Saturday, September 28, 2013

Some of the Best Street Food is for Breakfast

Just look at the Catholic calendar and you’ll have a reason to celebrate almost every day this month. In fact, there have been so many “bring-on-the-tequila” moments I’ve lost track of most of them. 

Of course, celebrating means street theater, song and dance, church bells, music, parades, bullfights, fireworks, costumes and of course food and tequila.

That’s one thing I love about Mexico…food is celebrated. It’s the staying power of Mexican culture and the focal point of every fiesta. So what type of food do you typically find at one of these celebrations? Mole, Barbacoa, Carnitas and Mixiotes …all of which I ate this week off the street.

I use the term street food loosely to include market food, palapas and dives. Remember dives are defined as a hole in the wall, not necessary speaking about the way they prepare their food. They are also known by locals as the best place to eat because of both price and the quality.

I for one have never gotten sick on street food in Mexico. Where I did get sick was from a four star restaurant that I did not review or go back to.

I know there are some readers who will take a rain check when it comes to Mexican street food but I have to tell you that you’re missing out on some of the best food in San Miguel. To me most good street fare is simply Mexican comfort food.

Over the years, I have developed street food sensibility. I follow these simple rules before I buy. It’s what I do in Chicago as well as in Mexico.

Does the place look clean? Is it busy? Locals know. Do the food vendors handle the money? Move on if they do. By all means bring your own utensils and make sure the food is fresh cooked and not sitting around all day. Look for good cooking techniques and always remember that lime and chilies have superb antibacterial properties.

Tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel – the patron saint of San Miguel - and the party starts at midnight. I’m going to bed early and bank my sleep again for the second night in a row. Quite frankly I haven’t had a 7:00 bedtime since I was seven.

Another all-nighter you ask? 

You bet! In a few months I’ll be back in Chicago dreaming I have a party that starts at midnight followed by a breakfast that even I would crawl out of a warm cozy bed for.

Buen Apetito!

Barbacoa: Savoring Breakfast Street

One of the great thing I discovered this week? Barbacoa for breakfast. In fact, I realized that every dish I love in Mexico is breakfast food.

I’ve never eaten good Barbacoa until I went to Tuesday market and discovered my neighbor and a couple dozen others lined up at the Rodriquez family barbacoa stand waiting for one of the few seats in order to get a taste of what many call their favorite morning addiction.

The meat is slow-cooked until it is fall-off-the-bone tender. It is seasoned and infused with a flavor that even I’m now mesmerized with cooking. The best part is the consume that’s made with the drippings from the roasted meat. It’s magical.

I get a half a cup of the consume (caldo) without vegetables and a side of Barbacoa. Pile on the chopped onions, cilantro and squeeze a lime or two and you have breakfast that is so rich even I can’t eat a second helping.

How can you find this stand in such a congested market? Easy…just look for the busiest place and follow your nose.

Carnitas: My Go-To Breakfast

Back in Toluca in the early 90’s, we use to go to a little stand that served great carnitas for breakfast. I use to dream about them when I was back in the states and it was always followed by an exercise of trying to make them the next day. I never really knew how to cook them back then so I just kept on dreaming.

I finally did learn how to make excellent carnitas this past June and it was well worth the cooking class I took just to master them. They are not easy to make.

When I’m at the Tuesday market and I’m hungry for a dose of carnitas, my go-to place is the Bautista Brother’s. Perfectly cooked and not dried out like a lot of the other carnitas you see, this is one more dish I’ll put on my Mexican comfort food list. Hundreds of locals who eat there every Tuesday will tell you why.

Mixiotes: My Died and Gone To Food Heaven Breakfast

Of all the dishes I tried this week, Mixiotes was my favorite. I had it for the first time this morning. In fact, it’s one of the best dishes I’ve eaten since I’ve been back in Mexico.

Mixiotes is a specialty dish from Hidalgo (where owner Jose Luis hails from) and it’s made at only one restaurant in San Miguel: El Pato…my new favorite place for breakfast.

If this breakfast palapa at Calzada de la Estacion 175 were any closer to my house I would be there for breakfast every morning. They are open from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM and are closed on Tuesday.

Mixiotes is a little bundle of lamb that is cooked in the broth and has such a rich taste that even I wouldn’t try to duplicate it…that is until I get a few episodes of cooking in an underground pit under my belt… which may not be any time soon.

Even if I didn’t love this place, I would go there just to visit with the owners, Jose Luis and Pilar. They are warm and charming hosts who just happen to have some of the best street food in Mexico.

Pilar told me the reason their food is better than the rest of the pack is because it’s slow-cooked in a pit every night and Jose Luis never buys a lamb that is over 6 months old so the food is consistently rich and sweet. I did not however find it too rich to have a second helping of their regular barbacoa.

I’m sold. In fact, I hope I continue to discover regional dishes like this one but it’s going to be hard to find one that I like any better.

This is the best of the best.

Mole…Lesson II and III

My friend Alex is an artist. Aren’t all chefs? I have a new respect for this one however. He hasn’t cooked at Alinea or Girl and The Goat or some of the other great Chicago restaurants I know. He was a chef in Chicago however for over 17 years and he’s now a cook in San Miguel. He also happens to be one of the best I know. He just doesn’t know it.

Did I doubt him when he told me he would make his mother’s 70-year old mole recipe better? I did. In fact it was a recipe that an 89 year old Mexican food critic (she’s the most honest person I know) said was some of the best mole she’s ever had. I thought so too.

I never thought after just three lessons that I would be able to create what some have called the most complex dish on the planet: Mole. In fact, I’m done and it will be difficult to convince me that any recipe is better than the one we made today. 

The mole was so good in fact that it’s now a family secret…and mine too.

This round container holds the secret ingredients and I have to admit that it was an ingenious method of altering the recipe. But great chefs know food. It’s in their DNA. It’s what separates the good ones from the everyday cooks like me.

But that’s what I came here to work on and a work in progress is a labor of love.

I just don’t know it yet either.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Up To My Elbows in Mole

For most of my cooking life, I’ve wanted to learn to make mole. I had mastered the art of many other Mexican dishes so why not mole?
According to a Mexican friend of mine in Chicago, making mole is too complicated, takes days and has far too many ingredients… half of them difficult if not impossible to find. 

Lesson #1: Never petition the advice of someone who has a major interest in you buying her mother’s mole.
After taking my first mole lesson last week with an abuela who can make it with her eyes closed (I was kidding but look…she did) I can honestly say it was time consuming but a lot easier than I had anticipated.
After all this time it taught me one important lesson: Be fearless in the kitchen!

Every Mexican family has its own version of mole and recipes are passed down for generations. This one is Marinia’s and she’s made mole with her mother and grandmothers for too many years to count. She turns 70 this year.
Beautifully complex with top notes of smoke and undertones of chiles, the depth of flavor had such an authenticity that even I was amazed at how few ingredients could go into a mole and still deliver that wonderful, rich taste.
In fact, her mole blew the theory that there needs to be a lot of ingredients to get the complicated flavors. This one had just 15…few by Mexican standards as some moles have 30 or more ingredients and contain over 10 different varieties of chiles.
Marinia’s son Alex had never learned to make mole so this was a lesson for him as well and as only a chef would do after the lesson was over, he immediately began to talk about his own ideas to perfect her recipe. Let the chile mixture sit for 24 hours before blending? Use a higher-grade chocolate… perhaps dark? The ideas rolled off his tongue like honey. 
Honey – oh that might be an interesting addition as well.

Stay tuned as the chef who just learned to make mole takes his mother’s historical recipe to another level.

Next lesson: Thursday.

Buen Apetito!

Marinia's Mole

Boil a whole chicken without the skin and with an onion until tender.

Remove stems and seeds from chiles and rinse well four times in a colander.
Chile Ancho, about 6 or 7, stemmed and seeded
Pisilla, about 12 or 13, stemmed and seeded
Mulato, about 6, stemmed and seeded

Wash hands thoroughly and rinse with fresh lime juice to neutralize the chile heat.

Place chiles in a saucepan with 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, sprinkle with coarse salt, cover with warm water, put on low heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Toast ½ Cup sesame seeds.

Sauté ½ cup unskinned almonds in oil.

Sauté ½ Cup raisins in the oiled pan.

To the chiles add 1 large cinnamon stick, 3 ounces chocolate, one big sprig each of marjoram and thyme. Simmer 20-25 minutes until chiles are very soft.

Remove cinnamon and herbs and then add the raisins and almonds.

Put chile mixture into blender, add sesame seeds and some of the broth from the chicken to reach desired consistency.

Sauté 2 tablespoons white onion and 3 cloves garlic in sauce pan. Add blended chile mixture, simmer 10-15 minutes. Remove onion and garlic.

Allow to set 12 - 24 hours for flavors to meld. 

Salt to taste and serve with yellow or white rice, raw onion rings and a sprinkle of sesame seeds over the chicken pieces.

The Cost of a Good Breakfast

Most mornings I am good with a quick meal and a smoothie or a breakfast sandwich will do. But because breakfast is my favorite meal, sometimes I love to take my time, sit down and pamper myself with good healthy food served on beautiful tableware with fresh flowers and homemade cherry or pineapple marmalade. My view: the hotel pool.

Everyone has orange marmalade but who has cherry (The Matilda) or even pineapple (The Sierra Nevada) for that matter.

The cost of this breakfast? 55 pesos ($4.28). Hard to believe that it was just 5 pesos ($0.39) more than the breakfast sandwich I got the other morning and this came from the kitchen at Hotel Matilda.

It is one of the least expensive breakfasts I've had in San Miguel and also one of the best.
And doesn't breakfast taste better served on china instead of a paper plate?

Buen Apetito!

Four Restaurants…Four Very Different Experiences.

Loreto 10B

It’s no wonder this restaurant is rated number One on Trip Advisor for the second year in a row. Their secret: Service! The service is reason alone for me to come back. It has all the other makings of a restaurant that will make my repeat list – a great menu, a warm and friendly staff, impressive and speedy service and a wide variety of very fresh food.

They have a lunch special and for 99 pesos you can get soup, an entrée, drink and dessert.

I was not hungry and just had a bowl of Aztec soup. It was delicious and the broth was a lot like the one in the Sopa de Sabado recipe below.

The staff? They treated me as if I had spent 500 pesos instead of just 50.

La Cocina de Boris y Jessi
Ancha de San Antonio #35

I was on the Ancha and popped into La Cocina de Boris y Jessi. The last time I checked their website they had biscuits and gravy on the menu. They were not. Jessi said they sometimes have them now as a Saturday special.

I had the scrambled egg on a muffin with bacon. It was a quick breakfast but what I did notice is that it only had one slice of bacon. I like my bacon. The egg was good and seemed almost chopped rather than scrambled. The tab was 50 pesos.

Maybe it’s because I was counting on biscuits and gravy that I was disappointed.

Nothing against La Cocina de Boris y Jessi. The service was good. Better hop in early though because there are only a few tables. Boris is a well known chef from Sonoma and cooks for a lot of private events.

I’m going to give this place a second try. Maybe by then I’ll be over wishing that biscuits and gravy were on someones menu in San Miguel.

Casa de Sierra Nevada 

Right around the corner from my house is Casa de Sierra Nevada – one of the best hotels in San Miguel. I went there for breakfast two days in a row.

Can you tell what the experience is going to be on your first try? One of my friends says she needs two or more times to evaluate it. Me - I can usually tell the first time out. Anyway, it gave me an excuse to eat there twice.

The first day I dove into pancakes with delicious toffee cajeta butter. On a scale of 1 to 10 they were an 11. The presentation was not only exquisite but this stack had great flavors. Only in Mexico do you get cajeta for breakfast.

The next day, it was Eggs Benedict, one of my favorite feasts for brunch. The hollandaise was nearly perfect and what set this apart from all the rest of the Eggs Benedict I’ve had in San Miguel is that it was done with fresh chorizo. It was worth it for me just to experience the taste of fresh made chorizo. I can’t say that any other chorizo I’ve tasted has been this good.

Casa de Sierra Nevada Hotel was not expensive for the quality of the food and the service. The room was also beautiful. 

The bonus: Free use of pool after buying breakfast or lunch in their restaurant. 

So what did I do after breakfast? Dessert. Hey, it was raining!

Café Rama – Round Two

If you want great fish and chips, this is the place. Lightly-battered and cooked to perfection, it was served with a delicious pickle-infused potato salad and homemade potato chips (YUM!) seasoned with chili powder.

The Margaritas...and notice the plural…were magnificent. I really loved the blend of sweet and sour but at 90 pesos a pop, I have to rethink whether I would order them again. We asked the waiter if it was made with a special tequila which would have explained the price difference but he said it was just bar tequila.

I loved the food but I can think of a dozen other places where you can also get a good Margarita at about half the price. 

Problem is, I still like this Margarita the best of any I've had in San Miguel.

Café Rama is at Calle Nueva 7 in San Miguel.

Buen Apetito x 4!