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Friday, November 15, 2002

More From Mexico

In all the times that I have been to Mexico no one has ever mentioned the city of Guanajuato. No one ever told me that Guanajuato is filled with shaded parks lined with outdoor cafes, with cathedrals and colonial architecture dating back hundreds of years, and with a vitality not apparent in most U.S. cities. No one has ever let me in on the secret that Guanajuato is one of the most beautiful cities not only in this country but in all of the Americas.

The name for this city comes from the native Indian term Quanax-huato which means, “Place of Frogs.” Statues of frogs are everywhere and their dense population could cause a lot of head scratching without this historical tidbit.

When you enter Guanajuato by car you will pass through miles of tunnels that were originally built to divert the river under the city. Now the river flows one level beneath the tunnels that are now used for automobile traffic. Traffic and parking are fierce here, as bad as any city in the U.S. The tunnels are a remarkable engineering feat. They are worth seeing but I wouldn’t recommend exploring them on foot, as the passages aren’t very well ventilated.

We only had a half a day to see the city so we didn’t see very much at all. We had lunch next door to the huge, neoclassical Juárez Theater just off the Jardin de la Union. We did the nickel walking tour and ended up in the gigantic indoor/outdoor Mercado Hidalgo, the city’s central market. A few more bootleg CD’s and then we had to set off to find where we had parked.

We had a 56-mile drive back to San Miguel and I wanted to get back before dark. It was another sunny late afternoon in El Bajío, the central highland plateau that stretches for hundreds of miles and almost as far south as Mexico City. We stopped to get something to drink at a roadside restaurant out in the country.

The place was completely empty at this time of day and the woman running the place, the only employee in evidence, seemed surprised to have visitors. We sat at a table outside with a great view of the countryside. It was one of those times when you had to be there. I couldn’t help but think how lucky my nephew was for being able to see so much of the world at such an early age. He probably won’t fully appreciate this little restaurant in the Mexican countryside until years from now. Something will spark his memory and he’ll remember sitting outside on a perfect evening in November.

MARTHA STEWART HAS NOTHING ON CONCHA

I mentioned that I wanted to learn how to make Mole, a dish I believe is of Mayan origin. Concha offered to come by the house and walk me through her version of this Mexican classic. She rattled off a confusing list of items (I don’t know what many of them are called in English let alone in Spanish). She saw the exasperated look on my face and said she would get everything so all I had to shop for was the chicken that accompanies the Mole.

For me, I can’t imagine a more rewarding cultural experience than having someone teach me to cook a dish very representative of that country in the language of that country. When she set out all of the ingredients for this dish on the kitchen counter I thought that perhaps I was in over my head. It is easier than the long list of ingredients suggest.

MOLE CONCHA

For the chicken:

Whole chicken cut into pieces and skinned.
1 Onion
2 cloves garlic
Several sprigs of cilantro
Salt

Fill a large pot with water and boil. Add above ingredients, cover, and let boil for about 25-30 minutes.

For the Mole

About 10 large dried chilies, stemmed and seeded
About a handful of pumpkin seeds and peanuts (all nuts unsalted)
2 table spoons of sesame seeds
6-7 almonds
3-4 cloves
2 bay leaves
2 inch piece of cinnamon
About a domino-size piece of sweet baking chocolate
Oregano
About 6 tomatillos
½ onion
1 clove garlic

Boil the chilies in about 4 cups of water for about 20 minutes. Toast the seeds separately in a skillet. Blend all of the ingredients together in a food processor along with the water from the boiled chilies. Add some chicken stock to the blender to liquefy the ingredients. Put the liquefied mixture in a large pot. Transfer the chicken pieces to this pot and cook for about ten minutes.

For the Rice

Brown 1 cup of rice in a pot with about 1 tablespoon of oil. Liquefy 2 Italian tomatoes, ½ onion, and ½ clove of garlic and add to the rice. Add about 2 cups of the stock from the boiled chicken to the rice and when this boils lower the temperature and cook covered. Do not stir. Cook rice to your preferred consistency.

Concha served the chicken on a bed of lettuce with the sauce poured over the chicken and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Serve with the rice and corn tortillas.

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