May 22, 2009

My Sister's Graduation Fiesta

On Saturday May 16, my family hosted a graduation party for my younger sister Renee. This post is dedicated to her.
Special thanks to Rhys Stover for all the fabulous photos.

After all those late nights finishing assignments and cramming for tests she had finally done it--Renee graduated from college. Her achievements as a student, as well as her personal integrity, passion and commitment demonstrate that she will do great things in life. I am convinced that some day she will become a big name in the film industry, living the life in NYC.

The graduates, Renee and her boyfriend Rhys

Graduation is definitely a time to celebrate with a big bash and who better to host it than your own loving family? Naturally, being the family cook I was designated the chef de cuisine. This meant that it was entirely up to me to come up with a menu that is crowd pleasing, delicious, and reflects our unique upbringing on the Mexican border. I am quite familiar with the graduate’s palate, as it is similar to mine, so it was relatively easy to agree on a super traditional, rustic Mexican menu with the freshest ingredients. I will point out now that I could not have done this alone. The preparation and cooking was definitely a team effort, especially with the help of my awesome sous chefs, my Mom and sister Dani.

When it comes to traditional Mexican cooking, the cookbooks of Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy are virtually infallible. These two Mexican culinary experts have exposed the world to true Mexican food, which is remarkably varied and rich, unlike the monotonous, greasy versions available at many U.S. restaurants. As with other national cuisines, Mexican food varies by region depending on local climate and geography, as well as ethnic differences among indigenous inhabitants and the degree of Spanish or other cultural influences.

Traditional Mexican food was heated over an open fire with cast iron or ceramic pots. Nuts, seeds and spices were ground by hand in a molcajete (mortar and pestle) and added to sauces. Tomato and avocado salsas, corn tortillas, beans, tamales, tropical fruits, chilies and chocolate were sold in the Aztec market places. It wasn’t until the conquistadores arrived in what is now Mexico City that beef, chicken, dairy, garlic, rice and wheat were introduced to the cuisine. With an array of flavorful ingredients, the early natives got to work on perfecting regional Mexican dishes that still thrive today.

Mole has become known as the national dish of Mexico and is usually associated with the regions of Puebla and Oaxaca. Mole poblano—the famous rich, thick, chocolate-tinged sauce—is a combination of the flavors of Mexican history. The term mole actually means concoction and its origin remains disputed—many believe that it was a fortuitous accident. It is not unheard of for mole recipes to call for more than 30 ingredients which are all pounded, blended and simmered together to make a thick, flavorful sauce. Many Mexican women have their own mole recipe, which was passed down from her mother. Historically, the recipes were usually made in large batches and the final step involved taking the mole to neighborhood grinders or molinos to form a smooth sauce.

The cultivation of beans in Mexican history happened early on, with ample protein to sustain growing populations. In fact, cultivation began around 5000 B.C. and along with corn, completed the staple diet of the indigenous people. Contrary to what many people believe, there are many regional variations in the preparation and type of beans. Mexican food is not always accompanied by refried beans! Pink and pinto beans are popular in the north and black beans are more common in the south of Mexico. Personally, one of my favorite meals is a big bowl of slow-cooked frijoles de la olla with some kind of grain (rice, quinoa, barley, etc).
Below is a description of the menu for the party.


with chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro see recipe below
Rick Bayless's Roasted Tomato-Jalapeno Salsa click here for the recipe
Tortilla Chips
Zanahorias y ajo en escabeche (Spicy pickled carrots and garlic) see recipe below

Main dishes

Rick Bayless's Peanut Mole Enchiladas with Braised Greens and Potatoes
click here for the recipe
Diana Kennedy's pork stew in red chili sauce click here for the recipe
Tamales (shredded beef and green corn)


Frijoles negros refritos ("refried" black beans) see recipe below
Arroz verde (green rice) click here for the recipe
Salad with mixed greens, red onion, oranges and jicama


Mexican wedding cookies
see recipe below
Mexican chocolate crackle cookies
from Sur la Table's The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet
Very tangy lime bars
from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

Guacamole with chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro

Serves 4-6

2 ripe Hass avocadoes
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
½ small white onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ medium tomato, diced
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
½ jalapeno, finely chopped
Freshly ground pepper

1. Cut avocadoes in half and scoop out the flesh into a medium bowl. Mash avocado until smooth and creamy. Stir in salt and lime juice.
3. Rinse onion under cold water to reduce its potency.
4. Add the remaining ingredients. Taste and season with additional salt, pepper or lime juice if desired.

Zanahorias y ajo en escabeche (Spicy pickled carrots and garlic)

¼ cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
5 black peppercorns
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 cloves garlic coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1-7 ounce can whole pickled jalapenos, with juices reserved
1 lb carrots, sliced diagonally about ½ inch thick
2 yellow onions, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
25 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 cups cider vinegar

1. Heat oil in a large pot. Add bay leaves and peppercorns and cook 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally (do not let bay leaves brown). Reduce heat and stir in oregano and chopped garlic, stir until garlic is slightly golden.
2. Add salt, jalapeno juice, carrots and enough water to cover by 1 inch. Simmer for 5 minutes until carrots soften but are still crunchy.
3. Remove from heat and add onions, jalapenos, garlic, and vinegar. Stir to combine and allow to cool. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours for best results.

Frijoles Negros Refritos

This is the best recipe that I have come up with for cooking black beans--it is very flavorful and much lighter than traditional refried beans cooked with lard. The epazote is not essential but adds a wonderful, unique flavor to traditional Mexican black beans. You can find dried epazote at specialty Mexican markets or Whole Foods. I love having a pot of beans on hand. These black beans are delicious in a bowl with brown rice, avocado and salsa or spread on a crunchy corn tortilla.

1 lb dried black beans, washed and picked over
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons dried epazote, tied in cheesecloth
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Crumbled queso fresco (optional)

1. Place beans in large stockpot and add water to cover by 2 inches. Stir in onion, garlic, and epazote in cheesecloth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until beans are tender, about 2 hours. Every 30 minutes stir gently and add more water to make sure beans are covered by at least 1-2 inches.
2. When beans are just about tender add 1 teaspoon salt and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Discard epazote.
3. Drain beans, reserving cooking liquid. In same pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add beans and fry in oil about 2 minutes. Begin to mash beans, gradually adding cooking liquid until beans are slightly soupy. Add additional salt to taste. Top with queso fresco.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Originally introduced to Mexico by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, these shortbread cookies are enjoyed during special celebrations in Mexico, such as weddings, quincenieras, baptisms and religious holidays.

Makes 2 dozen

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
Pinch of salt

1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup walnuts or pecans, lightly toasted and then finely ground

½ cup confectioners’ sugar for dusting and rolling

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Cream butter until fluffy. Add confectioners' sugar, salt and vanilla; beat until smooth.

2. Gradually stir in flour. Add the nuts and mix until just incorporated.

3. Shape dough into 1" balls. Place about 1" apart on a cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes or until edges are lightly brown, turning sheet half way through so that cookies bake evenly.

4. Once the cookies have cooled slightly, roll in confectioners' sugar.

Additional pictures...


  1. holy mole, lesley!

    this was super in depth and incredibly nice of you. about half way through my belly started to get crazy hungry and it hasn't stopped - it craves your delicious pork stew and spicy carrots. haha. i'm so glad you liked the photos =)

    i look forward to the next time your food and i meet!

  2. I couldn't have asked for a better caterer. Seriously. And a post dedication? Well it's all just too much. But seriously, we had the best party ever, with the best mexican wedding cookies I've ever had. Seriously.

    Am I repeating myself?

    Thanks Les, for everything.