Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Pastry War, Maximilian, and the History of French-Mexican Cuisine

In 2010, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed traditional French and Mexican cuisines on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is the first time that a nation's cuisine has made the list. While any good foodie knows the immense importance of French cuisine, I am glad that Mexican cuisine is finally getting it's due! Mexican cuisine, built on a foundation of corn, beans, and chili peppers, is a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican and European cuisines (especially Spanish) following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s. But did you know that the French have influence as well? 

Following Mexico's independence from Spain (1810-1821), in which immigration was previously prohibited by Spanish authorities, the first wave of French immigrants arrived in Veracruz in the 1830s. At the time, the Mexican economy was weak and had many loans from France and were default on all of them! Many incidences of French immigrants losing their lives and/or property due to inebriated Mexican officials and criminals occurred. After a report by restaurant owner Monsieur Remontel that an assault on his pastry supply valued at 60,000 pesos had occurred, the French demanded 600,000 pesos for alleged losses of property. Mexico refused to pay. So, in 1838 a French fleet began a blockade of Mexico's east coast seaports, launching war. French troops invaded Veracruz and defeated the Mexican troops. After British intervention, Mexico finally agreed to pay the 600,000 pesos thus ending the war. This little known page from Mexico's history was dubbed by a French journalist as "The Pastry War."

Thirty years later, in July of 1861, Mexico's President Benito Jaurez suspended interest payments to all foreign countries, angering their major creditors, specifically Spain, France, and Britain. Napoleon wanted military intervention in order to ensure European access to Latin American markets. On October 31, the three European powers signed the Treaty of London to unite their efforts to receive payments from Mexico. On December 8, British, Spanish, and French fleets arrived in Veracruz. However, when the British and Spanish realized that France planned to seize all of Mexico (known as The French Intervention in Mexico), they quickly withdrew. The French fought many battles with Mexican troops, including their defeat in the Battle of Puebla in 1862, becoming the Cinco de Mayo holiday we love today. With more and more French troops arriving, they finally seized the capital. In 1863, backed by Napoleon, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (Emperor Maximiliano of Mexico) was proclaimed Emperor of Mexico. In 1864, the new emperor along with his wife Princess Charlotte of Belgium (Empress Carlota of Mexico), arrived in Veracruz to "wild enthusiasm" from the crowds. 

Maximilian and Carlota chose their seat in Mexico City and were known for lavish feasts morning, noon, and night. Upon Carlota's insistence, French cuisine was always on the menu. Following the Emperor and Empress, French cuisine was embraced by the upper classes, promoting "la comida afrancescada" or "Frenchified cooking." Unfortunately for Maximilian and Carlota, their reign did not last long. After the end of the American Civil War, the US increased diplomatic pressure to persuade Napoleon to end support of Maximilian and withdraw French troops, which he did in 1866. Carlota fled to Europe to seek assistance for her husband where she had a nervous breakdown and lived the rest of her life in seclusion, perhaps in a mental facility in Belgium. Maximilian was executed in Mexico on June 19, 1867. 

During the years that followed, French influences permeated Mexican cuisine, incorporating French terms and sauces to the Mexican culinary repertoire. In addition, native ingredients worked exceedingly well with French techniques. Although many may believe these dishes are new to Mexican cuisine, they are actually offshoots of the French-Mexican culinary fusion of the 19th century! Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 10,000 French Mexicans in the state of Veracruz alone! If you are at all interested in the fusion of French-Mexican cuisine, or would like a sophisticated take on the flavors of Mexico with a French twist, I strongly recommend making "Mushroom Crepes with Poblano Cream Sauce!" It is so absolutely delicious! As this recipe incorporates French and Mexican techniques (both of which can be time-consuming), plan to make some of the parts ahead of time, e.g., crepes and sauce a day or two in advance. I promise you'll love it! Vive la France! Viva la Mexico!


Mushroom Crepes with Poblano Cream Sauce

Serves 6

Ingredients:
For the crepes
2 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups sifted all purpose flour
Additional melted butter, for cooking the crepes

For the sauce
6 large poblano chiles (For more on poblanos, see For the Love of Poblanos!)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup chopped white onion
1 small garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups warm whole milk
1/2 cup fresh whipping cream
1 cup coarsely grated queso manchego, Muenster cheese (about 4 ounces)
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 fresh corn kernels (if not available, use frozen or even can)
Fresh cilantro sprigs, for garnish

For the mushroom filling
1/3 cup canola oil
2 cups white onions, chopped
1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps thinly sliced (a combination of wild mushrooms works very well here, but remember to never eat the shiitake stems - they are too tough!)
2 tablespoons minced epazote or fresh cilantro
4 teaspoons minced garlic

Directions:
For the crepes (Can be made 2 days ahead, wrap, and chill.)
Blend milk, eggs, 2 tablespoons melted butter, and salt in blender 5 seconds. Add flour, 1/2 cup at a time, blending batter until smooth after each addition. Let rest 1-2 hours. Reblend batter 5 seconds before using.

Heat a nonstick skillet or crepe pan (see Gadgets) over medium-high heat until hot. Coat the pan lightly with butter and pour in about 1/4 cup of the batter. Lift the pan from the heat, tilting and rotating, to allow the batter to spread evenly. Return the pan to the heat and allow to cook until dry on top and lightly browned on the edges. Loosen the edges with a plastic or rubber spatula and flip the crepe over using your fingers or spatula, then cook the other side for about 15 seconds, or until lightly browned. (For pictures, see Crazy Crepe Man!) Remove the crepe to a plate. Repeat with the remaining batter, stacking the crepes as they are cooked.

For the sauce (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Whisk over medium heat until just warm before continuing.)
Char chiles directly over gas flame or in broiler until blackened on all sides. Enclose in paper bag or bowl covered in plastic wrap for 10 minutes. Peel, seed, and thinly slice chiles. Set aside. (See Techniques)

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion; saute until soft, about 2 minutes. Add garlic; stir 30 seconds. Whisk in flour and continue to cook 1 minute. Whisk in warm milk and bring to boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until sauce thickens, whisking occasionally, about 5 minutes. Pour sauce into blender. Add cream and half of roasted chiles (reserve remaining chiles for garnish). Blend sauce until smooth. Season with salt (at least 1 tsp or so) and pepper. Set aside.

For the mushroom filling
Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, epazote or cilantro, and garlic. Saute until mushrooms are brown and mushroom liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Finishing the dish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a baking sheet with some canola oil or line with parchment. Arrange 1 crepe, brown spots up, on work surface. Place 2 packed tablespoons filling in the center. Fold crepe in half, then half again, forming a triangle. Place filled crepe on prepared sheet. Repeat with the remaining crepes until filling is gone. (Can be filled and folded 1 day ahead. Cover and chill until ready to use.)

Pour 1/4 cup sauce into the center of 6 ovenproof plates. Top each with 2 filled crepes. Pour 1/4 cup sauce over. Sprinkle evenly with the cheese. Bake until the cheese melts, about 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons canola oil in heavy medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add reserved poblano chiles and corn; saute until heated through, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle with salt.

Garnish crepes with sauteed chiles and corn, then cilantro sprigs, and serve. Mmmmm!

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit and Mexconnect.com.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Rabbits, Eggs, and Simnel Cake

In ancient times, Easter was celebrated in honor of the spring or vernal equinox, symbolizing the end of winter (death) and the rebirth of life, as well as the importance of fertility. The word Easter is believed to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn, Eostre, from whom "east" (where the sun rises), "Easter," and even the female hormone "estrogen" got its name. Eostre's feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Eostre's two symbols were the hare (one with a particularly high libido) and the egg, which symbolizes the possibility of new life.

In European folklore, when wild hares abandoned their nests, they were sometimes taken over by plovers, who would lay their eggs in them. The locals would then find the eggs in the bunny nests. Further, in the 16th century, we see the appearance of the "Easter Bunny" in German writings. The legend said that if good children built a nest out of their caps or bonnets, they would be rewarded with colored eggs. The legend was then brought to America in the 18th century, by German immigrants.

And finally, I must mention the "Simnel Cake," eaten during Easter in the UK, Ireland, and other European countries. Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake, made with a layer of marzipan or almond paste baked in the middle of the cake, and topped off with a ring of eleven marzipan balls, said to represent the true disciples of Jesus (Judas is omitted), and sometimes a ball in the middle to represent Christ. I don't care for simnel cake, but I do have a sublime recipe for "Mascarpone-Filled Cake with Sherried Berries." This recipe from Shelley Wiseman is a light buttermilk cake, filled with a layer of mascarpone cream, and topped off with very sophisticated Sherry-spiked berries. I love this cake so much, it may be my absolute favorite! It makes the perfect ending to any Easter celebration!


Mascarpone-Filled Cake with Sherried Berries

Serves 8-12, (cake and cream can be made a day ahead, store cake covered at room temperature)

Ingredients:

For the cake
2 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising), like Swans Down
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the berries
1/2 cup Fino (dry) Sherry
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups mixed berries, cut if large

For the cream
8 ounces mascarpone (1 cup)
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar

Directions:

For the cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with oven rack in the middle. Butter a 9" round cake pan (2 inches deep). Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Beat together the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer at low speed, beat in the buttermilk until just combined. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing after each addition until just combined.

Spread batter in cake pan, smoothing top. Rap the pan on the counter several times.

Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of cake to loosen, then invert onto a plate. Discard the paper and reinvert cake onto rack to cool completely.

Macerate the berries
Bring Sherry and sugar to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Put berries in a bowl and pour hot syrup over them. gently tossing to coat. Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving.

Make cream and assemble cake
Beat mascarpone, cream, and sugar in a large bowl using cleaned beaters until mixture just holds stiff peaks.

Halve cake horizontally with a long serrated knife. Carefully remove top half and reserve. Put bottom half on a plate, then spread evenly with all of the cream and replace top half. Serve with berries. It's Fantastic!


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Easy Easter Lamb - Just Throw it on the Bahbie!

Lamb is not commonly eaten in the US. It is less than 1% of the total meat consumed per person, per year. This is due to the fact that lamb is not always readily available in US markets, and very expensive compared to other protein choices. In addition, I know many people who have never even tasted lamb or others who say they don't like the flavor. That's too bad. After all, lamb makes a stunning centerpiece to any Easter table. So, for those of you who are willing to give it a try, I have the perfect recipe for you!

This recipe for "Grilled Leg of Lamb with Rosemary, Garlic, and Mustard," from the April 2010 issue of Bon Appetit, is truly special. The leg of lamb is butterflied, studded with garlic, and marinated overnight in an effortless mixture of whole grain Dijon mustard, olive oil, white wine, rosemary, and lemon. The lamb is then grilled over direct heat for approximately 17 minutes per side, or until the internal temperature reaches 130 degrees. (You'll need a reliable meat thermometer, see Gadgets.) Not only does this free up your oven, grilling the lamb creates a delicious mustardy crust with a flavorful and moist interior that is not gamey in the least! You will convert any non-lamb-lover with this recipe! I like to serve it with "Tuscan Tomato, Basil, and Mint Vinaigrette" that compliments it nicely. This vinaigrette is one of my personal favorites that I have been making for years. It is phenomenal with lamb and also delicious with chicken and fish. And finally, a nice bottle of Syrah is the perfect accompaniment with grilled lamb.


Grilled Leg of Lamb with Rosemary, Garlic, and Mustard

Serves 10-12 (If you want to serve less, use a 3-4 lb boneless leg of lamb instead.)

Ingredients:
1 well-trimmed 6-lb boneless leg of lamb, butterflied to even 2" thickness (I have found that one cut is all that is needed to butterfly a boneless leg of lamb. Easy!)
8 garlic cloves, peeled, divided
1/2 cup whole grain Dijon mustard
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Nonstick vegetable oil spray (for the grill)
Fresh rosemary sprigs and fresh Italian parsley sprigs (for garnish)

Directions:
Open lamb like book on work surface. Using tip of small knife, make 1/2"-deep slits all over lamb. Thinly slice 4 garlic cloves. Insert garlic slices into slits in lamb.


Combine remaining 4 garlic cloves, mustard, olive oil, white wine, rosemary, and lemon juice in processor. Blend until coarse puree forms. Spread underside of lamb with half of puree. Place lamb, seasoned side down, in 15x10x2" glass baking dish. Spread remaining puree over top of lamb. Cover lamb with plastic wrap and chill overnight.


Let lamb stand at room temperature 2 hours. Coat grill rack with nonstick spray and prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Remove lamb from marinade and season generously with salt and pepper on both sides. Grill lamb to desired doneness, about 17 minutes per side, or until an internal temperature in the thickest part reaches 130 degrees. Transfer lamb to cutting board; let rest at least 10 minutes.

Thinly slice lamb against grain. Overlap slices on platter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh herb sprigs. Enjoy!


Tuscan Tomato, Basil, and Mint Vinaigrette

Serves 6-10 or approximately 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3/4 cup chopped fresh mint
2/3 cup chopped fresh basil
2 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram or oregano
1 1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 2/3 cup chopped/seeded plum tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:
Whisk all ingredients, except for the tomatoes. Stir in the tomatoes and season with pepper to taste. (Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.)

Mmmm! I wouldn't serve lamb without it!