Nancy Zaslavsky's Image

Nancy Zaslavsky


Los Angeles, California

Author's website
Author's twitter
Author's facebook

Nancy Zaslavsky is an author, cooking teacher, and culinary tour leader specializing in the foods of Mexico. Nancy wrote the James Beard Award-nominated "A Cook’s Tour of Mexico: Authentic Recipes from the Country’s Best Open-Air Markets, City Fondas, and Home Kitchens" (St. Martin’s Press), which was nominated for a James Beard Award, and "Meatless Mexican Home Cooking" (Griffin). Nancy has written for newspapers, food magazines and international publications on Mexican cuisine. Her culinary tours to her favorite food destinations in Mexico are designed for small groups of chefs, food professionals and food-and-fun loving people in search of dynamic tastes in spirited environments. Motivated by ongoing research into the cultural and culinary history of Mexico, she is the vice president and program chair of the Culinary Historians of Southern California. She is also an active member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the James Beard Foundation and a member of the International Slow Food Movement.

Nancy is a blonde gringa who loves Mexico, its culture, cuisine, and people. One of her greatest joys is to share this enthusiasm with those who want to learn more about a fascinating country. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.

Articles by Author

Jalapeño Vs. Serrano: A Hot Debate Over Flavor Image

The jalapeño vs. the serrano: What exactly is the difference between the two most popular fresh chiles in the U.S. and Mexico?

Both are vibrant emerald green, with the larger jalapeño looking like a serrano on steroids. Jalapeños tend to be beefier, while serranos are more slender. Both have a torpedo shape that tapers to a point and curved green stems and smooth skins with no soft spots or wrinkles.

Bigger not always better when it comes to chiles

And as with almost all chiles, the rule of thumb applies: the larger the chile, the milder it is. In this case, the larger jalapeño is milder than the spicier serrano. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes bigger is just, well, bigger.

Jalapeños and serranos belong to the common Capsicum annuum family of peppers and can easily be found year round in most supermarket produce sections thanks to domestic and imported crops. Jalapeños (named after the city of Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, sometimes spelled Xalapeños after the local spelling of Xalapa) measure about 4 inches long and an inch wide at the stem end. Serranos (translates to “from the mountains” because they were first grown in the high-elevation mountains of Puebla, east of Mexico City) measure about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide at the stem end.

Their flavors are similar, and I find an excellent way to appreciate any subtle differences is to taste them when they turn bright red. That’s when they are at their peak of ripeness and when their spice intensity drops and they become slightly mellow, almost sweet. I always look for red-ripe chiles in late summer at farmers markets.

Make salsas to compare jalapeños and serranos

A favorite way to understand their differences is to make two simple table salsas (see recipes below). Choose either green or red for both chiles, and remove the seeds from both to control the unadorned (no onion, cilantro, etc.) heat.

When choosing between the two for a recipe, decide whether you’re looking for a lot of green flavor or more spice with less vegetable taste. For example, when I whirl up fresh fruit table salsas I choose serrano because I want the specific fruit flavor to be front and center but with plenty of backup chile heat. I choose green jalapeños for tomatillo salsas where a spicy chile with plenty of green bean vegetable flavor adds to the green sauce. Of course, they can be used interchangeably; add less serrano or more jalapeño and you’re all set.

After jalapeños and serranos ripen and turn red, they are dried and sometimes smoked. For size comparison, there are about 8 dried jalapeños per ounce or 11 dried serranos per ounce. A good rule of thumb is 10 pounds of fresh chiles weigh 1 pound when dried. The dried form of each chile has a different name: a dried, red jalapeño is a jalapeño seco and a dried, red serrano is simply called a chile seco.

Fiery hot, the small, 1½-inch chile seco has a slight citrus flavor and is usually found ground (sometimes called tipico and balin) and added to cooked sauces for heat.

A dried and smoked red jalapeño is a chile chipotle. Other dried and smoked chipotles are called morita and meco. The morita is a dark red, almost black, shiny, smoky, leathery chile that can vary in length from an inch to 4 inches. Many smaller moritas are canned in adobo (a chile-tomato sauce) and called chiles chipotles en adobo. The easy-to-use chiles are readily available in 7- to 8-ounce cans. After removing a few for a recipe, you can freeze the rest. The usually larger meco is smoked at least twice as long and turns medium brown with the look of an old, fuzzy brown tobacco leaf. Aficionados relish its spicy, super-smoky qualities.

The prized red-ripe, fresh jalapeño called huachinango (the same name as the famous Gulf red snapper fish because its stripes simulate the fish scale pattern) comes from central Mexico, mostly around Puebla and Veracruz. Usually found during the hottest summer months, it is easy to identify the coveted, 4- to 5-inch beauty, which has thin white lines running vertically on its skin. When dried and smoked, the thick-skinned delicacy becomes an extra-large, expensive chipotle meco grande with a subtle chocolate aroma.

Mail-order sources Melissa’s sells fresh and dried chiles. 5325 Soto St., Vernon, CA 90058. (800) 588-0151. Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays Spices Inc. is a mail-order company that sells dried chiles. (888) 762-8642

Simple Green Chile Table Salsa Taste Test

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing these salsas. Choose either all green or all red chiles for both jalapeños and serranos.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 1/3 cup of each salsa.


2 ounces (1 or 2) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

2 ounces (3 or 4) fresh serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

Corn chips or warmed corn tortillas


1. Put the jalapeño chiles in a blender jar. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into a serving bowl.

2. Rinse the blender jar.

3. Put the serrano chiles in the blender. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into another serving bowl.

4. Taste with corn chips or warm corn tortillas.

Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing this salsa.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes about 2 cups.


1 very ripe Mexican papaya, about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)

1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

2 serrano chiles

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves


1. Cut the papaya in half vertically. Scoop out the black seeds from one of the halves. Peel it and chop it, measuring out 3 cups chopped fruit. Put it into a blender or processor. (Wrap the remaining fruit in plastic and save for another use, such as smoothies or slices with a squirt of lime.)

2. Pour the lime juice on the papaya. Blend 5 seconds.

3. Add the onion, sugar and salt and whirl again 5 seconds. Pour the slightly chunky mixture into a serving bowl.

4. Stem and mince one of the 2 chiles and stir it (with seeds) into the papaya along with the cilantro. Taste. If you want a spicier salsa, stir in more of the remaining minced chile. Adjust salt or lime juice if necessary.

Notes: Don’t process the salmon-colored papaya, green chiles and cilantro together all at once or they will turn into an off-putting brownish mash (although the taste will still be great).

Save the papaya’s black seeds. Rinse and then dry them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 F) for about an hour. Cool completely. The spicy seeds can be ground like peppercorns.

Main photo: Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright Nancy Zaslavsky

Read More
Tart Jamaica Flowers A Favorite Mexican Flavor Image

Jamaica, spelled like the Caribbean island but pronounced ha-MY-ka, a flower in the hibiscus family, makes one of Mexico’s most beloved and refreshing drinks, agua de jamaica. The ruby-red, tart, sweet yet often mouth-puckering refresher can be spotted in huge glass jars in almost every traditional market across the country.

By contrast, at high-end restaurants — from the southern state of Oaxaca’s Casa Oaxaca through Mexico City’s Pujol to the country’s northwest corner at Tijuana’s Mission 19 — trendy mixologists serve jamaica cocktails shaken or stirred. These pros know the sexy red color sparkles in Mexican Cosmopolitans (non-aged, clear tequila and jamaica vs. vodka and cranberry) when a customer desires to sip from a chic martini glass.

You can buy dried jamaica flowers, Hibiscus sabdariffa, in bulk at Mexican markets or in cellophane-wrapped packs hanging from hooks near dried chiles. Always be sure the jamaica is from Mexico and not from China; the cheaper Chinese product (the catch!) has insipid flavor and weak color. And don’t confuse this hibiscus with the huge-flowered plants called hibiscus blossoming in all their glory in tropical and subtropical back yards.

You can brew jamaica as tea, then strain and discard the flowers. It is rarely served as hot tea in warm climates except as a calming cure for urinary tract infections. Think of jamaica and its curative powers as Mexico’s answer to cranberry juice. Both extremely tart, the brilliant crimson liquids must be sweetened to be easily drinkable, and science has confirmed metabolites in their juice prevent E. coli from sticking to other bacteria, limiting its ability to grow and multiply. In most cases, minor infections are improved in a day after downing four cups of either drink, hot or cold.

In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca‘s rug weaving center, Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza of Tlamanalli restaurant brews agua de jamaica strong and sweetens it with panela, cones of deep brown unrefined sugar called piloncillo in most other regions of Mexico. She makes it in and serves it from a bulbous pitcher with narrow top. Mendoza whips up the drink using a molinillo (a hard-carved wooden foaming too) until the top is covered with copious bubbly foam. The foam is an important part of any traditional drink in this part of Mexico because people feel the drink’s spirit is in the foam and without bubbles the drink has no life, or is at best past its prime.

Besides hot tea and agua de jamaica, highly flavored jamaica simple syrup is a joy to have on hand for various uses, especially cocktails; its sweet-sour flavor is similar to pomegranate molasses and some balsamic vinegars. Try the sophisticated flavor over strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. In the past few years, jamaica salad dressings have popped up in restaurants everywhere and are delicious yet simple to make. Modern-style restaurant bar menus offer quesadillas (folded corn tortillas with melted cheese inside) de jamaica, although many in Mexico City have no cheese — odd, but trés cool bar snacks with the hipster low-fat crowd. High-end gourmet shops sell elaborate candied jamaica flowers to decorate fine desserts. On the other hand, a longtime childhood favorite is the traditional, beloved jamaica frozen ice pop found at street corner push carts. (Hear the bell?)

Jamaica Tea (Agua de Jamaica)

This tea can be served hot or cold.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: About 4 cups


4 cups water, plus more for diluting

1 cup dried jamaica flowers (Mexican, not Chinese)

Ice, if desired

1 cup sugar (white, brown or agave syrup), or more to taste


1. Stir the jamaica into the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 20 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Add water to dilute to your liking.

3. Heat to serve hot or chill with ice to serve cold. Stir in sweetener to taste, or add sweetener separately to each cup or glass. The tea will keep for three days refrigerated.

Jamaica Simple Syrup

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup


4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)

1 cup white sugar

Pinch sea salt or kosher salt


1. Boil the unsweetened jamaica tea until it is reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and boil until it is reduced by half again, to 1 cup, about 20 minutes more.

3. Remove from the heat and cool until the strong bubbles die down. Carefully pour the hot, thick syrup into an airtight glass jar. The syrup will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Jamaica Salad Dressing

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: About 1/2 cup


3 1/2 tablespoons Jamaica Simple Syrup (see recipe above)

1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

6 grinds black peppercorns

1 small clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped

2 tablespoons Mexican lime (aka Key) juice

1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil

10 jamaica flowers, finely chopped


1. Measure Jamaica Simple Syrup into a small bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, garlic and lime juice.

2. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking until fully blended.

3. Whisk in the chopped flowers. Pour as much as desired over chilled salad greens of your choice and toss.

Note: This dressing is a real treat on a salad with queso fresco, feta or goat cheese scattered on top.

Jamaica Quesadillas

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 quesadillas


2 cups water

1/2 cup coarsely chopped jamaica flowers

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and finely chopped (You can keep the seeds for spice.)

8 corn tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter

2 cups shredded melting cheese, such as quesillo de Oaxaca, mozzarella or Jack


1. Stir the jamaica into a saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 10 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract all liquid into a container, saving the flowers. Reserve the tea for another purpose.

3. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the flowers, sweetener, salt and chopped chile. Sauté over medium-low heat until sticky, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

4. Put the tortillas on a preheated, medium-hot ungreased griddle. Spoon some of the jamaica mixture to one side of each tortilla and then pile with cheese, keeping it away from the edges. Fold the empty tortilla half over the half with jamaica. Press with a spatula. When the bottoms of the tortillas crisp a bit, flip them over to crisp the other sides and melt the cheese.

5. Remove to a cutting board and cut into wedges.

Main photo: Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

Read More
Mexican Noodle Soup 3 Ways: Wet, Dry And Pancaked Image

Mexico loves sopa de fideo, or noodle soup. One, sopa aguada de fideo, which translates to “wet” noodle soup, is like the good, old chicken noodle soup we know and love. A second soup, sopa seca de fideo, or “dry” noodle soup, involves first browning the noodles in hot oil before they soften when absorbing flavorful liquids; it’s a spaghetti-like dish, but it’s called sopa, making it confusing at best. Finally, there’s leftover sopa seca de fideo, made by flattening the leftover noodles in a hot skillet to morph them into a crisp fideo pancake masterpiece.

Pasta or rice made by browning the starch before adding liquid is a pilaf, called sopa seca in Mexico. During their conquests, Arabs and Turks introduced pilafs to Spain, possibly with what is widely known today as Armenian pilaf — a Middle Eastern combination of rice and pasta. Spain, in turn, brought the technique to Mexico along with the European custom of starting meals with soup and then a pasta or rice before the main course.

Cooks have known for ages that noodles take on an additional dimension of toasty, meaty nuttiness when they are sautéed in oil before they finish cooking and softening in broth. “Dry” noodles eventually drink in all the liquid, and their soft texture becomes a perfect spaghetti-like plate of pasta for Monday-to-Friday family meals ideal for children.

Make noodle soup your own with flavor variations

Some delicious flavor variations on sopa seca de fideos include adding a minced chile chipotle en adobo with a tablespoon of the adobo sauce for smoky-spice flavor; adding thinly sliced rings of fried mild ancho chile for taste and texture; substituting four tomatillos for the two tomatoes for a green sauce; and topping it with an avocado cut into cubes and Mexican crema (or sour cream) for luxurious richness. Fresh vegetables such as finely shredded cabbage, squash blossoms and quelites (wild greens similar to spinach) are all wonderful, as well as everyday leftovers.

Another easy home-style dish you can make from sopa seca de fideo is the ever-popular toasted, golden brown fideo pancake made from a bowl of leftover “dry” noodles. As soon as oil starts spitting in a hot skillet, you can dump in the cooked pasta and flatten the mound with a spatula, making a sort of pancake. Soon the bottom will be browned, and you can flip it over and crisp the other side. A fideo pancake can be made with whatever amount of leftover sopa seca de fideo you have on hand, from a cup to a quart depending on the size of your skillet.

In Mexico, pasta nests are the popular choice for noodle sopa, either wet or dry. In the U.S., the Italian brand DiCecco offers the thinnest angel-hair nests readily available. Other nests are thicker, like spaghetti. I prefer Italian or American pasta because most Mexican brands tend to get soggy fast and then become downright mushy. Use what you can get and whatever style suits your palate.

Some of the ingredients in sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Some of the ingredients in sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa Aguada de Fideo (Wet Soup)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings


2 quarts water (To save time, you can use 2 quarts low-sodium, organic chicken broth and skip to Step 3)

1 4-pound chicken, cut into pieces, including the neck and back

1 white onion, peeled and cut in quarters vertically through the stem and root ends

2 carrots, cut in half

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, cut in half and seeded for a mildly spicy broth

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

8 whole black peppercorns

4 ounces dried, thin pasta such as whole nests or vermicelli broken in half

Sea salt or kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Mexican (a.k.a. Key) lime, if desired

2 ounces dry noodles


1. Put the chicken in a large, deep pot with 2 quarts water, onion, carrots, chile, salt and peppercorns. Be sure the chicken is covered with water; if it’s not, add more. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 45 minutes, uncovered, skimming off fat that floats to the surface, until the chicken is cooked.

2. Remove the chicken and cool. Strain the broth into a clean pot and cool. Save the carrots for the soup, discard the other vegetables. Refrigerate the broth and when cold remove any congealed fat that forms on top.

3. Put aside 2 cups broth if you plan to make sopa seca de fideo. Bring the broth to a boil with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and the lime juice if you’d like. (Hint: The flavor makes the soup!)

4. Break the noodles into the boiling broth and boil until they are cooked through. Toss in some shredded chicken and reserve the rest for other uses. Cook a minute or two to heat the chicken before serving.

Sopa seca de fideo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa seca de fideo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa Seca de Fideo (Dry Soup)

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 2 to 4 servings


2 cups chicken broth, divided

1/2 cup white onion, roughly chopped

4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded (for less spice) and roughly chopped

2 red-ripe plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 ounces pasta nests, or thin spaghetti broken in half to fit into the bottom of the pot

1/4 cup cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup queso fresco, queso añejo or parmesan cheese

Note: Cooked vegetables and meats (leftovers are great!) or another spicy chile are tasty additions to sopa seca.


1. Pour 1/2 cup of the broth into a blender jar with the onion, garlic, chile and tomatoes. Blend until smooth. Pour in another cup of broth and blend again.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Brown the broken-up pasta nests (or spaghetti broken in half or other small pasta shapes) in the oil over low-medium heat until they turn a deep, golden brown, about 5 minutes.

3. Pour the blender ingredients over the toasted pasta (It will sizzle!), scraping the pasta from the pan to prevent sticking, and cook 3 minutes. If desired, add 1/2 cup to 1 cup shredded chicken, leftover vegetables or meats.

4. Pour in the remaining 1/2 cup broth with the cilantro, salt and pepper into the bubbling mixture and stir. Cover the skillet, turn down the heat to low and cook 5 to 6 minutes (3 minutes for angel hair) until the pasta is cooked through.

5. To serve, spoon the sopa seca onto plates or into bowls and scatter with cheese. Refrigerate the leftovers and save for a fideo pancake.

A fideo pancake. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

A fideo pancake. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Fideo Pancake

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size and thickness of pancake

Total time: 15 to 30 minutes

Yield: The pancake or pancakes can serve as many as desired, depending on how much leftover sopa seca de fideo is available to use.


3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Leftover sopa seca de fideo

1/4 cup shredded fast-melting quesillo de Oaxaca, Jack or mozzarella cheese, if desired


1. As soon as the oil starts spitting in a non-stick skillet, dump in leftover cold sopa seca de fideos and spread the mound into a flat pancake with a spatula. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat. In about 10 minutes, the bottom will be brown and crisp.

2. Flip the pancake to brown the other side by sliding a wide spatula under it, loosening any pasta that sticks, and flip it over. If the pancake is large and fills the pan, put a large plate face down over the skillet, hold the skillet by its handle and flip it and the plate over and the pancake will be on the plate. Put the skillet back on the stove and slide the pancake into the remaining oil to brown the other side and heat through. If desired, scatter shredded cheese on top and brown under a broiler until bubbling hot before serving.

Main photo: Sopa Aguada de Fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Read More
Mexican Buñuelos Are A Sweet Christmas Treat Image

Buñuelos, classic Mexican Christmas sweets, are time-honored snacks with roots in Catalan, Spain. Most of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries follow Spain’s lead and make buñuelos with yeast dough formed into small balls to deep-fry — think doughnut holes. Long ago, Mexico made fast use of its iconic bread, the tortilla, and morphed the balls into flat, non-yeasty wheat tortillas deep-fried (similar to Navajo frybread) and covered in sticky piloncillo (raw brown sugar) syrup or tossed in cinnamon sugar.

My favorite place in Mexico to eat buñuelos is definitely Oaxaca at Christmastime. The Spanish colonial city’s festive holiday food celebration begins in mid-December and lasts into February. Since the 16th century, things have kicked off  precisely on Dec. 16 with posadas (literally, “inns”), when children and adults re-enact part-religious, part-secular rituals while parading as Mary and Joseph looking for an inn to spend the night.

The group pleads, through traditional songs, to enter homes of friends. Once a door finally opens, piñatas burst, candies fly and mugs of hot chocolate are passed.

Let your nose lead you to buñuelos

Up next, Dec. 18 is the day of Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgin de la Soledad. On this day, everyone rejoices with church Masses and processions followed by devouring crisp bueñelos.

Follow their lead when you get that first whiff of fried sweet dough coming from a temporary stand at the north side of the cathedral and head straight there to absorb the spirit of fascinating buñuelo folklore. You’ll have to hunt for the end of the line and try to wait patiently to place your order. At long last, you will be handed — on a sad, seriously chipped plate — a puffy fried flour tortilla about a foot across. The tortilla will have wavy edges and be topped with a scattering of sugar crystals dyed red from cochineal (an edible, crimson scale insect that lives on nopales cactus, and yes, you most definitely want it!) and a spoonful of anise-flavored piloncillo syrup (yes to this, too).

In contrast to the dish, the buñuelo will be as ethereal and crackling-crisp as cellophane and so delicate that brittle pieces will fly as you take each sweet bite. It’s as fun to eat as cotton candy. You’ll finish it off in seconds and be left staring at the sad, empty dish.

You can follow your fellow revelers’ guide and, like a Frisbee, fling the damaged plate hard against the side of the massive green quarry stone edifice while making a wish. The dish will shatter, and the wish will count.

Dec. 23 features Oaxaca’s famous Night of the Radishes Festival, begun in 1897 and the only folk art event of its kind in the world. Craftspeople from local organizations carve sculptures from huge red radishes the size of Japan’s white daikon and proudly display their creations at booths on the zócalo (town square) next to the cathedral.

The experience is mind-boggling. Join the massive crowds and line up to slowly snake your way along raised viewing platforms encircling the square; try not to miss a thing as attentive volunteers constantly coddle and mist miniature nativity scenes, elaborate church replicas and funky cartoon figures to keep them from drying out. Notice how the entrants are primped and judged like beauty-pageant contestants, and the winners get to flaunt boasting rights.

On Dec. 24, Christmas Eve brings the last posada party with piñatas, tamales and hot chocolate, but Christmas Day is quietly spent with family and an enormous turkey drenched in luscious mole.

After a late night Mass on Dec. 31, another special mole dinner awaits, followed by 12 good-luck grapes to eat in rapid succession, a grape for each stroke of midnight.

The Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6 continues the holiday season into the new year with a rosca de reyes (Epiphany cake), a ring of sweet yeast dough flamboyantly decorated with icing and colored sugar with the surprise of a tiny clay baby Jesus (or these days a plastic doll about an inch long) inside. According to tradition, whoever gets the figurine in his/her slice is expected to host the upcoming Candlemas Feast on Feb. 2, faithfully 40 days after Christmas. This last of Mexico’s holiday fiesta days is your final chance to fling used buñuelo plates at the cathedral and signals it’s time to take down the tree.

Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar

Prep time: 3 hours

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 4 hours

Yield: 16 to 20 servings


For the buñuelos:

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

4 tablespoons melted butter or freshly rendered lard

1/2 cup whole milk

2 eggs

Vegetable oil for frying (about 3 cups)

For the syrup and red sugar:

3 cups water

12 ounces crushed piloncillo or dark brown sugar

1 (4-inch) canela stick (Mexican or true Ceylon cinnamon)

1 tablespoon anise seeds

1/2 cup cochineal sugar, or red decorating sugar found in supermarkets and cake-decorating shops


For the buñuelos:

1. In a mixer with a hook or paddle attachment, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.

2. With the mixer off, pour in the butter and milk and break the eggs directly on top. Slowly raising the speed, beat the dough until it is smooth and shiny, about 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Form into a ball in the mixer bowl. Lightly cover the dough with a tea towel and let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

4. Divide the dough into 16 to 20 balls the size of a golf ball. Place each on a baking sheet as it is formed. Cover the balls lightly with a dampened tea towel to keep them moist.

5. Pick up a ball and flatten it with a rolling pin or your palms to make a disk about 5 inches across. Place it back under the dampened towel with the balls. Continue with the others.

6. Cover a table with a clean tablecloth to dry the buñuelos.

7. Pick up the first disk you made and, starting in the center, gently stretch it out to make a large, almost transparent disk 12 inches across, pulling along the edge. Lay it on the tablecloth to dry, about 30 minutes. Continue with the others. When they are finished, turn each over and allow the other side to dry another 30 minutes, or until the tortillas feel completely dry.

8. Place a wire rack over a baking sheet for draining.

9. Pour the oil into a skillet to about 1 inch deep. Heat the oil to 375 F over medium-hot heat. Carefully slide a buñuelo into the hot oil and press it down gently with a fork. The oil will bubble and the buñuelo will blister, and the bottom side will turn golden in less than a minute. Turn over and fry the other side for less than a minute. With tongs, remove it from the oil, hold vertically and let it drain back into the pot a few seconds. Place it on the wire rack to drain well and then on a flattened brown paper bag.

10. Fry and drain the remaining buñuelos. When cool, stack on a festive plate.

For the syrup and red sugar:

1. Pour the water into a saucepan. Add the piloncillo, canela stick and anise seeds.

2. Boil 10 minutes to make a light syrup. Boil longer to reduce and thicken if desired. Strain to remove the anise seeds.

3. Generously scatter red sugar on a buñuelo for serving. Top with a few tablespoons sugar syrup.

Note: As an alternative to syrup, mix 1/2 cup white sugar with 1 tablespoon ground canela. Toss canela sugar over the buñuelos while they are warm. You can make buñuelos up to two days ahead if kept dry. Reheat in a preheated oven at 325 F for 5 minutes.

Main image: Buñuelos. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Read More
Leftover Turkey Tacos Are A Reason To Give Thanks Image

What’s all the fuss over turkey sandwiches on squishy white bread? Been there, done that. This year, go a different route and try the big day’s leftovers on wonderfully warm, healthful corn tortillas.

Get yourself a package or two of corn tortillas for a post-holiday meal. They’re absolutely heavenly with cooked turkey that’s shredded, Mexican taco-style, rather than sliced for sandwiches.

For a side dish, look to the Native American cranberries, an old standby once eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy. They’re not only loaded with vitamin C, but downright exciting when the cold sauce is kicked up with a few tablespoons of sweet agave syrup and minced, spicy green jalapeño or serrano chiles.

When reheating stuffing or yams, mix in a few finely chopped, canned chipotle chiles for an out-of-this-world, smoky flavor boost. Crunchy green beans, even green bean casserole, benefit from a small, chopped white onion, chopped fresh chile and handful of fresh cilantro leaves sprinkled on top before serving.

A perfect addition to your relish tray (and don’t we all love an old-fashioned, ice-cold relish tray on Thanksgiving?) is peeled jicama cut into sticks the same size as your carrot and celery sticks. For a little more flavor, dust spicy chile powder on the slightly sweet jicama, which has a crunch like water chestnut.

The easiest of all post-holiday meals — the Thanksgiving taco — is made from your cold leftovers with a squirt each of fresh Mexican lime (aka Key lime) juice and a Mexican hot sauce such as Tapatío or Búfalo brand for the right flavor profile. Fold up the warm tortilla and take a bite. I told you so.

Leftover Turkey Tacos

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 to unlimited


1 (or more) package(s) of corn tortillas

Leftover Thanksgiving foods

Lime juice

Hot sauce

Mayonnaise if desired


1. Heat the tortillas by laying as many as can fit in one layer on a medium-hot, ungreased griddle. After 30 seconds, flip over and heat through another 30 seconds. Pile into a napkin-lined basket to keep warm and moist. Continue with the others.

2. Pass the basket of warm tortillas, bowls of Thanksgiving leftovers, mayo if you must, Mexican hot sauce and lime wedges for make-your-own tacos.

Main photo: Corn tortillas are a perfect choice for wrapping Thanksgiving leftovers. Credit: iStockPhoto

Read More
Black Bean Soup With A Spicy Night Life Image

Looking for a black Halloween food to make grown-ups howl with delight? Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto tastes like it took all day simmering on the back burner, getting rich and thick from hours of loving attention.

But when time is too short to stir dried beans in a witch’s cauldron, canned black beans that have been carefully rinsed are the fast and easy answer to perfect results, because they’ll be intensely flavored and then puréed smooth in the resulting soup.

My favorite black bean soups are from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, specifically around the city of Mérida; their unctuous, creamy textures contain no cream and are packed with characteristic layers of flavor from gargantuan amounts of herbs and a whisper of regional habañero chile. For decadence, locals often swirl in a spoonful of crema for special occasions, and Halloween is definitely such an occasion, at least in the U.S.

You start by making a flavor bomb similar to an Italian pesto to embellish the finished soup: Pull a big handful of basil leaves off stems, add cilantro and, if you can get some of the herb, throw in a little epazote with spicy habañero chile for traditional tastes. Because pine nuts aren’t found in the Yucatan, substitute pecans, Mexico’s national nut, for the right texture profile. For cheese, my choice is a not-too-salty queso añejo (aged queso fresco), or use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Only the best-quality extra virgin olive oil will do for its fruitiness, and then finish the soup with Merida sunshine: a generous squirt of bright Mexican (aka Key) lime juice.

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 4 servings (may be doubled)


For the pesto:

4 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 fresh habañero chile

¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup basil leaves, tightly packed

½ cup cilantro leaves

10 epazote leaves (if available)

¼ cup grated queso añejo or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

For the soup:

The soup's ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

The soup’s ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

One 3-inch white onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

½-inch piece of the habañero chile, minced

Three 15-ounce cans organic black beans

2 cups organic chicken broth, divided

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes

Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup Mexican crema, or sour cream thinned with a little milk


For the pesto:

1. Combine the garlic, pecans, a tiny ¼-to-½-inch piece of the chile finely chopped (wear disposable gloves while doing this), salt and pepper in a food processor. Process for 10 seconds. Toss in the basil, cilantro and epazote and grind again for 10 seconds. Turn the processor off and scrape the sides with a spatula to get everything down into the mixture.

2. Add the cheese. Turn the machine back on and pour the oil slowly through the feed tube, processing until the mixture is fully incorporated and smooth. Taste carefully for saltiness and if the sauce is spicy enough — it should be hot! If not, mince another small piece of the chile and process again to fully incorporate the bits. Taste again and adjust accordingly.

3. Using a rubber spatula, scrape into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

For the soup:

1. Heat the oil in a large pot and sauté the onion until translucent. Toss in the garlic and chile and cook until starting to brown. Remove from the heat.

2. Rinse the beans carefully for a few minutes. Scrape the onion, garlic and chile into the processor using a spatula and then dump in the beans. (You may have to do this in two batches.) Process until smooth, adding 1 cup of broth. Pour back into the pot.

3. Mix in the remaining 1 cup of broth. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, squeeze in the lime juice and season the bland beans assertively to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes.

4. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a generous tablespoonful of pesto on each. If using, swirl a tablespoon of crema in a circle around the pesto and pass the remaining crema in a small bowl.

Main photo: Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Read More