chicks & ducks & geese better scurry

XoloitzcuintleBeyond art and tchotchkes, Senora Olmedo had a diverse interest in living animals, too, such as geese, ducks, and peacocks, which she collected and kept in the gardens of her museum. And who doesn’t love a pretty peacock? However what I found most fascinating was the handful of endangered Xoloitzcuintles, a 3,000-year old native breed of hairless dog considered sacred by the Aztecs. (They believed the dogs were needed by their masters’ souls to help them safely through the underworld.) Initially I thought I was looking at a group of sleek and sinuous statues – until they moved.
xoloitzcuintlepea hens

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mucho mundo

muchoMucho Mundo Chocolate is the first museum in Mexico dedicated to enhancing the experience of chocolate – as if chocolate needed any help. But beyond the purely hedonistic aspects of consumption, the museum puts chocolate in a historical context, tracing its origins back to the Mayans, who first fermented the seeds inside cacao pods and used them to create a hot bitter drink we’ve come to know as chocolate. The favored drink of kings and priests, it was considered food fit for the gods. When the Aztecs gained control over the Maya, cacao seeds were elevated to the level of currency, making drinking chocolate a luxury few people could afford. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to a wider European audience, yet is still remained a product almost exclusively consumed by the wealthy until industrialization brought about the arrival of solid, mass-produced chocolates. Today we take the ubiquity of chocolate for granted, but a demonstration in Mucho’s test kitchen made clear to me how labor intensive making chocolate the Mexican way once was: first you heat the metate, a traditional grinding stone, while shelling as many roasted cacao pods as you need. (Hint: more than you think.  Roasted cacao seeds are as addictive as cocktail peanuts.) Then grind them on the metate by flicking your wrists with a mano, an elongated pestle. Add a handful of raw almonds to the mixture – their natural oils will slowly release and bind the cacao together – and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar. After a bit of sweat you’ll have a crumbly paste, which can be added to water to make drinking chocolate, or serve as the base for baked goods and, after further processing and tempering, chocolate bars. I scooped up a bag of the crumble and munched on it as is; savory, slightly sweet and spicy, it was a tart reminder of why I hate milk chocolate: the fat in dairy dilutes the pleasing bitterness of the cacao. Which, I guess, is why the world is divided between devotees of milk and dark chocolate. On some things we must agree to disagree, however; after experiencing the effort involved, I won’t pop a truffle into my mouth with casual disregard again.

mucho metate

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escamoles

escamolesOur perception of Mexican food has been blighted by years of overstuffed burritos, nacho pyramids, and a scourge of chimichangas and fajitas. Yet authentic Mexican cuisine is a fusion of indigenous MesoAmerican staples like corn, squash, and chiles, influenced by the domesticated meats and cooking techniques of the (primarily) Spanish occupation. It’s one of the world’s great cuisines, holding it’s own against both France and China in my humble opinion. (Don’t believe me? Try your hand at making one of the complex regional moles.)  To a large degree that’s what part of this week in Mexico is about: tasting traditions old and new. Like escamoles, or ant larvae – a dish native to Central Mexico and considered a delicacy by the Aztecs. Insect caviar, if you will. As far as traditional foods go, it’s a lot better than it sounds. The light-colored eggs, harvested from the agave plant, resemble pine nuts and have a slightly nutty taste. Often pan-fried with butter and spices, escamoles can be found in tacos, eaten with chips and guacamole, or here at El Cardenal, turned into a no-pun-intended Spanish omelette.

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seed the soul

In pre-Columbian times the Maya and Aztecs revered chia seeds for their amazing energy and natural healing powers. One tablespoon of the seeds was considered capable of sustaining a warrior for 24 hours. A component of both societies diets, the ancient grain played a prominent role in religious ceremonies, too. Today, chia is the force behind the famous long distance runners, the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Chia seeds come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family, which grows in North and South America. Consumed as early as 3,000 B.C., chia seeds were eaten as a grain, mixed with water, ground into flour, mixed into medicines, and pressed for omega-3 oil. As anyone who has followed my capricious dietary peregrinations since the start of this site knows, these extraordinary seeds offer a complete nutritional profile of omega-3, balanced dietary fiber, complete protein, antioxidants and minerals – chia really is one of the world’s healthiest whole foods.  Now along comes Mamma Chia, a new all-organic beverage pairing chia seeds, fruit juice, and a light touch of agave. With flavors like Blackberry Hibiscus, Cherry Lime, Raspberry Passion, Coconut Mango, and Pomegranate Mint, it’s official: chia has gone mainstream. Which is a good thing, really, because I’m addicted to the funky viscosity of these little super seeds.

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when citrus meets summer

Hazard a guess as to how many limes it takes to make a single liquid cup of juice? Twenty four. Good thing then that I happened to have on hand a five-pound bag of Persian limes that I didn’t know what to do with. (As someone recently said while noticing the strategically placed Costco satchel in my kitchen: Wow, that’s a lot of limes.) I say good thing because a friend who’s obsessed with all things Food Network just passed on to me the most curious of recipes:  Chia Limeade.  That’s right, chia as in Chia Pet or chia seeds, a nutritional supplement I happen to have gone bonkers for over the course of the past year. Take note: it’s not just for sprouting green fur on the clay cast figurines of poodles and frogs anymore. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the seeds are native to Mexico – Chiapas is named for the seed – and were once used as a form of tribute among the Aztecs due to their high nutritional content. Modern research shows the humble seed also aids the body in slowing down the metabolism of carbohydrates – meaning a spoonful of chia goes a long way in leveling blood sugar spikes as well as hunger pangs. What I never imagined was that it could also make a refreshing summer beverage. Limeade by definition is a proportionate mix of sweet and sour and the addition of chia – which forms a protective gelatinous coating around itself when exposed to water – adds a nice texture of slippery crunch. Bottled it looks curiously like a science experiment. Yet served up over ice in a tall glass muddled with mint leaves, it’s a healthy, tasty addition to the summer repertoire – well worth the effort of juicing your way through two dozen uncooperative limes.

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