This weekend, we recuperated from a botched date night foray into the world of high dollar dishes. And what better way to reaffirm one’s faith in good food than to have some fun times with short money. I’m not just talking about emphasizing “value” over luxury and extravagance. This weekend gave me a few examples of how I can “value” the rich diversity of my community and environment, rather than paying premium prices for pretentious menu descriptions and rarefied table service.
Posts Tagged ‘mexican’
Ever since going to Mexico on my honeymoon, I’ve been acquiring all these dried chiles. I had the best intentions, but at this point, there is no way that I’ll ever use them all. Can you name all the peppers you see here? Sorry the picture isn’t that good and the plastic baggies don’t help. The real question is, what do I do with them? Make mole sauce? Maybe, but I’d want some help with that. How about a chile cooking party at my place? Invite yourself over and we’ll fix up a bunch of spicy grub.
For two years running, I have planted poblano peppers in the hopes of becoming a Byrd Park’s version of Booby Flay. But alas, my four plants over two years have only produced two (pathetically small) peppers total (always at the end of the season, mind you). Anybody care to explain that one? Maybe mother nature just didn’t want me to do this with those poblanos.
Tonight we made a guacamole dip that rendered us unable to eat dinner. It was easy to make, nutritious, and delicious. And it satisfied like nobody’s business, thanks to pumpkin seeds.* The satiating quality is a useful attribute for two reasons. Avocados are expensive and it sucks when your guac is gone in a heartbeat. This stuff, will not get eaten too quickly. And if it does, those people who eat it won’t be eating much for the next few hours. That’s the other benefit, fewer chimichangas.
Just recently, I learned to set the DVR to record all of the awesome cooking shows on PBS on Saturday morning. One of those is Rick Bayless’ “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” So far, my favorite episode is the one where Rick is throwing a “block party” and he invites some PBS diversity over for finger food. Oh, hell yeah. That’s my kinda party. Did yall know that Barack Obama loves Bayless’ cooking? Well, me too. Only, unlike the very ‘presidential’ Obama, I’m quick to point out the cultural appropriation behind Bayless seeing the cuisine of real Mexicans and saying, “Si, se puede.” Yes, we can – make some money off of the tasty techniques of Mexico.
One of the dishes that Bayless prepares is Toasted Pumpkinseed Guacamole and I was a little skeptical when he described it to the camera. He talked about the toasty flavor, compared to his Mango Guacamole, but he didn’t, however, talk about the meal replacement effects of the dip. This dish , together with my whey revelation, will help me reduce my own intake and drop a few pounds, if I can remember to make it a few times a month. He served it along side some really simple tuna escabeche tacos. You can make these together, or you can just bookmark Rick’s recipe list and go to town on his awesome recipes a couple times a week.
If you’re too lazy to go to the link, just make guacamole like you usually would and stir in some pureed toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
What do yall think?
*Pumpkin seeds are a superfood. Pumpkin seeds are rich in the amino acids alanin, glycine and glutamic acid, and also contain high amounts of zinc. Enlargement of the prostate affects about half of men over the age of 50 and including a handful of pumpkin seeds may offer some protection against the development of prostate cancer. They contain high quantities of protein, iron and phosphorous and even a tablespoon a day would be a good addition to any healthy diet, particularly for vegans and vegetarians.
Salsa should be easy to make: chop some fresh ingredients, stir together, and eat. But the result too often tastes of hasty preparation, watery and one dimensional. There is a way to make sure that your dip has a deep and satisfying flavor, but it takes a little investment of time. Lucky for us, Cooks Illustrated did all of the research and published detailed instructions in their May/June 2006 issue. If you save the back issues like I do, you’d be well advised to dig that one up. Otherwise, you’ll have to buy a membership to their online archives; a good investment if you like to find recipes online rather than in books or if you like to review product comparisons before purchasing kitchen appliances. Their findings on grocery store coffee blew me away (gist: buy 8 O’clock brand Colombian beans ASAP… mmmmmmm)
Since I’ve become a big fan of the “Sweet and Smokey Grilled Tomato Salsa” recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, I’ll share the basic tenets with you in hopes that some of you do some experimenting of your own. One of my main motivations in growing tomatoes is to make this salsa, but the magazine says it’s actually designed to make use of out-of-season roma/plum tomatoes. Whatever your angle, this is worth it. Make a lot and give some to the neighbors.
1) Chop in half at least two pounds of plum tomatoes and toss them in oil to coat and put them face down on a hot grill (any toms other than roma/plum will turn to soup on the grill). Do the same with a couple jalapenos or whatever peppers you’ve got in the garden (if you wanna skip the fresh peppers, use a couple of those canned chilpotles in adobo).
2) Turn them over after they’ve gotten slightly charred. Toss some wet wood chips on the fire (in smoker box if using gas) and cover the grill (do NOT use mesquite chips – flavor is too heavy). Watch neighbors come outside with noses in the air as they detect the smell of delicious smokiness.
3) When the tomatoes have shrunk slightly, and they’re charred on both sides, put them in a bowl to cool (repeat 1-3 until all tomatoes/peppers are cooked)
4) Blend tomatoes and peppers (with or without seeds depending on desired spiciness) with chopped red onion (a couple tbsp per lp of toms), lime juice, fresh cilantro, sugar, salt and pepper – all to taste. Tasting and adding more of this or that is the fun part. Serve after at least 10 minutes (maybe overnight) so the flavors can mingle and mellow.
If this abreviated recipe is still too compicated for your cooking chops, just do the trifling two-step: Grill a bunch of salsa veggies and blend’em up. Nuff said.
What do you think of this grilled salsa? I think it ranks right up there with another grilled recipe that I like to make.
One of the books that we were given at the baby shower was “Hola! Jalapeno,” by Amy Wilson Sanger (who wrote a bunch of foodie kids books). We got such a kick out of reading it, that I decided to post the words here. Also, I’m going to include a little report back on a couple of the latin flavored dips I served at the party (and I’ll include a recipe and a recommendation).
I say, hello my chile friend.
cheese is melting out your end.
Here’s la cocina en mi casa
(that’s the kitchen in my house),
where I eat a big burrito,
almost wider than my mouth.
Corn tortillas make my tacos,
my tostada,… and my chips.
Tomato salsa, por favor,
and guacamole dip!
Gracias, tamales, for your
masa dough surprise
wrapped up tight in leaves of corn
a present in disguise.
Dance frijoles negros,
with rice we call arroz.
Roll on, enchiladas
in your bed of cheese and sauce!
Chicken in a mole bath
is my special dinner treat.
Then flan! a caramel custard
that’s silky smooth and sweet.
Stir a cup of cold horchata
with a stick of cinnamon spice.
Adios! my green amigo
I can’t eat another bite.
Reading this little book makes me hungry. In fact, right now, I could go for some handmade tortilla temptations from Taqueria del Sol along with some horchata. Which brings me to my baby shower dips. As usual, the jalapeño pesto continues to impress (and I’m as surprised as anybody, cuz I invented the stuff). Karen is now saying it’s her favorite dip on the planet. There’s never any left when I put it out. The recipe is on this blog, but I think I added a bit of lemon juice and tamari as I tinkered with it.
My mole flavored cheese dip got altered a bit when I started looking for a recipe that would help me get the technique down for making the cheese dip creamy and smooth. The answer, I think, is to start with a roux and whisk in some milk before adding the cheese. Here’s Bobby Flay’s famous queso fundido from Mesa Grill (a chi-chi Mannhattan restaurant that I gave a mixed review). Oh, by the way, I wouldn’t put mole in my cheese dip again. Try roasted poblano vinaigrette instead.
1 tbls unsalted butter
1 tbls flour
1 cup milk
3 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese (12 oz)
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
8 ounces goat cheese cut into 8 slices
1. Preheat the broiler
2. Melt the butter in an over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook for one minute. Whisk in milk and cook until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the Jack cheese and salt and pepper.
3. Scrape the mixture into an 8 inch cast iron pan (or whatever) and lay the goat cheese slices on top. Broil until the cheese is golden brown on top.
This is where I added some mole sauce, but I think you’re better off sticking with Bobby Flay’s directions. So, make this sauce and drizzle it on top of the cheese (and maybe drop some chopped cilantro on top too).
Roasted Poblano Vinaigrette
2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tbls red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspon honey
1/4 cup veg oil
salt and pepper
Combine and blend in the food processor, blender, or using a hand blender.
My coworker was telling me about the difficulty of getting a Valentine’s Day reservation for dinner. She feels like she needs to decide now to beat the rush and start budgeting for the big splurge, ehem, I mean, outpouring of love. For me, this doesn’t quite compute, because I usually cook something (and I hate holiday gimmicks). Last year, I made heart shaped tuna carpaccio (pink!), a la Eric Ripert.
Regardless of whether you stay in or go out, I feel like the specialness of the night is enhanced by the right combination of food n’tude and not by how much you spend or how fancy you dress. After all, V-Day is about being together rather than buying distractions.
So (if you’re not a stickler for ambiance) here are a few places that may inspire sentimentality while steering clear of the romance racket.
This place may be the best Indian restaurant in Richmond (if you’re not hung up on India K’Raja) and it might even have a degree of romantic atmosphere. Be sure to try one of the many paneer (cheese) dishes and anything with a sauce that sounds creamy (like shahi). Another fave is the fish pakora appetizer.
-Cool Breeze Chaathouse
A few doors down from Royal India, the same owner runs the Cool Breeze Chaat House. Never been to a chaat house? Here you can casually lounge inside or out sampling little plates of snacky Indian treats and swilling lassi libations. Lots of potential for eye-gazing and hand-grazing while digging into shared jumbles of curried goodies. A nice informal prelude to a movie or a good strategy for leaving room for ice cream or gelatto.
If you’ve tried one pho noodle house, you’ve tried them all, right? That’s what I thought until I visited Vietnam 1 (having tried many of its’ previous incarnations). The inside is tidy, but not appropriate for “setting the mood.” What is special here is the food. The real discovery for me are the jicama rolls. It’s the ubiquitous (and awesome) soft rice paper wrapped “summer roll,” but the noodles have been swapped for threaded jicama. How very Atkins appropriate. The grilled meats (or tofu) over broken rice is beautiful, delicious, and plentiful. Of course the pho is good too, but it’s not date food, unless your really comfortable together (slurp!). Plus, you don’t have to wait in the always crammed Pho So 1.
-Taqueria del Sol
If I’m a broken record about this, then I’ve finally gotten it right. Start with an horchata and two straws. Then, split a shrimp cocktail and a side of guac. If you’re not prim and propper eaters, dip a chip into the guac and then plunk a shrimp down on top with a bit of that coctail gazpacho soupiness. Mmmm, this might just be an aphrodisiac. Next, order a couple homemade tortilla sopes or gorditas of different varieties (meat or grilled veggies or mix’n'match). Your other half might order the ceviche or the enchiladas con mole poblano or tacos al pastor (although you’ll be getting kinda full at this point). Theses dishes will be so successful as to deplete almost all of your erogenous energy right there at the dinner table. Taqueria del Sol even makes fried ice cream better than everywhere else.
This place has bonafied romantic ambiance: Lebanese in the casbah. Plus, they’re brand new (eager to please) and it’ll feel good to spread the love by throwing your support to a new food endeavor. You can go cheap with a couple apps and split an entree or splurge on an enormous mezze spread. If you hit it up, lemme know how you liked it. I can only vouch for the hummus and falafel. (4400 block of W. Broad)
Get some take out and get on the couch with your sweetie. If you both get garlic breath, neither of you is allowed to act all offended.
This place is gonna make you swoon with their thai style she-crab soup and their coconut appetizer. Beyond this, you’ll get things heated up with etoufee on just about every main dish. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Again, share the love with a fledgeling Carytown restaurant and finish with a stiff drink at Can Can.
Even as I write this, my wife is trying to convince me that “girls want ambiance on Valentines Day,” but the amor does not have to be all about the benjamins. Nonetheless, if these options strike your fancy, put yourself in the hands of Ms. Timberlake at Style. I think you’ll be back here eventually, but that weekly rag often has stuff that you really oughta read. Of course, please feel free to post your ideas here as well.
Last week I strolled into Aladdin Express (aka Aladdin’s at Broad and Laurel) and brought back a falafel for lunch. I’ve been going to Aladdin’s for years (10, to be exact) and I usually don’t stray too far from their savory and saucy falafel pita sandwich. For a while there, I was compulsive about falafel, ordering it everywhere I saw it on the menu and always comparing it to Aladdin’s consistently delicious hand-held meal.
Too often at other eateries, I have ordered falafel and rather than receiving fried balls of mashed chick peas and spices, what I got was a crumbly mess of rehydrated and fried prepackaged mix (yuck!). Other places go astray by tinkering with the tahini dressing, or getting too fancy with the veggies, imprecise pita manipulation, over or under-fried falafel balls, etc. Feel free to chime in and report your crimes against falafel (or to mention other good falafel venues, like the Mediterranean Bakery on Quioccasin).
What you receive for $3.99 at Aladdin’s is a 7” pita with a hole cut into the top. Dropped inside* you find a good balance of fried falafel balls, raw onions, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce, all topped with a thick lemon tahini sauce that slowly drips down through the ingredients to the bottom of the pita. Yes, it’s bursting at the seams and unavoidably messy. But the combination of flavors and sloppiness just seems appropriate. I usually add a drop of Texas Pete hot sauce on each bite, just to make doubly sure that all of my senses are triggered during lunch break. For a little extra, they will throw hummus, baba ghanouj, or tabouli into the already stuffed pita.
Anyhow, I’d like to take a moment to reminisce about an old friend (the sandwich and Aladdin’s owner). Behind the counter, Al (god, I hope that’s his name) greeted me after a couple years of missing each other. In recent years, I have been finding vegetarian lunch-break food in places other than Aladdin’s extensive Middle Eastern menu. And Al has been doing well enough with his restaurant (thanks to hooka-toking VCU kids) to consistently delegate cooking and cashier duties. I told him that he’s looking younger and well rested.
Al’s eyes light up. “You know what my secret is?” he says? “Um, you’ve finally gone vegetarian?” “No. Whole wheat pita with fennel seeds. I don’t sell it here, because it would raise the price of my sandwiches. Would you like to try it? You like spicy, right?” “Always. Lay it on me.”
In a couple minutes, Al presents me with a toasted corner of pita bread. There are fennel seeds imbedded in the dough, along with some specs that may have been black sesame seeds. Really yummy stuff, with a warm taste of licorice that really filled my mouth with flavor. I tell him that I like the bread. Once I’m back at the office, I’m not surprised to find that he’s made my falafel sandwich with his special pita/fountain-of-youth. It was delicious, although, by the end, I didn’t want to see another fennel seed for a week. Next time, I’ll ask him where I can buy the stuff myself.
* At the bottom of Aladdin’s falafel, you will find the very piece of pita bread that was cut from the top to create the opening. Apparantly, they just drop it inside after they cut it of the top. Every time for the past 10 years, it’s right there at the bottom of the sandwich waiting for me. Little touches often make food that much more comforting
Buena Suerte, Mexico
I’ve been probing all of my friends who’ve visited Viva Mexico in Carytown and I haven’t heard a critical word from anyone (or any real excitement either). Maybe I’m just a food snob (do ya think?), but I was not impressed when I went there during their first week open. I know, you can’t judge a restaurant by it’s food for the first six months, but how hard is it to crank out a standard Mexican menu? If there really is a period of adjustment for all restaurants, Viva Mexico clearly needs one.
At Viva Mexico, I enjoyed speaking Spanish with the staff, but I did not eat a single bite that made me smile with pleasure. Okay, maybe the cheese dip, but I’m a sucker for chip’n’dip. The thing that has stuck with me most is that the beans were completely devoid of flavor and fat. This coming from a vegetarian who guiltily looks forward to the essence of lard in his Mexican food (don’t ask, don’t tell, ya know?). My wife didn’t want to speak ill of the place, but did mention that the meat in her taco was totally plain.
I didn’t want to blog about the experience. Karen and I are both excited to be able to walk to a Mexican restaurant. However, after eating there, I came to the conclusion that they were skimping and cutting corners to make ends meet in the high rent blocks of Carytown. It might pay off for them in the short run, but I wondered how long Carytown shoppers would fill their booths without el sabor de los chiles to look forward to.
We haven’t been back since, and I’m hoping that the cooking techniques at Viva Mexico change over time. Anyhow, Dana Craig’s review of Viva Mexico in today’s RTD hits the nail on the head. Rather than talk a bunch of trash, I’ll just endorse today’s review.
Buena suerte, Viva Mexico (that means good luck, by the way)
Yesterday, I ate Mexican food twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. These two favorite places of mine are very different and very special.
Readers of this blog will already know that I love the flavors of Latino cuisines and that I actually believe that any food served inside of a tortilla is better than any food without a tortilla. So, I’m either an authority on the subject of Mexican food, or merely a fanatic. But seriously, since my wife and I went to Mexico for our honeymoon (luna de miel, en espanol), we have raised our standards for Southwestern inspired cooking. Now, we are seldom satisfied with the combination plate, or the 7lb burrito wrapped in foil.
My new outlook first took me to Taqueria del Sol (<---- painfully inadequate website) in the Merchants Walk shopping center on W. Broad, just past the Glenside/64 (the same strip-mall where the beloved Marshalls, oasis of bargain hunters resides). I went there weeks ago on a weekend morning while running an errand and thought I'd see if they served huevos rancheros, one of my favorite dishes.
When I stepped inside this fairly typical looking Mexican restaurant storefront, I was greeted by a packed house of Latino faces turning to look at the lone gringo. A little intimidating, I must admit. Although, I’m not really a shy guy. Hardly distracted by my entrance, the crowd of customers was jovial and relaxed in the way that brunch crowds tend to be. There was only one tiny table available, and I took it.
Once seated, I noticed that at least half of the customers were leaning over large white bowls of I dunno what. What could this be? I’ve never been served anything in a big bowl in a Mexican restaurant (except maybe a margarita for two). Well, I ordered my huevos and enjoyed my chips and salsa while occasionally craning my neck to peek at la comida del otras personas. I also noticed some drink fountains that circulate various fruity beverages, and one of them was stark white. Horchata! This fabulously sweet drink is made with boiled and strained rice, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. So soothing and satisfying. You have to try it and/or make it at home.
Ya know, at this point, I want to fast forward, because last night’s visit was far more important than my first visit to the Taqueria del Sol. To make it quick, the huevos rancheros were awesome and the red sauce was so delicious that I wanted to lap it up like a dog. When I paid my bill, I casually walked by a few tables and peered down into the big white bowls and saw an orange/red broth with pieces of chicken (with the bones) sticking out. The server said, “caldo de pollo” is very popular at this time of day. This, I recalled, was nowhere on the menu and neither was the horchata (pronounced without the “H”). Hmmm, the real stuff is under the counter and you gotta ask for it. Nice.
Since that visit, I’ve been telling everyone to check this place out. But weeks and months passed before I was able to visit again, this time with Karen. Since before the place recently opened, we had both been curious about the place, because we noticed ceviche on the menu posted in the window. Although it’s a classic fish dish, few Mexican restaurants serve it because it’s fairly delicate (being raw fish marinated in lime juice). Surely, this was a sign that Taqueria del Sol was un poco diferente.
So, I had to order the ceviche and they had to check and make sure that they had it ready. Being a little nervous about ordering the only non-shrip seafood dish on the menu (and it being essentially raw), I asked if it was “good” in both english and spanish with my best, “please don’t poison me” expression (although the real verdict would come later that night). Anyhow, the platter came out and I wolfed it down with gusto, feeling like a heel for my prejudices. The plate was brimming with a mound of finely chopped flounder meat, mixed with loads of cilantro, finely diced onions, slabs of avocado and of course copious amounts of lime juice. Tortillas were included to scoop it all up and I loved every minute of it, only to be awoken from my foodie dream-come-true by my wife interrupting my feast with, “Well, are you going to talk to me, or what?!”
Oh, yeah. This was sort of a date. Silly me. While having a transcendent experience with my entree, I’d totally neglected my wife. Speaking of Karen, she ordered the enchiladas poblanos which were served with dark rich mole poblano all over the plate. To describe this sauce would take several more paragraphs, but just imagine loads of broth, oil, and chilis blended and simmered for hours with unsweetened cocoa, ground pumpkin seeds and maybe ten different thickening agents. As they say, the sauce is the dish. But, it’s an acquired taste, and probably best experienced in its native regions of Mexico. But, the stuff at Taqueria del Sol isn’t bad at all. So, give it a try.
Karen and I washed this grub down with two tall glasses of iced horchata, which was actually a mistake. While delicious, the drink is just sweet enough and thick enough to prematurely fill you up. So, my tip is to split it, and if a second is in order… Oh, one last thing. On each of the tables were specials listed in those plastic encased table tents. Seven different kinds of meat are offered to make up a plate of three tacos. They also had gorditas and sopes. This style of menu was reminiscent of the offerings in Mexico and I’ll bet that the target audience is local latinos. I dunno. Just a hunch. But being mostly a vegetarian, I don’t think I’m going to find out any time soon. Why don’t you go and let me know? I’ll bet that stuff is the real star at Taqueria del Sol.
REVOLUCION DEL TACO!
Earlier in the day, I left my VCU office on Franklin Street just long enough to visit Nate’s Taco Truck, located where Grove and Stuart converge in front of the Performing Arts building and the VCU library. Nate is out there most weekdays during lunch and he’s developed a loyal following since starting up in the VCU area over the past year or so. I think he first caught my eye with his flyers that morphed his bespectacled face into Any Warhol’s enigmatic Che Guevara silhouette. A little bit hippy, Nate is not to be confused with those consistent purveyors of big piles of tasteless rice wraps on Main Street (aka Mobile Munchies).
What Nate offers is, however, a mysterious concoction of spices and herbs and beans and cheeses and meats (tvp or potato melange for the vegetarians), all in taco-sized soft tortillas. Whatever his secret is, the stuff he serves is delicious and prepared with a Cheshire cat’s smile. My favorite is the potato taco. So good. At five potato tacos and counting, I still haven’t found a potato in a single bite, but I’m not complaining cuz it tastes so good. What is that stuff anyhow? Try it and leave a comment here and end my speculation. And tell me what I’m missing out on by passing up the beef/chicken tacos.
One novelty item on the menu is a Frito Pie. If you already know what this is, pardon my naivete, but this popular convenience food was news to me. Nate opens a mini bag of Fritos and tosses everything that he would otherwise put into a taco right into the bag and hands it to you with a fork. And you know what? It’s not bad at all. I guess it’s all about the fixins, and that seems to be Nate’s speciality.
As for me, I’m headed outta town for a week. But I should clarify something. The semi-raw fish at Taqueria del Sol caused me no problems whatsoever. The rest of the night was digestively uneventful, just the way I like it. According to a comment on this blog about my honeymoon eating adventures, that’s the insurance policy of the lime juice. Not only does it cook the food with its acidity, but it also protects you from indigestion. My hat goes off to the contributions of Latin America to my taste buds, among other areas of the public sphere.
And on that note, I’d like to wish my sister in-law, Karina, a big congratulations for weathering the INS appeals process and finally getting a visa so she and my brother can relocate their family from Veracruz, Mexico back to the states.
For your viewing pleasure are twenty or so pictures of food and fresh ingredients that we encountered in Mexico. See pt. 1 for cultural and historical escapades. Some stories accompany, but if you’d like a soundtrack to this experience, I recommend Joe Strummer’s “Bhindi Bhagee” from his Global-a-go-go album. It’s not Mexican music, but it’s an upbeat jam I’ve had on repeat lately and it will make this little tour go down even smoother.
During our trip to Mexico, Karen and I were determined to try anything and everything that Mexico’s cuisine had to offer. Our adventure began in El Mercado Merced in downtown Mexico City. This place is the size of several Wal-Marts strung together, spanning more than a few city blocks. At Merced, you can buy virtually anything you want, and the space is divided up so that there are acres of spices in one spot, large expanses of nopales cactus paddles, and chickens hanging upside down as far as the eye can see. The sweets above were really intriguing. We decided on a few of the hockey-puck shaped macaroons (that’s them in the middle with the lime leaf attached and also some with an orange sweet potato color). I carried them around in my bag for 10 days and had a nibble whenever I got peckish.
These powders and pastes are sold in bulk to save cooking time for busy Mexicans. The super-complex mole sauces typically contain 40 or more ingredients (usually including chocolate, chilis, and pumkin seeds) and require hours of grinding, pureeing, and simmering. We followed the average person’s lead and bought the mole poblano paste (from the city of Puebla) and brought it home. Just add hot stock and oil until it has the right consistency. Mmmmmm, spicy, chocolatey, complexly savory. As they say, “if the sauce is not good, the dish is not good.”
This was such a spread of candy, that I couldn’t resist. We didn’t eat a lot of dulces (sweets), but they sure have some strange flavors (spicy mango, guanabana). On one road trip, I came out of the convenient store with something called Bubu Lubu. It was a candy-bar that’s kept in the refridgerated section. Imagine a layer of marshmallow topped with a layer of artificially flavored cherry gummy-jelly and the whole thing covered in milk chocolate. I didn’t like it, but I washed it down with a can of Coke to give myself a familiar queasy feeling (as opposed to the strange and unpredictable stomach rumblings that terrorized our trip).
Eating in Mexico is comparable to eating in Italy (so I’m told). Just like the Olive Garden’s pasta isn’t real Italian, don’t even think you’ve eaten Mexican food until you’ve been there. That combination plate that we get served in our local restaurants is laughable and pitiful compared to the fresh and flavorful dishes that make up the staple diet of Mexicans. And also, like Italians, Mexicans use a lot of garlic. This stand must have sold 30 different types. This section of the market really reeked of powerful smelling root vegetables.
Believe it or not, we didn’t eat many beans in Mexico. And when we did, they were usually refried black beans served next to the main course. Nonetheless, there are many many kinds of frijoles to be had. Maybe one day, I’ll have one of these bean cubbies in my pantry (when I get a house big enough for a pantry).
One thing that impressed me were the snacks in Mexico. It really seemed like people just eat all day. Portions are small and prices are cheap and everyone is eating on the go. Potato chips may seem like a trivial part of any culture, but Karen and I were impressed by how superior the potato chips were in Mexico to the Frito-Lays stuff we’ve got to choose from. The big brandname there is Sabritas (little tasties, if my translation is correct). Their chips are common in every way except for the flamboyantly loud flavors: lime, salsa caliente, tomatoes and garlic. Mmmmmm… Oddly, we will miss those bags of potato chips sorely. I can only imagine that this guy’s fresh chips are even better.
After walking around that market for a couple hours, sorta intimidated (we were the only gringos), and nervous about what would be alright for us to eat, we finally gave in and got a bite at one of the market’s many little sit-down eateries. For about a buck, Karen and I split an enormous huarache. It was a freshly made tortilla that was pressed into an oblong shape, fried, and topped with cheese and salsa (although meat was an option). Our server offered us red or green salsa, but unable to decide, I asked for both, and as you can see in the picture, they obliged. Karen liked the green and I liked the red (symbolic of our respective affinities). Although this was only our second day, that one little snack (enough for both of us) remained one of our favorite foods for the rest of the trip.
On our first night in Mexico, we walked a couple blocks through La Zona Rosa (the gay district), to a fancy restaurant called La Fonda El Refugio. In a dimly lit dining room, they served expertly crafted traditional Mexican food, fit for royalty. Although we wound up ordering fish in garlic sauce, and three types of enchiladas with mole, and beautiful little quesadillas (that were more like empanadas), our favorite part was the opening round of chips and salsa. We didn’t want to use the camera’s flash and ruin everyone else’s dinner, so please understand why the colors don’t quite pop here. But the dishes before you contain guacamole in the foreground (lots of lime juice), salsa verde (tomatillos, garlic, and green chilis), and salsa caliente (with roasted guajillo chilis). This last one only comes out upon special request. Silly me, I told them that I wanted spicy salsa before even trying the green stuff they set down for us. And so, out comes this enormous molcajete filled with smokey salsa. The meal went on brilliantly, but we sorta over did it with the appetizers and had to take some leftovers back to our hotel.
In Veracruz (five hours east of Mexico City), we stayed with my step-brother David. He lives with his wife, Karina, and over 30 of her family members live in the surrounding two or three blocks. Thanks to my emailing ahead about our interests, Karina’s mom decided to teach us to make tortillas from scratch and by hand – an art that is slowly going out of style in Mexico. See above as abuelita makes quick work of a pile of masa dough. She has 17 grandchildren and was happy to take care of us as if we were her own. I kept inquiring where the machina (or tortilla press) was hiding, but she laughed my comments off, saying that we don’t really need to use the cheating devices (like the one I’ve got at home!).
Within minutes, flat discs of masa dough began appearing. Abuelita first formed little balls of dough, which she patted back and forth between her palms until each one was flat and less than a half-inch think. Then, she placed the silver-dollar shaped dough in the center of a circular piece of plastic wrap (or wax paper, or part of a zip-lock bag, etc). The last part is still like a blur to me. With one hand, she turned the plastic circle, and with the other hand she struck her palm of her hand against the dough at an angle that would help turn the disc. A few times around each disc and it became very thin, perfectly round, and about 6″ across. Mine did not look like this. Soon, the neighbor brought over her tortilla press so that I could join in without making a mess.
Not long after the tortillas had taken shape, plates of hot food were ready to eat. On the left are gorditas. These tortillas got submerged in boiling oil and they puffed up and became hollow like a pita. A combination of refried black beans, salsa, and cheese went on top. Really tasty! On the right are chalupas. These tortillas were seared on each side on a hot cast-iron tortilla griddle that didn’t require any oil. They were topped with more cheese, lettuce, and a sort of salsa fresco or pico de gallo. Two really satisfying snacks that complimented each other well. This was more than enough by our standards, but the food didn’t stop rolling out. Earlier that morning, sbuelita woke up ahead of everyone else and prepared a black bean soup with masa dumplings (not pictured, sorry).
After a couple days imposing on the profound hospitality of my extended Mexican family, Karen and I decided to spend a day walking around downtown Veracruz. One attraction that the guidebooks recommended was Gran Café de la Parroquia on Avenue Insurgentes, a historic coffee shop where artists and political types have gathered for decades to rub elbows, soak up atmosphere, and the unique house coffee drink called “lechero.” This beverage of strong coffee and steaming hot milk is alleged to be the original latte. As tasty as it is to drink, what follows after ordering is even more entertaining. The above fancy espresso machines also serve as the logo for the cafe on their bags of coffee, signage, shirts, etc.
First, the waiter brings out your cup of freshly brewed coffee syrup. Then he taps the side of your glass with a spoon and looks across the room to make sure that the milk guy has heard the call. Then, the milk guy (above) shows up with his kettle and starts pouring from a low height, slowly working his way up to an absurd distance from the cup before you. As the scalding milk fills your cup, not a drop is spilled and a very thick foam forms on top.
Another common Mexican dish that I wanted to learn to make are tamales (corn meal and savory veggies/meat/beans, wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks, and steamed). However, on our last night in Veracruz we came back to the homestead and found a big production unfolding all around us. The whole neighborhood was alive with anticipation for an evening of celebration in honor of the Virgin de Guadalupe. Because the next day was the anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s alleged visit to Mexico, basically everyone in the country was partying, praying, singing, and sharing food. Our hosts spent the day making over 100 tamales, and these above were ready to eat when we arrived at sunset. Our first and only authentic Mexican tamales were filled with chicken and herbs and wrapped in fresh banana leaves. We spent the evening walking back and forth between the house and the church, giving out food, tasting a spicy beer called michelada, sipping Cuban rum, listening to neighborhood folksongs, and the night just kinda fades into a blur if you can imagine.
If the last night in Veracruz was a high point (and it was), then the following morning was a low point. We both woke up with serious digestive turmoil. It was all we could do to climb into the car for a ride to the bus-station. Luckily, our next stop was the beautiful city of Puebla (three hours west of Veracruz). Since Karen was in worse shape than I, my first task was a trip to the pharmacy for something called Treda (but we subsequently referred to them as magic pills) to address our digestive problems. After that, I ordered room service from the legendary kitchen of the Meson Sacristia. We each had bowls of soup and cups of tea to help us recover. Somehow, I managed to work on some spicy chalupas. After all, we were in the city that is called the gastronomic capital of Mexico and our hotel has been deemed the city’s best restaurant by the New York Times. Those green things on the right, are limes, by the way. Lime slices come with all Mexican food. Seriously, people squeeze limes on everything. If you can explain this to me, please leave a comment.
In the morning, we resolved to get back to chowing down. Our first breakfast was awesome. Karen had some kind of eggs and ham scramble, while I had fried eggs topped with the house quick mole (see recipe below). I loved it. The sauce was sour, spicy, and smoky. That two-tone coffee drink was really nice too. But the best part for me followed the meal… see below.
This was my ticket to a functioning digestive system while in Mexico. Every day, I ordered a plate of fresh fruit. Not only was it all sweeter than anything I could get in December back home, but the fiber really helped mediate the conflict that Mexico’s spicy chilis and unfamiliar bacteria were causing throughout my body. Karen’s insides felt worse than mine, and so she wound up being a fairly cautious eater for the rest of the trip.
Although we had several great meals at the Meson Sacristia, our best food experience at the hotel was a half-day cooking class with the head chef, Alonso Hernandez. Here he’s making guacamole, which may not sound very exciting, but it was to go with a savory meat dish called Tinga Pueblan Stew that made half the class’s eyes roll up into their heads. And the real treat of course, the Mole Sacristia was a revelation in sauce-making. Here’s the recipe:
A great use for extra green tomatoes from your garden. Really easy to make. Ask for the meco variety of chipotles at your local latino market. If you can’t find them, try whatever dried chilis have a seriously smoky aroma.
6-7 medium green tomatoes
3 Meco chipotle chilis
1-2 large white or yellow onions (quartered)
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 cup water
1/2 cup oil
-roast tomatoes onion and garlic (in the broiler or on the grill until there are plenty of black spots on each
-meanwhile, fry the chilis in a pan coated liberally with oil until they turn golden brown and discard the oil
-put all ingredients in a blender and puree
-heat a 1/4 cup of oil on medium high and then pour the pureed sauce in to scald the ingredients (just a few minutes)
-salt to taste
The sauce will be black. Put it on everything.
On one of our many walking trips around Puebla, we went to a market where locals go for their produce, chilis, mole paste, illegally copied dvds, and the biggest best sandwich in the whole town. In Pubela, the big sandwich is called a cemita. Many storefronts advertise their cemitas, but this spot leads the pack with their generous piling of ingredients, overwhelming popularity, and impressive assembly-line production.
A cemita consists of avocado slices, pulled/shredded cheese called panela (similar to mozzarella), chipotles marinated in adobo sauce, and some kind of sliced ham or beef milenesa. It takes a whole bunch of workers to crank out enough cemitas to satisfy the demand. And, at less than $2 each for a sandwich built for two or three, why wouldn’t they be popular?
This is the monster cemita that we ordered. We opted for sliced ham because we didn’t really understand what the other options were. I’d say it measured about 6-7 inches high and 5 inches across. Pardon the product placement, but I like a little familiarity with my new experiences.
After watching the natives’ technique, Karen squeezes one end of the cemita into her mouth and is instantly pleased with the sensations: crunchy bread, chewy cheese, creamy avocados, spicy peppers, salty slices of meat. Between the two of us, we couldn’t finish it.
Our walking tour of Puebla continued for miles. And we have non-food related pictures to prove it. The same goes for our last few days in Mexico City, in Coyaocan at Frida Kahlo’s house, and walking among the coffee bushes and waterfalls of Xico. And then there’s Andrew, my adorable nephew. However, those stories and images will have to wait for the next posting. To make matters worse, I am now taking an online graduate course as I’ve been accepted into VCU’s Masters of Public Administration program. So, I will only be staring at that this machine when I absolutely have to. Thanks for tuning in.
On December 7th, when Karen and I flew into Mexico city, we didn’t quite know what to expect. We were told that the next 11 days were bound to be filled with communication problems, pick-pockets and/or violent thievery, backwards locals, stabbing intestinal pain, disoriented navigating, and filth galore. Riding from the airport to our hotel in a “secure taxi” we prepared to meet the country of Mexico, in it’s capital, Mexico City, the second largest city in the world (18 million, just behind Sao Paolo, Brazil). What we found was awe-inspiring and shame-inducing. I found it hard to believe how much ignorance there is out there about the country of Mexico.
(a section of the Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace)
Well, first I’d like to thank my fellow American citizens for all the sensationalized cautionary tales and fear-mongering. Several people warned me about the prevalent violent crime and a general sense of danger that pervades Mexico City, and that it is not safe for gringos, because people will identify us with the money the they don’t have and then we will be victimized, and so on and so forth. Well, Karen and I encountered nothing of the sort. We went everywhere by foot, bus, and subway and never once felt threatened, although often clearly out of place. The city is an enormous metropolis that is cosmopolitan and busy. The people sometimes looked at us with curious interest when we stepped off the established tourist path, but they were understanding about our limited Spanish and responded to us with a warm and helpful demeanor, especially when we showed some effort, and conveyed our respect and appreciation for Mexican culture. All in all, the Mexicans we talked to were extremetly decent and kind people who are weary of American hostility and prejudice. However, when we said a kind word, show some deference, and we were back on good footing (if we weren’t already).
At first, we took extra precautions by using money-belts and clutching our bags tightly, but over time, we started to feel a little silly and overly cautious, if not just plain rude, and so we developed a more general commonsense about our belongings and our surroundings and made a conscious decision to relax and enjoy ourselves. The biggest problem that we had with getting taken advantage of was in our minds (thanks to all the nervous nellies out there fanning the flames of anti-multiculturalism). And of course, this was particularly the case when it came to paying for things. Greed and prejudice tend to go hand in hand. Anyhow, since the exchange rate was roughly 10 to 1, pesos to dollars, all we had to do was move the decimal over once to figure out what something cost in dollars. However, it didn’t keep us from getting confused and suspicious when a trinket or a whole meal cost fifty bucks. Duh! It’s only $5. Smile and say gracias, Jason.
(We bought one of these hanging hammock chairs for our porch – nine bucks! wow! )
Back home, I recall hearing other concerned Americans saying that Mexico is dirty and disorganized. Well, Mexico City is enormous, so of course we didn’t see all of it, but what we did see was gorgeous on a grand scale, absolutely majestic, and spotlessly clean. At every turn, someone was sweeping or mopping and there were tasteful little trashcans seemingly every few feet. The dirtiest element that we encountered is one that we didn’t see with our own eyes. We never felt like we were actually seeing smog in Mexico City, but considering the prodigious production of crusty buggers collecting in our noses, we knew there must be a few more particles in the air here than we were used to. Further research showed us that the mountains and volcanoes that surround the city trap the pollution that is emitted from the city’s 8 million cars and 50,000 factories. The combination of pollution and altitude meant that we were always slightly short of breath in Mexico City as well. So, that was a minor drawback, but it helped us get drunk quicker.
(the brightest, shiniest wooden bowls ever)
In terms of organization, I’m sure that there are all kinds of cultural phenomena in Mexico that don’t make sense to outsiders. Maybe corruption in Congress, stolen elections, and unrestrained development for some reason doesn’t sound familiar to those of us in the U.S. On the other hand, disorganization can sometimes be a good thing. Karen and I both felt like there was always something going on around us. The country is filled with life and liveliness that you just don’t see in the US too much. There was seriously never a dull moment. Although Mexico suffers from an enormous wealth gap and poverty is widespread, we were taken aback with the level of industriousness of the people. Everyone in Mexico seems to be selling something, eager to negotiate, and proud of their wares. Much of the excitement came from street merchants hyping their reggaeton compilation CDs, alpaca panchos, and diez tacos por diez pesos (my personal favorite). Contrary to the stereotype of “lazy Mexicans” it seemed to us that the people go to great lengths to fill every gap in time and space with their colorful culture and attempts to better their situation. Mexico’s open and free society results in solutions as well as problems, which also sounds familiar to me.
(pinatas grow on trees in Mexico)
This posting is mostly intended to get the ball rolling on reporting back on my honeymoon in Mexico. The next week and a half went down like this: three days in mega-metropolis Mexico City, three days in the overgrown beach-town of Veracruz, three days in idyllic and Spanish-styled Puebla, and another three days chasing the spirits of radical Mexican artists back in Mexico City. In my next post, I’d like to start a highlight real, with particular attention to the food. For a sneak preview, check out Fancy Toast to see the recent Mexico trip foodie report that inspired me to get to work telling these stories. I tried to post a little teaser there about my eventual blog entry about our honeymoon in Mexico. Eventually, in this space, you will be treated to a run-down of menus, flavor combinations, amazing bargains, a tour of Frida Khalo’s house, a food class, pictures of delicious dishes, and tales of treats that we brought home and are eager to share.
(mole powder and spices)