Mayan Riviera – Cooking in Cancun with Claudia and Salsa Roja Recipe
The red doors in the wall surrounding the villa swung open and we were invited into a charming courtyard dominated by a lone giant banyan tree. Lorenzo led us through the open style villa to the covered patio at the back of the house and we settled in the comfortable wicker furniture covered with colourful cushions. After a few words of introduction Lorenzo invited us to the outdoor kitchen at the end of the patio. It had a burner, a sink and a long counter with an enviable collection of Mexican cookware and ceramic dishes. Set at the edge of the counter was a traditional earthenware pot from which the distinct aroma of freshly brewed coffee was wafting towards us.
The coffee was what they call “café de olla”: coffee cooked with water, cinnamon and raw cane sugar and was thick and sweet. The raw sugar is called piloncillo and is found in the shape of medium or small size cones (see image above). We drank it out of authentic small ceramic cups and all of us went back for seconds.
If you want to make the coffee at home here is a recipe:
Cafe de olla
4 cups water
1/2 cup (or less) piloncillo (or use other raw sugar)
1 cinnamon stick
5 tablespoons dark Mexican coffee (from Chiapa if you can), coarse grind
1” piece orange peel and/or 1 anise star, both optional
Bring water, sugar, cinnamon, orange peel and anise to a boil and cook until sugar dissolves.
Add the coffee, remove from heat (the coffee should not boil) and let the mixture steep for a few minutes.
Strain the coffee through a fine sieve or let the grounds settle to the bottom before serving with a ladle into an earthenware cup.
Along with the coffee we were offered churros, another traditional Mexican specialty in the sweets department. These golden brown fried pastries, dipped in sugar, crisp on the outside and soft inside are traditionally served with coffee or Mexican hot chocolate. We recently came back from Spain where we joined locals in a daily ritual of consuming a large spiral of freshly fried churros and hot chocolate at the end of an evening stroll to ward off hunger until the late dinners that they eat over there. The Mexican churros were delicious with the coffee and there were plenty of them to go around.
Once we had our coffee and churros we were invited inside to meet Lorenzo’s wife, chef Claudia, operating the can cook in Cancun cooking school offering Mexican cooking classes in Cancun, QR. The kitchen inside was spacious and set for cooking demonstration with a large mirror above the counter and stove as you would find in any culinary institute or professional cooking school. It was clear from the beginning that although we were in a private family home, this was a professional operation, organized, efficient and authentic.
Claudia is a professionally trained chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America. She was the Executive Chef for the Universidad Anahuac del Sur in Mexico City as well as owning and operating a catering business in Mexico City. She is recognized as an expert on Mexican cooking and you can read more about her here.
She got her love of cooking growing up in a large family (8 siblings) where a lot of cooking was going on. Her family was privileged and employed assistants to help with household and child care needs. Claudia’s nanny was the cook of the household and after Claudia’s mother passed away when she was 6, she followed her nanny around in the kitchen and begun to learn how to cook. Her sister, who is 17 years older and also a chef is her mentor says Claudia. You can read more about Claudia here.
Claudia had two assistants in the kitchen: Elene from Tabasco has been working with Claudia for 4 years, and Marie from the Yucatan peninsula, whom she has known since they were 6 years old. It was clear that we were in for an authentic experience in this class. These women know Mexican cuisine inside out.
Claudia is very proud of her heritage, talked at length about Mexican culture, history and tradition and says she enjoys sharing the food a culture of Mexico with her students. We had a regional review of Mexican foods and discussed specific foods and dishes such as corn, seviche, tacos, poblano peppers, chocolate, flour vs. corn tortillas, nopales (cactus) and the various peppers that make up this wonderful cuisine. Cactus leaves are a very popular item in Mexican cuisine and are used in many dishes. Claudia showed us greenish tortillas made with cactus flour that contain a fraction of the calories of tortillas made with flour and are now readily available in local stores.
We also discussed the three basic pastes used in Mexican cuisine:
Adobo (Northern Mexico): A blend of peppers with herbs, spices, garlic, onion and tomatoes, cooked to a paste. You can make your own or buy it in a paste, liquid or powder. There is red, black and brown adobo with variations in between, the colour depending on the peppers varieties and other ingredients used. Claudia mixes adobo paste with orange juice to create a rub for various foods and roasts. It is flavourful with a little kick but is not too spicy. You can also use it to flavour dough for tamales.
Mole (Central Mexico): mole is a definition, meaning a paste (think guaca”mole”). “When I say to my assistants “make me a molito” they know they have to dry, fry toast grind, blend, strain and cook it down. With one word I say everything” says Claudia, “Mole is a paste, a process and a dish. There are countless variations of mole. If you ask anyone what is the best mole they will invariably answer: my mom’s”. I think most of us connect mole with chocolate. Not so fast. There are 25-35 ingredients in making the paste, one of which can be chocolate, but mole should not be chocolaty. Claudia likes her mole balanced, not too sweet, not too salty, not too spicy, not too chocolaty. Oaxaca has 18 types of mole. Puebla has the most known mole in Mexico, incorporating ingredients from Europe such as figs, apples peaches, dried and added to their mole. Before ordering mole dish in a restaurant Claudia asks for a little dish of it to taste it first. If it’s an excellent mole she asks for the dish (often enchiladas), if not, she asks for tacos instead.
Achiote paste (South East Mexico, Mayan): Mayan discovered the anato flowers with seeds that can be used to make colours for their rituals. When fresh, the powder made from the seeds of the anato flower is very aromatic and they begun to use it to make sauce called achiote. “Achiote paste is one of the best marinades I have even tried” says Claudia. “Combine 1/2 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup lime juice, ¼ cup achiote paste, 2 clove garlic, salt and olive oil and marinate anything that moves.”
We then went on to discussing the building blocks of Mexican cuisine. The 5 most important food ingredients according to Claudia are salt, garlic, onion, peppers and tomatoes. Beside those each country has its own unique ingredients that make up its cuisine. In Mexico these unique ingredients are corn, peppers, beans, rice, cilantro, lime, tomatoes and avocados. There are 140 pepper variations in Mexico, the most consumed being habaneros (SE region), Serrano (center and north, 8-9-10 on heat scale) Jalapenos, and chile de arbol (aka Thai chili, Sichuan pepper) notably used for making chili powder. The “holly trinity” of dried peppers in Mexican cuisine are ancho, guajillo and pasilla chiles. Ancho chile is the dried version of poblano peppers. It’s wonderful in sauces and can also be stuffed and warmed up in a sauce. Pasilla is the pepper you find slivered on top of tortilla soup or bean dishes. Guajillo is used for Mexican style tomato and tamarind sauces.
At this point we took a break and were served fruit and vegetable sticks (carrots, cucumber, watermelon, mangos) with lime and ground Tajin powder to sprinkled over. It is a traditional Mexican snack that I have seen served in restaurants and homes in different variations. The Tajin spice is made with salt, pepper and lime juice and has a perfect balance of salt, acid and spice. We also had an Orchatta drink made with rice, cinnamon, vanilla water and sugar. Delicious. Claudia says that at lunch they usually serve agua fresca made from Jamaica flowers, rice or tamarind, or a fruit based punch made from fruits in season.
Claudia explained that he menu for the class was typical of Mexico city:
Fresh green salsa with tomatillos and serano pepper
Roasted tomatoes red salsa
Arbol roasted red salsa
Tamale, Mexico City style
Chicken soup cantina style
White Mexican rice
Grilled pork tacos Pastor style
Crepes with dulce de leche
Time to cook now. We started with the salsas and made three different ones. Salsa is eaten as a condiment alongside other food, not a snack. Do not confuse salsa, which is a sauce, with pico de gallo made with chopped fresh tomatoes, onion, jalapeno and onion. That’s a different dish and sometime is eaten as a snack, but not salsa.
To make the salsa Claudia pulled out the molcajetes (mortars and pestles) that have been in her family for generations. No food processor to make salsa here. It is all very authentic and interesting to watch (and participate). The ingredients for the roasted salsa were cooking in the outside kitchen on a comal (flat pan or griddle). Claudia had tomatoes, tomatillos, Serrano chiles, jalapeno and garlic slowly roasting and slightly blistering and blackening on the fire. The making of the salsas was hands on and a couple of volunteers got up to wash their hands and make salsa. For the roasted red salsa (Claudia’s recipe below) we placed the roasted garlic, salt and jalapenos in the molcajete and begun to grind until mashed. We then added the roasted tomatoes and continued to grind it to a sauce consistency. Onion was added at the end as well as chopped cilantro. You want some texture remaining in the salsa, it should not be a liquid. We tasted for salt and produced a beautiful looking and authentic tasting salsa. And it wasn’t even difficult.
We made the arbol salsa the same way, by hand, softening the dried arbol chiles on the comal for a few minutes and adding the onion and cilantro last.
The fresh tomatillos salsa was also fun to make and I believe we added some avocado to it. This salsa was served with diced panella cheese or queso fresco on top. Use feta if you don’t have these ones.
We made the guacamole with ripe avocados, a chopped tomato, red onion, cilantro, a serano pepper (no seeds), lime and salt. Before adding the lime Claudia warmed the avocado in the microwave for 25 seconds. This slows down the oxidation process she says. I have heard of other cooks adding a tablespoon of milk to the avocado for the same reason.
One interesting item she used was ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Ground toasted pumpkin seeds are used in Mexican cuisine to thicken salsas and other sauces or even make filling for tacos. I have to look into that one more.
The soup was simmering on the stove while we made fresh corn tortillas. Claudia made the dough and we portioned it into balls, pressed them in a tortilla press and cooked them on a flat griddle under the supervision of Elena and Marie. You may think it’s easy but it wasn’t so easy to flip the tortillas onto the griddle and keeping them flat. It takes practice and I am sure they were entertained by our first attempt at tortilla making. In ay event, we ate what we made.
The tamales were another fun operation. We made tamales in both banana leaves and corn husks. One of us made the filling (under supervision) and we assembled the tamales ourselves. The long and fresh banana leaf had to first be softened over an open flame, a task that Claudia accomplished with expertise and ease. It was very interesting to watch her move the long banana leaf over the open flam just so, turning it over once to heat the other side. The dried corn husks were softened in water and ready to go when we needed them. Once assembled Elene stacked the tamles in a steamer over boiling water and cooked them until done. They were delicious.
We also cooked plain white long grain Mexican rice that is a good basis for many other Mexican dishes. Claudia says they eat rice twice a day in Mexico and usually have rice, beans and tortillas in every meal. Claudia feels it’s too much starch but I may have other views. The rice was cleaned and soaked first, then dried. We heated some oil in a pot, added chopped onion and garlic and then cooked the rice in the oil for a few minutes until its colour was beginning to change, turning slightly golden but not browned. We added chicken stock and salt, stirred and brought the mixture to a boil. Then we placed a large sprig of cilantro and a Serrano chile on top of the rice and let it cook until all the water was absorbed. It was beautiful fluffy rice and I have made it several times since, adding cooked beans, lentils and other vegetables to it as my imagination (and the content of my fridge) permitted.
For the refried beans Claudia soaks the beans, then cooks them in water with epazote, onion and garlic. The epazote reduces some of the side effects of beans. Once they are cooked she keeps them in the fridge and takes out portions to prepare refried beans, frying them with a little oil and spices and mashing them by hand.
There was much more to the class and so much interesting information then what I am able to describe here. I am focusing on the vegetarian items on the menu because this is what I cook but there was a lot more than that. Claudia is clearly an expert on Mexican culture and cuisine.
We were getting ready to eat what we cooked. Lorenzo invited us back to the patio and offered a little tequila to stimulate the appetite. I didn’t think I could drink it but in fact had no problem downing the whole glass. The glass was rimmed with the same Tajim spice and a little of it with each sip made it soooo good. Can I have some more?
Time for lunch. We settled at a lovely table on the patio in the shade. The table was set with tradition Mexican stoneware and glasseware. Soon the food arrived and it was delicious. We started with the soup and then continued to pile the rest of the foods into corn tortillas (the ones we cooked) and top them with the salsas we prepared. It was all full of various flavours, textures and colours and I can hardly wait to try and reproduce some of these items in my own kitchen. Dessert soon arrived: crepes with dulce de leche sauce, quickly devoured.
We parted after a full day, buying some culinary goodies in Claudia’s home-store, but I am planning to go back for a second run in January. Stay tuned, but in the meantime, here is Claudia’s recipe for roasted tomato salsa. I encouraged you to try it.
Roasted Red Salsa
3 large garlic cloves, roasted on a comal or a griddle, then peeled
Salt to taste
3 jalapeno chiles, roasted on a comal or a griddle
3 tablespoons chopped white onion
3 large ripe tomatoes, roasted on a comal or a griddle, then peeled
Water as necessary to adjust the texture
Place the roasted garlic and salt in a molcajete (mortar) and grind.
Add the roasted jalapenos and continue to grind well.
Peel the tomatoes and add to the molcajete and continue to grind with the pestle.
Add a little water if needed to achieve the desired consistency.
At the end add the chopped onion and cilantro.
Note: if you are using a blender or a food processor, add the ingredients in the order given, pulsating briefly after each addition and being careful not to over puree.
Makes ½ cups salsa.