Monday, May 31, 2010

Abstract Expressionist Amaranth Candy

Inspired by the traditional Mexican candy called "Alegria" (See my previous post - Eternal Amaranth) and Jackson Pollock's paintings, I created these abstract amaranth candy spider webs. Now, this is art you can eat! Pollock was introduced to liquid paint after attending a workshop lead by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1936. He later experimented with dripping liquid paint directly over canvas to create his signature pieces.

Do you want to give it a try? You can buy amaranth seeds in Latin American produce stores, or on-line. Amaranth is highly nutritious, and once popped it has a mild nutty flavor. You can use these abstract caramel "webs" to decorate ice cream, fruit salad, cup cakes, or any other dessert. You'll need the following ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup of raw amaranth seeds
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • cooking spray
  • Dessert of your choice

You'll also need:

  • A good non-stick pan
  • A sheet of aluminum foil
  • A cookie tray, or flat pan
Start by popping your amaranth seeds in the microwave, like you would do popcorn. Measure two tablespoons of amaranth inside a deep bowl. Toast in the microwave under the "popcorn" setting for about 12 - 15 seconds. Keep an eye on your amaranth seeds, if the dish is too shallow only a portion of the seeds may pop, like in the picture below.

If this happens, choose a bowl that is not quite so shallow. Don't return the un-popped amaranth to the microwave or it will burn. Continue popping the amaranth in small two tablespoon batches until you have a quarter cup. You are looking at light, fluffy amaranth like the one pictured on the left

Line a cookie tray with aluminum foil. Spray lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Spread half of the amaranth all over the foil, making sure they are evenly placed all over the pan. Save the rest of the seeds for later. Keep the pan near your stove before you start the next step...

Next, you are going to make some dry caramel. You are going to melt the sugar in a good non-stick pan over medium/high heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon. The sugar will melt and turn into liquid once you heat it, you just need to be patient and stir often. I don't use a candy thermometer, or time myself. Just pay attention and stop heating the sugar once it completely dissolves and turns into a nice, golden brown caramel. Be careful! It is going to be VERY HOT!

This is when the fun begins. Turn the heat off, and place the hot pan on a trivet. Using a spoon, start pouring and dripping the caramel over the amaranth seeds. Do it quickly before it starts getting hard. Pour the rest of the amaranth seeds on top of the warm caramel.

Refrigerate the tray for about an hour in order to solidify the caramel. Start picking up the caramel in pieces, and use to decorate your favorite dessert. The caramel webs will keep in an air tight container for about a week, if you store them between waxed paper. Enjoy!

Learn more about Amaranth by visiting my previous post here
Visit Jackson Pollock's paintings at the artist's tribute page

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Alegria - Past and Future of The Eternal Amaranth

Recently at a dinner party I got served a beautiful salad containing Quinoa. "It is an ancient grain", one of the guest explained. Later, that weekend I saw a bag labeled "kichiwa", while grocery shopping. I immediately recognized it as Amaranth, a grain that is slightly smaller than Quinoa. Quinoa and amaranth are two plants commonly used in Mexican and South American cooking but they are gaining popularity in the US lately. Amaranth is also grown as an beautiful, fluffy ornamental flower (pictured above). Just like quinoa, amaranth is considered a "pseudo cereal" - since real cereals are grasses. Other pseudo cereals are buckwheat and chia seeds.

I didn't tell the other dinner guest but I was very familiar with these ancient foods. Back in Mexico, I used to eat the traditional candy called "Alegria" - it was sold on road stands and markets all over Mexico. Alegrias are similar to rice krispy treats, small bars of popped amaranth glued together with molasses or honey. To the ancient Mexicas this amazing little seed was called "Huautli", to the Mayas it was "Txes" and to the Incas and present time Peruvians - "Kiwicha". The word in Spanish - Alegria, literally means "joy", and it is very appropriate since amaranth is said to be a natural anti depressant.

There were many rituals associated with Amaranth just like the ones for chia seeds in ancient Mexico. But unlike the rituals associated with chia (fertility), the mysterious associations of Amaranth could have been the continuity of life, nourishment, or even immortality. In the time of the Aztecs, enormous statues were paraded among crowds during religious celebrations. These statues were made out of amaranth seed mixed with honey and some times blood. At the end of the celebration these enormous statues were cut in pieces and distributed among participants for a type of symbolic cannibalism and communion with the gods.

Mexican artist Javier Marín creates dynamic, large scale figurative images. One of his projects involves casting large statues out of resin that have amaranth seeds inside them, drawing inspiration from ancient rituals. The images above are the heads of three women, via Iturralde gallery and ArtScene. Judith Christensen writes: "In the materials, as well, Marin fuses old and the new. Western European and indigenous Mexican - is basic to Marin's work. Like Marin's resin, the amaranth produced figures that looked heavy, but were comparatively light weight".

Pictured Ricardo Peralta and Rodolfo Neri Vela (right), 1985. Via Space Facts

In the same manner, combining the old and the new in the kitchen allows us to find interesting, unexpected discoveries. Rodolfo Neri Vela, the first Mexican astronaut back in the 80's was also the first to patent amaranth as the perfect astronaut food. Originally amaranth was selected because of its versatility and its ability to survive diverse conditions, but it also turned out to be one of the few seeds that germinated in outer space.

Amaranth is highly usable. The seeds and the greens are both edible. It is a highly resilient plant, it belongs to a species generally considered a weed. It could help maintains brain functions and the nervous system by regulating serotonin and providing protein. Amaranth is also highly nutritious, it is a good source of vitamins A, K, BC, and C. It is also full of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. It could be well said that Amaranth may be the food of the future! I leave you with these words by John Milton, from his famed poem "Paradise Lost":

"Immortal amarant, a flower which once
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man's offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows,
And flowers aloft, shading the fount of life,
And where the river of bliss through midst of heaven
Rolls o'er elysian flowers her amber stream:
With these that never fade the spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks."


Learn how to make Abstract Amaranth Candy on my next post!

Learn more about Javier Marín at the artist's interactive website. The website is bilingual, and a very interesting site to navigate. His studio itself is amazing, it was featured on HGTV's "The art of Mexican Design".

Mr. Marín was also the winner of a contest to re-create the altar at the Cathedral of Zacatecas, a UNESCO world heritage site. The project will be unveiled in June the 26, 2010. Learn more about the event at the artist's facebook page.

Read Rodolfo Neri Vela's article about Amaranth in Space (in Spanish) via Buenas Noticias. The photos of the amaranth bars are from that site, taken by Meliton Tapia of INAH

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Torta de Huerfano Gigante" A Mexican Vegetable Sandwich

What is an ideal food to take to a picnic or a potluck? A giant torta! Every Mexican boy or girl took a torta to school at some point. I first prepared this when I was in middle school, for a field trip to El Ajusco, a volcano south of Mexico City. When it came time to eat, our chaperon, an acerbic drama teacher yelled: "Everyone, take a look at this poor orphan's torta!". Lucky for me, there was enough to share. All my classmates were fascinated looking at all the pretty layers of veggie goodness. Even the bitter old chaperon ate a slice without saying a word - and then asked for seconds! So, who was the poor orphan after all, señor drama teacher?

Tortas are so immensely popular in Mexico City. They are the standard "to go" food since burritos are not really known in Mexico. Tortas are not ordinary sandwiches. Generally they contained re-fried beans, avocado, queso fresco (Mexican cheese) and escabeche (a spicy vegetable pickled salad). Tortas are traditionally prepared in a special bread called "telera", or in french bread rolls called "bolillos". In other parts of Mexico they are called "semitas". You can also make a torta ahogada ("drowned") by soaking the torta in a light tomato or chile sauce. So, are you ready to try it? You'll need the following ingredients:

  • 1 large, round country bread
  • 1 bunch of fresh spinach
  • 1 bunch of asparagus, about 12 stalks
  • 2 Portobello mushroom caps
  • 1 large eggplant, sliced
  • 2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced
  • 4 small zucchini, cut lenghtwise
  • 2 Red bell peppers, prepared as you would for Papas con rajas
  • A tablespoon of chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

  • Olive oil, 1/4 cup
  • A teastpoon of mustard (Dijon style)
  • Vinegar, half a cup
  • Finely minced garlic
  • Fresh thyme. About a tea spoon, chopped
  • Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  • A teaspoon of toasted pasilla soup base (optional)

I'm making my original recipe for a picnic, so I'm using ingredients that travel well and are not too soggy - so I'm not using refried beans. This torta doesn't have any animal products, so I'm only choosing firm fresh veggies. Start by slicing the zucchini lenghtwise, cut the musrhoom caps in half and discard the stems, slice the eggplant and rub salt on all sides. Salting the eggplant will make it "sweat" so it won't absorb a lot of oil and it roasts better. Let it rest in a colander for about five minutes. Prepare your vinaigrette while the eggplant "sweats". Combine all ingredients and whisk together to emulsify. Let it rest at room temperature.

Arrange all your veggies (except the peppers, spinach and tomatoes) on a tray and drizzle them with olive oil. Roast them close to the broiler for about 5 - 8 minutes, turning them once. Broilers vary, so you need to check often so they don't burn. You are looking for a nice, even golden brown.

Saute the spinach with a little bit of onion until it reduces down significantly. Let it cool and squeeze all the liquid out of it by using a clean kitchen napkin. Chop coarsely and set aside. Take your veggies out of the oven and let them cool.

For this recipe I used a large pain de campage. You can also use a sourdough loaf or a similar bread. If you want this recipe to be vegan, make sure your bread doesn't contain any eggs or dairy. Cut the top of the bread and save for later. Remove the inside of the bread and save it for a casserole or croutons. Leave about half an inch of bread around the crust.

Now, you are ready to layer all the veggies inside the bread. Start with the sauteed onions and spinach.

Continue with the roasted asparagus. Dip each asparagus in the dressing, and arrange in a lattice, creating one single layer.

Roast the bell peppers directly on your stove as you would for Papas con rajas. Remove the charred skin using a knife of the round part of a spoon. Open the peppers and remove the seeds and veins. Dip in dressing and arrange these pepper "sheets" inside the sandwich.

Next, layer the zucchini and the eggplant, and then the portobello mushrooms. Don't foget to dip each piece in dressing before putting it inside the torta.

finally, add a layer of fresh tomatoes. Make sure you squeeze all the seeds out. I don't bother with peeling them, tortas rarely have tomatoes that are peeled. Place the bread "lid" on top of the sandwich and wrap the entire thing in a clean kitchen napkin. Place inside a plastic bag and refrigerate for about an hour so everything sets.

Finally....Have a picnic! All you need is some fresh fruit and a nice wine. Slice the sandwich using a sharp serrated knife. You can experiment and add some ingredients of your own - avocados, artichoke hearts, roasted carrot slices, celeriac, even fruit like figs. Generally, you need to place the sturdy veggies on the bottom and the softer ingredients on top so the layers don't collapse or slide when you slice into them. I hope you enjoyed this recipe. Happy eating!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Gracias Madre - Every day is Mother's Day!

Some acquaintances are surprised that my blog covers vegetarian and vegan Mexican food. Skeptics often ask me: What about the cheese? The Carnitas? Is that unusual, is that authentic? Let's think back for a second: If you are old enough, think back to the 1980’s. "New foods" were taking the US by storm - sushi was the all the rage, and you could find kiwi even in the soup. Today we have restaurants that feature Sushi and many different interpretations of Japanese food as well as "Asian Fusion". Mentioning “Chop Suey” to any food connoisseur may incite laughter and eye rolling. And kiwi is just a fruit that not many people get excited about.

The Mexican food we eat in the US has heavy influences of Northern Mexico, where cattle and the desert facilitate dishes heavy on meat and dairy. The "Chop Sueys" of Mexican cuisine dominate fast food restaurants. Corporate created"Tortadas" an "enchiritos" are as authentic as the food prepared at the Olive Garden's test kitchen. Adding to the confusion are the misconceptions that arise when trying to differentiate between Mexican regional cuisines, Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex and South West cuisines. To the unfamiliar, I could see how difficult it could be to recognize what "authentic" Mexican food is, let alone considering vegan and vegetarian options have always been in the mix.

Last Summer I sat down with Eva Ackerman and Chandra Gilbert to talk about Gracias Madre, the new Mexican vegan restaurant on Mission Street. "Gracias" is a venture from the same folks that operate Cafe Gratitude, a local raw food restaurant. I wanted to hear about their take on "Nuevo Latino", Mexican flavors, the cult for La Virgen de Guadalupe, non-Mexicans as experts in Mexican food (like Rick Bayless , the Two Hot Tamales) vegan organic cuisines and gentrification. My first question was an obvious one. So, why Mexican food? What is the difference between Gracias and Cafe Gratitude?

"About Rick Bayless and The Two Hot Tamales....We have to start somewhere" Chandra said. "For us, it just came down to the food we were eating. Most of the time we would en up eating Mexican. Instead of lining Monsanto's pockets, we cooked our own food [using] some greens and a couple of Primaveras* (organic tortillas)"."Gracias Madre It is probably more approachable for some. It is not a taqueria. It is a sit down, full service restaurant".

The Feminine Mystique
Gracias Madre is located in the middle of The Mission neighborhood, in San Francisco. The restaurant is beautiful and cozy. The little front porch has nice terra cotta walls, an artful metal fence, and a colorful mural. Inside the walls are cooler and people can sit family style in wooden Michoacan style tables and chairs. The tables are set with candles, simple unbleached napkins, recycled glass bottles, and simple pottery dishes and cups - they remind me of cazuelas and clay ollas that have been used in Mexican kitchens for centuries.

"I can say Gracias Madre is our offering to The Mother, the earth. For myself personally, I feel inspired by all the powerful Latina women I’ve gotten to know in my life, that I continue to known, and learn from and work with. I am excited to take leadership from them. Something I’m personally passionate about is the empowerment of women. In general” Said Eva.

"Gracias" also has beautiful Virgen inspired art, from the logo designed by local artist John Marro to what seems to be antique statuary behind the counter. I asked Eva and Chandra about the imagery and the wording for the name of the restaurant, and if they had any reservations about using an image that is highly revered, specially in a Latino neighborhood.

"It communicates what we feel - is not hiding our gratitude to The Virgin, our gratitude to the earth. To me, it is the same mother, the same planet. It is also a way to celebrate connectivity and oneness. We are on the same earth planet, the same earth together, we get to eat the same food" Said Eva. "To me that wording and that name help us break down the barriers that separates us based on race, class and culture. That is really what the point is".

The Menu - Organic and Seasonal Food
The menu at "Gracias" is simple, just like the tables. It is one single sheet divided by "antojitos" (literally, "little whims", or appetizers), sides, main dishes and a wonderful wine variety. Eva and Chandra told me more about the food.

"We are not using all kinds of fancy ingredients. We are really honoring the tomato by using the best, freshest tomatoes. Avocados, how do you really bring out the amazing taste of a perfectly balanced guacamole? Or the delicious corn, just having a tortilla and it is satisfying in every way"

When I cook vegetarian or vegan food at home, I generally prepare dishes that are naturally animal free, without using dairy. Just recently I used "vegan sour cream" for one of my recipes. I must say that the food at Gracias Madre has opened a new experience of cashew "dairy" for me. They really do a good job with their soups. I have tried the cauliflower soup and the Chile Poblano soup and they are so incredibly rich and creamy.

"We pay reverence to the simple ingredients that we are using. What is the earth providing? Purslane! So, we are having purslane tacos! Or maybe the cilantro is at its prime right now. It is almost like having relationships with the ingredients that are so uniquely flavorful and perfect. When combined together it is really magic".

One tamal, two tamales, three tamales...
Eva has a degree in Spanish, and she is a fluent speaker. I asked her to describe Gracias Madre's sazon. I realize it is not a fair question, since the sazon needs to be experienced, but I was curious to hear her answer. The Spanish word Sazon is hard to describe. It is one's signature, a special way of expressing yourself trough the taste of your food. It is as personal as the way you saute your onions, heating your water and your favorite seasonings. Eva's answer? "(Gracias Madre's sazon) is fresh. Simple, earthy, vibrant".

After trying the food several times, I agree with Eva. Gracias Madre has a lovely, home made sazon. The food has beautiful hints of chile, onion and garlic that don't overwhelm the dishes. The food tastes homey, what my mother would call "saborcito como el de allá", or what loosely translates as "back home" taste. Appropriately what Italians call "Al Gusto De Mama"- Mom's taste. I also like that the folks at Gracias Madre understood the little cultural nuances that persnickety writers like me appreciate. They serve black beans, more common in central and southern Mexico. The menu lists one Tamal a la cart without the E, not the common misspelling "Tamale". It is a little pet-peeve of mine, no self respecting Mexican would ever say "tamale". Eva also communicated that one of their senior employees, Imelda Martinez, is responsible for making the tamales, 5 days a week. "She is loving it, feeling excited and blissed out!"

She will provide
The tortillas at Gracias Madre are not at all like the stuff that comes out of a bag. The tostadas really remind me of "totopos" from Southern Mexico, they have the same consistency. "Gracias" uses all organic corn for their tostadas, tacos and tamales. Growing organic corn is a big deal, since corn is one of the most genetically modified foods. What once was sacred to early Americans is now probably killing us. See my post about genetically modified killer corn. Chandra, who is a trained chef in the European tradition understands the importance of using organic heirloom corn and seasonal produce:

"Getting the masa perfected was the number one thing for me, so our tortillas and out tamales were perfect. Besides that the earth is going to tell us what the menu is. As someone that has been on the restaurant business for more than 26 years, that was very liberating for me. One year the butter squash freezes, we won’t use it"
. She also shared her experiences working cooks like Imelda Martinez, the tamales expert. "It is an education opportunity to get out of the way of the women that know how to do it. It is in their DNA, who they are"

I am so glad that Eva and Chandra acknowledge their employees. "We have amazing women in our community. Like Lourdes, working the main meal at noon, blossom quesadillas. They’ve been doing it with their grandmothers. It is going to provide the flavor" Similar restaurants like Nopalito, a spin off the restaurant NOPA came about after the owners discovered the traditional simple Mexican fare their employees were eating.

I shared with Evan and Chandra that I also learned from amazing Latina women in my life: My maternal grandmother, domestic workers, and my friend Juanita. My mother was a lawyer so she didn't cook much - but she taught me about eating nutritious meals and the enjoyment of good food. Moving to the US as a teenager I became aware of how my Mexican-ness became political. Having to work as a dish washer and in fast food restaurants I became aware of how Latino immigrants were the mistreated, unsung life force of the food and service industries. Women in particular got the raw end of the stick. I am glad that one restaurant, directly or indirectly thanks our mother(s), the one(s) that bring food to our tables every single day.

Muy caliente - The Internet was on fire!
Once at a workshop for young Latino artists, Amalia Mesa-Bains spoke of the unfairness of expertise, race and identity politics. "If you are a person of color and an expert in your own culture, you are going to be called self serving. If you are a white person and an expert in the culture of someone else, you are going to be called revolutionary".

I get a feeling that the folks at Gracias Madre understood the delicate politics they were dealing with, this is San Francisco after all. Since last Summer the internet was on fire and buzz around the restaurants was polarizing. There was some talk of cultural appropriation, gentrification, over pricing food and targeting specific elite groups, not necessarily locals.

There is also the issue that to certain groups Vegan Mexican food is always going to be the food of "The other". By "othering" the food is easy to call vegan Mexican a gringo invention, food that has been whitewashed; food for hipsters and the elite; food that is overpriced. Yet, I find that vegan Mexican is probably the food closest to our ancestral American memory, before cows and pigs were introduce to the continent. There is nothing "Nuevo" about it. "It is almost like Viejo Latino", Eva said. Organic doesn't mean elite, a fad, a "new" idea that comes along. The food is revolutionary by its own merits.

So, is the pricing fair? I feel the folks at Gracias really want to share their food. At Cafe Gratitude they had a policy: A small bowl of food with the special of the day was available to everyone. The payment was on a sliding scale, on the honor system. Everyone pays what they can. "The most someone has paid for one is $100" Chandra said. Even if they don't instate a "Gratitude Bowl" at Gracias Madre, one could make a meal choosing several sides - nothing is over $6. The escabeche is $3. A tamal a la carte is $5. Rice and beans are $2 each, an order of tortillas is $2. They also have lunch specials at $10 dollars. The folks at Gratitude and Gracias have also donated to MCCLA's Dia de los Muertos celebration, and to Galeria de la Raza's holiday Pachanga, that I was honored to be a part of last year!

Eva and Chandra, manager and chef
of Gracias Madre

The other day I had to work late. I walked by Gracias Madre and the place was packed. There was music playing, lit candles, people having a good time. Strangely enough it reminded me of one of my fondest memories:

I'm in the middle of the country, close to a corn field in Chiapas. I'm six or seven, enjoying a simple meal (with no pesticides, genetically modified organisms nowhere to be found). That night was nothing special, just friends and relatives enjoying each other's company, listening to a soulful guitar in front of the fire and eating fresh roasted corn under the moonlight.

I'm hoping to bring my mother to "Gracias Madre" soon, to spend some time together. Every person I've invited to the restaurant has liked it, even non-vegans. A friend from Los Angeles said it best when we dined here recently. "It is like visiting someone's home".


Gracias Madre
"Our Mission is Love - Organic Mexican Cuisine"
Organic Biodynamic method, grown at their farm in Pleasant Valley, Be Love Farm. Masa and tortillas are non-GMO Organic heirmloom corn.
2211 Mission Street
415 683-1346
11 am to 11pm, 7 days a week. Website:

If you want to help organizations that support women you can donate to Arriba Juntos , or visit The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment. You can also support La Cocina, and "incubator" kitchen for women.

*Check out Primavera, organic tortillas and Tamales