Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It's All About Dessert...

With a round of Moxi, Nirvana and The Restaurant this week, my taste buds are on overload.

All three chefs are masters of their art and here’s why dessert is still my favorite course.

Buen Apetito!

Moxi at Hotel Matilda
Birthdays are a good reason to go to Moxi but you really don't need an excuse to celebrate the standout cuisine of Mexico City chef and international culinary star Enrique Olivera.

With one bite of the ribs, I'll not argue that he is perhaps one of the best chefs in Mexico not to mention his Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, is number seventeen on the San Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.

Dessert? Good enough for me to find an excuse to come back for seconds.

Mexican CIA-trained Chef Juan Carlos Escalante has the corner on classic Mexican food.

Honestly, this mole was some of the best I’ve had in San Miguel.

My favorite retreat in the city, you can come out here, put your feet up and eat to your heart’s content for hours on end. 

The Margaritas are really good with a splash of OJ.

Dessert? It was the only things that didn’t thrill me. Everything else did!

The Restaurant – What’s Not To Love For Under 100 pesos?
What I really love about this restaurant and Chef Donnie Masterton is that they work with local growers to buy the freshest products available. That’s the key to remarkable food.

One of his chefs walked out of the market on Saturday with bags full of organic ingredients and she was so excited about what she found when I stopped to talk to her.

People talk about prices but I’ve found the simple solution. I eat here for lunch and nothing I’ve had – main course or dessert – has been over 100 pesos. 

These stack of ribs were the best I’ve had so far in San Miguel. I also loved the pot stickers.

Let’s talk about quality. Where can you get this quality for 100 pesos? To me, quality really matters.

Dessert alone will bring me back because they are the best I’ve found anywhere in San Miguel.

Essential Mexican Ingredients

I opened my refrigerator the other day. How different things look since I came to San Miguel. I never imagined that lard would ever be a staple in my pantry but it is now.

The ingredients in my cupboards are a combination of smoky, spicy and sweet which pretty much sums up Mexican cooking. And when I cook them…it’s a fiesta of the senses - especially when I am doing a trial and error with chilies.

Actually, maybe you want to come for dinner when the testing is over as some of the dishes I’ve been cranking out lately have been overwhelmingly hot even for me.

One thing I know for sure. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to sit down to a celebrated meal with friends. It’s my sole reason to cook.

I will admit that it was like Cooking 101 all over again when I came to San Miguel. Every day was a struggle to find or even substitute ingredients. After 3 months, I’ve evolved into a somewhat respectable Mexican cook… who still needs to learn to make mole.

Good news is that I’m going to finally be trained on how to make REAL mole from scratch from an abuela that can in all likelihood make it with her eyes closed. I wonder how many generations it took to get to her version of the recipe?

I’m told that I will have to shop for 30 plus ingredients and it will be a long process.Yes, you can cook Mexican but can you make mole? It will be the lesson that sets me apart going forward.

Being in the kitchen is therapy and whenever I’m feeling a little off or anxious or indifferent, cooking centers me. Good thing I also have the Virgin of Purísima in my kitchen to give me a little extra kick when I need it. That has been more often than not lately.

I page through thousands of great Mexican recipes in Diana Kennedy, Patricia Quintana, Fany Gerson, Hugo Ortega and Rick Bayless cookbooks and they all tell their own story. Every time I make them, the story is transformed. A cook put’s their own interpretation and passion into the process changing the recipe for the next generation to improve upon once again.

I just took an inventory and here is a list of the basics I have in my Mexican kitchen. They are the staples that define the dishes I cook… and authentically try to perfect every day.

Buen Apetito!

Mexican Cheese
I go to the markets in town and see beautiful, homemade Mexican cheese every day.

From Cotija to Oaxacan, cheese is the one ingredient I cannot live without and Mexico makes some of the best.

Anchos, Guajillos, Mulatos, Jalapenos, Serranos, Chipotles, Moritas, Pasillas, Habaneros, Poblanos. The list goes on and on.

There are over 100 species of chili peppers grown in Mexico and before I leave, I intend to try and cook with them all.

 This is the first thing I have in my pantry no matter where I am at.

I try to put the wonderful variety of Mexican chocolates in every dish I can.

Looks at this stuff. It looks bad but lard is the secret ingredient to the rich flavor of carnitas and it's what makes Mexican pastry taste so delicious.

Now I know why Mexican grandmothers use lard in their tortillas.

For a girl who LOVES tequila, I did say Mescal. Amazed? Me too. I’ve become a huge fan especially the artisanal brands that utilize wild agave.

Mescal fits into the growing demand for small batch and hand-crafted because it’s made on farms not in factories.

Mexican vanilla beans are thicker and darker and have a smooth, strong, rich fragrance and flavor. Some people say they are the best in the world.

I also make my own by soaking sliced vanilla beans in vodka for at least 6 months.

Mexicans put cinnamon on just about everything. Today it was on a dark and white chocolate mousse.

I am slowly getting use to the taste although I must admit I’ve never had too much love for it.

I’ve always loved avocados not just for guacamole but to slice on top of sandwiches or put in omelets. It’s a healthy ingredient that I just can’t seem to get enough of.

The Hass avocado is my favorite and accounts for an impressive 80% of cultivated avocados in the world.

I eat these fresh with most of my meals. They are good hot with butter and jam and a bilillo is the main ingredient for a torta.

By the way, a torta made with a just-out-of-the-oven Bilillo was my first meal in Mexico. I’ll never forget the taste.

I’ve yet to try making Chorizo from scratch but I’m going to get my butcher to teach me. The flavor is so intense and I like it best with scrambled eggs for breakfast and occasionally in Queso Fundido.

The meat is usually ground rather than chopped, and many seasonings are added to characterize its strong flavor.

Mexican Oregano
This herb shares the flavor of Mediterranean oregano but it is stronger and also carries notes of both citrus and licorice.

It pairs well with hot chili peppers or cumin – both staples in Mexican cooking.

At Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago, there is an item on the menu called Jicama Street Snack that has Jicama, cucumber, pineapple, fresh lime and a crushed guajillo chile.

This is the place I became addicted to Jicama and have searched for creative ways to use it since. I love the crunch.

This Jicama taco is my addiction here in San Miguel.

I was lucky to first have these pads on the BBQ. That is about the only way I can eat them now that I’ve tried them at least a half dozen other ways.

No love or hate here but it does have a fascinating texture.

Squash Blossoms 
I saw Squash Blossoms at Green City Market in Chicago and never bought them until I came to Mexico. Now, I bake them or deep fry them and eat them like candy.

I’ve come to love the delicate texture and flavor and especially the rich squash blossom soup we made in my cooking class back in June.

Because I’m a huge fan of Salsa Verde – it’s the salsa I love the most - tomatillos have always been one of my favorite Mexican ingredients. In fact, this is the one thing I smother on everything including breakfast.

When selecting, chose small tomatillos as they are sweeter than the larger ones. Also, do not buy if the husk is shriveled or dried as it is an indication of the freshness of the fruit.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

San Miguel’s Magical Rooftop Experience

With such clement weather here in San Miguel, many of the restaurants are rooftops offering stunning views of the city.

Most people want to see the lights but I think the daytime vistas are breathtaking.

Here are my three favorite rooftops that I take people to when I want to show off just how dazzling our city views are.

One thing they all have in common? Great service. To me, one of the most important elements of the total restaurant experience is great service.

Salud to the staff at all three restaurants for making my encounter one of the best each and every time I go.

Buen Apetito!

Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar - Rosewood Hotel
Nemesio Diez 11

Because this is one of the more luxurious hotels in the city, people often dismiss this restaurant/bar as being too pricey.

Think again. Honestly, you can have a small plate and a drink for just under 200 pesos or about $15. If I remember correctly, that’s less than the price of a glass of wine at the Trump in Chicago.

The view – PRICELESS.
La Azotea - Umaran 6

This bar, my favorite in San Miguel, also serves small plates and has a mixture of outdoor tables along with covered booths and really cozy couches. Take your pick depending on your mood and try getting up from one of those couches when you’ve had a glass of wine or two on a Tuesday night.

I love the Jicama Taco and happen to think it’s the best taco in Mexico. Served on a Jicama tortilla, I had it with lightly breaded shrimp topped with fried leeks, mayo with chipotle and a tamarind sauce.

I also recently discovered and love this tuna on a thick-cut potato chip with a balsamic vinegar reduction.

La Posadita - Cuna De Allende 13
Tell them that Rick Bayless sent you. When asked awhile back, this was one of the few places Bayless recommended for great Mexican food in San Miguel. It has continually withstood the test of time.

I’ve been here many times for just a drink and you get the same royal treatment as when you eat a meal.

Two More Added To The “Go-To” List …

I am keeping a list of all the great restaurants in San Miguel. After getting so sick at one – not on my list - a few weeks back, I’ve slowed my search down to just a few a week.

I hit the jackpot by adding both to my list today.

Here’s why…

Buen Apetito!

El Meson Hotel - Mesones 80

I’ve walked by this place a million times and never looked inside. San Miguel Lesson One: Always look inside.

Patio 3 consists of the Martinez Bar, the AlegriaRestaurant and the Envinarte Wine Store.

The interior of this place is amazing and also has an assortment of seating areas both inside and out. The bonus is that when you sit inside, you get to gaze at the sky because they also have a retractable ceiling. 

I love this about so many bars and restaurants in San Miguel.

I was told that the Jalapeno Martini – a drink consisting of Jalapeno, Vodka and lemon Juice – was really hot. Perfect I thought. It had some heat but certainly not as much as I had anticipated. It was delicious and I recommend it to anyone who wants to get in the spirit of being in Mexico. I certainly did after just one.

We also had a Matthis Drink which was pure of Mango, peppermint, orange juice with citron vodka, lemon and the rim done in chili. It was also delish.

The waiter, Omar, brought us a dish of Tatemada. This was a really good salsa and I savored the taste. How do you make it?

Grill, broil or griddle 4 tomatoes and 2 to 4 serrano chile peppers until they are blistered all over and blackened in spots on all sides, turning occasionally to ensure even cooking. When cool enough to handle, stem and seed the chiles.
Place the tomatoes and chiles in a blender and blend until the mixture is consistency of a textured salsa, or use a molcajete (a traditional mortar and pestle) to mash. Season to taste with salt.

What fascinated me is that the wine store, housed in a rather dark, romantic room with communal tables and couches, only sold wines from the Valle de Guadalupe. My kind of store. Omar is emailing me the wine menu so I can better educated myself on the wines before I go there.

He also gave me a sampling of Emblema 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Valle de Guadalupe. It was really lovely and I liked it even more when the chill was off it.

I have to say that this is one of the most eye-catching and interesting places in San Miguel. It’s now on my permanent go-to list.

Stay tuned for more as I return to sample bites from the chef who hails from Mexico City and is alleged to be a genius in the kitchen.

The Restaurant - Sollano 16

I’ve heard great things about this place but some people told me it was too expensive.

So how do you fix that problem? You go for lunch instead of dinner.

That’s one great thing about Mexico. Your main meal happens to fall in the middle of the day and the prices are always much more affordable.

I had a lunch to die for– the Thai carnitas salad with lime, Serrano chili, red onion, cilantro and cashews 100 pesos. The dressing was remarkable and simple: fish sauce, lemon and chili flakes. It was the best salad I’ve had since I landed and I’ve been craving one for weeks.

My return trip? The Ancho chili and tequila braised chicken tacos with cilantro and onions. The woman across from me ordered it and when I saw this dish I was tempted to ask her for a bite.

I’m foodie but I’m not that bold. That’s why I went back today.