A Conch Crawl with Leslie Mialma of Winsome

A Conch Crawl with Leslie Mialma of Winsome

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

Tasting Pan Dulce in East Los Angeles

The thought of spending a morning tasting conchas, the ubiquitous shell-shaped Mexican pastry, is pretty much what my dreams are made of. The only thing that could possibly make such an adventure more appealing is sharing that experience with pastry chef Leslie Mialma of Winsome in Los Angeles’ Echo Park. Mialma, who grew up just south in Orange County, makes inventive treats representative of the LA’s dynamic, multicultural influences, and is a studied hand in both pastry arts and food history.

Growing up on the border of Texas and Mexico, my family and I would go to grocery stores on both sides of the border. For the basics, we stuck to the H.E.B. in Laredo on the Texas side. But in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, we went to Soriana for the good stuff: string cheese, real Coca-Cola, mangos I can still smell, and best of all, pan dulce—Mexican sweet bread. Nothing was better than grabbing a beat-up metal tray and loading it with campechanascemitasorejas, and the family favorite, conchas (“concha” is Spanish for seashell, to which the pastries’ vanilla or chocolate cookie crust topping bears a resemblance).

READ MORE »

Chocolate Unwrapped

Chocolate Unwrapped

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

From a Mesoamerican Drink to the Modern Bon Bon

Once available only to priests and nobility, today chocolate is prized around the world for its taste and seductive effects—qualities that have been appreciated for centuries.

Our word for chocolate comes from the Nahuatl chocolatl meaning “bitter water,” but theobroma, cacao’s botanical name, is Latin for “food of the gods.” Native to Mesoamerica, cacao was one of its most sacred natural staples, second only to maize. In Mayan cosmology, trees were a metaphor for spiritual transcendence, and Mayans believed the first tree that ever grew was a cacao tree. Its fruit was worshipped as a literal gift from the heavens.

Although the earliest recorded reference to cacao dates to the Olmec culture around 2000 B.C., it was the Mayans who first invented the use of chocolate as a hot, bitter, frothy beverage prepared with meticulous care. After a careful fermentation and drying process, ripe cacao beans were roasted and ground with spices in a metate, one of the oldest domestic tools in the Americas. A metate is a rectangular slab carved from volcanic stone used for processing cacao beans, as well as corn; it was used by women kneeling on the floor and rocking a rolling pin-shaped stone called a mano back and forth to form a powder. This powder was then mixed with flavorings including chiles, vanilla beans, and sometimes a little honey, and then made into a paste.

READ MORE »

‘Tis Tamales Season

tamales-22

‘Tis Tamales Season

tamales-22

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

The Time and Tradition of Mexico’s Holiday Dish.

I walk into Downtown L.A.’s Broken Spanish on a December day to a bustling kitchen prepping for evening service and a warm welcome from chef/owner Ray Garcia. It’s easy to be distracted by the array of dishes being built around me in the sunny restaurant—the aromas of braises and sofritos, heirloom tortillas, and mole sauces—all building blocks of the dinner menu so many guests will enjoy in just a few hours. But I’m here for something very specific: the tamal.

I join Garcia in the kitchen along with his cook, Rosario, who is smearing masa (corn dough) with admirable precision onto corn husks laid out in perfect rows. I am mesmerized by her skill. Having grown up in a Mexican household on the Texas/Mexico border, the Christmas tamalada—the assembly line of family and friends who gather around the holidays to whip up tamales—is familiar. Tamales were never lacking in our household; ours were purchased from the tamalero who still makes his requisite rounds to sell his homemade goods, of which my mom buys dozens. Although they’re enjoyed year round, in Mexican culture, tamales are mainly considered a holiday food.

Traditional pre-conquest tamales were filled with beans or squash, but there were also variations made with duck, turkey, venison, lobster or crab with some sort of chile or tomato-based sauce. Post conquest, Old World ingredients like pork, beef, chicken and cheese make an appearance, including sweet variations, as well as tamales wrapped in banana leaves, a plant native to Southeast Asia. French-style cookbooks of nineteenth century Mexico describe tamales as a type of delicate stuffed bread made of corn that Spaniards ate with gusto.

Today at Broken Spanish, Garcia introduces me to an intriguing new filling: braised lamb neck. A lamb tamal is new to me, but once he puts it on the griddle, the edges of the masa begin to caramelize and crisp, and the aroma rises to meet me; I’m totally in.bs tamales prep

READ MORE »

On Household Management

illustration plague

On Household Management

illustration plague

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

Cookbooks Capture the Eccentricities of Former Eras

My fascination with historic cookbooks knows no bounds. It jumps from country to country and century to century. Most recently I’ve been intrigued by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British cookbooks, partly because I’ve spent quite a bit of time in England this year and partly because these books are about much more than just cooking. They are part of a genre of books on household management that give us an insight into the daily lives of the middle class and those striving to climb the social ladder.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, household management books—historically written by men—were popular all over Europe. By the seventeenth century, England had a higher literary rate than elsewhere in Europe and a new market emerged—books written by women for women. Femininity suddenly acquired a feminine voice. Household management books became as big business among women as lifestyle books and blogs are today (and in theory, not entirely different).
READ MORE »