Last week, I introduced you to (or re-acquainted you with) five foods recognizable to Mexicans living in México that ought to be more popular on this side of the border. Sandwiches, soup, barbecue, grilled fish and bacon.
México has a long, storied culinary history. This is the home of the Maya, of the Aztecs, of the Olmecs: there was a flourishing, mature civilization with a huge store of knowledge in southern México while my Nordic ancestors were still grubbing around for amber to trade. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that it was easy to come up with five more of Mexico's finest foods.
6. Mole negro
A lot of people know mole as "that chocolate sauce", but to try and compose a list of the ingredients of mole negro would be impossible. It contains six kinds of chiles and at least two dozen other ingredients, from raisins to dried avocado leaves to, yes, unsweetened chocolate. It takes all day (or multiple days) to prepare, but the end result is a thick sauce that lays on its target food like no other in the world and provides mindbending flavor that nothing else in the world can hope to match.
Mole negro, when it is available in the U.S., tends to be served over chicken, but its true home is on turkey (mole negro de guajolote), whose slight gaminess completes the dish. Another mole dish that should be more common is enmoladas, tortillas dipped in mole and then rolled around ingredients such as chicken or turkey. It makes a great Thanksgiving leftover, especially if you live near a Mexican market that can hook you up with mole started base. It won't be the same as made-from-scratch, but there are still some good ones out there.
7. Chiles en nogada
The chile relleno is one of the more common dishes in the Mexican-American repertoire, but almost every Anglo in the U.S. knows it as a poblano chile (that's the big green one that looks like a crumpled bell pepper) that's been stuffed with cheese, battered in egg and deep-fried. While these are an occasional guilty pleasure, they are certainly not the be-all and end-all of stuffed chiles in México.
The best stuffed chile is actually one of the national dishes of México, partly due to the fact that it is red, white and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. The same poblano chile is stuffed with picadillo, a slightly sweet concoction of ground meat, fruit (pears, peaches and apples, commonly), warm spices like cinnamon and cloves, and a little bit of chile for heat. It's then covered in a while sauce made from milk, cream and peeled walnuts, and sprinkled with dark red pomegranate seeds, which stand in for citrus while lending an acidic bite to the dish.
Because the ingredients are in season only for a short while (September and October in Southern California), this is an occasional dish--but a very good one, and better for you than mountains of jack cheese.
8. Cochinita pibil
Cochinita means "piglet" in Spanish and pibil means "buried" in Mayan, so it's probably not too hard to figure out what cochinita pibil is, marinated suckling pig (or parts of a larger hog such as the picnic ham) that has been roasted in banana leaves, preferably in a pit.
Cochinita pibil's marinade always contains bitter (Seville) orange juice and ground achiote (also called annatto seed), which lends a bright red color to the marinade. The food is wrapped in banana leaves and roasted slowly, either in an oven, a caja china, or in a true pit lined with hot rocks. The end result is pork so tender it practically melts upon contact with a fork, with a slight zing and a smoky flavor profile.
Cochinita pibil is usually served with tortillas, marinated red onions, and the incendiary xnipec ("dog's nose" in Mayan) salsa, made with tomatoes and habanero chiles.
9. Atole / Champurrado
Champurrado is a Mexican drink similar to a very, very thick hot chocolate. It's made by toasting corn dough on a hot iron griddle and then mixing with chocolate, piloncillo, and water that has had various spices simmered in it. The result is almost thick enough to be called a shake, but served hot.
If you leave the chocolate out, you have atole, the generic Spanish word for this kind of drink. Different additions yield different drinks; you may find anise-flavored atole, or strawberry, coconut, vanilla, or any number of other kinds.
Atole goes with tamales (you do know what tamales are, yes?) the way peanut butter goes with jelly.
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Capirotada is to regular bread pudding as Valrhona chocolate mousse is to Jell-O™ Instant Artificially Chocolate Flavored Pudding. Regular bread pudding is simply a thin custard (eggs, milk or cream, sugar and flavorings) poured over stale bread, allowed to soak in, and baked.
Capirotada is toasted bread with cheese, raisins, walnuts, and an entire pantry's worth of spices, bathed in syrup made from piloncillo, the cone-shaped unrefined sugar of México, then baked under the custard. It's a traditional Lenten dish (that would be now) and tastes like bread pudding with the flavor turned up.