Tiny passion fruit packed with flavor, nutrients

Passion fruit grows on vines throughout Baja California Sur. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The worse it looks the better it tastes. That isn’t usually a strong endorsement for trying something new.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the yellow orbs at first. But Jill had yet to steer me wrong with expanding my culinary knowledge so I accepted a few. It wasn’t long before I was excited to see a few left outside the casita for me. When a neighbor in Todos Santos dropped off a bag full and I wasn’t shy about making known I’d like some.

Passion fruit is wonderful. It’s amazing how few it takes to have such big flavor. It’s sweet and a bit tart at the same time.

Some are about the size of a golf ball; none have been bigger than a baseball. Most have been yellow, with a few having a purple color on the outside. The best are when they start to shrivel a bit. That’s when it’s time to cut them in half to scoop out the flesh and seeds inside.

I have had passion fruit with yogurt, with yogurt and granola, in a smoothie, and a margarita. Jill mixes them with mangos for an exceptional jam. I’ve used that jam as a topping on vanilla ice cream.

All the ones she has provided me have come from the neighborhood, not a store.

Besides being so incredibly yummy, passion fruit get high marks for nutritional value. A single fruit has about 17 calories, 2 grams of fiber, 9 percent of the daily recommend vitamin C, and 5 percent for vitamin A.

Passion fruit is grown in the tropics and subtropics. It’s also known as granadilla, maracuya, parcha and liliko’i. In Baja they often go by granada China, while on the mainland it’s maracua.

Hierbabuena farm to table restaurant losing its flavor

Hierbabuena garden at the front of the restaurant. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Walking through the garden one hopes that what comes out of the kitchen will be as fresh as any meal can be.

The farm to table concept is one I’ve always enjoy, though this can happen without a garden on site. It’s all about where the ingredients are sourced.

The limited size of the garden means much of the produce that Hierbabuena restaurant in Pescadero uses comes from elsewhere. How much of what is grown on site is used in the kitchen compared to how much comes from the surrounding community or beyond isn’t something owner Marcos Ramirez would answer. Nor would he say where the meats come from.

Consistency in the quality of food and service can make or break a restaurant. The service at Hierbabuena has always been spot on, even when I was last there in January. The food, well, it was not as good as it once was. And that’s not just my opinion, but a shared consensus from a few others who have eaten there in the last few months.

The house salad at Hierbabuena. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

One of the problems is the menu has not changed in the three years I have been going there. It doesn’t even change seasonally. This means the chef is not always using ingredients that are in season. Ramirez didn’t want to address that issue either.

“We most value the principles of my mom’s generation. Uncomplicated, fresh, healthy eating from the source without processing and manipulation. We look to traditional recipes as the basis for our dishes. Our kitchen strives to represent our region, tradition, and freshness,” Ramirez said.

Those are good goals, but they aren’t being achieved.

Ramirez opened the restaurant in July 2013.

“We are true believers in that we are what we eat. Our motto is ‘grow it, plate it, eat it.’ Without manipulation, we encourage the freshness and flavors of our garden to shine through. The simple preparation of our produce, along with regional and traditional products allows our food to portray its own flavor,” Ramirez said.

The restaurant is open and airy, making it safe during a pandemic. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The house salad (mixed lettuces, avocado, radish, pumpkin seeds, red onion, blue cheese and mustard dressing (180 pesos or $9) was good, but nothing sensational. An exceptional salad is one that tastes better than anything I can make. Plenty exist, trust me.

We each had the ravioli (roasted carrot and local ricotta with basil pesto sauce—360 pesos or $18). The carrots in Baja Sur have so much flavor it’s like they are candy. This did not come through in the ravioli. Plus, it wasn’t cooked all the way through so the cheese had not melted. The pesto was average at best.

This is one of the pricier restaurants I’ve been to in Baja Sur—especially for lunch. I seldom spend that much. I won’t again. Too many other good places to go.

Mexico grows the world’s most popular fruit

More bananas are eaten in the world than any other fruit. While commercial production is a big deal, most are grown for local consumption.

It can take a year before it’s time to remove the peel and ingest what’s inside. Commercial enterprises might start production at nine months.

Bananas typically grow in hot, tropical climates—which includes areas of Mexico. About 150 countries grow this fruit, with Southeast Asia being where they were first discovered. Today, more than half of the bananas in the world are grown in India, Ecuador, Brazil and China.

It’s not uncommon for people to have banana trees in their yards in Baja California Sur. Often the ones in Todos Santos are smaller than the commercially produced ones found in a grocery store. They are more firm and sweeter, and ready to eat even when the peel is green.

Bananas being grown at a home in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The difference is because there more than 1,000 types of bananas in the world. Mexico primarily is home to these varieties: Dominico, Valery, Pera, Tabasco, Morado, Manzano, Cavendish Gigante, and Macho.

While it looks like bananas are trees, they aren’t. They are perennial herbs that are related to lilies and orchids. They grow from a bulb or rhizome, not a seed. It would be hard to know this just by looking at them. Some of these non-trees can be nearly 50 feet tall.

The leaves are distinguishable and often hide the actual fruit that might be growing closer to the trunk. These green leaves can be nearly 9 feet long and 2 feet wide.

Multiple bunches grow on top of each other, which means individual homeowners will have a ton of bananas getting ripe at one time.

The large production areas are on the mainland in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz. Combined they represent more than 60 percent of Mexico’s banana crop. They are exported to 43 countries, including the United States.

In Mexico in 2020, the average price for a kilo of bananas was 84 cents, while in the U.S. it was $1.03, according to Global Product Prices. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.

“Exports of bananas from Mexico have annually increased between 2012 and 2018, amounting to 270 million U.S. dollars in the latter year. This is more than double the export value reported in 2012. Production of bananas in Mexico  reached 2.24 million metric tons in 2018,” according to Statista.

Damiana — a Mexican liqueur that doubles as an aphrodisiac

Sometimes it’s a good idea to say yes even if you have never tasted what is being offered. How else will you know if you like it or not?

Such was the case when the waiter at San Toro in Todos Santos explained what damiana was. The menu had a few margaritas, with one having this liqueur in it. Neither my niece nor I had heard of it. We took the “just yes” approach and were happy with our decision.

Damiana is a Mexican liqueur that supposedly acts as an aphrodisiac. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Of course it cost more, but it was worth it. This is in contrast to when I’ve had margaritas in the States with grand marnier. I’ve never been impressed with a grand marnier float or mixed in. Perhaps this is because it is an orange liqueur just like the Cointreau I use when making a margarita. It’s really a waste of money.

Damiana is sweet, but also somewhat earthy. It’s worth the extra pesos.

It can easily be a substitute for simple syrup in margaritas because sugarcane is part of the final product.

Fortunately for me, Veronica had a partial bottle to dispose of when she headed back to the States. I was able to try it other ways at her expense, so to speak. I then had to get my own bottle.

This amber liqueur was discovered by the Guaycura Indians in Mexico. They used it for religious ceremonies.

While more than one company makes damiana, the largest Mexico producer puts it in a unique bottle. It is called Guaycura Licor de Damiana. The bottle looks a bit like a pregnant woman and resembles the Inca god of fertility.

This makes sense because the damiana plant is considered an aphrodisiac. It also is said to relieve stress, insomnia, and aches and pains.

The plant with bright yellow flowers grows in Baja California Sur and other subtropical locales like Central and South America, the Caribbean and southern Texas.

I’ve had damiana in hot chocolate, neat, in a margarita made with tequila and one made with mezcal. All are terrific, but the cocoa was my favorite because of a distinct cinnamon taste that I didn’t get having the other ways. The dried leaves of the plant can also be brewed into a tea.

Earthiness of mezcal takes some getting used to

Shot glasses and bottles lined up for a private mezcal tasting in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Smooth, herbal and botanical.

I struggled to understand the description in relation to what I was tasting. Veronica’s palate is much more sophisticated than mine when it comes to mezcal. I’m a newbie, she is more seasoned.

As the student, I listened and learned as my niece educated me about this liquor native to Mexico. She brought several bottles from the mainland to Todos Santos and had more shipped to a mezcaleria in La Paz. We had to sample some while we were in La Paz, tasted even more at El Refugio in Todos Santos, and had a private session at her parents’ home in Baja Sur.

While Mexico is known for tequila, mezcal is also extracted from the agave plant. Its smoky flavor is a dead giveaway this is not tequila.

But there is much more than flavor that distinguishes these two liquors. Tequila is actually a type of mezcal. It can only be made with blue agave. Of the more than 200 types of agave, about 60 can be used for mezcal. Tequila is produced by steaming the plant, while mezcal is derived by placing the plant in earthen pits and essentially roasting it.

Darissa at La Miserable in La Paz talks mezcal. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Mezcal has been around for hundreds of years, with natives making it long before the Spanish conquered the country. Even now much of it is handcrafted in small batches.

“To fulfill the growing local and international demand, Mexico’s mezcal production has increased from 1.45 million liters in 2014 to more than 5 million liters in 2018, with an average growth rate of almost 38 percent per year,” according to Statista. “The most produced category is ‘mezcal artesanal’, making up 92 percent of the drink’s production volume. Artisanal mezcal is produced through different traditional methods and its manufacture processes depend on its region of origin.”

It’s not just people in Mexico drinking mezcal. There are 240 brands that are exported. Those exports are growing, with 2.8 million liters leaving the country in 2017, with it increasing to 3.42 million liters in 2018. Most of it—nearly two-thirds—goes to the United States.

Mezcal is often sipped, though it can be used to make a margarita and presumably other drinks. A small slice of orange is often eaten during a tasting to cleanse the palate.

El Refugio has regular mezcal tastings at the Todos Santos restaurant. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

At El Refugio restaurant we paid 750 pesos or about $35 to taste seven mezcals. They were either from Oaxaca or Guerrero. The former is the main state where mezcal is made.

Espadín is one of the entry level mezcals; and one of the more popular varietals. It wasn’t for me. Too stringent. I wanted something smoother, more approachable. I can see, though, why espadín would be good in cocktails. You want to save the good stuff for sipping.

Rachel Glueck with husband Noel Morales owns El Refugio. She leads the tastings, gives a bit of history about them, and explains what people are tasting. At their restaurant she said La Rosa’s papalote mezcal is the most popular. “She makes it with women in mind,” Glueck says. I don’t know what this means, but I like the sentiment and the flavor.

Glueck finds the Oaxacan mezcals to be leaner and the Guerrero ones more full bodied.

Veronica and I tasted four mezcals at La Miserable in La Paz. We were both taken by Mezcaloteca’s bicuixe. So much so we decided to buy a bottle to split before asking how much it cost. We were both shocked that it is about $100—that’s U.S. I don’t spend that much on wine; a beverage I regularly consume. What the heck we both say, and out came our credit cards. After all, the contents would last a lot longer than any wine bottle.

It’s later at our private tasting where I imbibe mezcal from La Fiera. Oddly, this vegetarian liked the pechuga best; even more so than the expensive bottle. Pechuga translates to breast. This is because a raw chicken (sometimes a turkey) is involved in the process.

While I’m sure mezcal won’t be my go-to drink of choice any time soon, I’m still interested in trying more, learning more and hoping one day to see the making of mezcal in person on the mainland.

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 (www.bajafarmfresh.com) 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.

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