Some like it hot, but when it comes to Mexican cuisine, it’s not necessarily the heat that entices, it’s the flavors and the colors, the textures and the variety. With that in mind, you can almost taste the richness of Mexican culture in the foods that Jenna Blakey of Lewiston prepares.

“I love having a relationship with food,” said Blakey, who grew up in Jay but lived in the country of Mexico for 4 years. “I enjoy the whole process,” she added, swooning over the variety of smells and the vibrant colors of the food she prepared recently as lively, rhythmic music played in her Lewiston kitchen.

Blakey comes by her passion for food easily. “My dad, Dan Caron, is a local chef,” she said, and “I grew up in the kitchen, under foot, where I learned a few skills.” She still calls on Dad — who teaches at the Green Ladle culinary training program in Lewiston — often for advice, acknowledging, “I should have paid more attention earlier.”

Her time south of the border added to her knowledge.

“Living in Mexico, and being around the foods they prepared, it was a given that I had to learn to cook what I was eating at my friends’ tables,” said Blakey, “and I had some great culinary friends.”

In Mexico, Blakey worked at an international school for missionary kids, and would get together often with other women who worked at the school. “We would cook together,” she said, but the cooking was almost secondary: “It was just an opportunity for the ladies who taught at the school to gossip and laugh.”

Perhaps the most challenging thing about learning to cook in Mexico, for Blakey, was the lack of recipes. “They just add a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” but nothing gets written down and nothing gets measured.

“In Mexico, dinner is usually served as late at 9 or 10 at night,” said Blakey. “We would have a big lunch at about 2ish, and then dinner would be really light, sometimes just sweet breads for dinner and Coca-Cola.” Coca-Cola, she noted, “is big down there,” but don’t look for lemons – a staple in our Northeastern version of Mexican food.

“Lemons are not popular in Mexico,” said Blakey, who once found one in a market. When she brought it to the checkout, “the cashier didn’t even know what it was.” Instead, traditional Mexican cooking relies heavily on limes. Key limes, in particular, are popular, and are used in cooking as well as on plates as a garnish.

YOU PUT THE LIME IN THE GUACAMOLE

Blakey’s favorite recipe for guacamole, a side dish that is popular both in Mexico and here in the Maine, features “some traditional Mexican elements as well as ingredients that give it an American flair.”

You start with the perfect avocado, but that’s easier said than done.

In the Northeast, said Blakey, “when you’re looking for avocados they are often hard and not ripe.”

“The flesh of a ripe avocado should have some give,” Blakey explained, “without any hollow spots.”

When cut, the flesh of a ripe avocado is green on the edges and lighter green on the inside, not brown. Blakey suggested planning ahead if you are going to be making guacamole, and hit the market a few days in advance. If your avocados are under ripe, put them in a paper bag and leave them on the counter, where they will ripen faster.

Sometimes people peel the avocado, not Blakey. “You want to cut it in half, to the big pit, then I use a spoon to scoop out the flesh. Using a fork, I’ll mash it in my bowl.”

In true Mexican fashion, Blakey doesn’t follow a recipe. “Guacamole,” she said, “is all about personal preferences, and I like tomato — small dice — because it adds a little color.”

And turn up the heat!

“Fresh peppers vary in heat,” explained Blakey, “and the mildest is the jalapeno,” followed by the popular serrano and then habanero, the hottest. “I never use the habanero, but my husband loves the heat.”

When preparing the peppers, Blakey suggested wearing gloves because “the oils can burn skin, as well as taste buds.”

“The heat originates in the veins, not the seeds,” she said. To cut down on the heat, Blakey removes and discards the veins, as well as the seeds. Then, she minces the fleshy part of the pepper and uses “just a tiny bit in the guacamole.”

(By the way, if you’re unfortunate enough to come in contact with a dreadfully hot pepper while tasting guacamole or any other food, “don’t drink water, because they are oils,” and we all know what happens when oil meets water, Blakey said. “Instead, a glass of milk, bread or yogurt” if you can.)

Blakey also recommended making your guacamole just a few minutes before you serve it “because it browns quickly.” She has found that covering guacamole tightly with plastic wrap, leaving no air between the food and the plastic, will help.

“My Mexican friends taught me to us a little crema – it’s like a sour cream, but it lacks the acidity – or milk in my guacamole. Crema makes it smoother and creamier.” It’s Blakey’s “Mexican element.”

However, here in central Maine, “We’re Americans, and we love bacon,” she said, so “my American ingredient is bacon” — cooked thoroughly and chopped. “It adds a little salt, and I like a little salt in mine.”

“Bacon and milk: It’s Mexico meets America.”

There are other variations, Blakey said. “Some like it chunky, and some like it smooth . . . some people love cilantro, some don’t, but that’s the beauty of guacamole: You can make it your own.”

She also puts fresh garlic in guacamole and in, well, “pretty much everything else.”

Sometimes, Blakey serves guacamole as an hors d’oeuvre, with chips, but she also enjoys it on tacos and in salsa verde. But don’t put it in pico de gallo.

“You can’t beat fresh with a pico,” Blakey said.

‘MANLY CONDIMENT’: PICO DE GALLO

Unlike salsa, which is usually pureed and cooked, you do neither to a pico de gallo.

“’Pico’ means small and ‘gallo’ means turkey,” said Blakey, “so, really, no one knows where its meaning comes from.” However, “it’s loosely translated as a manly kind of condiment.” Regardless of its translation or meaning, it’s a very popular side dish.

A pico de gallo is made with diced Roma tomatoes, which have more meat and less juice, and are less acidic. It is also the most common tomato in Mexico.

Blakey also uses a common green pepper in her pico de gallo, as well as green onions, cilantro and the fresh juice of a key lime. “Green onions are not overpowering, and I like a lot of lime juice.”

“There are tons of variations to a pico de gallo,” she added, including adding black beans, pineapple or diced avocado.

When it comes to pico de gallo’s cousin, salsa, and contrary to what many recipes suggest, Blakey does not cook her salsa verde (green salsa). But she does include the salsa’s trademark ingredient.

“You need tomatillos for a green salsa,” said Blakey, but “they’re hard to find.”

Tomatillos have a papery skin on them and are usually tart. A medium-sized tomatillo is about the size of a golf ball, and is perfect to use in a salsa verde; larger ones have less flavor, Blakey said.

When the papery skin is peeled away, the tomatillo will feel sticky. Blakey recommends using a blender to prepare salsa verde – see her recipe – not a food processor, because “in Mexico they don’t use food processors,” she said, with a shrug. She’s not sure why.

Blakey’s favorite trick for making a green salsa: “It’s not really Mexican, but something I do: I’ll use a quarter of a key lime — smaller limes have more zest — (and) throw the rind and all into the blender for a real burst of flavor.”

You can blend it to your favorite consistency and stop right there, adding salt to taste or avocado to make it creamy.

Blakey still teaches an occasional class at the Green Ladle in Lewiston, as well as Lewiston adult classes once or twice a year, but can most often be found salsa dancing, spoon in hand, around her own kitchen.

Green salsa (salsa verde)

Ingredients:

6-8 tomatillos

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 serrano pepper

1/8 cup cilantro

1/4 key lime (including rind)

Process:

Remove husks from tomatillos. Blend all ingredients and serve chilled

Pico de gallo

Ingredients:

4-5 roma tomatoes, diced

3 green onions, diced

1 green pepper, diced

1 serrano pepper, seeded and finely diced

1/8 cup cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Salt to taste

Process:

Mix ingredients and chill until ready to serve

Guacamole

Serves 5-6

Ingredients:

2 avocados

1 teaspoon lime juice

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped

2 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

1/2 tablespoon garlic, minced

1 roma tomato, diced

1-2 tablespoons milk

Process:

Halve and pit the avocados. With a spoon, scoop out the flesh into a mixing bowl. Mash the avocados with a fork, leaving them still a bit chunky. Add the rest of the ingredients and fold everything together. Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the guacamole so it doesn’t brown until ready to serve.


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