Cookbook Review: My Abuela’s Table

Text & Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Book Cover Image: Courtesy of Hardie Grant Books
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My Abuela's Table by Daniella Germain
My Abuela’s Table by Daniella Germain
It’s been a long time since we’ve reviewed a book here, but after looking through more than half a dozen excellent Latino-themed cookbooks and including brief mentions of several in my gift list round-ups for FOX News Latino and The Latin Kitchen, I felt that a few deserved some more in-depth, individual treatment.

My Abuela’s Table: An Illustrated Journey into Mexican Cooking, by Mexican-Australian Daniella Germain, is almost quaint when compared against all the other cookbooks I looked at this winter. Mexican cooking– and Latino cooking in general– has become so mainstream in the US that many readers/cooks who buy cookbooks are looking for recipes that go beyond dishes that have become familiar. Yet Germain’s book is nothing but those classic plates and preparations: chiles en nogada, refried beans, tamales, enchiladas, guacamole, and a small selection of salsas, for example. She includes sections for meat, fish, and poultry dishes, too, as well as desserts.

For a reader who already has a command of Mexican cooking, My Abuela’s Table is likely to be of little interest. But for cooks who are just beginning to plunge their hands into this cuisine, Germain’s cookbook, which as its title suggests, is a compilation of her grandmother’s recipes, is a very handy primer.

Chile en nogada
Chile en nogada
Germain, who also illustrated the book, excels in making cooking accessible.

She’s not precious about finding “authentic” ingredients (she seems to like canned food just fine) and she provides almost no context for the origins and evolutions of the dishes she has included in My Abuela’s Table. As someone who loves Mexico and Mexican food deeply, I found this absence of background information a little annoying, but in a way, it makes the cookbook as accessible as possible for a reader who just wants to start pounding masa and learning basic techniques and preparations. As such, it’s the perfect starter cookbook for someone who knows little or nothing about Mexican food.

Cinco de Mayo Cocktails

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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Toloache 82
Toloache 82

Though Cinco de Mayo is a widely misunderstood holiday in the US, that doesn’t mean Mexican restaurants will correct their customers’ perceptions; for them, the day commemorating the Battle of Puebla is one of the best days of the year for business. When asked about available reservations for Cinco de Mayo, Julian Medina, chef and owner of six Mexican and Latino-themed restaurants in New York City, shook his head and said, “We’re ‘hasta las manos.'” Then the phone, which had been ringing since the early morning, rang again, with another prospective customer seeking an elusive reservation.

Meanwhile, Medina’s mixologist, Juan Vasquez, was busy getting ready for what’s likely to be the busiest night of his year. Vasquez, who has manned the bar at Toloache 82 since it opened, created two signature cocktails for Cinco de Mayo, both celebrating “only-from-Mexico” ingredients like pulque, horchata, and tequila. The pulque and horchata, he says, come from El Barrio, where Mexican bodegas and groceries sell products that are hard to find elsewhere. Vasquez supplements his bar with some commercial and artisanal tequilas, mezcals, and spirits that are difficult to find elsewhere in the US.

Mixologist Jorge Vasquez preps his bar
Mixologist Jorge Vasquez preps his bar

Mixologist Jorge Vasquez preps his bar, setting up the ingredients and tools he’ll use to make his Cinco de Mayo signature cocktails, El Pulque de Juarez and El Aguila.

Housemade rimming salts & Jarritos
Housemade rimming salts & Jarritos

Part of Vasquez’s prep work involves making sweet and savory salts to rim cocktail glasses. The Jarritos Mexican soda is the ingredient that finishes off El Aguila.

Pulque
Pulque

Pulque, a fermented sap made of the agave, is an acquired taste. Vasquez gets his pulque in cans from a bodega in New York City’s El Barrio neighborhood, where Mexican grocers supply items from their homeland that aren’t found on mainstream supermarket aisles.

Tequila delivery
Tequila delivery

While Vasquez preps at the bar, suppliers deliver the essential ingredient of the mixologist’s work: tequila. Extra boxes are stored in the restaurant’s basement for what is sure to be a busy day.

El Pulque de Juarez
El Pulque de Juarez

Vasquez’s “El Pulque de Juarez” is one of two signature cocktails he created especially for Cinco de Mayo. The drink includes pulque, horchata, and tequila, among other ingredients, and is garnished with a cinnamon stick.

El Aguila
El Aguila

Playing on patriotic themes and colors, Vasquez’s second signature cocktail for Cinco de Mayo is El Aguila. The drink is fruity and sweet and features watermelon; it’s finished off with Jarritos mandarin soda. The cocktail’s sweetness is offset a bit by the spicy rimming salt.

De la Calle
De la Calle

Though not created specifically for Cinco de Mayo, the De la Calle cocktail is one of Toloache 82’s best-selling drinks, says Vasquez. The cucumber-based drink is cool and refreshing.

Toloache 82's well-stocked bar
Toloache 82's well-stocked bar

El Pulque de Juarez and El Aguila may not be on the official menu after Cinco de Mayo, but Vasquez is happy to make the cocktails for patrons who ask for his special creations.
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Toloache 82 is located at 166 E. 82nd Street between 3rd and Lexington.
Phone: 212.861.4505.
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Want to make your own cocktails? Vasquez graciously shared the recipe for all three drinks mentioned in this article:

El Pulque de Juarez
Mix 1.5 oz of tequila, 2 oz of horchata, 3/4 oz of simple syrup, 1.5 oz of pulque, and 3/4 oz of Cointreau. Shake well, strain into a glass rimmed with cocoa powder and cinnamon, and serve over finely crushed ice. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.

El Aguila
Mix 1.5 oz of tequila, 3/4 oz of St. Germain, 3/4 oz of simple syrup, 1 oz of lime juice. Shake well, strain into a glass rimmed with chile salt, and top off with a splash of mandarin Jarritos.

De la Calle
Mix 2 oz of tequila infused with jalapeno, 2 oz of cucumber puree, 1 oz of fresh lime juice, 1 oz of simple syrup,. Shake, strain, and serve.

A Few Books American Expats in Mexico Should Read

A few months back, an American friend who was thinking of moving to Mexico’s Baja California region recounted her experience of home-hunting with a real estate agent.

She’d explained to the agent in advance that she is the kind of person who really immerses herself in local culture, so she wasn’t looking for a luxury condo or a gated community.

Nonetheless, when she arrived in Baja, my friend was given a tour of condos where Mexican maids come in and fold towels in elaborate shapes– swans, flowers, and all manner of objects that appear impossible to my own fumbling fingers. The agent explained, with some degree of pride, that American expats had created these lovely gated communities where they could “be assured of water and electricity.”

The local Mexicans, meanwhile, had to haul buckets to a water truck a few times a week–if it came rolling through town at all–to source water, as the American expats had diverted the water to their own neighborhood.

My friend talked about her meeting with the expats, who complained about the loud music of locals, explained that their community policy prohibited Mexicans from living amongst them because “they have a ton of people in one home,” warned about going to the “Mexican” store for food rather than the “American” store, and who proudly flaunted the fact that they spoke little or no Spanish.

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I’ve been thinking about these folks as I immerse myself in Mexico’s classical and contemporary literature, which has a rich, respectable, and long history. If I could recommend a few books American expats in Mexico should read, they’d include:

Instrucciones Para Vivir en Mexico: by Jorge Ibarguengoitia
Translated literally, the title means Instructions for Living in Mexico. Far from being a how-to book, the late Ibarguengoitia, a journalist, brought his astute and acerbic wit to the page in order to offer a close-up examination on Mexican life. Though many of the short essays (most no more than 2 pages) were written in the 1970s, they remain powerfully relevant today. My favorite essays are in the section about bureaucracy and an essay about Mexican car horns. This book is great for the American who really wants to get beneath the surface of Mexican social and political life; it’s historical without being overly didactic, and it’s often quite funny.

The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics (The Latin America Readers): This anthology, published by Duke University Press, is a sweeping yet comprehensive overview of some of the most important historical and literary documents from Mexico’s history. The book is great to pull off a shelf and open to any page; consider it your daily lesson in Mexican history and culture. It’s also in English, so you’ve got no language barrier excuses!

Africa en Mexico: by Marco Polo Hernandez Cuevas
Not all Mexicans know about the Afro-Mexican populations that live in Mexico’s coastal areas, but Marco Polo Hernandez Cuevas, a professor, specializes in the subject and has written several books about Afro-Mexicans. This one, in Spanish, is a great primer on the subject.

There are numerous other books I’d recommend, including cookbooks, art books, and memoirs, but these are a great start for the American who has recently arrived in Mexico. With the exception of The Mexico Reader, these books can be tough to find in the U.S. and online. In Mexico City, check the bookstore in the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the bookstore at the Cineteca Nacional, both of which have an extensive and impressive collection.

Are you an American expat in Mexico? What books would you add to this list?
Photo: Texas to Mexico (creative commons)