Of second hand books and a vibrant culture
Not long ago I walked into a second hand bookstore, one of my favourite bookstores in Barcelona. I like how there is such a random mixture of books to be found in second hand bookstores. Now this particular time, my eye fell on a Mexican roman about love and food, apparently a bestseller from the 80s.
So I took it home and started reading. It quickly brought me back to the time I was in Mexico, quite some years ago already. I went with my parents and we traveled around the peninsula Yucatán. At that point in time, none of us spoke Spanish and for me it was the first time I was in a country with such a different culture, with jungle, with roadblocks where military stopped your car, etc. Of course we visited the ancient cities of the Mayas. There are the famous ones like Palenque and Chichén Itzá. Those were massive cities, and the pyramids are proudly standing so that it becomes easy to imagine the wealth and power those cities must have had. At the same time there are smaller historical cities, hidden in the jungle with the walls of the buildings still overgrown by plants. In those places there are almost no tourists, which makes it a completely different experience.
Magnificent and fascinating as the ancient culture is, the modern culture of the country is just as exciting. We visited beautiful and colourful cities, but also places where people lived in little huts made from timber with corrugated roofs (some with a television or radio). Places that seemed rich and places where children stopped your car on the road to try sell some fruits. But, even though I realize life is clearly not perfect there, everywhere we were the culture seemed lively and full of colours. And the food made a great impression on me. Eating in Mexican restaurants in Europe can be disappointing; even though some places are good, sometimes it seems like ready made mixtures are used and some tortillas taste like cardboard. But the food in Mexico was the opposite: fresh, diverse, and exciting. For breakfast we often had a range of tropical fruits and dishes like huevos rancheros, basically a dish of eggs in tomato sauce served with tortillas. And we tried plenty of other dishes, from meat dishes inland to fresh seafood in a place at the beach, where the cook came to show us the fish they caught that morning. Almost everything was served with delicious corn tortillas and refried beans. All in all, a proper discovery for me and miles away from the boxes with “Mexican” food you buy in the supermarket.
In this Mexican book I bought food also plays a very important role. The story is divided in months, and each chapter starts with a list of ingredients of a dish that features in that month. The recipes are loosely described during the story, leaving room for interpretation. So I decided to take the dish that sounded best to me and that had a positive influence within the story as well. Some research showed that this is a popular dish in Mexico, traditionally made in the city Puebla to celebrate independence day. Clearly, I have never tried the original dish so I don´t know how it compares, but this recipe is inspired by the interpretation of the dish as described in the book.
Stuffed poblano peppers with walnut sauce and pomegranate
Ingredients (for 2 people, 8 pieces)
- 8 poblano peppers or those pointed capsicums / bell peppers
- 1 pomegranate
- Small bunch of coriander
- Beef mince – 300 grams
- 1 apple
- 1 onion
- 2 tomatoes
- 1 lemon
- Raisins – a handful
- 1 red chilli
- Garlic – 2 cloves
- Cumin – 2 heaped teaspoons
- Oregano – 2 heaped teaspoons
- Ground cloves – 1 teaspoon
- Cinnamon – 1 teaspoon
- Walnuts – 70 grams
- Queso fresco, can be cottage cheese – 100 grams
- Cream – 100 ml
- Milk – approximately 50 ml
- Olive oil
- Salt and black pepper
First of all, the poblano peppers or capsicums have to be roasted so that the skin can be removed. Preheat your oven to 220°C. Place the peppers on an oven tray that is coated with olive oil or baking paper. Roast the peppers for as long as it takes to have their skins blistered and blackened. Turn them around once in while. When the skin is properly black and shows large blisters, take the peppers out and place them in a bowl covered with plastic. Let them cool down until you can handle them and peel off the skin.
For the sauce, start by toasting the walnuts. Set a few aside for decoration and blend the rest until they are a fine crumb. Add the cinnamon, the queso fresco and the cream to the blender as well and process until you have a smooth mixture. Then add milk, until the mixture is liquid but still sticks to a spoon. Season with salt and black pepper to taste and set aside.
With the sauce done and the peppers roasting, it is time to make the stuffing. Finely chop the onion, the garlic, and the chilli. Zest the lemon. Put the raisins in a bit of water to soak. Slice the tomatoes in half and use a coarse grater to grate the inside of the tomato, so that you only have the skin left, which you can discard. In a frying pan, heat some olive oil and add the onion and a pinch of sugar. Fry the onion on a low fire until it´s translucent. Add the chilli, garlic, cumin, cloves, and oregano. When this mixture becomes fragrant, add the meat and a good pinch of salt. Continue frying over a medium fire until the meat is browned. Drain the raisins. As a next step, add those raisins, the grated tomato, and lemon zest. Leave the mixture on a low fire for around 15 minutes. Check the seasoning and add some lemon juice to taste.
For the last touches, chop the apple very finely. Take the seeds out of the pomegranate and make sure all the pieces of membrane are taken out. Chop the coriander.
Mix the finely chopped apple through the meat mixture. Take the peeled peppers and slice them open lengthwise on one side. Take the seeds out. Carefully fill the peppers with the meat mixture. When all peppers are filled, place them on a serving plate. Serve with the sauce, the pomegranate, the walnuts you kept, and the coriander: the colours of the Mexican flag.