“Two hours of work for 30 minutes of pleasure.” That’s how Adrian Ortega kept describing the experience. Adrian wasn’t complaining; he was just pointing out the obvious as his friend Maria Gonzalez was busy toasting avocado leaves and charring vegetables with the help of her daughter Cristina.
The Gonzalez family, who have called Northeast Ohio home since they moved here from Tijuana two years ago, was preparing mixiote (pronounced misch-e-O-tay), a traditional dish Maria learned from her mother when she was growing up in Mexico’s western state of Michoacán. Maria’s mother had learned to make the dish from her grandmother, and during our visit Maria was teaching her family’s rendition of this heirloom preparation to her daughter.
Mixiote is an example of pre-Hispanic Mexican cuisine that is as much a technique as a recipe. It consists of marinated meat or fish steamed in a wrapping called a penca or a mixiote, a parchment-like sheet made from the leaf of maguey, also known as the century plant (Agave americana).
The meat can be just about anything, with turkey, rabbit, lamb and even raccoon, snake and armadillo being traditional. On the coasts, seafood becomes the filling of choice. There are lots of options, but for Maria’s husband and sometimes dishwasher, Francisco, it is pork shank that makes the absolute best mixiote, and it’s easy to see how any meat that benefits from braising would serve this preparation well.
Whatever it is that gets wrapped and steamed, there are some mixiote ground rules. First, a heady but not spicy marinade is prepared with dried chiles, avocado leaves, tomatoes, onion, garlic and spices like clove and cinnamon. Second, the meat or fish is left to sit in the rich marinade before being wrapped and steamed. For mixiote de pollo, the Gonzalez family’s version of choice, chicken drumsticks marinate for no less than four hours, and preferably overnight. And third, the meat, some of the marinade and a few slices of cooked nopales (the pads of a prickly pear cactus) and raw carrot are sealed together in a package of maguey leaf, banana leaf or even parchment paper, and steamed until done. For drumsticks, that takes about one and half hours of steaming, so unless you’re really fast and don’t count marinating time, Adrian’s “two hours of work” comment may be a bit optimistic.
Maguey leaves can be tough to come by even in Mexico, so the Gonzalezes use banana leaves as a substitute, carefully wrapping the filling into parcels, and then encasing each parcel in aluminum foil to ensure that the filling steams and none of the marinade is lost. You might wonder why the Gonzalezes chose to share with us a dish for which the namesake ingredient is all but impossible to find around here, but one taste of the finished product, or even a fleeting whiff of the scents emanating from the steamer, is all it takes to make any such wonderment or curiosity about authenticity disappear. Maria might not prepare mixiote every day, or even every week, but one look at her preparing the meal made it clear that mixiote is in her DNA. And if there was every any question, after this meal it would be emblazoned in her daughter Cristina’s too.
Adrian, our guide, was helping with translations and providing the play-by-play. A jeweler by trade, Adrian owns several area businesses including Cleveland’s two Mi Pueblo restaurants and Lakewood’s La Plaza Mercado. He met the Gonzalezes when they were shopping at La Plaza, and their shared faith and philosophies made them fast friends. While Adrian claimed he was introducing us to Maria’s home cooking so that she could share this underrepresented traditional Mexican recipe with a broader public, there’s a distinct possibility that he was just craving a taste of home.
Whereas the Gonzalezes are relatively new arrivals to the U.S., Adrian crossed the border in 1977, leaving his family’s home in the country surrounding the city of Zamora, also in the state of Michoacán. Cleveland presented some challenges in finding the ingredients with which to prepare the food of his youth. So after a soccer game, while he and his teammates were deciding on who would be responsible for preparing the following week’s post-game feast and lamenting about the lack of availability of such necessities as the skirt steak that’s indispensable to Mexican grilling, the idea for Lorain Avenue’s Mi Pueblo, and its adjacent market (now La Plaza) was born.
After a few years of making weekly trips to Chicago to stock the store and restaurant, things have progressed. There’s a jewelry store in Brecksville, expansion plans for the Mi Pueblo on Lorain and for La Plaza, which, beyond providing some ridiculously addictive Mexican street food on the weekends, offers all the products necessary to make the featured mixiote and countless other regional Mexican dishes. And, because of the La Plaza staff, the shopping experience there includes service that immediately quells any of the intimidation that can come with shopping for food outside your comfort, and linguistic, zone.
After Maria determined that the drumsticks had sufficiently marinated and the parcels were neatly wrapped up and arranged in a tamale steamer big enough to double as an oil drum, Adrian and Francisco prepared a few snacks. Adrian made a salsa en molcajete, named after the mortar-and-pestle-like vessel in which the salsa is prepared and served, by grinding charred tomatoes and serrano chilies—skin, seeds and all—with coarse salt and fresh garlic cloves. No lime, no cilantro, no food processer. Adrian explained that this fiery condiment, which like salsas in general has come to be embraced as a chip dip up north, was a fixture at every meal when he was growing up. This particular variety, Adrian insisted, must be eaten right after being prepared. His mother made three meals a day, and three times a day she prepared this salsa en molcajete.
Not to be outdone, Francisco prepared a traditional guacamole, crushing diced avocados with lime juice and salt into a mixture that’s both creamy and chunky. Once the texture of the avocado was right, chopped cilantro and diced onion, tomato and serrano chilies were added. Soft-spoken Francisco’s elegant guacamole was the perfect foil for the jovial Adrian’s brazen salsa.
As we were enjoying the condiments-cum-dips, Maria, Francisco and Cristina were debating the merits of sauces prepared with a metate, a traditional stone tool used for everything from grinding seeds and spices for a mole to crushing corn for tortillas, compared to those made in a blender, likely the hardest-working tool in a Mexican kitchen. The result of the debate: Things may taste better after being prepared with a metate, but there’s no rush to box up the blender anytime soon.
After much snacking and anticipation, the hour and half of steaming was up, and it was time for the 30 minutes of pleasure. The mixiote was ready for the table, and although it can be served with corn tortillas, it’s at least as frequently enjoyed with rice. For us that meant rice in the style of traditional Michoacán morisqueta, toasted white rice in butter and cooked it in a broth that consisted of blended garlic, onion, and chicken stock with some dried parsley. Each person was given an individual banana leaf parcel along with rice and avocado, all to be washed down with iced glasses of freshly made tamarind water. No better meal could be had.
After we finished eating, the hosts prepared coffee flavored with cinnamon. Adrian, who was quick with stories and incredibly easygoing throughout the evening, was tentative as he described how it was a shared faith that brought him and the Gonzalez family together. But that faith was continually on display throughout the evening. There was no proselytizing or judgment about others, and aside from a short but moving prayer before eating, religion was never overtly in the forefront of the conversation. However, watching the family and friends interact and cook together, it was clear that spirituality pervaded the room.
Oblivious to subtleties of what was going on around me while it was happening, and overwhelmed by the extraordinary meal being prepared and the generosity of those preparing it, it was one of Adrian’s comments that struck me as best encapsulating the whole experience. He said, “God gave us mouths, and we have those mouths to feed his temple.” With that type of reverence for what it means to prepare and eat a meal, it’s no wonder that the food Maria, Cristina, Francisco and Adrian prepared that evening was so transcendent.
And perhaps the greatest lesson from spending time with Adrian and the Gonzalezes was the realization that regardless of the specificities of one’s faith, the invocation of something beyond oneself while preparing food and sharing it with others can lead to something greater than any recipe can offer. It leads to a celebration. And we are thankful that Maria and her family chose to share their celebration with us.