Tag Archives: Mexico

Sardinian / Mexican Pabassina Cookies for Dia de Los Muertos

SardinianflagMexico FlagWhen I was researching recipes for Dia de Los Muertos cookies, I came across some perplexing information about a popular holiday cookie – the pabassina. These raisin and almond cookies are originally Sardinian, and are indeed eaten on All Saints’ Day, but somehow have hopped across the Atlantic to become popular in Mexican Dia de Los Muertos celebrations as well. Since they are eaten on the same holiday, and Mexico does indeed have an Italian population, I guess the connection is not so mysterious, but I can’t find anything about their specific history. Apparently, I am not the only one who noticed this odd lack of historical context. Regardless, they seem pretty tasty. Here is a recipe for pabassinas from an Italian website, and another from Saveur. Do you have any ideas about the unexpected migratory path of the Pabassina?

Pabassinas from Sardinia (Center with sprinkles)

Pabassinas from Sardinia (Center with sprinkles) from Christiano Cani

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Morelia-style Fruit Gazpacho in Chicago

Mexico FlagYou see Mexican food carts selling fruit throughout Chicago, usually serving clear plastic cups with fruit chunks and a topping of chili pepper or chamoy sauce. However, late one night a few weeks ago, we came across a fruit cart on North Clark and Morse in Rogers Park, that had a longer line then we had ever seen. We were instantly intrigued – what could they be doing so differently?

Fantastik Fruit Stand

Fantastik Fruit Stand

Fantastik (intersection of N. Clark and Morse, hours variable), as we found out this fruit stand was called, specializes in fruit gazpacho (sometimes spelled gaspacho), a specialty of the town of Morelia in the Southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán. We had never heard of such a dish, so we knew we had to try it. Morelia-style fruit gazpacho traditionally consists of mango, jicama and pineapple. However, at Fantastik you can also get a “surtido gazpacho” which included a wider variety of fruits including papaya, kiwi and strawberry. If you are in the mood for something simpler they also offer cut fruit cócteles, which are cocktails in the fruit cup sense and not the alcoholic one.

Fantastik Fruit Stand

Gazpacho in production

The stall is run by the Mejia family – and they have everything down to a science. Another thing that really impressed us was the complete precision of the dice on the fruit, and the sheer amount of fruit that was crammed into each plastic takeaway cup. The gazpacho is finished off with a topping of orange juice, fresh-squeezed lime juice, sea salt, chili pepper, onion, cilantro and even queso fresco. It is $7 for a small and $9 for a large container, which are both plenty enough to share. The gazpacho was sweet, salty and spicy, and was deliciously refreshing and surprisingly filling. We were completely blown away by the gazpacho and we returned twice in one week for a fix. We recommend you do the same.

Fruit Gazpacho

Fruit Gazpacho

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A Photo Tour of Mercado 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca

Mexico FlagOne of our favorite things to do when we are new to a city is to visit the local market. When we were in Oaxaca we were extremely excited to visit the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (20th of November Market), which came highly recommended. What is special about this market is that it specifically dedicated to food. When you enter you are greeted right away with full-service food stalls that will make you mole, caldos, quesadillas and other dishes right to order. Navigating the swirl of tantalizing smells, we settled on a booth that had a crowd, where we sampled a delicious chicken in mole rojo and turkey in mole negro (one of the signature dishes of Oaxaca). Some of the stalls have printed menus, and others have handwritten menus tacked above the stalls. You can be assured that pretty much any restaurant with a small crowd is good, since the competition is so fierce. As you wander around the stalls you can also buy freshly-baked bread and cookies and fried plantains to snack on. In addition to the freshly-prepared foods, you can pick up mole paste, chocolate, dried peppers and other ingredients to try your hand at the same recipes at home. Around the perimeter of the market were artisans selling crafts like tin ornaments, mirrors and woven baskets. We had a great time visiting the different stalls and eating our way around the market, and it was a perfect way to dip a toe into Oaxaca’s culinary waters.

Oaxaca

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The Chinese food scene at the US / Mexico border

Mexico FlagchinaI love learning about hybrid cuisines that are shaped by a convergence of languages, countries and cultures. One cultural exchange I had never considered was the influence of Mexican food and Chinese cuisine on the US border. This is not a new mash-up either, with cultural exchange going back as much as 100 years. Mexicali, Mexico, right across the US border, is home to as many as 200 Chinese restaurants. Fascinating!

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Mexico’s Special Lenten Foods

Mexico FlagMexico Cooks! has an extremely interesting post about special Lenten foods in Mexico. For those observing Lent (La Cuaresma in Spanish), the 40 days leading up to Easter, meat is typically not eaten on Fridays. It is cool to see these more unique veggie and fish-based dishes popular for Lent in Mexico – certainly an alternative to the Friday fish fry. I think we would especially like to try the Capirotada bread pudding – and Mexico Cooks provides a pretty enticing recipe at the link above.

Capirotada from Mexico Cooks

Capirotada from Mexico Cooks

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A new place for Tacos: Authentaco [closed]

Mexico FlagOne bit of Chicago lore is that on the intersection of Ashland and Division nearly every storefront in sight is a La Pasadita taqueria. It’s true, there used to be 3 Pasaditas within a 1 block radius, but a little while ago, one of them closed, and reopened later as Authentaco [closed] (1141 N Ashland Ave). Upon entering you can rest assured that it is not just a reincarnation of La Pasadita. The whole restaurant is about the size of a postage stamp (“restaurant” is a very loose term), it is a basically just a stand up counter, a massive flat top, and a cash register. There are no seats, and no credit cards. However, this is a taqueria with a difference, the motto of the restaurant is “farm-to-taco” so the emphasis is on fresh ingredients and flavors.

Authentaco

So how it works, is you choose the meat, and then how you would like it served – as a taco, torta, quesadilla or plate.  As for meat, there are basic options like carne asada, chorizo and pork al pastor, but also more unique options sweet potato al pastor. Aside from sweet potatoes, there are ample veggie options, including squash blossoms and nopal (cactus), which is nice for the veggie crowd. We also appreciated the appearance of the huitlacoche, our favorite corn fungus, which we got in quesadilla form. For tacos, we picked the pork al pastor (our go-to to test out a new taqueria). While we waited for our tacos, we sipped on a tasty horchata.AuthentacoPastorThe huitlacoche quesadilla was excellent, with delicious melty cheese, and was stuffed to the brim with huitlacoche. The al pastor was good, but there was too much soupy sauce, and the meat wasn’t really charred like al pastor is supposed to be. The tacos were over $3 each, but the size is a little bigger than at the typical taco joint, and we probably only needed 2 apiece, rather than 3. However, the real stars were the tortillas. The tortillas are made to order and pressed and griddled right before your eyes. They are exemplary, and completely made the meal. Definitely go to Authentaco for the huitlacoche and stay for the tortillas – and bring your vegetarian friends.

Tortillas

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How to make Mexican chocolate

Mexico FlagIn Oaxaca we were floored by the delicious chocolate, and its almost-ubiquitous presence. There was even a chocolate street, Mina street, where you can load up on chocolate in all forms (definitely worth a future post). Many of the stores on Mina street demonstrate how chocolate is made right in the front of the shop. We were surprised to see how (relatively) easy it is to make, though the huge quantities are a little daunting. Saveur has a short instructional video showing you how it’s done, though you do need a grinder, even at home.

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Our Favorite Tacos Al Pastor in Chicago: Taqueria Los Barrilitos

Mexico FlagAfter our trip to Mexico City, we became obsessed with finding the best tacos al pastor in Chicago. We found some excellent tacos al pastor at Xoco – but there were some downsides – it is only available once a week, and was a little pricey. We wanted somewhere we could get a cheaper tacos every day of the week to satisfy our true al pastor cravings. One name that kept coming up on our radar was Taqueria Los Barrilitos (3518 West 25th Street, Chicago, IL), so we knew we had to visit.

Los Barrilitos

Los Barrilitos

We rolled up to Los Barrilitos on a cold night just before Christmas, and before we committed to dining, M peeked in the window to make sure there was a trompo piled high with marinated pork. There was! We had been burned before by places that were rumored to have a trompo, but did not in reality. Score a point for Los Barrilitos! We were excited the place was festooned up brightly for Christmas, lights, decorated tree and all (even the cactus had bows for Christmas). There was no menu: you just chose from a small selection of tacos including steak, al pastor and tripe. The trompo looked pretty amazing, so we went with only the al pastor tacos ($1.75) each and a horchata rice drink.

Al Pastor at Los Barrilitos

Al Pastor at Los Barrilitos

The tacos were brought out pretty quickly by a kind waitress, along with pickled habaneros and two salsas. The tacos were bigger than we expected, and came on warm corn tortillas with the traditional onion and cilantro toppings. The al pastor was a standout, with a great color, flavor and a nice char. It definitely reminded me of some of our favorites from Mexico City. Our only knock against them was that there was no pineapple, part of the intrinsic al pastor experience.

Trompo at Los Barrilitos

Trompo at Los Barrilitos

We polished off our tacos pretty quickly and the cook even let us take a few pictures of the trompo on our way out. He actually seemed kind of humored that we took such an interest in the trompo. We left Los Barrilitos in a better mood than after most meals of 2014. These tacos al pastor are the real deal, and for the right price! Please visit Los Barrilitos ASAP (for both the al pastor and for the festive cactus).

Cactus with Bows at Los Barrilitos

Cactus with bows at Los Barrilitos, our spirit plant

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Day of the Dead / Dia De Los Muertos Recipes from Oaxaca

Mexico FlagDay of the Dead / Dia de Los Muertos always calls to mind the Mexican State of Oaxaca, where the traditions around the holiday are the strongest and most vibrant. The zocolo, or town square, in Oaxaca City is a festive celebration for weeks in advance, and the city’s main cemetery, Xoxocotlan, overflows with locals and visitors from October 31st to November 2nd. Oaxaca is known particularly for its cuisine, which we got of taste of first hand on our visit this summer. Epicurious has a nice menu of Oaxacan favorites including tamales and preserved pumpkin from Zarela Martínez that are perfect for Dia de Los Muertos. And if you really want to go all out, here is recipe for Mole Rojo made by Josefina Ruiz Vazquez in the Oaxacan town of Teotitlan del Valle. Complicated (and delicious) moles such as this are normally saved for special occasions like Dia de Los Muertos.

Food on a Dia de Los Muertos Altar in Oaxaca

Food on a Dia de Los Muertos Altar in Oaxaca by Jen Wilton

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Birthday Dinner at Topolobampo

Topolobampo
445 N Clark Street
Chicago, IL

Mexico FlagAfter two years of trying, we finally made it to Rick Bayless’ star restaurant. It was Matt’s birthday, and Lindsay planned ahead making reservations months in advance as to ensure a spot. We, like everyone else in the city, were caught off guard by the meteoric rise in Rick’s popularity following his win at the inaugural Top Chef Masters; but at the same time, we, like everyone else in the city, took a renewed interest in his food.

TopoloInterior

So many great things have been said about Topolobampo, there is no use in re-hashing them here. At the same time, the restaurant’s popularity has also brought in its share of criticism from less-than-satisified patrons. Part of this is due to location: Topolobampo shares a front door and a kitchen with Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless’ other, less formal restaurant. For this reason, many people (especially those on Yelp) claim that the food is a better value at Frontera, and that the inflated prices at Topolobampo can leave you with a big check and a less-than-full stomach of food that is the same at both restaurants. Other patrons claimed Topolobampo suffered from spotty service. We have not yet been to Frontera Grill, so we are uncomfortable making comparative claims. All we can say is that our meal was exquisite, served by a masterful waiter, and the bill was precisely what we expected (likely because, unlike so many others, we did not order any alcohol). The jamaica we got, however, was fantastic.

Dinner began with two appetizers. Matt ordered, per his biggest food crush, the trio of ceviches ($19.00), consisting of three of the restaurant’s most popular:

  • Ceviche Yucateco: steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jicama, cucumber & cilantro. Crispy tortilla chips (regular price $13.50);
  • Coctel de Atún Tropical : sashimi-grade Hawaiian bigeye tuna, tomatillo guacamole, mango salsa ($14.50); and
  • Ceviche Fronterizo: Lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile; on crispy tostaditas ($14.00).

How good were these? So well-balanced, so flavorful, and so distinct that Matt had eaten them before we had time to take a photo. The meal started off wonderfully. On to our second course:

Chile Pasilla Relleno en Nogada: Cool sweet-sour pasilla chile, fruity hedgehog mushroom filling (apples, plantain, prunes, black garlic, black olive), nogada cream (walnuts, almonds, fresh goat cheese) ($12.00). This was Lindsay’s appetizer. The mushroom filling was particularly interesting contrasted with the pasilla, which is always one of our favorites. Next, the main courses…

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Cochito Chiapaneco (above) : Gunthorp suckling pig, slow-cooked with red chile & sweet spices, homemade butifarra sausage, heirloom Mexican alubia blanco beans, grilled endive, fresh garnishes ($35.00). Matt went for a more subtle dish after the boldness of the ceviche. Here, the heartiness of classic Mexican cooking comes through here in a paradoxically light and subtle dish: the flavor and texture of the cochito, fall-apart-in-your-mouth just like it should be, shines through other starchy accompaniments with just the right amount of extra notes from the chile and spices. Seemingly pricey at $35, this was actually filling and worth it.

Topolo2

Enfrijoladas (above): “enchiladas” bathed with a sauce of heirloom Mexican ayocote morado beans, luscious white sweet potato filling, Mexican cincho cheese, wild matsutake mushrooms, roasted red poblanos, chile-seared baby tomatoes ($25.00). Almost like a mole, Lindsay’s favorite, this vegetarian dish was a big hit on both sides: you can’t go wrong in our eyes with cheese and sweet potato filling in any context, much less one that uses them so well against the fruitiness of poblanos and roasted tomatoes.

Topolo3

Chocolate, Oaxaca: Warm chocolate mesquite cakes, Mexican vanilla bean ice cream (infused with aromatic rosita de cacao), sweet masa pudding (nicuatole), toasted almond, cocoa nibs, masa crisps ($12.00). Dessert, Oaxacan chocolate cake, accented with nicuatole: a dish that we recently actually made in Oaxaca. Delectable.

At this point stuffed and very happy, we were surprised to see our server approach with some chocolate truffles and fruity gummy candy – an unexpected and appreciated touch.Topolo4

Dinner at Topolobampo changes seasonally, so you are sure to experience something new and great on your trip. When we have the chance to go back again, we will, as this was one of the few splurge dinners we have truly enjoyed.

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A Visit to the Mercado de Antojitos in Coyoacán, Mexico City

Mexico FlagToday is Mexican Independence Day, so what better day to talk about some Mexican street food classics? While in Mexico City we enjoyed a lot of amazing street food including a quest to find the perfect tacos al pastor (post forthcoming). However, for the most delicious street food in the smallest space under a single roof, Coyoacán’s street food market, the Mercado de Antojitos, is a veritable one stop shop for low-key, delicious, authentic, friendly and cheap food.

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Part of the major draw, beyond the food of course, is the market’s location in the historical and charming Coyoacán neighborhood in Southern Mexico City. With its cobbled streets and faded mansions, you will feel like you’ve stepped into another era (before Mexico City engulfed it, it was in fact its own town). The Anotjito Market is tucked into a side street near the main square of Coyoacán. There are about a dozen stalls inside, each ringed with stools or benches. This is definitely not a touristy place, and the food is so good – and turnover so high – there isn’t much need for hawking or up-selling.  People of all ages packed the stalls, and for added liveliness, a guitar band entertained.

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We were spoiled for choice by all of the antojitos (literally “little cravings”): so what did we get? One of the most popular dishes on offer was the quesadilla, which means something different that it does in English parlance  (no cheese!). Due to their prevalence and popularity among the market patrons, we knew we had to choose a quesadilla. The quesadillas we tried were deep fried and stuffed with huitlacoche, one of our favorite Mexican flavors. Huitlacoche is technically a corn fungus, and tastes something like a truffle!

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Another popular choice for sale was pozole, a hearty stew made from hominy and pork, which was especially delicious on a somewhat dreary and rainy day. For a little Vitamin C, you can also get your fill of fresh squeezed juices in flavors like strawberry and papaya. Beyond its role in pozole and in the tortillas, corn is king at the market, and for an even purer corn experience try a thick cornmeal drink (atole) or a cup of corn kernels with epazote (esquite). The prices are also very reasonable, so you can get more than a meal’s worth for only a few dollars. A market full of street foods is potentially one of our favorite concepts – and the Mercado de Antojitos definitely did not disappoint.

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Mexican Ice Cream shops – Neverias (and Paleterias) – in Chicago

Mexico FlagOne of our go-to places for a cool summer treat is Palateria La Monarca in Rogers Park (6955 N. Clark) – we usually get the lime and mango paletas. However, there are a whole variety of Mexican Paleterias (popsicle shops) and Neverias (Ice cream stores) throughout Chicago that we have not yet tried. Even just on the stretch of North Clark near Monarca we noticed a few new ice cream places popping up, including Las Delicias de Michoacan (6649 N. Clark).  However, shops aren’t just popping up on North Clark – it is a city-wide phenomenon! WBEZ’ Monica Eng has an article about the proliferation of Mexican ice cream shops, and more than a few recommendations of places/treats to try. In particular, Eng recommends the mangonada, a neveria staple of mango sorbet topped with mango slices and a sweet and salty pickled fruit sauce called chamoy. The mangonada is now on our summer bucket list. What’s your favorite thing to order at a Neveria or Paleteria?

Paletas from, Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico

Paletas from, Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico – by Dolanh

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Agua y Sal: Adventures in Mexico City’s Best Ceviche

Agua y Sal Cebicheria
Campos Elíseos 199-A
Polanco C.P. 11560
Mexico, D.F., Mexico

Mexico FlagAgua y Sal (“Water and Salt”) is widely acclaimed as one of the best seafood restaurants, if not one of the best restaurants in general, in Mexico City. We wasted little time in placing it on our list of “must-trys” in Mexico City. While (as will be demonstrated in forthcoming posts), we really came to the D.F. for street food and markets, the lure of some of the best ceviche in a great ceviche country was too much to pass up. And Agua y Sal delivered: from flawless Mexican service, to adventurous and innovative ceviches, to the fresh seafood necessary to pull them off, this was a treat well worth the high (by Mexican standards), but not unreasonable, price.

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We walked to Agua y Sal following a day of wandering through Chapultepec Park (and taking it all the sites at the very impressive National Anthropology Museum). Located just north of the park, in Mexico City’s swanky Polanco district, Agua y Sal presents an initially surprising first impression: a marriage of upscale ambiance and casual dining. A green 1950s refrigerator and hipster-style mason jar serving glasses would be much more at home in Wicker Park than Mexico City’s version of the Chicago Loop; but somehow it all works. Less surprising is that the service at Agua y Sal is flawless: attentive without being overbearing, quick but not rushed, and, like any good non-US restaurant, they let you linger without the check long after you’ve finished eating. Our waiter, whose name we sadly didn’t write down, was the best we’ve had in some time. On his and our recommendation, we decided to start and finish with the Cebiches Tasting Menu, a selection of four of the restaurant’s [supposedly] finest ceviches, priced at 185 pesos (about US $15). Check out the photos and descriptions of each below.

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Agua y Sal places an emphasis on fresh and unique flavor combinations, while paying homage to the classics. Take a look at the menu, and you can see the restaurant emphasizes its particularly impressive array of sea salts to be paired with each of its ceviches. As we learned during our time in Portugal, sea salt can make or break the dish, bringing out certain flavors while diminishing others. They certainly did on our first course, the Atun. An interesting ceviche of tuna in a tamarind sauce, the tamarind is well balanced with accompanying cucumber, red onion (always), avocado, and cuaresmeño chiles (a variety similar in spice to a jalapeño, but with milder flesh like a poblano). Using this chile instead of the jalapeño is a smart choice against the powerful tamarind, and all the flavors were brought together by their other smart choice of a little black Hawaiian sea salt. While this was not our favorite ceviche of the evening, it could have gone terribly awry in less competent hands.

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Our second ceviche was the restaurant’s namesake, Agua y sal. One of our constant problems with Mexican ceviches in the past has been their overall lack of leche de tigre, but at Agua y Sal in general, we were pleased to see them using classic Mexican and tropical flavor profiles without sacrificing the precious liquid that makes ceviches of all kind such a treat. The Agua y sal showcases fresh shrimp and chopped mango in a sauce of pineapple and cuaresmeño chiles. Add red onion, peanuts, sesame seed oil, and a bit of Maldon sea salt flakes, and this is a great dish to showcase Mexican ceviches alongside a readily drinkable leche de tigre.

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At this point it is difficult to make a classic Peruano ceviche that really impresses Matt, so Agua y Sal can be forgiven for not blowing us away with its rendition of the coastal Peruvian classic. But they did a very good job. Halibut always seems to be a better choice than tilapia, and their choice was soft and spot-on. Red onion, cuaresmeño chiles, and cilantro accompanied the ubiquitous cancha (Peruvian corn nuts), corn kernels, sweet potato, and Peruvian Andean sea salt. Rarely do the corn kernels and nuts make their way into the ceviche proper, but we were interested by this technique of adding a little liquid to the typically dry corn nuts. A very solid rendition.

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But the big winner and unexpected star of the night was the Veracruzano. Arguably the simplest ceviche of the bunch, this one packed bold and sophisticated flavors that married perfectly together. Grouper – an odd and excellent choice of the main fish – balanced against a sauce of cilantro,  jalapeño chiles (for extra flavor), cucumber, red onion, and sea salt from Guerrero Negro in Baja California. The sweetness and refreshment of the cucumber was a great complement to the peppers and sea salt. This was a big winner, and we would order it for our main appetizer next time!

Overall, we would highly recommend Agua y Sal to anyone in for some ceviche in the notoriously landlocked and smoggy Mexico City. Refreshing, light, and airy, you can linger here for a while; and when you are done, spend some time in Chapultepec or the gorgeous branch of the Pendulo bookstore in Polanco. We’ll be back on our next trip to the D.F.

 

 

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Zapotec Cooking in Oaxaca with Reyna Mendoza

Zac xtili! Reyna Mendoza had carefully explained to us how to say “Good morning” in the Oaxaca valley dialect of Zapotec only ten minutes before, but we were still having problems. Luckily Reyna, a native speaker of both Zapotec and Spanish, did all of the talking. On this day, our last in Oaxaca, we were lucky enough to be the only two participants in a cooking class with Reyna. A widely-known authority on the cuisine of this region, and a spectacular chef in her own right, Reyna has spent the past nine years hosting cooking classes that showcase what she terms El Sabor Zapoteco – “Zapotec Flavor.” A lifelong resident of Teotitlán del Valle, a small town outside Oaxaca City primarily known for its families of tepate weavers, Reyna takes her students through the sites and sounds of the local market – where valley Zapotec is spoken almost exclusively – as well as the careful preparation of some classic Oaxacan ingredients using traditional methods. In this context, “Zapotec” flavors does not necessarily connote pre-Hispanic dishes – the majesty of Oaxacan cuisine in general comes from its careful negotiation across Spanish and indigenous ingredients and techniques – but rather largely pre-Hispanic preparations. The jaw-dropping numbers of different molcajetes, earthenware comales, and stone metates in Reyna’s kitchen alone emphasize her insistence on using ancient preparation techniques to impart flavors one cannot get with other preparations. One then leaves her class with a quite different relationship to the food.

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Class starts at the local market, which showcases meat and produce from the immediate valleys, as well as more exotic imports like apples (shipped in from Washington state). As is true throughout most of Mexico, it is considered very rude to take photos of locals, so we stuck to shots of food while using the three Zapotec words we learned.

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No Oaxacan meal is complete without quesillo, a soft white cheese that can be crumbled on top of, or stuffed inside of, seemingly anything you want. Its mild flavor pairs well with many stronger ingredients. Packed hand-made fiber wheels and wrapped in string, this cheese has evolved over the centuries from when the Spanish first brought cheesemaking to the Americas. On this day, we would use a small wheel of it in preparing flores de calabaza rellenas de queso – squash blossoms stuffed with cheese.

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Having picked up our ingredients at the market, Reyna brought us back to her absolutely spectacular kitchen. Half outdoors, bright and colorful, boasting a set of kitchenware to make anyone jealous, and to this day the only kitchen we’ve seen that incorporates two hammocks (for when you pass out after a big meal), it is our dream space. Swoon.

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No cooking before chocolate! Oaxacans do love coffee, but historically, and to a large extent still, they begin their days with a cup of chocolate prepared in a green-glazed cup, and then frothed with a molonillo, a type of wood whisk that can be easily purchased in any Oaxacan market for between one and two dollars. Making the chocolate usually involves breaking pre-made bars into hot water or milk, and then frothing it with the molonillo. The chocolate bars used for our drink were made, by hand, by Reyna’s mother.

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Some of the slew of ingredients for our day of cooking. Dried ground corn; coarse sugar and cinnamon sticks; dried red pasilla chiles; purple tomatillos; tuna fruits, the product of the nopal cactus; garlic; cilantro; small Oaxacan avocados (there are many different cultivars, each with their own flavors – the photo actually shows two different types); and a side view of a concha, a classic Mexican pastry always paired with morning chocolate.

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Even more of our prep table: sea salt; the quesillo we purchased from the market; ground bread crumbs; a bundle of fresh squash blossms (widely used in Oaxacan cooking), and at the far right you can see a peak of epazote, a very distinctive green herb, and some guajillo chiles.

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This area makes us jealous as well. Reyna’s kitchen features two large clay comales, a type of shallow cooking surface used in this region for centuries. Reyna’s are heated manually using a local type of bamboo. You can use the comales for any variety of uses: heating up tortillas, roasting dried chiles, or toasting dried corn. At right, a stone metate will eventually be used for grinding toasted dried corn.

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Reyna showing off her very impressive metate skills. Reyna’s kitchen had at least ten different metates, each one with a different use. While the one she is using in this photo is for corn, the smaller (and exuberantly decorated) one at left is used for preparing chiles that have been dried, smoked, and then soaked in water. Note how the corn one has a very rough surface, while the chile one is both smaller and smoother.

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So, we made the executive decision not to show you, or describe to you, much more of the cooking preparation. On one hand, arriving at around 10am, we cooked for a few solid hours to make a four-course meal that left us completely stuffed. It would just be too much to show! But at the same time, we don’t want to share the recipes. While Reyna does give out small recipe booklets to everyone who takes her classes, you really should go to Oaxaca and experience it for yourself; indeed, some of the dishes simply cannot be made without the methods and materials Reyna uses. If nothing else, go for the table preparation: somehow while we were cooking, Reyna and her sister magically set up this lunch table for us. Already on the table are a roasted pasilla and guajillo salsa, and a very refreshing cold drink of tuna juice, the aforementioned cactus fruit that is a popular flavoring throughout the Oaxaca valley. We were also served some very fine, very smooth, and very strong mezcal, paired with orange slices and spicy salt.

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Appetizer one: Flores de calabaza rellenas de queso – fresh squash blossoms stuffed with quesillo and fried. These are simple to make, but by no means easy.

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Appetizer two: Ensalada de noplaes – a salad of tomatoes, jicama, nopales, and onions in a dressing made with avocados, limes, and cilantro, all topped with quesillo and served in a dried corn husk. Our favorite dish of the day. Simple to prepare, fabulous presentation, and bold, balanced flavors.

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Main dish: Zegueza. Boiled chicken served in a sauce of specially-prepared corn (trust us, no way to make this at home), guajillo chiles, tomatoes, and onions, served with some leaves of hierba santa.

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Dessert: Reyna’s favorite dish, nicuatole. In its simplest preparation (the white part in this photo), this dish only contains corn, water, sugar, and cinnamon. Yet making it is quite complex, involving a series of different processes and waiting that adds up to between four and twelve hours of prep time. One eventually arrives – very surprisingly – at a consistency like jello or pudding. Some then top the mixture with a sauce made from tuna fruits. Here, Reyna made a special sauce from sugar and cochineal, a small insect that lives in nopal cacti, and whose red dye is frequently used as a coloring ingredient. An astoundingly unique dish, and one that will be very difficult to re-create in Chicago.

Overall, this cooking class was an awesome experience. Even with all the time we spent cooking, Reyna had been preparing many of the ingredients for the dishes the day before. Indeed, our greatest experience from this class was the amount of concentrated effort and love labors put into this food: how the effort at grinding salsas by hand in a molcajete imparts a different (and better!) flavor than just putting them in a blender; how grinding corn in a metate that has been used for years creates a unique texture necessary for a any good zegueza. We highly encourage you to check out Reyna’s class the next time you are in Oaxaca; or, failing that, to check out her family’s restaurant: Tlamanalli. You won’t be disappointed!

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Headed to Mexico City and Oaxaca!

Mexico FlagThe eaters are headed to Mexico on a culinary adventure! We start out in Oaxaca, where we plan to enjoy the slower pace of life while enjoying our fill of moles and chocolate. We are even signed up for a cooking class just outside of Oaxaca! Next, we are off to Mexico City where we plan to eat as much street food as possible, and perhaps soak in a little cafe culture. We are excited to share our newly-found foodie knowledge with you when we get back. Any last minute suggestions are also welcome.

Oaxaca Market

Oaxaca Market by Nunavut

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What is Tepache?

Mexico FlagWe recently covered a video series, Thirsty for…, that covers nothing but unique and emblematic non-alcoholic beverages from around the world. We recently discovered a unique drink that would be a perfect fit for the series: Tepache. We first spotted tepache alongside the more familiar jamaica and horchata drinks in our favorite taqueria. So…what IS tepache? Tepache is a drink native to Jalisco, made from both the flesh and the rind of pineapples and sweetened with brown sugar/piloncillo. Usually we stick to our favorites, but we decided to go for the unknown and try some Tepache. It was extremely refershing, sweet and slightly carbonated, due to the fermentation. It doesn’t seem that hard to make (recipe here) but the trick is waiting for it to ferment instead of enjoying the pineapple juice!

tepache

Tepache at a street stall by Y!Musica

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How to Make Sugar Skulls for Dia de Los Muertos

One of our favorite traditional foods for Dia de los Muertos is the sugar skull, which we have written about previouslyWe usually buy pre-made sugar skulls – and we even got new ones this year personalized with our names in Pilsen. However, we are stepping up our game this year. We picked up sugar skull molds at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC last week, and are excited to make sugar skulls of our own for the first time.  Once you have the skull-shaped molds, the process doesn’t seem too daunting. However, the recipe included with the molds called for something called meringue powder, which you can buy online or pick up in many craft or large grocery stores. Fortunately, making a recipe with egg whites works just as well, as does a traditional recipe with egg white and cornstarch.

Sugar Skull for Dia de Los Muertos

Sugar Skull for Dia de Los Muertos at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC

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Time Warp in Wicker Park: Artemio’s Bakery

ArtemiosSign

Artemio’s Bakery
1443 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL

Every time we go to Wicker Park the landscape is slightly different than the time before, with upscale stores and eateries seeming to carve out a larger footprint each visit. Time marches on, however there are some places that stay the same even though everything around them changes. One of those stalwarts is Artemio’s Bakery, which seems like it is a transplant from another era. Walk in the front door and you will feel like you are in a time warp – the bakery is crammed with wooden cases and the strong aroma of butter and sugar is unmistakable. But don’t worry, in this case a time warp is a good thing, the pastries are old-school and everything is unbelievably cheap! 25 cents for a cookie? Heck – 25 cents for anything?!?! Even in Brazil the smallest piece of candy was usually 50 cents apiece (R$ 1). Cookies at Artemio’s are only 25 cents and larger pastries like croissants or conchas are barely a dollar.

Artemios

The selection is wide (though unlabeled, so you may have to guess or ask), and you can get nearly every kind of Mexican pastry, as well as American classics. We spotted croissants, cupcakes, coconut macaroons, many types of cookies, tarts, elephant ears, doughnuts, sweet rolls and cakes by the slice including chocolate and tres leches. This time around we ordered several black and white cookies and a giant sugary croissant – both delicious – and they set us back less than $2. As we trailed sugary crumbs down Milwaukee avenue we were satiated and happy. Definitely check out Artemio’s for a cheap sugar fix and for a time warp back to old-school Wicker Park.

ArtemioPastry

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Chihuahua Cheese’s (Queso Menonita) Mexican Mennonite Origins

Mexico FlagBack in the US we are very familiar with Chihuahua cheese (Queso Chihuahua) and have seen many recipes calling for the mild, slightly yellow cheese. However, we did not know much about its origins – and it turns out it has a rather unusual history.

Chihuahuacheese

Chihuahua Cheese by Mérida Hideaway

Chihuahua cheese, known for the Northern Mexican state where it is produced, is also known as Menonita cheese in Mexico. Yes, Menonita is “Mennonite” in Spanish – and it is indeed Mennonite cheese! Turns out there is a rather large Mennonite population in Mexico, having first arrived in the 1920s, and they were the ones who first produced the cheese. Though it has now been commercialized, you can still find Menonita cheese being made by Mennonites in the town of Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua.

MennoniteMexico

A Mennonite sells cheese in Mexico by Cristiano Oliveira

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Authentic Mexican food in Rio: Azteka

Azteka
Rua Visconde de Pirajá, 156 – Ipanema
Rio de Janeiro

brazil

Mexico FlagLiving in Chicago spoils one for taco choices: there are amazing taquerias everywhere, from the high-end fancy places to tried-and-true local establishments, and the price is nearly always right. But Brazil seems to have the opposite problem: Salvador has but a few Mexican restaurants, and Rio de Janeiro even less, proportionately. However, Mexican food fans in Rio now have a new option.  The relatively new restaurant Azteka, helmed by transplanted Chicagoans  Aglika Angelova and Miguel F. Campos, aims to bring Mexican street food to the streets of Rio. When we heard chef Campos was from Chicago, we knew we had to visit, especially since our Mexican food cravings were strong after months out of the country (the tortillas we managed to find in Lisbon didn’t exactly satiate our craving).

Azteka Exterior

View into Azteka. Actually a lot of seating for an Ipanema establishment!

Azteka is a small restaurant, conveniently located right on Praca General Osorio in Ipanema. The decor is nice and modern, looking a little like a gussied up Chipotle. The menu at Azteka consists of burritos, tortas, tacos and quesadillas, with the choice of cochinta pibil (slow roasted pork), chicken, beef or pork al pastor. For starters there are dishes of house-made guacamole and pico de gallo. We ordered two cochinita pibil tacos for R$24 (about $12) and an Al Pastor quesadilla for R$ 26 (about $13).  Both were excellent: really good flour tortillas are difficult to pull off, and these made-in-house versions were great. The cochinita pibil was full of flavor and the al pastor was juicy and tender, and just a little bit sweet. Salsas were stars of the toppings, but the tacos were never overdressed: just lime, onion, cilantro and a little cheese, all the hallmarks of taco chefs who know what they are doing.

Azteka Tacos

Awesome tacos. Worth US$7 apiece? In Rio, definitely.

That said, Rio is an expensive food town overall, and Azteka is no different. The tacos were fantastic, and would easily compete with the best we’ve had in Chicago, but the price was no comparison: we paid over US$30 for four total tacos at Azteka, when we would pay $10 or less back home. But there can be no argument with the quality of food, the depth of flavors, and the care put into their preparation. We will always pay more for excellent food, and we were happy when the quality matched the price in a city where that does not always happen. The food at Azteka is definitely tastier than your average La Pasadita back in Chicago. Azteka satisfied all of our Mexican food cravings, and if we lived in Rio we would certainly be regulars.

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