Spice, Rice and All That's Nice!

Faves From South of the Border

Kay Sweetingham, chef Ana Garcia and Kelly Sweetingham (l-r).

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By Elizabeth Barrett

Tortilla chips and guacamole. Cheese quesadillas. Chicken fajitas. Nachos with the works. For the gastronomically challenged, that’s about the level of our familiarity with Latin American fare.

But for those with tuned-in forks, crossing the border means more. For Carolina Woman account executive Kay Sweetingham and her daughter Kelly, mucho more.

To celebrate Kelly’s graduation with a math Ph.D. from N.C. State University in Raleigh, the two Tar Heels flew south of the border to attend Villa Bonita School of Mexican Cuisine. The week-long program combines hands-on instruction with culinary and cultural field trips around Tepoztlan and Cuernavaca.

The mother-daughter team learned how to prepare that country’s traditional and nouvelle dishes, salsas, condiments and drinks. The intense and varied flavors, colorful decoration and variety of spices were just part of it.

“To be in the Tepoztlan village was a fantastic way to see how the Mexican cooks actually shop for their ingredients and do such basic things as make tortillas from scratch,” says Kay.

Chef Ana Garcia, host and chief instructor of the school, is a native of Cuernavaca whose recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. She provides a peek into a whole world of culinary adventures.

“Going to the home of the woman in the village with the grinding machine who for 30 pesos will grind your corn to masa is something you would never experience in a Triangle cooking class,” Kay explains.

If you have a taste for armchair travel, you’ll be well rewarded when you try the recipes Kay and Kelly loved the most.

The Villa Bonita School’s kitchen.

Sangrita: Sangria

1 liter tomato juice

1 orange (for juice)

5 limes (for juice)

½ onion

1 chipotle pepper (canned)

½ teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1 teaspoon Worstershire sauce

Mix all ingredients and allow them to intermingle at a minimum of 1 hour in the refrigerator. For best results, allow to chill overnight.

Salsa de Jitomate y Chile Chipotle:

Tomato Salsa and Chipotle Peppers

1 tomato, roasted

2 garlic cloves, roasted

1/2 white onion, roasted

4 chipotle peppers, dried or canned — If dried, roast in a hot skillet and sit in hot tap water for 20 minutes

Salt to taste

After roasting the tomato, garlic and onions in a hot skillet/pan, blend with the rest of the ingredients in blender.

In a hot pan, add the oil and allow it to get very hot, then add the salsa and let it cook for about 10 minutes. Add some water if needed.

Salsa Verde:

Green Salsa

5 tomatillos (remove the husks and roast)

1/4 white onion, chopped into 1/8 inch squares

4 serrano peppers, roasted

1 garlic clove, roasted

1/2 cup of cilantro, coarsely chopped

Salt to taste

Optional: 1/2 avocado, cut into 1/4 inch squares

In a blender, put salt and garlic. Then add the onion and serrano peppers. Finally add the tomatillo. Mix in the cilantro and avocado. Add water if necessary.

Photo of chiles in the open market.

Arroz Rojo o Blanco: Red or White Rice

2 cups chicken broth or water

1 small tomato (boiled in water)

1/2 small white onion

1 garlic clove

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup rice (rinsed under hot water and dried on a cookie sheet)

1/4 cup of chopped carrots, zucchini, corn, peas or potatoes

Using a blender, mix the chicken broth, tomato, onion and garlic. Strain and set aside.

In a small pot, add the oil and heat over a medium flame. Add the rice. Stir regularly for 5 minutes until the rice is white on the inside and transparent on the outside. Add the tomato liquid to the rice. Add salt. (It’s OK if it’s a little over-salted since the rice will soak up the salt.)

Cover and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the cup of vegetables, cover and keep cooking for another 15 minutes or until the liquid is evaporated. Don’t uncover the rice for at least 10 minutes.


Meat or poultry stew with a special hot sauce

1 chicken, cut into pieces, or 4 pounds of legs and thighs

1 medium size onion, sliced

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tomato, roasted

1 cup sesame seeds

1/2 cup green squash seeds (pepitas)

1/2 cup peanuts

5 ancho peppers, deseeded and cut into small strips

3 pasilla peppers, deseeded and cut into small strips

5-6 cascabel peppers, deseeded and cut into strips

1 plantain/platano macho, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup raisins

1 tortilla, cut into triangles

1 slice bread, cut into 4

1 cinnamon stick, about 5 inches long, or 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder

1 teaspoon whole black pepper

5 ounces Mexican chocolate (such as Ibarra or Mi Abuelita)

1-1/4 cup lard or canola oil

Cook the chicken while making chicken broth. Suggestion for a good chicken stock: In a deep pot place the chicken, 1 onion, 3 whole cloves, 3 whole black peppers, 3 sprigs of parsley and 1 whole garlic. Then cover with water. When chicken is tender, take it out and let the broth cool.

In a hot skillet, roast the peppers, black pepper and cinnamon stick separately and add to half of the chicken broth. In another hot skillet, add 1/4 cup of oil, cook the onion until transparent, then cook the garlic, the plantain and peanuts until golden, the tortilla and bread until crispy. Then add to the peppers. Add the chocolate, raisins and the roasted tomato to this same mixture and blend everything until smooth. Pour the blended mixture into a large bowl.

In a hot saucepan, roast the sesame and squash seeds until they are puffy. Add each one separately. After roasting, blend them one at a time with a little bit of chicken stock and then add to the pepper mixture.

In a thick pot, heat one cup of oil. When the oil is really hot, add the pepper and nut mixture, let it boil and then cook for at least an hour. Don’t let it stick to the pot. Then add the chicken and let it cook for another 15 minutes. Enjoy with tortillas.

Pipián Verde o Mole Verde:

Green Indian fricasse or Mexican stew

1 chicken, in pieces, or 4 pounds chicken breast or chicken legs

2-1/4 pounds tomatillos (husks taken off and washed)

3-1/2 ounces pepitas or green squash seeds

2 serrano peppers or 1 jalapeño pepper

4-5 epazote leaves

1/3 cup lard or cooking oil

Salt to taste

Cook chicken in water. Keep the stock to be used later.

Roast the tomatillos and the peppers in a roasting pan until well cooked.

In a pan, add 1 tablespoon of lard or cooking oil. Add the pepitas and cook them until puffy.

Put the roasted tomatillos, peppers, pepitas, epazote and 2 cups of chicken stock in a blender until the mixture is smooth.

Add the remaining lard or cooking oil and heat in a deep pot. Add the mixture. Lower the heat to medium and salt to taste. Add the chicken and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Sauce should curdle.

Suggested side dish: Rice and beans with fresh corn tortillas.

Chiles Rellenos de Queso:

Stuffed Peppers With Cheese

Chile and stuffing ingredients:

8 ancho pepers

1 pound cheese (such as Panela, Monterey Jack or Gouda)

Heat a dry sauté pan. Roast the ancho peppers one-by-one, making sure to roast both sides of each pepper. Place all the peppers in a bowl and cover with hot tap water. Put a plate on top of the peppers in the water so they will sink to the bottom. Let them sit in the water for no more than 20 minutes. Make an incision in the side of each pepper and take out the seeds. Stuff them with the cheese and set aside.

Sauce ingredients:

1 pound tomatoes

1 white onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Salt to taste

Place the tomatoes in a saucepan and add enough water to cover. Let them come to a boil and cook for 5 minutes after they start boiling. After they’re cool, put in a blender and puree.

In a saucepan, heat the oil and add the onion. Cook until transparent. Then add the tomato puree and cook another 10 minutes. Add salt to taste. The sauce should be a little runny.

Egg batter ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

10 eggs

2 quarts oil

In a deep (at least 3 inches) sauté pan, add the oil and let it get hot for frying. You know the oil is sufficiently hot by putting the stem of a wooden spoon into the oil. If bubbles appear on the submerged stem, it’s hot enough to fry.

On a plate, mix the flour and the salt. Then roll the stuffed peppers in this mixture, making sure you don’t let the flour go into the peppers. Set the peppers aside.

Separate the eggs yokes and whites. With an electric mixer, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, but don’t let them get too dry. Then add the egg yokes one by one and whip.

Dip the peppers in the egg white and egg yoke batter one by one as you fry them. They will become golden. Set them on a cookie sheet covered with paper napkins to drain the excess oil. When you’re ready to serve, place some of the red tomato sauce on top of each pepper.


1 can condensed milk

1 can evaporated milk

3 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pinch of salt

One 3-ounce piece of cheese (cream cheese, Manchego or Ricotta)

7 tablespoons sugar

A few drops of lime juice

Place the sugar and lime juice in a small pan and caramelize it without burning. Place the caramelized sugar in a flan mold and cover up to ½ inch of its walls with caramel.

Use a blender to mix the rest of the ingredients. Add this mixture to the mold with the caramel.

Place the molds in a bain-marie (double boiler) for 1 hour in an oven at 355 degrees. Let the mold cool. Flip the flan onto a plate and refrigerate.

When ready to serve, place upside down and remove the mold.