Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Aromas y Sabores 2011: La Ruta del Norte Begins with the Mercado de Abastos and a Prehispanic Banquet

Last weekend began an epic journey of the scents, flavors, and products of Mexican gastronomy. The Aromas y Sabores 2011,Ruta del Norte, highlights the rich heritage of the north.This is the third such culinary tour of Mexico. I'm currently in Monterrey,Nuevo Leon on an 11-day run that will realize a much anticipated journey on El Chepe, the legendary train-ride on the the Copper Canyon Railroad. Been waiting all my life for this.

In a pre-dawn ribbon cutting ceremony, reknowned chef,cookbook author, and Mexican culinary ambassador, Patricia Quintana of Mexico City's Izote,presented an international group of chefs, journalists, writers, photographers,bloggers, and tourism representatives to a delicious endeavour:to know Mexico's cultural treasures and to imprint into our memories its aromas and flavors.

The symbol of the sacred New Fire of Mezoamerica, El Nuevo Fuego, was rather appropriate on this trip, as Mexico's gastronomy was recently formally recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.

It's time for everyone to light the cultural fires in the fine dining restaurants of Condesa and Polanco, to save the treasures found in Mexico's markets from succumbing to commercialization, to document and promote the 32 distinct regional cuisines of Mexico found in its fondas, cenadurias, and street stands.Mexican cuisine is in its New Fire.

We started the tour with a visit to Mexico City's largest Mercado de Abastos, wholesale food and miscellaneous goods market, to have a look see, smell, and taste.

The Mercado de Abastos was completed in 1982 and is considered a city within a city at 810 acres of market.It was constructed to meet the food demands of the world's second largest city as the Mercado Merced wasn't big enough to satify the population, and was congested with traffic.

The market continues a spirit and tradition that has existed since prehispanic times.

We walked through the trail of tears, a football field length corridor of garlic and onions, so important in Mexican cookery. We took in the scents of countless chile varieties, all fighting for our nasal attention; hibiscus flowers from all over Mexico ready to be boiled and turned into one of the most famous aguas frescas in the world, agua de jamaica.

I lured Chef Patricia over to a fascinating tortilla machine where she ended up making us each a taco de sal, a tortilla with a little bit of salt, rolled into a taquito.

She was full of every and enthusiam the entire day, immaculately garbed in traditional Mexican regional dress.

The Mercado de Abastos, being a city within a city even had its own spokesmodels to accompany us on our market tour:Deborah, Cintia, Sandra, and Rebeca.

We saw a film about the market in its theater and were treated to a breakfast that reminded us of Mexico's culture of corn; quesadillas came in yellow, green, red, and blue corn.We were surrounded by Mexico's aromas and flavors, provoked by its colors, and entertained by its hard working vendors.This remarkable experience, a magical day in Mexico City would continue with a once in a lifetime lunch at a nearby convent.

The prehispanic buffet at the former Convent of Culhuacan.It was like going to market in the year 1518,give or take a few ingredients here and there. An unforgettable lunch in Iztapalapa.

The art of the comal and tortilla.

Oaxacan Mezcal made in earthen pots using a prehispanic distillery, following traditional methods. There's undeniable evidence that distilling practices existed before the Spanish came, but more on that at another time. This mezcal was gorgeous, earthy, and mineral.

Sopes de Chapulines, fresh masa sopes layered with beans, grasshoppers, and crumbled queso fresco.

Cerdo con Verdolagas, a Mexico City staple dish of pork with purslane in a tomatillo sauce. This is a must try when in Mexico City, but on this day just seemed ordinary when compared to the bounty of rare dishes at this feast.

Tortitas de Ahuautle, water bug larvae patties with nopales,tomato, green chile, onions,cilantro, and garlic bound by beaten eggs.

Ancas de Rana, frog's legs in tomatillo sauce with chilacoyote, a local squash.

Charales Iztapalapenses, small dried lake fish stewed in tomatillo sauce with nopales and potatoes.

Artichokes were brought to Mexico by the Spanish, but Alcachofas Iztapalapenses are a local invention; artichokes are fried with manchego and quesillo cheeses tucked inside, walnuts too, and bathed in a tomato sauce. Amazing!

Huevera de Gallina,hard-boiled hen egg yolks with menudencias(offal), nopales, onions, and garlic.

Pato en Pipian, duck in a thick, ingredient leaden pumpkin seed sauce.

Quesadilla de Quelites, a blue corn masa quesadilla filled with wild greens foraged nearby in Iztapalapa.

Tlapique de Pescado, found in the markets of Xochimilco, and Iztapalapa in Mexico City, also in Toluca. Normally a whole fish cooked over coals covered in epazote and chile guajillo using natural parchment, corn husks. This is a type of tamal.

Prior to this royal banquet, we ascended the Cerro de la Estrella, a prehispanic site where the Nuevo Fuego ritual is still performed we participated in a ceremony to pay respect to our ancestors, our heritage, our land.

It's time to know Mexico, it's culture, its wealth of sensorial gifts. Come with us as we continue this taste Odyssey, the revolucion shall be twitterized.

Aromas y Sabores on twitter
Chef Patricia Quintana on twitter

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Taqueria Jaas Light, Hermosillo, Sonora: Carne Asada's Lightweight World Champ

I have been a regular commuting customer of Taqueria Jaas Light since around 2002; they've been the place for carne asada tacos in Hermosillo since they first opened back in 1987. I'm there doing shows at least a couple of times a year, in Hermosillo, Sonora, where the greatest carne asada tradition in Mexico can be savored.

Carne asada is everywhere in Hermosillo, from the grand parrilladas to to taquerias to street stands marked by small chimneys atop their grills. It's all done with local beef from Angus steers and has to be roasted over mesquite. This is northern tradition.

At 6PM, the desert air rings with sounds of testosterone driven banda music and the scent of searing meat becomes a component of the atmosphere. That's when Jaas Light begins the steady stream of tacos that doesn't cease 'til almost 4AM. This is where the band goes after the show, to check out the attractive Sonoran women, and have amazing carne asada.

Sonoran women are famous in Mexico for their beauty, and they are everywhere here, so much that it overwhelms the senses. At the palenque(multi-purpose arena)they are stunning in pink and baby-blue cowgirl hats, boots, and tight Brazilian jeans singing along with their favorite hits while waving diva hands in the air--it must be the carne asada!

A team of professional and apprentice taqueros tend to the business of tacoing.

The house blend of Angus New York steak, top sirloin, and chuck are cut and trimmed prior to cooking. Blending allows for tremendous flavor and keeps the taco economical. Sonoran beef is sought after in top restaurants from Baja to Mexico City.

Sonorans love a plenteous salsa bar; here you'll find chilled cucumber and radishes, various salsas and guacamole, but be one must try the local heat:chiltepin.Chiltepin chiles are BB-sized balls of dried chile with a rattle of seeds inside that bring stinging heat that rides just below this chiles bold flavor.

The menu at Jaas Light gathers the local taco stylings of Sonora. You can start off with a carne asada taco, but it would be a shame to stop there.Request flour tortillas, they are the natural pairing for steak tacos.

Th pellizcada is a unique member of the taco family. A sope(masa disc) is covered with melted cheese and carne asada, finished with the usual toppings. An icing of fresh guacamole wets this hardy, gooey stag of the taco kingdom. This taco needs no explanation; it's a greatest flavor hits compilation.

The lorenza is the Sonoran version of the Sinaloan vampiro, a toasted-until-bone-dry tortilla covered with molten-cheese and the tri-steak blend.

The caramelo(caramel)is a flow of local cheese inside a flour tortilla with the house steak combination.

The marquee taco is the Taco Light, the proprietary blend of steak wrapped in a lettuce leaf, if you feel so inclined, but the Taco Jaas is the showstopper, a taco that has made its way to Tijuana under the nome de taco of the taco hass.A roasted anaheim chile, melted cheese, and Jaas's signature carne asada will seem familiar in concept, but this is all quality product and cookery.

Carne asada shines at Jaas Light, grass-fed steak, simply seasoned with coarse salt, and tenderized by the craft of polished taqueros.

This taqueria is the undisputed lightweight world champion of carne asada, a lighter charge into Sonoran steak culture. A few taco Lights and you'll still be ready to take on the heavyweights, the local parrilladas. Ladies and Gentlemen...let's get ready to taco, Sonoran style.

Jaas Light
Ignacio Mariscal #23 Esq. Gomez Farias
Col. Constitucion

Monday, May 9, 2011

Blue Woman Group, Mexico City: Street Food Ritual of Blue Corn Masa Tlacoyos, Quesadillas, and Gorditas

Scattered about the streets of Mexico City you will encounter pokerfaced women with hands tinted periwinkle blue from the labor of preparing blue corn masa foods. This prehispanic ritual of snacking on blue corn products once made in the markets of empires continues in the most unobtrusive street vendor stands.

The hands of these women fascinate in the way that women in India do with henna painted hands, adorned for celebration. In Mexico City the blue hands beckon a celebration of antojitos, or little whims.

The blue corn masa specialists have minimal menus, maybe a few masa shapes, or just one. The cooking styles of the vendors come from around the State of Mexico and from neighboring states. One worthwhile stop for some blue corn delights is a stand on Jose Maria Izazaga, across from the San Miguel church at the Pino Suarez metro station in DF's Centro Historico.

The 18-year-old family run stand brings prehispanic traditions from Puebla, Mexico; they offer blue corn quesadillas filled with various toppings, gorditas, and tlacoyos. The young women who run the stand have their uncle, Jose Malaco close by, keeping a watchful eye, he appears out of nowhere to answer our questions.

Normally these stands are served by austere women, but my shuttering camera had everyone a little giddy, even a cute girl sitting in one of the few seats available couldn't stop smiling and staring in amusement. I stopped here with Josh Lurie of Food GPS on our recent trip, who was also snapping away--just call us the tacorazzi.

The tempting array of fillings were all traditional: poblano chile strips with cream, squash blossoms, huitlacoche(corn smut), chicharron, tinga de res(spicy beef), and mushrooms with cheese.

A finishing touch of queso blanco and shredded lettuce is added after your antojito is plated.

The quesadillas and all other blue corn masa shapes are cooked on a comal; a healthier option on the streets of Mexico City than the DF style deep-fried versions. Each region has a slight shape variation in their quesadillas, in Puebla, the elongated half-oval style is preferred.

The gorditas(little fat ones), chicharron filled discus-like rounds of masa, are distinctly wider than Mexico City style gorditas. Chicharron prensado(pressed pork skin), is the typical filling for a gordita.

The tlacoyos are oval shapped and filled with beans and queso blanco.

Quesadilla of blue corn masa topped with queso blanco, chile guajillo sauce, and shredded lettuce.

We ordered the blue corn quesadilla with poblano chile strips and Mexican cream. One of the young women thrust her hand into the mound of raw blue corn masa and began to slap our snack into shape.

Blue corn quesadillas have a softer texture, and blistered outer skin from the comal that give a rustic appearance--a flavor of corn that is lower in starch, yet sweeter; plus it's a higher source of protein.

Over near the Mercado San Juan, a woman from Toluca has been sitting on the sidewalk for over 25 years making sublime tlacoyos of beans and cheese.

Her simple set-up consists of a comal, a bucket of blue corn masa, and a few colorful bags of ingredients. Like a lady walking from the mercado who just thought, "hell with it, I'm going to set down and cook right here." This is one of the best tlacoyos you'll encounter, but her whole operation sits below eye level; if you sneeze, you'll miss her--don't!

Without making eye contact she takes orders, keeping the rythym of tortilla making a constant, a beat that starts your stomach to growl.

Her tlacoyos are paradisiacal; deep blue misshapen ovals filled with beans, zesty from cactus, and tomatillo salsa, and salted by queso blanco.

Look out for these blue-handed masters while walking the streets of Mexico City, hear the pulse of the Aztec Empire, a sound that is music to your taste buds.

No Name Pueblan Tlacoyos, Gorditas, and Quesadillas
mornings 'til mid-afternoon
Jose Maria Izazaga, 131(across from the San Miguel church, by the Pino Suarez metro station, south side of the street)
Centro Historico
Mexico City, Mexico

Tolucan Tlacoyo Lady
mornings 'til mid-afternoon
Calle Lopez(in front of the Ferreteria Casa Cadena, just south of Delicias on the west side of the street)
San Juan
Mexico City, Mexico