Home cooking for you might be your mother's macaroni and cheese. For my friend Shana it's her grandmother's potato latkes, for Danny it's the fond memory of his Aunt Ethel's apple crumble. And for me? For the last 25 years, my taste buds and heart have been drawn by the smells and flavors of the Michoacán home kitchen. The first fragrance that fills my memory is that of pine wood burning in the clay stove centered in the mountain kitchen. One note behind the wood smoke is the scent of beans boiling in a clay pot, and the fragrance chord is finished by a top note of tortillas toasting on the clay comal (a large flat clay griddle). The home kitchen closest to my heart belongs to Débora, my friend who lives at more than 9500 feet above sea level on the highest mountain in Michoacán.
When I visited Débora at home for the first time, my entire notion of how a house looks was turned upside down. My friend Celia (Débora's sister) had invited me to travel home with her for two weeks:"Ven conmigo a mi tierra, a conocer a mi mamá," she said. ("Come with me to my hometown, to meet my mother.") Twenty-nine years ago, we traveled for 52 hours, from Tijuana to what I often tease Débora as being el último rinconcito del mundo (the last little corner of the world), by train and by three different classes of bus. The last 27 kilometers of the trip (approximately 15 miles) was a jolting three hour ride in a converted school bus. You read that right. We were traveling on a washed-out dirt road that wound nearly straight up the mountainside.
From the bus stop in front of the mayor's office we walked two blocks up another hill and opened a small door in a long wall. We walked up three wide slate steps into a dirt patio—and the house? I looked around, wondering where the house was.
I could see one room with a door (the bedroom, I found out later, complete with three rope beds and their corn husk mattresses), and a sitting-eating-sewing-talking room that had only three walls and was open to the air. The kitchen was a tiny room with an opening but no door to close. That was the entire home.
Looking around, I saw chickens picking and scratching all over the dirt floor of the central patio, the pila (a single-tap cold water concrete sink used for washing clothes and dishes), an outdoor beehive clay oven, a path that I later discovered led to the outhouse, and a tiny, elderly woman wrapped in a rebozo (typical shawl) sweeping with a broom made of twigs: Celia's mother. Flowering trees and shrubs surrounded the patio; enormous dahlias in all colors blessed the wildness of the garden.
Tired from the long trip, I was soon put to bed at Aunt Delfina's house next door.
Early, early the next morning, I stuck my head out the spare bedroom door and saw mist hanging among the mountains. I sniffed the clean scent of pine smoke in the chilly air. A hint of coffee fragrance followed, and the toasty corn smell of freshly handmade tortillas cooking. I dressed and went to see what Débora was doing next door in that tiny kitchen.
Débora was outside, standing near an outdoor stove made of a vertical oil drum. She was grinding nixtamal (dried corn prepared for making dough) on a metate (grinding stand) and patting out tortilla after tortilla, placing them onto the clay comal on top of the stove to cook. We smiled buenos días to one another and she gestured to offer me a fresh hot tortilla. I ate it eagerly and excused myself and went to peek into the kitchen.
What I saw astonished me. In the center of the dim windowless kitchen was a rectangular stove made of clay, plastered over and colored deep brick red.
The four burners were six-inch diameter holes on top of the stove. Below each burner hole was a long horizontal compartment for inserting and burning split pine wood. The center chimney took most of the smoke out through the roof.
Wooden shelves holding dishes and clay cooking pots hung on the neatly whitewashed walls. On a low ledge, several kinds of fresh and dried chiles were piled on reed mats. A few cobs of dried corn, a plate of fresh pan dulce,and some fruits I didn't recognize were arranged on a small wooden table. Above my head, aged woven reed baskets filled with foodstuffs—dried corn, flour, coffee, a bag of beans—hung from smoke-blackened beams.
A votive candle burned in the corner near a small print of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A jelly glass filled with garden dahlias graced the tiny altar. A steaming clay pot of beans for the midday meal burbled on a stove burner.
I gazed at this amazing kitchen with awe. There were no modern conveniences at all, not even a sink or refrigerator. As I stared, Celia stepped in and smiled at me. "This is the way the kitchen has been since long before I was born," she said. "My great-grandmother cooked here, my grandmother cooked here, my mother cooked here, and Débora and I learned to cook here. All that we know of the kitchen is from here." She gestured to encompass the tiny space.
"How does Débora keep food like milk and leftovers cold?" I asked.
Celia thought for a minute. "The milkman comes on his horse every morning and sells her just what she thinks she'll need for the day. He dips the milk out of his big metal milk can with a liter measure and pours it into one of her clay pots. If there's a bit left over at the end of the day, she gives it to the cat or she mixes it with really stale tortillas for the pig.
"Débora only buys enough meat for today, and it's always meat that is recién matada (butchered today). The meat that's killed and wrapped in plastic to be sold in the big markets—who knows how old that is! It never tastes as good as today's freshly cut meat.
"Then if there is food left over from la comida (the midday meal), we eat it for supper later. If there's still a little left, she gives it to the pig. Nothing goes to waste. And if she buys a few limones (Mexican limes), she buries them in the ground to keep them fresh."
"What else will you teach me while I'm here?" I asked.
Celia shook her head. "This time you just watch and pay attention. Next time you can try your hand in the kitchen."
Many of the traditional recipes from Michoacán have their roots in the Purhépecha culture. Corundas, uchepos, minguiche, churipo—two types of tamales, a cheese dish and a soup—are pre-Hispanic Purhépecha recipes and make the cuisine of Michoacán extraordinary.
There are other Mexican recipes that, while not unique to Michoacán, have strong ties to the state. There are some recipes which you may want to try to duplicate in your home kitchen. If you're not able to purchase all of the ingredients you need for these recipes, buy a ticket instead and come to taste the cuisine of Michoacán in its natural habitat. I'd be glad to take you on a food-tasting adventure.
Many recipes from Michoacán include both corn and cheese, cornerstones of the daily diet. Corn is one of Mexico's native grains and Mexico, especially the state of Michoacán, is famous for its cheeses. Cotija (coh-TEE-hah), a town in Michoacán, has given its name to the aged cheese used for topping refried beans and other dishes. If you can't find it in your grocer's cheese case, you can substitute another aged, crumbly cheese.
Chiles are also an important part of the Michoacán diet. Nearly all of the fresh and dried chiles available everywhere in Mexico are found in the state, as well as at least one variety that grows almost exclusively in Michoacán, the chile perón. Chile perón is approximately the size of a golf ball and is bright yellow to orange in color. It has black seeds, a fruity flavor, and is extremely hot. On a scale of one to 10, it registers about an eleven!
The corunda is a traditional Michoacán tamal that can be made either with or without a filling. These are made with a cheese and mild chile filling and are served with cream and a spicy salsa.
Corundas Michoacanas (Michoacán Corn tamales)
For the corundas:
3 kilos masa (soft corn dough) (if there is a tortillería near you, buy it there)
2 cups water
1 kilo (2.2 pounds) pork lard or vegetable shortening
5 Tablespoons baking powder
Salt to taste
30 fresh green corn stalk leaves (NOT the dried corn husks sold for ordinary tamales)
For the filling:
1 kilo requesón (soft white cheese, similar to farmer or ricotta cheese) or ricotta cheese
1/2 kilo chile poblano, roasted, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips 2" long by 1/4" wide
With a large wooden spoon, beat the corn dough and the water together for approximately 30 minutes. Set aside.
With another large wooden spoon, beat the lard until it is spongy. Add the beaten dough to the lard, together with the baking powder and the salt. Continue beating until, when you put a very small amount of the masa in a cup of water, it floats.
Take a fresh corn stalk leaf and place three tablespoons of dough on the thickest side of it. Make a small hollow in the dough and put a tablespoon of the cheese and three or four strips of chile in the hollow. Cover the cheese and chile with another three tablespoons of the dough. Fold the corn stalk leaf over and over the dough until it has the triangular shape of a pyramid.
Continue making corundas until all the dough is used.
Put three cups of water in the bottom of a large steamer pot or tamalera. Use the rack that comes with the steamer pot to hold the first layer of corundas. Place all the corundas in the pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so that the water is actively simmering but not boiling. Be careful during the steaming process that the water does not entirely boil away; check this from time to time. Put a coin or two in the bottom of the tamalera; as the water boils, the coins will rattle. When you no longer hear the rattle, add more water immediately.
Allow the corundas to steam for one hour and then uncover to test for doneness by unwrapping one to see if the dough still sticks to the corn stalk leaf. If it still sticks, steam for another half hour. When the leaf comes away from the dough without sticking, the corundas are done.
1/2 kilo (1 pound) tomates verdes (called tomatillos North of the Border), husks removed
6-8 chiles perón (substitute chiles serrano if necessary), washed
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, washed
Sea salt to taste
Wash the tomatillos until they are no longer sticky. Fill a large saucepan half full with water and bring to a boil. Add the tomatillos and the chiles and boil until the tomatillos begin to burst open. With a slotted spoon, remove each tomatillo
When all the tomatillos are in the blender, add the chiles to the blender. Cover and blend at a low speed until the ingredients begin to chop well, and then stop the blender. If your blender has a removable center piece in the cover, add the cilantro little by little through that hole as you turn the blender back on to 'liquefy'. If the cover has no center hole, add some cilantro, blend, stop, and add more cilantro until all is blended. Do not chop the cilantro too finely, as you want flecks of it to help give the salsa both color and texture. Add salt to taste and stir.
To serve the corundas:
Unwrap a corunda and place it in a shallow soup bowl. Spoon unsweetened heavy cream over the corunda and top with several spoonfuls of the salsa.
Making any sort of tamales (including corundas) is hard work and is always more fun if you can plan to do it with a friend or two. Let the kids help, too. Make a party of it, with the big reward—the eating—at the end.
There will be plenty of corundas left over for everyone to take some home for the next day. It's easy to reheat them. Just leave them wrapped in their corn stalk leaves when you put them in a plastic bag to refrigerate them. Then when you're ready to reheat, place as many as your microwave will hold in a Pyrex dish. Cover them with paper toweling and microwave on high until they are hot throughout. They're just as good left over and they also freeze well.
After that long and complex recipe, let's try something a little faster and easier. The next regional dish is called minguiche, a lightly fried combination of cheese, eggs, and chiles that you'll enjoy. Served with fresh hot tortillas, fruit, and a beverage, it's satisfying and simple to make for brunch--and it's a great change from the usual brunch foods.
(The 'g' sounds like the 'g' in garden, the 'u' is silent)
1 kilo (2.2 pounds) requesón or ricotta cheese
6 eggs, beaten
Minced chiles serrano to taste, as few as two or as many as your palate tolerates
Salt to taste
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil 6-8 chiles húngaro (long yellow-orange chiles available in Latin markets) or banana chiles
On a griddle, roast the chiles húngaro until well-toasted and deep golden brown. Place them in a plastic bag for approximately 10 minutes to sweat; then peel them. Make a long slit down one side of each chile and use your fingers to scoop out the seeds. Fill each chile húngaro with one or more tablespoonfuls of the cheese. The chiles need not be filled to capacity.
With a wooden spoon, beat the remaining amount of the cheese until it is soft and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time and beat until well incorporated into the cheese. Add the minced chiles serrano.
Heat the vegetable oil in a 10" heavy skillet. Allow the oil to become as hot as possible without smoking. Add all the cheese, egg, and chile mixture to the skillet and lower the heat to medium.
Cook the cheese mixture until it is slightly golden brown on one side. With a spatula, flip it over and allow it to brown slightly on the other side. The browning process is quick. For ease in flipping the cheese mixture, you can do this step in several smaller batches.
To serve the minguiche:
Divide the minguiche among six or eight plates. The minguiche should be mounded slightly on each plate. Drape one stuffed chile húngaro over each mound of minguiche.
This dish looks beautiful served with fresh ripe papaya slices arranged on the plate and garnished with a thin round slice of lime.
Be sure you have plenty of hot tortillas to serve with the minguiche. The hot tortillas and cool fresh fruit act as a delicious foil for the spicy cheese.