A Trip to the Mano y Metate Kitchen

Amy’s mole mixes on the shelf at the Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store in reusable tins. .

It’s Carolyn here today giving you a behind-the-scenes look at one of my sister Savor the Southwest bloggers. For my forthcoming book on Tucson as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, I interviewed a number of small food manufacturers, and Amy Schwemm was one of them. So I’m going to share with you my story on how Amy got into the spice business:

Amy Valdez Schwemm opens the double doors of her industrial refrigerator and displays a collection of herbs and spices that would make Marco Polo and any Arab spice trader swoon. Plastic tubs and glass jars hold nine kinds of chiles, three kinds of nuts, sesame and pumpkin seeds, raisins, prunes, tortilla meal, cinnamon sticks, herbs, cacao nibs, imported chocolate from Oaxaca, and a secret ingredient—dried bananas.

These are the ingredients she uses to make the six dried mole mixes she sells through her company Mano y Metate. She has a stringent non-GMO policy for every one of them.

Amy owns a three-room professional kitchen with five large refrigerators, a huge black stove, and an array of health department-endorsed sinks. But she works her spice magic out of a room about 15 feet square. Just herself, a small scale, and that well-stocked fridge. The rest of the facility she rents on an hourly basis to other small food business—a caterer, two women who make kimchi, a baker of cheesecakes, and a couple of food trucks.

Amy uses a large industrial Cusinart to grind spices. It is really loud so she wears ear protection.

Schwemm began her food career working for Native Seeds/SEARCH which at the time sold a mole mix. She recalls that no one knew how to use it, but she remembered her grandmother making moles for the family. It was several years later with people asking for mole mixes that Schwemm decided this was something she could do. She took business and accounting classes and rented kitchen space from a small bakery. Meanwhile, Schwemm was helping to clean out her great aunt’s household accumulation and found a small mano for a molcajete, worn smooth from years of spice grinding. Another family member passed along the molcajete that went with it. Seeing Schwemm’s interest, the great aunt confessed she had given away her mother’s metate, but asked for it back. Thus the name of the news business was born: Mano y Metate.

Then began the task of trying to replicate the exact flavor of the authentic mole her great-grandmother had made according to her mother’s memory. Schwemm made numerous passes until finally her mother agreed that she had hit on the perfect combination. That blend of four kinds of dark chile, raisins, dried bananas, ground almonds and lots of sweetened Oaxacan chocolate became Schwemm’s Mole Dulce mix, her most popular. It is what is used at EXO coffee in their delicious Mole Dulce Latte.

Next in development was the much spicier Mole Negro with more bitter notes from unsweetened cacao nibs, four kinds of nuts, and smoky chipotle chile. An herby Mole Verde followed with jalapeno, green chile, cilantro, parsley and epazote.

Amy measures one of her secret ingredients: dried bananas. I guess it’s not a secret any more.

As the business developed, Schwemm kept experimenting, adding Pipian Rojo, a mixture of Santa Cruz mild child, pumpkin seeds, almonds and herbs, followed by Pipian Picante, a spicer version of Rojo. The most recent addition is Adobo with chiles, garlic and lots of herbs which works great as a dry rub before a steak goes on the grill.

All the mixes are packed in charming highly re-useable made-in-America two-ounce steel tins. Customers who are heavy users can save a little by buying the four-ounce packs in not-as-charming plastic bags. Mano y Metate products are available in small specialty store and independent food stores throughout Tucson and from Tubac to Seattle and from Santa Ana, California to Maine.

Over the years, Amy has given us great recipes using her spice mixes.  There is this for Tortilla Soup, another for fabulous Onion Rings, and another for a special holiday brunch with enchiladas and squash made with her fabulous mole negro mix.

Here is one of my favorites:

Mano Y Metate Mole Dulce Brownies

4 eggs (room temperature)
2 cups sugar
2 sticks softened butter (8 ounces)
1 1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons Mole Dulce powder

Mole Dulce powder for topping, 5 tablespoons or so, to taste

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line a 9-inch x13-inch baking pan (or two eight-inch square pans) with parchment paper.

With an electric mixer, beat the eggs just until fluffy. Beat in sugar. Add remaining ingredients and beat. Pour batter into pan(s) and spread to level. Shake Mole Dulce powder though a wire strainer to evenly distribute over the batter as a topping. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out with crumbs instead of batter.

Schwemm says: I like the brownies thinner, so there’s more spicy, chocolaty topping per bite. Feel free to take them out of the oven sooner or bake them in a smaller pan if you like them gooey, but the edges of the pan always seem to go first around here.

_________________________________________

Carolyn Niethammer has been writing about ancient and modern foods of the Southwest for forty years. You can see her books at her website. She has a new book coming out (Fall 2020) on the 10,000 years of food history of the Santa Cruz Valley that is the basis for why Tucson was named the UNESCO World City of Gastronomy.

 

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