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 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.

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