Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatecan Cooking School, Merida, Mexico

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A visit with Diana Kennedy
Diana Kennedy and Chef David
2 March, 2009 – THE GRANDE DAME OF MEXICAN COOKING – DIANA KENNEDY – recently traveled to Mérida to attend a friend’s birthday celebration. I was pleasantly surprised – and profoundly honored – to receive a phone call from her requesting an audience. We chatted and swapped stories for an hour or so, and as she was leaving, she invited me to visit her at her home in Michoacán. She didn’t have to twist my arm, and just a month later, I was there.

A bus took me through the mountains from Morelia to Zitácuaro – the tiny pueblo near which Kennedy has maintained her Mexican home for 29 years. I registered at the charming lodge, Rancho San Cayetano, dropped my bags in my room and began the climb up the side of another mountain to the compound known as La Quinta de Diana. Upon my hostess’s request, I had in tow a half-kilo each of Yucatán’s chile dulce, fresh green habanero and some chile seco – all vacuum-packed for the trip. She told me she was eager to compare these newer varieties with those from seeds she planted in her greenhouse many years ago.

Just as in Yucatán, early spring is the tail end of the dry season in Michoacán, such that by the time I scaled that rugged mountain road I was coated in fine, white dust from the knees down. As I approached the quinta, I shook myself off to the best of my ability, took a deep breath and climbed the steep walkway and more steps that led from the entrance to the patio off the main part of Diana’s home. My lungs were slowly adjusting to Michoacán’s altitude and terrain, which are perhaps the polar opposite of Yucatán’s unending sea-level flatness.

“Welcome to my laboratory,” Diana beamed, as I entered her efficient kitchen. The smells were intoxicating, as she had promised to create a lunch for me in spite of my expressions of mortification and humility (Diana Kennedy is going to cook for me?). A kettle of water was kept boiling on the patio in a solar reflector, and she ambled nimbly about, pouring some for various kitchen needs. She is an ardent environmentalist and is proud of her “ecological house”, designed with all bathrooms lower than the main house level so that only gravity – no electrical pumps – serves to distribute water from the holding tanks.

I sat at a table on the patio as she finished preparing the meal. Soon I was humbly relishing a banquet of dishes from recipes recorded in her celebrated cookbooks. From My Mexico came Tamales de San Luis –  rich masa mixed with puréed chile ancho, stuffed with strips of chile poblano and Chihuahua cheese, then steamed in corn husks. Tamales Rancheros featured shredded pork and the wonderfully aromatic and anise-tainted hoja santa. The day’s main offering – in honor of the Lenten season – was Revoltijo en Caldo de Chile Pasilla, from Kennedy's The Art of Mexican Cooking. Simple, plump fritters are formed from dried shrimp, breadcrumbs and eggs, then added with fava beans and potatoes to a smoky mole of chile pasilla. A lovely salad of greens and fresh herbs from her garden was dressed with a vintage ’92 pineapple vinegar – her own concoction. The meal and our conversation stretched on as she served homemade ate de membrillo (quince fruit paste) and fresh cheese, coffee grown at the quinta, and a couple of shots of her favorite artisanal mezcal. (“I go straight to the source. I never buy mezcal that has a label!”)

Our conversation was breezy, fluid and entertaining – Diana is a consummate hostess. Naturally we chatted about Yucatecan dishes and ingredients, and she told me of her first visit to Mérida in 1958: she still has a photo she took documenting the Ford convertibles that used to function as taxis, all lined up outside the Lucas de Gálvez market waiting for fares. We also commiserated about the lamentable celebrity phenomenon that has ravaged the culinary professions and most food magazines. When she said, “You should do a cookbook,” I quoted the several cookbook agents who have snubbed me: “Without a ‘vehicle’ (one assumes that means a TV show), we cannot promote your cookbook.” In her refined British accent she spat, “That’s bullshit!” I deeply respect a woman who knows how to swear appropriately.

I loved her irreverence. We gossiped about the delicacies of inviting strangers into one’s home to cook –intimately – for hours at a time. “I tell the agents who bring me groups ‘No Republicans and no vegetarians!’ I don’t care! It’s my house and I have to be comfortable here!” she griped. I love this woman.

Diana invited me back the next day, and I encountered a pair of couples that had arrived ahead of me, both of which have second homes in a colonial town in central Mexico. There they sat in the twilight, shooing away the night insects. Diana treated them warmly, gave them the same house-and-garden tour she had given me the day before, then kissed them goodbye and promised to visit them one day. After they left I asked, “How did you meet your friends?” and she confessed, “Well, I just met them today! They wrote me and asked to visit.” I had thought they were best friends, because that is how Diana treats everyone.

“I have learned so much from you! I should be more welcoming to the tourists who arrive unannounced on my doorstep,” I told her, confessing the occupational crankiness that strikes me from time to time as I greet more than 400 students per year.

“Frankly, I’m sure they were Republicans,” she said. “But, well, it’s just once a year, when the butterflies come. It’s good for public relations.”

I have recited her PR mantra a hundred times (omitting the butterfly part). Her fiery spirit was as inspiring as her cooking – in fact, it is an essential part of its sabor.

Diana, there is a reason the world loves you.

AND SPEAKING OF BUTTERFLIES, my trip in fact coincided with the final phase of the annual monarch migration. So yours truly mounted a horse, and along with about 15 other travelers, climbed yet one more mountain to see this amazing natural event.

Michoacán also tempted me with scores of new taste sensations, as I ate my way through the state. As has happened to me on other occasions, I was reminded just how big Mexico is: in the state of Michoacán alone, it was possible to travel from one pueblo to the next and find entirely different specialties in each. Imagine all the dining possibilities that await!

I arranged for a food-savvy guide to shuttle me through markets and lead me to the best food stalls. Thankfully, I was given Adriana Villaseñor, who rather obviously enjoyed her food.

For those who are interested, following is a record of just a few of my indulgences:

– Aguamiel. Literally “honey water” in Spanish, this unprocessed juice straight from the maguey plant was perhaps the most indescribable liquid I have ever tasted – and yet I find myself trying to describe it. It was somehow herbaceous and floral at once, and its natural sweetness was refreshing rather than sticky or cloying. Let this juice ferment a few hours, and you get the infamous pulque, which I enjoyed at a roadside stand after our butterfly excursion. The light alcohol content of pulque didn’t mask the refreshing sweetness of the original aguamiel, which sang through vividly and unadulterated.
– Corundas de manteca y de ceniza. Corundas are a Michoacán variety of tamal, typically wrapped in long, thin corn leaves, not husks, and formed into small triangles. Ours were simple and without fillings, each given its unique taste by the ingredient incorporated into the masa – lard being the first, and the ashes (instead of cal) that are sometimes used to make nixtamal in the second. My favorite was the latter, although both were delicious served with just a simple red chile salsa.
– Uchepos. One of the many Mexican tamales made from fresh field maize – not nixtamaluchepos are naturally sweet but also typically include some sugar in the recipe. They can be eaten as a savory/sweet mix with tomato sauce and chile, but we simply squeezed a bit of the tamal at a time from the maize husk wrapper and sucked out the sweet, warm dough.

Barbacoa de res. In the popular Portales de San Agustin on Sunday morning, I crowded at a little folding table with other diners to savor tacos of spectacular, fresh beef barbecue, cooked the traditional Mexican way, in a pit wrapped in maguey leaves. I couldn’t get enough of the rich, red chile salsas (a rarity in Yucatán), and even loaded on shredded strips of dried red chile with my other garnishes.
– Filete en Salsa de Cinco Chiles. I always like to ask local residents for their favorite dining spots. In Morelia, more than one voter directed me to Restaurante de San Miguelito, so I had to try it. The décor is riotous, with literally hundreds of statues and other images of San Miguel cluttering the room, and which, in the Rincón de las Solteranas (“Old Maid’s Corner”) are all upside down! The beef tenderloin I ordered was perfectly cooked, and nicely complemented by the sauce of ancho, cascabel, chipotle, guajillo and pasilla chiles. Dried chiles are rarely used in Yucatecan cooking, so by this stage of my trip, I was almost literally chugging liters of these rich, red chile sauces, since I knew that pleasure would soon be behind me.
– Jahuácatas. Online investigation had led me to Los Mirasoles, which was reported to be Morelia’s finest restaurant (and it was indeed excellent). At Los Mirasoles, this dish was a dreamy blend of jahuácatas (a variety of corunda in which thin layers of masa alternate with a wash of puréed beans from the Meseta Purhépecha) and served with pork in a chile pasilla sauce and strips of the chile in its fresh green form, known as chilaca.
– Sopa Tarasca. As much of a staple on the Michoacán plate as is Sopa de Lima in Yucatán, Sopa Tarasca again featured those marvelous dried chiles – this time the ancho – ground to a purée with tomatoes and onions. I had several versions during my trip, but my favorite was at Los Mirasoles, where it was served with crema, crumbled cotija, fried tortilla strips, slices of avocado, and – more dried chile!

– Atole de pinole. Quiroga’s bustling Saturday market was full of temptations for those passing through. Our first stop was for this hot porridge – nice on a chilly morning – made of dried, toasted maize, which is then ground and cooked in water until it thickens. It is lightly sweetened and flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon).
– Atole de grano. A specialty of Pátzcuaro, this is a simple porridge that I shall dream of until the next time I can plan a trip back to Michoacán. A thin, hot gruel of cooked masa is given its bright green color and licorice flavor by the use of the fresh anise plant, which is grown plentifully in Mexico. Kernels of fresh field maize are suspended throughout, and further flavor is added with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and some coarsely chopped, bright yellow chile manzano.
– Carne apache. In the little copper town of Santa Clara del Cobre, we sat on tiny folding chairs on the sidewalk outside the shop where I had just purchased some copper kettles for my kitchen. The charming woman tending the portable griddle adeptly chopped and fried, and immediately served up this delectable Mexican taco: a quickly fried tortilla smeared with a layer of refried beans, then topped with raw ground beef soaked in lime juice. Chopped onion and a slurry of salsas added texture and heat.
– Carnitas. All around Mérida and environs you see signs reading “Carnitas de Michoacán” – so I was thrilled to be here to sample the real thing. In fact, the little town of Quiroga is known as "the world capital of carnitas." I can’t say exactly how the popular vendor in Quiroga prepared his carnitas (naturally, recipes vary from one cook to the next), but typically it is made with scrap cuts of pork (even some offal) seasoned with spices and chiles and simmered slowly in lard. Just before serving, pieces of the meat are chopped coarsely on worn wooden blocks then fried quickly on a special comal. This is a close cousin to Yucatán’s
chicharra surtida. One of the many accompanying sauces was drawn out of a large glass jar with a big ladle: white vinegar, slivers of white onion cut media luna style, and coarse chunks of fresh yellow chile manzano.
– Nieve de pasta. Dios mío, if ever a dessert were created exclusively for me this would be it. This specialty of Pátzcuaro (they make it elsewhere in Michoacán but it’s never as good) is a rich and intense sorbet made of – frozen dulce de leche! What’s not to love? Thankfully, my hectic itinerary kept me moving, although often my trails led right past another sorbet shop.
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