02/05/2015

Eva’s Kitchen, San Pancho, Mexico

  • Field Notes

Writer and photographer, Laura Hobbs, spent six weeks traveling around Mexico. She spent most of her time in San Francisco, lovingly nicknamed “San Pancho,” where she learned to cook a few local dishes. Here she introduces us to her teacher Eva and the wonderful food she cooks.

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My eyes are beginning to burn as the chile-infused air fills the small kitchen. Eva coughs, lets out her sharp cackle and says a quick chirp to Ligia, today’s designated translator. Ligia smiles. “When you start to cough,” she says to the rest of us through glassy eyes, “you know it’s done.”

Eva lifts the frying pan from the burner, popping with tomatillos, serranos, jalapeños and onions, and dumps the contents into her blender, a burgundy Hamilton-Beach that’s seen better days and sharper blades. To the blender she adds roasted poblano, expertly peeled by a classmate, a beautiful woman with chopped gray hair and hands adorned with silver rings.

Pepper Church

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After a quick table-setting, we sit down to the day’s meal, a vibrant and collective effort. By now, many of us are sweating from the combined heat of the food and the day. This morning is especially hot and humid; the past two days of torrential rains have left the ground soggy and the air thick, the sun now searing through the last remaining clouds.

I stay after class to help Eva with the dishes, rinsing them in the washboard basin that overlooks her wildly overgrown back yard. Conversation is minimal, but smiles are shared openly. My Spanish proficiency is equivalent to that of a two year old, my sentences ill-constructed and peppered with sí, gracias and por favor, the three words that tumble most easily from my mouth. When the dishes are done, I thank Eva and tell her I’ll be at her restaurant Friday night for posole. My walk home is short, a two minute trek up Calle Egypt’s cobblestones and across the empty town plaza.

This was my third cooking class with Eva. We’ve been in San Pancho three weeks, already a third of the way through our two-month Mexican journey. Over four days in January, we drove the 1,700 miles from our doorstep in Boulder, Colorado to the sleepy streets of San Francisco – lovingly nicknamed San Pancho by locals – in Mexico’s western state of Nayarit. We’re renting a modest apartment a stone’s throw from the beach, and spend our days doing what’s hardest for two restless workaholics: nothing. In a month, we’ll load up the van and head northwest for the second half of our journey, a road trip up the Baja peninsula.

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Ceviche car

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San Pancho is perched on Mexico’s pristine Pacific coastline, lying only three miles north of its more popular and fiesta-focused neighbor, Sayulita. The dense jungle of the Sierra Madre foothills lies to the east, delivering fresh water from mountain streams to the town’s estuary. With one main street and no stoplights, San Pancho is home to around 1,600 residents, at least half of those either dogs or chickens.

Life in San Pancho is sleepy and slow. Tourism’s throng sticks to the rowdier towns of Sayulita and points south, with the throng’s ground zero in downtown Puerto Vallarta, about an hour away via a two-lane jungle road. San Pancho offers a few modest restaurants, surf shops that open when they feel like it, and a fishmonger who sells the day’s catch from a well-traveled Igloo cooler in his back yard. Locals like to cook and commune, selling homemade gorditas, tacos and other handheld snacks from their patios. The pounding surf – too swift and dangerous for most surfers – echoes through the town’s westerly streets.

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I discovered Eva’s cooking class while eating at her taco stand on one of our first nights in town. Eva offers tacos, chiles rellenos, volcanes and other fare from her streetside setup of plastic furniture and a propane-fired griddle. Pink-cheeked and giggly, Eva hosts her guests with a casual, motherly demeanor, making small talk between shifts at the griddle in a hazy mix of Spanish and English that keeps you on your toes. “You wann’oo eet?” is often followed with a swish of Spanglish and laughter.

Each Wednesday, eager and hungry gringas gather around Eva’s cooktop to learn the secrets of her trade, stumbling through her Spanish-only instruction and learning new vocabulary, new ingredients, and the value of gesturing. Before class, she serves each of her guests a cup of hot coffee with cinnamon, ladled from her traditional terra-cotta vessel. It’s hot, weak by American standards, and delicious. As she works, we watch her carefully, narrating her every move in English, Eva nodding along with our observations and occasionally correcting our miscalculations, albeit in Spanish.

When Eva’s son left for college (a rare privilege for most young Mexicans), he didn’t have a computer. To help with the cost of a laptop, Eva opened her kitchen – an open-air, orange stucco affair that looks east into Nayarit’s dense jungle – to patrons and fans to teach what she’d been doing her entire life: cooking traditional Mexican food. In just four weeks, she’d raised the money; demand was so great, she kept going. Weeks turned into months, and months turned into years.

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Eva Pot copy

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In my six weeks of Eva’s lessons, I learned her secrets to boiling shrimp (add lime juice to the water), pressing tortillas (it’s all about the thickness), and cooking with garlic (leave the cloves whole), just to name a few. I also met a lively and dynamic group of women who embrace Mexico’s handmade and heartfelt food and culture as much as I do. But best of all, I met Eva, a hard-working and energetic Mexican woman who turned her love into her business, and made the best from the obstacles that many young Mexican mothers face.

On our last night in San Pancho, Eva’s working hard at her pop-up food stand in the town plaza, shuffling plates of chiles rellenos and tacos to hungry music festival goers. Over the loud live music, I tell her of our plans to leave for Baja in the morning. The corners of her mouth turn down in an exaggerated frown and she mimics crying, telling me she’ll always remember me and my camera. This sweet and funny gesture puts a lump in my throat. I smile. She puts her hands up to her face and mimes taking my picture, and I do the same for one last time.

Salsa de Cafe

5 dried Guajillo chiles
5-10 dried Arbol chiles (depending on how hot you like it)
2 lb. tomatillos, cleaned and rinsed
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. instant coffee
2 Tbs. cooking oil
Salt to taste

In a large pot of salted water, boil the whole tomatillos until they’re soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. Reserve about a cup of the cooking water.

In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the Guajillo chiles and toss in the hot oil to soften, about 90 seconds. Remove the chiles from the pan.

Add the Arbol chiles to the pan and toss them in the oil to soften, about 90 seconds. Add the Arbol chiles to the Guajillo chiles and set aside. Reserve the oil in the frying pan.

In a blender, blend the cooked tomatillos until liquified. Pour the liquified tomatillos into a bowl and set aside. In the same blender, add the softened chiles and about 1/3 of the liquified tomatillos and blend until a paste forms. (If you need more tomatillos to form a paste, add them.)

In a large saucepan, add the infused oil from the frying pan, turning the heat to medium-low. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the chile/tomatillo paste from the blender to the saucepan, then add the remaining liquified tomatillos. Add the reserved tomatillo water to the saucepan and the instant coffee. Simmer for 2 minutes and remove from the heat. Serve with the croquettes, or just use as a hot sauce on most anything!

Salsa de Tres Chiles (muy picante!)

12 tomatillos, cleaned, rinsed and halved
1 clove garlic, whole
1/2 white onion, sliced
1 bunch cilantro
2 poblano peppers
2 large jalapeño chiles, chopped into large chunks
4 serrano chiles, chopped into large chunks
1/2 c. cooking oil (your choice) , divided
1 heaping Tbs. chicken boullion, powdered
1/2 Tbs. ground black pepper

On a gas grill, gas range or in the broiler, char the poblano peppers until the skin is blistered and blackened on all sides. Place the poblanos in a sealed plastic bag and allow them to steam for about 10-15 minutes (this helps to peel the skin off easier.)

In a frying pan, heat 2 Tbs. of the cooking oil over med-high heat. Add the onion and whole garlic clove and cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped jalapeños and serranos to the pan and cook about a minute. Add the chopped tomatillos and cook a minute longer. Lower the heat to medium-low and allow to slowly sauté for 5 minutes. “When you start to cough, you know it’s done!”

While the chiles and onion cook, peel the poblanos and cut them into large chunks, discarding the stems, ribs and most of the seeds (don’t be too concerned with getting all the seeds – leaving some of them is traditional.)

Remove the chile/onion mixture from the heat. In a blender, add the chile/onion mixture, poblanos, cilantro (stems and all!), chicken bouillon, ground pepper, the remainder of the oil and 1/2 cup of water. Blend until mostly smooth.

Serve the sauce alongside the chilaquiles (or anything else) for a serious kick!

Salsa con Cacahuates (muy picante!)

1/4 c. cooking oil (your choice)
1/4 onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, whole
1 c. raw peanuts
2 medium tomatoes, halved
1 c. dried arbol chiles
salt and pepper to taste

In a medium sauté pan, heat the cooking oil and add the sliced onion and cook over medium heat until just translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the whole garlic clove and cook 30 seconds longer. Remove the onion and garlic from the pan and place it in a medium bowl, reserving the cooking oil in the pan.

Next, add the raw peanuts to the pan and cook for about a minute. Remove the peanuts from the pan and add them to the onion/garlic mixture, reserving the cooking oil in the pan.

Next, add the halved tomatoes to the pan, sautéing them until they begin to blister and brown, about 2 minutes. Add the dried arbol chiles and continue to cook for about a minute more, tossing regularly to coat in the oil. Remove the tomatoes, arbol chiles and remaining oil in the pan, combining them with the onion/garlic/peanut mixture.

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor with a 1/4 cup water and blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Watch out, a little goes a long way!

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Laura Hobbs is a freelance writer, editor and photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. You can see loads more of her work here.

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