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Food Paradise

by Angela Lang

ABOVE: Breakfast at Lu Cocina

Two acclaimed chefs from Michoacán, México’s oldest and healthiest food mecca

When she was pregnant with twins, Lucero Soto, the powerhouse chef and owner behind Lu Cocina Michoacana in Mexico, had to stay on bed rest. She also faced many dietary restrictions that forced her to find a new way to develop recipes for her seasonal menu.

At home, she couldn’t go down the stairs, so she had a cook in the kitchen, and supervised every step of the recipes on video in her iPad. She became an ambassador for Come Pesca, the agency in charge of sustainable fishing, and fulfilled her dream of promoting Michoacán cuisine by coordinating oral archiving and research efforts to create the largest compilation of local recipes, including a directory of traditional cooks. “Everyone is known for a recipe or a craft, before you hear the name, but people didn’t know how to find them,” she said. “They had the fame, but it was hard to create work opportunities.” Soto finished the editing in the hospital, hours away from labor.

Lu Cocina Michoacana, a restaurant beloved by foodies all over Mexico, is known for redefining regional traditional cuisines with the highest quality ingredients, impeccable technique and a relentless commitment to sustainability and Fair Trade practices. “Tasting memory” is a big ingredient in Soto’s cooking. Since childhood, the kitchen has been her comfort zone. She grew up eating her grandmother’s food and learned from her recipes.

LEFT: Lucero Soto  RIGHT: Mariana Valencia and Marino A. Collazos

Regulars come to Soto’s restaurant at the Hotel Casino, in front of the majestic rose granite cathedral in Morelia, Michoacán, to enjoy a flight of mezcal paired with three aging cotija cheeses, a version of a Parmesan with a milder texture; a taquito with charales, a tiny fish delicacy exclusively native to Mexican lakes; or a cocktail with charanda, a local sugarcane rum, served in locally crafted copper cups.

Michoacán has a rich history of cultural syncretism that contributed to the preservation of pre-Hispanic, colonial and indigenous recipes with hyperlocal variations. It is also known as the birthplace of the Day of the Dead traditions. When Mexican cuisine was awarded the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, the dishes for the nomination came from traditional Michoacán cooks. They were described as “a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners.”

“We take an ingredient and maximize its uses,” explains Soto. “If the sales of the product explode, the more we use it and the more we help.” She explains that her hibiscus flowers come from Tierra Calientes. There, mothers of people involved in the drug conflict are the pickers. They are respected, and allowed to do business, because everyone appreciates the opportunity to keep them active and help them make a good living, away from all the chaos. “Hibiscus flowers are not only for making tea,” she comments. “After you make the tea, you can reuse them, dehydrate them and even grind them. We use them as filling for jicama tacos, as a caramelized topping for our salads, in cocktails and mixed with peanuts for desserts.” They also sell them glazed, in takeaway jars, for home cooking.

ABOVE: Salad at Lu Cocina

Soto is not alone in her efforts to promote Michoacán cuisine. A few hours away from Morelia, chef Mariana Valencia and her husband/sommelier Marino A. Collazos came back from Miami to open Cocina M, a restaurant in Uruapan, her hometown, with a beautiful herb garden on the roof and living wall, with only native species, in the dining hall. They take local organic ingredients to create recipes with an international feel, such as Avocado Hummus or Carnitas Gyozas, and work with local artisans for their silverware and china.

The wine cellar highlights sustainable wines from Mexico as well as unusual pairings. Once a year, chefs, producers, craftsmen and gourmet students get together in Morelia en Boca, an international Food and Wine Festival that pairs renowned chefs, local and international, with traditional cooks, for a three-day feast that includes talks, tastings, cooking demonstrations and special dinners. “My dream is that people continue talking about Michoacán’s cuisine,” says Valencia, “for its cultural value and its stories.”

Avocado Hummus

Chef Mariana Valencia  |  Cocina M  |  Serves 10

10 ounces dried chickpeas
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup of lemon juice
2 medium Hass avocados
Salt to taste

1. Soak the chickpeas for 24 hours, change the soaking water and cook until smooth.

2. In a food processor, grind the chickpeas with the other ingredients, season and adjust salt and lemon according to taste.

3. Serve with pita triangles. If you wish to make it vegan, use carrot, celery or asparagus sticks or chop raw heads of broccoli.

Jícama & Hibiscus Rolls

Chef Lucero Soto  |  Lu Cocina Michoacana  |  Serves 4

For the Hibiscus Filling:
2 ounces hibiscus flowers
Water to cover
1 ounce unrefined brown sugar
clove and cinnamon

For the Chipotle Sauce:
5 1/3 ounces cream cheese or cottage cheese or mascarpone
3 pickled chipotle chilis
3/4 cup milk
1 clove roasted garlic
ground black pepper

For the Avocado Salsa:
1 avocado
3 tablespoons cilantro
2 tablespoons onion
1/4 cup green tomato
10 teaspoons water
salt and green chile to taste

For the Assembly:
Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 cup Oaxaca cheese or a cheese that melts without having too much fat
3 or 4 jícamas

Hibiscus Flower Stuffing:
1. Mix water with hibiscus flowers, bring to a boil
2. Drain the flowers
3. Place them back in the pan, add additional water to cover, and brown sugar, clove and cinnamon
4. Mix well and bring it to a boil
5. Taste and adjust the flavor, it must be sweet and acid, not cloying
6. Once all the water has evaporated, remove from heat, allow to cool

Chipotle Sauce:
1. Mix cheese, chilis, milk, garlic, salt and pepper in a blender
2. Taste and adjust the flavor

Avocado Salsa:
1. Grind all the ingredients in the blender and season with salt and pepper
2. Pour into a sauce boat

1. Peel the jícamas
2. Cut into thin sheets with a mandolin
3. Heat each sheet in a pan to soften
4. Fill each sheet with the hibiscus flower stuffing, add the Oaxaca cheese and roll up
5. Place eight on each plate
6. Heat the chipotle sauce without bringing it to a boil
7. Pour it over the rolls
8. Decorate the dish with the avocado sauce
9. Sprinkle the rolls with toasted sesame seeds
10. Serve and enjoy!

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