Le Nom, Volume V: The Mexican Dinner Fiesta-Siesta

Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, I equated the question “do you want Mexican?” with “do you want to go to Chi-Chi’s?”  Thankfully, after living in the southwest for roughly half my life, I’ve developed a bit more knowledge and appreciation for Mexican cuisine since then.  I’m not about to eat menudo or calf’s brains or anything crazy like that, but I at least appreciate a number of dishes and the diverse flavors of Mexican cuisine.  For this month’s Le Nom, we decided to explore a few different dishes in Mexican cuisine, and as always, the results were amazing.

For starters, we enjoyed two kinds of homemade salsa – red and tomatillo (example).  Tomatillos are a staple in Mexican cuisine, being the primary ingredient in many green sauces.  A member of the tomato family, tomatillos are generally tart in flavor and can provide a bit of a citrus flavor to dishes.  Many tomatillo salsas call for a little bit of sugar to be added to offset the tartness.  We enjoyed both salsas with chips and Tecate Light with lime – always a great selection with chips and salsa!

We had two main dishes to enjoy, the first being machaca (example).  A dish popular in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, machaca is a spicy dish consisting of shredded beef or pork.  Interestingly, even here in Arizona the style of cooking varies by region – in the Tucson area, machaca tends to be dry, yet in the Phoenix area, it has a bit of a soupy consistency.  The Tucson style is more similar to the Mexican style, however the Phoenix style is enjoyable for letting your flour tortilla sop up all of the the spicy liquid that comes with the dish.

Our other dish was my contribution for the night – chicken mole.  This is a dish that is popular all over Mexico, being most popular in Oaxaca.  This wonderful dish is loaded with flavor, typically averaging over 20 ingredients in a given recipe (the recipe I used only has 15 ingredients).  There are a variety of flavors all working together in mole – you have the spiciness of chili powder and a chipotle chile in adobo sauce (recipe note: note that the recipe says ONE chile from the can, not the entire can; I think you could safely go with two for a little extra kick, however). There is also the unique spiciness of cumin, nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon contrasting with the earthiness of toasted sesame seeds and the richness of cocoa powder and peanut butter (the recipe called for 3 TB of cocoa powder – next time I’m adding an additional TB).   If you have never had mole before, this combination of ingredients may sound a little off-putting – I mean, chocolate and chicken? But I assure you, the results are amazing and like nothing you have ever tried.  I even left the raisins in, and I hate raisins.  This recipe in particular is super-easy to do – you simply put all the ingredients in your slow cooker, and let it cook for 5 hours.

Both of the main dishes are perfect for rolling up in tortillas.  Our Tucson friends brought up some of the best fresh tortillas in Arizona from Anita’s Street Market.

For our side, our Tucson friends also made homemade refried beans. (example).  Normally, the beans can take hours to prepare, but thanks to their pressure cooker, they were able to reduce the cooking time significantly.

After loading up on our main dishes, we enjoyed brownies with chipotle chile (example).  The dish contained a number of flavors common in Mexican food – as you can see from the mole, the combination of chocolate, cinnamon and chile is rather popular.  While it may sound odd to have chiles in your brownies, they do not make the brownies spicy; on the contrary, the chiles enhance the richness of the chocolate, giving the brownies a dark chocolate, fudgy flavor.  The hint of cinnamon balances everything out perfectly.  I also really loved these brownies because they are “proper” brownies – all too often, people either make them too fudgy or too cakey.  These were the perfect texture, so mad props to Rachael for baking them!

For our final dish of the night, we were blessed with the Latin American treat of Tres Leches Cake, made by our birthday girl of the evening, Angela.  Angela took the recipe from the wonderful Pioneer Woman web site (which you may remember, is where I got my pots de creme recipe last month) and made a few minor adjustments to the cake.  Her advice is as follows: “The yolks and sugar need to be beaten to look pale white, but also to the point that you can see the nascent batter trace on top of itself. The recipe doesn’t tell you that, but my hubby did. I inadvertently beat the egg whites a bit beyond ‘soft peaks,’ but it wasn’t the worst thing. I baked the cake, removed the cake to cool overnight in the refrigerator with a cotton gauze tea towel atop it, and returned it to the pan for easy transport. I added all of the three milks liquid, only realizing later that some sweetened condensed milk was still in its can. Finally, I did not use Maraschino cherries, as I don’t really like them.”

The cake was really phenomenal – it was spongey and the sauce was delighfuly gooey, however it wasn’t too much so (which I’ve ran into with other Tres Leches Cakes, and ew to a soggy cake). The topping was whipped cream, and even though we were all full, we basically devoured the entire sheet.

After all was said and done, I witnessed something I’ve never seen before at a Le Nom: every single person was sprawled out in our family room in a semi-coma watching Scooby Doo with the kids.  On the floor, on the couch – every one was stretched out, fat and happy.  That’s the only way to end an evening of Mexican food!

We are skipping Le Nom for July due to a number of conflicts regarding the 4th, however we are considering doing a Southern-style picnic on Mount Lemmon for August.  For those of you not in Arizona, Mount Lemmon is perhaps the coolest place you can find in southern Arizona (and houses the southern-most ski resort in the country).  As we hit temperatures of over 110, cooler weather in the pine trees sounds pretty amazing.

Until then? Don’t be afraid to be adventurous and daring in your kitchens! When all else fails, there is pizza, so why not try something new this weekend?