¡Hasta luego Mexico!

27 August 2009

Plan your trip to Mexico now--it´s safe, it´s cheap, and they need the tourism!

Plan your trip to Mexico now--it´s safe, it´s cheap, and they need the tourism!

I am feeling a bit sad about leaving Mexico, and Oaxaca in particular.  Funny how we all have certain places where we feel at home, even though they´re not home.  In order to lighten things up, I thought I´d share some of my most humiliating exchanges in Spanish, translated into English for your enjoyment. 

  • Baker:  How do you like Puebla?
  • Rachel:  It is, isn´t it?
  • Helpful friend:  He´s asking you if you like Puebla.
  • Rachel (smiling inanely):  Oh, yes.  (interminable pause)  Good!

This one was with a renowned chef in Oaxaca and came from my not paying attention to verb conjugation…or basic manners:

  • Chef:  I had the chance to visit Veracruz…
  • Rachel (interrupting excitedly):  No, I haven´t gone yet!
  • Chef:  No, I went to Veracruz.  Me.  Anyway….

And my final (I hope) triumph was this morning, with my innkeeper:

  • Innkeeper:  Wow, your Spanish has improved so much during your time in Mexico.
  • Rachel (modestly):  Oh, no.  I can understand a lot but I still can´t speak well.
  • Innkeeper:  Well, you can return to Mexico again.
  • Rachel:  Tomorrow morning.
  • Innkeeper:  No, I said you can return to Mexico to study Spanish more.
  • Rachel:  Yes, that´s a good idea.

Casa de los Sabores #1

25 August 2009

Flores de calabaza stuffed with corn, cheese, epazote, squash and onion

Flores de calabaza stuffed with corn, cheese, epazote, squash and onion and drizzled with local honey

I’m just so happy.  I finally got to make stuffed squash blossoms.  Squash blossoms aren’t listed on the NYC Greenmarket’s list of what’s available, but hopefully that’s an oversight.  However, there’s no chance that they’ll cost $1 for 10 like they do here in Oaxaca!

With two days to go in Mexico, I am filling my time with a final two cooking classes at Casa de Los Sabores.  The menu for today’s class was a mix of Oaxacan and Pueblan specialities:  Flores de calabaza rellenas de requeson (Squash blossoms filled with requeson–like ricotta cheese), salsa verde asada (smoky tomatillo salsa), sopa azteca (tortilla soup seasoned with avocado leaves), chiles en nogada (poblano chiles filled with chicken and fruit, in a nut sauce) and flan de coco (coconut flan). 

Believe it or not, I’m hungry again only three hours later.  My innkeeper tells me this is because I took a nap while I was full; he says this pattern of eating, sleeping and waking hungry to eat again is called “mal de cuchi” (directly translates to “bad of piggie”).  Si, soy cuchi.

Home Cooking

20 August 2009

Being Prepared in L's Kitchen in Puebla

Chiles en Nogada: The Project (L's Kitchen in Puebla)

Shmancy cooking classes are all well and good, but on an everyday basis, I’ve been eating lovely home-cooked meals at my homestays, and I’ve learned just as much from Senoras B (in Oaxaca) and L (in Puebla) as I have in formal classes. 

In Oaxaca, I came home after four hours of Spanish class for the mid-day meal, which is traditionally the biggest meal of the day in Mexico.  Senora B always started with a soup.  Now, I’ve always found soup dull as heck, but in Oaxaca I learned that soup can be interesting.  Just use some delicious spicy peppers, and serve it with super-fresh cheese, lime, avocado, cilantro….I’m salivating just contemplating those soups.  My “lunch club” at work can count on me bringing back lots of peppers and serving up lots of soup this fall.  The best part?  Soup is CHEAP!

Invariably I meet at least a couple of amazing people per trip.  On this journey, I was lucky enough to live in the house of L, an inspiring, strong and fun woman in Puebla.  She always had lots of projects going and her home was full of life.  She seemed to cook for everyone in the neighborhood.  I never knew who would be in the kitchen when I arrived–one day it was a taxi driver, another morning I came to breakfast to find two twin sisters enjoying cereal with L.  (I never found out who they were!)  But here is the most intriguing (to me) thing about L: she never had any food in the fridge!  And yet, she could whip up a meal on a moment’s notice.  Contained in this conundrum is the secret to frugal cooking, I’m sure.  If only I could figure it out.

Fire Fire Fire!

19 August 2009

fireI’ve just taken two classes at Meson Sacristia de la Compania in Puebla.  As far as I could tell, this is the only place in Puebla offering cooking classes in local cuisine, and I was a bit nervous that it would be kind of watered down for English-speaking tourists.  However, the unfortunate fact that tourism is way down in Mexico turned out to be good luck for me; I was the only one in the classes, so they were more than willing to teach in Spanish and modify the menus to what I wanted to learn to cook. 

Day 1:  Horchata (my favorite–a sweet rice beverage served chilled), guacamole (nothing new, but I did use the molcajete to make it), pibil, chicken in the restaurant’s signature mole and natilla de rompope (eggnog flavored custard).

Day 2:  Tamales de dulce (at my special request–I learned that you need arms of steel to make tamales), mole poblano (which includes one totally burned tortilla–yes, I am doing it correctly in the photo), chalupas, salsa verde, salsa roja and agua de jamaica (hibiscus water).

My time in Puebla has really helped me get over my fears of fire and hot oil.  You use direct flames for everything, most frequently to heat up corn tortillas to serve with each meal.  And there’s nothing as cool as watching and smelling a dried poblano pepper puff up and take on a beautiful color after ten seconds in hot oil!

Bimbo vs. Ladrillo

7 August 2009

breadI am now in Puebla, and the Spanish acquisition is fast and furious.  More on my consequent exhaustion later.  For today, I just want to share the contrasts of the past two days. 

Yesterday afternoon I wandered through Barrio Alto with my fabulous local guide, arranged for by my equally fabulous school.  As we sauntered along, a bakery was revealed in three stages.  At the first doorway we passed, there was a bakeshop.  Somehow, I resisted stopping (Puebla is full of panaderias, so I figured I would have another chance).  The next doorway revealed workers organizing trays of baked goods for the bakeshop.  The third doorway opened onto a large room with a huge brick stove fired with wood and two bakers hard at work.  This I couldn´t resist.  The bakers invited us in and proudly showed off their horno (oven).  Very evocative of those described in turn-of-the-century bagel bakeries in NYC in The Bagel: The Surprising History of A Modest Bread.  All brick, wood-fired, with the baker deftly maneuvering his huge wooden pallet to deliver and retrieve loaves from the oven.  And of course, the smell…yeasty, sweet and comforting.

As luck would have it, the next day my school had arranged an excursion to the Bimbo bread factory in Puebla–one of more than seventy Bimbo factories in the world, if I understood their educational film correctly.  Bimbo is HUGE, and owns brands you have probably purchased like Entenman´s and Thomas´.  You may also have seen their name gracing soccer jerseys, since they sponsor lots of sports teams.  (Yes, that´s why that teenage boy is wearing a shirt that says Bimbo!)  At any rate, after watching a movie about the history of the Bimbo bear and having him educate us about the emerging Chinese market for ultra-white bread, we donned hairnets and toured the factory.  I must say, it´s fun to see these ingenious production lines operate.  Everything and everyone has a specific purpose, and no action is wasted.  Very clever!  And yet…I found myself wondering two things.  The first was a question along the lines of “Really?  This is how we humans have used our exceptional ingeniuty?  To slice, toast and package bread quickly?”  Second was the issue of intention.  I feel that it makes a difference to have your food made by a human being, preferably by a human being who cares for you.  In other words, maybe some ingredients can´t be added in a factory.


4 August 2009

(29 July 2009)  Those of you who know me will be shocked to read that I CANNOT EAT ANYTHING ELSE TODAY.  Yes, the bottomless pit has a floor.  Maybe it’s the heat.  Maybe it’s the approach of middle age.  No, it’s probably that today I attended a market tour/cooking class at Seasons of My Heart.  We visited the weekly market in the town of Etla, which our guide Yolanda told us is a largely Zapotec community.  I have been visiting various markets, but to go with someone in the know made a huge difference.  She explained which plants were purely medicinal and which were used in cooking, she pointed out the limestone still sold in order to process corn and make it usable for tortillas, she…well, let me just share some excerpts from the five pages of notes I took today, and that way I can return to reclining and digesting (regesting?).

  • 1st class chocolate: fermented in its own juice for 1 week.  2nd class not fermented, beans have defects
  • Canela=¨puro¨cinnamon.  Canelon= fake cinnamon, from Sri Lanka.  Both used in Mexico now.
  • Comal=big flat fireproof stone.  Want one!
  • Copal: from a copal tree.  Used for incense.
  • Poleo/”hierba de borracho”–used for hangovers
  • Rosemary and basil used for healing
  • Tamales tasted: black bean, epazote-squash-corn-parsley, raja-jalapeno-tomato, yellow mole, red mole, elote (sweet corn…yum!), dulce (with raisins, sugar, etc.)
  • The chickens are super yellow because they eat marigolds and alfalfa
  • Oaxacan cheeses: queso fresco, quesillo (stringy), recason (“recooked”, very mild and soft/crumbly)
  • Helados/nieves (ice creams/ices) tasted: cherimoya, lime, chocolate, burnt milk, tuna (prickly pear?), pecan
  • Tejate: prehispanic drink made in an olla (big earthenware bowl) with chocolate, rosita flowers…

And that was just the market tour.  After that, we were driven to a lovely ranch with a huge kitchen and dining area, where we were greeted by chef Susana, who proceeded to give us a short lecture and explanation of the menu del dia, accompanied by even more tastings.  We each chose one dish to learn and prepare for our five course meal.  I selected tetelas, little bean-filled triangles grilled on a comal.  Forming them was remarkably similar making hamantaschen, so I was right at home, though I had to restrain myself from adding apricot jam.  The best part was making the salsa, which required roasting chiles and tomatoes on the comal, and then using a molcajete (see pic) to grind and blend the ingredients.  I am bringing a molcajete home, though I have no idea how, since it weighs about twenty pounds and I am already at my limit.


A few more excerpts from my notes:

  • Can´t take roots back to US!
  • El chiste (the joke?!)/el punto: the point of being perfectly cooked
  • Salinas de Marquez: sea salt made on the isthmus in Oaxaca
  • Chile in the eye?  Put salt under your tongue.  Chile on your hands?  Wash hands with chopped tomato and then with soap.
  • The Florentine Codices: 14 volumes about everything in the new world (according to who?)
  • tlamole=native word that is origin of mole
  • 7 moles of Oaxaca: amarillo, negro, verde, mancha manteles (“tablecloth stainer”), chichilo…que mas?  almendrada? 

In case you´re wondering, the seven moles of Oaxaca are described here.  I was missing coloradito and rojo. 

After a couple hours of preparation, beer and photography, we sat down to enjoy tetelas with salsa, garlic and squash blossom soup, salad, chicken with mole and chocolate cake with prickly pear sauce.  And mezcal.  And, of course, tortillas.  A Mexican meal without corn tortillas is like…well, it may just be beyond the power of metaphor.

Cooking tetelas on a comal

Cooking tetelas on a comal

Chicken cubierto en mole!

Chicken cubierto en mole!

Speaking of tacos…

26 July 2009

It´s been the week of the taco here in Oaxaca.  First, my dueña (landlady) made me some delicious and simple quesillo tacos for lunch on Wednesday, accompanied by sauteed squash.  Thursday, my salsa teacher taught us a move he called “el taco,” which I don´t recommend on a full stomach.  Or if you weigh more than 100 pounds.  Or if you don´t want to reverse-hump your partner´s leg.  And Friday, my Spanish teacher taught us my favorite idiom so far: echarse un taco de ojo.  Word for word, it´s something like “to do a taco of the eye,” which loosely means to check out the eye candy.  ¡Que padre! (Cool!)

If you know any fun  food metaphors or idioms in Spanish, please reply and share!

I don´t get it, but I like it!

I don´t get it, but I like it!

Save the elotes!

23 July 2009

Corn of the Americas--how many can you find at the market?

Corn of the Americas--how many can you find at the market?

Corn is corn, right?  Yellow, sweet, pops when you bite it?  Wrong!  I had reason to consider the wide variety of indigenous corn available in Oaxaca last night as I strolled around the zocalo savoring an elote.  For the unitiated, an elote is an ear of corn on a stick, spread with a little mayo (which I always get against all common sense) then sprinkled with grated cheese, chili powder and lime juice.  You can also order this combo off the cob and in a styrofoam cup–then they´re called esquites–but I prefer the more environmentally friendly and perhaps Freudian cob version.  This combo may sound gross in the abstract, so if you are in New York, get yourself to Jackson Heights (82nd Street on the 7, there´s a vendor just as you exit at the Northeast corner)  and just try it!  You can get some Indian sweets for dessert.

But to return to the point, the corn I had last night was more dense, less sweet, more starchy than typical U.S. corn on the cob.  The kernels were bigger and creamy white.  And here in Oaxaca each corn experience is different in terms of color, texture, density and sweetness.  Though I am no expert, I think this is because unlike in the U.S., Oaxaca has so far managed to avoid being completely overrun by one variety of genetically modified corn.  To be frank, I don´t want to write more about this publicly because I´m scared of “big agra” so I´ll just recommend you check out this article and if you can, rent King Corn, a documentary in which two young men discover they are mostly made of corn (thank you, American diet!), try to grow an acre of the stuff and do a lot of cool stop-frame animation with corn kernels.  Or if that seems like too much effort, just slow down and enjoy some corn on the cob…perhaps with a little lime juice.



Check out this factoid found in Karen Hursh Graber’s The Cuisine of Puebla, Cradle of Corn:  the word chalupa is the name of the boats Aztecs used to get around the canals of Tenochtitlan, their capital.  Cortes conquered and then razed the city in the early 1500s, using its site as the center of Ciudad de Mexico.  Ouch.

La Esquina

11 July 2009

I used to hate getting my hair cut.  Unlike my straight-haired compadres, I always looked worse after the ordeal, during which some hapless stylist would try to make everything “even”–a fool’s errand with curly hair.  Each curl has a mind of its own and is a different length each day depending on the weather or how it dries or how the stars are aligned.  All this changed a few years back when I discovered a salon dedicated to cutting curly hair.  Now after a haircut I look great, much better than I could possibly look my on my own with my ham-handed styling techniques (wash, apply gel to random parts of head, air dry in subway.) 


Totally addictive--try it on watermelon!

The icing on the cake is that after my haircuts I have a choice of three affordable snack joints.  After all, you can really work up an appetite sitting in a salon for two hours!  To be honest, I exist in a state of appetite workedupness, but that’s another story.  The choices are Despana (can someone teach me how to do a properly accented n here?), a Spanish food store with a little food counter in the back, Hampton Chutney Company, with its toothsome dosas, and La Esquina taqueria.  La Esquina seemed the best choice given the heat of the day and its open-air seating.  I was only going to order one taco, avocado and queso fresco, but then I noticed “cochinita pibil.”  I had just been reading that a “pib” is a hole in the ground in which meat is traditionally cooked in the Yucatan, and couldn’t resist trying this taco of pulled pork, shredded cabbage, habanero pickled onions and jalapeno.  Topped with Valentina hot sauce, of course!