Friday, December 11, 2009

Week #15 Michoacan (Mexican)

Well into the fourth month of this 52 Cuisines project, I still haven't featured any Mexican cuisines. It's time to remedy that. When you're considering a country as vast as Mexico, though, you really can't get away with a quickie generic view of its food. This country has so many regions and such a variety of land- and seascapes that the foods here are as varied as they'd be across any continent. Mexican aficionado Chef Rick Bayless divides culinary Mexico into six regions, while Mexicans themselves divide it into many, many more. So this project will send me scrambling in a lot of directions if I want to do it justice.

I've heard Michoacan, the central Pacific Coast region, referred to as the California of Mexico. Essentially, it's considered the country's breadbasket. Himself and I set out to find a Michoacan restaurant, and we discovered that it's like trying to find a California restaurant. Michoacan refers more to a style of cooking rather than to a particular list of foods indigenous to the region. What I'm finding in the search for a Michoacan restaurant is that a lot of places around LA include the words "Michoacan" and "carnitas" in their names. Apparently what they refer to is the way carnitas are cooked in Michoacan. I guess it's a little like finding Memphis-style pork ribs or New England-style clam chowder far from their place of origin.

Himself and I stopped off at a little mamá y papá establishment in North Hollywood alternately called Super Tacos Michoacan and Calimex Restaurant, depending on which signage you observe.

Well, this signage was amusing...

 Carnitas Michoacan with the fixin's
I ordered the Carnitas Michoacan, served with the sautéed onions and a really fine red salsa. They were porky and luscious (that's a more veiled way of saying "fatty"--don't you like it?!). Essentially the meat is cooked twice, once to render it done and once to crisp it up. While the region may or may not have been the originator of carnitas (there's some question about that), there seems to be little disagreement that this is where the cooking method was perfected.

tres tacos
Himself got a trio of tacos: carnitas, al pastor and lingua. These were really good tacos but pretty much what you'd find in a taqueria in Mexico City. Of course, capital cities--and other large cities--tend to be repositories of the foods of the hinterlands around them, because people tend to carry their beloved foods and preparation techniques with them when they migrate to the big city. While al pastor is said to have been devised in the DF, "al pastor" indicates that it's made in the style of the shepherd, which means, in the country, not the city. So I don't think this issue is completely resolved for me yet.

 Lingua Taco
This is some of the best lingua I've ever had, with a good, beefy flavor and a great texture--I appreciate tongue that doesn't put up a fight. As you can imagine, even if you've never eaten tongue, the texture is going to be entirely different from that of any other cut of beef. This lingua had great body--it wasn't overcooked and chewy. I enjoyed the bites I took of it without any salsa or accompaniment.

We had a fine meal at this Mexican-place-with-two-names, and we'll certainly return there, but Himself and I didn't feel we'd really gotten the Michoacan experience. So I searched for some recipes to expand our knowledge and palette. Here's what I made:

Sopa Tarasca
Sopa Tarasca: Himself pronounced it bean chili. I guess that's essentially what it is--puréed pinto beans made into a soup with onion, garlic, ancho chile and tomato. It was certainly good enough to make again, but next time, instead of sautéing with canola or vegetable oil, I'll use some bacon drippings for extra flavor and richer mouth feel. I'm sure that's how they do it in Mexico, too, or at least they use manteca. (It's not too difficult to see that I'd make one extraordinarily cranky vegetarian.)

Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: ready for the oven
Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: This is a pork roast slathered with a paste made of guajillo chiles, tomatoes, garlic, orange juice and peppercorns, then covered in orange and onion slices and given a good braise. The recipe said to top it all with a good slosh of white wine and a fresh sprig of either oregano or marjoram. Being a smarty-pants with a great herb garden, I included one of each.

Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: out of the oven & ready for the plate

Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: on the plate
The puerco was muy delicioso, not surprising, because pork is such an amazingly versatile meat. The addition of oranges, peel and all, was really nice. The braise smoothed the bitterness of the oranges' pith, so it played nicely with the pork, onions and peppers. Still, I could taste a little of the bitterness, which was surprisingly pleasant against the sweet, salt and fat in the pork. We Westerners are still working to acquire a taste for bitter, something Asian cuisines have known how to work with for ages.

We still had a boatload o' pork left over after this meal, so I've varied its preparation for each meal since. I pulled some pieces off the roast and gave them a quick recharge in a skillet with some bacon drippings, which crisped them--carnitas style--and gave them a little smoky flavor. We steamed some tortillas and piled the re-porked pork into them and topped them with a little green salsa and crumbled cotija. I think you could probably take a hunk of well-prepared meat like this and enjoy the leftovers in as many different ways as there remains meat to eat, without ever duplicating a preparation method.

Salsa de Chile Pasilla de Michoacan: I roasted pasillas, tomatillos and garlic for the green salsa, then pulverized them with some raw white onion and a little sea salt.

Salsa de Chile Pasilla de Michoacan
The result is a good multi-purpose salsa to put in or on top of any number of dishes. It jazzed up the sopa tarasca and was good on some of the interior of the pork roast that didn't receive as much flavor from its braising as the exterior did. We've also enjoyed it over rice and cheese. I like the basic idea for this salsa, but I think I'll tinker with the proportions, add more garlic and tomatillos, perhaps leave out the pasilla seeds.

I cheated and used the food processor rather than a molcajete y tejolote, a mortar and pestle made of lava stone, a standard in Mexican kitchens. I do have a couple of mortars and pestles, and I don't mind the time and energy involved in using them, but somehow it seems to be cheating as much to use one of those as to use a food processor, when I should be finding myself a proper molcajete. But then to live so close to Mexico and buy a molcajete on this side of the border also seems like cheating. I should get one there. Or at least at a real mercado somewhere around town. I don't want to just order one online or pick one up at some chain kitchen supply store.

So have we experienced Michoacan cuisine yet? I'm not sure we have. This is one of those illusive cuisines that requires further research, and probably not just here locally. I feel a road trip coming on...

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