Mexican pozole soup dances on taste buds with robust flavor

Pozole is a traditional Mexican dish that has been served for centuries. (Image: Veronica Wong)

Food is one of the most important ways for us to connect with others—be it those we know or strangers.

Travel the world and food will be a common denominator. We all need it for sustenance, but it’s so much more than nourishment. Food can tell a story about the people, the region, the land, even the history of an area. Perhaps more important, with that shared meal comes shared memories.

Food easily touches on all the senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Hearing can be the slurping, chopping, popping of a cork—even the conversation.

Pozole is one of those traditional Mexican dishes that brings people together. The origins are not well defined, but history proves the natives were making this concoction long before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s.

While pozole traditionally has chicken or pork, those can be left out or mushrooms substituted to satisfy vegetarians. A green pozole usually will have tomatillos, the herbs epazote and cilantro, and jalapenos, while a red pozole uses guajillo, piquin or ancho peppers. The verde version is more popular with chicken.

Verde pozoles traditionally come with chicken. (Image: Veronica Wong)

When Los Consuelos was open in Todos Santos (it closed in March 2020 because of COVID and has not reopened) the pozole presentation was outstanding. The bowl was full of meat, shredded cabbage, sliced radish, and slivers of avocado. Then at the table the broth was poured over this ensemble. The diner had assorted condiments to choose from like onions and more spices.

At El Refugio in Todos Santos pozole is served more traditionally with the broth in the bowl when it is brought to the table.

Los Consuelos’ version was more like a stew compared to El Refugio being more like a soup. The difference being soups have more broth.

What all pozoles have is hominy. These large corn kernels have been soaked in a mineral bath to remove the husk. This isn’t sweet corn, but instead is field maize that is used to make flour and cereals. It’s chewy, with almost a rubbery texture. Today hominy is available in cans at grocery stores, which eliminates a lot of the work for this dish.

While it is a soup, it is so much more. For those making it, there are many moving parts. Best to have at least one sous chef to help with all the knife work. For those with spoons in hand, the dish can be personalized depending on how the condiments are served and how many are offered.

Produce goes directly from farm to consumer in Baja Sur

A variety of produce is grown for Baja Farm Fresh boxes. (Image: Baja Farm Fresh)

A private garden is about the only way to get fresher produce than what Baja Farm Fresh provides.

This Todos Santos-based company is a co-op of four farmers who since 2016 have been growing vegetables and fruits that are delivered right to the consumer—including hotels, restaurants and individuals.

The concept is what is known as community supported agricultural, which in the last decade has become a popular model in the United States for small farmers to bypass grocery stores and for consumers to know where their food is coming from. It’s working in Mexico, too.

These goodie boxes vary seasonally, evenly weekly, depending upon what is coming out of the ground. In December, some of the delectables included cabbage, a variety of greens, turnips, green beans, watermelon radishes, heirloom tomatoes, bouquets of herbs, squash blossoms, and more. More varieties of produce are expected to fill boxes this month.

Nicolás holds a bunch of freshly picked beets. (Image: Baja Farm Fresh)

Baja Farm Fresh farms are in El Carrizal, La Matanza, and Pescadero.

“We have very nice micro-climates in Pescadero,” Jorge Guevara, chief farmer for Baja Farm Fresh, said.

It can be fun and daunting to open a box because it’s always a surprise of what will be inside. Boxes are designed to sustain three adults who eat vegetables in all their meals. About 350 are delivered each week. Cost is 500 pesos, or about $25.

Instead of requiring a seasonal subscription where people pay upfront, Baja Farm Fresh allows customers to come and go. Boxes are delivered as long as the weather permits. The first boxes went to individuals in Los Cabos.

“After 1½ years we got calls from chefs because we started growing specialty items that were not conventional here,” Guevara said. He did not share what those items were.

Restaurants received daily deliveries until the pandemic struck, which forced many to close and others to serve fewer diners. Baja Farm Fresh pivoted by expanding availability to individuals beyond Cabo. Because the response was so good, deliveries are continuing to individuals in the expanded area. Restaurants in the growing area as well as Los Cabos have started wanting this fresh produce again. La Paz eateries will soon be in the rotation.

Four farms contribute to Baja Farm Fresh community supported agriculture boxes. (Image: Baja Farm Fresh)

The farmers are putting together a website ( that should be up this month. (For now, reach them on Facebook at Baja Farm Fresh.) On the website people will be able to place orders, add items from local producers like eggs, chicken and bread, and decide if they want a subscription, which would mean a discount on the box price.

Baja Farm Fresh is also working on changing pickup locations and having a wider range of times for people to get their goods. Last season deliveries were made almost every day. Now it’s more manageable with Tuesdays being Todos Santos, Pescadero and La Paz, and Wednesdays for Todos Santos, Pescadero and Los Cabos.

Boxes are recycled, with the goal that people return them so Baja Farm Fresh can use them again. The farmers are thinking about charging a fee if they are not returned.

In February, the plan is for the farmers to set up a display in the back of Doce Cuarenta Café in Todos Santos. The boutique farm will host four-, eight, and 12-week long courses for children about organic farming. On Saturdays, produce will be sold there as well as seedlings, seeds, compost and more.

A bit of Mexican history with each mouthful

Every bite just kept getting better. While I didn’t immediately know it, I soon learned I was eating a bit of Mexican history.

Chiles en nogada is no ordinary dish. This made it all the more special to have it for the first time with friends in Todos Santos on New Year’s Eve. We ordered our meal from El Refugio restaurant, which accommodated this vegetarian. Pork and chicken are normally incorporated into the mixture.

Chiles en nogada created by the restaurant El Refugio in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The dish is so beautiful it was hard to want to ruin the masterpiece with a fork and knife. The white walnut sauce with red pomegranate seeds and bits of fresh cilantro, along with the green of the poblano chile represented the white, red and green of the Mexican flag. It also looks Christmassy.

History says chiles en nogada, which essentially means chiles in walnut sauce, were the creation of the Augustinian nuns of the Santa Monica convent in Puebla in August 1821.

Knowing army Gen. Agustín de Iturbide would be in town after just signing the Treaty of Córdoba, the nuns knew something extraordinary needed to be part of the meal. That treaty established Mexico’s independence from Spain. Iturbide then became emperor of Mexico from 1822-23.

Often chiles en nogada is on menus throughout Mexico in August and September when pomegranates and walnuts are in season. This time period also commemorates when the dish was created as well as Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16.

El Refugio, for its chiles en nogada, stuffs poblano chiles with diced pineapple, apples, pears, peaches, dried fruit, plantain, tomato, onion, pork and chicken. The walnut sauce is crema, cream cheese, walnuts, almonds, milk, pepper and salt.

It’s served at room temperature. The New Year’s Eve plate also came with a serving of white rice and mashed sweet potatoes. It was a wonderful balance of sweet and savory.

Green skinned oranges a sweet treat

If an orange is not orange is it still an orange? Yes, would be the short answer.

Color of the skin has to do with temperature. Oranges grown near the equator are more likely to be green than orange.

Green skinned oranges are a rare find. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While I have not seen a green orange in a store in Mexico, I was given one while on a tour out of Mulegé. I didn’t know what it was for sure. It looked like an orange in all ways but coloring—the texture of the rind, size, even the smell were the same as a regular orange.

It wasn’t until I cut into it at the place where I was staying that I tried it. It was indeed an orange. The flesh was a little paler, but the sweetness was outstanding.

According to the FruitGuys, “Turns out oranges develop chlorophyll as they mature on the tree. Then cool temperatures cause the chlorophyll to die off, turning the skins orange. But a sudden rise in temperature can turn them green, sometimes overnight. Especially near the equator, where temps are consistently high, ripe oranges are commonly green. Ethylene gas can be used to turn the green skin orange, but that’s not customary for fruit sold in Mexico, where most oranges are regionally grown.”

Oranges are a big part of the local diet in Mexico, with the annual per capital consumption being 37.4 kg, or 82.5 pounds. Many oranges are turned into juice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture using Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) data says, “(Mexico) citrus production contributes 2.78 percent to the national agricultural gross domestic product, with oranges contributing 1.15 percent.”

Varietals grown in Mexico include Valencia, Lane Late Navel and Navelina, with the former the most prevalent. However, it is the navel orange that is predominantly exported to the United States. In 2018-19, only 1.3 percent of Mexico’s were exported, with most going to the States. Drought and high temps impacted the 2019-20 crop in Mexico, with the yield significantly lower, according to the USDA.

Beer, pizza at Mulegé Brewing Co. a combo worth repeating

A flight of beers at Mulegé Brewing Co. costs less than $5. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Pizza for breakfast—it’s not just for college students.

Dinner the night before was at the Mulegé Brewing Co. where I imbibed in a flight of four beers and made a small dent in a medium vegetarian pizza. Thank goodness for leftovers. If only I had some beer for later.

The Mulegé Brewing Co. celebrated its one-year anniversary this month. With how delicious food and adult beverages were, this is likely to be one of many anniversaries.

Mulege Brewing Co. opened in November 2019. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“I love craft beer. It attracts good people,” owner Brian Attard said. He moved to Mulegé, which sits along the Santa Rosalia River near the Sea of Cortez, in May 2019 and on Nov. 2 that year he opened the brewery. While his accent can’t hide the fact he grew up in New York, his laid back attitude oozes his last domicile—San Diego—and his current home—Baja California Sur.

Early on he met Enrique, a home brewer who didn’t know what to do with the small batches he was creating. In stepped Attard and thus began the Mulegé Brewing Co. Even during these uncertain times of a global pandemic the businessman is eyeing expansion. He would like to have the beer making process next door to the restaurant.

The location is perfect—right on Highway 1 on the left when heading south. It’s just as people would turn into the heart of Mulegé.

For my flight I had six beers to choose from. I picked the pale ale from the Transpeninsular Brewery in Ensenada, stout from Border Cycle in Tijuana, and Mulegé’s Hefeweizen and amber. It was hard to choose a favorite, but the Hefeweizen and stout slighted edged out the other two. Most of the other handles are usually from northern Baja.

An incredible treat was when Zuelma, one of the employees, brought out a bowl of popcorn. The rosemary oil on it was outstanding. I could easily have had several bowls and called it a meal. With pizza coming, I limited myself to one bowl of popcorn. Good decision because the pizza was another mouthwatering sensation.

Six kinds of pizzas are available in three sizes at the brewery. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“It’s all wood-fire pizza with all local, fresh ingredients,” Attard said. “We take pride in our food. If it’s not good, we don’t serve it.”

Attard said it’s been hard in this economy. Fewer people are traveling through Baja this season because of COVID-19. Canadians can’t drive across the U.S. border, thus keeping them home. Locals are having a hard time finding work. It is local Mexicans, though, who are working at the brewery.

To help out his adopted hometown, Attard has done fundraisers at the brewery for a variety of charities. He has also coached a girls’ softball team. “A little goes a long way,” Attard said in reference to giving back.

The flight of beers was 100 pesos ($4.80), and the pizza was 250 pesos ($12.25). Other food sold at the brewery includes burgers, wings, tacos, salads and more. Other beverages are also for sale.

Pandemic cooling off world coffee market

COVID-19 is taking its toll on the international coffee market. With cafes and restaurants closing or not operating at full capacity, less coffee is being sold. The trickle down effect means growers are struggling even more.

This is particularly bad for farmers in Mexico. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Eighty-five percent of coffee producers in Mexico are from indigenous populations, with 95 percent of them considered small producers, with less than 3 hectares.”

Coffee markets across the world are being hit by the pandemic becasue people are not dining out as often. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Mexico is the 10th largest coffee producer in the world, with 3.7 million 60-kilogram bags a year. While coffee is grown in 15 states in Mexico, most of the production comes from Chiapas (41 percent), Veracruz (24 percent) and Puebla (15 percent). Predominately its shade-grown Arabica coffee that is in the ground, with Robusta accounting for about 15 percent of the crop, according to the USDA.

In 2018, the value of exported roasted coffee from Mexico was valued $31.1 million (U.S.). The country is one of the largest exporters of organic-certified coffee in the world. Coffee is one of Mexico’s most valuable exported crops, with most of it going north to the United States.

However, the International Coffee Organization (ICO) said shipments from Central America and Mexico declined by 4.9 percent to 8.77 million bags from October 2019 to April 2020. For the most part, this was prepandemic, so numbers are likely to only get worse.

“World coffee consumption is expected to decrease by 0.5 percent to 167.81 million bags as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put pressure on the global economy and greatly limits out-of-home coffee consumption. As a result, coffee year 2019-20 is seen ending in a surplus of 1.54 million bags,” according to the ICO.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has a dim forecast for coffee producing nations because of the current health crisis.

“COVID-19 effects are expected to stunt consumption growth, as restaurants and cafes around the country are closed, stymying government and specialty producer efforts to increase consumption of high-value Mexican coffee that has been gaining increasing popularity in urban cafes,” the USDA said.

Coffee has been a part of Mexican culture since it was first brought to the country in the 1700s by Europeans.

Even in Mexico, Starbucks is the king of the coffee shop market. There are 10 locations in Baja California Sur. In 2019, Starbucks had 50 percent of the market, followed by Café Punta de Cielo (11.6 percent) and Italian Coffee (10.6 percent).

It’s not just the poor who have difficulty putting food on the table

Do you remember what you last ate? Do you know when you will eat again? Is it easy to satiate hunger pangs?

Be lucky if you answered yes to those questions because 1 in 10 people in the United States do not have enough food to eat. That is more than 35 million people. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem as people struggle to work and students are not at school to receive a free or reduced meals. With unemployment benefits running out, those numbers are likely to increase. It hasn’t helped that food prices have risen dramatically during the pandemic.

Food insecurity is a growing problem in the U.S. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The Census Bureau conducted a study in August with results released in mid-September that show food insecurity for children was at 16.8 percent in mid-June and rose to 19.9 percent a month later.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Hunger by U.S. government definition is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” In simple terms, food insecurity can mean you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.

The Washington Post on Sept. 15 sponsored a webinar about food insecurity. Soledad O’Brien, producer of the movie “Hungry to Learn,” and Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who is in the film, talked about what is going on at college campuses in the United states. The documentary is based on Goldrick-Rab’s study about food insecurity among college students. Results of the fifth study that she has conducted were released pre-COVID.

It was revealed that 45 percent of college students experience hunger at some point. “These numbers can only be this large if there is a systemic problem,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Some students had free or reduced breakfasts and/or lunches in K-12. The federal government does not have an equivalent program at the college level. Those with needs are from diverse backgrounds, it’s not just the poor. It could be that mom and dad are not helping out even though the student came from a middle or upper middle class family. It could be that even in middle class homes money was too scarce to save for college. Many students have jobs that help them put food in their mouths. Most of those jobs evaporated when the pandemic hit, thus creating an even larger problem. So many jobs do not come with a livable wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour; this took effect in July 2009.

Food on college campuses is big business. The movie says, “The college food service industry made an estimated $18 billion in 2018.” Not everyone, though, can afford to dine on campus.

Food pantries exist at more than 650 colleges, including Lake Tahoe Community College. Students in South Lake Tahoe may visit the pantry twice a month and must meet income eligibility guidelines. Most of the food comes from grants and donations.

“It’s really hard to get students focused on studying when they don’t have enough to eat,” Goldrick-Rab said. They are having to choose between going to college and eating.

O’Brien said, “There has to be a federal response to help these students.” In July 2019, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) introduced the BASIC (Basic Assistance for Students In College) Act.

Supporters include the American Association of Community Colleges, American Student Association of Community Colleges, Association of Community College Trustees, Center for Law and Social Policy, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, National Alliance to End Homelessness, NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, California Community Colleges, University of California, and the University of California Student Association.

The bill, according to a press release from Harris, would provide “legislation to ensure that college students—particularly those receiving Pell Grants or attending a community college or minority-serving institution—are able to afford basic, day-to-day necessities.” The release goes on to say the act would:

  1. Establish a $500 million competitive grant program to help institutions of higher education identify and meet the basic needs of students, including food, housing, transportation, child care, health care, and technology.
  2. Require at least 25 percent of grants to go to community colleges. Grant priority will also go to institutions with 25 percent or higher Pell enrollment, HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions.
  3. Requires the Department of Education to coordinate with the Departments of Agriculture, Housing & Urban Development, and Health & Human Services to develop and implement an agreement to:
  • Securely share data to identify current students who may be eligible for federal means-tested programs, including SNAP, SSI, TANF, WIC, Medicaid, and federal housing assistance; and
  • Coordinate efforts to help institutions of higher education enroll eligible students in these programs.

The bill has not gone anywhere since it was introduced.

O’Brien and Goldrick-Rab are encouraged more people are talking about the issue, that educators are recognizing the problem, and that at least one presidential candidate and his vice presidential nominee are raising the alarm bell on the campaign trail.

Mexico and U.S. substantial agricultural trade partners

Green houses are common in the northern state of Baja. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Based on how much of the produce found in California grocery stores in the winter says “Product of Mexico” one would think agriculture would be a substantive part of Mexico’s economy. Not so. In 2019 it represented 3.47 percent of the gross domestic product.

For government purposes agriculture not only includes cultivation of crops and livestock production, but forestry, hunting and fishing as well.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “In 2018, Mexico’s agricultural exports [to all countries] totaled about $31.5 billion [applying USDA’s definition of agricultural trade to the Mexican Government’s trade statistics]. Mexico’s agricultural imports [from all countries] in 2018 totaled about $28.6 billion. The United States is Mexico’s largest agricultural trading partner, buying 78 percent of Mexican exports and supplying 69 percent of the country’s imports in this category.”

Bananas are a popular export from Mexico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

With the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, ag imports/exports between the two countries started to increase substantially.

Mexico’s primary crops are corn, sugar cane, sorghum, wheat, tomatoes, bananas, chili peppers, oranges, lemons, limes, mangoes and other tropical fruits, beans, barley, avocados, blue agave and coffee.

Agave plants on the mainland will be turned into tequila. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While most of Mexico’s ag land is on the mainland, crops are found throughout Baja. Mexico has nearly 200 million hectares. Of those, 15 percent are used for ag; most of which—58 percent—is for raising livestock.

One thing that sets the Mexico agriculture industry apart from its neighbor to the north is the amount of crops not being grown out in the open. Mexico leads the world in protected agricultural. These structures protect the product from excessive sun and rain. They include high-tech greenhouses, metal hoops covered with plastic, and open-sided shade houses. Mostly it’s tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers that are protected. This is why there are tomatoes in U.S. stores year-round. In Baja the northern state has a number of greenhouses, while in the south crops are usually not covered.

Authentic, fresh tortillas make mass produced ones seem like cardboard

Employees at California Star in Todos Santos make tortillas. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Harina was one of the first words I learned when I moved to Todos Santos. Then I became a bit of an addict. I’ve always liked flour tortillas, but it was moving to Mexico that made me realize I had a problem.

I think I could live off flour tortillas. Not the ones you get in stores in the United States, but the ones that are freshly made at tortillerias in Mexico. They are so light. Right out of the fridge, heated over a gas flame, nuked in the microwave—all good options. Plain, with a little hot sauce, melted butter, of course cheese—more good choices. They could be a snack or filled with something more substantive for a meal. They can be eaten at all times of the day, after all a breakfast burrito is a great way to start the morning.

Most restaurants in Baja offer maíz (corn) and harina (flour) tortillas with various meals. They come in a stack in a warmer; sometimes for the individual, sometimes for the table to share. I would eat them plain, or wrap whatever my main meal was in them, or dip them in the beans. Seldom would any be uneaten. When taking food home, I was sure to put any leftover tortillas in the to-go container.

What makes tortillas so much better in Mexico is how few ingredients are used and how fresh they are. No preservatives are added, which means they need to be consumed rather quickly. Not a problem.

Balls of dough ready to be flattened into the shape of a tortilla. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

I’ve always been a fan of flour tortillas, though I’ll eat corn if that’s all there is. My favorite place for flour tortillas in Todos Santos is California Star. It’s a non-descript tiny market that had my sister not introduced me to I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to pop in there. It’s a must stop for her when she first gets to town. The roof has rebar coming out in case they ever want to add another story. A dog often paces up there, barking at those below. I’m always amazed it doesn’t jump down because there is no barrier to keep it from doing so.

The tortillas are made behind the counter, with the operation going on during business hours. The balls, which look like a perfect ice cream scoop, are placed on a flattening device that makes impeccable 6-inch circles. From there the worker tosses them onto a hot griddle, where another employee flips them over before placing them onto a cooling table. They are sealed in plastic bags and sold for 30 pesos ($1.38) for 10.

Plenty of stores in Baja sell tortillas. But if you can, buy them from a tortillerias for the real deal.

Nothing small about Topo Chico’s flavor, popularity

In Baja California Sur, people don’t say pick me up some sparkling water. They name it. Bring Topo Chico.

Besides drinking it straight, many use is as a mixer. Locals and gringos are regularly seen buying Topo Chico it in Todos Santos. It seems to be a staple in most people’s diets.

Topo Chico started business in 1895. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

This marks the 125th year the company has been in business. While its roots are in Mexico, the beverage is a cult favorite in the United States as well. The water flows naturally from a limestone spring in Monterrey, Mexico, on the mainland. The name comes from the nearby mountain, Cerro del Topo Chico.

According to the Topo Chico website, the water “can be used for quenching thirst, assisting in the digestive process, and it’s a great hangover remedy.” Although it is naturally carbonated, more carbonation is added to restore any that had been lost in the bottling process.

The sparkling water sector is big business, with it expected to be a $5.5 billion industry in 2020. The Coca-Cola Company in 2017 decided to tap into that market by purchasing Topo Chico for $220 million. The negative of this acquisition is the price went up, at least in the United States. The positive is that the water is now more widely available. It can be ordered online through Amazon and WalMart.

Coca-Cola is expanding Topo Chico’s reach to be an alcoholic drink. A hard seltzer will be available in some parts of Latin America later this year, and in the United States in 2021. Coke’s first venture into the alcohol market was in Japan in 2018. The non-alcoholic beverage also comes in lime and grapefruit flavors.

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