Mexican Spitfire

2008.Jul.24 Thursday · 6 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

 The first time you buy a house you think how pretty it is and sign the check. The second time you look to see if the basement has termites. It’s the same with men.”

– Lupe Vélez, actress

Buenos Aires – I like celebrating people’s 100th birthdays or similar events for Casa SaltShaker dinners. They basically give me free rein to do a lot more interesting dishes, you know? Now, we’ve hosted some fairly famous centenaries here over the last many months, and I thought it would be fun to stretch the envelope a bit and celebrate a life that was over far too early. María Guadalupe Vélez de Villalobos was born in 1908 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to a colonel in the Mexican army and an opera singer. When old enough for school she was sent to San Antonio, Texas, to be educated in a convent, but she ran away to Mexico City to learn to dance when she was 13. Despite being hauled back to the convent, she continued her “tempestuous ways”, and eventually found her way to Hollywood in 1926, where, over the next 18 years she appeared in nearly four dozen films (save a brief interlude in a Cole Porter musical on Broadway), generally playing the beautiful, volatile girl opposite such comic stars as Jimmy Durante and Leon Errol. Though she never really rose above the “b-movie” level, she was well known for her very public private life as a party girl, and had tabloid covered affairs with a number of actors, including Gary Cooper, eventually married Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan), divorced, and an affair with a young actor named Harald Maresch. She got pregnant during this affair, and rather than have an abortion or bring an out of wedlock child into the world both of which she felt were the ultimate sins against the catholic church, she committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills at age 36. Adultery, sex outside of marriage, divorce, suicide… aren’t those against the rules too? Methinks there was more to it…

So there I was, with Lupe Vélez’ ghost hovering about and wondering if I was going to do something cool for her birthday or not. I have to admit, San Luis Potosi is not the first region of Mexico I tend to delve into when I cook Mexican food, so this gave me all the excuse I needed to do so. Turns out there are some pretty interesting dishes….

Cecina de res

Initially I was thinking about the local dish cecina de res for a main course, but it’s basically salt beef, nearly beef jerky (Henry exclaimed “charqui!” which is the quechua term for it, as he was digging into a slice or two), that’s been only slightly reconstituted. Sometimes it’s even just served more or less as is. I just figured the saltiness would be too intense as a main course portion, and decided instead to offer it up as a first plate. The traditional method of making it with long air-dried and salted strips was a bit more than I have the setup to start doing, so I started the beef off with a “buried in salt” sort of cure, more or less the same as I do when I want to make gravlax. I thinly sliced peceto, or top round, coated both sides in a mix of orange and lime peel and juice, and dried oregano, all buried in a mix of salt and sugar. I left it in that for about 30 hours – 24 would have probably been enough. Then I scraped the mixture off, and laid the pieces out on racks set over drip pans, and brushed them with a mix of orange and lime juice, turning them after about 12 hours and doing the same thing again. I left them to air dry for another 24 hours, which ended up the perfect consistency. To serve, I sauteed the slices in a good amount of oil with garlic and onions, and served them with a fresh guacamole and a hot sauce made from vinegar preserved jalapeños. It was a little saltier than I’d have liked – a shorter cure if I do it again, or maybe even soaking the slices in the orange/lime mixture for a little while to draw out the salt before air drying. However, with the foil of the guacamole and hot sauce it worked really well.

Next up a sopa verde de elote, or green corn soup. The corn isn’t green, it’s simply a pureed soup of corn, peas, fire-roasted poblano peppers, onion, cilantro, a good amount of pre-cooked tomatillos (I finally found a source for fresh tomatillos, yay!), lettuce, and chicken stock, all then cooked together for just a short time – 15-20 minutes or so on simmer – seasoned to taste and served with some freshly chopped cilantro.

Huevos en Rabo de Mestiza

While the name of this dish, huevos en rabo de mestiza may have given “my boys” a giggly fit, the dish was my favorite of the evenings and that of several of the guests. (Since I know someone will ask rather than looking it up for themselves, let me just give you the translation – “eggs in a half-breed girl’s ass” – don’t ask me, I haven’t come up with anything.) It was also the most fun dish to make. I fire-roasted some jalapeño chilies, then sauteed them with thinly sliced white onion. I threw a bunch of plum tomatoes under the broiler until they were lightly browned, pureed them, mixed them with the chilies and onions and a little salt to taste, ladled the mixture into little cazuela dishes, and added a splash of water just to thin the sauce out. For serving, I heated the dishes with the sauce in the oven, then slipped an egg into the center of each and draped a slice of cheese over the top. Back into the oven for just long enough to set the whites and leave the yolks soft, out of the oven, sprinkled with chives, and served. This is generally considered more of a brunch type dish, but it sounded so good, and it’s not unheard of to serve it at dinner, and so I did.

The main course was pollo en ajo-comino, or chicken in garlic and cumin. In a big saute pan I sauteed a mixture of cumin, garlic, ancho chili powder, and salt until it was nice and aromatic. Then I added chicken breasts to the mixture and cooked them until lightly browned. Earlier, I’d reconstituted some dried ají panca, the red sort, as dried Mexican peppers aren’t available here (anchos would have been the way to do it right), peeled and seeded them, and then pureed them with their cooking liquid. Once the chicken was browned, I added this puree to the pan (if there’s not enough liquid to cover the chicken, add a little water), covered it and simmered them until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Sliced and served atop freshly made wheat tortillas. Simple, but quite good.

Tarta de frutas con cajeta

Cajeta is the Mexican name for what here is called dulce de leche, or milk caramel. I made a batch. Then I cut up some fresh pineapple, papaya, and kiwi and simmered them in a little sugar syrup until soft. I made some tart shells out of overlapping squares of phyllo dough brushed with butter and then browned in the oven. To serve, I warmed the cajeta and the fruit, filled the tart with the former and topped with the latter, and served. Once again simple, but really good – and although the tart idea isn’t traditional, the fruit and cajeta mixture is a classic way to end a San Luis Potosi meal.

I wonder if I can find any copies of the old Mexican Spitfire films around…


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Almeida July 25, 2008 at 15:51

Hi Dan!

I would like to add that Cajeta is usually made with Goat Milk and so the taste is very different. There is a local Argentine company with a brand name of Piedras Blancas that makes Dulce de Leche with goat´s milk.

I have not tried it to see if it resembles it, but I would imagine that it would be similar. I remember cajeta being very sticky and much stiffer than dulce de leche. It would tear the hell out of regular sandwich bread, needing a much hardier bread.

dan July 25, 2008 at 19:40

I’ll be happy to make my cajeta with goat’s milk when I can find goat’s milk here! Any ideas?

Paz July 25, 2008 at 20:33

LOL! Love the quote. Interesting woman, too bad she had a sorry ending in life. The food looks very good. Haven’t had any before.


Frank Almeida July 29, 2008 at 13:28

Hi Dan,

I will keep an eye out for it. In fact, next time I see the guy from Piedras Blancas I will ask him. I do know that I have not seen it around at all.

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