Thursday, September 12, 2013

Eating My Way Through Puebla

Puebla, 45 Km from the volcano Popocatepetl, is Mexico’s fourth largest city. The reason most people come to Puebla is to eat. With its unique combination of Indigenous, Spanish and Arab influences, Puebla has created one of Mexico's most dynamic cuisines. In fact, many gourmets and food writers consider the renowned turkey in mole poblano, which contains chocolate, to symbolize the culmination of Mexican cooking tradition. I will not argue.

Fresh off the road from Puebla and feeling like I did nothing but eat while I was there, I’m in the mood for a little…well…mole. I’m always in the mood for mole these days.

Moles are so exquisitely delicious they can give one the same pleasure as well-aged wines. And pairing? I am a white wine drinker but with many moles, particularly the black ones, you need a bold, heavy red. The complexity, depth and big flavors of moles are well-built and cannot be compared with any other dish. Mole is in a class of its own.

Another well-known dish, Chiles en Nogada, was one that I took a taste of but never did order. It was way too rich for my taste. The dish represents the colors of the Mexican flag – green (polio chili pepper), white (the walnut sauce) and red (pomegranate seeds).

The signature dish of Puebla for me was the cemita. I love this sandwich and did not realize the complexity of building it until I watched the staff at Cemitas Las Polentas. Cemitas Las Polentas in the Mercado del Carmen was one of those well-oiled machines. I would love to work there for a day just to experience it.

As a food city, there is now doubt that Puebla takes one of Mexico’s top spots. Your next best meal is just around the corner or turn down a back alley (where I found La Purificadora) or go to an out-of-the-way market (like Mercado San Pedro at Cholula) and you’ll taste some of the best food in Mexico.

Here are the highlights…

Buen Apetito!

Restaurant Purificadora
Callejon de la 10 Norte 80

Famed chef Enrique Olvera created the menu and I have to admit that this was one of the best meals I’ve had since I have been in Mexico. 

Here is what was on my menu that night:

Plato de Degustacion La Puri cadora (Flor de Calabaza, Chalupas, Tlacoyo)
Tasting Plate La Puri cadora (Squash Blossons, Chalupas, Tlacoyo)

Tiradito de Garra de León, Limon Aceite de Oliva Valle de Guadalupe
Diver Scallop Pet Baja California Olive Oil Lime juice

Fondant de Chocolate al Mezcal y Nube de Jamaica
Hot Fudge Chocolate with Mezcal and Sorbet Hibiscus

2007 Veranda Chardonnay Vino Blanco
Valle de Casablanca, Vino de Chile

I loved all of the dishes I ate and each had its own unique flavors.

The scallop had an unusual presentation  - it was shaved.

They also made a red-brown chili sauce that was excellent as a spread on homemade tiny, hot bolillos. The chili they used was one I had never heard of before. I’ve written them to ask about it.

     Photo: La Purificadora

After you’ve eaten more than you should have – so easy to do with their delicious and artful desserts - go to the roof of the hotel and take a swim in their lap pool. Their open-air bar serves marvelous cocktails including Cucumber-Jicama or Hyacinth margaritas.

      Photo: La Purificadora

La Purificadora also houses a small, elegant hotel.

One of the things I look forward to seeing at the market and on the street here in Mexico is Squash blossom flowers. The flowers are so exquisite and the best way to cook them is to dip them in batter and fry them just like a tempura as La Purificadora did. 

The Purificadora also added some cheese which you can for this recipe. They are best when they are served hot.

20 or so male zucchini flowers, pistils removed
1/2 cup flour
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Olive oil or canola oil

Dry the flowers.

Beat flour, cream, water, the 1/4 teaspoon salt and the pepper together until smooth. Refrigerate the batter for several hours.

Pour 1 inch of oil into a large skillet. Heat over medium high.

Dip the flowers into the batter, draining off excess. Fry 4-5 pieces at a time, turning once or twice until they're crisp and golden brown on all sides—about 4 minutes.

Drain the flowers on paper towels and sprinkle them with salt. Serve hot.

Cemitas Las Poblanitas, Mercado Del Carmen
2 Sur y 21 Oriente|Mercado el Carmen,Puebla,Mexico

Making cemitas is a bona fide art form and dozens of Las Poblanitas staff members have this operation down to a science. You have to see it to understand the efficiency.

You think a lot of people are working this cemita counter? Just look at the long line of people waiting to get one. I came at mid-day and the lines were brutal. I’m told no matter what time you come, there are always hungry and patient customers.

As staff was pounding thin then breading and frying the meat, there is an assembly line piling the ingredients on. They could not be any fresher.

There is the bread itself, the cemita buns that are made of egg much like a brioche and then topped with sesame seeds. They are sliced and filled with avocado, pickled jalapenos, lettuce, tomato, and large handfuls of white cheese. It’s then drizzled with oil and crowned with a slice of ham.

The biggest challenge? Getting your mouth around one. I thought that I would never eat a whole cemita but I did. 

I was looking for an authentic encounter and this cemita episode is now in my top ten food experiences ever.

Here is a good recipe from and what I forgot the first time around was the oil. The only really makes a difference. 

Puebla-Style Cemitas

4 chicken breasts (skinned, deboned and butterflied) or pork or beef - Milanese style
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 whole eggs, beaten
1 cup dried bread crumbs
½ cup canola oil for frying
4 egg-rich sesame seed buns
4 avocados, sliced
Pickled jalapenos and cauliflower
Shredded lettuce
Sliced tomato
½ lb Oaxaca-style cheese, shredded (or substitute shredded mozzarella)
4 chipotles in adobo sauce, thinly sliced
1 medium-sized white onion, sliced into ½-inch-thick rings
8 slices Black Forest ham
4 tbsp good-quality olive oil

Season the meat with salt and black pepper.

To make the cutlets, place the flour, egg and bread crumbs on separate plates.

Dredge the meat in the flour and shake off the excess. Then dip the breast in the egg and coat well with bread crumbs.

Place on a plate and repeat with the remaining breasts. Transfer the breaded meat to the fridge for 20 minutes.

Heat frying pan over medium high heat. Once the pan is hot, heat the oil and fry the cutlets.

When the bread crumbs on the bottom of the cutlet turn golden-brown, flip the breast using a fork or tongs and fry for 5 more minutes or until golden.

Set aside on paper towels to drain and keep warm.

To assemble the cemita, slice the buns in half. Distribute half of the avocado slices among the 4 bottom halves of the buns. Place a cutlet over the avocado. Top with the other ingredients and finish with a slice of ham and the rest of the avocado.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over each cemita and cover with the top of the bun.

Street Food

In just about every back alley, you can find great street food.

Taco Aribe, invented by Puebla's Lebanese immigrants, are rich tacos served on a thick flour tortilla much like a pita. The meat is marinated in a blend of garlic, spices, serrano and other chilies. It is then rotisserie-cooked until the aromatics almost melt into the meat. It’s carved off a vertical rotisserie and topped with a salsa of puréed chipotle peppers, an everyday Poblano ingredient.

Purists claim that real Tacos Arabe is made by layering pork loin and onions on a spit and then slowly roasting everything over very hot coals. All I know is some of the best Tacos Arabe can be found at the markets or on just about every back street in Puebla. 

Don’t forget to bring a map!

Molotes are made by street vendors in the alley across from the Jardín del Carmen and are a quick and easy breakfast.

Makes 12

2 cups masa harina
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vegetable shortening
½ teaspoon salt
2½ cups warm water
Filling as desired
Vegetable oil to a depth of 1-inch

In a large bowl thoroughly mix the flours and baking powder. Add the shortening and salt and mix well. Add water to give the dough the consistency of soft cookie dough. Divide into 12 balls and cover with plastic wrap.

Using a tortilla press, flatten a ball of the dough between sheets of plastic to make a medium-large (5-inch) tortilla. Remove the top piece of plastic.

Add your desired filling to one side of the tortilla, then fold in half and press edges together with a fork creating a seal.

Fry in a little oil until golden brown for about 2 minutes each side.

Drain on paper towels. Eat warm.

Meson Sacristía de la Compañía
6 sur 304 Callejón de los Sapos

Located on the “Street of the Frogs” in the antique area of Puebla, this 250 year old house is a treasure of Mexican gastronomic preservation. Senora Lupita Escobar’s recipes come from nearby villages in an effort to keep time-honored Mexican cooking techniques and ingredient front and center.

Meson Sacristía also has cooking classes that are run by Chef Alonso Hernández. If I had been there a few days longer, I would have signed up for a class.

We ordered the traditional Mole Poblano served over pork. It was delicious, complex, and the smooth sauce had just a hint of spice and chocolate at the end.

This recipe for Mole Poblano over chicken has far more ingredients than the one I will cook on Tuesday. My abuela insists that you do not have to use so many ingredients to achieve the same rich flavors. More on mole next week.
Pollo en Mole Poblano
Recipe: Saveur

2 oz. dried mulato chilies
1 oz. dried ancho chilies
1 oz. dried pasilla chilies
1 (3–4-lb.) whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ small plum tomato, cored
½ medium tomatillo, husks removed, rinsed
¼ small white onion, peeled
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ tsp. whole cloves
½ tsp. whole allspice berries
¼ tsp. coriander seeds
¼ tsp. whole black peppercorns
¼ tsp. anise seeds
½ stick cinnamon, preferably canela
¼ ripe plantain or banana, peeled and finely chopped
½ small corn tortilla, roughly chopped
3 tbsp. whole almonds
1 ½ tbsp. sesame seeds, plus more for garnish
2 tbsp. raisins
¼ stale bolillo or 1 slice white sandwich bread, toasted and crumbled
1 tbsp. lard or canola oil
2 oz. Mexican chocolate, such as Ibarra, roughly chopped
1 tbsp. finely chopped piloncillo or packed light brown sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt
Mexican-style rice for serving 

Heat a 12" skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add mulato, ancho, and pasilla chilies, and cook, turning once, until toasted, about 2 minutes. Transfer all chilies to a large bowl; pour over 5 cups boiling water and let sit until chilies are soft, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving soaking liquid, and remove stems and seeds from chilies, reserving 1 tsp. seeds from chilies. Set seeds aside, and transfer chilies to a food processor; add 1 cup soaking liquid, and process until smooth. Set chile purée and remaining soaking liquid aside. Bring chicken and 8 cups water to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan over high heat, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until tender, about 45 minutes. Drain; set aside.

Meanwhile, arrange an oven rack 4" from broiler element, and heat broiler to high. Place garlic, tomato, tomatillo, and onion on a foil-lined baking sheet, and broil, turning as needed, until all vegetables are charred all over, about 15 minutes. Transfer vegetables to food processor, and process until smooth; set vegetable purée aside.

Heat butter in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add reserved chile seeds, cloves, allspice, coriander, peppercorns, anise seeds, and canela, and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 6 minutes. Add plantain, and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Add tortilla, and cook, stirring, until lightly toasted, about 6 minutes. Add almonds and sesame seeds, and cook, stirring, until lightly toasted, about 8 minutes. Add reserved chile purée and vegetable purée, along with raisins and bread, and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until all ingredients are softened, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, and transfer mole to blender along with remaining soaking liquid; purée until very smooth, at least 4 minutes.

Return saucepan to medium-high heat, and add lard. When hot, add mole and fry, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Add chocolate, piloncillo, and salt, and cook until chocolate and sugar dissolve and sauce is smooth, about 10 minutes. Arrange chicken on a platter, liberally cover with the sauce, and sprinkle with sesame seeds; serve with red rice, if you like.

Mercado Sabores
4 Poniente between 11 and 13 Norte

This “Market of Flavors” is a very modern market with rows and rows of food stalls. You’ll get lost with over 130 vendors selling tacos arabes, pelonas, memelas, mole, cemitas and more. You’ll also get the widest variety of food options here from independents to well-known fixtures such as El Girofle Tortas and Tacos Tony.

You see that the cemitas in this market are only half the size of Cemitas Las Poblanitas.

Mercado San Pedro at Cholula

One of the most authentic food markets in Mexico, I consider it to be a classic. Located about 15 minutes from Puebla, you can immerse yourself in what are real food experiences and be transported back to some of the finest traditional cooking methods in Mexico.

From the supplier who carried a whole pig through the market (he looked stressed) to an impressive lineup of food stalls that served everything from mole to Albondigas Soup, I only had a few hours to check it out. I felt like a lot of genuine food encounters were lost to the clock and I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this market.

Albondigas Soup
Recipe from

1/2 lb lean ground beef
1/2 lb chorizo sausage – not the fully cooked kind with casing removed
1 egg, beaten
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 carrot, minced
1/2 cup cooked rice
1/2 cup cilantro leaf, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin

6 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, cut in chunks
1 (16 ounce) cans diced tomatoes with nothing added
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 cup cilantro
1 large zucchini, sliced

Make the meatballs first: Combine everything and mix thoroughly.

Form meatballs and roll between your palms otherwise, meatballs will fall apart in the soup. Make around 20 to 24 meatballs and set aside.

Combine chicken broth, onion, celery, tomatoes and their liquid, cumin, oregano and cilantro leaves in a large pot.

Bring to broil, and reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Drop meatballs in the soup. Make sure the soup is slightly boiling as the meatballs need to be cooked quickly.


I only had a few days so there are two more restaurants that I want to go to on my next trip to Puebla:

Calzada Concepcion Zavaleta 5624 Colonia Zavaeta 

Chef Ángel Vázquez will spoil you as he changes up his menu every week with less traditional Mexican food including takeoffs on Thai, Japanese, French and Greek.

Chef Vazquez will be participating in Chicago Gourmet 2013 as a visiting chef this year. Chicago Gourmet, presented by Bon Appétit, is a celebration of food and wine that showcases more than 100 of Chicago’s finest restaurants and chefs as well as renowned and international vintners, spirit makers, and premium breweries. It runs September 27-29, 2013 in Millennium Park. 

Also, if you go to my blog, there are photos from previous shows. It is considered to be one of the top food shows in the world.

Restaurante La Noria
41 Poniente y 23 Sur

With a beautiful Mexican patio and state-of-the-art Mexican cooking, La Noria is located in what used to be a beautiful Hacienda.

I am told that the moles here are to die for and they serve everything from Maguey worms to Leg of Lamb in Mole Peanut Nugget.