Diana Kennedy, the famously feisty British born cook and food writer who dedicated the great part of her career to seeking out and documenting the richness and diversity of Mexican cuisine has died at the age of 99.
Diana whom I was fortunate to know always said that she didn’t want to live to be over 100. I visited her in her beloved Michoacan in Western Mexico in 2013. When she moved to Mexico City from New York in her 30’s, she met and fell in love with Paul Kennedy, the great love of her life who was the New York Times correspondent for Mexico. She became intrigued by the diversity of Mexican food and when he died in 1967, she continued to travel and drove thousands of miles backwards and forwards across the country in her ancient ‘pick-up’ truck to research regional cuisine. She’d talk to street vendors, stallholders in the markets and ask how do you do this or cook that. She watched, cooked with them in their simple kitchens and always credited those who taught her dishes in many books. Her books appealed both to home cooks and chefs. She was described as ‘the Indiana Jones of Mexican Food’ by Spanish chef and philanthropist José Andréas.
Her first book ‘The Cuisines of Mexico’ was a revelation to those English-speaking readers who hitherto had only tasted the TexMex food. Thanks to Diana, they discovered the extraordinary richness and biodiversity of regional Mexican food through her many books.
I met Diana several times, first in Oaxaca at an IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) regional conference. She later came to Ireland in 2014 to speak and teach at the Ballymaloe Lit Fest. People flew in from all over the world to attend her class. At that time, she was 91, a force of nature dressed in black leather…
She loved Ireland but my happiest memories of Diana were several days spent at her beautiful adobe house, built around a boulder in the midst of her eco-garden and farm in Zitacuaro. Even in her late 80’s and 90’s, she produced most of her own organic food, vegetables and fruit, grew her own fresh herbs, coffee, chillies, epazote (Mexican aromatic herb), watercress, raspberries…It was like the Garden of Eden on a very rugged site.
We went to the market, cooked together and then feasted at a little table in the garden close to the kitchen. Her solar oven and plate warmer close by. Plastic bags were drying on the branches of the shrubs. Diana hated lots of things; she hated waste and reused plastic over and over again. She hated pesticides, genetically modified food, industrialised tortillas…she was outraged that Mexico, the home of corn, was importing corn from the US. She mourned the loss of taste, how right she was…
Her home was powered by solar and wind energy. In ‘Nothing Fancy’, a documentary about her life made in 2020, she described her garden as her ‘jewel box’.
Her influence was immense; she won many accolades including the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagles, the country’s highest award for foreigners. Like so many others, I feel fortunate that our paths crossed in life – what a legacy she has left us all. Her home in Michoacan will become a centre for Mexican food studies.
When she died, Arturo Sarukhán, a former Mexican Ambassador to the US, described her death as a huge loss for Mexico, the UK and Mexican gastronomy’. She changed the narrative and perception of Mexican cuisine from a bland mish-mash of TexMex to a sophisticated tapestry of regional cuisines as rich as any in China, India, France or Italy.
Here are a few recipes Diana shared
at the Ballymaloe Lit Fest in 2014.
A Whole Fish with Mexican Spices
Pescado en Macum
It is much more common for a housewife to use a whole fish than fillets. You could use a whole grouper or snapper or thick fillets from either fish. They should be cooked in one layer.
1.1kg (2 1/2lbs) fillets of fish about 2.5cm (1 inch) thick, cut into 6 servings
125ml (4 1/2fl oz) fresh lime juice mixed with 225ml (8fl oz) water
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon dried oregano
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoons achiote paste
salt to taste
4 – 6 tablespoons of bitter orange juice or substitute (see recipe below)
6 tablespoons of olive oil
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
450g (1lb) tomatoes, thinly sliced
2 x-cat-ik chiles, grilled
banana leaves to cover (optional)
Rinse the fish with the lime juice and water and pat dry. In a coffee or spice grinder, grind together the cumin, peppercorns and oregano. Crush 2 cloves of the garlic, add the ground spices and achiote paste with salt and mix well. Dilute to spreading consistency with the orange juice. Spread this on both sides of the fish and set aside to season for at least 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in a
skillet that will hold the fish on one layer. Fry the remaining 4 cloves of
garlic for about 30 seconds or until golden, remove from the oil and discard.
Add the fish and fry for about 3 minutes on each side. Remove and set aside.
Add the onions to the pan and fry for a few seconds – they should not brown –
add the tomatoes and fry over fairly high heat for 3 minutes. Put the fish back
into the pan, add the x-cat-ik chiles and cook, covered over a gentle heat for
about 15 minutes or until the fish is just tender. I like to set it aside for
about 10 minutes before serving to develop flavour.
Bitter Orange Substitute
Makes about 125ml (4 1/2fl oz)
2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon finely grated grapefruit rind
65ml (2 1/2fl oz) fresh lime juice
Mix everything together thoroughly about 1 hour before using. Keep in the refrigerator, tightly sealed, no more than 3 or 4 days.
Recipe taken from ‘My
Mexico’ – copyright Diana Kennedy
Chicken in Peanut Sauce
Pollo en Salsa de Cacahuate (Señora Letica Castro)
I was having tea one afternoon with Señora Letica Castro, who has a great reputation as a cook. During a discussion of the food of Oaxaca, she called in one of her maids who was from Oaxaca and asked her to dictate some of her favourite recipes to us. This she did, without a moment’s hesitation and without needing to correct a quantity or ingredient. Here it is just as she gave it to us – a most interesting and delicious way of preparing chicken. The sauce is not very picante. There should be a pleasant “afterglow” from the chiles.
2kgs (4 1/2lbs) chicken parts
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly ground black pepper
4 – 5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 medium white onion, cut into 4 pieces
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2.5cm (1 inch) piece of cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
315ml (10 1/2fl oz) raw (unroasted, unsalted) peanuts, measured shelled and with papery husks removed
450g (1lb) tomatoes, broiled
4 chipotle chiles en vinagre or adobo, or to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or rendered chicken fat
500ml (18fl oz) water
Sprinkle the chicken with salt, pepper and the lime juice and set aside to season while you prepare the sauce.
Heat a small, ungreased frying pan and toast the onion and garlic until soft. Peel the garlic. Toss the spices in the hot pan to toast them lightly and then toast the peanuts until they are golden.
Put the unskinned tomatoes, chiles and the toasted ingredients, except the peanuts, into a blender and blend until quite smooth, gradually add the peanuts and add a little water only if necessary to release the blades of the blender. Heat the oil or chicken fat in a heavy casserole and fry the chicken pieces, a few at a time, until golden brown. Remove the chicken from the frying pan and set aside. There should be about 65ml (2 1/2fl oz) of oil in the pan. Remove or make up to that amount. Reheat the oil and fry the blended ingredients over medium heat for 3 minutes, constantly stirring and scraping from the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat and let the sauce cook for about 15 minutes longer, continuing to scrape the bottom of the pan from time to time.
Add the chicken pieces and the 500ml (18fl oz) of water. Adjust the seasoning and cook over low heat until the chicken is tender – 35 to 40 minutes. The sauce will thicken – it should lightly cover the back of a wooden spoon – and pools of oil will form on the surface.
Serve the chicken with plenty of sauce, accompanied by small, boiled potatoes.
Note: this dish can be prepared several hours ahead. Surprisingly it freezes very well and will keep for about 2 weeks.
Recipe taken from ‘The
Essential Cuisines of Mexico’ – copyright Diana Kennedy
Makes about 750ml (1 pint 5fl oz)
2 heaped tablespoons finely chopped onion (sharp not sweet)
2-3 (or to taste) serrano chiles, finely chopped
sea salt to taste
500ml (18fl oz) roughly crushed avocado pulp
188ml (3/4 cup) finely diced ripe, but not too soft, peeled peaches
125ml (1/2 cup) halved seedless grapes
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
83ml (1/3 cup) pomegranate seeds
Crush the onion, chile and salt to a paste. Stir in the avocado pulp, peaches, grapes, lime juice and half the pomegranate seeds. Mix well and sprinkle the surface with the remaining seeds.
Ideally serve with warm corn tortillas.
Note: In Mexico we spell chile like
this and not chilli.
Pineapple and Banana Dessert
Cajeta de Piña y Plãtano
This is a thick, dark paste of fruit with an unusual and refreshing flavour. Whenever I make it, I think of Luz, our first Mexican maid. Although she came only to clean for a few brief periods each week, somehow, she managed to give me my first Mexican cooking lesson. At that time I didn’t think to ask her where she had come across this recipe, and I had never been able to find it in any cookbook, or find anyone else who knew of it, at least in Mexico City. But one day, I was reading through a book I had just acquired, Recetas Prácticas para la Señora de Casa published in Guadalajara in 1895, and there it was.
375ml (13fl oz) dark brown sugar
750ml (1 pint 5fl oz) water
5cm (2 inch) piece of cinnamon stick
1 pineapple, about 1.8kg (4lbs)
900g (2lbs) bananas (not too ripe)
5cm (2 inch) piece of cinnamon stick, broken in half
juice and zest of 1/2 lime
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
Bring the brown sugar, water and cinnamon to the boil in a heavy pan and let them continue to boil fast for 20 minutes. The liquid will have reduced to about 625ml (1 pint 1fl oz). Remove the cinnamon stick.
Clean and dice the fruit and blend it with the syrup to a medium texture. Pour the mixture into a shallow ovenproof dish, ideally not much more than 7.5cm (3 inches) deep and stir in the broken cinnamon stick and lime juice and zest. Place the dish in the oven and let the mixture cook for about 4 hours. From time to time, scrape the mixture from the sides of the dish and stir it well. This is particularly important towards the end of the cooking period.
When the mixture is
thick, sticky and a rich, dark brown, transfer it to a small serving dish and
glaze it quickly under the broiler (grill).
Set it aside to cool. Serve the
cajeta with queso fresco or thick sour cream.
This should keep for 10-15 days in the refrigerator – but I doubt whether that will be necessary. I’m afraid I always dip a finger into it each time I open the refrigerator door. I don’t suggest freezing.
Recipe taken from ‘The Essential Cuisines of Mexico’ – copyright Diana Kennedy