Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mexican party tips

The centerpiece of the celebration of the baptism of Félix's baby, Edgar, didn't come until the day after the church ceremony and took place outside the family's barebones, one-room home, in a dirt patio under cloudless skies and a huge pepper tree, with a view of the fields farmers had just started to cultivate.

The two donkeys that normally loiter in the yard had been moved somewhere but Félix's chickens, cats and dogs remained to mingle with the guests. The main decoration, over the four long tables set end-to-end and covered with white tablecloths, were strings of balloons which kept popping almost as fast as Felix's kid relatives could blow up new ones.

It was one of those "we're not in Kansas anymore" moments that hit you periodically living here in Mexico. "Aren't you glad we didn't retire in Florida?," I asked Stew. He agreed.

A stream of relatives kept wandering in--the two nieces of someone's sister-in-law whose husband is in the U.S. working, and may the Lord Jesus protect him, because we're worried and we don't know when he's coming back, and on and on.

This was not a family tree but a jungle of relations of all ages with a hundred names and stories no visitor could remember. Still, the initial awkwardness of Stew's inability to say much in Spanish, and of two non-family members sharing this family gathering, gradually dissipated.

Equality of the sexes is a long ways off in Mexico. Except for one woman, the people sitting at the table sipping beers and marveling about the wonderful weather after so many days of rain and blah, blah, blah--were all men.
How to cook lamb: First, perform a little head surgery.
Add some salt...
Close up the pot and relax. 

All the women were cooped up in Felix's impossibly tiny house, preparing several courses of food that they began to bring out with the speed and skill of flight attendants serving 180 passengers on a half-hour flight.

Let's see. There was rice; chicken; tortillas; salads of various types; stuffing of various sorts for the tacos (chopped onions, peppers, cilantro, etc.); red and green salsas.

But according to this food critic the kicker was a bowl of rich, brown mole, to be slathered on the chicken or lamb.

Moles (moe-lays) have to be the pinnacle of Mexican cooking, a concoction of two dozen ingredients in proportions that are nearly impossible to pin down because inevitably the recipe came from someone's grandmother who makes it by tossing a spooful of that, a pinch of something else and a cup of minced I-forget-what. In Oaxaca there are six or seven types of moles in circulation with names like "mancha manteles" or "tablecloth stainer", with variations for each one.

The one offered at this fiesta was not peppery but instead had a mellow, chocolate taste that was difficult to pin down probably because it was mixed with ten other things. Félix has promised to bring me a bowl of it--and the recipe.

We only stayed for a couple of hours and only one woman joined us at the outdoor table. When I went to say good-bye, all the other women were still huddled around a table inside, eating their own dinner and yakking, apart from the men. The men made no moves whatever to get more food, help clean the table much less help with the cooking. When it came time to get some beer, Félix sent his wife to the store.

The main dish at the fiesta was lamb, which Mexicans called borrego, slaughtered for the occasion almost as if for a religious ceremony, and cooked in a huge steel pot for approximately four hours. Neither Stew nor I have ever been fans of lamb but driven by curiosity, I showed up at the home of Félix's wife's grandfather and father early that morning to witness the process--or most of it.

First step, the day before, is to find a lamb, around a year old and preferably a male. According to Félix, females may look deceptively fatter because they are woolier.

Though lambs and goats are regarded as only a bit smarter than chickens, they can be arrestingly cute, downright adorable, and slaughtering one is definitely a test of your machismo. You have to look at their faces: their big, unsuspecting eyes; the ears coming out perpendicular to their heads and finally their mouths, which seem to have a perpetual grin.

Once you've done all that you're supposed to grab a sharp knife and slit their throats amid, I imagine, much bleeding and bleating. Then you skin and quarter the beast. The reason details of this process are sketchy is because there's no way I was going to watch it. I wasn't that curious.

Instead I showed up the next day, when Loreto, the 80-year-old grandfather of Félix's wife, sat under a tree, and gave Félix, his father- and mother-in-law--and just about anyone around except me--directions on what to do.

About a dozen agave leaves were scored across and lengthwise to make them more pliable. They were then placed around the inside of a steel pot about two feet high by 18 inches wide, in order to line it, with the tips of the leaves folded out over the edge.

After that, seemingly every part of the lamb was placed inside the pot: the head (eyes, teeth and tongue included); all other cuts and also the entrails in a plastic bag. The only condiments I spotted were a couple of handfuls of salt, a handful of oregano and a bunch of chiles. Mes amis, this was not Julia Child at work.

Finally, you fold the agave leaves over the whole thing, light a wood fire underneath, and sit back for four hours or so, tip a few beers, or several, and talk about fútbol.

I was proud of my own sangfroid during this culinary event, particularly witnessing the more anatomically vivid portions of it, like the lamb's tongue hanging over the side of its mouth, while someone tried to split the head with a machete.

I further impressed myself when I cut into a piece of the lamb later during dinner. It was very moist, almost greasy, and it didn't have the gamey taste I expected. In fact, it was fairly tasteless, no surprise given how few seasonings went into the pot. I imagine that according to the logic of Mexican cooking  the seasoning is supposed to come from the moles or other sauces you pour over the meat.

Stew wasn't impressed: He thought the meat was greasy, tasteless and downright disgusting. And since he is the one who does all the cooking around here, I guess we're not going to have lamb anytime soon.

6 comments:

  1. Lamb -- good lamb -- is my favorite meat. Maybe this was not the best preparation to persuade Stew to enjoy The Other Red Meat.

    Your story had me chuckling. And remembering. I was stationed on at Greek Air Force Base in the early 70s. The Greek officers invited me to their club on Easter Sunday -- where we were served one of the largest meals I have ever eaten. But the most memorable part of the meal was the appetizer. What I took to be a stuffed acorn squash. But the first bite tasted meaty. The Greek officer sitting next to me turned his side ways to let me see it was a split lamb head -- baked. After getting over the initial surprise. I dug in and end enjoyed it. Especially, the tongue. It appears the Greeks were far better at splitting their lamb heads than your neighbors.

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    1. At the market here they sell "tacos de cabeza" which, as far as I can tell, involve putting brain matter from a cow on a piece of tortilla. So far I've taken a pass. Maybe if someone serves it to me without telling me what it is...

      al

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  2. oh God steve, i can't imagine eating tongue! but of course al, we know some cubans eat lengua de vaca. no gracias!

    if i hadn't already planned on commenting, the mancha manteles name would have convinced me to do so. the best mexican meal i ever had was on our first visit to mexico just over 14 years ago. we went to a little place and i ordered mancha manteles, not sure of what it would be, but i absolutely loved it. it even had plantains in it, probably boiled or cooked right in the sauce-muy delicioso.

    that reminds me, i rarely see plantains eaten down there and have never seen them on a menu. seems odd since they are all over the place. and i have 2 in my kitchen-i will make tostones, actually i call them punetasos, this weekend.

    tell stew lamb can be delicious if cooked correctly.

    teresa in nagoya

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    1. Mancha manteles is the best mole! They sell plantains here (plátanos machos) but only the ripe kind. For the green ones that you need to make tostones you have to go to the supermarket on Wednesday, when the fresh produce arrives, and dig under the pile of new plantains to find some green ones. They have to be green and hard as a rock.

      alfredo

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  3. Spring Lamb chops (young lamb) are hard to beat. They sell for $12.00 lb. around here, but well worth it. If you're lucky you know or have been to a Lebanese restaurant in Mexico. Try the Kibbee baked or fried.
    Francisco

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    1. There's a good Lebanese restaurant in San Miguel called Fenicia, run by two women, one of them of Lebanese ancestry born in Venezuela. I'll go for the Kibbee next time we visit (Friday).

      alfredo

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