Learning About the Southwest Frontier with American Girl Josefina Part 3: Cooking and Food in New Mexico

New Mexican Food

Like most parts of her culture, Josefina’s food combined traditions from the Spanish, Mexicans, and Native Americans. Families like Josefina’s who lived on ranchos (or farms) in northern New Mexico grew most of their own food. Their staple foods were corn, beans, and squash (including pumpkins), which they learned about from the Pueblo Native Americans. They also used many kinds of chiles, eggs, and cheese made from goat’s milk. They ate meat from the goats and sheep that they raised and hunted wild animals such as deer, buffalo, and rabbits.

Grind Corn Like Josefina

New Mexicans ate corn in many different forms. They ate it fresh, dried, roasted, and treated with lime and ground up for use in making tamales and tortillas. Josefina would have used a metate and mano to grind corn. This is a fun thing to try – you really get an appreciation for how hard people in New Mexico worked in order to feed their families! A metate can be hard to find, but if you can get your hands on one, place a handful of whole corn on the metate and use the mano to scrape the corn down toward the bottom. Pull the corn back to the top, then scrape it down again. Repeat 4-5 times. Then you have cornmeal!

Tortillas made from corn or wheat were an everyday food for New Mexicans. Josefina would have eaten tortillas at breakfast every day. They would have been cooked on a hot grille on the fire in the corner oven in the kitchen or the outdoor oven in the courtyard. Try making homemade tortillas like Josefina ate – they are delicious!

Flour Tortillas (from Josefina’s Cookbook)

Ingredients:

  • 2 c. flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 c. lard (you can use shortening if you can’t find lard)
  • 1/2 c. hot water
  • extra flour for handling the dough

Directions:

  1. Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add lard and blend it in with a pastry cutter or fork until the mixture becomes crumbly like sand.
  3. Add the hot water and stir until you have a soft, sticky dough. Form the dough into a ball.
  4. Place the dough on a floured surface and knead the dough for about 1 minute.
  5. Cover the dough with a damp towel and let it rest for about 10 minutes.
  6. Flatten the dough and cut it into 12 equal pieced. Form the pieces into balls and cover with a damp towel for 30 minutes.
  7. Flour a work surface, your hands, and a rolling pin.
  8. Flatten a dough ball with the heel of your hand, then roll it out with the rolling pin into a circle that is about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.
  9. Heat a griddle for 30 seconds on medium-high heat. Place the tortilla on the griddle, then flip after about 30 seconds.
  10. The tortilla is done when it has puffed up slightly and has light brown spots on both sides.
  11. Remove from the griddle and keep tortillas warm until served by wrapping them in a dry towel.

Special Foods

There were also some special foods that New Mexicans got from Mexico City through traders that traveled a trade route called the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Some of these special foods were sugar, chocolate, and spices such as cinnamon and anise seed. It took months for traders to travel the Camino Real, and so these foods were not always readily available. It was exciting for Josefina’s family when traders arrived from Mexico City!

Map of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro

Grind Spices Like Josefina!

When Josefina’s family got spices from Mexico City they weren’t ground up like the spices we can buy in a bottle at the grocery store today. Josefina would have ground her family’s spices herself using a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle were made of wood or stone. The mortar was the bowl and the pestle was used to crush the spices.

You can do this just like Josefina did!

You will need:

  • a mortar and pestle
  • whole allspice berries

A mortar and pestle is easy to find if you don’t have one already. You might might even be able to find it at your local grocery store. Your local grocery store should also carry whole allspice berries. Place a few of the allspice berries in the mortar and use the pestle to smash them up. That’s all there is to it!

Josefina’s Hot Chocolate

Josefina’s family could get chocolate from Mexico City in the form of partially sweetened, hardened wafers. Chocolate in Mexico dates back to the ancient Mayas and Aztecs, who consumed it as a bitter drink. When the Spanish came to South America and were introduced to chocolate in the 1500s, they brought it back to Europe and added sugar to sweeten it, and this is how Josefina’s family used it. It came in the form of cakes of sweetened chocolate that the New Mexicans would grind up and mix with hot water or milk to make hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate was a special treat for Josefina. Here’s a simple recipe for hot chocolate like Josefina’s.

Ingredients:

  • one cake of sweetened chocolate, such as Abuelita
  • 2 cups of hot water

Instructions:

  1. Grind the cake of chocolate with a grater
  2. Beat the ground chocolate into the hot water with a whisk. Beat the chocolate quickly and for several minutes until your hot chocolate is nice and frothy. For an even more authentic experience, you can use a molinillo, which was a special wooden stirrer that New Mexicans used to make their hot chocolate frothy.
  3. That’s it! Pour your chocolate into a cup and enjoy!

Serves 4

For an extra special treat, you can serve bizcochitos with your hot chocolate!

Bizcochitos are New Mexican sugar cookies that were a treat for special occasions. They were flavored with anise seed so they have a light licorice sort of taste. Here is how to make these tasty cookies:

Bizcochitos (from Josefina’s Cookbook)

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup lard or shortening
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons anise
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons cold water, or as needed

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.
  2. Put the lard or shortening in a large mixing bowl. Use the wooden spoon to press the lard or shortening against the side of the bowl until it is soft and smooth.
  3. Mix 1/2 cup sugar into the lard or shortening a little bit at a time. Stir until the mixture is light and fluffy. Then crack the egg into the mixture. Add the anise seed and mix well. Set aside.
  4. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl, then add to the lard and sugar mixture. Use a pastry cutter or fork to cut the flour in until the mixture is crumbly.
  5. Add the vanilla. Then add water a little at a time until a ball of dough forms as you stir. Use as little water as possible, just enough so the dough will come together. You don’t want your dough to get sticky.
  6. Divide the dough into 3 balls. Put 2 balls in the refrigerator while you roll out the other ball.
  7. Cover your table with a piece of parchment paper and sprinkle with flour. Rub flour on a rolling pin and roll out one ball of dough until it is about 1/4 inch thick.
  8. Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. Place the cookies about 1 inch apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
  9. Sprinkle the cookie with the cinnamon sugar mixture.
  10. Bake the cookies for about 10 minutes, but keep an eye on them! They burn easily!
  11. Sprinkle more cinnamon sugar on the cookies and more them to a paper towel to cool. Continue with the rest of the dough until all the cookies are made.

Other Foods

There are some other foods that Josefina would have eaten that you might be able to find at your grocery store. Goat milk and goat cheese would have been everyday foods. Tamales and empanadas, both the sweet and savory kinds, would have been foods saved for special occasions, like Christmas. See if you can find some of these foods and give them a try!

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