pancho. There is a heaviness in the air and a sense of foreboding. Will the rains come on time? The signs are anxiously awaited. Heriberto, my nearest neighbor, says he has seen the first aludas, winged ants, that are a sure sign, but the mayates, June bugs, hovering around the lamps and bombarding me at night are still too small. André down at the hotel says the swifts have not yet finished their nests (of course it is hard to know, since he drives them away with a broom because their droppings off end his sense of order—inherited from his French colonialist father). Occasionally the sky will threaten rain toward evening, and the next morning there is a delicious scent of damp undergrowth from the tree-clad mountains above. But when the bullfrogs begin their first intermittent raspings, you know that rain is near. On the other hand, if the rainy season starts too early, the last of the coffee berries will burst and spoil, the tomatoes will rot and never ripen, and too often August, the month in which the ears of corn are filling out, will be dry. At this time of year I bless my adobe house, despite all its drawbacks. It keeps pleasantly cool while the water from the primitive solar collector gives me piping-hot showers. People who live in harsher climates tend to think that there are no seasons here in the semitropics of 5,900 feet. Yes, there’s no snow, and just a very occasional frost or brief, gusty hailstorm. January is a bare month, cool and sunny, and if we are in favor with the gods, the first days of February bring welcome rains, cabañuelas, which encourage the plums and peaches to bloom and help top up the tanks for the hot, dry months ahead. The weeks that follow bring the most brilliant-hued flowers of the year: bougainvilleas of all shades, geraniums, amaryllis, cacti, and tropical climbers contrasting with the pale blue masses of plumbago, while citrus blossoms perfume the air and my bees are satiated with these aromas. The vegetable garden is at its best. The first delicate peas and fava beans are harvested, and the nopal cactus rows come alive, shooting out their tender and succulent paddles. Carlos, who is in charge outside, cuts the vegetables and collects the blackberries and strawberries a little too early, but, as he explains, we have a host of eager and cunning winged sharecroppers who would leave me nothing if they had their way.

Yesterday he brought in the freshly winnowed crop of wheat. Not much— it was planted on a small patch of poor land—but it’s enough for my wholewheat loaves for the year. Every month brings its own modest harvest, and as the last picking of coffee is completed the small, black, indigenous avocados are ready.

The orioles and red throats are scrapping over the mulberries, while the decorative maracuyá vine outside my study window is alive with its white passion flowers, all facing straight up to the sky with their green “antennae” to attract the attention of the hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. The lime tree is heavy with fruit, while the oranges and tangerines are just forming for the summer crop. The stone walls around the house are bedecked with the showy white cereus blossoms of the pitahayas—that most exotic of fruits with shiny, shocking pink skin, pale green “hooks,” and deep magenta flesh, specked with myriad tiny black seeds.

The little red and yellow plums will ripen in the next months, next to the brilliant-colored tamarillos and the last of the citrons. As May draws to an end, it is the time to plant the corn and ask for the irrigation water that flows down through a maze of open canals through the orchards and pastures of my neighbors. The water comes from springs in land owned higher up by a nearby village and is shared between them, my neighbors, and the community lands down by the dam. I shall never forget the magical sound of the water gushing through the channels at four in the morning: it was a sound that always woke me up before high stone walls and extra trees were planted to muffle the sound. I used to help with the irrigating in those early days. It is compelling, almost addictive work as you direct the water into one channel between the rows of corn. At first it is absorbed by the dry soil, a trickle turns into a flow, and the young plants straighten up and glow. You make a small dike and then start the next row. That sound of water is music, just like the first drops of rain that drum at night on the hot, dry tiles of the roof and resound against the pine shingles of my bedroom ceiling. I always pray to my pantheistic gods that it will drum long enough to freshen the plants and not just evaporate on the hard, dry soil. I often get up and open the terrace doors early the next morning and breathe in the air, alive with scents of pine, cedar, avocado leaves, and the damp undergrowth that smells of sage. With those first rains a certain cosmic tension is released and I find myself turning over and sleeping more at peace.

Weeds and lilies grow up between the flagstones of the kitchen terrace, and the gray stone walls gradually come alive with mosses, lichens, ferns, and miniature flowers that had lain dormant in the crevices. The hills around turn from burnt umber and ochre to many shades of green as they take part in this incredible metamorphosis. 

We plant small patches of corn, all types and colors, that I bring back from my travels around the country. After the first weeding, beans and pumpkins are planted to accompany them. 

As the rains progress, the high mesa to the south buzzes with activity long before dawn for the very brief spell when the first tender little field mushrooms appear. This is the time for the light green pear-shaped squash from a plant that creeps along the ground (all the year in Oaxaca) and provides not only the squash itself but also tender shoots for cooking and the largest and most fragrant yellow flowers of all the squash varieties. The chayotes are forming: dark green and prickly, long and pear shaped, and small and cream colored. The tips of their long, curling vines can also be cooked and mixed with scrambled eggs or in a soup. Later in the year, when the plant has dried and the leaves fallen, the bulbous root is unearthed, cooked, and eaten just as it is or made into small fritters. My neighbors can be seen carrying these long light brown tubers cooked, to be sold in the market or along the sidewalks or to be bartered with the chauffeur of the large van carrying them into town. Later still, when the plume at the top of the corn plant, the male flower, is just bursting open, we gather them, dry them in the sun, and winnow them for the anthers, later to be toasted for tamales de espiga (page 17).

In the fall the sweet potatoes are dug up and put out to “season” in the sun for three days before being baked so that their natural sugar exudes. As the days progress, a second crop of oranges, both sweet and bitter, and tangerines ripen and the granadillas (Granada china) whose vines have swarmed over the avocado trees begin to ripen, turning from purplish green to orangey yellow. As October advances, the land around my house as well as the meadows and fields are covered with a haze of yellow and pink wildflowers; as November approaches we are surrounded by clouds of white flowering shrubs that light up the land in contrast to the brilliant red of the poinsettias. If the year has been a fruitful one, there is always something to cook: blackberries from the forests higher up for atole and jam or large, juicy, cultivated ones for ices; quinces in July and guavas in December for ates (fruit pastes); passion fruit for ices; bitter oranges for marmalade; citrons and peaches for candy; and calamondins for preserves, enough to last for a year or more.

I have to keep these things firmly in my mind as changes are occurring: our lanes are not as quiet now, with passenger vans making their macho roar, garbage strewn at night along the entrance to the village, and the booming music of recurring local fiestas in Zitácuaro, all symptomatic of the mindless and raucous elements of any society that invade and destroy, with no thought for the future and what they are not leaving for future generations.

I am so oft en asked how I came to settle on San Pancho in the first place. Well, an English acquaintance who had built himself a charming house there and knew I was looking for land invited me for the weekend to see the area. I too fell in love with the place just as he had done years earlier. He was a meticulous person, so when he was searching for a place to build a weekend house, he methodically visited all the likely spots within a radius of one hundred miles around Mexico City. He came to know Zitácuaro when he stayed at Rancho San Cayetano, the small hotel owned and run by an elderly American lady. It is situated on the Huetamo highway, about three kilometers from Zitácuaro, precisely at the point where a roughly surfaced lane turns off to San Pancho. From there it is exactly one kilometer to the center of this sprawling village and its late-sixteenth-century Franciscan church.

In front of the church is a public garden—el jardín, which used to be the graveyard—with a small bandstand in the center. It used to be shadowed by towering jacaranda trees. Every spring they bloomed, forming a magnificent cloud of purply blue. Imagine that against an azure sky with the salmon-pink church in the background. As the weeks progressed you would walk on a thick carpet of blue that hid the bare earth. But one day the local politicos, who would easily find any pretext to get drunk, decided that the blossoms made a mess, and besides, they wanted a garden with flowers and less shade—or so they said. The trees were felled over my shrill protestations, which prompted the jefe del pueblo to inform me that prisons were built for women too, and I told him to go to hell . . . well, I have already written about that in my personal cookbook Nothing Fancy. The sale of the firewood kept them all in booze for weeks; it was one long bacchanalia.

Most of the houses are built in traditional style with white-painted adobe walls, earth red around the base to camouflage the mud splashed up from the streets in the heavy rains. The gently sloping roofs are covered with thick tiles that have mellowed to all shades of red and brown over the years. Each house has its piece of land and orchard at the back, and until recently fruit was still picked in bulk and sent daily to the local and Mexico City markets. But in that seemingly peaceful place there was discord: Catholics against Protestants, old political caciques against those who dared to oppose them, whole families closely interrelated, pitted against their relatives, even brothers and sisters at loggerheads. The causes were the normal ones: past or present feuds over inheritances, debts, or what you will.

The young people of the more affluent families were sent off to study for academic or professional careers, and very soon their parents joined them in the city. The village was almost dead except during holidays and feast days, weddings and funerals, though a few families managed to make a living from the lands and orchards that they stayed on and had twelve children each.

Many orchards were abandoned during those years, many of the sons went off as migrant workers to the United States, and irrigation water was not plentiful. The village above San Pancho, San Miguel, which controls most of the springs that bring water from the mountains, was growing too fast; people were dividing up their lands, and indiscriminate tree felling was taking its toll. Everything seemed to be contributing to the gradual disintegration of this once-beautiful place.

When I was thinking seriously of buying near Zitácuaro, I remembered what a friend and well-known Náhuatl scholar, who had studied the history of that area, had said: “Don’t buy there; there’s a lot of witchcraft around.” And I also remembered what a very wise friend, a renowned forestry expert and one of the first serious British ecologists, said when he heard of my infatuation with the place: “Beware of the ideal.” I thought of that again when a neighbor blocked my narrow entranceway, saying it was only for men walking or donkeys and not for trucks carrying building materials. A politician who was a friend of my late husband helped me regain my access rights and, when I nearly gave up in despair, said, “Diana, never let go of a dream.” For by then my plans had built themselves into a dream.

I wanted a house of locally made materials that would address itself to the resources of the area and be in tune with the restrictions with which my neighbors had to live, and had survived, for many years. I wanted it to become a center for my studies of Mexican foods, a place where I could not only plant chiles and herbs from different parts of the country but also plant trees and help the earth around come alive again after so many years of neglect.

To this day I don’t really know why I hung onto this dream—which threatened many times to become a nightmare—so tenaciously and against all odds. I was told by one of the taciturn, unfriendly men of the main family controlling most of the lands around me that San Pancho was a pueblo fantasmo (ghost village): people came but never stayed. I oft en thought of those words in the early days before I had a car, as I walked across the village in the early afternoons of those hot spring days. There was no sound of human life, only the braying of a donkey, the crowing of a misguided rooster, and the dry rustle of coffee bushes and avocado trees. The silence was eerie.

In those days I was known as la gringa loca, who had bought land without water. The story of getting that irrigation water by insisting on my rights as a bona fi de landholder and then finally getting my one hour of dubious drinking water daily could itself fill a book. Gratefully, I have almost erased from my memory those arduous days, and when I do think fleetingly about them I try to rationalize it all as “building character” (a little late in life) or “adding to worldly experience,” shutting out the thought—much nearer the truth—that I was just plain stupid and stubborn in attempting what many others had tried and failed to do.

The small orchards around San Pancho are bordered by loose stone walls, bare and gray in the dry months and gloriously multicolored soon after the rains: with pale pink begonias and little red and purple trumpets. Today I can still see neighbors striding along the way to their fields, their curved machetes like extensions of their right arms and their faces shaded by wide-brimmed sombreros that have small tassels swaying from the back. There are donkeys laden with dried kindling for the local bakers, pattering sure-footedly over the uneven rocky surface along the lane, and the occasional horseman erect and moving in rhythm with his mount, acknowledging another presence with a grudging “Buenos días.” Occasionally I meet opposition to my little truck from heavily plodding oxen—still used for plowing here—or a herd of Holsteins ambling along, as though they have all day to reach their pastures on the mesa that rises and extends along the southern limits of the village holdings.

Nowadays, despite the defacing Pepsi signs and carelessly thrown litter, the blaring of portable radios and noisy Volkswagen vans carrying people to and from Zitácuaro, some vestiges of the past remain in the memories of the older people, in the beliefs, the myths, and the food. Sra. Catalina, the mother of Carlos, my capataz, and eight other children (one now works for the Italian priests who have come to live here and from whom she learned to make spaghett bolognese) is proud of her recipe for tamales de espiga. A few days after she had come to make them with me, she appeared with her husband at the entrance to my land, smiling and waving a piece of paper. On it her mother had written in a shaky hand, “Tamales de espiga datan de 1770 que tienen conocimiento y son originarios de San Francisco Coatepec de Morelos” (Tamales de espiga date from 1770, when they were known, and originated in San Francisco Coatepec de Morelos).

Habitas Guisadas para Botana
Fava Bean Snack
Consuelo Mendoza
[Makes 3 ½ to 4 cups (875 Milliliters to 1 liter)]

Last spring I had an abundance of tender and delicious fava beans. I had cooked them in every way possible and was searching for a new way of preparing them when my housekeeper, Consuelo, came up with this recipe. It was actually passed on to her from a sister-in-law who comes fr om a village near Toluca, where fava beans are a major crop. In fact, both fr esh and dried fava beans are used extensively there. It is important to have tender beans. I have always had bad luck in the United States with favas since they are so often picked far too late, when they are large and starchy. 

Serve this as a botana with drinks or as an appetizer, either warm or at room temperature.

  • 3 ½ cups (875 milliliters) hulled tender fava beans, inner skin left on
  • 1/3 cup (83 milliliters) vegetable oil
  • 2 cups (500 milliliters) thinly sliced white onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 manzano or jalapeño chiles, seeds and veins removed, cut into thin strips
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup (63 milliliters) water
  • 3 large sprigs epazote, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
Shave off a small portion of the skin at the point where the beans were attached to the pod to enable the flavors to penetrate and prick with a fork on both sides. Heat the oil in a skillet, add the onion, garlic, and chiles, and cook gently without browning until the onion is translucent.

Add the beans, salt, and water, cover the pan, and continue cooking, shaking the pan from time to time to prevent sticking, for about 10 minutes. Add the epazote and cook for 5 minutes more, stirring in the oregano just before the end of the cooking time.
From My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey with Recipes, Updated Edition by Diana Kennedy (Copyright © 1998, 2013).

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