When Ruth Gilmer moved to northern Michigan in 1989 with husband Ted she didn’t find it difficult to adjust to the climate, the people or the lack of family, but she deeply missed the food. The Empire resident came to Michigan as a young bride from Sahuayo de Morelos or Sahuayo. It is one of 113 municipalities in the Mexican state of Michocan, west of Mexico City, with the Pacific Ocean as its southwestern border.
“The food, yes, that is still the biggest thing to get used to,” said Gilmer. “When I first moved here there were not many ethnic foods available. The selection of ‘Mexican’ restaurants did not coincide with my idea of Mexican food. One of the major points of going to Mexico, other than family and beach, is the food. We always make plans to go eat at different places. It’s great!”
Sahuayo is a center of commerce, especially crafts, huaraches and sombreros and has been called the Athens of Michoacán because of its many important poets, writers and painters. Michoacán is home to a staggering 38 indigenous languages with culinary roots reaching back millennia through the Purépecha, Mazahua, Náhuatl and Otomí peoples. Despite strong Spanish influences the tribes have exerted indelible effects on the culture and cuisine. Many culinary experts consider Michoacán cuisine as Mexico’s soul food.
Michoacán means "Land of Fishermen." The region offers a large network of rivers and lakes. In forests and along the seacoast, early hunter-gatherers had a rich food source. They supplemented fishing, hunting and wild berry and fruit gathering with corn, bean and squash cultivation.
Michoacán probably boasts more corn-based dishes than any area of Mexico. Corn and beans prevail in the cuisine today in the form of pozole (a large kernel corn) soup, tamales, re-fried beans and tortillas. Cooks combine the spices, vegetables and meats of Spanish origin with native foods to enrich rather than replace.
“We always have corn and we eat it in many ways,” said Gilmer. “On the plaza you can get peeled and roasted corn with condiments like lime, pepper and salsa; chopped and boiled corn kernels in a little glass with lime juice, salt, chile and cream and corn on the cob, which we smear with cream instead of butter and sprinkle with pepper.
Michoacán is home to many types of tamales (corn masa with or without a filling, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed). Not surprisingly tamales are Gilmer’s specialty.
“Tamales are unique to the area where you are,” she noted. “In my area, we wrap tamales in cornhusks and stuff them with a variety of fillings — usually whatever we have on hand. My favorite filling is my mother's ‘picadillo’. We also have a fresh tamale, called ‘uchepo,’ made with not sweet corn, but a tender corn, picked fresh and seasoned with butter, sugar and salt. We grind the corn, wrap it in fresh corn husks and steam it. Michoacán has a pink tamale called ‘aguamiel’ made with the agave cactus.”
Corundas are tamales made with corn boiled with wood ash and folded into polyhedrons; filled with beans they are ‘chakikurindas,’ which originated from pre-Hispanic wedding feasts.
It is customary to have a corn gruel drink called ‘atole’ with tamales. Mexicans make atole by mixing masa flour into milk, straining then boiling it. It’s seasoned with sugar and cinnamon; Michoacáns add a variety of ingredients like tamarind, blackberry, toasted corn silk, cascabel chile and herbs.
“My mother was an excellent cook,” said Gilmer. “She couldn’t cook for less than 12. On Fridays during Lent we had chiles rellenos; she also made caramelized squash and ‘capirotada’ — a baked bread pudding with cinnamon and raisins soaked in rum.”
Although Gilmer's mother has passed, gratefully her skills live on in northern Michigan through Gilmer and her sister, Angela Noonan, and their generous, marvelous cooking.
Ruth Gilmer’s Festive Tamales
“Many variations of ingredients can be used in making tamales,” said Gilmer. “You can use a combination of beef and pork, chicken or even fried beans. In the south of Mexico people wrap the tamales in banana leaves. The combinations are endless.”
2 to 2-1/2 dozen tamales
1 bundle dry corn husks
1 pound ground sirloin
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 bay leaves
1 small onion, finely diced
3 medium carrots, finely diced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup raisins
1 recipe of Plain Masa Batter
Soak corn husks in a sink or large pot of warm water until soft, about 2 hours. Gently separate without tearing.
Prepare picadillo: brown beef; stir in garlic and bay leaves. Add a couple tablespoons water and remaining ingredients. Bring to a simmer. Cover and check that picadillo does not dry completely. Simmer until vegetables are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Lay a drained corn husk on work surface. Spread masa 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick layer in the center of the husk. Spoon on a couple tablespoons of filling on the masa in the center. Fold in the sides and then tuck in the ends of the husk. You may tie tamale around the middle with a strip of husk or cotton string if necessary.
Set up a large pot with a steaming rack and boiling water. Wedge tamales standing up into the pot, not lying on top of each other, with folded edges down, onto steaming rack. Cover top of pot with a cloth and a tight fitting lid and steam about 1-1/2 hours. Check tamales partway; add more water around the edge of the pot as is necessary. Serve tamales hot straight from the steamer. Freeze leftovers up to 6 months.
Plain Masa Batter
Adapted from “Discovering Global Cuisines” by Nancy Krcek Allen
Yields about 6 cups batter, enough for 32 to 48 tamales
3 cups masa harina para tamales
3 cups warm chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup lard (or shortening), preferably freshly rendered, about 7-1/2 ounces
1 teaspoon baking powder
Place masa harina into bowl, or bowl of mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. On low speed, or by hand, mix stock and 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Dough should be pliable and tender. Roll a piece into a ball and press. Dough should not crack around the edges. Transfer dough in mixer to a bowl. Cover and rest dough 30 minutes.
Add lard or shortening to clean mixer bowl of mixer fitted with clean paddle attachment. Set a timer: Beat fat on high speed 2 minutes. Scrape fat down. On medium speed, add 1/3 of the masa dough to fat in mixer. Beat each addition 2 minutes. Repeat twice more with remaining masa dough, beating 2 minutes each time. Add baking powder and 1/2 to 3/4 cup cold water (or stock) to achieve a thick, creamy cake batter consistency.
Test batter consistency by dropping 1/2 teaspoon into a cup of cold water. If it floats. it‘s ready. If not, beat 2 minutes more; in a warm kitchen, refrigerate the masa batter 30 minutes to 1 hour before beating 2 to 4 minutes. Use batter immediately or within several hours.
Ruth’s Refried Beans
The “re” means well-fried not fried again. “My sister adds a small, crushed, dried red chile to the onion,” says Gilmer. “The perfect refried beans slide out of the pan.”
Yields 6 to 8 servings
2-1/2 cups of dry pinto, navy or light kidney beans, about 1 pound
3 quarts of water, more as needed
2 tablespoons freshly rendered pork lard, bacon fat or olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced white onion
1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Rinse beans in water and remove any small stones, pieces of dirt or bad beans. Cover the beans in cold water, 1 tablespoon salt, and bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer and cook beans until very tender, 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Add water as necessary to keep beans covered. Strain beans from cooking water; reserve cooking water.
Heat lard/fat/oil in a large, deep frying pan on medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic and cook onions until soft, but not browned. Add strained beans and about 1/4 cup bean cooking water to the pan. Don’t move beans until they boil. Using a potato masher, mash beans in the pan, while you are cooking them, until they are a rough purée. Add more cooking water if necessary to keep the fried beans from getting dried out. Season with salt to taste. When beans are heated through they are ready to serve.
This is one of Ruth’s mother’s specialties. Ruth cautions cooks to remove the seeds and ribs of the chile: they will make the sauce bitter. It is often made with pineapple and plantain.
Yields 4 to 6 servings
1 pound lean pork, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 tablespoon lard
2 chiles anchos, stemmed and seeded, torn
1 large chile guajillo, stemmed and seeded, torn
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 clove garlic
1 cup orange juice
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
Place meat and lard in a saucepan with water to cover. Cook meat over moderate heat until water evaporates and meat begins to fry in lard. Season with salt.
Meanwhile, purée remaining ingredients—they should be liquid—if not, add more orange juice or water. Add this to meat and boil uncovered until water evaporates and molé forms a thick sauce. Taste and season with more sugar if bitter, and salt. Serve with rice, refried beans or mashed potatoes and corn tortillas.