It's been a while for a food posting (OK, more than a while) but I've been busy. I've not started cooking again yet but that's coming up possibly on Wednesday when we cook Chicken Marsala, Rosemarry Roasted Potatoes and Baguette slices fried in Olive Oil then spread with Truffle infused Chevre. For now you'll just need to be OK with photos of meals others have prepared for us.
We recently went to Vancouver B.C. which has a more cosmopoliton feel than Seattle and hunted down a Persian restaurant that had Fesenjan - one of our all time favorite dishes. Fesenjan which I've talked about before is a decadant dish that not everyone likes of braised meat in a walnut and pomegranet sauce. It's a bit tart and sweet at the same time but definately unforgettable if you have it. The first time I had Korscht-e fesenjan I loved it but the problem is finding a decent rendition of it. In Seattle we only have a couple of Persian joints and neither make a truly great fesenjan. Darchin in downtown Vancouver doesn't do too bad a job. It's a bit tart and a little pasty so I think they needed to let the walnuts sweat a bit more but overall very nice.
For dessert I had a classic Persian dessert called Faloodeh which is a sorbet made with very fine vermicelli noodles frozen with corn starch, rose water, lime juice sometimes pistachios. I gave my mother a small taste and her face squinched up and she almost spit it out. I later asked her why and she couldn't say, she just didn't like the taste. Natalya really liked it and helped me finish it off.
To mee the flavor was mostly that of lime juice and rose water. The noodles are there for texture. I didn't think the flavor was overpowering but of course after the fesenjan anything seems mild.
A friend gave me a bunch of cream which was starting to clump up so I decided to use it for something besides ice cream. Afterall you can only eat so much ice cream. My idea came from a couple of restaurants - one is a in Richland WA called La Isla Bonita that makes a seafood chimichanga with cream sauce poured over it that I've always loved. I just recently discovered a local Mexican joint near Edmonds Community College in Lynwood called Taquiera La Raza that also had a chimichanga with cream sauce and although it's not as wonderful as La Isla Bonita's it's very nice.
So here was my idea, make some burritos with tomato and chile rice, black beans and seared pork, then drop them in the fryer until golden brown and cover with a steaming heavy cream/mexican sour cream (Creme Fresca) mix topped with a sprinkling of sweet paprika, cumin and brown sugar. Here's the result. Natalya has never had something like this and she's my toughest critic so when she took a bite and nodded her head I knew that I'd done well. She's since gone back and cooked several more. I'm playing with chile and honey glazed pork spare ribs tonight and I think that may be a nicer meat to stuff the burritos with next time. Stay tuned, I'm sure there'll be an update.
Tonight I decided not to do anything complex. I was at Safeway and they had prosciutto for half price (about $11/lb) so I picked up some and of course that led to getting some cantelope which in turn led to getting some red bell peppers and fresh cheese tortellini which were also on sale. Actually all of it was. You can't have these other things without some sort of bread so a baguette went in the bag as well. The checkout lady pointed at the prosciutto and asked me what it was. I said "prosciutto" and she said she could read it but what was it, was it salmon? It was all I could do but blink. No it's ham I said which was followed by her asking me what I do with it. I wrap it around melons along with Italian sweet basil and drizzle it with olive oil as an appetizer. I thought she was going to melt. She seemed to think it sounded very good. It's so easy I'm not sure why other people don't do things like this. A baby could do it!
I roasted the red bell peppers under the broiler and then tossed them in a ziplock bag to steam. A mixture of fresh garlic and butter slopped on to the bagguette set it up nicely. The fresh tortellini went in a pot of heavily salted water and two shallots and a couple of cloves of garlic went in a frypan with olive oil until translucent. A can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup and an additional can of milk was then mixed in along with the pealed red bell peppers and the whole mess was thrown in the blender and pureed. Back in the pan I added a very healthy handful of basil and a dab of olive oil for good measure. As I said earlier the melon was pealed and cut in thin slices then wrapped with prosciutto, basil and drizzled with olive oil. For a quick meal it turned out really well.
I was in my local Indian market the other day and they had the nicest looking small yellow bell peppers and for only 50 cents each. Thoughts of what to do with them raced through my head. I've been wanting to branch out and utilize the Persian Jeweled rice or versions of it for more dishes so I decided to pick up some yellow bells and stuff them with Persian Jeweled rice. This turned out really good but possibly the peppers are too small. You find yourself digging through the pepper trying to get a bigger bite of the rice because it's so incredibly flavorful. The jeweled rice has caramelized carrots and orange rind in cardamom and cinnamon spiced basmati with butter and yogurt. Topped with caramelized onions and soaked berry mix with a touch of pomegranate seeds.
There's this dish so pretty that a man once got on a bus with his three kids in a very southern city in Mexico and rode for 4 hrs to the town where it originated just to experience the decadance. This is a true story and the dish is that pretty. The dish is called Chiles en Nogada (pronounced Nuh-God-duh) and is yet another invention of the Spanish nuns in Puebla for the first Emporer of Mexico after they gained their independence from Spain. The other famous dish that nuns in Puebla created is Mole Pablano which of course I ate many plates full the last time I was there.
There are many ways to make Chiles en Nogada but the variation I had in Puelba (yes, that was me mentioned above) had a Poblano chile stuffed with a combination of shredded meat, tomatoes and dried fruits like raisins, nuts and fresh pomegranate seeds. This chile is then covered with a white sauce made of Queso Fresco (Mexican Cheese) and Mexican sour cream with ground walnuts and topped with pomegranate seeds and parsley leaves. The red, white and green symbolize the colors of the Mexican flag. It's customary to only eat it in August but I was lucky enough to find it in January at one small restaurant. My take on Chiles en Nogada got it's start when I was perusing the aisles at Grocery Outlet when I found a package of sweet yellow, orange and red peppers. These weren't bell peppers but longer almost Jalepeno shaped peppers. Even though the Poblano pepper is traditional I decided to use these instead and it worked out wonderfully.
Wow, Oaxaca has become mainstream! In case you've been hiding under a rock for the last few years there's this place called Oaxaca (wa-HA-ku) in southern Mexico about the same latitude as the country of Belize that has great food, great people and great ruins. It also seems to have been discovered. In the first 15 minutes of being in the zocolo I've seen more tourists than ALL of Mexico City. We came into Oaxaca llate last night, got signed into our Hostel and went out to eat. Credit cards are not used that much here and our hostel charged us 10% more to use my card so I chose to pay for one night and I'll go to the ATM to get cash to pay for the other nights. I've found this to be the case everywhere including restaurants. The money thing is a bit out of control because the exchange rate is 12.5 to one. That means I paid 2,500 pesos for a hostel for 4 nights. It's not hard to pay 2000 pesos for bus tickets or 600 pesos for dinner. Each peso is worth less than one dime so it's like you're paying for everything in dimes. What's more interesting is the lack of ability to make change for anything over a 20 peso bill. I remember the last time I was here I went into an ice cream shop and tried buying four ice cream cones with a 50 peso bill and they about fell over. Not understanding how cheap things were I though $5 USD would cover it. I ended up digging through my pockets for change 10 pesos in change. Another time I tried buying an antibiotic and band-aids from a pharmacy with a 500 ($40 USD) and the girls eyes about popped out of her head when she saw it. My daily budget for 4 people is roughly 1000 pesos or $80 for food and accommodations.
So first day in Oaxaca and I've already seen changes since the last time I was here. Before it was more common to see tourists than Mexico City but not overwhelmingly so. This time every third person was a tourist from somewhere and there were plenty of Americans as well which you rarely ever see in Mexico City. I wish prosperity for the Oaxacenos but at the same time hope they don't turn into Cancun because a beautiful city will have been destroyed. It will be difficult for Oaxaca in the future to remember who they are so many tourists that it will be more profitable satisfying the demand for Nachos and Burritos. Italy has had so much tourism that it's all but been dissolved into Disneyland and I pray that Oaxaca doesn't suffer the same fate.
Our plan for day one of Oaxaca was to get our bearings, wander the streets, eat good food and figure out how to get to Monte Alban. We've been to Monte Alban before but we took a tour which had an excellent guide but only left us 15 minutes of personal time. Monte Alban is a lot like Machu Picchu in that you're best memories may be just sitting under a tree imagining what this once great city may have been like. This is what we planned on doing and in order to do that we needed to just find transportation alone.
Oaxaca is famous for several things - chocolate, cheese and black pottery. South of the zocolo a few blocks is "chocolate corner" where you can get a cup of chocolate caliente at every corner or there about. Mayordomo is becoming the Starbucks of Oaxaca in putting a chocolate cafe on every block. I've had hot chocolate before and I've had mexican chocolate before (Mayordomo) but I've not sat down and ordered a hot chocolate from a chocolate cafe so that's on the agenda. The cheese they sell in the markets in the form of giant balls that are wound of long flat "noodles" of cheese. I bought one kilo of cheese to eat as snacks while we walked around. It's good cheese that resembles a salty mozerella more than anything. The last item is something special to this region. They hand make the pottery without the use of a pottery wheel, cut out designs in the sides then bury it underground cover it with green leaves and build a fire on top. The smoke impregnates the pottery making it a very deep charcoal black. The best part is they sell it for next to nothing. It really is beautiful and unlike anything you'll see anywhere else.
The indoor market in Oaxaca City is possitively large and sells everything from handmade scarves to meat. I'd love to to have access to the mounds of chiles, chocolate and cheese not to mention the spices and other raw ingredients.
We also planned on getting off the zocolo to eat some great food at cheaper prices than we enjoyed before. I believe I used the Moon guide on our first trip to Oaxaca and this time I brought the Let's Go which is great for budget travelers and not so good for those who want to spend their childrens inheritance on Oaxacano cuisine so we just had to wing it a bit.
Before I go on I'll tell you a bit about Oaxaca the state and Oaxaca the city. Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ku) the state is populated by many different indigenous groups which make up nearly half the populus. The most common is the Zapotecas followed by the Mixtecas. The former built Monte Alban, the latter build Mitla and eventually ruled Monte Alban. The difference between Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico is that the native people didn't mix with the Spanish so technically they live in Mexico but aren't Mexican. A lot of the people in the
state don't speak Spanish either and stick to their original language. This brings a surprising diversity to the area and you'll notice that the people don't even look the same if you travel around the state. Oaxaca city has become very popular with tourists because it's a very pretty city with cobblestone streets and colonial Spanish architecture. The zocolo is one of the prettiest anywhere with gardens, an art nouveau gazebo, hundreds of planted poinsetias and two story Spanish colonades lining all four sides. Because I've never been to Spain it reminds me a great deal of Bologna Italy which has somewhere around 70 miles of porticos lining the street. The zocolo is in the same style. Two of the four corners are anchored by 450 year old churches and the area is mostly for pedestrian use only. The restaurants lining the zocolo on both first and second stories are mostly white table cloth fancy places with excellent traditional Oaxacano food. The exception to this being the one Basque restaurant which seemed to have gotten lost and ended up in southern Mexico. I'm not sure how that happened but a Spanish galleon and shackles may have been involved.
I think I mentioned the hostel (Paulina Hostel) yesterday but I wanted to reiterate that this hostel is only about 3 blocks from the zocolo, is incredibly clean, is a Let's Go thumbs up and has a very tranquil inner courtyard with attached open eating area, free Internet and free breakfast. We rented all 5 beds in a 5 bed dormroom so we'd have a private room. There's wifi access just about everywhere except the room full of computers (ironically) so I can get on the Internet in our room. My only real complaint is the lack of power outlets in the rooms. I'm sure it's to discourage people from plugging in electric weed eaters or toasters but still I'd like to use my computer in my underwear which I currently can't do without shocking a bunch of German and Korean backpackers. I've only found four power outlets in all of the hostel – one I have to reach over a pool of water to access, the second has a christmas tree plugged into it, the third is in the dining room and the fourth the computer room. Each one of these places only has ONE outlet so I can't charge my laptop at the same time as my camera batteries. Today I'm going to go find a power strip of sorts.
Before we left the hostel we handed over our clothes to be washed which cost us 75 pesos or about $6 which was fine. So in search of food we wandered the pedestrian street leading from the zocolo to the nearly 500 year old church of Santa Domingo
We ran across the Catedral restaurant which had an inner courtyard. They had several mole entrees including Mole Almendrado (almond) which Natalya wanted. Overall the service was decent and the food average. The Mole Negro Tamale in banana leaf was the best thing there. Piper had squash flour soup with cubes of cheese and plantain molettas filled with meat neither of which she was impressed with because either the color or the texture was off. Jade had chicken breast with squash flower sauce which was decent. He didn't have any problem finishing it off. We were also reminded that if you can't speak the language and you didn't want something don't mention that you don't want it because they will only hear the part that they recognize (the item not wanted) and bring it to you. I ended up drinking both bottles of mineral water with gas. We made the mistake of saying no gas. No gas gets translated to gas which is what you get. We've learned this lesson before so we have no excuse. Sin gas is the secret password to water without bubbles or still water as the Brits say.
During dinner we heard an American couple at the next table and before leaving I asked them where there where from to which they responded Boulder Colorado. Boulder? That was my response because usually the travelers I encounter are from California, Florida or New York. I bet their reverse culture shock after returning home is greater than ours. Anyway there names were Audry and Jeffery and seemed to be a very nice couple. She'd been to Oaxaca 30 years ago and I can only imagine how much it's changed in that amount of time. It's changed in the last 3 years so 30 years has to be a big jump. She asked me about San Miguel de Allende and Puebla too so apparently she'd either been to them or had been doing some reading. She was also aware of the hot springs, the big tree and Mitla. There's a slight chance we may run into them tomorrow since they too decided to go to Monte Alban via the bus. I hadn't researched how to do that yet but I know it's possible.
Mexico does Christmas a lot different than the States. Since 97% of the population identifies themselves as Catholic they celebrate Christmas from December 25th to January 6th. Even now near the first the zocolo is going full swing with bands, decorations and many many people. Thankfully our hostel is a couple of blocks away so we can get some sleep.
It's our third day here and I'm still taking Tylenol for my head. Many people don't realize that Mexico City is 3000 feet HIGHER than Denver Colorado. Maybe to Bolivians that's not such a big deal but for someone that lives one mile from the ocean it's been interesting. I remember that when I was in the Andes I had a headache at 10,000 ft and became winded anywhere above 12,500 ft. With this in mind I didn't really expect to have any elevation sickness this trip but I've had a headache for 3 days now and so have my kids. A couple Tylenol takes care of it though. The other issue with being this high is that breathing can be a problem if you're exercising. If we were just sitting in the hotel I doubt we'd feel the elevation but we're currently averaging about 7 miles a day of walking. Part of that time we're winded. The metro (subway to New Yorkers) has a lot of stairs and we're starting to dread them. To make matters worse the world famous Mexico City pollution does in fact exist. I've mentioned in previous posts that you know the smog is there by a faint smell that always seems to exist no matter where you are. It's like your neighbors cooking some food and a hint of the smell gets through the wall but not enough for you to identify what they've cooked. Everything smells a bit like smog. Thankfully there's enough bums and homeless people living in the street that the smell of urine overpowers the smell of smog making you look forward to the next moment in time where smog is dominant.
Speaking of pollution and urine.... I was here three years ago and the smog was worse and the streets dirty. The former you forget about after a few days but unfortunately the sore throats from breathing pollution exists longer. Both of these problems have changed enough to be noticeable in the last three years. I'm honestly not sure what the solution is to the pollution problem but it's very much caused by transportation because early in the morning you can see the surrounding mountains and by 10 am their covered in a blanket of ick. One solution would be to replace all the cars with a Metro system that can carry five million people per day – oh wait, they already did that. Maybe they could prohibit cars from driving all 7 days depending on the ending number of their license plate like London. Drat, they did that too. I think they need to replace all their old smog belching cars with new ones but who's going to pay for 20,000,0000 new cars?
The second problem (garbage in the streets) has gotten better because Mexico City has banned the miles and miles of street markets. They've never needed a mall because Mexico City IS a mall! I have fond memories of waking up in the morning hearing the street sellers announcing their prices in a very melodic manner. They're all gone now outside of a few places. I mentioned in the past that even though this means the streets are cleaner it also means a little of character in the process.
In the National Museum of Anthropology I once saw a diorama of what the market at Tlatelolco was like during the reign of the Aztecs and it was impressive with 30,000 people buying and selling goods. Cortes was really impressed with the market system and their methods of keeping things fair. Walking down any random street a few years ago had people laying out blankets on the street and putting their wares on it. There was many voices calling out what they had to sell and the prices. If you took away the Spanish buildings it wouldn't be hard to imagine this as being Tlatelolco. It really was a strong observation to realize that these people still carry on their 600 year old traditions. They speak Spanish now instead of Nahuatl but everything else is the same. Now that most of the street markets have been driven off Mexico City seems to be calmer and more quiet although don't get any ideas about this being a solitary place because it's still a zoo. When the markets were going full steam the streets would be full of trash and then street cleaning crews would come out at 7pm and clean it all up only to have it return to the same mess the following day as it was impossible to keep it clean. It was amazing to watch. Now the streets stay cleaner and are easier to maintain. I took an early morning walk and saw people hosing down the sidewalks and scrubbing them with squeegees and you always see cleanup crews in the street picking up garbage. The new Mexico City has less pollution, less crime and is much cleaner.
The job isn't over though as the city still smells and I believe better technology needs to be used. In Paris they have these little sidewalk wide “street cleaners” that remember a full size street cleaner but can fit on a sidewalk. Mexico City could use about 1000 of those. So in relation to other cities of the world I'd say Historic Mexico City is on par with the Termini area of Rome for cleanliness. Not perfect but doable. Anyone who comes here expecting Geneva will be shocked though. We need to keep this all in context - Mexico City is a city of 25 million really poor people in a country that doesn't have enough money to change that fact. The average full time worker in Mexico City makes $10US a day.
I'm dwelling a bit on the Aztecs and history because I finally gave in and went to Templo Mayor, the remains of the city of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan as you probably know was one of the largest cities in the world at about 1500 AD and was several times the size of London. It was built on an island and expanded using Chanampas – floating squares of dirt where they planted things who's roots grew until they anchored in the lake bottom. Each street through the Chanampas had a dirt path and a water way which was used for transporting goods. Tenochtitlan was an American Venice! Can you imagine the tourist opportunities of a city built in the middle of a giant lake? The Spanish couldn't so they razed it and took the stones to make Latin America's largest church in the early 1500s. People knew that the modern day zocolo is is paved over the main center of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan but what do you do about it 500 years later? You can't tear down 500 year old buildings to find 550 year old buildings so Tenochtitlan remained buried. In the 70s a construction project unearthed a multi ton carved stone. Since they they've unearthed the main ceremonial pyramid of the Aztecs – Templo Mayor. I can see Templo Mayor from my terrace window as I could last time I came to this grand city and I walk past it every day to catch the metro but I've never gone in. The reason for this is from the street it looks like a bunch of rocks and I'd heard there was a museum but it didn't look like there was enough room for a real large one so I avoided Templo Mayor until now. The Let's Go guide gives it a thumbs up and they've treated me well but I'm not super interested in the Aztecs so I avoided going. Today I went and I'm blown away by how much better it was than I imagined.
The ruins of Templo Mayor itself are really subtle. You don't realize until you're standing a foot away from a giant serpent carved in stone that this thing is big. Before it was torn down it was about 150 ft tall. Not much in comparison to the pyramids at Teotihaucan but still very impressive. You also learn that the temple the Spanish saw was the 7th temple and the other 6 still existed inside the 7th. Each time the Aztecs got a new emperor they built a new temple over top the old one making it larger. We could see the top of the original templ from the boardwalk the top. The people living in Montezuma's time didn't even know there were 7 levels let alone see them! Fortunately AND unfortunately a city works project cut a 4 ft wide swath through the Templo Mayor and inserted a brick tunnel for water. This is something a scientist would never do but thanks to the short sightedness of the city officials they now have a cross section view of all 7 temples which we got to see. We also saw some other buildings that made up the ceremonial center, relief panels and the original paint on the stones. When we entered the complex I asked about the audio guide and she said we get it in the museum. My thought was I don't want it for some dinky little museum, I'd rather have it for the main show – the ruins. After following the boardwalk path through the ruins we end up at the museum and upon walking into it I realized they'd built a 7 story building to house over 1000 artifacts pulled from the Templo Mayor site. Over 1000 Aztecs artifacts! They built it in a very forward thinking "giant square ugly concrete block" style showing Mexico's leadership in architecture since it led a wave of apartments and condos being built all across America in the same style. A few colleges look like they were built in the same style but I won't mention which ones. Also the Aztecs had two main Gods and two temples on the tip of their pyramid – one for agriculture and the other for war. The modern museum building was built into two sections, the right for the God of war and the left for the God of Agriculture (rain). I'd say we spent every bit as much time in the museum as we did in the ruins. Overall I too will throw in my bid and say that Templo Mayor should be on everyone's list of things to do.
One thing worth mentioning is that you get to see how bad things have sunk over time. The Aztecs employed a very Venetian technique of sinking wood poles in the mud to make a foundation to build temples on. This worked sort of. Even during their time they were "repaving" the plazas with more layers of rock to make it level again. The Spanish copied that method and suffered the very same consequences. The Catedral Metropolitana is sinking at an alarming rate. Massive amounts of stones are really heavy and this was a marshy island in the middle of a lake.
Interestingly enough we also entered the Catedral Metropolitana to day as well. The Catedral was built in part from the stones of the Aztec pyramid and palaces nearly 500 years ago and is Latin America's largest church. You can't say that it's the biggest church in all of America because about 30,000 nuts get together in a stadium and call it church somewhere. I'm not sure I'd put that in the same category as this. Inside this massive Gothic church is an equally massive pipe organ. Most churches like this have the organ take up the back wall but this organ occupies what looks like an entire 3 story building in the middle of the floor. It's positively massive. I'm not a big church fan so after taking some photos and a video we left.
Starved we started walking toward a mythical indoor market to which no guidebook mentions. OK so mine mentioned it but I missed it. We found it the previous visit and inside this market was a quesadilla restaurant that made the best potato quesadillas I've ever had. I'm not sure why they're so good and I've tried to duplicate them at home with no luck. I wanted a second memory to go by but didn't remember exactly which market it was. My brain said Baldaras but the word Artisinal kept popping up in my head. So we walked to the Artisanal market listed in the guidebook only to find it's not the right one. Even more hungry Natalya and I decided that we could still make it to the Baldaras market and if that wasn't it we'd eat anywhere that had food. Another 15 minutes of low blood sugar walking (the kind where you walk like you're drunk) we made it and beelined for the Quesdilla restaurant I ordered papas and queso of course but nobody else remembered how good they were so they ordered other things. Jade wanted Tacos el Pastor but got rolled up fried tacos. I tried explaining to the waiter that I wanted the potato and onion quesadilla but didn't know the name for onion so he took me to the preparation area and had me point to the ingredients – there were no onions. I settled on papas and cheese because it was the closest. I remember onions and salt, I found out that the onions were in the potatoes and were green onions and the salt was in the cheese. They were as good as I remembered and now have a more fresh memory to go by. I also took pictures so keep your eyes peeled. Jade and Piper ordered papas fritas (fries) which turned out very good. Who would have thought that the Mexicans would be great at French Fries. Jade made the connection that the French ruled Mexico for 3 years so maybe that is why. :-) Kids are funny sometimes.
For anyone interested in pre-hispanic mesoamerican civilization it's worth it to get on a plane and fly to the National Museum of Anthropology even if that means you'll get back on a plane and fly home when done – it's that good! It's the Louvre of mesoamerican civilizations. Our plan was to get there before it closed and spend an hour or so on the civilizations that I've been studying. Each building of the museum holds relics from each civilization like the Maya, Aztecs, Toltecs, Teotihaucanos, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and so on. We caught the metro but was shooed out of Chapultapec park because it was closing. Tomorrow we can't go because it's Monday and all museums are closed on Monday so our only other chance is Tuesday morning before we leave for Oaxaca. Tomorrow we plan on taking a bus to Tula to see the ancient Toltec city of Tollan. The Toltecs predated the Aztecs and were idealized by them as well. They wanted to go to the Toltecs schools and intermarry with them so they would have noble offspring. I've been wanting to see their city for a long time.
I split this journal entry into two parts because only after I started writing did I realize how much I had to say about San Angel. San Angel may very well be my new favorite place in Mexico City. It's this very cute little "town" that the City absorbed with cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial buildings. What's neater is the park in the middle hosts an art market on Saturday that reminds me a lot of the one on Montmartre in Paris short of the mime infestation of the latter.
There were some very nice restaurants there with tables out on the sidewalk very European style with prices in the 130 peso range for really nice meals. This is roughly equal to about $10 in the states which is expensive here but the food is much better than we'd get at home.
I like San Angel a lot, I think I mentioned that. It's important to note though that if you think Mexico City looks like the pictures I've added to this blog you'll be a little disappointed when you get here. Just 3 blocks down the hill is a bus station with garbage strewn all over and open air stalls selling knockoff Rolexes. This still IS Mexico City afterall but you might think of San Angel as an oasis in a desert of chaos. I think it's definitely worth a visit especially if you want to get away. I've been to Mexico City several times and it's the first time I've wandered out this way. The first time we went to Coyoacan but we'd hired a private driver and didn't have enough time to do the San Angel to Coyoacan walk.
fLike I mentioned earlier on Saturday there's an artisanal market in the square of San Angel. For those of you who poo poo the idea of carrying a guidebook around I'll have you know that we would have missed one of the coolest parts of our trip had I not read ahead. So we wandered the stalls looking at the original Mexican art and I can say that it's all very good and original. Mexico has some great artists. We then ventured inside to the Bazar de Sabado which many more shops and is a permenent exhibition hall with prices to match in an old hacienda with a restaurant in the central courtyard (with a mile long line). As this building was built in the Spanish hacienda style there were rooms all around the courtyard and each room has been turned into a salesroom for different artists. In one room you might find pottery and in the next jewelry. It took quite some time to shuffle our way through the rooms as they were very very crowded and per the norm we ran into a few other Americans which did not fail to live up to the stereotype.
Our stomachs were starting to complain so we decided to search out food. The way we budgeted this trip was to have two cheap meals (street food) and one fancy meal which took up the majority of our daily food budget. There were so many nice restaurants that we nearly had our big meal in San Angel. All the while we've been in Mexico City we've been passing Tacos el Pastor stands and we definately can't get decent Tacos el Pastor in the states so we took a vote and the majority decided to eat Tacos el Pastor on the square and save our large meal for later. There was a place that advertised Tacos el Pastor for 9 pesos which is roughly equivalent to pocket lint. We found out that they were not 9 pesos for the plate of four in the picture but 9 pesos each which for a meal is roughly equivalent to pocket lint from both front pockets, a ball point pen and a rubber band. We ordered 20 tacos el pastor. Tacos el pastor (you have to say that really fast or nobody here will understand you, go ahead and practice) are hard to find in the States. In Mexico they have a spit of pork mixed with onions and peppers rotating in a vertical position next to a heat source not unlike Greek gyro shops do it. This spit of meat sits there rotating all day and they just shave off meat when needed onto little corn tortillas about 2 inches across which you squeeze lime juice over. For reasons unknown to me you always get double tortillas. I'm not sure why that is and my Spanish is just good enough to find the toilet so I probably won't be solving that mystery any time soon.
Piper of course had to buy a hand made indiginous doll to go with her collection so there was one lady making these gorgeous little Mexican dolls on the spot so Piper asked her Quanta Questa (phonetically, I don't write in Spanish) and she rattled off some prices which did us little good since we don't hear in Spanish either. My little notepad came to the rescue (today's travel tip, if you don't speak the language carry a notepad) and she outlined that the large dolls were $125 pesos ($10), medium $100 pesos ($8), smaller $60 pesos ($5) and smallest were $40 pesos ($3). Sometimes you feel bad about buying this stuff because it's so cheap. Those were the pre-bargain prices and we were supposed to talk her down but I just couldn't. Piper paid full price for a medium doll. Eight dollars for a very nice hand made doll with cloth body. Now that we'd taken a page from Cortes book and stolen from the natives we figured we'd head to Coyoacan - Cortes' home.
The next leg of our day was spent walking to another suburban “town” named skinny coyote or coyoacan. Coyoacan is where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived as well as where Leon Trotsky spent his last days before being assassinated by one of his servants which just backs up the old saying that most "accidents" happen within 10 miles of your home, would could ask President Carranza to back me up on that one. Coyoacan however came into existence when Cortes decided not to live on the swampy rattlesnake infested island where Tenochtitlan was and built his house on the shore of the lake Texcoco. That house still stands today and is coming up on it's 500th birthday. I believe it's administrative offices now but mostly ends up being the backdrop for a bunch of tourist photos of friends and families. Mexico City is only allowed to have two Zocolos (main squares) and the one at Coyoacan is the second. I'm thinking that the link to Cortes probably helped. Coyoacan is probably the only other place besides San Angel where I'd actually live in Mexico City since it reminds me of Oaxaca so much. We watched a Quinceanera celebration in front of the church which got Natalya all excited because they had gorgeous dresses on. I do have to admit they looked very beautiful which brings me to another topic.
Whatever stereotype about Mexicans you buy into it's probably wrong. Mexicans range from short to very tall and ugly as sin to absolutely gorgeous. They can be as white as I am - no make that as white as Natalya or very dark brown. There is a very large range of people who fall under the category of Mexican and this makes Mexico a very fun place to people watch. Actually they spend as much time watching us as we spend watching them. Mexico City doesn't get a lot of American tourists so we're a bit of a spectacle. As we walk down the street people will either pay us no mind whatsoever (the nananana response) or stare and smile – there's nothing in between. Every guy of all age looks Natalya up and down which she's getting used to slowly. It's very interesting.
After taking the metro back we went to find the Pastalaria Ideal to get pastries but it was out of about everything so we went around the corner to the Churreria (24 hour Churro and Hot Chocolate shop, just imagine a donut shop that sells chocolate instaead of cofee) which had about 50 people waiting to get in so we skipped that as well. On our way back to the hotel we walked up a pedestrian only street and believe it or not ate at a Chinese restaurant. Yes, that's right we had Chinese. It was cheap and it was fast so it served nicely. When it came to pay though I was short a few pesos and they didn't take credit cards so I ran to the ATM which refused my card as did the next one. I returned to make a deal with the restaurant and we scraped up every penny we had and gave it to them which they accepted. You have to love Mexico... Especially when you don't have enough money to pay the bill. They're very laid back about everything.
Upon getting to the hotel we all passed out from exhaustion. Tomorrow is unplanned so we don't know what we'll be doing. I'd like to make it to Tula but a private driver will cost $100 for all day. This includes a stop of at Tepozollan and Teotihuacan. I haven't decided if I want to spend the money since we could take a bus for a lot less...
When I was a kid about 7 or 8 years old I knew what I wanted to do for a living. Most kids wanted to be Firemen, Police officers, Basketball stars etc.. I wanted to be a baker. I don't know why and I apparently didn't know anything about the hours they keep but I wanted to bake. I'm sure it had to do with my love for bread. When most people go to the cupboard late at night to get some sweets I go for bread. When I want to treat myself in the early morning I go to the donut shop. I've fallen in love with France for their pastries and many many types of breads. So why didn't I grow up to be a baker? Because bakers keep odd hours and the only way I could be a baker is to do all the baking BEFORE I go to bed. That and the little fact that most bakers don't spend three months a year traveling around the world. Although this year my travel schedule probably resembles a bakers travel schedule more than one of an IT consultant for fortune 50 corporations but I digress.
So there's rarely a time where I wouldn't appreciate the smell of dough rising in my house and the aroma of fresh bread baking in the oven waifing up the stairway to my nose parked in front of the computer is a very warm thought indeed. The problem is I'm a very spontaneous person and making bread is not a very spontaneous activity. You can't just whip up a loaf of bread and eat it 15 minutes later. You can however whip up a loaf of bread and eat it two and a half hours later. This might seem like a long time but I've started to realize that most of our meals take nearly this long to cook so if I get the dough rising first thing we'll have fresh bread for dinner. This is the plan anyway. If I mix the dough and get it on it's first rise at 5 pm we'll have bread at dinner. The other night I tried this theory with the Squash and mascarpone lasagna and it worked perfectly. The squash was going to take an hour to cook and then the lasagna was going to take another hour plus prep time so the bread got done exactly when the lasagna did.
With the Lasagna we were only involved twice - once to scoop out the squash and put it in the oven and then to scoop out the cooked squash and prepare the lasagna. That's about 20 minutes out of a 2 hr meal. Making bread is like that. People complain about it taking so long to make bread and how much work it is. It isn't really, you'll just need to trust me on this.
- Drop your yeast in baby bottle warm water
- Put all ingredients in the mixer bowl and turn it on for 10 minutes.
- Cover and wait
- Cut into shapes and wait
So easy even a baby could do it! If you're using rapid rise yeast or instant yeast either one you can skip step 1 and let's be honest step 3 (waiting) and step 5 (baking) aren't really steps - they're too easy to be steps. So with the lasagna I make buttermilk pull-a-part rolls. Of course we had to have real butter in them as well because anything else wouldn't be civilized.
My cousin Robin sent me a link to a food blog that had posted one of Wolfgang Puck's creations that sounded interesting - Pumpkin Lasagna. I almost didn't try it because I've had Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizza (a word of advice to other chefs - don't!) and I've seen his junk cookware but it sounded like it would be fun and maybe even good. In Italy it's very common to have Pumpkin or Squash puree in stuffed noodles and they've become a favorite in our house. My other reason for making the recipe is that I don't really like Lasagna. This may sound counter-intuitive but it's not. Classic Lasagna is about as interesting as classic Spaghetti (sorry Spaghetti lovers) in that it's well - boring. There's nothing interesting about a tomato sauce and noodles topped with cheese. Yes, kids like it but that's because they don't know any better. Why make Pumpkin Lasagna? Because it isn't boring! So we followed the recipe as posted at the One Perfect Bite food blog which made it according to the original recipe (I assume) by using Pumpkin and Chevre. The one red flag was the amount of salt used in the filling - ONE TABLESPOON! That seemed excessive to me but I hate it when I go through the trouble of making a recipe and people substitute cheese whiz for Froie Gras then complain so in the 1 Tbsp of salt went. I didn't have enough fresh Thyme so I had to commit the ultimate evil and dig through the cupboard for the dried version. I had fresh sage and ground some nutmeg. The recipe called for "goat cheese" (whatever that is) or Mascarpone which sounded good so I used that. We had a ton of Delicata Squash in the garage so we baked it cut side down the way I do pumpkins and it turned out real nice.
Conclusion: I think this recipe has real promise. If you like eating Squash then you'll love Squash Lasagna. However I was right on the money with the salt issue. I'm fairly certain that it was meant to be 1 tsp (teaspoon) and not 1 tbsp (tablespoon) as we had to gag it down. We'll be making it again later this week with a bit less Thyme, Sage and Salt. I believe this is the first time I've not doubled the herbs in a recipe and in fact pulled them back. Usually recipes lack flavor and need kick.