June 15, 2012

Dia de los Locos

The scarecrow remains a popular costume choice
While in the United States and Canada we'll be celebrating Fathers on June 17, on that same Sunday, instead of "Diá de los Papas", San Miguel de Allende hosts the biggest and craziest parade and party of the year for Diá de los Locos. That's right: Day of the Crazies!

In colonial times, San Miguel was surrounded by large orchards that were irrigated by natural springs flowing through the city.  
On May 17, the feast day of San Pascual Bailon, a Franciscan, the Franciscan friars held a celebration outside the church for the orchard workers to honor this patron saint of field workers and kitchen workers. The friars blessed the orchards, and the workers, being probably far less interested in the saintliness and more interested in a day off, danced to give thanks. The Spanish land-owners allowed the workers to indulge on the fruits from the orchard that day and more likely than not, pulque was involved. Celebrants adorned themselves with kitchen tools and other symbols of their trade to honor the saint. As each year festivities gained more momentum and popularity, the field workers began to dress as scarecrows to distinguish themselves from the onlookers, Clown costumes soon followed, then monsters, animals, drunks, men in drag.. you get the idea. Things went CRAZY! 

San Antonio de Padua's feast day is on June 13. Somehow (this will come as no surprise to you if you've spent any time in the "real" Mexico) the two days gradually melded into one long party. Let's just say Dia de los Locos actually lasts a good week. The actual saints days are celebrated, with the devout in procession to the church carrying statuary of the saints being celebrated. Mornings begin early with 4 and 5am firework blasts. On June 13, the feast day of San Antonio, patron saint of seekers- of lost articles, lost people (this can be taken figuratively as well) and, I believe, students (seeking better grades, for example), there is quite a remarkable procession  to the Church of San Antonio as those devout seeking his help travel along the rough cobblestones on their knees for several blocks from the main street to the church. Family members and their supporters may assist them by cushioning the route with pieces of rug, corrugated cardboard, thin pillows, but the route (normally about a 5 minute walk) is torturous. Still, the devotion, need and hope are such that this ritual is carried out by young (I noted many teenagers) and the very old and frail. 

I don't imagine those who participate in this sublimation are parading 4 days later, but perhaps, if their prayers have been answered, a little dancing and celebrating might be just the thing. 

Neighbourhood groups and business/labor groups march together with elaborately-themed floats. All ages get into costume–some full-body fur suits, giant papermache heads, or sticky greasepaint make-up. The children are troopers, remaining in character throughout the length of the parade route (which amounts to about an hour under the searing sun)

Originally, paraders generously handed out the free fruit they were given by their employers to the onlookers; these days, the paraders throw candy into the crowds that line the streets. It's important to note that mid June is the temporada de calor in this part of Mexico–the hot season–where mid-day temperatures easily settle into the mid-90s and the sun is high and persistent. Umbrellas (parasols) are a popular cover, and, when turned upside down are great for catching the candy as it's thrown(sometimes with alarming velocity) into the crowd.Hands are outstretched and young and old chant : "Dulces! Dulces!" It's a backwards trick-or-treat with those in costume being the ones doling out the treats. 

The Locos throw candy into the crowd and up-ended parasols (umbrella) catch the treats as they rain down.

The thrill of spinning pyrotechnics
Playing with fire..
The day ends with great excitement as parties continue, particularly in the plaza outside the church of San Antonio. The community celebrates well into the night with entertainment, food stalls and finally, fireworks like I'd never seen or.. uh... felt before. Mexicans get up close and personal with their pyrotechnics–it's not for the faint-of-heart, more perhaps for the foolhardy, as the theme of loco continues with the borrachos (drunks) and of course the machos dancing under the spitting and sparking kinetic firework structures called castillos (castles). Click here to read a wonderful piece by Cristina Potters on the Mexican passion for fireworks

There's nothing quite like the smell of  gunpowder mingled with the aromas from steaming cauldrons of elote (corn, served shaved into cups with queso, mayonesa and chile picante) and tortillas being warmed over charcoal stoves. Ash floats through the air, while the occasional spark falls...well, sometimes on your sleeve, or in your hair, while young men dance directly under the shower of sparks. Yes, it's todo loco, but somehow, it makes you feel (or, ok, it makes ME feel) so invigorated and alive. The good things in life aren't always tidy and safe... sometimes they're just a little nuts! And for this, like so many other Mexican fiestas throughout the year, the families are all together, laughing, applauding and ahhh-ing at the fireworks, after a long day of parading under the hot sun in furry costumes. 

San Miguel de Allende in June–avoid the winter snowbirds, THIS is the best time to visit and discover its magic !

June 11, 2012

San Pascuál, inspire my kitchen.

The carved wooden figure of
San Pascuál, holding a dish of salt,
guards and guides my kitchen. 
San MIguel de Allende is known for its fervent and enthusiastic celebration of saint's days. And, from mid-May to mid-June there's a veritable deluge – San Isidro starts things off, with San Pascual and San Antonio in quick succession. Add to this Corpus Christi.. all of this culminates with one big mish-mish of the religious, indigenous and insanely secular tequila and cerveza-soaked fiestas on June 17 (or the Sunday thereabouts) with Diá de los Locos.

A retablo (painting on tin) of San Pascual
May 17th marks the feast day of  my own adopted saint: San Pascual Bailón, (Baylon). This Franciscan is the holy patron of cooks, to whom it is prayed: "San Pascual Bailon, tiza mi fogón," which means: "San Pascual Bailón, inspire my kitchen."

San Pascual was a 16th century Spanish shepherd who became a Franciscan lay brother. He served his fellow Franciscans in various capacities and monasteries as shepherd, gardener, porter, and cook. Known for his administrations to the poor and for his many miraculous cures, he has, it seems, also been adopted as patron saint to the mentally ill, or so I've been told. I don't know about Spain, but I will tell you he is much loved in Mexico, Spain as well as New Mexico, guarding over home kitchens, restaurant kitchens, butchers and purveyors of food. In my own kitchen, a small wooden statue presides over my stove. Not a religious icon, but a guide– a reminder that what comes out of my kitchen should be prepared with calm, attention, love and nurturing. 

May San Pascual inspire your kitchen. 

Here's a track I found online to accompany you as you cook:
Music inspired by San Pascual

April 12, 2012

Tamales- Hecho Con el Amor

Tamale cart in Mexico City
More than 15 years ago, I made my first batch of tamales. My sister, who was working at Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, NM, had gifted me The Coyote Cafe Cookbook along with a pile of ingredients. I must have had tamales sometime before that, but I don't recall when or where; I like to think the book just opened to that section and tamales called to me. The process of making them and the resulting corn husk package just made me so darn happy.

Market stall selling Uchepos
in Morelia, Michoacan
Corundas in Pátzcuaro, Michoacan
A steaming tamalera full of
breakfast tamales

Fast forward 12 years. Living in Mexico, I 'rediscovered' tamales. In the mornings, women offer them from steaming tamaleras on street corners, even from the open front door of their homes; in Mexico City they're offered from shopping carts and tricycles, the tamalera swaddled in blankets on cooler days. This is grassroots commerce at its finest and most flavorful. In Oaxaca, chicken with rich black mole is wrapped in banana leaves; in Michoacán, corundas of masa blended with fresh corn are wrapped into tricornered packages of fresh corn leaves, and then there are uchepos, a steamed "dough" made very simply from the sweet corn in season and served with crema or natas (according to Diana Kennedy, comparable to clotted cream) Both are regional kin to the tamal.

Alicia's Tamales los Mayas- prepped for
San Francisco Street Food Festival Aug 2011
Alicia spreading masa with a
culinary student volunteer
It wasn't until I spent a week at La Cocina in San Francisco helping prep for the San Francisco Street Food Festival and stuffing hundreds upon hundreds of cornhusks with masa for Alicia Villanueva of Tamales Los Mayas that I realized what all those tamales had done to me (aside from making me gradually fatter). They spoke to the craftsperson I once was –a jeweler–and of my nurturing and domestic nature, not to mention my feelings toward Mexico, as my adopted home. Alicia is originally from Mazatlán, Sinaloa. She grew up making tamales with her mother and grandmother for fiestas, as many Mexican girls would. But for Alicia, it resonates more deeply. More than just preparing food for eating–it's her own desire to share her fondness for the flavours and cultural traditions, it is about connecting with community, and, above all, an expression of love.

Now living in the Bay Area with her husband and children, Alicia makes tamales to help sustain her family and to share her love of this traditional street food. For her and many other food entrepreneurs like her, the food business incubator La Cocina provides essential resources, from practical business planning to a commercial kitchen. As their client, Alicia was able to realize her dream of serving her tamales from a "traditional" tamale cart–that is, a cart that maintains that traditional cultural attitude, yet meet the food-safety and legal specs of a city like San Francisco. It was with the assistance of La Cocina that she was able to raise funds through Kickstarter to, well, kick-start the whole thing.

Alicia's Tamales los Mayas in Justin Herman Plaza
She now serves her tamales across from the Ferry Building (in Justin Herman Plaza), caters, and teaches workshops on making tamales. She's dedicated to her recipes, her traditions and her customers–and it shows. Her tamale cart is not about jumping on a trend–it's a pure reflection of her culture and her warm personality. If you're in San Francisco, look for her across from the Ferry Building (and if you're a foodie, you're sure to be making that a stop). Have a tamale, and revel in Alicia's warmth. As she says herself "My tamales are stuffed with love, and the best people are stuffed with my tamales."

That's how all the best food should be. 

April 5, 2012

Good Friday is now GREAT! Sopa Tarasca and Tostadas for All– $8 at The Depanneur

Lately, I've been keeping busy at The Depanneur. For those of you who don't know about "The Dep" yet, it's, as owner Len Senater puts it, "a place where interesting food things happen." Located on College Street near Dovercourt, you can get updates on happenings by subscribing to their newsletter here.

In the last 3 months, I have "hosted" three Supperclubs and two Drop-ins. Chefs and would-be chefs (not sure which I am) have total autonomy to be creative, so, of course I've been bringin' it with Mexican. From now on, I'll be more diligent in posting the menu and taking photos at the meals, but for now, I'll post my upcoming menu for tomorrow night, and past menus so you can get an idea. And if you want to be updated on my activities there or elsewhere, there's always the Twitter machine where I go by @holytamale

Él Menú  Good Friday, April 6

A bowl of Sopa Tarasca--a creamy pinto bean and roasted tomato soup with pasilla chiles, topped with crispy tortilla strips, flash fried ancho chile curls and a swirl of crema

PLUS your choice from 3 tostadas:

• Mixed Mushroom with Mojo de Ajo, beans and Chipotle Salsa
• White fish with Mojo de Ajo, roasted sweet corn,  green chiles, red onion, watercress and cilantro,
sliced radish, avocado, salsa verde and crema
• Pata de Res with avocado, salsa verde and crema

Seconds of anything are just $4!!


I first had Sopa Tarasca in Pátzcuaro,  Michoacán at a little family-run restaurant called, I believe "Fonda Lupita". It's a regional soup, and there are 2 styles, both documented by Diana Kennedy: one with beans, one without (making it, more or less, a tortilla soup). I had the version with beans, and so love the creamy pintos with the crunchy bits that garnish the top.

As far as the tostadas, I like to please everyone, and it being Good Friday, I wanted to offer something for both the devout and the vegetarians. Then, to screw everyone up, I threw in the wild card: Pata de Res. I wrote about this in an earlier post, The Nasty Bits, and have been wanting to make it ever since. My first experiment having been a success, tasting just like my memory of it, I decided to see if I could convert some Torontonails (ok, this just slipped out- it's what an old college friend of mine used to muse residents of Toronto should be called, and here, it works so well...)

So, come to The Depanneur and check it out, hopefully on a night I am there. And to keep up with me, you can also visit my Facebook page which goes by this same name: Taste Your Freedom

March 31, 2012

Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende–Our Lady of Sorrows

The Parroquia of Saint Michael the Archangel
All photos courtesy of Michael Coon
This is the third time since I began my love affair with Mexico, San Miguel de Allende in particular, that I have been absent during Holy Week. It's March 31st, 2012 and seeing as in other parts it's not yet Holy Week, it's an opportunity to point out that San Miguel de Allende typically does holidays and festivos bigger and twice as long as anywhere else. With more fireworks at unGODly hours than anywhere else. Nothing makes my heart leap higher, sing louder and smile wider–and I don't mean because each bang at 4am seems louder than the last, though that may be true! 

In Toronto this year, as I prepare for two upcoming Mexican meals I'll be preparing at The Depanneur(stay tuned for my Good Friday meal of Tarascan Bean Soup and a selection of tostadas- veg and fish choices for observers and an extra special choice for meat eaters-check my previous posts for hints!), I have been following closely, yet from a distance, the various festivities, altar displays and Saintly observances.

Woman In Colonia San Antonio
assembles altar
An altar in Centro
Yesterday, Friday March 30, marked the feast day of the Virgin of Sorrows (Nuestra Señora de los Dolores). Now, knowing the translation, I can't help but sympathize with women who bear the name "Dolores". Pain? Sorrow? Not a moniker I'd want to be saddled with.  But I digress. Overnight, people throughout the town and in the Jardin ("garden"- the town square) assemble devotional altars-–some elaborate and artistic, some humble, but each with a sincerity and depth I have never before witnessed. (Yes, you may note I mentioned I have not been in SMA for this particular occasion, but this kind of devotional display happens on a regular basis). 

A modern interpretation of tradition...

Vendors weave through town with their burros pulling wagons laden with tiny sheaves of wheat. These, symbolizing resurrection and hope, along with bitter orange, symbolizing suffering, and gold foil for purity are the key elements in these altars which grace the windows and doorways of homes, in courtyards of businesses, and in gardens.This, like many of the traditional cultural events and holidays offers an opportunity for the creative contingent in San Miguel to represent. The inspiration comes from the locals, the creative interpretations show the modern world view that blossoms in this city I love, rich with tradition and culture and absolutely bursting with life!

Thanks again Michael Coon for your daily Facebook photos which help keep me close to San Miguel. I'll be back for Dia de los Muertos for sure... 

March 13, 2012

Brunch at Mitzi’s Café and Gallery: The Morning... - Toronto.com

For a weekend brunch special at popular Toronto cafes, Mitzi's (the original on Sorauran) and Mitzi's on College, I made Swiss Chard (not "charred" as the article called it) Tamales with a Roasted Tomato and Morita salsa topped with poached eggs. Here's the review....

Brunch at Mitzi’s Café and Gallery: The Morning... - Toronto.com

March 5, 2012

Charlotte's soup of the day: Chipotle-Spiced Lentil Apple

Ok, perhaps it's a bit misleading calling it "soup of the day". That implies that other days there will be a different soup. Perhaps "soup of today" is more like it. Or "soup, made today". Anyway, Charlotte made soup today.

My daughter can cook more than respectably well. But, like many, she'll look in her pantry and fridge and despite there being what I would see as the ideal bones for a hearty meal of soup, she sees nothing except what's not there, or an hour of work ahead of her. Can't blame her; her mind's on other things–as it should be as a 20year-old student with a part time job– just as is the case for most people who have never made a living cooking. Meanwhile I see an onion, a carrot, another veg (or, in this case, fruit) dried beans and grains and a few seasonings and the lightbulb switches on.

So today, I coached her. I'd already cooked some lentils (with a slice of onion and a couple of bay leaves- this took about 20 mins) so that she would have this protein at the ready for a salad or soup. I asked her to think first about the ingredients she is likely to ALWAYS keep in her fridge.  Onions, carrots, garlic, apples. Chipotle is also a staple. I've been encouraging her to have a few sweet potatoes available so that she can roast one off in her toaster oven while she gets ready for school. This, with some sauteed or steamed greens, or perhaps some seasoned black beans and a sprinkling of cheese make a quick meal. As a bonus, today she also had some pancetta, but it's not a stretch to think there will at least be some bacon.

Then, I left the kitchen. She chopped and sautéed and within 15 minutes, I  could hear bubbling liquid and the delicious smell of sweet apple and smokey chipotle wafted into the living room. My nose led me back into the kitchen. We tasted it together. Hmm... a little on the spicy side. I reminded her to, next time, start slow with the chipotle. But mistakes can lead to better things: I reached into the fridge and pulled out some leftover mashed sweet potato. With a big spoon she added a large dollop and stirred it in. It give the soup a more creamy consistency, and the lumps added a nice textural sweetness.

It was the best soup I have tasted in a long long time, and I'm happy to say there is still more in the pot. Writing this out has made me hungry for more.

** remember, when making soup, don't get hung up on the size of the carrot, onion, apple, or whatever. Like more bacon, put in more, vegetarian, leave it out! Soup is freeform kitchen fun!

Charlotte's soup of the day: Chipotle-Spiced Lentil Apple

1 cup dry brown lentils, cooked in 4 cups of water with a bay leaf and a thick slice of onion
1 tbsp mild flavored oil
1 small onion, chopped (fine, or rough, whatever your pleasure)
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped (or just smashed and thrown in)
1 crisp, sweet-tart apple, diced (in this case, she had Fuji on hand)
1 carrot, small dice
1 oz sliced pancetta or a few slices of bacon 
1/4 c apple cider, or substitute water or stock
1 tbsp chipotle sauce (approx ), or 1 chipotle in adobo, seeds removed  (in this case, used La Costeña brand chipotle salsa–it's in a tin–  essentially a chipotle puree). 
(if you don't like spicy, start with less and taste as you go)
 3 cups chicken or a rich vegetable stock, or failing availability of either, water will do
1 sweet potato, roasted and mashed (or, you can puree in a food processor)
salt to taste

In a saucepan, heat the oil over med heat. Begin by sautéing the onion,(if you are using thick sliced pancetta, add it now. If thin-sliced, add with the other veg) When onion's translucent, add the chopped carrot, garlic and apple. Continue to sauté, and help it along by adding the cider or water to soften the veg. Once the carrot has lost its crunch, add the cooked lentils and stock, and allow this to come to a simmer. THen add the chipotle-- again, if you have reservations about spice, start small and add more gradually.
Stir in some mashed sweet potato. Simmer a little more, then salt to taste.