One of the most respected authorities on Mexican cuisine in this country is an author and culinary tour leader from Washington State named Marilyn Tausend, and she has recently published her latest cookbook, La Cocina Mexicana: Many Cultures, One Cuisine.
Strangely enough, Tausend has a strong Texas connection. She is great friends with the owners of Austin’s Fonda San Miguel restaurant, Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago, who hosted an autograph party for her recently. Collaborating author on La Cocina is Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, a former Fonda chef. And as a girl Tausend worked rodeos in Texas and took care of Roy Rogers’s horse, Trigger. I recently ran into Marilyn, who happens to be an old friend of mine as well, and we chatted about her new book.
Your book is subtitled Many Cultures, One Cuisine. What do you mean by “many cultures”?
Mexico is a huge melting pot, just like the United States. Of course the indigenous cultures are the backbone of all Mexican cooking, with their beans and chiles and corn, but there are many more European influences than just the Spanish.
There are villages where the inhabitants still predominantly speak French, or at least used to. Mexico was ruled by France for a time and, of course, and a lot of French came over here. The first time I encountered that, in the state of Veracruz, was in a restaurant. The men were speaking French and the women were speaking some native language, I’m not sure what it was. In their markets—this was many years ago—they were selling wonderful French-type cheeses.
What other European cultures have you found?
There was a place in Guerrero where they speak Italian and some of the people have blond hair. I have met Russian descendants in Baja, who are responsible for a number of the vineyards and grape growing in that area.
Not the French?
No, not there. There is a cemetery that is almost entirely Russian. And speaking of Baja, there are a lot of Chinese and other Asians in Baja as well. They settled there very early, and established Chinatowns all over. Soy sauce is everywhere. Colima is a place that really likes its soy sauce. In the Yucatán there is a strong Lebanese influence.
So little bits and pieces of these have gone into the overall cuisine of Mexico?
Until we were talking just now, I didn’t realize you had ever lived in Texas.
Oh yes, I was brought to Texas when I was about three days old. My dad was a produce dealer, and we traveled a lot. They drove to Brownsville, which is such a huge growing area, with me. We stayed in what were then called tourist courts—the predecessors of motels—along the way. I slept in dresser drawers.
What’s the King Ranch connection you mentioned?
My dad—he was also a gambler and had race horses—got me two stallions from the King Ranch, Big Red and Little Red. Big Red was a great horse, the number one cutting horse in the United States at the time, as I recall. I traveled and worked the rodeos, taking care of horses and cattle, and all the cowboys wanted to use Big Red. This would have been in the late 1940s. I even took care of Trigger, Roy Rogers’ horse, many times. There was more than one Trigger, and I took care of two of them.
Well, this is getting far afield from your book. Let me ask, do you have a favorite recipe from La Cocina?
Yes, in the fall, which is when the walnut trees are producing in the city of Puebla, I love to make chiles in nogada, stuffed chiles in a rich, sweetish walnut sauce. It’s a beautiful dish. Yes, it takes some work, but if you want to show off, this is the dish!
C H I L E S E N N O G A D A
Poblano Chiles in Walnut Sauce
Along with mole poblano, no other dish in Mexico better represents the spectacular creations from the Puebla convents than chiles en nogada, large green chiles stuffed with a fruity meat picadillo studded with pieces of acitrón, the candied flesh of the biznaga cactus; cloaked with a creamy nut sauce; and topped with a scattering of ruby red pomegranate seeds. Although theh dish requires many separate preparations, all of them can can be made in advance. I like to serve a full-bodied, oaky Chardonnay or Viognier during the meal. The recipe serves 10, with leftovers.
For the nogada: The day before you plan to serve the chiles, put the walnuts in a saucepan with water to cover, bring to a boil over high heat, and boil for 5 minutes. Drain and let the nuts cool until they can be handled, then peel or scrape off as much of the outer coating from each nut as possible [to make the sauce as white as possible]. Place the nuts in a bowl, add the milk, cover, and soak overnight in the refrigerator.
The next day, drain the nuts, reserving the milk, and put in a blender or food processor. Add the almonds, bread, crema, sherry, garlic, salt, cinnamon (if using), and enough of the walnut soaking milk to make a thick sauce and process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, then bring to room temperature before using.
For the picadillo: Heat the oil in a cazuela, Dutch oven, or large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.
For the Nogada
25 shelled whole walnuts, the freshest possible
1½ cups whole milk
1/3 cup blanched sliced almonds
½ cup torn crust-free French bread or baguette
1½ cups Mexican crema, crème fraîche, or thick sour cream thinned with
1 tablespoon whole milk
2 tablespoons Spanish dry (fino) sherry
1 small clove garlic
½ teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
For the Picadillo
¼ cup canola or safflower oil
½ cup finely chopped white onion
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes (about 3 medium), peeled, cored, and finely chopped
2 tablespoons sea salt
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 pound slightly underripe pears (3 or 4), preferably Seckel, though Bosc or other cooking pears will do
1 pound firm peaches (3 or 4)
1 pound apples (3 or 4), preferably crisp Rome Beauty, McIntosh, or Gravenstein
1 partially black plantain
½ cup roughly chopped raisins
½ cup roughly chopped blanched almonds
1/3 cup roughly chopped acitrón or candied pineapple
1-inch stick Mexican true cinnamon bark [called canela, more papery than common cinnamon sticks; look in imported food stores or in Whole Foods or Central Market]
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the Chiles
12 chiles poblanos, stems intact if using with batter
For the Optional Batter and Frying
6 eggs, at room temperature, separated
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Peanut or safflower oil for frying
For the Garnish
Seeds from 1 pomegranate
Leaves from 1½ bunches fresh flat-leaf parsley (about 20 sprigs), chopped
Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for several minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is almost dry, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the salt, then stir in the meat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel the pears, peaches, apples, and plantains. Halve and core the pears and apples, and halve and pit the peaches. Cut all of the fruits into ¼-inch cubes. This should not be done in advance, as the fruit will darken.
Add the cubed fruit, raisins, almonds, acitrón, cinnamon, sugar, and pepper to the meat and mix well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, about 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt and sugar if needed. Remove from the heat and set aside until ready to stuff the chiles. Barely reheat before using, if not warm.
For the chiles: Roast and peel the chiles, then prepare them for stuffing. Stuff the picadillo into the chiles, packing it loosely until the chiles are plump and just barely closed.
For the optional batter and frying: Put the egg whites in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks with a whisk. Fold the yolks, 2 tablespoons of the flour, and the salt into the whites. Put the batter next to the stove.
Put the remaining ½ cup flour in a shallow bowl or pan. Make sure that the chiles are perfectly dry. One at a time, roll the chiles in the flour, shake to remove the excess flour, and set aside.
Heat the oven to 200°F. Pour the oil to a depth of 2 inches into a large, heavy skillet and heat over medium heat until shimmering. Holding a chile by its stem, quickly dip it into the batter and then immediately lay it in the hot oil. Coat 1 or 2 more chiles the same way and add to the pan. Fry, turning as needed to cook on all sides, until golden, about 2 minutes. As the chiles cook, use a spoon or spatula to splash the hot oil over the top. Using a slotted spatula, lift out the chiles, allowing any excess oil to drip back into the pan, and transfer to absorbent paper to drain. Keep the chiles warm in the oven. Repeat to cook the remaining chiles the same way, making sure the oil regains its temperature before adding the next batch and adding more oil if necessary.
Arrange the chiles on a warmed platter or on individual plates. Spoon the nogada sauce over the top and decorate with the pomegranate seeds and parsley. Or, if you decided not to cloak the chiles in batter, you can serve the stuffed chiles at room temperature topped with the sauce and pomegranate seeds.
From La Cocina Mexicana: Many Cultures, One Cuisine, by Marilyn Tausend; published by the University of California Press, October 2012. $39.95 list. Available on Amazon and elsewhere for less.