Soul Food

To my surprise, I actually did cook a lot in Cozumel, even with all the amazing tacos and glorious street foods that entered my life.

I foraged hard-to-find ingredients at each of the island’s markets and whipped up a not-too-shabby Thai shrimp curry. Finding basil proved the most difficult task of all, and even then, the herb was another variety, slightly anise-tinged. The curry was still good, all things considered.

And I made my famous stuffed poblanos, modified from this recipe. A true crowd-pleaser, I always make it extra spicy and add fresh shucked corn to the stuffing.

Then there was the night I grilled skirt steaks, slicing it thin for tacos warmed on the grill. Earlier, I’d roasted tomatillos, onions, chiles in the oven, then pureed in a blender for a chunky, tart salsa.

But on my last week, I enrolled in a traditional Mexican cooking class: Josefina’s Cocina Con Alma!

Josefina has lived on Cozumel for the past 25 years, though she was born in the mountains of Veracruz. She operated a vegetarian restaurant before switching things up and starting her own cooking class, which has become a favorite among tourists. (She boasts a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor!)

A short walk from my condo, I showed up to Josefina’s pad just before noon, and met two married couples who’d I’d be sharing the class with. Two were biologists from Corpus Christi, and the other couple was a nurse and a gynecologist. I was the single gringa among them, the lone soul craving cochinita pibil.

Sigh. That succulent, shredded pork dish, cochinita pibil, would merge the unforgettable North Carolina pulled pork of my youth with Mexican flair. Nothing sounded better in my life. But, what was I thinking? It was 100 degrees out, and pibil would require Josefina to jumpstart the stove. No way.

Andy, the gynecologist of the group, suggested fish, and Josefina agreed. Of course the island has an amazing fish selection, so off to the mercado municipal we went.

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Josefina negotiated with the fishmonger about what was freshest, what looked good. He recommended the red snapper, and it was lifted to our nose for a freshness check before being sliced into perfectly-sized fillets.

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The market was small but plentiful, Josefina told us; and I couldn’t help imagining the sights and smells of what must be available in a Mexico City market. Visiting one is on my to-do list on my next Mexican sojourn.

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But the Cozumel mercado was worthy, to say the least. Among the stalls of meat,  seafood, and vegetable vendors, you could buy anything from a traditional guayabera to bird cages to cowboy boots to school supplies.

And you could order breakfast or lunch at one of the many food stalls.

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Or simply pop in for this guy. You bet your ass I tipped this man my pesos.

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My favorite part of touring the market with Josefina was sampling the selection of tropical fruits, many of which I’d never seen. The group was amazed to see beautiful pitaya — dragonfruit — which I’d tried outside Coba, and which converted me forever. Later, back at Josefina’s, we’d slice and blend the pitaya for a refreshing agua fresca.

But, what is a nispero or mamey or cherimoya? I couldn’t try them all, but Josefina fed us each a nispero, or loquat. Seedy, but good.

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We headed back to Josefina’s to create our goods. Josefina showed us achiote seeds, used to make achiote paste, a widely-used Mexican ingredient, which comprised the base of our fish marinade.

Achiote sauce, from Josefina’s cookbook Cocina Con Alma
This is the base of the famous Mayan dishes: Tikin’xic (fish), Poc Chuk (pork), Cochinita pibil (barbeque), and Pollo Pibil (chicken). Now you can find achiote cubes in the Mexican food section of the supermarket.

For every pound of pork, chicken, or fish:
1/2 cube of premade achiote OR a teaspoon of achiote seeds
1 sour orange, OR juice from 1/2 orange and juice from 1/2 lime and a bit of vinegar
1 large garlic clove
salt and pepper to taste
a teaspoon of cumin

Mix ingredients in a blender or mortar and pestle
Remember: if you use achiote seeds, soak them in hot water before mixing!

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While chugging jamaica, the eponymous Mexican drink made from hibiscus leaves, we skinned cactus leaves, or nopales, careful to remove all the tiny blisters on the skin. Then we diced it and made a fresh nopal salad with cheese and lime juice.

When it came to tortillas, Josefina was strict. No nonsense. Just water, and corn flour. Mix until it seems right, then roll a small ball of the dough in your hands, and flatten into a circle lightly with your fingers, and then with the palm of your hand.

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We carried our tortillas to a hot skillet, where they were cooked in lard, and which we used for papadzules, made with pumpkin seeds.
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Papadzules, from Josefina’s cookbook Cocina Con Alma
Pumpkin seeds are widely used in the Mayan part of my country. This is a colorful dish, nutritious and easy to prepare.

Red Mexican sauce (recipe follows)
2 pounds of tortillas, freshly made
1 pound of red tomatoes
1 pound of pumpkin seeds
10 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 handful of epazote
Oil
Salt

Make red sauce.
Toast the pumpkin seeds for 5 minutes and put them in a blender.
Boil the tomatoes with the epazote leaves and salt. Let them cool.
Add the tomatoes to the blender and blend together. You will get a sauce.
Soak the tortillas in the tomato and pumpkin seed sauce. Place a hard boiled egg in the tortilla and roll them.
Place in a serving dish and top with the rest of the sauce. Serve immediately.

Red Mexican Sauce
2 red or green tomatoes (tomatillos)
1 serrano or jalapeno chile (to taste)
handful of fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. onion
1 clove of garlic
salt and pepper to taste

Boil the tomatoes and chili for 5 minutes and let cool.
Add the cooled tomatoes and chili to a blender. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend.
To keep this sauce for more than 2 days, fry it in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil for 10 minutes. It will keep for 10 days in the refrigerator.

When all was said and done, we’d made so much food. No one could finish everything, not even Josefina’s famous guacamole. Her margaritas were equally amazing.

One of my favorite recipes of Josefina’s was a quick, simple summer salad (to the left of the guac), made on the fly with the juiciest and tastiest of all Mexican mangoes, chopped cucumber, dash of chili powder, and lime juice. Perfect poolside, with a Corona.

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And the slab of beans there? Yeah, I helped make ’em.

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They’ve got chorizo, for extra flavor. And of course, lard. Smashed to all hell and delicious and nutritious as can be.

I walked home a bit drunk, and so full I didn’t eat for the rest of the day!

Gracias a Josefina y su hijo Geronimo por una tarde marvailloso de comida y diversión!

If you’re in Cozumel, and want to take a class with Josefina, information is available here.