People that know me well know that there’s one thing I actually like more than chocolate. And it’s not ice cream.
Those same friends call me El Presidente, and for one reason: I’m a fiend for the culture of Mexican food and drink.
What does this have to do with this month of Valentines? Everything.
February 14th marks the end to my busiest season, and six years ago this month, my wife and I waved adios to Kansas City as we boarded a Dia de San Valentin flight to Mexico.
Siesta was our mantra. But as per usual, food weaseled its way into the equation, and within an hour of our arrival, we were drunk on the tonic of our hacienda: the guacamole. For sure, that siesta would have to wait.
Guacamole is an honest expression of its ingredients, and when done well, the result belies the simple mix of its parts: avocado, cilantro, lime, onion and jalapeño. But as I learned on this inaugural visit to Mexico, guacamole, like chocolate and ice cream, has the potential to leapfrog its expected level of excellence—to stratospheric planes of complexity and sophistication, in fact.
It was two simple additions that made this guacamole memorable: tree-ripened mangos and farm-fresh Cotija cheese. When integrated into this dish, they speak a language that is unique to this country’s food.
What attracts me to this culinary culture—and what I so treasure about the cuisine I found on this trip—is the boldness of flavor that defines each bite. The ingredients act with intention; without fuss. And in the case of our guacamole, it was mangos and Cotija that fulfilled that mission. It was a Valentine’s Day present to my wife and me, and as the trip unfolded, so too did the culinary awakening.
When I returned to Kansas City, I did so with an eye towards recreating those same flavors in my kitchen. And today, now armed with a handful of Mexican imprints in my passport, I’m interpreting Mexican culinary tradition every week. And especially on Valentine’s Day.
I always love beginning a meal with a cocktail, and this recipe, which I adapted from one served at Drink in Boston, is an excellent expression of the earthiness found in tequila and mezcal.
1 1/4 ounces El Tesoro Reposado Tequila
3/4 ounce St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth (Punt e Mes if possible)
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
Pour mezcal into a chilled cocktail glass and swirl to rinse glass. Add remaining ingredients to cocktail shaker and shake with ice. Fine strain into mezcal-rinsed cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist. Makes one cocktail.
There’s no greater tease than the guacamole that started it all. Here it is, inspired by that first trip to Mexico.
Guacamole with Cotija Cheese and Mango
3 ripe avocados
1/2 lime, juiced
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
2 jalapeño peppers, diced (Leave the seeds in if you like it spicy.)
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1 mango, diced
4 ounces Cotija cheese, crumbled, available in Mexican markets
Kosher salt to taste
Halve the avocados, remove the pit and scoop out into a bowl. Combine with the fresh lime juice and mash, leaving a few chunks. Add the garlic, onion, jalapeño peppers and the cilantro and mix until well combined. Season with the salt, and gently fold in the mango and Cotija cheese, being careful not to mash them up. Serve with tortilla chips that you have warmed in the oven for a few minutes.
It’s hard to resist the temptation of authentic Mexican tacos. Garnished modestly, the meat in this Yucatán specialty defines this traditional Mexican creation.
Cochinita Pibil with Pickled Onions
3 or 4 pound pork shoulder, cut into about 3 or 4 big chunks
3 ounces achiote paste, available in Latin markets
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 or 3 whole cloves
1/2 cup orange juice, fresh squeezed
1 cup lime juice, fresh squeezed
2 banana leaves, available frozen in Latin or Asian markets
In a blender, combine the achiote paste, garlic cloves, salt, cumin, cinnamon and both juices. Purée until a smooth paste forms. In a glass dish, pour this over the pork shoulder and make sure it coats the meat thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, line a deep baking dish with a layer of banana leaves so the edges drape over the sides of the dish, add the pork pieces, along with the juices from the marinade, and fold the banana leaves over the pork, tucking the edges underneath to form a packet. Cover the entire dish tightly with foil and bake in a 325 degree oven for about three hours, or until the pork is falling apart. Take out of the oven and shred the pork with a fork and transfer to a serving bowl. Spoon enough of the pan juices over the pork to make it wet. Serve with hot corn tortillas, and garnish with the pickled onions and chopped cilantro.
Pickled Red Onions
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Place the sliced onions in a heat-proof glass bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit for about 10-15 seconds. Strain to discard the water then add back to the bowl along with the juice, vinegar and salt. Cover and set aside.
Of course chocolate needs to play a role in Valentine’s Day! This recipe, which I developed at my chocolate shop, references a combination that’s become a hallmark of our brand: Mexican chili peppers and chocolate.
Venezuelan Spiced Brownies
1-1/3 cups butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
1-1/4 cups unsweetened alkalized cocoa powder (I prefer Valrhona.)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup of chocolate chunks
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13 inch baking pan with butter. In a mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light colored and fluffy. Mix in eggs and vanilla extract, just until combined. Add sifted flour, cocoa and spices in about 3 additions until incorporated. Fold in chocolate chunks and spread into greased baking dish and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the center is just set. Let cool before cutting. Serve with a scoop of your favorite ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate or caramel sauce.