Saturday, August 29, 2015

Restaurante El Mandil Pátzcuaro

It's not often that Pátzcuaro is blessed by an attractive new restaurant, especially one that offers an ample variety of well seasoned dishes. What's more, as a buffet with seconds at no extra cost. All this for a paltry sum of $60 Mexican pesos.

Restaurante El Mandil is located in the venerable Posada Hotel Mesón de San Antonio. (Those of you who have good memories will recall that I once helped organize a cooking class in the very same kitchen and dining room, in partnership with the hotel owners. But I haven't had any business connection with them for many years.)

Mesón de San Antonio
Restaurante El Mandil turned up on my sights only yesterday, while searching Tripadvisor for new and different Pátzcuaro dining possibilities. The cynics among us, myself included, usually consider this a hopeless effort. But there it was: a solitary review of Restaurante El Mandil, written by an apparent visitor from San Miguel de Allende. Sr. Kamman gave it 5 stars all around. The concept had considerable appeal, as I was tired of the generally touristic menus of Pátzcuaro restaurants, offering Mexican fare diluted for expat tastes; but on the other hand, I was not interested in la comida típica de cocinas económicas. When we were joined by our two friends, and entered the imposing, refectory style dining room, we were pleasantly surprised.

Restaurante El Mandil dining room
The way it works is that you pay at the cashier desk as you enter, and receive a ticket. You choose a table and put the ticket where a staff member can retrieve it later.

You then walk up to the buffet line, staffed by attentive and helpful employees. My only difficulty was identifying and remembering the various guisados. The servers will help you out, and you can get what you want, and seconds, too. (I was very discreet and restrained and didn't try for thirds.)

Here's a photo sampling of some of the many dishes. (I should also mention that various dishes are refreshed and replaced with new ones in the course of the service.)

Cocina del Restaurante El Mandil. Chef Ismael in right background
Clockwise, from top left: Calabacitas, Crema de brocolí, Frijoles, Bisteces y papas en salsa verde.
Unidentified egg in salsa dish (Huevos albañil?)

Carne de res en chile negro: very tasty but a little tough

Chiles rellenos de queso

Pollo salteado con verduras
Spaghetti? I passed on this one.

The salsas and condiments did not inflame my attention.

Tortillas were made by hand and freshly cooked al comal. There were two baskets, one of crisp and dry tortillas, the other of light colored and pliable ones.

Oddities would appear on the line from time to time. I enjoyed a very tasty bean burrito, and later in the meal, these nifty hamburgers showed up. (I skipped trying them, you'll be pleased to know.)

I enjoyed the rice with fresh vegetables. It was light and neither oily or soggy, as is too often the case elsewhere.

The simple desserts were a little unusual:
L-R: Calabacitas endulzadas; Camotes, fresh fruit mix
These alitas a la Diabla showed up later in the service. I passed on these, having been told that they were muy picante.

alitas (chicken wings) in spicy sauce (Hot Wings!)
The Tortitas de Carne were also muy picante, but very popular.

Tortitas de carne
See all the photos here.

Now for some ratings. 

Food: *** 1/2 The food is best described as comida casera, or home style cooking. It is fresh and abundant, and a big step up from the usual comida económica fare.

Service: *** 1/2

Ambience: **** Note that some tables have benches and not chairs. There are tablecloths!

Price: At $60 pesos per person for all you want to eat, a tremendous bargain. Drinks and a small dessert included.

Also serves breakfast, also buffet style, from 9:00 a.m. (I think)
Comida from 2:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m.

Closed Mondays.

We would definitely return.

Location: Calle Benigno Serrato 33, near the corner of Asencíon, across from the eastern end of the Basilica.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Three R's: Rezza Ristorante at Rosedale (NJ)

Every year during our summer visit to New Jersey, we have made it a tradition to meet our niece and her husband at a restaurant midway between their home in northern Connecticut and our temporary nest in northern New Jersey.

But for the last two years, we'd become averse to driving the local busy tollways, and so they have graciously driven to us. Last Year we met at Costanera, a Peruvian style restaurant in Montclair, NJ. This year, my Internet research turned up Rezza, a casual Italian restaurant in Rosedale, only 10 minutes from my family's home.

I'd read mostly positive reviews on Tripadvisor and YELP. I got an image of homestyle Italian food, served in an unpretentious environment. What we found proved this to be true.

We four had a mid afternoon dinner at Rezza yesterday. It was very pleasant, and the food and service satisfied.

The famous bread, from Sullivan Street Bakery, is "interesting" and good, but not the sort of which I'd want more than a couple of pieces, as it was very chewy. (Oh. I'll say it: "tough".) we were given a saucer of olive oil and coarse salt.

Sullivan Street Bread
We began our meal with a variety of antipasti and appetizers. My niece ordered a Farro Salad. Very light, refreshing and somewhat resembling tabuli.

Farro Salad
She couldn't resist another salad, Insalata Caprese, with heirloom tomatoes and creamy burrata.

Insalata Caprese
I had some nice chilled shrimp with fregola, a crunchy grain like pasta resembling couscous. My wife had some grilled octopus, which had lemon and fingerling potatoes. For most of us, the standout appetizer was the sauteed Brussels sprouts, cooked brown and crisp outside. Good, but least impressive were the roasted beets with pistachios, scattered with ricotta salata.

Brussels Sprouts
We took a deep collective breath, then ordered our mains.
Niece: Sunday Gravy, Nephew: Fetuccine Bolognese; Wife: Scampi with spaghetti; Me: Spaghetti Frutti Di Mare. (The latter is listed on the menu as coming with capellini, but I prefer thicker pasta, and they graciously changed it for me).

Pasta Frutti di Mare
Rezza's "Sunday Gravy"
Fettucine Bolognese

We saved room for dessert, which is limited to a range of gelati and a couple of sorbetti. For $8, we each got three nice scoops of luscious, intensely flavored gelati. Among the favorites were a super intense, bitter Dark Chocolate and a mellow Salted Caramel. The Espresso flavor gelato took honors as well.

Here's a couple of gelati in the photo.

Turkish Fig, left; Salted Caramel, right.
The check was substantial, but considering all we ate, quite fair.

Here's the obligatory and customary Ratings.

Food: **** Small, unusual touches and ingredients make Rezza's food a standout.

Service: ****
Ambience: Suburban Casual.

Restrooms: spotless.

You might like to read the extensive Dinner menu.

Hours:  Mon - Fri 11:00 am - 10:00 pm                                       Sat 10:00 am - 10:00 pm                                               Sun 10:00 am - 9:00 pm

BYOB / plenty of free parking

Location and contact info:
33 Eisenhower Parkway (crossroads with Eagle Rock Avenue), Roseland, NJ
Tel; 973-364-8277

Fiesta Inn Aeropuerto Ciudad de Mexico

We don't usually stay in expensive hotels, but for our annual visit to the U.S., we went First Class. Not only did we book Business First seats for our flight on United airlines, I decided to stay at the Fiesta Inn Aeropuerto. The advantages were seen to be that we could sleep later, and reduce the number of taxi rides, as the hotel provided a free shuttle to the terminal 1 of the airport.

The Fiesta Inn is located across the boulevard that separates it from the airport. We arrived by bus at Terminal Poniente Observatorio. The taxi fare was just over $172 pesos, and the west-east traverse of the city took about an hour. The taxi came alongside the airport, passed it, did a U, followed convoluted routes through the barrio including another U, and finally emerged in front of the contemporary styled hotel building.

Attentive service was immediately apparent, from the doors to the vast lobby. We were offered a room with with two double beds, which wasn't our first preference, but we were tired and the room was more than acceptable.

(The following is from my review on
The outstanding advantage of this Fiesta Inn is its proximity to the Aeropuerto International de la Ciudad de México. That's one reason that it's more expensive than our regular hotels in Mexico City. But the extra money bought quality. The attractively decorated room was sufficiently spacious, the beds unusually comfortable, the bed linens high quality, the shower in the bathroom had voluminous hot water almost instantaneously, the wifi was fine, and, despite being close to the airport and the busy Boulevard, the room was quiet. And, it was air conditioned, which is uncommon in Mexican hotels.

The only sour notes were the $34 peso price tag on the 2 liter bottle of purified water in the bathroom ( a tiny, approximately 8 ounce bottle was marked "complimentary"). Considering that we paid over $1700 pesos a night for the room, taxes included, about $105 is U.S. Dollars, we think that purified water should be included in the price. A minor defect was that the wall decoration next to the thermostat came loose during the night. But aside from being unsightly, it was no problem.

The free shuttle ride to Terminal 1 at the Airport was a welcome bonus.

Because of our early departure, we were unable to take advantage of the free breakfast buffet, but we did have supper in the restaurant. Overall, I would describe it as mediocre. The buffet option was $250 pesos. There were plenty of dishes, both hot and cold, from which to choose, but nothing stood out. An a la carte order of Tacos de Arrachera was about $172 and although the portion was large, but I had indigestion afterwards.

I did grab a complimentary cup of coffee before getting on the shuttle, and the coffee was superior.

I have to mention that we'd gone to bed very early, in the late afternoon, but at about 7:30 we were awakened by staff members tapping at our door. My wife answered, but couldn't understand what that was about. They left, and we went back to sleep.

In conclusion, it's a good hotel for travelers in transit who don't have time or inclination to go into the central parts of Mexico City, but who just need an overnight near the airport.

(Sorry, I took no photos of the rooms. We were just too tired. You can see typical room shots on Tripadvisor.)

TripAdviser Review of Fiesta Inn Aeropuerto

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Do The Continental

A Classic Continental Breakfast
First of all, let me say that I am not an aficionado of Continental breakfasts. Nor am I drawn to Bed and Breakfast lodging for many reasons, among which are all too frequently parsimonious Continental breakfasts. I am compelled to take up the sword against this scourge following my reminiscence on our Michoacán Yahoo Group. I'd recalled the breakfast fare at a simple beachside hostelry in Troncones, Guerrero, consisted of white toast, jam and coffee or tea. In my opinion, this sort of minimalist breakfast shows a lack of effort on the part of the hosts. At that time, February, 2006, a cold water palapa hut cost $38 USD, now risen to $50. I don't know if the generosity of the breakfasts has increased. At least, the hosts were congenial.

(I read on TripAdvisor an enthusiastic review by a guest who stayed for a month at that place. My mind boggles. I was insane with boredom in less than three days.)

Turning back many years, we stayed one night in a newly remodeled B&B in Galveston, TX. It was a very spacious room. I remember that the large bathroom had slippery slate floors. Style over practicality. In the morning, we were offered stale Danish pastry, unripe fruit and coffee and even staler conversation by a surrogate host. That to me showed total indifference to guests' needs.

I define a minimal Continental breakfast as comprised of superior baked goods, real butter, a quality jam or marmalade and strong coffee.

Then there was an ex-miner's hotel in Telluride, CO, which despite its wretched sagging beds, put out a generous selection of quick breads, coffee and tea. They benefited from a highly productive Telluride bakery.

Spain is among the world's leaders in meager Continental breakfasts. We stayed several nights at a casa rural in Las Merindades in Burgos Province, where the included breakfast was toast, margarine, jam and, I will admit, decent strong coffee. An active traveler would wither away on such a breakfast were it not  for intermediate stops at local bars where you could get a sort of breakfast sandwich of egg, ham and cheese, or, if you were lucky, a chapata roll with chorizo Español or perhaps sardines. We would halt our journey at small town bars where we would often get freshly made tortilla Español. While not fancy, it gave sustenance.

Breakfast at a Madrid bar.
After crossing the crest of the Cordillera Cantábrica, we were fortunate in finding "El Vejo", a bakery café in the town of Reinosa, Cantabria, where we stuffed ourselves on a full, real breakfast.

Superior Continental breakfasts were offered at the Hostal Alfonso, in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia. There were nice croissants, at least. The hosts are very nice people.

Bakery cafes in Spain may be the secret to getting by with slender breakfast rations. This is one showcase in a bakery in Santiago de Compostela.

Credit where it's due: about three years ago, we stayed at an Air BnB listing, the Great House in San Miguel Chapultepec, México, D.F. The breakfasts were what can be called enhanced Continental. Toast, juice, cereal, yogurt, granola, coffee, tea, juice. That shows care on the part of the hosts. I would have liked some protein foods and variety, but then it would not be Continental, would it? Unfortunately, the upscale neighborhood seemed to have a dearth of adequate street food options.

I have mentioned the Turotel hotel in Morelia in previous posts. For a modest additional fee, guests may have a very nice, full breakfast, from a generous buffet, or request special dishes from the accommodating kitchen staff. While it's not gourmet fare, it's good and will give you the energy for your day's tasks. THe Turotel is one of my favorite hotels in Mexico.

Soon we will stay at the Fiesta Inn, Aeropuerto Ciudad de México, which includes a full breakfast in its rate. Whether we will have time to take advantage of it remains to be seen, as we have a mid morning flight departure. I hope to report back.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Rites of Purification

Cabbages may be Kings in the Pátzcuaro Mercado. But even a King needs to be purified.
Mexico's mercados are a joy to the dedicated home cook and foodie. But there's a dirty underbelly to the abundance of inexpensive fruits and vegetables offered there. If you, as we are, are interested in maintaining your health while enjoying the bounty of fresh produce, there are a few simple steps you can take to do so.

Some of these tips were picked up several years ago on Victoria Challancin's  blog, Flavors of the Sun, but I don't have the exact quote.

The essence is that when you get home with your mercado swag, you do not put them away until you sort them, trim them and clean them.

Here, at Las Cocinas del Rancho Las Cuevas, we first open all the bags and lay out the produce on our ample kitchen counter. The different vegetables are roughly sorted according to type and dirtiness.

La Cocina in pristine condition before we moved in.
For example, sweet peppers have the least dirt; celery is relatively clean; parsley, not bad; cucumbers, deceptively clean looking but really carrying sand and earth; celery somewhat more (often with dirt hidden en sus áreas escondidas.); lettuce, usually more, requiring extra vigilance; and the worst culprit, cilantro, which often has clay, etc (¿cacá?) clinging to its roots.

Then we go to the cupboard for a few simple tools.
1. A bowl big enough to hold a medium sized cabbage or a "tree" of celery for washing.

2. A tall plastic container used for the disinfectiing solution.

3. A colander, sometimes two, if we have a lot of produce to purify. With two, you can set up an efficient line of purification , but for small amounts of produce, one will do.

4. Clean kitchen towels or aprons; or plastic bags.

Simple tools of purification
There are a few easy steps to make your produce safer to eat raw.

1.  Spoiled or discolored areas, such as outer leaves are trimmed away with scissors or a sharp knife. Pick out any yellowed or ugly parsley  or cilantro branches. Then taking the cleanest items first, they are washed under cold water in the bowl, scrubbing with a brush if necessary. Rinse in cold water.

2. The tall plastic container (or another bowl, what have you) is filled with cold water, then Microdyn disinfecting drops are added. I usually put 4 drops per liter of water, then add a few more for good measure.

The Microdyn bath
Pepinos Persas prepare for purification
Pepinos get washed in cold water
The washed fruit or vegetable item is then immersed in the Microdyn and water solution, for abut 5 minutes,. Fairly clean vegetables, such as sweet peppers or cucumbers are left for about 3 minutes. Nasty, dirty stuff such as lettuce or cilantro, up to 15 minutes.

Cilantro tends to be schmutzig, sucio, dirty
Trimming roots, clay, y ¿quien sabe? from cilantro
before washing and disinfecting
3. The now disinfected produce item is then drained for a couple of minutes in the colander(s).

Pepinos Persas drain while new vegetables are washed and disinfected.
At this point, you can choose to wrap disinfected green, leafy herbs and vegetables either in ...
A. clean kitchen towels or aprons
B. Clean plastic bags.
(And, NO! Don't reuse the plastic bags from the mercado to re-bag the produce, for if you do, you will have just undone all your careful work!)

Cilantro, now clean and pure, about to be wrapped and refrigerated.
Cilantro, in a paper towel then bagged in a Bol Lock bag.
It's best to thoroughly drain the leafier produce before wrapping or bagging.

Then refrigerate.
Doña Cuevas is a fan of the kitchen towel/apron wrap method, for increased longevity of the greens. I, prefer clear clean plastic bags for their visibility of what's inside them.  Searching for apron and towel wrapped Anonymous Produce tends to make me crazy.Your kitchen needs will vary.

A side note: if you keep your produce drawers clean and well organized, your fresh produce will keep longer as well as be easier to locate when you need it.

There are a few exceptions to this ritual of cleaning and disinfecting. Optional items like tomatoes, avocados, green beans, or chard or spinach, and especially nopales we don't wash and disinfect until just before use. And obviously, if it is to be cooked, it's only washed well, but not disinfected, just before cooking. I don't disinfect nopales ahead, as I found that they become slimy before their time.

Besides disinfecting your produce purchases, pay attention to the work surface and knife and cutting tablet to  keep them clean and sanitized. We wash the kitchen tools with dish detergent and water. Our wooden block butcher's and baker's table is similarly washed, but with very little detergent, then gone over with a solution of white vinegar and water, then dried. The same methods can be used to clean the counters.

With these simple but effective Rites of Purification, you greatly lessen your chances of food borne illness.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

¡Papa Oom Wow Wow!

Here're THE RIVINGTONS, for your entertainment:


(Of course, this video and song has absolutely nothing to do with today's dish, other than the word "papa".)

Papitas de Cambray Al Ajo.

This is a simple dish that lifts the humble, dumpy potato to a new level of can't-stop-eating them-garlicky glory.

I first saw the recipe in Mexico— The Beautiful Cookbook; recipes by Susanna Palazuelos and text by Marilyn Tausend. HarperCollins Publishers. (It's one of my favorite Mexican cookbooks.)

There's a recipe, which really isn't necessary. But here's an easy guidance.

Boil a kilo of very small (or not so small new potatoes in well salted water, until tender, about 20-25 minutes. Drain and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat up to 1/2 cup butter (really, IMO that's too much. A couple of tablespoons will do.)

Add 2 tablespoons of oil. I used olive oil.

Add up to 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced. (I had roasted garlic on hand, with very large cloves, so I just squeezed off about 6 cloves from the roasted head. I didn't bother mincing the garlic. It was already buttery soft and luscious. The choice is up to you  ow you like your garlic. If you hold off putting the minced galic in the skillet as the papitas finish browning, you have a somewhat more refined dish. If you put whole garlic cloves in at the outset (whether raw or roasted), you get fascinating caramelization.

 O.k. "BURNT", for which we of lusty primitive tastes crave and fight over.)

Add the potatoes and sauté 8-10 minutes over medium heat.

Salt and pepper to taste, plus the juice of 1 or 2 Mexican limes.

The Palazuelos recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of Tabasco Sauce! I used instead, about 1/3rd of a seeded chile manzano (Chile perón) in the skillet, and dusted the potatoes with a coarsely ground, medium picante chile seco. Finally, I added a very little Pimentón de La Vera, to give the dish a touch of smokiness.

This is a great dish to accompany grilled meats, but yesterday, it stood on its own as an irresistible appetizer.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Food Memories of a Brooklyn Childhood

Dedicated to my Mother, Helen; my Grandma Ann; Minnie, our Italian American neighbor, and especially to my Uncle Irwin, who fixed me spaghetti and meat sauce for breakfast when I requested it. Tradition should be honored, but never be a barrier to enjoyment.
I was born in Brooklyn, NY and spent the first seven years of my childhood there. We were in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. We lived in the attic apartment of a three family dwelling on 83rd Street. After we moved to Montreal, Canada in 1949, we made fairly frequent visits back to the old home place, where we'd stay in my maternal grandparents' second floor apartment on busy commercial 86th Street, facing the EL tracks.

Alas! I have no photographs to share, so I will have to depend on word pictures.

There are many food memories of Brooklyn, which to this day undoubtedly have had profound influences on my tastes. Some foods were a challenge, even slightly hazardous to eat. But they were fun, and I like to believe helped develop a sense of adventure in eating.

Among the earliest influences were our Italian neighbors, originating in either Napoli or Sicily. Wife and mother Minnie would cook deeply satisfying pastas and calamares and more, all redolent of sharp cheese, olive oil, garlic, herbs, economical but delicious seasoned breadcrumb toppings; served up hot, and accompanied by jugs of inexpensive red wine. (Which, of course, mi amici and I didn't partake.) Their ground floor apartment was infused with the aroma of hearty and savory food.

Close by my grandparents' apartment were numerous food attractions. One, that I have written about before was Hy Tulip's Deli, to which I would be dispatched from the apartment to buy hot dogs for take out, topped with steaming sauerkraut, and for me, a leaden potato knish with the appearance of an anti personnel mine. What a delight it was to open the steaming bag, deploy its contents on the scrubbed wooden kitchen table, and squirt spicy brown mustard from its brown paper cone onto the hot dog.

Sunday mornings at my grandparents' occasionally featured smoked fish from the "appetizing store", a narrow emporium jammed with every sort of pickled olives, pickled and smoked fish imaginable.

Our Sunday "brunch" (although that word had probably not been invented yet.) consisted of lox, smoked whitefish and/or carp; the latter garlicky, paprika dusted, oily and bony, but a delight to winkle out lush morsels through the bone barriers.

Equal importance must be given to the breads, baked in the Jewish bakery a few doors away. Besides dense, chewy, hand made bagels, there were even denser bialys, dusted with flour and carrying a small bit of chopped onions and poppy seeds. The bialys were so tough as to give your jaws a workout. Yet it was good and enjoyable exercise.

The kaiser rolls, real hand pleated ones, crusts were so crisp that they shattered into delightfully sharp flinders, our mouths soothed by generous applications of sweet butter.

Rye bread, its shiny crust speckled with caraway seeds, was every day fare, but no less valued for that.

In the late '40s. Pizza was for us an exotic, even forbidden dish. But my mother bravely took us to an Italian restaurant a few blocks away on 86th Street. At that time, as far as we knew, pizza was made and served in Italian restaurants, not in pizzerias. Definitely not in chain restaurants. It had a statue of an "obviously" Italian pizza chef holding up a pizza.

Pizza chef statue of those days
Out of fear of tref (non kosher) ingredients, we probably ordered a cheese pizza. In those days, the mozzarella on pizzas formed long, elastic strings when you ate it. You had to be careful that the hot strings didn't lash your chin, or drop on your shirt. That was part of the fun of eating pizza. Sadly, the strings seem to have vanished.

In later years, an inexpensive pizza by the slice store opened on 86th Street, where we could get a slice of tomato pie for 15¢, or a small fried cheese filled calzone. Or zeppole, nothing more than browned bubbly balls of fried dough, dusted with powdered sugar. A Brooklyn beignet.

Another exotic locale was a Cantonese restaurant, located on the second floor of a building overlooking 86th Street and the EL. It had the obligatory red color decor theme and somewhat tacky chinoiserie, and the food was basically "Slop Gooey", but great fun and a special treat for this kid. Of special note was the thin, watery egg drop soup, of which my mother facetiously claimed was made by running a pulley line over the soup pot and skimming the chicken over the boiling water. Thus, one chicken could supposedly be made to serve customers over several days.

Doubtlessly, not knowing anything different, we ate Chop Suey and Chow Mein, with lashings of soy sauce and hot mustard, washed down with nearly endless cups of weak tea.

The waiters were especially kind to well behaved children, and I would be rewarded with an almond cookie for cleaning my plate. Back then, the Chinese immigrant population was very small.(I think.) Now, this has changed.

Less pleasant food memories include the trek to the Kosher Chicken Store with my mother, who pushed a baby carriage with me in it . Feh! The store smelled musty, and it was staffed by these guys with long beards and curly sideburns. The idea was to select a chicken, and the employee would take it to the back and do it in. A little later, it would emerge, still warm, free of gross feathers, feet included. Then Mom would pay and we would make the long walk home.

One of the least pleasant aspects is when she took the bird to the gas range and burnt off the pin feathers. The smell made me gag. If I recall correctly, she'd then coat it with Kosher salt to "purify" it.

After a singe and purification, she'd boil it a while with onion, carrot, parsley, etc. When it was cooked, she'd look for the coveted unborn eggs and snack on this delicacy.  (Or maybe those were cooked separately. I don't know.)

Then there were the creepy, gnarled feet, which were fun to nibble. At least the toenails had been cut and tossed away.

This unquestionably nutritious, economical chicken dish can be duplicated by us lucky folks living in México, although most chickens I've seen for sale here have already been killed and plucked. (A neighbor lady until recently kept live chickens at the ready for a pot of caldo de pollo.)

It's fun to look back with fond food memories, but we live in the reality of the present day. The food adventures of childhood enable me to try different, even strange foods here on México.

Don Cuevas

Monday, April 06, 2015

Fishing For Compliments: Filete de Pescado en Hoja Santa

Pescado en Hoja Santa at El Muelle, Oaxaca. A simple, and picante version.

I am not a cooker of fish. We prefer to eat fish in marisquerías (seafood restaurants) where we can chose from a variety of species, cooked in a variety of ways.

There are occasional exceptions to my no fishing habits. One such was last Wednesday while visiting the home of Ms RedShoes in Morelia.

Taking Leaf of Our Senses
A few days before, while lunching at El Rincón de Las Delicias, I detected hoja santa in my green salad. When I asked Laurencia Tobías, one of the partners in the restaurant, she confirmed it. Hoja santa (Piper Auritum) is one of my favorite Mexican herbs. Laurencia gave me a pair of scissors and invited me to pick some from their organic garden outside. I was delighted and grateful.

On Wednesday, when Jennifer (MS RedShoes) suggested that I cook some tilapia filets for our comida, it was a natural step to use the hoja santa with the fish. Some fast Googling yielded several recipes with a wide spectrum of treatments. I chose one of the simplest, by Ana Saldaña.

A few modifications were deemed desirable.
I used a chile manzano (perón) instead of the chile guajillo, preferring the fruity fresh taste of the manzano to the dry, leathery guajillo.

Yes, we have no banana leaves. 
A major modification was that we had no banana leaves for the wrapping. I had asked about them at the corner vegetables and fruit store but they were unavailable. As nearly every restaurant in which I'd had this dish presented it wrapped it in aluminum foil, I wasn't preoccupied with the banana leaves. Besides, they must be cut to size and roasted to make them flexible. More work!  Would Diana Kennedy forgive me if I used foil? Probably not, pero así es. Tough bananas.

The hardest part of the recipe, now that the banana leaves were out of the picture, was the roasting of the onions, tomatoes, garlic and chiles. Not really hard, just taking a little time and patience. At Jennifer's request, I did this in a cast iron skillet.

The next departure from tradicíon was to chunk up—roughly chop, not liquefy— the above ingredients in a blender, not in a molcajete. Oh, the horror! Really, any Mexican housewife who can afford one has a licuadora (blender) in her kitchen. They are a must in the modern Mexican kitchen. The resultant salsa needed a squirt of lime juice to balance out the sweetness of the tomatoes.

Salsa roja cocida
The oven was preheating to 190º C (374º F) while I assembled the packets in this manner, a  somewhat daunting process:

• Foil
• Hoja santa
• Salsa roja cocida
• filete de pescado, sprinkled with salt and pepper mixture
• a sprig or two of parsley; no, NOT cilantro, as it would clash with the hoja santa
• olive oil, a few drops, when I remembered it
• hoja santa

Close and seal the foil packet well and place on a baking tray with sides.

Bake 15 minutes. Open a packet and see if the fish flakes when probed with a fork. Yes, the leaves are eaten with the fish. Some sources suggest removing the central spine of the hoja santa before further use, but I consider that an unnecessary refinement.

Suggested accompaniment: steamed white rice with toasted pine nuts, optional fried slices of plátano macho.
The extra hoja santa, chile and onion were roughly chopped to make a sort of "dry salsa".

We all approved the results. The fish was juicy, savory and aromatic, with just a slight kick from the chile.

The following Sunday (Easter), I cooked Blackened Salmon Filets with fresh asparagus and creamy mashed potatoes, but that is another posting.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Emilio's Grill— Plaza La Huerta, Morelia

Emilio's Grill looks like a fast food outlet in the Gastronómico food court, sandwiched between a bank, a Blockbuster and the Home Depot, at Plaza La Huerta shopping center in Morelia. But it is really a small self service restaurant with an ambitious menu of grilled meats, hamburgers, some seafood, salads and more. We have been pleased with our many lunches there over the last several years.

We usually have their chargrilled hamburgers, averaging about $70-$80 pesos, complete with French Fries or a salad, or nicely steamed vegetables, as you wish. But yesterday, we saw on the menu "Parrillada para dos" ( or para tres, cuatro, etc.). These are combinations of grilled boneless chicken, sirloin, and shrimp. There is another combo including chorizo and two other meats, but I wasn't paying attention. The parrilladas cost $155 pesos, a very good deal, indeed, for two hungry diners.

The parrilladas come with Papas Francesas, but as always, you can substitute salad or vegetables.

The salads and "guarniciones"—side dishes— are displayed as in a salad bar, but they are not self service. The employees will dish up your selection, and usually with a generous hand.

Some of the salads
Carbos offerings
You can help yourself to the several good salsas and condiments. We like the salsa de aguacate, a sort of smooth and more picante "guacamole". There are free totopos (tortilla chips). Yesterday we also tried some interesting fried, crisp garlic chips with flecks of red chile. The creamy, orangey salsa was picante, but too salty to our taste.

  A few salsas at our table
When the flashing buzzer alerted us (think: Outback Steakhouse) that our parrillada was ready, an employee carried it to our table because it was presented on a hot metal plate over a Sterno type burner. This is the modern version of the anafre. (a small stove).

La Parrillada ion its anafre
The shrimp and sirloin on our parrillada were the choice morsels. The sirloin was savory, tender and moist. The chicken was just o.k., but not bad. We liked the 5 shrimp, but I suggest you ask an employee to apagar  Put out the flame) of the anafre in order not to overcook the food. I should mention that this meal comes with ordinary tortillas.

Soft drinks, beer and aguas frescas are offered. We especially like their creamy horchata.

The seating and ambience at the Gastronómico food court is not conducive to long, leisurely lunches, nor business meetings.  You will never mistake it for a fine dining venue. But it's fine if you accept it as is is. And, since the video games area closed a few years ago, the noise level is more acceptable now.

The men's rest room, (far end of the food court) at least, appears to have been refurbished and was well maintained when we were there yesterday.

The Gastronómico food court is located towards the northern end of Plaza La Huerta, close to Home Depot.

Emilio's Grill also offers breakfast, but we have never tried that.

Food: ***

Service: Semi self service. It's not Fast Food. Meals are prepared to order, average wait, 10 minutes. Well supplied with decent plastic utensils, napkins, straws, etc. You only need to look or ask.

Prices: Average about $80 per person

Hygiene: Satisfactory

Parking: Just outside is the Plaza La Huerta parking lot.

I don't have info on their hours of operation, but I imagine that they open around 10 a.m. We are usually there in the early to mid afternoon.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

You say "Tomato", she says "Tomahto", I say "Criollo".

The tomato may have originated in México (or in the Andes), but among tomato connoisseurs, the Mexican grown fruit/berry of the nightshade Solanum lycopersicum  has gotten a bad rep. I add, justifiably so. The common jitomates saladets or huajes (essentially the same as a Roma tomato, but nowhere as much flavor.), abundantly available in mercados  and supermercados are too often underripe fruits with little flavor. It has been argued by some that the saladet is best for purposes other than eating out of hand; as in salsas and cooked foods.

It's true that these fleshy but insipid fruits perform best when broiled, for example, before adding their mild flavor to a picante chile salsa. But for fans of juicy, ripe, raw tomatoes, better tomatoes are essential: for eating out of hand, in salads, for tomato sandwiches, and, for the World's Greatest Sandwich, yes; the BLT! Glory to Blessed Tonantzín for Her gifts!

Blesséd Lycopene Loaded Tomato sandwich.
Summers, when we visit our family in New Jersey, a great pleasure are the red ripe, fragrant tomatoes available there. Back in our Arkansaw years, we would revel in the fresh, ripe tomatoes grown and harvested not far from our home (often by Mexican field workers.)

What does México offer us tomato lovers in recompense for the pallid saladets? Well, there are great rewards, but  they are ephemeral.

For barely more than a week in 2012, Frutería Dany's in Pátzcuaro had "black" globe tomatoes; juicy and of superior taste. But they were never offered again at Dany's.

Black Prince Heirloom Tomato. (Not quite as "black" as Dany's)

Around the same time, we were in Zihuatanejo, where I was delighted to find Tomates Criollos, and colorful Tomates Cherrys.

Don't judge a good tomato by the color of its skin. Even still green, the tomate criollo  beats the saladet in the flavor stakes.

Still green, but these tomates criollos will quickly ripen 
More robust tomates criollos
For the purpose of illustration, let's have a photo of Tomates Cherrys.

Tomates cherrys tend to be tarter than the criollos.
Their lifespan is short.
It was this past January, in Oaxaca,Oaxaca, that we truly hit the Tomates Criollos jackpot. The Mercado  de la Merced, across the avenue from our hotel, had the precious criollos almost everyday. I won't swear to it, but I think that they were $12 pesos a kilo.

Clockwise, from L-R : Tomates "Criollos" bolas, Tomates Criollos,
Jitomates saladets or huajes; chiles de agua.
While in Oaxaca we'd eat Tomates Criollos nearly every day. We improvised a tomato washing and disinfecting rig in the bathroom sink from a plastic bag filled with tap water and a few drops of Microdyn.

How about a close up shot of those glorious tomatoes?

Glory, glory, glory! The tomates bolas, L, are pretty good two, but second in flavor to the "creased" criollos on the right.

How to derive maximum pleasure when eating Tomates Criollos and Tomates Cherrys. A few suggested ways:

Here, Tomates Cherrys offset the salt tang of anchovies and capers
of a Pizza Napoletana, from the, alas! now closed Café Santina in Zihua.

Torta Casera Vegetariana, featuring Tomates Criollos and organic lettuces.
(All ingredients from the Mercado de La Merced, Oaxaca 2015)

Our former neighbors, Geni and Larry, returned recently from a short visit to Zihuatanejo. They brought back both Tomates Cherrys  and Tomates Criollos. We quickly made good use of them.

Salad of Pepinos Persas, Tomates Cherrys y Cebolla. Homemade Croutons.

Tomate Criollos sliced, fresh basil, olive oil and coarse salt

"Cemita" sandwich of Tomate Criollo and basil
I encourage you tomato lovers out there that if you see Tomates Criollos for sale (and Tomates Cherrys, to a lesser degree), grab all you can.

This concludes today's program.

Just to be a nice guy, I won't post a video of the highly annoying song, "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off." But if you cahn't live without hearing it, just click here, and you can get your fill of tomahtos, and potahtos.

Late Breaking News:
Cristina Potter, the noted blogger of Mexico Cooks! (probably the most authoritative blog on Mexican cooking) mentions tomates criollos as one aspect of her post yesterday, "Food Wanderings in Mexico: Memories of 2014". In it, she identifies the tomates criollos as "tomates riñon",or, "kidney tomato". 
You can read it here.
Most fascinating, she writes that the tomate riñon is an icon in France, where it is known as Coeur de Boeuf, nearly identical in all but size to its Mexican progenitors.
Thanks to Mexico Cooks!, our knowledge of our favorite tomato has increased.

Don Cuevas