Cooking Like a Mexican

 Cooking Like a Mexican

BY ALEJANDRA BORBOLLA

Cuachala must not be confused with Coachella. Food, not a music festival. This is a staple dish from Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit — states that are all next to each other and by the Pacific Ocean. This region has one of the most varied climates in the country, being coastal and tropical but also having volcanoes. Different regions can go from hot to very cold within a couple of miles. This dish is a variation of “chileatole” and is hearty stew to fill up the belly and warm the heart. 

The base of this meal is maize dough, chiles and “hen” meat. (Hen has a tougher, redder meat, and has a much stronger taste.) This is why it is often used over chicken because sometimes chicken is too bland. Whatever poultry you prefer is fine. You’ll only find hen at the small pollerías and I’m not sure if what they sell is really hen. All the ingredients in cuachala are important and very endemic to the western coast such as xaltomatl or black tomato. This is, sadly, not sold in supermarkets or smaller markets or even mercados. It is a very small type of green tomato, and tomatillo could be the closest thing we could readily find.  

Cuachala is more than a dish; it is a stew and must be eaten with a spoon. Its thickness is rather drunk than chewed. This is also a dish for any occasion, which doubles as a way to keep traditions alive in small town celebrations. 

Prehispanic Mexico did not have poultry. This dish was made with wild duck or turkey. 

The main ingredient here is chile. Chile cuachalero is another word for the cascabel chili (little bell), also known as the rattle chili. It is one of the mirasol cultivars of the species Capsicum annuum. The ‘rattle’ and ‘bell’ designations describe the tendency of loose seeds to rattle inside a dried cascabel when shaken. These chiles are small and have the shape and dimensions of a cherry when fresh. As they dry, they become a little rugged and their color deepens into a brownish red. They are not too spicy but can be substituted with guajillo peppers. 

So what’s with Mexican food and the chilies? The importance of the chili dates to the Mesoamerican period where it was considered as much a staple as beans and corn. During the 16th century, Bartolome de las Casas wrote that without chilies the indigenous people did not think they were eating. It is, for this reason, many Mexican people believe their national identity would be lost without the chili. Not all of us have a tolerance for spice, though. Most Mexican food does contain chiles but is not as super-hot and spicy as you’d think. That is why we have salsas. At the same time, there are some dishes that are meant to be spicy and can only be made that way. 

First, let’s properly establish the fact that Mexican cuisine is astonishingly varied and rich. This must be emphasized because Northerners often write off Mexican food as inevitably and monotonously too spicy and too greasy. That’s a shame, because Mexican food, when viewed in terms of diversity of appealing tastes and textures, imagination used in combining ingredients, and being appetizingly presented, compares favorably with any cuisine in the world, including that of the French.

Chiles, however, are not just about heat; the flavor of the pepper is also of great importance. Many dishes call for very specific chiles because those are the ones which “go” with other ingredients to make the dish what it is.

Cuachala, NOT COACHELLA 

For the meats: 

2 lbs. pork shank meat 

1 onion 

2 tomatoes 

3 laurel leafs 

6 peppercorns 

2 lbs. chicken 

10 sprigs of fresh oregano 

Salt and pepper to taste 

Procedure: 

Cook the chicken with the fresh oregano, half an onion and a tomato cut in quarters for an hour in a pot with water to cover. In a separate pot, cook the pork with the other half of the onion, laurel leaves, pepper and salt. Both meats should be fully cooked, and shredded. Reserve the stock for the sauce. 

For the sauce: 

1 kilo de tomate de hoja morado crudo

2 ilbs. green tomatoes, washed

3 cloves of garlic 

1 bundle of cilantro, washed and disinfected 

7 chiles cascabel (may substitute for guajillo) 

½ cup uncooked rice 

7 ounces of tortilla dough

3 tablespoons of vegetable oil 

Powdered chicken bouillon to taste 

Salt and pepper to taste 

Procedure:

Soak the chiles in the warm broth that was left from cooking the meats. Remove seeds and blend with the green tomatoes, garlic and cilantro. Reserve some sprigs of cilantro to add while cooking. Strain the salsa and cook in a pan with the oil. 

To thicken the sauce and give it the characteristic consistency, soak the rice in hot water for a couple of minutes, add the tortilla dough, blend and strain. Slowly add the rice mix to the salsa over medium heat while stirring until a thick consistency is achieved. 

Once the salsa is nice and thick, taste for salt before seasoning. If you feel like the salsa is too tart, add a little sugar. Then, season with powdered chicken bouillon first. Depending on how it tastes after simmering for 5 minutes, add salt. You may add some broth if the salsa is too thick, but remember that consistency is quite important. Add the shredded meats and the cilantro sprigs you didn’t blend and stir until it has all come together. 

Buen provecho! I am always happy to see your pictures and hear from you at ale.borbolla@dev.gringogazette.com