Mexico: Pyramids and Almost Wild Animals

Let’s just pretend this is actually a travel blog for just a moment.  The Mexican pyramids at Teotihuacan are the only ones I’ve ever seen, but even on my second visit there, with Peter in addition to Meredith this time, they were astounding.  We walked to the top of the larger pyramid, the pyramid of the Sun, but only part of the way up the pyramid of the Moon because higher levels were closed.  Walking up the pyramids is the easy part, because coming down there aren’t many handrails, and the steps are steep.  I wanted to join the small children going down by sitting on each step, one at a time.  Peter also pointed out that you could just slide down the side of the pyramid on a plastic bag, at which point I was happy I had him distracted helping me not freak out on the descent.

One of our other favorite places in Mexico was Chapultepec, a large park only a short bus ride away.  This park has really got it going on: it has a castle, a lake (the color of green goo), a rockin’ anthropology museum that we didn’t have time to visit, and a free zoo!  I think we (I) took more pictures of cute animals than anything.

And now, the winner for most strung out:

If only one of them had been swimming, or perhaps doing a graceful ballet number as per Fantasia.


Mexico: Drinks

Drinks should not be underestimated in Mexico.  For one, if you don’t order one at a restaurant, you get made fun of by your Mexican friends.  And I’m not referring to ordering water, my favorite beverage, because that almost doesn’t count.  I was continually saved by naranjada, a mixture of fresh squeezed orange juice with either normal or sparkling water.  A similar contraption is made with lemon juice, like a less sweet version of lemonade.  Fresh squeezed orange juice (among many other fruits) just never gets old.  In the more alcoholic direction, Peter was ecstatic to learn that Meredith lives literally right across the street from an international beer store and bar.  We tried at least half a dozen new beers while we were there, most of them made in or near Mexico City.  My favorite would have to be a dark beer flavored with chile.

Meredith assured me that Mexicans are not particularly into fancy coffee, preferring the instant kind in most cases.  However, if there were ever a posh neighborhood that would serve a decent cappuccino, it was hers.  Someone needs to educate me about the difference between a cappuccino and a caffe latte, because we couldn’t figure it out between tasting Meredith and my drinks.  All I can find on wikipedia is that one has 1/2 inch of milk foam on top and the other 3/4 inch of foam, which is a pretty ridiculous distinction.

And continuing on the trend of alcoholic beverages there was mezcal, which is like a smoky version of tequila.  There also happened to be a mezcal bar within walking distance that sold an incredible variety of mezcal shots as well as interesting mixed drinks.  The mezcal shots are served with oranges sprinkled with chile powder and salt and small bottles of beer.  I found the tiny bottle of Corona, labled “Coronita”, absolutely adorable.  Since you have to buy food there (“alcohol solo con alimento”), we ordered a bowl of Oaxaca cheese, which is just like a large hunk of string cheese.  The mixed drinks included a “slushee” of pureed fresh fruit, ice, and mezcal, and a version of a mojito with basil instead of mint.  It is not uncommon to be approached by people selling things on the street if you sit outside enjoying a drink at night, so Meredith bought us a traditional snack that looked like sheets of green, white, and red paper adorned with a couple nuts.  The “paper” tasted sort of like what I imagine packing peanuts to taste like: dry and sticking to the roof of your mouth.  Definitely a palate cleanser!

Finally, we could not help ourselves when we entered a tea cafe called La Esquina de Te (The Tea Corner, or literally, The Corner of Tea) and they advertised a Tepuchino, which is really just a combination of tea plus cappuccino: tea with foamy milk.  It was quite good.  The tea was earl grey.  It was hot.  And perhaps more importantly, the view was nice.

Mexico: Mole and Chocolate

Walking around one of the artisan markets in Mexico City, we found a booth that sold nothing but mole.  Of course we had to try them all, and after that, how could we just walk away?  So we bought a quarter of a kilo of a dark, chocolaty, peppery paste and proceeded to spend a good hour figuring out how to “cook” it a few days later.  Finally we decided to do nothing but mix it with hot water so that it formed a smooth sauce, and oh was it good!  Meredith wanted to add even more chocolate, which is saying something, since she doesn’t like chocolate that much.  It was certainly better than a lot of moles I’ve had here in California, and maybe even some that I’ve had in Mexico. The last time I visited Meredith in Mexico, we babysat an adorable little baby boy.  Taking him for a walk (i.e. carrying him around) we found a delightful little chocolate cafe and dessert store.  There they make a decadent semisweet hot chocolate with chiles, Aztec hot chocolate.  Now Meredith lives within walking distance of this place, so we had to pay it a return visit, and the hot chocolate and gooey brownies with homemade chocolate ice cream did not disappoint!

Mexico: Mexican Independence Day Treats

Meredith insisted upon giving us the totally Mexican food treatment, which involved trying quite a few new things, even for me (this was my third time visiting Meredith in Mexico).  First there were Chiles en Nogada, peppers stuffed with slightly sweet meats with a creamy walnut sauce and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds (green, white, and red of course).

On the night of Mexican Independence Day we made a spread of toppings for the traditional Pozole soup we ate with quite a few guests.  Mexican colors were mandatory!

We topped the Pozole with shredded chicken or pork, diced onion, sliced radish, minced lettuce, lime juice, oregano, and spicy chile sauce or powder.  There were, of course, large tortilla chips and guacamole with diced tomato and onion, and lime juice.


Mexico: Chiles Rellenos

Peter and I decided to visit my best friend from high school, Meredith, in Mexico City for our summer vacation.  She lives in La Condesa, one of the nicest (somewhere between posh and hipster) neighborhoods in the city, filled with amazing restaurants, bars, cafes, parks, and tree-lined streets.  While we ate out a lot, we also bought homemade tortillas and Oaxaca cheese, vegetables, and artisan mole paste to eat en casa.  Meredith shops at little markets a few blocks from her apartment, where we saw a skinless pig head staring back from the meat stall.  The cheese stall was much more appetizing, and we tasted Panela and Oaxaca cheese, the latter of which is perfectly salty and can be pulled off in strips like string cheese.  Oaxaca is our preferred quesadilla cheese, and I think we may have eaten at least 3 kilos of it over the course of the week.  A very simple version of chiles rellenos was the first meal we made that didn’t consist entirely of quesadillas.  I’m sure there are more complicated versions, perhaps involving batter and frying, but as I’m not a huge fan of fried food, I think I prefer this way.

Simple Chiles Rellenos
(One stuffed pepper per person, probably best served with something else that isn’t quite as cheesy)
1 Poblano pepper per person, whole
Melty cheese, such as Oaxaca or jack, cut into strips
Scant oil for frying
Roast the Poblano peppers until the skin is mostly black and charred.  This can either be done directly on a low/medium gas stovetop or it can be done with a broiler.  Once the pepper skins are mostly black, place the peppers on a heat-proof plate immediately and cover with a plastic bag to let the peppers steam so that their skins are easier to remove.  Once the peppers are cool enough to peel, peel the peppers, trying not to break the them.  Then cut off the pepper tops and carefully scoop out the seeds.  Hopefully the peppers will be whole with a single hole cut in the top.  You can then stuff the peppers with the cheese.  Heat the scant oil in a pan and fry the peppers until the cheese is melted and the whole thing smells delicious!  Eat with something preferably a bit healthier, but who doesn’t love peppers and cheese once in a while???  I’m reminded of some cheese-stuffed jalapenos someone named Colin may have made back in the day.

The blue corn tortillas were amazing, and irresistible because they were, well, blue.  We tried quesadillas with only cheese, with multiple types of cheese, and with strips of chicken and pork with a simple homemade salsa of tomato, diced onion, lime juice, and plenty of salt and pepper.  Sauted pepper also makes a good addition, as do slices of avocado on top.

Roasted Vegetable Open-faced Panini

There was a bread debacle and we ended up with two ciabatta rolls.  Luckily Peter has great talent as a sandwich maker, so they were put to good use.  The sandwiches turned out surprisingly good, so I thought I would share and emphasize how useful they were for using up roasted summer veggies.  Any kind of bread would be good, but the crispiness of crust offset the squashy (harhar) vegetables perfectly.  I think I may go out of my way to have Peter make this on a regular basis, and the added bonus?  It takes only 1 baking sheet and an optional bowl to put together, so cleanup is easy.

Roasted Vegetable Open-faced Panini
Summer squash, sliced into bite-sized pieces
Eggplant, sliced into bite-sized pieces
Sweet red peppers, sliced
1 onion, sliced
Garlic cloves diced to taste (Peter used 3 cloves)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Bread for the sandwiches
Slices of melty cheese
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Mix the veggies in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper.  You could also mix the veggies directly on a baking sheet if you oil the baking sheet first (otherwise I always seem to burn them).  Bake the veggies on the baking sheet for 20 minutes, then turn them over and move them around on the baking sheet and bake for another 20 minutes, or until soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.  Cut the rolls/ciabatta/or other thick bread in half (unnecessary for thin slices of course), and slather with mustard to taste.  Put the roasted veggies in a bowl or just pile them off to the side off the baking sheet.  Place the bread on the baking sheet and pile on the veggies and top with slices of cheese.  Return the baking sheet with the sandwiches to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted or even golden.  Eat this as soon as it’s cool enough not to burn your toungue, which is really hard because it smelled so good!

Other culinary adventures of the week involved pizza made with 100% whole wheat flour that we bought at the farmer’s market.  The flour is extremely flavorful, but not ground fine enough to hold up bread more than an inch high.  The pizza works perfectly though, and we’ve been sticking to fairly simple toppings of cheese and fresh sliced tomatoes with basil.  MMmmmm.

Also, a sneak peak of Peter’s strawberry wine.  I’m trying to convince him to do a post about how he made it, since it turned out really well!  Now I can’t wait for his next wine adventure.  Peaches?  Plums?  Any suggestions?

Toasts and Corn Soup

Dare I say it, but it’s almost like fall is really here.  The mornings have been gray and chilly, clearing up for crisp sunny late afternoons.  My first fall in California I waited and waited for the seasons to change.  I did everything possible to evoke the autumn, but finally my mom had to send me a box of colorful fall leaves for me to feel content, or maybe just pacified, as I don’t think I’ve registered a new season once since coming here.  Now I barely notice, except a couple times this summer when I smelled freshly mowed grass and really felt it was summer.  Any hint of cold now, and I just assume it’s fall.  And with fall comes soup.  I’d been thinking of corn chowder for a while, but never looked up a recipe.  The result was creamy, but in a vegetable kind of way, and some wonderful mixture of summery corn and wintry potato soup.  As with all soups I make, they tend to just contain every vegetable in my kitchen, except this time I used some self-restraint: no tomatoes, garlic, or red peppers, although I think it could have been good with all three.

Fresh Corn Soup
1 medium candy onion, diced
3-4 medium potatoes, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
3 small stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
3 ears-worth of fresh corn kernels
2 bay leaves
Dash of cayenne pepper, or to taste,
Salt and pepper
Olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon butter
In the soup pot, heat oil and butter and add onions, cooking until the onions are tender.  Add the diced veggies (everything but the corn) and stir to coat with the oil and butter.  Add enough water, or chicken broth if you prefer, to the pot to cover the veggies by an inch or more.  I often add more water if necessary later on, and never measure (sorry!).  Add freshly ground pepper, salt, bay leaves, and the dash of cayenne.  Let the soup simmer for 20 minutes or so.  Add the corn kernels and cook for another 20 minutes, or until the soup broth tastes “done”, which I realize is a very imprecise term.  I find that there is a transition in soup broths that happens after a certain amount of cooking: before the transition the soup broth is watery, and afterwards it is infused with flavor.

I was so pleasantly surprised by how this soup was exactly what I wanted, that I had to eat a mug of it for dinner, even though there were toasts in the oven.  (And yes, mugs are most excellent soup containers, and are beautifully featured in Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen.  I’m quite jealous of the ceramic mugs especially.)  Perhaps I should better explain what I mean by toasts: delicious things on toasted bread, my favorites being cheese, onion, basil, tomato, garlic, leafy greens, and roasted vegetables.  These get a bold recipe title even though an ingredient list is kind of absurd, since pretty much every ingredient could be served on bread.

Toasts with Cheese, Shallots, Basil, and Tomatoes
(all amounts depend on the number of toasts to be made and the hunger of the cook)
Slices of good bread (sandwich bread not ideal here, go for something with a legitimate crust)
Thin slices of melty cheese, such as cheddar, jack, gruyere, or mozarella
Fresh basil leaves
Thin slices of young shallots (not the dried-skinned variety) or slices of green onion or sweet red onion
Thick slices of juicy, flavorful tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Put the bread slices on a baking sheet with the slices of shallots or onion on top.  Bake them for 10 minutes or so for the onion to lose its punch.  Top the toasts with cheese and bake again just until the cheese is melty and browned a bit, another 10 minutes?  Top the finished toasts with basil leaves and tomato.  I like rubbing the tomato slices into the bottom of the toast to make it slightly soggy, don’t ask me why.  I alternate whether the bread is toasted with the tomatoes on top or not, but when the tomatoes are truly fabulous they probably deserve to be eaten raw.