Foods Of Michoacan Are Forever

Brisket In Pasilla Chili And Tomatillo Sauce i i
Patricia Jinich for NPR
Brisket In Pasilla Chili And Tomatillo Sauce
Patricia Jinich for NPR

Get recipes for Bean And Tomato Soup (Sopa Tarasca), Brisket In Pasilla Chili And Tomatillo Sauce (Carne Enchilada, above), and Cheesecake With Guava (Pay De Queso Con Ate De Guayaba).

You know how some people become attached to a certain dish? They try it somewhere once and then want to go back to eat it again and again, or they make it at home repeatedly in an until-death-do-us-part kind of vow? Well, I am one of those people, and I have made that vow with quite a few dishes from the Mexican state of Michoacan.

It surprises me how Michoacan's cuisine has remained such a well-kept secret. It has a defined personality and a complex layering of delicious flavors like the more popular cuisines from Oaxaca and Puebla, but its dishes seem to be a bit more comforting and use fewer ingredients.

What's more, some of Michoacan's basic ingredients, such as pasilla chilies, tomatillos, cotija cheese and fruit pastes, have become readily available in stores outside of Mexico.

My love for Michoacan is inevitably tied to its food, but it goes well beyond its kitchens. The first time I went to Michoacan as a little girl, it had such an impact on me that whenever our family planned a trip, I begged my parents to return there. It wasn't only the enchanting cobbled streets, the immense wooden doors framed in cantera stone, the aromas of freshly made breads and ground mountain coffee, or the town squares filled with dozens of home-style ice cream carts and sweets stands, all surrounded with colorful balloons and birdseed sellers. There was something more.

I returned a couple of decades later, as a production assistant for a traveling cooking show. It was breathtaking. As we researched for and filmed foods prepared for Day of the Dead — a Mexican holiday celebrated this week — we traveled from town to town, sampling delicate and simple dishes in the markets filled with fresh ingredients and goodies that women brought in baskets and set down on mats on the floor.

In the cities surrounding the Patzcuaro Lake area, we saw the famous fishermen using their immense nets, which seemed to fly off into the sky, before sunrise. We tasted to-die-for fish soups, meat stews, tamales and sweets that cooks prepared for this occasion.

About The Author

Former political analyst Patricia Jinich left her job in a research policy institute to pursue her passion: Mexican food. She is the official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., where she heads Mexican Table, a culinary program with workshops, cooking demonstrations and tasting dinners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three young sons. Read more at her blog, Pati's Mexican Table.

Day of the Dead is one of Mexico's most meaningful celebrations, and Michoacan is a spectacular place to experience it, partly because of its beauty and cuisine, but also because of the richness and depth of its centuries-old traditions.

The Purepechas, also called Tarascos, who remain the predominant indigenous group of the region, believed since pre-Hispanic times that the dead return once a year to visit those they miss. Centuries of intermarriage between Purepecha, Spanish and Catholic Church traditions and ingredients resulted in an eclectic mix of rituals and exquisite foods.

Last year, a decade after my second trip, I returned to Michoacan to do further research for the culinary program I teach at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. We brought our three young sons, and I was eager to share with them the things and foods I had been fascinated with on previous trips. Yet as soon as we unpacked, it became clear that there was so much more to taste and learn. I experienced new things along with my boys.

After a stay in Morelia, the colonial capital where we tasted traditional and modern spins of Michoacan cuisine, we spent a sweet time in the small town of Santa Fe de la Laguna among a Purepecha community. Some of the women fed us their traditional foods and invited us into their kitchens to teach us how to make those dishes. They also taught our boys, with so much patience and tranquility, how to work with their traditional black and green clay.

Upon our return, I finally realized what makes the cuisine of Michoacan distinctive: its people. Michoacanos are generous, warm, hospitable and caring. No wonder the state is known as "the soul of Mexico." And it is a beautiful soul for Mexico to have. The more I cook, the more I am convinced that the food of a place resembles the characteristics of its people. If asked to define in one word the cuisine from Michoacan, I would say "soulful."

In my until-death-do-us-part vow with the food of Michoacan, I shall keep sharing and cooking what I have learned from its cuisine until I am able to go back to explore and eat some more. What's more, if I'm given a license to come back from another world for Day of the Dead, I will happily feast on this menu with the people I love.

Bean And Tomato Soup (Sopa Tarasca)

This comforting and tasty soup named after the Tarascos, also called Purepechas, is perfect for the cold weather months. It has a smooth and earthy pinto bean base, and a combination of fresh and crispy garnishes that make it fun to eat. Moreover, it can be suited to all preferences once at the table.

Bean And Tomato Soup (Sopa Tarasca) i i
Patricia Jinich for NPR
Bean And Tomato Soup (Sopa Tarasca)
Patricia Jinich for NPR

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Soup

1 pound pinto beans (about 4 cups cooked beans with 2 cups cooking liquid to make 6 cups bean puree)

4 quarts (16 cups) water (not needed if buying precooked or pureed beans)

1 pound ripe plum tomatoes

1 garlic clove

1 ancho chili, about 1 ounce, stem and seeds removed (optional)

1/2 cup white onion, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons safflower or corn oil

3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or water

2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt (or more to taste)

Garnishes

4 corn tortillas, cut in half and into strips, fried until lightly golden or toasted*

1/2 cup cotija cheese, crumbled (farmers cheese, ricotta salata, mild feta or queso fresco or shredded mozzarella cheese may be substituted)**

1/2 cup fresh Mexican cream (heavy cream or creme fraiche may be substituted)***

1 ancho chili, stem and seeds removed, cut into thin strips, flash fried (optional)****

1 avocado, peeled, seeded, flesh scooped out and diced (optional)

Rinse and place beans in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until beans are cooked and soft. Add a teaspoon of salt an hour after they started simmering, and stir. Once beans are cooked and soft, let them cool and place them in a blender or food processor with the cooking liquid (add enough water to have 2 cups liquid). Puree in batches until smooth. Set aside. You may also use 4 cups precooked canned beans with their liquid or already pureed canned beans.

Place tomatoes, garlic, and seeded and stemmed ancho chili in a saucepan, cover with water and simmer over medium high heat for 10 to 12 minutes or until tomatoes are completely cooked through. Once tomato mix cools down, place it in a blender or food processor with a cup of the cooking liquid, raw white onion and the other teaspoon of salt, and puree until smooth.

Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium high heat. Add tomato puree and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it darkens in color and thickens in consistency. Reduce heat to medium, stir in the bean puree and broth or water, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the soup has seasoned and has a creamy consistency. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Turn off the heat, as it thickens quickly.

The soup without the garnishes added may be cooled, stored in a closed container and refrigerated for up to 4 days. Because it thickens a bit as it cools, you may need to add some chicken broth or water to thin it out when you reheat it.

Ladle soup into bowls and drizzle with a tablespoon each of cream and cheese, a handful of tortilla strips, a few fried chili strips and some diced avocado. You can also place garnishes in bowls on the table to let your guests garnish to their liking.

*To prepare tortilla crisps, you may fry or bake them.

Fry: Pour 1/4 inch of corn or vegetable oil in a skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add tortilla strips. Fry for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, or until they achieve a light golden color and crisp texture. Transfer to a plate covered with paper towels. You may sprinkle a bit of salt on top.

Bake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place tortilla strips on a baking sheet, spray them with a light coat of oil and sprinkle with salt. Place in oven for about 20 minutes, turning them from time to time, until they are crisp and tanned.

**Cotija cheese is a fresh farm-style cheese that has a salty and tangy taste. It typically comes shaped in a round or square mold and can be easily crumbled. Sometimes it can be found already grated in a bag. It is available in some large supermarkets, and Latino or international stores.

***Mexican cream, very similar to what is called Latin or Salvadoran style cream, is available in large supermarkets, and in Latino and international stores. Mexican cream has a darker color, a heavier feel and more piquant and salty notes than normal heavy cream.

****To prepare chili crisps, use the same oil in the same skillet you used for the tortillas if you fried them. Once the oil is hot, add chili strips and flash fry for 3 to 4 seconds, until crisp but not burnt, stirring constantly. Be careful because they can burn easily and taste bitter. Transfer to a plate covered with paper towel.

Brisket In Pasilla Chili And Tomatillo Sauce (Carne Enchilada)

Berenice Flores from Santa Fe de la Laguna showed me how to make this dish. When she shared it with us, we kept asking for more corn tortillas to wipe the sauce clean off the plates. It has become our staple brisket recipe at home and can be made with pork, which is what Flores used, or beef.

Pasilla Chilies for Carne Enchilada i i

Pasilla or black chilies are dried chilaca chilies, by far the most common chilies grown and used in Michoacan. They can be found in many stores and online in the U.S. Patricia Jinich for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Patricia Jinich for NPR
Pasilla Chilies for Carne Enchilada

Pasilla or black chilies are dried chilaca chilies, by far the most common chilies grown and used in Michoacan. They can be found in many stores and online in the U.S.

Patricia Jinich for NPR

The sauce uses pasilla or black chilies, which are the dried chilaca chilies, by far the most common chili grown and used in Michoacan. The pasilla is dark brown or black, long and slender, with a soft and wrinkled skin and a rich, earthy, almost sweet and mildly hot flavor. New Mexico chilies can be used as a substitute. The combination of pasillas with the tart tomatillos makes an incredibly tasty sauce. It goes well with a side of white rice.

Pasilla chilies can be found in many stores these days or can be ordered at GourmetSleuth.com, Amazon.com, MexGrocer.com and Goya.com, among other sites.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3 pounds trimmed brisket of beef, rinsed and cut into about 2-inch chunks (leave some fat on!)

5 whole garlic cloves, peeled

5 peppercorns

2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, divided (plus more to taste)

1 pound tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed

4 ounces black pasilla chilies, stems and seeds removed

3 tablespoons corn or safflower oil

1/2 cup white onion, chopped

1 cup boiling water

2 cups meat cooking liquid

Chopped white onion and cilantro leaves (optional garnish)

Place meat chunks in a large cooking pot along with 5 garlic cloves, peppercorns and salt. Cover with water, bring to a boil, cover partially and simmer over medium heat for 3 hours, or until meat is very soft. Drain and reserve 2 cups of its cooking liquid.

Meanwhile, char or roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet under the broiler, or directly on the comal (cast iron plate) or dry skillet or grill over medium heat, for about 10 minutes, turning 2 or 3 times. Tomatillos are ready when their skin is blistered and lightly charred, and their flesh soft, mushy and juicy.

Toast chilies on a hot comal or dry skillet over low-medium heat, for 5 to 10 seconds per side. Chilies will release their aroma and become more pliable, and their inner skin will become a bit opaque. Don't let them burn.

Place toasted chilies and roasted or charred tomatillos in a bowl and cover with 1 cup boiling water and 2 cups of reserved meat cooking liquid (if you don't have 2 cups, add more water). Let this mixture soak for at least a half-hour and up to 4 hours. Pour the mixture into the blender or food processor, puree until smooth and reserve.

Add 3 tablespoons of corn or safflower oil to the same pot in which meat was cooked, and heat over high heat until hot but not smoking. Add cooked meat chunks and brown them, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add the chopped onion, and stir as you continue to brown the meat for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Incorporate pureed chili mixture and a teaspoon of salt. Stir and simmer over medium heat for about 10 more minutes. The meat should be completely tender, yet still in chunks. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, but not pasty. Taste for salt and add more if need be. To serve, you can garnish with some raw chopped onion and cilantro leaves.

If there is any meat left over, you can cool, store and refrigerate in a closed container and then reheat, covered over a low simmer.

Cheesecake With Guava (Pay De Queso Con Ate De Guayaba)

In Mexico, a favorite dessert is to pair sweet slices of guava or other fruit pastes called ates with savory slices of cheese. Cheesecake with guava paste is a modern take on this combination. We tried it for the first time in the Museo del Dulce — the sweets museum — in Morelia. My adaptation has a thinner layer of guava paste than the museum's, and it is placed between the crunchy bottom and the smooth cream cheese batter, rather than on top. Also, the sweetened sour cream topping reflects a craving of mine, but it seems to make the combination even more irresistible. You can use this recipe as a guideline and see if you want to take the cheesecake in other directions: more guava, less guava, more sour cream or no sour cream.

Cheesecake With Guava (Pay De Queso Con Ate De Guayaba) i i
Patricia Jinich for NPR
Cheesecake With Guava (Pay De Queso Con Ate De Guayaba)
Patricia Jinich for NPR

Makes 10 to 12 servings

Crust

1 1/2 cups Maria cookies* (6 ounces ground), or vanilla wafers or graham crackers

1 teaspoon sugar

3 ounces butter, or 3/4 stick, melted

In a big bowl, stir the ground cookies, sugar and melted butter until thoroughly mixed. Butter a 9- to 10-inch springform pan. Turn the cookie mixture into the pan. With your fingers or a small spatula, spread it evenly along the pan. Press gently, making a side rim of 1/2 to 1 inch on the sides. Refrigerate while you make the guava spread, cheese filling and sour cream topping.

*Maria cookies, similar to graham crackers, are available in most supermarkets.

Guava Spread

11 ounces guava paste or ate de guayaba

5 tablespoons water

Place guava paste and water in the blender jar or food processor. Process until smooth, and reserve.

Cheese Filling

1 pound cream cheese

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

1/4 cup heavy cream

Place the cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer, and beat at medium speed until smooth and foamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla, and continue beating until well mixed. Add eggs, one at a time. You may need to stop the mixer to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, as the batter may stick to it. Add the heavy cream, and beat until the mixture is all incorporated and smooth. Reserve.

Sour Cream Topping

1 1/2 cups sour cream

1/4 cup sugar

In a bowl, mix the sour cream and the sugar together.

Assembly

Adjust rack of the oven one-third up from the bottom and preheat to 350 degrees.

Remove the pan with the crust from the refrigerator. With a spatula, spread the guava mixture evenly over the crust. Turn out the cheese filling onto the guava layer, and spread gently and evenly.

Place the cheesecake in the oven and bake for 35 minutes, or until it is cooked and has a lightly tanned top. Remove from oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes. Then spoon the sweetened sour cream over the cheese filling and place it back in the oven for 10 more minutes.

Remove from the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. It tastes even better if it chills overnight.

Before serving, release the sides of the springform pan. Place the cheesecake onto a plate (keeping it on the bottom of the pan), slice and serve.

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