Cooking Like A Mexican

Mixiotes
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

Christmas is a celebration of food, drinks and merriment. It is the time when Mexican families gather to celebrate and reconnect with each other. No matter how far you may be from your family, Christmas is the right time to get together with your loved ones. Celebrating Christmas brings the enjoyment of having a huge variety of seasonal foods, dishes and sweets. Though the traditional food items differ around the world, the Christmas dinner always brings the same excitement all over the world. The highlight of the evening is surely the unending line of courses.

Christmas Eve is called Nochebuena in Spanish. This is the night of the last posada. Many people attend midnight mass and then have a dinner together with their families. Christmas Day is generally a quiet day. Gifts are not traditionally exchanged on Christmas, but this is changing, and Santa Claus is becoming increasingly more prominent in Mexican Christmas celebrations.

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Like most Mexican cooking, this one is a lot of work, requiring stuffing the goodies inside the parchment and tying it up. But you will be rewarded with a Mexican dish that’s very traditional

 

Unless you hang out in central Mexico or live in an area where good Mexican food is plentiful, you'll be forgiven if you've never heard of mixiote. Unlike carnitas, chicharrones, tacos al pastor, or other dishes associated with Mexican street fare, mixiote has not become an international poster child of Mexican cooking. Heck, you can grow up here and still not know what it is. (I spent a good chunk of my childhood in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, and must confess that I had never heard of mixiote until a few years ago.) And, even in a place like Mexico City, a food-crazy megalopolis of over twenty million inhabitants that is part mixiote's home turf, it can be difficult to find.

So, what is the stuff? The Nuahuatl-derived term "mixiote" refers both to the parchment-like film or membrane obtained from maguey leaves and to the dish prepared by wrapping meat in this parchment and cooking it by pit roasting or steaming. Common varieties include mutton or rabbit. However, the dish can be prepared with any variety of ingredients, including beef, pork, chicken or fish.

the maguey plant has an important role in Mexico’s history as well as its cuisine. Also known as the century plant, the maguey dates back to pre-Columbian Mexico and thrives in dry rocky or sandy soil. This plant of many uses was worshipped by the Aztecs and cultivated by Spaniards, who then introduced it to the Philippines (where its popularity continued to spread across the globe). Though resembling a cactus, complete with thorny edges, the maguey is actually a member of the agave family – a cousin to the Tequila blue agave. Each plant will produce up to 50 leaves about 4” wide and up to 5 feet in length.

Once highly sought after for its fiber, maguey was used to make carpets, hammocks and fishnets until the 1970’s when synthetics and other natural fibers took its place. Its strong fibrous threads were also used for piteado (a technique to embroider on leather), often woven into expensive saddles by Spanish artisans. The leaves were also mashed into a paper for Aztec “codices,” pictorial books written to pass down their history. The ground, cooked pulp of the maguey leaves were blended with salt and applied to open wounds as a compress in Aztec culture; the sap has antibiotic properties which was also used to kill both staphylococcus aureaus and E. coli bacteria.

The real key here is the marinade, which varies from region to region. Recipes are often a matter of family tradition. But a basic ingredient list might look something like this: aromatic chilies (like guajillo and pasilla), and herbs and spices such as thyme, marjoram, and bay leaf.

Despite the origin of its name, you are unlikely to find mixiote prepared with actual, well, mixiote. A presidential decree in the eighties outlawed most commercial use of the parchment because removing the maguey's protective membrane can kill the plant. Most people prepare the dish using regular baking parchment.

 

INGREDIENTS

6  8 inch square pieces of parchment paper

String to tie them up in a bundle

6 pieces of protein (this is one per person, so 400 grams is a good portion should ideally be lamb, but can be chicken, beef, fish and even shrimp.)

1 cup fresh orange juice

4 garlic cloves

1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram

6 ancho chilies

6 guajillo chilies

3 1/2 cups water

1 medium onion

1 medium tomatoes

12 avocado leaves

DIRECTIONS

Salt and pepper the protein pieces and prick them in several places with a fork. Puree the orange juice, achiote paste, garlic and spices and pour this mixture from the blender into a large bowl. Place the protein in this marinade and put them aside while you make the sauce.

Put the chiles, in a saucepan with the 3 1/2 cups water and bring them to a boil. When they have reached the boiling point, turn down the heat and let them simmer, covered, for about twenty minutes. Puree them in a blender with the onion, tomato and salt to taste. Strain back into saucepan and simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes.

Into each mixiote or parchment square, put one avocado leaf, a piece of marinated protein, and a few spoonfuls of sauce. Tie each package with twine or string.

Put water into a large pot with a rack (or, if you have one, a tamale steamer) and place the mixiotes on the rack. Cover tightly and steam 1 1/2 -2 hours. Check one package after the first 1 1/2 hours. To serve, place each mixiote in a soup or stew bowl. Each person unties and unwraps his own mixiote, letting the liquid flow into the bowl with the protein. Serve with sliced avocado and tortillas. The word mixiotes refers to one of the most delectable dishes within the wide spectrum of Mexican cooking, as well as the wrapping used to contain these steamed individual meat stews.