My Mexican Adventure Part 4 – Casa Carmelita, Tlaxcala and Beyond
The tastes of Mexico – the masa, avocados, tomatoes and chiles – were like a second mother to me growing up in Southern California. As I have grown in my culinary life, I’ve come to regard Mexican as one of the world’s great and most complex cuisines. And while I love the fresh seafood and the pepper, cayenne and spice blends of coastal Louisiana, I often miss an abundance of Mexican food options now that I am living in New Orleans.
That longing – and a pull for an adventure – led me to sign up for a culinary vacation exploring the home cooking of Puebla.
A private car transporting me from Mexico City arrived at Casa Carmelita, run by Jon, an American expat, and Estela, his Mexican wife, for a late dinner after the taxing commute through rush hour traffic tie-ups. After the commute and the dinner, I was more than ready to settle into my wonderfully warm and colorful casita.
The next morning I would join Jon, Estela and a couple other guests in the large kitchen for a cooking class – after a hearty Mexican breakfast, of course.
Jon and Estela settled on a sprawling piece of land on the edge of the small town of Tlacochcalco, outside the small city of Tlaxcala, chosen because of its situation on the shore of a lake. Jon told me that in true Mexican style, they’ve built as they went along, adding on casitas (they continue to do so) as they grew and could afford it.
The cooking lessons ranged from covering basics – like guacamole, sopes, tinga and chiles rellenos, to some less familiar recipes like Chipotles en Conserva and a really unusual and wonderful dish, Pollo en Jocoque (chicken cooked in a sauce with Lebanese yogurt). Interesting side note – there are quite a few Lebanese and other Middle Eastern notes found in Mexican cuisine.
There was time in the afternoon for nearby excursions, all an hour’s drive or less from the Casa:
To Tlaxcala, where I explored the market in the zocalo, Filled with food and drink stalls, as well as stalls selling other goods. Jon dropped a tip about Santa Clara, right off the zocalo – the best ice cream shop in the town, he said (where there are quite a few), so I stopped by for a pistachio gelato.
To the nearby Tlacochcalco farmers’ market.
To ruins in Cacaxtla and Xochitecatl about 45 minutes away – UNESCO World Heritage sites. Because of aging knees I chose not to climb up the highest pyramid, but I did climb to the landing at its base, about 3/4’s of the way to the top of the mountain. There I found a stone bench where I sat under ancient and generous trees, looking out over the plains and valley below. My only companion – a lone dog trotting along the plain just below me. I wondered at the palpable sense of peacefulness there. It led me to ponder whether the site was chosen by the Mayan people for this serenity, or whether it acquired the serenity from the centuries (between 600 and 950 CE) of ritual performed there. Good question, Jon said, as I posed it to him later.
And a side trip for me to take a behind the scenes culinary trip to Puebla (tune in next time when I’ll share about that).
BTW, I’ve shared the recipe for Chipotles en Conserva below.
Chipotles en Conserva
Here is Estela’s family recipe which is similar to a chutney. Jon and Estela recommend chopping them and using as a topping for quesadillas, running cheese under the broiler with chorizo, or onions, then adding these. We ate them with an old fashioned cheese ball with a bit of the Chipotles en conserva mixed in, then rolled in nuts, with warm tortilla chips and more of the conserva on top.
- 10 dried chipotle chilies, rinsed
- 4 medium heads of garlic, rinsed
- 4 ounces piloncillo (brown sugar cones) or 2 cups of light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 large onions, thinly sliced
- Place the first 9 ingredients in a large pot covered with 1 1/2 quarts of water. Partially cover the pot and simmer for about 1 hour. Then leave uncovered overnight.
- On the next day, add the sliced onions and simmer another 1/2 hour, until the chilies are soft and add a little more vinegar.
- Put the conserva into jars and refrigerate.