Monday, August 31, 2009

Bagel "Bread" Pudding

Alright, I'm back! Back into the swing of things, I just finished up my first week back to school, and I can't back out or back up, so make sure you got my back. Though things have been hectic, I have been cooking...oh, I have been cooking. Though I have managed to snap a couple culinary photos, I must admit that I have been too lazy to write any posts. In my defense, as if it weren't mad enough, I managed to catch a cold for my first day(!) back with my high school angels. Nonetheless, I will let you in on a glimpse of what's been on for dinner...

Calamari Steaks Doré a la piccata with a green salad and nasturtiums, Vinho Verde...












Brined
Pork Tenderloin with Carribbean Spices, turned Pork Tacos with Peach Salsa for leftovers, buttery rice and cabbage salad with cumin dressing...











Ground Beef Patties with Pecorino Romano, Chives and Preserved Lemon, served with Oven-Roasted Rosemary Yam Fries and cabbage and fennel salad...








So, at any rate, I am now back, and I have mustered up the gusto to tell you about a fabulous dessert I made tonight. Lissa bought some bagels for her students the other day, and they didn't all get eaten. I had one for a snack that first afternoon, but by the next day they were petrified. I wanted to do something with them, and instead of making bagel crumbs, bagel pudding sounded much more exciting! So, first things first, I cubed them babies up. Sawing through dense-ass three-day old bagels is indeed a task. I started to cramp up and blister. (No, not really, I's just being dramatic). If you have never made bread pudding, or any other bread-like pudding, you should give it a try! It's quite easy, and oh so delicious. Cut up some stale bread-product, beat eggs with milk and spice, bake, then spoon massive amounts into your pie hole. So simple!

I almost threw in the 7 huckleberries that I just harvested from our little fairy garden, but decided against it. I planned on keeping it fairly simple...about three cups of milk, three eggs plus one yolk, a cup of sugar, cinnamon, and a tablespoon or so of vanilla we that brought back from Veracruz (Papantla is the birthplace of vanilla...we paid 75¢ for a 12 oz. jar). Once I poured the liquid in to the buttered baking dish filled with the bagel bits, I realized it was quite wet. I poured in an additional cup of panko bread crumbs along with a cup of shredded dried coconut, tada! Let soak for at least twenty minutes. Because bagels are so dense and crusty this pudding was never going to be as moist and, well, puddingy as it would have been had I used some good ole' stale white bread. But it still turned out great. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, I was very happy with the end result. While it was certainly moist, there was still some chewiness to it that I really enjoyed. Not a goal for every pudding occasion, but I loved my chewy here (cue Wookie groan). I look forward to a more classic bread pudding soon, but I will definitely rock me a bagel pudding again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Comida Mexicana-a la Poblana

O.K., so let's talk about comida poblana. As you might already know (or perhaps not) the cuisine in México is quite varied and distinct from province to province, and sometimes even from town to town. The last portion of our trip was spent in Puebla, the capitol city of the province with the same name, it is one of México's oldest Spanish cities, founded in 1531. Puebla is renown for its distinctive colonial architecture, Talavera ceramics (pictured left), onyx crafts, textile industry, and...drumroll please......it's savory cuisine. Just before we left on our trip, I had seen an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, in which Guy goes to Chicago to eat at Cemitas Puebla, whose specialty is the cemita poblana. A cemita, is basically a Mexican sandwich served on a fluffy sesame-seeded egg roll. Additionally, the ingredients are usually restricted to sliced avocado, some kind of meat, white cheese (specifically queso oaxaca), onions, salsa roja, and a kind of bitter herb called pápalo. Needless to say, I was amped up to try a cemita before I even got on the plane. When I did, I ordered mine with ternera (veal), but a wide variety of meats were available for the choosing including carnitas (a type of pulled pork), milanesa (breaded pork), riñones (kidneys), etc, etc, etc. Wow! Amazing sandwich! Quick, cheap and absolutely delicious, this is the kind of snack you would stop to eat two or three or four of on your way home from work.

I already went in to detail about the famous Chiles en Nogada I ate at La Fonda de Santa Clara in a previous post, but I failed to mention what Lissa ordered that night...the legendary mole poblano. Here served over enchiladas, this ultra-rich, spicy, time-consuming, national treasure of a sauce is as emblematic as it is enigmatic. Everyone has a recipe for mole, everyone claims theirs to be the best, and every recipe is distinct in some way. Apparently there are conflicting opinions on the origin of this great sauce, one story being that nuns in Puebla created it for a visiting Archbishop in the 16th century, the other that Moctezuma prepared it for Cortez and his men upon their arrival, thinking that they were gods (specifically Queztalcoatl). I will only make one point here with regard to the dispute so to not go in to detail ad nauseum. In their book The True History of Chocolate, Michael and Sophie Coe claim the Moctezuma legend to be false because "The idea of using chocolate as a flavoring in cooked food would have been horrifying to the Aztecs—just as Christians could not conceive of using communion wine to make, say, coq au vin." O.K., fair enough, but the Aztecs thought they were in the presence of GODS! Christians might not be too worried about slipping some communion wine into their coq au vin were it to be presented to the RESURRECTED MESSIAH. You sure as hell aren't just gunna use 2-buck Chuck! They would probably make some host bread pudding to boot! What would he care, it's his body. I do think the Coe's argument is flawed, but really I just want Moctezuma to get some credit, all he's known for is wreaking havoc and the gi tract of travelers, and the Puebla nuns already get credit for chiles en nogada... O.K., I digress, on to the ingredients. As I said, everyone has their own version, and some recipes have 30 or more ingredients (the original recipe supposedly had more than 100 ingredients!!), but typically mole poblana will contain at least most or all of the following ingredients:
  • mulato chiles, pasilla chiles, ancho chiles (often up to 10 different types of dried chiles are used)
  • vegetable oil or lard
  • cloves, black peppercorns, Mexican cinnamon stick, anise seeds, coriander seeds, sesame seeds
  • garlic
  • raisins
  • almonds, pumpkin seeds
  • tortillas, stale rolls
  • chicken broth
  • Mexican chocolate
I'm exhausted just explaining what goes in it! Hopefully that give you an idea of the flavors that held within this celebrated salsa. If you have the time and the desire to prepare a mole, there are plenty of recipes on the web, but I will not include any here. One day, I will attempt to prepare a mole...and it will likely require, the entire day.

Another rich and complex dish I enjoyed in Puebla (though not as rich nor as complex as mole) was pipián rojo. Here is a (somewhat blurry) photo taken at Mesón Sacristía de la Compañia, one of the cutest Hotel/Restaurants I have ever seen...bright pink and purple walls, with skeletons and angels everywhere you turn, talavera adorning the walls and and as a platter for your food. Alas, I must admit, the chicken was quite dry. The sauce however, was exquisite. Here is link to The Dining Diva, who posted a recipe and her process making red pipián. This night Lissa had the cazuelita poblana, which was truly excellent. Succulent beef simmered in a spicy both with herbs and vegetables, cooked and served in an earthenware pot. If ordering the best dish were a competition, she won.














Now on to something a bit less sophisticated, but no less impressive. Tacos. In particular, I am talking about tacos arabes, or 'arabian tacos'. In Puebla, shawarma was introduced by the numerous Middle-Eastern immigrants, mostly from Lebanon, but also Turkey and Iraq, in the early 1920s. "The traditional spit-roasted meat called shawarma became the filling for tacos arabes, now most frequently made with pork instead of lamb, and marinated in a chile-flavored paste. Rolled in thick wheat tortillas and served with chipotle sauce, they are still clearly recognizable as a version of shawarma, as are tacos al pastor, a variation of tacos arabes in which the meat is roasted with a thick slice of pineapple atop the stack of thinly sliced pork. (The stack of meat is called a trompa, for its resemblance to a toy top, tapering to a narrow bottom.) When served on a corn tortilla instead of pan arabe, they are called tacos orientales" (taken from mexconnect.com).

I had my first tacos arabes at a place called Don Pastor, and then had a couple more at Tacos Tony. Now, I have messed with some tacos al pastor, in fact, a whole lot them, but these are definitely distinct in flavor and then also because of the pita-like bread. They were wonderful. Especially with all of these amazing salsas to drizzle over them. I couldn't decide which one I liked the best. There is no doubt, though, that tacos arabes are some of my favorite tacos now. We only have about 500 taquerias in Santa Cruz, I know there's a poblano in town somewhere, can we start making tacos arabes somewhere please.

Also ingested in Puebla, were chalupas. These were fun for me because I have a sort of history with chalupas, specifically with something called a 'chalupa boat.' The school lunch program's menu offers this 'something called a chalupa boat', and it is basically just beans and ground meat served in one of those two-compartment aluminum lunch trays. My students were rightfully confused and dismayed upon peeling back the foil to reveal refried 'blah' and ground 'bleck' after having their culinary appetites wettened by the alluring title of 'chalupa boat.' So it became a running joke, whenever they would complain about the quality of the school lunches, I would ask, "But what about the chalupa boats?? They're my favorite!" Now, after my travels to Puebla, I can tell them of the wonders of true chalupas. Very simple, yet like so many other items on the Mexican menu, very tasty. As you may be able to make out from the picture, these chalupas (in essence a fried tortilla) are topped with salsa verde or salsa rojo, and shredded chicken, though I read pork is also commonly used.

As with my travels in Veracruz, I did not get to try everything Puebla has to offer. Alas, it was not the right time of year for escamoles (ant larvae). I did get to try lots of great regional food, and luckily for me, Puebla has plenty of it. I love México, and I love Mexican food, so I am sure that eventually I will be eating from a poblano table or kitchen once again. Until then, I will have to be happy with the (mostly) "standard" Mexican fair available to me here in the Cruz. So, I'll see you over at Tacos Moreno, or downtown at Cafe Campesino.el churrero

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Comida Mexicana-a la Verzcruzana

So before I get back into the swing of writing about what I am cooking (which at this moment is babyback ribs with chipotle BBQ sauce), I am going to take a moment to write a bit more about what I have been eating. If you didn't know already, Lissa and I just returned from two and a half weeks in México. Most of that time was spent in Veracruz, and then a handful of days in Puebla (Poblana post to follow).

Veracruz is located in the east-central part of México, along the gulf coast. We started our journey in Xalapa, the capitol city and home to it's namesake chile, the jalapeño. You also see lots of chipotle, both as an ingredient in dishes and as a condiment on the table. I have always thought that chipotle is a smoked jalapeño, but I was told otherwise but a few people in Veracruz...(shrug). At top left, you see one of the many micheladas I enjoyed. A michelada is your beer of choice, with lime juice, hot sauce, and maggi or worcestshire sauce, served in a salt-rimmed glass. Pow! It's not for everyone, but I think they're fantastic. I usually prefer them with a dark beer, but here opted for la cerveza mas fina.


The first dish I tried in Xalapa was a Pollo a la Veracruzana, at La Fonda Restaurant on Callejón del Diamante. A la Veracruzana refers to a tomato-based sauce (tomato, onion, garlic, jalapeño, oregano, bay leaf, salt) with green olives and (believe it or not) capers. The chicken was moist, and the sauce was delicious. I asked if capers are also cultivated in Veracruz but it doesn't seem to be the case. That's me enjoying the last bits of my chicken in a taquito. -->

Next stop, Veracruz city, also known as el puerto, or the port. We stepped off the bus and the coastal humidity hit us like a wall. After we checked in to our hotel and got freshened up (around 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon mind you) we headed out for a stroll along the malecón. That lasted about 5 minutes. We ducked in to El Gran Cafe de la Parroquía for something...anything...to sip on for a while and escape the heat.The iconic Grand Cafe has been around since 1809, and is well known for the customary clinking of spoons against one's glass to request a refill. Honestly. They clink. I heard 'em. I refrained from clinking myself, though it did take some restraint, and we hustled back to the hotel amidst the palpably moist gulf air to rest up. Well, Lissa rested, I still desired adventure and some local grub, so I headed to the Mercado Hidalgo. The bustling market is similar to other markets I've visited in México, with hundreds of stalls selling everything from magical potions and fruits you've never seen, to kitchy souveniers and animal parts of all kinds. In addition, it's where you get the best food. I saw a woman behind a small counter swinging a cleaver down on to a massive tree stump of a chopping block and so, of course, I pulled up a seat. On the menu, tacos de borrego. Lamb tacos served with a small cup of consomé made from everything lamb that wasn't chopped up for the tacos. Delicious and cheap. The next day I brought Lissa back with me to try the famous Vuelve a la Vida Coctél de Mariscos, pictured above. Much sweeter than I was anticipating, the return to life seafood coctail served in a tall glass was brimming with shrimp, crab, octopus, oysters, onions, and avocado. The sauce, I later found out is a ketchup-base, with orange juice. Once I squeezed some fresh lime and added some hot sauce and crackers, I was indeed brought back to life.

Next culinary excitement was to be had in Boca del Río, an offshoot town just south of the port that happened to be celebrating the festival of their Patrona Saint, Santa Ana. We were to meet our new Belgian friends, Dirk and Koen, for dinner and/or drinks but they had gone big at the brunch buffet and so stuck with the drinks portion. We, on the other hand, did have dinner, and a fantastic one at that. We dined, as per our cabbie's recommendation, at Mariscos El Bayo. Did I say fantastic? Jaibas rellenas, pictured above, were awesome. Little blue crabs, cooked, pulled from their shell and mixed with onion, garlic, herbs, and some sort of dairy, then stuffed back in to the shell, breaded, fried, and topped with sliced tomato, onion, and avocado. Did I say fantastic? I also ordered a plate of Pulpo a la Veracruzana, perfectly tender octopus simmered in the classic Veracruzano sauce explained above. Another hit.







After our port experience, we headed south to the sleepy little ciudad of Tlacotalpan. Named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988, this city is filled with buildings of all sorts painted in a literal rainbow of colors. We stayed just one night, but it was long enough to snap some killer shots of the vibrant hues and enjoy some refreshing snacks. Notably, the almond horchata and the mamey ice cream topped with mamey infused coconut both pretty much rocked our worlds.

Continuing the southbound journey, the now familiar ADO bus dropped us off in Catemaco. Well, actually it dropped us off in San Andres Tuxtla, and then instead of waiting an hour and a half for the next ADO bus we were encouraged to hop on a colectivo (a "collective" bus where anyone can get on or off at any time and the bus slows at every gathering of three or more people to announce the 5 main destinations just in case any of them wanted to hop on as well), and 45 minutes later, presto! Six miles down the road. Ha! Gotta love it. Definitely a carpe mañana kind of vibe. So...once we had gotten our money back from the hotel room that we walked in and then immediately out of, while we were waiting to call the next hotel back (they had to check availability with the reception) we grabbed a bite to eat! The next hotel wasn't exactly a hotel, but rather a solar-powered eco-reserve-retreat on the far end of the lagoon, surrounded by tropical rainforest, complete with mudbath, massage, and spring-fed-pond. The bite to eat wasn't exactly run-of-the-mill either...

Tegogolos are fresh-water snails endemic to Laguna Catemaco. Tegogolos en pico de gallo is a very typical dish here. The snails seemed to be boiled (judging by their texture), then topped with a pico de gallo sauce, onion, tomato, cilantro, chile, salt, lime. Very chewy, these little caracoles. I wonder if a quick sauteé or a long simmer would have delivered a more agreable (to me, at least) texture.

In my attempt to undercover a bit more info so to enlighten you, my beloved reader, on these lovely little gastropods, I bumped in to some interesting research posted on the National Center for Biotechnology Information's webpage. The title reads: First evidence of "paralytic shellfish toxins" and cylindrospermopsin in a Mexican freshwater system, Lago Catemaco, and apparent bioaccumulation of the toxins in "tegogolo" snails (Pomacea patula catemacensis). Oh, uh...I see. I wonder if I would have eaten them had I know that then. Probably.

Our stay at Nanciyaga was a pretty relaxing treat after so much travel (much of it notably urban), and the natural
roots vibe continued afterwords at Rancho Los Amigos on Laguna Sontecomapan.
But in order to get to Sonte, as it's called, we had to catch a lancha (boat taxi) back to Catemaco, which gave me the opportunity to snack on more local specialties, like these little topotes --->
These small Threadfin Shad are deep-fried whole, then topped with onion, lime, and salt. They were very tasty.


So much to eat, and so little time. I managed to try lots of great food in Veracruz, including some things that I didn't mention or picture here; chiles rellenos, steak tampiqueño, great coffee, memelas, champurrado, and a truck-load of other good stuff. However, I didn't manage to try any chile atole, arroz a la tumbada, mondongo (cow stomach), chipalchole, or tlacoyos...oh well, maybe next time. Luckily, I did buy a cookbook with indigenous and popular
Totonac recipes, so I just may get my tlacoyos sooner than later.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Chiles en Nogada

So we weren't planning on going anywhere but Veracruz, but we ended up staying in Puebla for a handful of days. Puebla is a beautiful old colonial town with a rich culinary tradition. Among their many seasonal specialties are Chiles en Nogada. A poblano chile stuffed with meat and fruit, breaded, fried and topped with a creamy walnut sauce, garnished with parsley and pomegranate seeds. Not your typical peasant fare.


The history of the dish goes something like this...Agustin de Iturbide was a rich little Spanish brat who was born in Mexico in 1783. While still in his teens, he was commissioned into the Colonial Army, and when the Mexican War of Independence broke out in 1810, he fought on the "Royalist" side. He kicked some ass here and there but couldn't give Vicente Guerrero a beat-down. During the time when Gusto and Vince were throwing blows, ish was going down in the fatherland, and the King of Spain ended up signing the Cadiz Constitution, the principle aim of which was "the prevention of arbitrary and corrupt royal rule." Well, I'm guessing ole' Gusto kinda liked arbitrary and corrupt royal rule because he decided to switch sides and fight with the insurgents, thinking that his high and mighty colonial status would thusly be preserved. Right he was, as he soon after became Emperor of Mexico from 1822 to 1823.

So what does this have to do with Chiles en Nogada? Well, in August of 1821, in Veracruz, Iturbide signed the Treaty of Cordoba, which granted Mexico its independence. On his way back to Mexico City, he stopped off in Puebla and the townspeople decided to hold a celebratory feast in his honour. The Augustinian nuns of Santa Monica convent decided to prepare a special dish using local ingredients that were in season. They came up with the chile en nogada, which means chile in walnut sauce. The green of the chile and the parsley garnish, the white of the sauce, and the red of the pomegrante seeds representing the colors of the Mexican flag.

So like I said, it ain't no peasant dish, but it can be quite tasty. I tried it at the well established Fonda Santa Clara, located on 3 Poniente, 307, where it has stood since 1965. I did not try it again anywhere else, as each meal offered me an opportunity to eat something new, so I have nothing else to compare it. When I make it though, it will be less sweet than it was as Fonda Santa Clara. If you are interested in making it, here is a detailed recipe on What's Cooking. This recipe on mundorecetas.com is more aligned with what I tried (including apple, pear, peach, and raisin, beef and pork in the picadillo), but be forewarned, both of these recipes are very labor intensive. It may just be less of a hassle to fly down to Puebla for the night.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Veracruzando

Well, we are back. Lissa and I spent the last 25 days driving, flying, bussing, and generally meandering our way down to Veracruz, México. On the flight from Phoenix to Mexico City I sat next to a teenager named Fernando who had been detained for trying to enter the United States illegally. Eventually, on our journey back home, I sat next to a middle-aged biomedical engineer on his way to a conference in Arizona. In between the coming and the going, we hung out with my old friend, Mexihcatl (meh-shi-cottle).

Porfirio Díaz is usually attributed with saying, "¡Pobre México! Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos." Translation...'Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.' Sitting next to Fernando on the plane ride definitely set the tone for a trip on which I would be often reminded of the harsh reality for so many Mexicans and the stark contrast between their world and mine.




It isn't often easy to overlook said contrast while in México, unless, of coarse, you are staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún. While in Puebla, we were awoken by the gritos coming from a protester's bullhorn, who was marching with many others down Avenida Reforma, as they have done every day, for the past handful of months. The Movimiento Antorchista is calling for an elevation of the quality of life for poor, working class Mexicans. Something that, as I listened to words pouring from the bullhorn and chants from the crowd, inspired and excited me. I asked the waiter at the cafe where we were seated for more detailed information, but he seemed uninterested. On our way out of town, however, I asked our cab driver (who turned out to be a retired professor, political prisoner and former member of the Mexican Communist Party) about the marches. His answer was as informative as it was disheartening. In a nutshell, he explained that the Antorchistas were aligned with the present ruling party (PAN) and were trying to gain some elbow room and/or negotiating power within the ranks before the upcoming elections. "Sadly, though," he said, "they are basically the same party." I told him that that sounded familiar, as I generally believe Democrats and Republicans to be heads and tails of the same coin, namely the arms and pharmaceuticals coin. I have forgoten our brilliant guide's name, but he left us with a poem to remember him by:

video

I am dying of laughter because you left me that day,
And I've learned so much having gone my own way,
Walking hand in hand with the poor and the dying.
Don't think you did me a favor by denying
To stay with me, because it's all the same really.
You see, you are quite poor, spiritually.
Your prejudging hypocrite will sure win your hand,
Alas, about your vices, he doesn't understand.
-Brilliant, Gentle, Nameless Taxi-Driver

According to our Lonely Planet Guidebook, about 11 million Mexicans-10% of the population- have no domestic water supply, and 15 million live without drainage systems. That is to say, the plight of the Movimiento Antorchista is real, and it is desperate. It is the same plight as that of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, that of Subcomandante Marcos and Che Guevara; justice, equality, human rights. The same fundamental barriers impede the realization of these goals; money, power, greed.

Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN have declared war on the Mexican Government, which they consider "so out of touch with the will of the people as to make it completely illegitimate."

Mexico has a nominal GDP of $10, 235 per capita, but as per 2002 half of the population was living in poverty, and one fifth was living in extreme poverty (worldbank.org). "While total spending increased on average by 6.3 percent a year between 2000 and 2002, social development spending increased on average by 5.3 percent a year and poverty reduction spending increased by 14.2 percent annually. Overall, the growth in social spending since the mid-1990s was achieved despite fiscal constraints." Unless the Mexican government works on the causes of the poverty (education, infrastructure and political economy...) the problem is going to get worse.

It's a crazy thing, money. Similar to my experience in Cuba, it sometimes seems that money and spirit tend to be mutually exclusive. How many people do I know in the states who have more than enough, yet almost constantly complain and/or are dissatisfied in one way or another? I think spirit is deeply tied to appreciation. One would hope that we could learn to appreciate the water before the well runs dry, maybe even share some of it! Once again, education reigns. If more people had a chance to know, to understand and experience what is going on all around them, they would undoubtedly live more appreciative, more simply, and more spiritually. Sharing is caring, kids.

I suppose simply going to a country in order to experience its story and contribute by spending your dollars there is, in essence, contributing. Many people around the world, though, are interested in honing those contributions by founding, promoting, and supporting Responsible Tourism and other Grass-Roots Organizations.


I've posted 1, 2, 3 links to Responsible Tourism sites, as well as a link to bread.org's list of anti-hunger and poverty organizations.

Lonely Planet, the travel guidebook we used on this trip, has a chapter on the environment in which the authors highlight facts and figures, best practices as a traveler, as well as organizations that foster sustainable tourism. These organizations are not only environmentally friendly, they also operate on the principles of fair-trade and respect for culture and tradition.

We were fortunate enough to stay a couple of days in the Ecological Biosphere of Naciyaga, as well as one precious night at the fabulously rootsy Los Amigos. If you ever get down to Southern Veracruz, I highly encourage you to go visit the crew at Los Amigos.

All in all, it was a beautiful trip, partially because suffering, too, is beautiful. Imperfection is perfection, say I. I love México: the grit, the color, the pain, the pleasure. That is not to say that I want suffering or pain for anyone anywhere. Alas, it seems to be part of the game plan, and it is left up to you how you decide to play.

When it's all said and done, coming home to Santa Cruz is such a blessing. It's clean, progressive, and there's a strong sense of community. It is in many ways what I would hope to experience of other places on my travels.

I think saying it like this is better, "Poor México, so far from the United States, but so close to God."