Monday, July 4, 2011

Sidewalk Chefs: The Art Of Mexican Street

When I was a student in Mexico, my food of choice was street food. I started out eating it because it was cheap but I grew to love it because it is so delicious.

Street food is firmly fixed in the Mexican gastronomic state of mind and these tiny, makeshift kitchens turn out some of the best food in Mexico.

Ask Rick Bayless, the most celebrated Mexican chef on the planet, because even he was blown away by some of the sidewalk chefs in Baja. Just when you think you’ve done it all in Mexico, it comes back with a new revelation. Never think that you are over being surprised by Mexico.

If you want to get a feeling for the local culinary culture, head for the street. There are puestos (semi-permanent street stalls like at Maxwell Street) everywhere you look and some of them have such a loyal following they have become neighborhood institutions. The last time I was back, many of the stalls I ate at as a student were still there. Insightful restaurants have a history no matter how tiny they are.

One thing that all sidewalk chefs have in common is that most of them learned to cook from their parents or grandparents. Recipes passed down from one generation to the next…often not written down.

The locals knew which stands were the best so early on I followed their lead. After a short time, I pretty much knew where to go. Chalk it up to experience and a very aggressive appetite.

People warned me that I would get sick if I ate street food but I never did… and I ate everything. In fact, there were only of few of us who were daring enough to sit down anywhere for a bite – especially at the food stalls in Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara. The butcher’s aisle was a gringa’s nightmare but we knew exactly where to go. By this time it was instinct.

I’ve always seen food as an adventure. If you don’t jump in and try it you’ll probably miss out on the best meal of your life.

That’s what I love about Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market. It looks and feels like most markets in Mexico and you can still get an enormous plate of authentic food for around $3. Ask anyone who has been to Ruby’s or Mexico D.F.

Does it taste just like Mexico? You tell me as I mindlessly order another Steak Taco with a side of Salsa Verde.

¡Buen apetito!

Carne Asada

When I spent a month in Guanajuato, I lived off Carne Asada and never gained an ounce. Don’t you just love protein?This is my favorite street food and you can use a variety of ingredients in your marinate.

I love the flavor of the soy sauce in this one. I know… you thought Soy Sauce was just for Chinese! Think again!

2 medium lemons or limes, juiced
4 Tbsp Soy Sauce
6 Tbsp water
1 tsp garlic
1 tsp salt
1 lb skirt steak or flank steak Vegetable oil for grilling

In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the first five ingredients and add the beef, massaging the marinade into the meat. Refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours or overnight.

Heat a grill or grill pan on medium high. (You should be able to hold your hand over it for no longer than 3 seconds.) Remove the meat from the marinade and pat it dry with paper towels. Lightly oil the hot grill and add the beef. Cook until the meat is nicely charred and the interior is just cooked through, about 3 minutes a side. Let rest a few minutes. Slice the beef into 1/2-inch strips and then hack it into nubs. Makes enough for 12 tacos


Although you’ll not find them on every restaurants menu, carnitas are a stable on the street carts and happen to be my all time favorite meal.

Salsa Verde and salt are the only two dressings I need.

If you happen to go to Mexico any time soon, Carnitas Las Delicias in Toluca is one of the great places to grab them for breakfast, which is my favorite meal of day to eat them.

2 lb fatty pork butt (shoulder), cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 Tbsp lard or vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 orange, cut into 2 pieces (skin on)
1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp table salt (or 2 tsp coarse salt)
2 bay leaves

Combine all ingredients in a 4-to 5-quart heavy pot; don't worry if the pork isn't completely covered. Bring everything to a boil, skimming as necessary. Then simmer rapidly over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the pork is tender and the liquid has evaporated, about 1 1/2 hours. Discard the orange and the bay leaves.

Continue to cook the pork in the fat left in the pan, stirring frequently, until it's golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes more. Makes enough for 12 tacos, plus leftovers

Drizzle on a homemade salsa, shower the taco with chopped onion and cilantro, and serve open-faced, with a couple of lime wedges and a few radishes

Mexican Coffee Popsicles

If you love a great cup of Mexican coffee after dinner, try it iced on a stick. This recipe can be pumped up with a little Kahlua or any other Mexican liqueur. I went on the lighter side with the cinnamon.

½ cup strong coffee or espresso, chilled
½ cup milk
3 ½ tbsp light brown sugar
¼ - ½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp almond or vanilla extract
1 ½ cups ice

Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend until mixture is smooth and frothy, but slightly thick (if it's too thick, add milk; if it's too thin, add ice).

Fill popsicle molds or small Dixie cups with the blended mixture. Quickly place mini popsicle sticks or popsicle sticks broken in half in the center of each mold or cup.

Place cups in freezer and freeze until completely frozen, about 4 hours.

Healthy Nachos

It’s easy to chow down a plate of Nachos and close your eyes to the calories. Smother them with fresh veggies however, and you have a magnificent and healthy meal.

Use your imagination when it comes to the ingredients. I use what’s available at my Farmers Market as a guide.

Tuna Ceviche with Avocado and Cilantro

Rick Bayless was so taken in by Baja that he’s going to host his entire 8th season from the peninsula starting in September. Personally, I can’t wait. Not only have I always loved Cabo but anyone who has savored the great flavors of Mexican food has always turned to Baja for a recipe.

Here is the link to the behind the scenes footage for all 12 episodes. I just spent the morning watching most of them.

Mexico: One Plate At A Time

Baja is a recent discovery for me. It was 15 years ago when I made my first trip. As far as I was concerned, it was an extension of Southern California so I dismissed it as not being the “real” Mexico. Was I wrong!

I have been to just about every city in Mexico but I have yet to discover Baja outside of Cabo San Lucas. Pack the van because I feel a road trip coming on.

Not only do I love the people and the food – what else is there to love? – but the tempo of Baja is infectious.

Just when you thought that the surroundings were consuming you, you can take a step back and catch your breath. Cabo is that uncomplicated.

Ceviche is typically made from fresh, raw fish and marinated in citrus juices such as lemon or lime and spiced with chili peppers. A Bayless Baja inspired recipe, this Tuna ceviche is easily my favorite because it is so healthy and fresh.
1 pound sushi-grade tuna, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
3/4 cup fresh lime juice (from about 5 limes)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large Hass avocado, cut into 1/3-inch dice
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, plus leaves for garnish
Tortilla chips, for serving

Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap. Arrange the tuna slices in a single layer on the baking sheet and freeze until fairly firm, about 15 minutes.

Stack the slices of tuna. Using a very sharp chef's knife, cut the tuna into 1/4-inch cubes. Transfer the cubed tuna to a medium glass or ceramic bowl and stir in the red onion, lime juice and black pepper. Cover the tuna with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour, stirring gently with a plastic spatula every 15 to 20 minutes (the diced tuna will change color slightly).

Just before serving, gently fold in the diced avocado and chopped cilantro and season with salt. Transfer the ceviche to a bowl or individual glasses. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve with tortilla chips.

Afterthought: I love fresh salsa and always keep a stockpile of it in my refrigerator. Decided that this was the perfect recipe to pile it on…even though the recipe did not call for it.

                                                                                      Photo from Tasty Kitchen

Green Mango Margarita Sorbet

Want a delicious drink? Take it up a notch and make it into a refreshing sorbet.

1/2 cup sugar
1 large or 2 medium limes, zested and juiced
1 large green mango, peeled and roughly sliced
1/4 cup triple sec
1/4 cup tequila
lime wedge and rimming salt, to serve

In a saucepan, make simple syrup by heating 1/2 cup water and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Take off heat and add lime zest and juice. Let cool.

Put green mango slices and 1/4 cup water in a blender. Blend until smooth. Add simple syrup, triple sec, and tequila. Blend again until smooth. Adjust flavors to taste. Cool in the refrigerator, then freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Store in a freezer-proof container in the freezer to allow it to harden some more.

Run a lime wedge around the rim of a shot glass and salt the rim. Scoop the sorbet into the shot glass and serve.

Mexican Roadside Chicken

This recipe was adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday. I really loved the recipe because it is so very easy…and I’m all for easy!

I precooked it in the oven – 350 degrees for 45 minutes – and then finished it off on my indoor grill.

I served it with a mix of fresh cherry tomatoes, grilled sweet corn and avocado. A very uncomplicated recipe that is Farmers market fresh!

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
A big pinch of ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped or crushed through a garlic press
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus a little more for the onions
1 large chicken, about 3 lbs, butterflied
2 large bunches of green onions or knob onions
A little olive oil for brushing the onions
Grilled tomatillo salsa, for serving

Light a chimney 3/4 full of charcoal. While the charcoal is lighting, mix chile powder, oregano, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, vinegar, orange juice, and 1 teaspoon of salt together in a small bowl.

When the charcoal is fully lit and covered in gray ash, pour coals out and arrange them on one side of the charcoal grate, keeping the other side empty. Place the chicken over the cool side of the grill, skin side down, and brush exposed side with the wet rub. Flip the chicken over and brush the other side with the rub. Cover the grill and cook, basting occasionally with any remaining rub, at 350 degrees until an instant read thermometer reads 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the breast, about 45 minutes. Remove the chicken from the grill and allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

While the chicken is resting, brush the onions with olive oil and season with salt. Place the onions over the hot side of the grill and cook until tender and browned, about 5 minutes per side.

To serve, cut the chicken into quarters, top with green onions and tomatillo salsa.

Mexican Churros

I’ve never been into fried food (except French Fries) but I can so do Churros.

The Churro Truck at the Maxwell Street Market does it right and fills them with wonderful chocolate and strawberry fillings. I however still like mine plain.

I love to see the kids lining up at the truck just as it pulls in to the market. Me? I am most often at the front of the line with the kids chatting and looking for another excuse to order more than I planned on…and I always do.

1 cup water
1 1/2 cups or 12 ounces butter
1/2 tablespoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3 eggs
Vegetable oil for frying
1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1 tablespoon cinnamon for sprinkling

Place water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add butter and salt. Remove from heat and add flour and cinnamon. Mix well. Add eggs and again mix thoroughly. Place in a bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to fry.

Before frying, roll dough into churros, strips about 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. Or place dough into pastry piping bag and pipe out 4- to 5-inch churros to fry.

To fry, fill a deep pot halfway with oil. Heat to 350 degrees. Test the oil by placing a small amount of dough in it. The dough should bubble up right away; otherwise, the oil is not hot enough. When hot, add 4 to 5 pieces of dough and cook about 1 minute, turning with a slotted spoon. Cook an additional minute or 2, until the churros are a golden-brown. Fry in batches and avoid overcrowding.

Remove the churros with the slotted spoon and place on a paper-towel-covered plate to absorb excess grease. Place sugar-cinnamon mixture on a flat dish. While churros are still warm, roll each into the dish with the sugar and cinnamon until coated.Makes about 2 dozen.

Mexican Street Corn

This recipe has inspired me to try other toppings as well. Bacon? I know - I put that on everything!
The trick is to get the corn to the well done stage on the grill before you slather on the toppings.

4 ears corn
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan (can substitute cotija)
Red chili powder or cayenne pepper, to taste
2 limes cut into wedges

Remove the husks of the corn. To grill instead of boiling, preheat outdoor grill or indoor cast-iron griddle on medium-high heat. When hot, lightly oil grates and place corn on grill. Grill for about 5 minutes or until kernels begin to blacken, turning frequently.

Baste hot corn with mayonnaise, then season with Parmesan and chili powder. Serve with lime wedges.