11.3.2020 Dinner in Mexico City
Pork Adobada Tamales
Tamales date back to the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica, with the Olmec and Toltec making tamales as early as 7,000 B.C. The modern Spanish word, tamal, originates from the Nahuatl word tamalli. The food has been a staple for millenia and, thanks to its easily transportable nature, has quite literally travelled throughout Central America. While the names and fillings vary with every regional diet, all tamales share a common structure—masa mixed with fat, stuffed with filling, wrapped and cooked. In Mexico, tamales are most commonly wrapped in corn husks and steamed, often reserved for celebrations and special occasions, from Christmas to Independence Day.
Potential tamal fillings are nearly infinite and we’ve opted to stuff our tamales with Pork Adobada. Adobada itself has countless permutations but at its core is meat cooked in Adobo; a sauce of chilis, vinegar, aromatics and oregano.
While salsa literally translates to “sauce” in Spanish, salsas pre-date colonial conquest by centuries. The Aztecs are believed to have been the first to cultivate the tomato; it was used as a key ingredient in their sauces. Salsas are just as much a fundamental aspect of Mexican cuisine today as they were in ancient times, and you’d be hard pressed to have a meal in Mexico without at least one type of salsa on the table. The tomatillo, a cousin of the tomato and also native to Mexico, forms the foundation of Salsa Verde, one of the more common salsas in Mexico. Boiled and mixed with garlic, serranos, onions and cilantro, salsa verde is not the most traditional accompaniment to tamales, but, in our humble opinion, is an absolutely delicious one.
Sopa de Nopal y Ajo
In Mexico there are over 100 species of Opuntia cacti with just as many culinary uses. Collectively referred to as Nopal in Mexico and known as the prickly pear cactus in English, the paddles of the plant are trimmed of their spines, cooked and used in everything from salads to tacos. It’s even eaten during Lent when observants abstain from meat consumption. Sopa de Nopal takes advantage of the mildly acidic flavor of Nopales and marries it with garlic and the heat of chipotle peppers for a slightly hot, slightly tangy, deeply satisfying soup.
Cochinita Pibil with Pickled Red Onions
Roughly translating to “earth-oven-cooked baby pig,” Cochinita Pibil is a method of slow cooking pork from the Yucatán Peninsula. Traditionally, a whole suckling pig is marinated in ground achiote and sour orange juice, then wrapped in banana leaves before being placed on a bed of hot coals and buried, left to cook slowly over the course of several hours. The result is incredibly tender and deeply flavorful pulled pork, which is then eaten with tortillas and pickled red onions. Due to a number of logistical constraints, namely the Washtenaw County Health Department regulations, we are not able to cook the Cochinita via traditional earth-oven methods. Instead we marinated pork shoulder overnight, wrapped it in banana leaves and slow-cooked it in a plain old oven. While the method isn’t as authentic, the result is just as delicious.
Fresh Flour Tortillas
Flour is a relatively recent addition to the Mexican diet, coming with the Spanish colonizers in the 1500’s. Today flour tortillas are eaten throughout the country, but are most common in the north of Mexico, where the climate is better suited to wheat than corn. While corn tortillas would have certainly been a more traditional accompaniment to the Cochinita Pibil, we’ve opted for flour here. There are few foods better than a taco with a freshly made tortilla. Since the dough for flour tortillas stays fresh for longer and is easier to roll out at home, using flour ensures you the freshest tortillas possible for your tacos.
Black Bean, Corn and Amaranth Salad
Beans, corn and amaranth are all native to Mexico and Central America, with the latter being the least well known in modern diets. Prior to Spanish conquest, Amaranth was an important cultivar for the Aztecs, as both the grains and the leaves are highly nutritious. Here, it comes together with beans and corn in a light and refreshing salad.
The cuisine of Mexico has had a profound global impact, but perhaps no other food has been so thoroughly adopted and so completely integrated into other cultures as chocolate (from our perspective chilis and tomatoes are the only other contenders for this title). Exactly when cacao consumption began is difficult to pinpoint but it’s known that the Olmecs and Mayans both consumed cacao as a drink, both with daily meals as well as during important ceremonies. The importance of cacao was even greater to the Aztecs, with beans used as currency and the elites enjoying frothed chocolate with chilis. The powerful Aztec ruler Moctezuma was renowned for his consumption and is believed to have first introduced chocolate to Cortés. Chocolate caliente is still a popular drink in Mexico today and here we’ve made a semi-traditional version using Taza Mexican dark chocolate, vanilla (also native to Mexico!), cinnamon and sugar.
Another significant export from Mexico, Corona was first brewed in Mexico City in 1925. It’s now the most widely consumed beer in Mexico and the most popular imported beer in the United States. Nothing goes better with spicy food than an ice cold beer.
Banhez Mezcal Artesanal
Available at Falsetta’s Market
The United States is the world’s leading consumer of tequila but the lesser known agave distillate, Mezcal, has been gaining in popularity over the past several years. We love this Oaxacan Mezcal in particular for it’s mild yet floral smokiness. It makes for great cocktails (we had clementine margaritas with a Tajin rim while testing this menu) but is also delicious straight up. Perfect for celebrating, or drowning your sorrows, depending on how election night goes…
Mexico. That country south of the border whose history is inexorably linked with ours, whose resources satiate our desires, and whose citizens feed our nation. America seems, now more than ever, in a blindfolded embrace with Mexico, in a figurative tug-of-war between two brothers. We love Mexican food; tacos and tequila, anyone? We employ Mexican immigrants to do many of the essential tasks we take for granted, from picking our fruits to manicuring our lawns. Yet, for some reason, we still haven’t begun, as a nation, to fully appreciate, or even humanize, our southern neighbors. Mexican immigrants are the backbone of almost every restaurant we’ve eaten or worked at—the entire service economy is built on their largely ignored labor. This menu is an ode to these people, a big THANK YOU to all they do for the restaurant industry. And for every order of our Mexico City menu, we’re going to donate $20 to the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights’ fundraiser, supporting local undocumented families who are facing adversity in light of COVID-19.
Trying to wrap your head around Mexican food is like walking through a labyrinth, a Pandora’s box of flavors and ingredients, many of which are ancient, etched into our palates and collective memories as a species. From the endless variations of tacos, tamales, and moles, to the over 300 varieties of indigenous chiles—saying that Mexican cuisine is complex is an understatement. Since at least 5,500 BC, the peoples of Mexico have eaten chiles, beans, tomatoes, avocados, pumpkins and corn using the pre-Hispanic agricultural system of milpa (the same system Native Americans used to plant the “3 sisters” of corn, beans, and squash). By 1,200 BC, Mesoamericans domesticated corn and discovered nixtamalization, a process that makes corn easier to digest and enhances nutrients. It’s also what makes it possible to bind corn flour into tortillas. The popular refrain “sin maíz no hay país” is still true to this day; without corn there is no country.
The Maya are perhaps the first well documented Mesoamerican peoples that inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize. Corn was so integral to their collective anima that the Maya origin story in the Popul Vuh states that the Plumed Serpent deity and the Heart of Sky deity created life out of white and yellow corn. After the decline of the Mayan Empire, the Aztecs, who were originally from Northern Mexican areas near the modern-day Rio Grande, used their superior military to establish their empire in Tenochtitlan, modern day Mexico City. At the time, it was the largest city in the world with access to the riches spreading from the Pacific to the Atlantic, including vanilla and chocolate, both indigenous to the area.
It’s no wonder then that when Cortés invaded the Aztecs he went straight to its heart in Mexico City. Through sheer brute force, a good amount of luck, and political connivance, the Spanish Colonial period had begun. From a culinary perspective, it was this catastrophic encounter that created modern Mexican cuisine. The Spanish brought their culinary tradition, which itself is a fusion of Mediterranean, Arab, and Jewish cuisines, along with wheat, milk, cheese, rice, citrus, garlic, and domesticated animals - beef, pork, lamb, goat, and chicken. They brought spices and sugar from their colonies in Southeast Asia via their cross-Pacific galleon trade. Spanish convents became the food laboratories of the time. Over time, French, Lebanese, German, Chinese, Italian, and recently, Korean immigrants settled in Mexico City, leaving their respective stamps on the cuisine.
From pre-Hispanic times to the present, people have been coming from all over Mexico and the world to Valle de Mexico, leaving an indelible mark on the city’s cuisine. Plus, it’s one of the best street food cities in the world—standing in front of the Mexico City Cathedral, looking out at the Zócalo, you’ll find literally any imaginable taco or antojito ever created. And that’s barely scratching the surface of what Mexican food really is. It’s not melted Velveeta cheese and tortilla chips, it’s not simple or easy. It’s a tradition older than any modern European cuisine. It’s complex, refined, subtle and sophisticated. And we, as Americans, owe it to those who make our food to end our mental incongruence, take the blindfold off, and at least try to understand Mexican food, culture, and identity.
Featured Recipe: Pork Adobada Tamales
Makes: 16 Tamales
Cooking time: 4 hours
We recommend scaling this recipe up to make more tamales. Tamales are quite labor intensive and as such are almost always made in large batches in Mexico. They keep exceptionally well in the freezer.
For the Masa
Dried corn husks
1 ¾ cup Masa Harina
2 cups chicken stock
½ cup lard or vegetable shortening
½ teaspoon salt
½ baking powder
For the Pork Adobada
1 whole dried ancho chili,, seeds and stems removed
1 whole dried pasilla chili, seeds and stems removed
1 ⅓ cups chicken stock
⅓ cup frozen orange juice concentrate
1 whole chipotle chili, canned in adobo
⅔ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 2-inch thick cubes
⅔ tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
⅔ cups onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
For the Adobada filling:
Add the dried chilies to a heavy-bottomed pan or dutch oven and let them toast over medium-high heat for 3-5 minutes, or until you begin to smell their aromas (but before letting them smoke)
Add the chicken stock, orange juice concentrate, chipotle, and vinegar. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes, or until the chiles are very soft. Blend the chile mixture in a blender or food processor and reserve
Pat the pork dry and heat the lard or vegetable oil in the dutch oven. Add the pork in a single layer and cook until well browned, about 8 minutes. Do not move the meat while it’s browning, you want a very dark, flavorful color on the meat
Remove the pork to a cutting board and add the onions and garlic to the pan. Cook until soft, about 5-8 minutes. Add the oregano and cumin and cook until just fragrant
Add the chile sauce to the dutch oven and deglaze the pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits of pork on the bottom of the pan. Cut each pork piece in half and then add back to the pan. Add the bay leaf and a sprinkle of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer and cover. Let the pork cook for 1.5 - 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the chunks break apart with slight pressure from a spoon. The sauce should be thick and glazy, almost like the texture of ketchup
Lightly mash the pieces of meat so they resemble pulled pork and incorporate the sauce. It’s now ready for tamales!
Note: If you’d like to make a meal out of the pork, don’t cut the pieces in half in step 5 and don’t mash the meat in step 6. Serve with tortillas, cilantro, onion, and lime
For the dough:
Soak husks in warm water for at least 3 hours (soaking them overnight works well)
With a mixer or whisk, beat the lard or shortening, salt and baking powder until light
Put the masa harina in a bowl and add about half of the chicken stock and mix by hand until the mixture is crumbly.
Add the masa mixture to the lard and begin to mix. Add the remaining chicken stock a little at a time and mix until the dough is fluffy and quite sticky. Test the dough by dropping a small ball into a glass of water. The dough has the right consistency when it floats. Keep adding stock as needed until it floats.
Drain a husk and pat dry. Spread 2-ish spoonfuls of the masa dough in the center of the husk, leaving roughly 2 inches on each side of the husk. Put a spoonful of Pork Adobada down the center of the dough. Wrap the tamale by bringing the right side of the dough over the filling and rolling along to the end of the husk. Fold up the bottom of the husk and secure with strips of corn husk. The “wider” end of the corn husk should be open. Repeat until you have 12-16 tamales.
Make a steamer with a large stock pot by setting a steam rack or crumpled aluminum foil in 1-2 inches of water, then layer remaining corn husks on top of the foil or steamer rack. Cover and bring to boil.
Once boiling, carefully stack the tamales upright in the pot with the sealed side down. Cover again, and steam for about an hour. Remove a tamale and let cool for a few minutes. The tamale is done when the filling is firm and comes away easily from the husk. Serve warm or at room temperature. Alternatively you can follow the same method for creating a steam rack in an instant pot or electric pressure cooker. Cook on high pressure for 38 minutes and allow pressure to release naturally for 10 minutes before manually releasing.
Recipes Inspired By:
The title says it all for this one: the definitive Bible of Mexican recipes in English, plus Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s regionalization makes it super easy to see where each dish is from