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CASA OLINKA: AN OSIS IN PUEBLA CITY

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Casa Olinka features plants in every possible combination of repurposed materials that you could imagine.

 

This is one of those projects that is just plain old inspiring and fun!  Located close to the local autonomous university of Puebla, Casa Olinka is a house converted to oasis, and is carving out a space for learning and community building.  Casa Olinka is filled with teeming gardens and projects in process, and is born from creativity and a commitment to living low to the ground, even in a big city.  By cultivating a space that prioritizes the use of repurposed materials (for example the vertical gardens are built from repurposed wooden skids), utilizes water catchment systems, and has a focus on cultivating culinary plants, they hope to lead by example and create a space for their community to meet, learn together, and implement changes that work towards protecting the environment.  The space offers workshops that share the skills being learned and put to use in this project; it features a Vegetarian kitchen that of course incorporates the gifts of their gardens as well as local and seasonal produce (and when in Mexico this happens to be varied yet always bountiful); and a gallery that hosts photographs from one of the proprietors as well as art from visiting artists – and has hopes to further build events and opportunities. And who is behind this project?  None other than the powerful mom and son duo of Alfredo (Alfo) and Señora Luz María Juarez.

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Vertical herb gardens made from a repurposed skid.
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With a focus on edible plants there are some real gems in this garden.

I was very fortunate to be invited to visit the project and to attend a great variety of workshops ans events during my stay in Puebla.  Visiting a project like this is the inspirational juice that makes life….well… hopeful, fun, and rich.

For more information or to connect with them yourself visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/casa.olinka?fref=ts

One of my visits included a spectacular and simple meal, featuring stuffed portabello mushrooms, rice, and a salad that was dressed in a perfect melody of  tangy and fresh, bringing balance and light to the whole experience.  The real secret to what brought the meal to the next level though was the amazing people I shared it with and the hot sauce.  I’ve decided that these two ingredients are the secret to why everything tastes better in Mexico.

STUFFED PORTABELLO MUSHROOMS

First, start with making Salsa Mexican.

  • 6   roma tomatoes toasted/charred
  • 4  garlic cloves toasted/charred
  • 1  onion toasted/charred
  • 1/2 bunches cilantro
  • 25 ml lime juice

Process

  1. Charr the tomatoes, garlic, onion
  2. Use a blender to liquify all the ingredients.  Your goal is to leave texture and not turn it into soup. Add a little honey if it needs a little sweet.

Next, assemble the stuffed mushrooms….

  1. Clean and remove the stem from the mushrooms.  Grill them slightly.
  2. Fill them with the salsa.  Cook for 15 minutes in an oven at 350 F until the mushrooms are fully cooked
  3. Top with Oaxacan cheese or mozzarella if you can’t locate the good stuff (or really any cheese of your liking) and return to oven until it is melted. Turn on your broiler if you want to melt it quick and perhaps even brown it a little.

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THE HOTTEST MOST AMAZING SALSA DE CHILE ARBOL 

Chile arbol is really hot and has the possibility of really deep flavour.

  • 1 cup of peanuts no salt and untoasted.
  • 1 cup of chile arbol with the stems removed.
  • 3/4 cup olive oil (or more if you like)
  • salt to taste

Process

  1. Put peanuts in a dry frying pan and toast. 
  2. Wrap chiles in tinfoil and toast on a flat top, bbq, or in a cast iron fry pan (make sure heat is low to control the rate of toasting.  Turn once to toast both sides.  They are done when they are browning NOT black, and when you open the tinfoil and the fumes make you chock with their fiery heat. 
  3. Grind together in a molcajete or in a food processor if you don’t have/can’t work the molcajete….but with salsa’s it is traditionally known, and true that a salsa from the molcajete tastes better, always.
  4. Once ground in a chunky textured paste, stir in the olive oil and salt to taste (about a teaspoon)

 

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The meal!
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Spiral herb gardens are just one of the wonders that you can expect to greet you at Casa Olinka.

 

MAKING FRIENDS AT THE MARKET

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In making my plan to spend time n Mexico learning technique, flavour, tradition, and the intersection of community, learning, and justice in the kitchen, I hoped that I would spend time meeting Señoras in the marketplace with the intention to learn from them.  In all reality I just spent a lot of time in markets, and did my best to make friends.  My time with these women who were experts in all areas of my interest, were the moments that brought some of my richest learning and hilarity.

At the outer edges of a small local market in Puebla, I met Señora Edith.  A beautiful woman that rounded in at about 4 feet tall, wore a toothless grin that always managed to come off as mischievous, and with whom I often sat down beside and waited while she enjoyed one of her many daily naps. She indulged me in entire afternoons sharing her life history and secrets of the kitchen. Señora Edith, at her small market stand filled with overripe fruit and vegetables, offered me a lifetimes worth of advice – some of which pertained to the kitchen.  She also sold the most amazing sweet and fiery hot accompaniment for – well anything that calls for such a dressing, but my favourite occasion is plain roasted meat, or using my altered version, spreading it on a cracker topped with cheese. The mild fresh cheeses of Mexico made the most beautiful and smooth combination for my palate. It is no joke that on Saturday afternoons Poblano folks traveled from near and far to this tiny market for her magic chile love.

SEÑORA EDITH’S SWEET FIERY LOVE

  • 15 dried chipotle or modita chiles.  They should have a smokey smell and be of the dark variety.
  • 2.5 – 3 cups olive oil (the oil should land a good inch above all the ingredients once inside the pot)
  • 2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and rough ends chopped off.
  • 1 cup of brown sugar or more to taste.  Remember sweet and fiery is the point.

Process

  1. Remove the stems from the chiles (you can take the seeds out as well if you want to tone it down a notch).
  2. Put the olive oil in a smallish pot and add the chilies and the skin and ends removed garlic cloves.
  3. Turn on low and let warm for an hour (chiles and garlic should be good and soft.
  4. Add sugar until disolves
  5. Salt to taste
  6. Señor Edith sold it as is, but I like to blend and strain it through a fine sieve so that it has the consistency of jam.

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Adobo

Dried chile heaven at the Cinco de Mayo market in Puebla. Chiles are the foundation of many dishes including the adobo
Dried chile heaven at the Cinco de Mayo market in Puebla. Chiles are the foundation of many dishes including the adobo.

By the time I got to my dear friends home in Puebla, I was ready to start cooking.  So we threw a party.  What better way to get feedback on your creations?  It was also a wonderful opportunity to hear the stories of food, family, and community that every person formed from this culture seems to hold.  And this was my excuse to explore the Adobo and the markets.

An Adobo is one of the fundamental types of sauces in Mexican cuisine.  It varies greatly in flavour, colour, and thickness, but the basic structure of the dish is made up of dried chiles (a combination or selection of Guajillo, Ancho, Pasilla), tomatoes, spices, and vinegar.  In this sauce the meat (or tofu/beans/lentils if you prefer) is marinated and then cooked long and slow.  Traditionally, adobos are cooked in a cazuela, which is a clay pot said to improve the flavour as it retains sazón over the years.  Pork and chicken are the most common meats to find in this dish.  It is common to serve the dish with finely chopped onions and lime and accompany it with rice, beans (refried or whole) and of course tortillas. 

When making an adobo you want to keep a few things in mind…  

1. The flavour before and after cooking the adobo changes a lot!  The bitterness of the chiles will transform into a deep flavour that is cut by the vinegar and the warmth of the meat cooked in the sauce.  

2. Use meat with bones on it.  Incase you didn’t know, these have huge amounts of flavour and nutrition to add to your dish.  Also use real pig lard if you can; real flavour, real nutrition.  Watch for my coming rant on why we should be eating more pig lard and less processed oil and ugh margarine. 

3. Add your final salting at the end….cause otherwise, ouch the reduction of the sauce can leave you with a super salty dish.

4. Processing the dried chiles is the bedrock talent of this dish.  If you burn them…start over.

5. There are two basic preparation methods.  The first includes browning the meat and then marinating it.  The second is to cook the meat in a stock which will be incorporated into the sauce.  I have included a recipe using each method below.  Each of these recipes also features different flavour profiles.  The first is my own take after much experimentation and feedback.  The second is inspired by a cookbook and altered by my own taste

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IMG_0252Guajillo, Ancho, Pasilla Chile Adobo

  • 18 guajillo chiles (the thiner ones have less heat kick to them)
  • 5 ancho chiles
  • 3 Pasilla chiles
  • 1 medium head of roasted garlic
  • 12 roasted roma tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp of dried oregano
  • 2 tsp powdered cumin
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 5 laurel leaves
  • 12 fresh avocado tree leaves or more if they are dried
  • 1 Tbsp of white vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • meat with bone: pig or chicken is best.  This quantity of sauce is enough for 10 meat portions.
  • Pig lard or oil.

Method

1. Process the chiles.  This is an important process to understand how to do many dishes in Mexican cuisine.  It is an art, but we all can start somewhere. 

Step A. Remove all the seeds and veins, and any of the stem.  You only want the leathery beauty of the chile itself.  I have found using scissors for this very useful.

Step B. Heat a small bit of oil of choice in a fry pan.  Use an oil that won’t carry a flavour…grapeseed is always my personal choice because it is flavourless and is happy at high temperatures (doesn’t turn carcinogenic like some others). Heat the pan to medium high heat.

Step C. At the same time have a pot of soft boiling water ready.

Step D. A few at a time, fry the chiles.  Use tongs and turn and remove, putting in the pot of water.  Be very careful not to burn them.  You are aiming to cook them about 10 seconds or less.  You only want to release the flavour, golden them…but it is so easy to burn them, and if this happens start again.

Step E. Cook the chiles in the water a few minutes to soften. Reserve the liquid

2. Roast the tomatoes and garlic.  If you have a gas stove just roast the tomatoes over direct flame and the garlic in a dry pan.  If not you can do it in the oven (cover the tomatoes and garlic in a touch of oil).  Don’t worry about peeling…your going to liquify and strain them anyways. 

3. Toast the avocado and laurel leaves in a dry pan, about 15 seconds each side.

4. Liquify everything together.  Add liquid that the chiles were cooked in as needed.  You want a sauce that is liquid but not watery.  It will cook down with time

5. Brown the meat on high heat quickly.  Add to adobo and marinate. 

6.  Remove meat.  Heat a few tablespoons of pig lard in your pot on medium heat.  Add the sauce.  Cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.

7. Add the meat.  Turn the heat to low…as low as possible.  Cover so a little bit of steam can leave, check on it from time to time and stir.  Add more liquid as necessary, but in the end the sauce should be thick.

8. Cook for several hours.  The meat should be at the point of falling apart soft.  Add the final salt adjustment.

Adobo in the style number 2.  It tastes far better then my photo might indicate.
Adobo in the style number 2. It tastes far better then my photo might indicate.

Pork Adobo

Ingredients

  • 2 kg of pork with bone
  • 1 white onion cut in 4
  • 1 garlic head split up
  • 4 liters of water
  • 3 tsp salt
  • 16 guajillo chiles
  • 4 ancho chiles
  • 4 roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 15 garlic cloves pealed
  • 2 tsp of cumin seed
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper seed
  • 4 cloves seed
  • 3 Tbsp pig fat
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 Tbsp white vinegar

Method

1. In a large pot add the meat, onion, garlic, water, salt and bring to a soft boil to make a stock.  Continue to cook until the meat is soft (an hour or so).

2. Process the chiles, but add the chiles to the stock for its last 10 minutes to soften.

3. Separate out the meat and chiles and strain the stock.

4. Roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic. If you have a gas stove just roast the tomatoes over direct flame and the garlic in a dry pan.  If not you can do it in the oven (cover the tomatoes and garlic in a touch of oil).  Don’t worry about peeling…your going to liquify and strain anyways. 

5. Liquify the roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic.  Strain.

6. Separately, liquify the chiles. Add stock as needed.  The sauce should be thick but be strained with encouragement. Strain.

7.  In a dry pan, dry roast the cumin, pepper, and clove.  The idea is that the pan is on a high medium heat, you add the seeds and keep them moving by shaking the pan.  Cook for about 30 seconds and remove from the pan right away.  Turn them into powder in your preferred method. 

8. Add the pig fat to the pot of choice (deep with thick bottom are important features) on medium heat.  Add the liquified and strained chile sauce.  Reduce heat and let bubble for 15 minutes. 

9. Add the tomato sauce, the spices. Cook until reduced a little.

10. Add the meat, wine, vinegar, and 3 cups of the stock.  Put a cover on that lets out a little steam.  Either cook on a low flame for 2.5 hours or in the oven for an hour on low. 

11. Add the final salting at the end.

Día de los Muertos: Food and Mutual Aid

Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.
Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.

Please understand that I am new to Mexico, and this post is really truly just a reflection, made from my inadequate understanding of a celebration with many layers of significance and ritual. I am including a post about it because I was struck by how deeply preparing food and eating communally is woven into the fabric of celebration within the many cultures here in Mexico.  

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration and communion with ones ancestors and loved ones that have left this world.  It seems designed to bring colour and light to the shadows of soul as well as buildings homes and graveyards, in the most artistic and dramatic manner.  Oh, and did I mention that food is at the centre of all this too?!  The smell of sweet breads and mole was everywhere.  Alters constructed both publicly and privately to honour the dead, are adorned with oranges, beer, mezcal, bread encrusted with candy skulls, tamales, and chocolate…oh the chocolate…and flowers.  Mountains of flowers.  There is a soft mix of smells everywhere. This is both a very private celebration within churches, homes, and kitchens, but it is also very public and shared within streets and cemeteries.

A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.
A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.

Characteristically a joyful acceptance of the cycles of life, this years celebration also included expressions of palpable rage that threw light onto the shadow of the 43 students that disappeared at the hands of state forces in September.   These students were remembered very publicly.  Not declared dead and therefore not to be mourned in the way of the dead, but the pain of their loss brought clearly into the actions of everyone and everything passing.

On the eve of the Day of the Dead I arrived in Oaxaca City, which is renowned for many things including its celebration of this festival. I tagged along with a group of university students, one of whom had invited us to experience and engage in this beautiful celebration on the land of his childhood home.  Now vacant, this house became our communal space of rest, conversation, laughter, and of course cooking. I was honoured to be invited into the public and private spaces of this celebration by people proud to share their culture. 

Wall murals in Zaachila.
Wall murals in Zaachila.

On the Day of the Dead our group travelled to a neighbouring village, Zaachila, known for its veneration of their ancestors through celebration and art.  Annually, the walls of the town are converted into murals…folding into one another, there is no space that isn’t included in the elaborate and magnificent shades of death and mourning depicted on the walls.  There was also a children’s art show, live music, a carnival, a parade, and of course food everywhere.  As we meandered through the streets we stopped at one of the many stations that were serving hot chocolate, tamales and sweet bread.  These stations clearly powered by the community itself, a mix of women and families, young children running to a fro in total jubilation to be of service.  And it is all free.

Eating together at one of the many free food stations.  Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!
Eating together at one of the many free food stations. Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!

One can only imagine the time and energy that goes into preparing the food for such large scale festivals, and as I was to come to understand soon, it is only because of the highly practiced skills of mutual aid amongst community members that any of it is possible.

Lessons on Sazón At The Road Side Kitchen

Isla Mujeres at its most southern point.  So pretty.
Isla Mujeres at its most southern point. So pretty.

I have noticed that the best way to wiggle my way into Mexican kitchens, is to wear my hunger for knowledge on my sleeve.  That is how I met Abuelita (Grandma) on Isla Mujeres, where she runs a small roadside kitchen.  She had one main dish everyday, and then the usual selection of tamales, tacos, and quesadillas.  This woman was truly inspirational in her simplicity, flavour, and refusal to cater to the list of desires that the extrañeros (tourists) carried.  She never lacked respect but her exasperation and clear boundaries were often evident. Her two most notable dishes included an adobo of guajillo and ancho chile in which the chicken pieces were cooked.  More on this simple and extraordinary dish to come.  The other was a simple whole fish fry, covered in oil, filled with a tomato based sauce -influenced by the tradition of the Veracruz sauce, wrapped in tinfoil and cooked over the comal.

A señora at her comal.
A señora at her comal. A comal is a traditional cooking surface. It is metal and covered with lime (to prevent sticking, and heated by fire underneath.

Unfortunately, this experience happened before I felt comfortable enough to pull out the camera.  But I have a million pictures in my head of this joyful, firm, half-toothed woman, which are given colour and texture by the memories of our long and slow – in the heat of the day conversations.  Over a tall glass of cool jamaica water,  she explained cooking processes, chile combinations, and the definition and sensation of cooking with sazón.  Sazón is something that folks refer to and talk about in the tones of remembering the kitchen of ones grandma or mama.  Sazón is not something that you learn, you feel it, it is revealed in you.  It feels you, speaks through you.  It is the art, and bears the signature of its creator.  It is what there is no recipe book for.  It is love, and you can taste it.

My conversations with this Abuelita taught me a lot about how to enter respectfully into a conversation with an elder willing to teach you.  Through our conversations about technique and ingredients she wove the tapestry of community, culture, and history.  Her pain for the suffering land evident as she spoke to the multitude of animals and plants that have been lost to the kitchen with the destruction of their habitats. “They can no longer be honoured by becoming food”, she said.  She even offered me an invitation to spend time with her in her kitchen…but due to an unfortunate run in with a ceiling fan I was unable to follow through, but that as they say is another story. 

Getting my feet on the ground…and how to make rice (really)

Please check out the tab at the top labelled “ …The Whole Idea Of This Project” for background information and a general sense of what this blog is all about.
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I arrived in Isla Mujeres, a magical island deeply nestled inside of the cuisine of the Yucatan, but also influenced by the food traditions of Cuba, literally a stones throw away. There, I settled into 2 weeks of reorientation in the most relaxing manner and began to think through this thing I was calling my “learning project”.  I put energy into envisioning how exactly I was going to proceed, and it’s not extraordinary – everything is based on relationship.  So that is where I started.  I was introduced to Huitzi, a resident of Isla Mujeres, through a friend who described her as a healer and amazing cook. Huitzi is one of those superwomen who despite raising 2 children and caregiving several community and family members, teaching, and working – still laughs all the time and glows with love.  She is powerful and beautiful…and yes can she cook.  Huitzi was very happy to share the work of the day by inviting me into her kitchen, or at least change the focus of it.  While Huizi juggled my presence she also gave math lessons and danced around the newest members of the family…a tiny kitten and a rescued turtle.

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Huitzi: superwoman, healer, and cook extraordinaire

Over several days she included me in the creation of some of her standards that featured her own mix of Cuban-Yucatan flavours and local ingredients. Following are my notes from the meal that really rocked my socks in terms of simplicity and pure nutrition. 

Zucchini Squash

In Mexico there are several types of squash that are used in different regions, but zucchini is common everywhere, and is often referred to as “calabacitas”, which look like small round zucchini’s (super cute too).  I imagine that this dish could easily be turned vegan by using cauliflower or nut based cream sauce…but seriously if you can eat the fresh unaltered cream like the cream available at the markets here in Mexico you wouldn’t want to substitute it out.  It would also work well as a main vegan dish with roasted cashews, and served with the rice or another grain.

  • non flavoured oil or butter
  • 1/2 white onion julienned
  • 2 cloves of garlic minced
  • 2 baseball sized zucchini or one large straight one cut into cubes
  • 1 cup of corn
  • 2 roma tomatoes cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup sour cream or fresh cream if you can find it
  • salt and pepper

Method:

On a medium high heat, start with the grease in the pan and heat the pepper, add and cook the onions till transparent, add the garlic and cook, stirring for a minute.  Add the zucchini and cook for a short minute.  Add the corn and tomatoes.  You want the zucchini to still be a little crunchy so don’t over cook it.  Add the cream or substitute at the end and heat through.  Salt at the end.

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The meal that knocked my socks off. The banana might seem weird, but the mix of sweetness with the meat was amazing!

Chicharos (dried split peas)

This is basically a stew that we started by making the stock with the pig meat, making sure that the bones and marrow were included – because if you haven’t learned anything about the kitchens of the community is that everything is used that produces nutrients and flavour.

  • 2 cups split peas or any legume of your choice
  • 1 onion in bite sized size
  • cumin
  • a couple of sticks of parsley chopped up
  • meat with bone on it

Method:

cook the split peas until fully cooked and falling apart, very liquidy.  Separately, brown the meat (on high heat and quick).  Next, cook the meat with the onion, parsley, cumin, and enough water to just cover the ingredients.  When the meat is close to being cooked, add the split peas.  Cook down till it is thick.  Season with salt.

Arroz Mexicana (Mexican style rice)

Really good rice I have discovered, is like baking.  You have to be very exact with measurements.  Mexican rice is absolutely amazing, and it has converted me from calling white rice candy, and looking down my nose at it…into a serious fanatic.  Rice is really seen here in Mexico as a dish all on its own, and is served as such.  After much trial and error after Huitizi’s lesson, I’ve learned the major key is to not add too much oil, and include the purred onion and garlic in your water measurement.  And always be hardcore with your measurement of rice and water.

  • 1/4 onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1 cup liquid (you can mix stock with water for extra yumm) and include the onion and garlic in this measurement

Method

Rinse the rice till clean and let dry.  Blend the onion and garlic.  Heat the oil and add the rice.  You want the rice to turn transparent like you would with onions (about 10 minutes). Then add the liquid.  Adding a few small cubes of carrots or peas is also common.  Bring to a boil, cover and then turn the flame as low as possible.  Cook for about 20 minutes and then let it rest at least 5 minutes before fluffing.