In my previous article about the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, I wrote about the intervention of the French and the famous Battle of Puebla, in which General Ignacio Zaragoza and his troops defeated the invaders.
This time I would like to elaborate more on the positive side that such an intervention left on the country and in the lives of its people during the span of just a few years. Mexican cuisine was greatly influenced by French Cuisine which, as we all know, is one of the best cuisines in the world. The French left a legacy of cream, mustard, cheese sauces and crepes that become a part of the everyday menu.
Just recently, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), named Mexican Cuisine an ‘intangible cultural patrimony of humanity,’ along with French gastronomy. Its creative use and the variety of native ingredients, not only chiles, but many distinct vegetables such as cuitlacoche, flor de calabaza (zucchini blossoms), nopales (cactus leaves/pads), quelites, huauzontles, chilacayotes, epazote, etc., blended with the Spanish and French influence, has resulted in a very complex cuisine recognized all over the world.
According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo‘s book La Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de la Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain), the existing diet in Pre-Hispanic times was balanced and diverse. Díaz del Castillo described small green and red vegetables that the Aztecs included with all their meals, some of which were fresh and others were left to dry in the sun for several days. It is safe to assume that he was referring to the mighty chile. The Spaniards very quickly incorporated the tasty chiles into their diets, combining them with ingredients they brought from the Old Country, such as oil and garlic.
At the beginning of the 20th. century and well into the l930′s during el porfiriato (the thirty years when President Porfirio Díaz was in power), the Mexican aristocracy fully embraced French cuisine. Carmelita Díaz, the president’s wife hired a French chef, after which the President who was born in Oaxaca, had to talk to their old cook on the side in order to get some Mexican antojitos and mole from Oaxaca once in a while!
A corn fungus also spelled huitlacoche, had been around since the days of the Aztecs and was only considered a delicacy after it was served as a crepe filling to the deposed Shah of Iran and his wife Farah Dibba, during a state visit to Mexico City in the 1970′s. In fact, when the menu was published in the newspaper the President’s wife, Doña Esther as she was often called, was highly criticized for offering our distinguished guests something considered more appropriate for peasants than for such dignitaries.Zucchini blossoms are widely used in Italy where they are cooked in many different ways. They are usually big enough that can be filled with other vegetables, breaded and then fried. In Mexico, they are smaller in size and are usually served in soups, quesadillas, budines (casseroles), and crepes.
As it turned out, the state dinner was quite a success and Doña Esther Echevarría was ultimately commended for the superb use of native ingredients, such as cuitlacoche and zucchini flowers, throughout the menu.
As is often the case, people then began to cook cuitlacoche more and more. Chefs in expensive restaurants devised new ways of serving it and now it is widely considered a delicacy of the highest order. Thus, resurrecting these wonderful indigenous ingredients.Crepes Filled with Cuitlacoche (Crepas Rellenas de Cuitlacoche)
In a small saucepan, heat the cuitlacoche and keep warm. In a separate saucepan, melt the butter, stir in the flour, and add the milk. Bring to a boil, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the sauce starts to thicken.
Remove from the heat. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Fill each crepe with 2 tablespoons of the prepared cuitlacoche, then roll up and place in an 8 x 12-inch rectangular baking dish.
Pour the white sauce over the crepes and top with a generous amount of cheese. Bake for about 8 minutes, or until the cheese melts and the crepes are heated through. Keep in mind that milk and cheese sauces tend to dry out very quickly, so be careful not to overbake the crepes.
Zucchini Blossom Soup (Sopa de Flor de Calabaza)
1 poblano chile, roasted, peeled and seeded
12 fresh zucchini blossoms or
1 (7 oz/220 g) can
2 tbsps. butter
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/3 cup chopped onion
4 cups chicken broth
1 zucchini, chopped
1 cup fresh or canned and drained corn kernels
Salt and pepper
1 cup Chihuahua or Monterey Jack cheese, cubed
Cut the chiles into 1/2 inch strips and set aside. Carefully remove and discard the pistil from the zucchini blossoms and, under running water gently wash the blossoms. Pat dry with paper towels and chop.
In a saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the garlic, onion, poblano strips, and zucchini blossoms until the vegetables are cooked and the onion is translucent. Add the chicken broth, zucchini, corn, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 5 to 8 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked but still firm.
Divide the soup among four bowls and top each one with cubed cheese. Serve hot.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a little more on history of Mexico, the legacy of the French, as well as the cuitlacoche and zucchini blossoms. Please comment below your thoughts, and what you’d like me to write about if you have any suggestions. I’d love to hear them!Maria Elena Cuervo-Lorens is the author of Mexican Culinary Treasures cookbook. She takes you back to her childhood, spent around her grandmother’s table on a shopping expedition with her mother to Mercado La Merced, and for a merienda (snack) of café con leche and biscochos (Mexican sweet rolls) at a bakery in downtown Mexico City. The authentic Mexican recipes she shares with us include tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas. The nouvelle cuisine of cosmopolitan Mexico City, such as cuitlacoche (huitlacohe) crepes, oysters with chipotle chile.