Meso’s Reads

We recently came across an Eater interview with Rick Bayless discussing his Mexican culinary research library. It’s a collection of rare cookbooks, 30 years in the making. Some of these books provided the historical inspirations for his new menu at Topolobambo, which explores different culinary traditions from different periods in Mexican history. His first foray is Mexico City, 1491. We can’t wait to try some of the recipes. Maybe we can sneak into the library while we are there…

Speaking of Rick Bayless: we noticed that his restaurant XOCO has added a new dessert to their menu. Last month they added bacon-caramel corn balls to the mix. These desserts are made with Nichols Farm caramel, bacon, and ancho chiles. Now where have we heard of that idea before? 

 

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Mole-Spice Chocolate Glaze

When we first learned that brownies are a Chicago invention, our minds were a little blown. Those fudgy rich bricks seemed so ubiquitous and ingrained in picnic culture, we never thought to question their origin. Danny immediately stated, as if fact, “Mole brownies.”

Our first attempt at creating a brownie that captured the depth and spice of mole was an inedible mess. Our second and third attempts were not much better. Others have succeeded at this, causing us to question our efforts at reinvention. We were frustrated. We learned an important lesson from our failures—go back to the source and start again.

Bertha Honoré Palmer, philanthropist and businesswoman, tasked her chef with developing a new dessert in relation to the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, held in 1893 in Chicago. The exquisite result, now known as the brownie, originally involved a tangy-sweet glaze made of apricot preserves and gelatin, poured hot over baked brownies, and then cooled before serving. The Palmer House Hotel still prepares their brownies this way.

We decided to create a mole-spice glaze inspired by the final step of original recipe that still makes it unique to Chicago. Ours is spicy and slightly bitter, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and a pinch of salt. Try it on your favorite brownies, whether store-bought, from a box, or from scratch. It’s the perfect complement.

Here’s our recipe:

Mole-Spice Chocolate Glaze

1 guajillo pepper
1 ancho pepper
2 anise stars
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
½ teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoon light corn syrup
¾ cup dark baking chocolate
¼ cup raw cane sugar
handful of pumpkin seeds

In a pan over medium-low heat, toast the peppers, anise, and sesame seeds until fragrant. Grind them together (we used a blender), and combine with cinnamon and ½ teaspoon of salt.

In a double boiler, combine chocolate, butter, and corn syrup, stirring until smooth. Add spice mix and vanilla. Adjust sweetness to your liking with sugar (but we recommend you retain some of the bitterness). You may need to add a little more butter to retain the silky texture.

Toast the pumpkin seeds separately, over medium-low heat. After you have poured the glaze, sprinkle with toasted seeds and a pinch of salt.Danny-Pumpkin-seedsOur taste-testers called it “rich,” “smoky,” and “ethnic-tasting somehow.” They continued, “The roasted flavor complements the bitterness of chocolate,” and “this becomes more than just the sum of its parts.”

Thanks so much to our fearless taste-testers, we couldn’t do this without you.

Meso’s Reads

Here are a few things Meso has read/listened to recently:

We enjoyed making (and eating) our Chicago Mixed popcorn recipe. NPR tells us a little more about the history of popcorn. Apparently the Aztecs had a word for the popping sounds of popcorn – totopoca.

In preparation for our Mole Brownie recipe (stay tuned), we stumbled across this wonderful souvenir book created by the Board of Lady Manager’s of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The board was headed by Bertha Palmer, the wife of Chicago business man and hotelier Potter Palmer. Bertha was also the spark for the invention of the brownie. Check out this digital version of the book, which is a compilation of autographed recipes by the female representatives from all over the United States. There are some interesting (and odd) recipes. We were especially  interested in the recipes coming from New Mexico, like the recipe for Tamales de Dulce, which was written in Spanish!

We have been listening to a lot of NPR recently, and Scott Simon recently interviewed conjunto musical legend Flaco Jimenez about his recent musical collaboration with Max Baca. Conjunto is a wonderful mixture of Mexican and German music. As Scott Simon says, conjunto “can be as American as cherry pie.”

Guillermo Gómez-Peña is a performance artist, most known for La Pocha Nostra and The Couple in the Cage with Coco Fusco. Recently we read his essay, Multicultural Paradigm: Open Letter to the National Arts Communitywritten in the early 90s. It’s an interesting commentary on the emergence of Latino culture into the public sphere and the development of what he calls “border culture.”  The essay analyzes the collision, opposition, and fusion of cultures in the United States, a topic we are also wrestling with here at Meso. While written over twenty years ago, much of Gómez-Peña’s essay still resonates with current events.

Chicago’s Best

We just completed another Meso event, full of spices and chocolate, with much more to report. But first, one of our conversations about favorite restaurants inspired me to post something that’s been on my mind ever since Chicago Magazine published their list of The 8 Best Mexican Restaurants in Chicago.

This list is fascinating. I have so many questions. For example, how many Mexican restaurants did they sample, and with what range of dishes? What was the geographic boundary they used when defining “Chicago?” Why the number 8? How did they define “Mexican?”

Why did they feel so definitively confident that these are The 8 Best Mexican Restaurants in Chicago?

I also wonder how the editors would respond to the comments posted in response to the article, specifically the fact that restaurants in areas of Chicago with high percentages of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants, such as Little Village and Pilsen, are conspicuously absent. Or that seven of the eight restaurants on the list received fewer than three stars, or below a “very good” rating. To further complicate the matter, Chicago Magazine had recently published this mouthwatering and thoughtful compendium of tacos places in Chicago, with depth and understanding that makes this list all the more mystifying.

The purpose of this post is not to lambast another’s opinion about food. It’s to question the parameters that are assumed about cuisine. More pointedly, I ask if these preconceptions reflect assumptions about culture itself. What does this list say about visibility and understanding of Mexican culture in Chicago?

At Meso, we talk about dining experiences pretty frequently, and last Sunday we asked our guests to tell us about their favorite restaurants and what they love about them. Answers included comments about accessibility, comfort, confidence, freshness, with emphasis on personal experience as well as quality of food. Of course, these lists are always subjective. But we prefer to question our preferences with the hope that it brings us closer to truth, or at least to understanding.

Tell us about your favorite restaurants, Mexican or otherwise, and why you love them!
–Christina

Wintry Mexican Iced Coffee

We are thrilled to present the top-rated recipe from last week’s Meso event:

Mexican Iced Coffeemeso-horchata
equal parts spicy horchata and cold-brew coffee
1 pinch of salt
1 shot of dark rum
ice
Combine in a tall glass, enjoy!

Spicy Horchata
2/3 cup rice (any type–we used short grain white rice, try a few to see what you like!)
1 1/4 cup almonds, blanched
a 3-inch piece of cinnamon stick
2 ½ cups hot tap water
2 cups cold water
1 cup raw cane sugar
1 guajillo pepper, toasted
1 ancho pepper, toasted
star anise, toasted

In a large bowl combine rice, almonds, cinnamon stick and 2 ½ cups of hot tap water. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
After toasting the peppers and anise, blend them until they are a medium-coarse consistency.
Add the rice, almond, and cinnamon mixture into the blender, add the sugar, and blend on high for several minutes.
Strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth, squeezing on the solids until only a dry pulp remains. Repeat straining process with additional two cups of cold water.

Cold Brew Coffee
1 1lb bag of coarse ground coffee, medium roast
10 cups of cold water
Combine the two in a pitcher and stir with a wooden spoon. Cover and leave overnight to steep at room temperature, for up to 12 hours. Drain through a sieve. This can also be made in smaller batches with a ratio of 2/3 cup grounds and 3 cups water.

This recipe was probably inspired by the “heat wave” we had the last few days in Chicago, where temperatures reached somewhere above 30 degrees. We were sick of scalding our mouths with our coffee! However, our guests Tait and Clarence warmed their drinks in the microwave and found they preferred them that way.

The mole-spiced brownies, our featured recipe, and inspired by the original brownie created for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, were a little more complicated. We are still sorting through the ratings and going back to recipes to try to figure out what went so weirdly wrong. As I spooned out shapeless blobs of spicy chocolate onto our guests’ plates, Danny only half-joked, “We’re dying a little inside right now.” However, our amazing guests had quite a bit of positive feedback for us, and we love them for it. More on that soon!

13 Dishes That Aren’t Mexican? Well…

I was inspired to post Buzzfeed’s 13 Dishes That Aren’t Actually Mexican to highlight a major part of what Meso is about. If you read the list, you’ll notice that a majority of these non-Mexican foods come from Texas, California, or another southwestern state. Now, these states of course are part of the United States, but before 1848 and the Mexican-American War, they were part of Mexico. Since then, the southwest has maintained a rich cultural tradition, combining elements of Mexican, Native American, and European cultures (don’t forget the Asian influences in California) and creating unique, regional recipes. At our Meso events we talk about the differences between Tex-Mex, New Mexican, and Californian-Mexican foods. They each have their particular flavors, but their existence is heavily tied to the strong traditions of Mexican cuisine.

The links between Mexican-American and Mexican food point out Buzzfeed’s ham-fisted definition of “Mexican” food. One of the things Meso is trying to explore is Mexican cuisine’s global influences. Gustavo Arellano (author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America), Rick Bayless, and Patricia Jinich (host of Pati’s Mexican Table) constantly talk about the French, Spanish, Jewish, and Native American influences that have inspired Mexican food, truly making it a global cuisine. If we want to nitpick, we could go back and claim many traditional Mexican dishes’ origins lie outside Mexico. And, the same could be said about some “classic” American foods like apple pie, hamburgers, or macaroni and cheese.

The point is, Meso is trying to explore the blurred lines between food and culture. Buzzfeed’s article scratches the surface (albeit lazily). It’s exciting (and delicious) to try and trace foods and recipes back to their progenitor. But, what we are uncovering more and more is that it’s not so easy to find just one, and it’s pretty messy. Just like cooking.

-Danny

Meso’s Reads

Below are a few articles we’ve read this week:

Here is an 2009 NPR article discussing Gustavo Arellano’s book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Arellano’s book has definitely inspired us!

A NYTimes  article from 2009 about Patricia Jinich – from the television show Pati’s Mexican Table – discusses her Jewish-Mexican background and her evolution as a cook. Check out Pati’s website for some delicious recipes and cooking tips. We especially like her blog posts breaking down the basics of Mexican food.

And finally, have a look at NPR’s Code Switch Blog where guest blogger Alex Schmidt also talks about her experiences with Jewish-Latin cuisine. Her chicken soup recipe sounds like just the thing for the cold winter days we are having.

Authenticity?

During our first Meso event we also had a discussion, opening the floor to critiques of the palomitas recipes. What we discussed was the role of authenticity in food. Does it exist? Before beginning Meso, Christina and I mulled over the idea of what the concept of “authentic” means in practice, both in culture and in food. What we were stuck between were two ideas: one, that there is no “real authenticity;” whatever one makes is authentic. Two: where the dish originated is truly the “authentic” version. Yet, this dichotomy seems overly simplistic, does this leave room for a hybridity of “authentic” things? In the United States, we are a mish-mash of cultures, so there is bound to be a jumbling of what we might call authentic, right? Christina and I are both aware of the grey areas often created by cultures colliding, so can we draw the line when approaching authenticity in food? Is there even a line? Should there be a line? These are the things that keep us up at night here at Meso.

During our discussion, we talked a lot about who makes authentic food, where it comes from, and some of the certain foods we consider authentic. One of our guests made a comment that summarized the spirit of the conversation: narratives created from (authentic) personal experiences with food seem to trump food made in an authentic, or what is perceived to be in an authentic way. I was really drawn to this comment. If you ask most Chicagoans what their favorite Chicago-style hot dog stand is, you will get a variety of answers. I remember arguing with friends of mine who grew up in Chicago, went to the same high school, and lived about a ten-minute drive from each other on the city’s northwest side. Yet, they had very different opinions about what the best Chicago-style hot dog is, arguing that as far as they were concerned  the place closest to their house was the ONLY hot dog to be consumed in Chicago. On the surface it would seem that there can’t possibly be that much difference between different all-beef dogs, with yellow mustard, white onions, pickle relish, a dill pickle, tomato slices, sport peppers, a dash of celery salt, all on very similar buns. However, these guys swore up and down the merits of their particular favorite dog, the one they grew up with. “The one they grew up with.” I think this is a really important aspect that we will have to consider in our future Meso projects: the role of memory and the narrative derived from it.

To truly experience food, we use our senses: sight, sound, touch, and of course taste. But, I sometimes forget how our senses can open memories for us. For me it’s the memory of my abuelita handmaking tortillas at 5 am, preparing for that day’s breakfast. The sight of her working from the small light above the stove, the sound of the pit-pat in her hands and the sizzle on the griddle, the pieces of masa stuck to her hands as she created balls to flatten, or how she put a little butter on the hot and fresh tortilla to feed me. To me, that’s an authentic way to make tortillas. Is it the authentic way? Of course not. Does that make the store bought tortillas not authentic? No. One of my earliest memories is going to the local Mexican grocery store with my Dad in Milwaukee and buying El Rey tortillas – watching as he went through boxes and boxes of the plastic wrapped bundles, searching for the freshest. We would then enjoy some tacos that came in red plastic baskets lined in wax paper from the taqueria in the back of the store. For me, both tortillas – the homemade and the store bought – serve as authentic. Authentic in the memories they conjure, which bring back the tastes, sights, sounds, and loved ones involved.
Meso_Urbinas

In our search for the authentic, we find nostalgia. Here nostalgia plays a key role in how we each define authenticity. Whether it’s me yearning for tortillas, an immigrant trying to recreate a recipe from the mother country, or my friends trying to find a hot dog that beats the one they ate as a kid, there are powerful sentiments at play in those experiences. I think nostalgia is great, as it allows for each of us to be able to define our cultural authenticity, which allows for multiple authenticities and personal narratives to coexist. Out of these unique conditions can arise different hybridities of experience. To me, this is great because we can explore food, customs, and narratives. This ability might be the true spirit of being American.

Moving forward I want to explore the “multiplicity of authenticity” (bear with us, we are still working out what this means), which allows us to enjoy all our narratives of authentic experience, regardless of how they are made.

Do you have a favorite authentic memory about a recipe? What does authentic food look like to you? Let us know what you think.

–Danny

Palomitas

Sunday marked our inaugural Meso event, celebrating corn as integral to Mexican cuisine and a staple of Midwestern agriculture. We welcomed our preliminary guinea pigs, friends and family members Vicki, Scott, Vanessa, Sam, Moe, Kiyoto, Sam, Kelley, Elodi, Megha, Anna, Francisco, Felipe, and Walter. Our guests drank Café de Olla, warming their hands and mouths as they became better acquainted. After a few remarks, we distributed rating cards and allowed our testers to begin their hard work.

Café de Olla
1 quart of water
⅔ cups coffee, coarsely ground
4 oz piloncillo
1 stick of cinnamon

Bring water with sugar and cinnamon to a boil. Once boiling, remove from heat and pour in ground coffee. Stir and let steep for 5 minutes. Pour through fine mesh sieve to separate grounds from coffee. Serves 3.

Our group rated this recipe an 8.4 out of 10, calling it “comforting,” “spicy,” and “molassmas.” One tester said, “Literally never had better coffee in my life. This would keep me warm all winter.” Thanks! We like you too.

On to the popcorn.Palomitas_02-2

Elote Palomitas
1 cup popcorn kernels
2 sticks of unsalted butter
2 packets of mac and cheese powdered cheese (we used Annie’s Homegrown White Cheddar)
1 T garlic powder
1 t salt
2 T guajillo chili powder
1 T other chili powder of your choice (we used Nanami Togarishis Assorted Chili Pepper)
2 T fresh lime zest

Pop your kernels however you’d like! We popped them in the microwave, ¼ cup at a time, but you can also use the stove or an air popper. Put them in a big paper grocery bag, preferably one with handles. Melt butter with one pack of mac and cheese powdered cheese. Slowly drizzle the butter mixture over the popcorn, gently shaking the bag as you add the butter. Add the second packet of cheese, garlic, salt, chili powders, shaking the bag between each addition. Adjust the seasonings to your liking. At the very end, add the fresh lime zest, shake once more, and serve.

This recipe was the crowd’s overall favorite, giving it a solid 9 out of 10. Every single member in our creative group said yes, they would make this recipe for their friends. They called it “zesty,” “bright,” “4-H Fair,” “surprise,” and “suede.” Some noted that the flavors came in “stages,” and another suggested we cut down on the butter. Everyone agreed that the lime zest was the key to transcendent popcorn.

Our next popcorn was a caramel corn–an homage to Chicago as the birthplace of Cracker Jacks.

Cajeta Corn
1 cup popcorn kernels
2 cups cajeta (we made ours with goat milk and cane sugar, but we also tried Coronado brand Cajeta Quemada and it was excellent)
½ stick butter

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees F. Pop the corn and place it in a large bowl (we divided this into two batches). Heat the cajeta and butter in a saucepan over low heat, stirring until well blended and very smooth (this should only take a few minutes). Drizzle over popcorn, stirring it to coat as evenly as possible. Spread evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (again, we divided between two baking sheets), and bake for approximately 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes. Serve!

This recipe received an 8.4 and our tasters called it “warming,” “addictive,” “Halloween,” and “complex.” Many noted the subtle goat flavor and loved that it was still a little warm when we served it.Palomitas_01-2Variations
We were too excited (and hungry) to simply stop there, so our next popcorn was a variation on the elote popcorn. We used the same ingredients, but swapped out a lime butter for regular butter. To make the lime butter, we melted 1 stick of butter with the juice of three limes. Although the group liked the additional lime flavor, they rated this a 7.6, noting that we really like butter–perhaps a little too much. We agreed, and recommend cutting back! They called it “spunky,” “tangy,” “lime-tastic,” and, well, “buttery.”

Finally, our last popcorn was a variation of the cajeta popcorn, this time with bacon–a shout-out to the “hog butcher for the world,” our fair city, elegantly nicknamed by Carl Sandburg. We cooked four slices of bacon, and stirred in the bacon fat with the cajeta instead of butter. Then we crumbled the bacon in with the caramel and baked it like the last one. Our guests rated it an 8.2 and one amazingly nicknamed it “pigoat.” Other comments included “VELVET,” “smooth,” “male,” and “soothing.” One guest suggested we try other meats like chorizo or pancetta. Yes, we love this idea.

But more than this delightful feedback, our group gave us very real and meaningful insight to a question we posed: What role does authenticity play in food? We will need a bit more time to digest the amazing discussion and comments we received in response. More soon on this, we promise.

The evening ended with guests making their own Chicago Mix popcorns, playing off of the combination of cheese and caramel corn that Garrett Shops sell. Their version is trademarked. That’s fine, we’re calling ours The Chicago Mixed, a celebration of hybridity and multiplicity in identity. Zesty-cajeta-lime-chili-bacon-suede-Chicago-Mexican corn.

Try our recipes at home and let us know your thoughts. What did you try? We’d love to hear about your variations!
–Christina and Danny
Palomitas_03-2
Photos courtesy of Elodi and Vicki.

Welcome to Meso

In this project, we set out to celebrate our hybrid identities and call out to each of us who have felt like we’re in the middle, neither this nor that, but something of two or more, and still distinctly American. There is a reason we chose to communicate through food. For those of us living with mixed-race identity in the United States, it is a fitting metaphor for experience–mixed, concocted, politicized, appropriated, and of course, consumed. Food’s very nature allows for alterations to the recipe, improvements, mistakes, and quickly the “authenticity” of a dish becomes muddled. And, in the end, food brings us together like nothing else.

With this and much more in mind, we present Meso, an exploration of Mexican-Chicago cuisine.

This project is a test kitchen. Our process is collaborative and inclusive. We seek people who are interested in exploring identity, making connections between foods and cultures, and are not afraid of bizarre, spicy, frothy, heavy, exquisite, charred, or whatever else might describe the concoctions coming from our chefs’ baking dishes. Our participants give honest feedback and input on food, collectively deciding which recipes are published on this site.

Thank you for joining us.