Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Year in San Miguel

I've been based in San Miguel for almost a year now and there have been so many memorable moments. 

I call them MexicoMoments. You know, the kind that makes you fall in love with Mexico all over again.

Recapping my year, here are some thoughts while preparing to leave Mexico's most enchanting city, San Miguel de Allende.


Buen Apetito!


It's the light here in SMA that makes taking pictures so spectacular. There’s something almost divine about it, particularly in the late afternoon.

As a photographer, light is everything so MexicoMoments happen daily. 

Traveling Mexico

From Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, Queretaro, Morelia, Patzcuaro, Puebla, Guadalajara,Tonola, Tlaquepaque,Toluca and Mexico DF to the tiny town of Santa Rosa, there have been so many MexicoMoments I quit counting.

This year, I came under the spell of Oaxaca. My sole purpose for going there was to eat. I tried and loved just about everything. 

For years, I've been told that the food in Oaxaca was the best in Mexico but like every other foodie, I had to see for myself. It took just one plate of dark, rich, and wonderfully sweet and spicy mole negro at Catedral Restaurante and Bar in Oaxaca to convince me.

Oaxaca food is not immediately obvious, often rich, complex and layered with flavors. From the market culture to the intriguing taste of the black mole, Oaxaca's culinary scene is worth exploring over and over again. In fact, we're going back next year for another look. 

Preparing To Travel

Trip Advisor is The Bible in Mexico but I use many other sources when deciding where to eat.

I ask more than a few people where I should eat. Not people who have been to the place where I'm traveling ten years ago but people who have been there in the past year. 

I read food blogs because the information is current and will steer you in the right direction when it comes to finding great food. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a food blogger with parallel tastes who covers the city extensively.

I email both chefs and food bloggers with specific questions. They almost always answer.

When I get to a city, I follow the crowds, ask a million questions and read local papers and magazines. I also read between the lines and always consider the source of my information.

I am one of the first people to admit that you can never have too much information when it comes to making food choices.


Mexico Time

Get use to it. Comida may be at 2 or 3 or maybe even 4 PM. And if you get to a restaurant on time, you're early. 

Acknowledge, Accept, Adapt and Adjust. It's just the way it is.

What's So Hot About Chili Peppers?

Chili + Chocolate = Endorphin Rush. A country after my own cravings.

For a girl who could barely eat Red Hots a year ago, I am now craving habaneros. Yes, everything tastes better with a chili on it. 

Make It From Scratch

A tortilla made with just-ground corn is a taste revelation. The first time I made one I was blown away by the flavor. 

After years, I am asking for corn tortillas instead of flour.


I seem to remember an old wives tale that it was good to eat cold food when it was cold and hot food when it is hot. 

So goes Mexico eating Pozole, Menudo, Azteca, and Tortilla when it's 80 degrees outside. 

Desserts: Never Count Your Calories

How often do I close my eyes just to enjoy a MexicoMoment while eating dessert?

From Churros, Flan or my favorite marshmallow ice cream dish at the Restaurant, Mexican desserts are too good to be counting calories. Just dig in and walk a few extra miles the next day.

If it's your birthday, you're allowed to do doubles.

Your Mexican Kitchen 

A cazuela is as important as a cast-iron pan is to a Southern cook. 

These clay pots are great for cooking soups, beans or stews. It holds a steady heat allowing foods to cook both slowly and evenly.

It’s no wonder that Cazuelas are collected by Mexican families and handed down through the generations. 

Some people are so attached to them they even give them a name. I call mine flaco trusting that the calories will burn out of whatever it is I'm cooking.

Ethnic Eats

Who would ever think that some of the best Mexican eggs would be found at Oso Azul, a Scandinavian restaurant here in SMA?

I also discovered the best Japanese dish, Okonomiyaki, at a tasting dinner at Casa de Cocinas where Chef Michael Coon makes MexicoMoments every week.

The Japanese pancake is made with cabbage and shallots topped with crispy pork belly, bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, bull dog sauce and toasted nori. 

It's my favorite ethnic dish this year.

Some of the best ethnic eats are found in places where you least expect them.

Vitamin D

You can get it from fatty fish, tuna or milk. I get it from the sun. 

Goodbye Chicago winters. That's why I moved here in the first place.

Under 100 Pesos

There are so many places in San Miguel that will not break the bank when it comes to eating. In fact, I did a series of three posts back in June on where to eat a meal for under 100 pesos. 

And now, with so many new restaurants opening up in town, the list continues to grow.

If you think a restaurant is pricy, then why can I get...?

A beautiful Yogurt, granola and a fruit plate at Hotel Matilda for 55 pesos

A spicy and strong Michelada at The Restaurant for 40 pesos

A Croissant and a Conga at Cumpanio for 64 pesos

Fresh Ceviches at La Parada for 25-35 pesos

A one-of-a-kind Jicama taco with shrimp at La Azotea for 45 pesos

Memorable Tapas at Tapas sma for 30-95 pesos 

Do your research before you decide on a restaurant. Some of them will surprise you.

Real Mexico: Market Food

Some of the great tastes of Mexico are in the markets...

Like a Guacamaya sandwich at Hidalgo Market in Guanajunto.

A Deli sandwich at La Jersey in Mercado San Juan, Mexico City.

Cemitas at Cemitas Las Polentas in Mercado del Carmen, Puebla.

Grilled meat in Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre market. 

It's the first place I head when I hit a new town. You'll instantly know what the locals are eating.

Toss the Silverware

There's nothing better than shoveling a plate of brains and eyes down with a corn tortilla. No need for silverware when you've got a tortilla. 

In Mexico you eat with your hands!

I Use To Be Afraid Of Bugs; Now I Eat Them!

Gusanos (maguey worms), Jumiles (stink bugs), Chicatanas (giant winged ants), Escamoles (ant larvae) oftentimes referred to as insect caviar, Ahuatle (water-fly eggs), Cuchamás (green caterpillars), Chapulines (grasshoppers), Alacránes (scorpions), Libélulas (dragonflies), and Escarabajos (beetles). I haven't tried an insect I didn't like.

Now Huitlacoche (corn fungus) and Nopales (cactus that is stripped of its spikes)...that's another story.

Food Always Tastes Better With Family 

Adopted or otherwise.

Mexican Ingredients

I crave a BLT and have found that some of the best ingredients are made in Mexico.

First the bread and nothing better than a crunchy baguette from MiVida. 

There is a bacon here called tocino con grasa. Not sure why it's called that because it has more meat on it than any American bacon and it's sliced super thin. 

A Mexican BLT? Most people have never heard of it but they are significantly better than the American version. 

What you make will only be as good as the ingredients you put in it. 

Hometown Favorites

I found mine. 

This Chicago dog has great flavor and Chucho has all of those authentic Chicago dog ingredients down to a science. 35 pesos.

Make It At Home

I've been braver in the kitchen since I've been here in San Miguel. In fact, if I can't find something out, I find a good recipe and make it at home. 

Isn’t it funny that you have to go to Mexico to learn how to make good fried chicken? This must be what 'southern' living is all about.

Culinary Alchemy: The Molcajete 

The flavors and textures you get from grinding things by hand are just better. Case in point: Guacamole and Salsas.

The best red salsa is very simple to make…fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, sea salt, jalapeno and serrano peppers, a pinch of sugar, easy on the cider vinegar and fresh cilantro.

Painless Cooking: You Don't Need 21 Ingredients to Make a Mole 

After taking my first mole lesson 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. 

Lesson One: Be fearless in the kitchen.

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.

Beyond the BBQ: Outdoor Cooking

In many respects, Mexico is very similar to Asia. Taco carts like Andy's on Insurgentes and the one on San Francisco across from Intercam prove that some of the best things to eat in San Miguel are made on the street and cost less than 10 pesos.

Cooking at home? Here in SMA, the temperature is so constant that you can use an outdoor kitchen year round like this one in the home of my cooking teacher.

Celebrating With Food 

Nothing ever starts or ends on time in Mexico and fiestas are no exception. 

Of course, celebrating means street theater, song and dance, church bells, music, parades, bullfights, fireworks, costumes, cherry bombs and of course food and tequila which is 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 eat every week on the street.

From Mexican Independence Day to Day of the Dead, Mexico’s biggest holiday, fiestas are one thing that Mexico does exceptionally well. In fact, there are so many of them I have to dig out my Catholic calendar to figure out which one it is.

Pass the Salt; Lessons On Tequila

What is a biased opinion? When you know the price of Casa Dragones before you taste it. You never want to hide Casa Dragones in a mixer but do want to hide it from your friends. It’s so expensive but so worth it.

And what does the price of tequila have to do with it anyway? 

Some of the best Margaritas are made with cheap tequila.Take Hotel Sautto, where they use some of the least expensive and oldest (1879) made tequila in Mexico - Orendain Tequila Blanco.  

There are so many great Margaritas here...traditional, pineapple, tamarind. 

I've tried them all but I still like a traditional on the rocks with salt. The pineapple Margarita at the Restaurant is a close second.

I've tried to survive the 2X1 Margaritas at Hansen's but at 6800 Feet Above Sea Level, two Margaritas = one Margarita too many!

And Mezcal…

This may require me to give up my long-time nickname "The Tequila Queen" and officially declare that I am having a love affair with Mezcal.

In Mexico, they have an expression that mezcal is meant to be kissed. In other words sip it slowly to allow a deep connection and if you don't get the instant connection, try it again. 
This just might go on all night. Disappointed?

8ViBoras won the double gold at San Francisco spirits show in 2013 and Gold in 2014 for their Blanco Joven Espadin Agave Mezcal. They also won 2013's Best Mezcal and Best Unaged White Spirit. It is so smooth and trust small glass will drastically improve your Spanish.

Valle de Guadalupe Wines

Call it "the other Mexico", you'll go back in time because Valle de Guadalupe is what Sonoma and Napa Valleys were like 50 years ago.

I heard recently that the area is still going through a lot of growing pains. 

Always the most interesting time to take a solo visit don't you think?

Some of the Best Wines in Mexico Are The Least Expensive

Antares Chardonnay $58 pesos
XA Vinos DOMECQ Blanc de Blancs $89 pesos
L.A Cetto Petit Shiraz $98 pesos
Santa Digna Chardonnay $128 pesos

Beer 301

Lesson One: Mexican beer needs to be served ice cold and never - ever - ever - in a glass.

My interest in beer has peaked since I came to San Miguel not only because Mexico has always produced quality beers (even the average brews in Mexico are better than what you get in the states) but hiking the hills here can really make you thirsty. 

Hardly a go-to for beer snobs, Corona may be a best seller but it's not considered one of the best beers in Mexico. What is? Bohemia Obscura, Negra Modelo, Dos XX Ambar, Minerva and a whole slew of other craft beers coming on the scene like Dos Aves, a fantastic craft beer brewed in San Miguel. 

Let's hope brewmaster Mark Taylor will make our MexicoMoment this Christmas and dreams up another holiday brew.

Champagne Like Tequila: A Denomination of Origin

Champagne is a drink of jubilation for which MexicoMoment memories are made. 

When you hear the cork pop it signals that a party is about to go down. I love parties. 

And if you're looking for a great glass of champagne, like I always am, La Cava is the ticket.

I discovered this Spanish bubbly earlier this year at the Cava Sautto Wine Fest back in February.

The Morning After

I swear Mexico has more hangover cures than any other country in the world.

Try Chilaquiles, Menudo or a Micheladas just for starters.

High Altitude Baking 

Even with a high altitude baking class with Susan Purdy, author of the award winning cookbook 'Pie In The Sky', I still can't make popovers. 

I'm betting that Claudia will take on the challenge when I return. We have a date.

Claudia started making her pies when she was 9 years old with her German grandfather. 

I was never a fan of Lemon Meringue until I tasted hers. 

The Mexican Thing To Do...

Paint It Rosa

Rosa Mexicano. Hex: #E4007C and RGB: 228,0,124. It's the color of Mexico.

My fascination with the color Rosa began when I first came to Mexico years ago. My obsession started when I saw Vanessa's Rosa tortillas.

Rosa is considered a symbol of national identity in Mexico. It also represents Mexican charisma.

Rosa is the one color that represents the Mexican color palette. I see Rosa and it instantly makes me want to break out in song and start dancing. Rosa makes me happy.

Seeing the world through Rosa-colored glasses these days? Blame it on San Miguel. It has that magic.

Build An Altar

Dia de Los Muertos is Mexico’s most important holiday. It will be here next week and I'll be gone. 

I’ve loved this holiday ever since I lived in Mexico in the late 60’s and saw the celebrations first hand. The cemeteries are full of all-night gatherings and one tribute is as amazing as the next.

The holiday is observed November 1st and 2nd – All Saints Day and All Souls Day - and centers on gathering friends and family to pray for, remember and celebrate friends and family members who have died. 

People build altars at home to honor the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. 

They also go to the cemetery and decorate graves, building altars there as well and staying up all night on November 1st to commemorate.

I started building my altar years ago. I leave it up during the holidays and it is a daily reminder of the magnificent things that people who have passed brought to my life while they were here. 

Isn’t it amazing how your culinary style is defined by the great chefs of your past? Celebrate by creating the dishes they taught you to cook. My mom loved Chinese food so I often cook Chinese during this time. 

I also put up a photo of my old boyfriend who is not dead. It's a time of renewal. With this holiday, I bury the past and move on with the new. Honestly, it feels tremendous to get rid of the baggage.

So where will you put your altar? Mine is in my kitchen because nearly all of the people I love who have died were crazy about both cooking and eating.

I’m hoping that my family will celebrate me on Day of the Dead long after I am gone. I know they wouldn't forget to bring the tequila.

It's a festive and joyous time of celebration and on November 1st this year, I will be in Tulsa celebrating my son's wedding. 

La Purísima is a celebration to the purest conception of the Virgin Mary, taking place on December 8th. The celebration itself grew into a national festival where cities and towns now complete to create the biggest and best altars. 

‘Purísimas’ themselves are made for gratitude for miracles and usually last nine days.

She is the icon I have chosen to watch over my kitchen in San Miguel. 

Why? I need some kitchen miracles of my own.

Living The Good Life

Expect The Unexpected. That's what I love most about San Miguel. I can turn a corner or go down a street and I never know what I’m going to find. 

And just when you think that you’ve seen it all, something new appears for yet another MexicoMoment.