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Native Cooking

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Chocolate and romance are braided together in history, especially around Feb. 14 or, as it is known, Valentine's Day - a distinctly non-Native holiday until the 20th century, when it was, and is, put in our faces via advertising and heart-shaped things that pop up everywhere.

But chocolate is the ultimate American Indian gift. In fact, it was given to the Toltec people of Mexico more than 3,000 years ago ''by the gods.'' Cocoa trees were planted, and the cocoa beans themselves grew along the trunks. They had to be husked and dried in the sun, then aged and roasted before use. It was so special that only those of high regard were able to obtain it.

The taste was bitter but rich; the bitter taste was softened by the use of honey and spices, which produced a heavenly concoction still revered in Mexico. Friends have told me that Mexican hot chocolate is delicious and quite different from the powdered, processed cocoa we can buy in our grocery stores. Mexican chocolate is available in Mexican and gourmet markets. Originally served piping hot in ceramic jars to keep it that way, it is whipped into foam just before serving. A wooden tool, known as a molinillo, is used. It is a small beater that is twirled between the palms of your hand and can be found in Mexican and gourmet shops. (A blender or an electric mixer can get the same result.)

Some Mexican chocolate comes sweetened and flavored with cinnamon, cloves, allspice or vanilla in various combinations. Sometimes a little ground almond was added for depth and body. When the Spanish arrived, they added milk and sugar. It is this combination that they took on their travels north into the pueblos.

Hot Chocolate, Mexican Style

2 cups water

1/2 cup honey

6 tablespoons cocoa, unsweetened

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves or ground allspice

2 shakes salt

3 egg whites

2 teaspoons vanilla

5 cups hot milk

Put all ingredients except egg whites, vanilla and milk, in a medium to large saucepan until it comes to a boil. Pour hot mixture into a blender. Add egg whites, vanilla and milk. Blend until foamy and serve immediately.

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If you have never had a mole (mo-lay), you are in for a treat - or several actually, as there are nearly as many moles as there are cooks in Central America. It is simply a sauce made with chiles, spices, seeds and, sometimes, unsweetened chocolate, as in the popular Mole Poblano that can accompany chicken or turkey.

Mole recipes are more than complicated, sometimes involving 20 or more ingredients. I would suggest you try a dish with a mole at a favorite restaurant. You may also be able to buy a packaged version at a gourmet food shop and then fool around with making it personal. I love to do that with a lot of packaged things. Brownie mix is one of my favorites. I've added extra chocolate or butterscotch chips, walnuts, hazelnut or other flavored cocoa with good results.

Rich Hot Chocolate

3 tablespoons of regular cocoa, any powdered brand

2 teaspoons real vanilla extract

1 teaspoon raw sugar

1/2 cup cold heavy cream

3 cups cold whole milk

Put all ingredients in a medium saucepan, stir well and heat slowly. Stir frequently until it is the temperature you want, but do not let it boil.

Fast Chocolate Fudge

3 cups chocolate chips

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

1/4 cup butter, cut into pieces

1 cup walnuts, chopped

Using a 2-quart glass bowl, microwave the chocolate, condensed milk and butter for about 4 minutes, stirring every minute or two. Stir in nuts. Pour this into a greased 8-inch square dish and cover. Chill for at least 3 hours. Cut into square pieces.