Time for a Plant-Based Menu!

I’ve often been asked lately why I thought it was time to create a plant-based menu. It’s a good question – and with Mexican food, one that comes with a lot of history.

Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards to México, a plant-based diet was typical. For centuries, Mexican families made use of seeds, dried herbs, and plants to create meals. Corn originated in México, as did chocolate and a variety of other foods we now enjoy worldwide. The Aztecs, known for their bravery and ferocity, ate mostly plants.

As a little boy in México, one of my favorite memories is from a magical afternoon spent with my Father as he worked on his small farm. I was only four years old, yet the memory is as fresh today as if it recently occurred. The afternoon sun tinted everything golden, and as I followed my Father through the dirt path the dust glittered in the light as it floated up behind his footsteps. I was there to ‘help’ him harvest corn.

 

His work seemed fascinating to me, and I felt very grown up to be helping. My brother and sister tagged along, all of us listening with rapt attention to our Father’s words. We came to a fire pit with wood burning in the center and a rim of dry cow pies around the outside for fuel to burn the empty corn husks. Quickly becoming bored with ‘work’, I picked up a few kernels of corn and threw them on the fire. They popped and flew through the air, landing on the ground. Although a few burned up like small meteors, most remained edible and I reveled in the game of making food with fire. My love of popcorn, and later other traditional plants was born.

Most of you know how great my Mother’s influence was in my decision to become a Restaurateur. She loved to cook and shared her love with us through her delicious dishes. She understood that to serve others through good food was more than simply providing sustenance. Much of the wonderful food she prepared for our family was Vegan or Vegetarian, though those terms were not used in those days. It was just good food, prepared with equal parts of tradition and love.

Some of these dishes have always been on my menu at Mayahuel, but in the past year I have gotten more requests for plant-based dishes. It became clear to me that for those who choose to adopt a plant-based diet, it’s about more than simply food. My guests educated me with the reasons they choose this lifestyle; the avoidance of any food that contains animal products (such as dairy, eggs and honey) or are made with animals or tested on animals. Many of my guests are very careful to read labels and insure they aren’t contributing to the harm of other living creatures.

This made me think. How could I find a way to support this life-choice? My Executive Chef, Maria ‘Coco’ Mondragon and I began to work on recipes that have a combination of historic tradition and modern-day inspiration. Certainly, many of the dishes that bring back wonderful memories from each of our childhoods qualified.

We recently finished the menu – though it will continue to evolve and we’ll add items – and we’re pleased with the results. Some of the dishes are quite traditional – such as the Tacos Dorados de Papa, crispy, crunchy corn tortillas filled with smashed seasoned potatoes and topped with fresh lettuce and salsa. Another favorite in many Mexican homes is lentil soup. Lentils are full of nutrition – and lend themselves to the addition of herbs and spices that make a wonderful soup.

Chef Mondragon and I wanted to create a delicious nutritional drink that would also be wonderful with the addition of fine Tequila. After trying several possibilities, we settled on a drink that includes fresh spinach, watermelon, mango and a touch of mint. This is a refreshing example of plants used frequently in Mexican drinks and dishes – and while it’s wonderful on its own, it makes an amazing cocktail when Tequila is added.

The creation of starters was another area on which we focused our attention. We already feature the nutty, creamy Sikil P’ak, a dip made from roasted Pumpkin Seeds that is a staple of the Yucatan diet. Adding the Chipotle Almond dip seemed the perfect second plant-based starter – a creamy blend of ground almonds and smoky Chipotle chile goes beautifully with our house-made chips.

Mole – which is made throughout Mexico in dozens of delicious variations – is delicious over meaty Portobello mushrooms or Plantains. Our Pistacio Mole has a creamy, delicate subtleness with layers of flavor. Huitlacoche – a delicious Earthy mushroom/fungus that grows on corn – has been recently ‘discovered’ by some of the world’s top Chef’s. It lends a unique flavor to corn tortillas with mushrooms, black beans and fresh corn. Avocado – such as that in our Enchiladas Zapotecas – is a staple in Mexico and makes a very satisfying main ingredient.

One of the courses we had the most fun creating was dessert. Caramelized Plantains with dark Rum sauce have long been served south of the border. The Chocolate Pistacio cake, however, was new. This turned out beyond our wildest imagination. No one would ever think this moist, dark, rich cake had no eggs or dairy.

I’m excited about the opportunity to bring more diversity to my Restaurants and would encourage everyone – even meat eaters – to try some of our plant-based dishes. I’ll be modifying menus at each of my restaurants, including Mesa Mercado in Carmichael and La Cosecha Sacramento. It makes me proud to represent my culture through the passion of making traditional Pre-Hispanic foods.

My favorite quote of late? “Vegans are like your parents. First you hate them, then you become them and realize they were right all along.”

 

Why does my salad cost $15? The cost of running a restaurant.

It’s a hot summer day, and you’ve just spent the last eight hours working. You’re hungry, tired, and need to find a great place to relax, unwind and get a really good meal before heading home.

You walk in the door of your favorite restaurant and instantly feel the stress begin to leave. The air-conditioning is cool and the wonderful aromas from the kitchen waft out over the dining room.

As you’re seated by the window, you can finally simply enjoy the ambience. You know you won’t be rushed here – you are graciously greeted by a server – the person who is responsible to take your order, make sure it’s cooked to your desire and deliver it to you.

You order a salad – and when it comes, you’re struck by the colorful presentation. Crisp spinach, romaine, fresh corn, black beans, and red pepper are artfully arranged in a shallow bowl. With the first bite, your taste buds exclaim their joy.

Your salad is $15. Do you know where that money goes?
Here’s the average breakdown for your delicious salad in California restaurants:

Building Lease                                                            1.09
Equipment and depreciation                                     .19
Electricity, Heat and Air-Conditioning                   .98
Payroll*                                                                         3.81
Payroll taxes paid for employees                              .52
Employee Health Insurance                                       .48
Worker’s Compensation Insurance                         1.49
Liability Insurance                                                        .63
CPA, Bookkeeper, other overhead costs                 .38
Ingredients (food)                                                      4.68

Expenses                                                                  $14.23
*Payroll covers servers, hosts/hostesses, chef, line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, bus persons, management, etc.

Profit? Typically it’s 77 cents (roughly 5%)

THEN, the owner must pay income tax on that 5%. If your adjusted gross income is over $45,000, your federal and Calif state income tax will often be upwards of 42%. (Keep in mind that self-employment tax is 15.3%)

So…….. the owner of the restaurant takes home his paycheck for your $15 salad – a whopping 32 cents.

How do restaurant owners make a living and why do they do it?

The number of meals served. It’s important for restaurant owners to have guests at the tables during open hours. Of course, this number varies. The restaurant you see that’s packed at noon may have only a few guests at 2pm. The monthly average number of guests will determine the overall profit.

But if you own a business, you must be rich, right?

The perception is that small business owners in California must be wealthy. Most of those will tell you it’s far from the truth. Why do they do what they do? Because they have a passion.

The median income for individuals who are self-employed at their own incorporated businesses for twelve consecutive months was $56,142 in 2015. For individuals self-employed at their own unincorporated firms, this figure was $24,364. (Source: ACS)

What’s the takeaway? Next time you think your meal is pricey, take a look at what it includes.

  • Restaurants are one of the largest sources of employment in California.
  • They provide jobs, often entry level, to people who are attending college or helping to support families.
  • Restaurants create a need which is often filled by small farmers and local vendors.
  • California restaurants are the #1 generator of sales tax. Where do these sales taxes go?
    • Schools
    • Health programs
    • Public safety
    • Road repairs

Information provided by California Board of Equalization

Enjoy your salad! It’s providing much more than the tasty meal you’re eating.

A Love of Mole and the Best of Mexican Gastronomy

La Feria de Los Moles

In October, Mayahuel’s Señor Ernesto Delgado and Chef Coco Mondragon visited Los Angeles to attend the Premiermayahuel-guelaguetza-festival-de-moles-dish Mole Festival – ‘La Feria de Los Moles’.

Mole is not one dish, rather the word “mole” originates from the Nahuatl “mulli,” which means sauce, or stew. Almost every state in México has a number of Moles which are favored in that region – and came to be because of the availability of raw ingredients.

Created by Pedro Ramos, a Puebla native, the event attracts thousands of visitors each year who come to taste the amazing and varied array of Moles. Pedro was inspired by his Grandmother’s recipes; her Mole was the most requested dish at every party in his hometown. Mole Poblano is the specialty of Puebla and was originally served most often over turkey.

In the State of Oaxaca alone, there are seven main varieties of Mole (though there are dozens of variations) – Coloradito, Rojo, Verde, negro, chichilo, almond and Amarillo. These range from sweet to spicy, delicate to rich and deep.

The one thing all Moles have in common is the complexity of the recipe, the number of ingredients, and the long, slow cooking time. These are not everyday dishes – they are dishes of celebrations, used to mark special events and create memories.

An Exploration of Flavor

While in Los Angeles, Señor Delgado and Chef Mondragon decided to visit a couple of local eateries known for their authenticity and unique take on regional Mexican foods. The one thing all great Chefs have in common is a love for food and a desire to experience the creativity of others.

Historically, cooking in México was done by women. Taught from an early age by Mothers and Grandmothers, women were expected to create time-honored recipes for their families. Until fairly recent history, men simply didn’t cook – or if they did, they did so quietly.

Not so anymore. Some of the best Mexican Chefs today are men. Enrique Olvera, José Luis Diáz, and Julio Aguilera are all Oaxacan chefs who are world-renowned. One of the most revered chefs in Los Angeles is Ray Garcia, of Broken Spanish and BS Taqueria.

A Clash of Cultures at Broken Spanish

Chef Ray Garcia has a unique perspective and an innate ability to combine fresh ingredients with cultural adventure – all of which are incredibly delicious.

mayahuel-broken-spanish-habas-with-pea-salsa-verde-and-carrot-escabecheSeñor Delgado and Chef Mondragon tried a number of dishes at Broken Spanish, including an appetizer called Caracoles – a delicate combination of Snails, Mushroom, Mole Verde, and Stinging Nettle. Following came an order of Heirloom Corn Tortillas, which were fragrant and warm – with the flavor of fresh-picked corn from the garden. They then ordered the Tostada – which featured Habas (a variety of Fava Bean), Pea Salsa Verde, “Little Lamb”, Carrot Escabeche (a spicy, crisp picked carrot with radish, garlic, jalapeno, and garlic). The final dish was Camote– a dish made with sweet potato, tender pig tail, Trompa (Pig snout – a delicacy in many cultures), Chile de Arbol, and Verjus (a juice made from pressed unripe grapes – a gentle sweet-tart flavor like a soft vinegar) The meal was unique, delicious, and memorable.

To learn more about Broken Spanish and BS Taqueria – and the amazing Chef Ray Garcia, click here.

Guelaguetza – An Island of Oaxaca in Los Angeles

A visit to Los Angeles, especially one which involves the exploration of Mexican food, would not be complete without eating at Guelaguetza. This restaurant is truly Oaxacan. Family run, their mission is to bring the flavors and ingredients of Oaxaca to their guests.

The murals themselves are worth the visit. On one wall, larger-than-life children are depicted holding hens and carrying fresh ears of corn. Another wall shows a Mexican accordion player practicing his craft with intense focus.

Our explorers perused the restaurant and adjacent market before their meal, which was memorable. A few of the highlights:

~ Botana Oaxaquena – A platter full of Oaxacan favorites, including Oaxacan string cheese, memelas (fried masa cakes mayahuel-guelaguetza-muralwith queso fresco and fresh herbs, chorizo, tasajo (a thinly sliced grilled, seasoned beef), cecina (marinated cured pork, sliced paper thin and brushed with chiles), chile Relleno, carnitas, guacamole, and black beans.

~ Festival de Moles – Samples of several Oaxacan Moles, including Rojo, Verde, chicilo, and Coloradito, served with fresh handmade tortillas.

~ Canasta Costena – tender-crisp breaded seafood, Oaxacan style.

These ‘family-style sample platters’ were generous beyond imagination. The food was not only delicious, it was plentiful – so much so that Señor Delgado and Chef Mondragon shared it with nearby surprised, but happily willing diners.

Renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold called Guelaguetza ‘The Best Oaxacan Restaurant in the country’. It has recently been awarded the James Beard Award in the ‘American Classics’ category.

To check out their menu and see photos of the incredible murals, click here.

Learning, Exploring, and Sharing

Señor Delgado and Chef Mondragon were able to fit an impressive amount of food exploration into a short trip to Los Angeles. They returned with new ideas, a renewed enthusiasm for unique culinary styles and inspiration for future dishes which represent the best of what truly Mexican food offers.

 

Foods of the Aztec

Written for Señor Ernesto Delgado

What did the Aztecs eat?

We’d all like to think our 21st century diet is superior to anything ancient cultures may have consumed, but, at least in the case of the Aztecs this is likely not true.

According to historians, migrating tribes began to settle in Mexico prior to 1100 CE. Small, ‘city-states’ were formed, each a separate entity ruled by a Tlatoani, who led a council of nobles. As these city-states grew and prospered, those with more power began to dominate. By the late 1200’s, several separate empires had formed in Mexico.

Of those empires, the one which existed in the city of Tenochtitlan was the most powerful. Warriors from this area dominated neighboring city-states and enabled the ruler, Motechuhzoma II, to impose Aztec ideals and religion across a huge geographical area of Mexico.

The Aztec people were highly accomplished in agriculture as well as trade. This civilization, which flourished from around 1345, was also noted for its great architecture and art.

Aztec Calendar
Aztec Calendar

It’s surprising to history scholars that the Aztec capital fell to the Spaniards, led by Cortes,  in August of 1521. One theory is that Smallpox, brought to Tenochtitlan by one of Cortes’ solidiers, played a huge role in the eventual fall of the Aztec empire. So many warriors succumbed to the disease, they were unable to stop the onslaught of the Spaniards, who may have won simply because their immune systems were a bit more impervious to Smallpox.

While the Aztecs ruled, they farmed large areas of land. Staples of their diet were maize, beans and squash. To these, they added chilies and tomatoes.

They also harvested Acocils, an abundant crayfish-like creature found in Lake Texcoco, as well as Spirulina algae which they made into cakes.  Meat was eaten sparsely; the Aztec diet was primarily vegetarian with the exception of grasshoppers, maguey worms, ants and other larvae. Even now, some of these insects are considered delicacies in parts of Mexico.

Huitlacoche fungus growing on corn. This delicacy is rapidly growing in popularity.
Huitlacoche fungus growing on corn. This delicacy is rapidly growing in popularity.

Some wild game was consumed, including wild fowl, gophers, green iguanas, axolotis (a type of salamander) and deer. As time passed, the Aztecs began to domesticate turkeys and ducks.

Wild mushroom and other fungi were added to many dishes, including Huitlacoche – a mushroom which grows on ears of corn. (This delicious fungus is gaining popularity in modern-day Mexican cooking)

A surprising number of herbs and spices were used by the Aztecs to flavor foods. Chiles, of course – including what is thought to be the wild precursor to the Poblano- were liberally used throughout nearly all dishes. The Aztecs knew how to preserve chiles by dehydrating and grinding them into powders, separating them by flavor – sweet, fruity, earthy, smoky and hot.

Culantro, (stronger than our current Cilantro) was used fresh and dried. Canella, or white cinnamon, had a soft and delicate flavor and along with vanilla made from orchids, was used to flavor drinks. Other flavorings commonly used were achiote, epazote, hoja santa, garlic vine leaves, allspice and avocado leaves.

A large variety of indigenous plants were known to make up a portion of the Aztec diet as well. Many varieties of edible plants grew wild and were later harvested. Maize, of course, was one of these. It’s believed that varieties of maize have been grown domestically in Mexico for over 6,000 years.

Maize was the single most important staple of the Aztec diet. It was eaten at almost every meal by all social classes. In fact, it was so revered, that women often blew softly on maize before putting it in the cooking pot so it would not ‘fear the fire’.

A vast number of varieties of Maize grew in central Mexico – some yellow, red, white with colored stripes, black with speckles and a blue husked variant. Many others were thought to have existed, but few made it into recorded history.

Interestingly, the Aztecs invented a process called nixtamalization, a compound of the Nahuatl words for ashes and tamal. Dried maize was soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution – like limewater. This released the outer hull of the grain and made the maize easier to grind. It also caused a chemical change which transformed the maize into a more nutritionally complex food – by increasing the amount of calcium, iron, copper, zinc, niacin and riboflavin. In short, nixtamalization made the nutrients in the maize more bioavailable and easily assimilated. This process is still in use today.

Tortillas, tamales and casseroles were created using maize. Sometimes meat was incorporated into the dish; most often a basic meal of tortillas dipped in ground chili paste were served.

Salmon en Huitlacoche. Pan seared, then baked to tender, flaky perfection this fresh salmon is topped with huitlacoche sauce and mango-papaya salsa
Salmon en Huitlacoche. Pan seared, then baked to tender, flaky perfection this fresh salmon is topped with huitlacoche sauce and mango-papaya salsa

The maize crops were subject to damage by weather, much the same as today. Because the cultivation of maize played a huge role in the survival of the Aztec people, they worshipped Centeotl – the God of Maize. Centeotl is most often represented as a young warrior, with maize cobs and ears sprouting from his head, holding a scepter with green cob ears. To honor Centeotl  (and presumably keep the maize safe) people carried out self-sacrifices through blood- letting rituals, often sprinkling their houses with blood. Young woman wore necklaces of corn seeds to show their reverence.  After harvest, leftover ears and seeds were brought from the field and placed in front of Centeotl’s image, to protect them for the next season.

At Mayahuel, we honor the beauty and tradition of the Aztecs by featuring ingredients authentic to the spirit of their culture – flavors which have existed for centuries. Not only is the food fresh and delicious, it is still one of the most healthful cuisines in existence.

 

The Beautiful Poblano

Written for Señor Ernesto Delgado

 

The Rich History of the Versatile Poblano

The Poblano Chile originated in Puebla, Mexico, a region in the heart of the country. It is said to have grown wild in the mountainous areas near Puebla – quite possibly in Cholula, which is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Mexico.

Nature's perfect beauty - the versatile Poblano
Nature’s perfect beauty – the versatile Poblano

Cholula was first settled by indigenous people between 800 and 200 BC.  By 100 BC, the Olmecs had made Cholula one of Mexico’s most active cities. During that period, a great pyramid was constructed at the center of the city. It was enormous – standing nearly 181 feet tall and over 1300 feet wide, it remains one of the largest pyramids in the world. Predating the Aztec civilization, the Olmecs are considered to be one of the earliest great civilizations in Mesoamerica.

It’s likely the wild Poblano Chiles played a large role in the cooking of early peoples.  The Aztec diet is well cataloged, and perhaps not surprisingly was quite healthful. The Aztecs ate a varied diet, even domesticating turkeys and ducks. Depending on the region, they enjoyed such foods as amaranth, chia, nopal, sweet potato, jicama, guava, grasshoppers, cacao and even harvested vanilla from orchid pods. They grew maize, squash, and beans. Many types of chiles were harvested – both wild and cultivated – among them the Poblano remained one of the most popular because of its mild flavor.  By the 17th century, they were so popular that a number of recipes were created just for the Poblano. Mole sauce was developed during that time using chocolate, cinnamon and nuts. The Spaniards brought chickens with them to the New World, and they were undoubtedly used in some of the first Mole dishes.

Chile Poblano Soup - one of our 'signature' dishes. It's rumored to be very addictive.
Chile Poblano Soup – one of our ‘signature’ dishes. It’s rumored to be very addictive.

The Poblano’s wide use in central Mexico resulted in good health for its inhabitants also –  just one Poblano pepper contains 95% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.

Today, Poblano Chiles are grown in abundance in California’s Central Valley and favored by home gardeners for their versatility in many dishes. They are easily cultivated in most regions of California – as long as they have full sun and the soil temperature is at least 65 degrees.

Ernesto Delgado wanted to showcase the lovely, delicious and versatile Poblano at Mayahuel, not only because it lends itself to so many recipes, but it has historical significance in the Aztec diet. Our Crema de Poblano soup is one of our signature dishes –rumored to be quite addictive. The soup is creamy, slightly spicy, and has the distinct flavor of fresh roasted Poblanos and fresh Cilantro.

At Mayahuel, we celebrate the authentic cuisine of Mexico – those foods which were staples of the Olmec and Aztec diet and are now a part of everyday life in Mexico.

 

The ‘Farm to Fork’ Movement – Fresh Food Past and Present

Written for Señor Ernesto Delgado

 

Sacramento is America’s Farm-to-Fork capital. The movement, which has been sweeping the nation in recent years, brings to the forefront the desirability of using fresh, seasonal meats and produce from nearby sources.  Many chefs contract with local growers to ensure they will have the freshest of ingredients available to serve their customers.

After all, fresh food just tastes better. Picked at the peak of ripeness, produce contains more of the vitamins and minerals Nature intended. Heirloom tomatoes alone contain over 68 chemical compounds which affect aroma and flavor.  (If you love science, you might want to check out this article in Science Direct).

Juicy, locally grown Heirloom Tomatoes
Juicy, locally grown Heirloom Tomatoes

Purchasing local meats and produce also brings jobs to the region.  Farmers are often able to add new employees because of the increased demand for more diverse products. New, young farmers are enthusiastically embracing farming as a viable business with the recognition that our health, in large part, depends on the quality of the foods we consume.

While the ‘awakening’ of the public to the desirability of fresh local food is trendy, it’s not news to any of us who grew up in rural America. For our parents, it was simply the way things were done. You planted seeds, protected them from frost and opportunistic creatures, and watched them grow. When harvest time came – usually at the hottest part of the year- the whole family participated in the process of canning and dehydrating the bounty. Outdoor kitchens were not a luxury – they were a necessity to escape the steam filled, humid air created by several canning pots filled with boiling water noisily rattling on the old O’Keefe and Merritt stove. Back then, even ‘canned’ goods were more flavorful and retained their nutrient value better because the produce was picked at perfect ripeness.

Fall harvest celebrations were common from the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents. Friends and neighbors would gather after spending long weeks in dust and grit behind hard-working draft horses or mules to share the best of their harvest.  They would take a rare day off, dress up and get together for squash, corn and beans. Often venison was served alongside whole roasted pigs. Sweet potatoes and bread right from the wood fired oven were proudly placed on the table, and the aroma of freshly made corn tortillas filled the air. Mezcal made from the beautiful wild Agave graced many community gatherings. Adults talked about the weather, rain and the harvest while children ran giggling after startled, cackling chickens.

Chile Poblano Soup - one of our 'signature' dishes. Be careful - it's addictive!
Chile Poblano Soup – one of our ‘signature’ dishes. Be careful – it’s addictive!

Even in more recent times, many of us who grew up in the 1960’s knew exactly where our tomatoes came from. We likely were given the task of weeding the garden before we were old enough to help with the planting. One such child, who shall remain unnamed, managed to not only rid the garden of weeds, but also of all the tomato and pepper plants in the process. There was a very limited supply of tomato sauce and salsa that winter.

For Ernesto Delgado, providing fresh local produce has been a way of life long before the recent re-discovery of the goodness of fresh foods. There is nothing quite like sitting at the table with those you love, enjoying a salad made with greens picked early that morning; the juice from the heirloom tomato escaping down your chin. The exquisite flavor of a soup created from the freshest Poblano chiles is unmistakable – rich, earthy, with just the right amount of spice. A Margarita made with fresh watermelon juice from a melon that was picked in the hot sun the previous afternoon will make you swoon with pleasure at the crisp, clean sweetness given freely by nature.