Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beating the Heat in Havana, Cuba: Granizados and Guarapo-Lifesaving Shots of Cool on the Streets of Havana

Frank delivers Cuban slushes with gusto at Havana's Parque Central

There's no escape from the oppressive heat of summer in Cuba. Its brutal forces of humidity and sweltering temperatures dog you from the moment you wake 'til the point in which you are able to find enough relief to sleep. At night you remove all clothes and search for the coolest part of your bed with old fans blasting directly on your sun-beaten body. In the mornings the sweating begins once you get out of the shower.

You know it's bad when all day long you hear the locals moaning about the heat. Between the hours of 2 and 4pm those who can retreat indoors are fortunate souls. We are all in varying degrees of sweatiness, or are among those waiting to sweat. One day, I actually sweated the entire day, soaking my shirt so bad I alarmed the Havana residents I encountered that day, " Oye hermano, esta sudando mucho!" (Hey brother, you're sweating alot)Spoken in a melodic and rythmic Cuban spanish. My evening that day was spent with embarrassing salt streaks all over my shirt where the sweat had finally dried.

Among the many liquids Cubans consume during the day to stay hydrated and get a reprieve from the torturing sun are two divine interventions:granizados and guarapos. Slushes and fresh pressed sugar cane juice.

The granizados, or Cuban slushes are flavored shaved ices available with the national currency of Cuba. It costs between 4 and 8 cents.The flavors are simple:strawberry, pineapple, orange, and lime. Most carts have only 1 or 2 flavors, some have as many as 6.

These small shots of Cuban air-conditioning are perfect, a little bit of ice with the pleasures of a sweet, syrupy gulp. Cubans have a serious sweet tooth.

These bottles on the sides of the carts become beacons of hope. Oh, strawberry, that'll do just fine.

They're found all over town like this vendor here at La Rampa, a popular hang-out for Cuba's young and restless.

Here in Parque Central--where you'll always find granizados--young Cubanas employing a few heat defense strategies of Havana(an umbrella and short pants)seek to lower their body temperatures a few degrees--deliciously.

Once the flavoring is poured your body relaxes knowing that help is on the way.

A mandarin refreshment of is just the remedy to keep you going in Havana, Cuba. Throughout the day the carts will serve as necessary pit stops in taking on the hot Havana days and nights.

An even sweeter proposition is guarapo, or sugar cane juice.These small stands take stalks of sugar cane and squeeze the juice into a pitcher,also for pennies using monedas nacionales.

Guarapos are sold from guaraperos found usually next to agropecuarios(farmer's markets).

These small stands take stalks of sugar cane and squeeze the juice into a pitcher. The juice is poured into glasses pre-loaded with ice cubes, unfiltered, giving it a nice touch of grassy stalk.

I found a spot in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana--think the Bronx of the Cuban capitol. While I've always enjoyed fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice in other countries, the intense hell-fire sun that saps the energy and spirit of Cubans gives this cooler a whole other purpose. It's a practical pleasure. It's tropical paradise in a glass that revives and comforts. For me, these were moments to regroup. I would now be free to forget about the handicapping solar beams that exasperated me all over town."Alright, so where was I?" "Ah, off to Partagas for some cigars!"

Customers often go back for seconds, yelling,"el ultimo?" This means "who's last?" We need to get in the right place in line, get our juice, and get the hell out.It's too hot for mistakes.

During the rush, the vendors are cranking the juicer, and the cashier is calling for clean glasses. A small collection of glasses are washed as we turn them in--there's no space or budget here for too many drinking glasses. No plastic cups will do, guarapos are best in a cold glass.

Think of walking in Havana in August as a battle against the elements, but you're not alone. The guaraperos and granizados vendors are there when you need them.

One of my last and truly special memories of this trip was with Frank, the granizado vendor in Parque Central. As soon as I was down to just a cup with ice, he poured over some more grape flavoring. He said,"mi amigo, pa recordar de Cuba--amigos!" Thanks to the cool street vendors of Cuba for helping me through my journey.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

LA Street Food Fest Summer Tasting Event, Pasadena,CA, Saturday, July 16, 2011: Baja Cuisine Comes to the Rose Bowl for Street Food's Biggest Day

This Saturday July 16th, the LA Street Food Fest presents its 2nd Annual Summer Tasting Event at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. Attendees can choose the afternoon session(2-5pm) or the party session(6-9pm). $60 gets you in for an all-inclusive experience,$75 for the VIP tent; all you need are your tickets and the bus fare home!

The LA Street Food Fest is bringing the most intensive street food experience ever to Los Angeles. This is the first festival to feature traditional food trucks, veteran carts and stands from the streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles, select survivors of the gourmet truck wars, and the best of LA's ice cream shops. Top LA chefs like chef Ricardo Zarate, chef Andre Guerrero, and chef Dan Moody are rolling up their sleeves and and mixing it up with the likes of Flor de Yucatan, Cocina del Camaguey,and Mariscos Chente's for some old school head cutting. Oh yeah, we are having a cook-off to see who is King, or Queen of the hard-catered streets of Los Angeles.

The all-star judges will be LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold, Food Network's chef Marcela Valladolid, Los Angeles Magazine's Lesley Bargar Suter, chef Walter Manzke, and chef Michael Voltaggio.

This is the fulfillment of all the hard work and ideals put in by the LASFF team, a real street food experience. Close to 70 vendors!

If that weren't enough, they're something no other festival in town could ever even dream of doing. Shawna Dawson of the LASFF asked if I might bring some friends, well, the LASFF has gone international. We're bringing up 3 stars from the most exciting food destination in Mexico in years, Baja California.

Chef Javier Plascencia brings his cutting edge Baja cuisine--a veteran restaurateur with 9 successful restaurants in his portfolio--from Tijuana's Mison 19, Casa Plascencia, Villa Saverios, and Cebicheria Erizo. He is considered one of the best chefs in all of Mexico and was recently featured in the New York Times. Plascencia will appear on the new season of Mexico:One Plate at a Time with Rick Bayless.

Chef Benito Molina is leading the charge in Ensenada's own culinary scene, employing minimalist cooking using the wealth of fine seafood products found in Baja along with local wine and olive oil. He is also considered one of the top chefs in Mexico, and his restaurant Manzanilla is now the set for Molina's hit cooking show on the Utilisima Network, Benito y Solange. Chef Benito Molina was featured on Bizarre Foods Baja with Andrew Zimmern and will also appear on Rick Baylesses PBS program.

But the ultimate score is Ensenada's La Guerrerense. This is a world champion street food stand, and no chef I can think of can create anything more memorable than this humble street cart.

Sabina Bandera has over 50 years at her street cart, forget Kate Middleton, real street food royalty is coming to Los Angeles. This is the woman that does those sea urchin tostadas, sea cucumber, cod, mussels, pismo clams, fish pate, and the best local oysters and clams from top purveyors in Baja.

Sabina on Benito y Solange.

Like chefs make sure to visit El Bulli in Barcelona, or Noma in Copenhagen, they all come to La Guerrerense when in Ensenada.

And Sabina's sea urchin tostada topped with pismo clam, buttery avocado, and her mysterious salsa, chiles de mi jardin? It's unforgettable, it permeates your dreams constantly, dreams of the sublime. It's an urge that makes many customers decide to just drive--because nothing else will do.It's just a little a street cart named desire.

There's no place I'd rather be than the LASFF this Saturday, and nothing is stopping me from getting that tostada. See you on the field.

LA Street Food Fest
Saturday July 16, 2011
Pasadena Rose Bowl
2 sessions: 2-5PM and 6-9PM
$60 All-Inclusive, get your tickets today.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Izote by Patricia Quintana, Mexico City: Four Unforgettable Meals with the First Lady of Mexican Cuisine

On the 7th of June after spending two magical weeks on the road with Patricia Quintana and Aromas y Sabores 2011, La Ruta del Norte, we arrived in DF with an hour to freshen up before attending the reopening of Izote by Patricia Quintana. On July 8th at East LA Meets Napa it was the 1-year anniversary of the day I met Patricia at a private dinner in the Sangre room at Rivera. So much has passed since meeting one of the most important people in my life, chef Patricia Quintana.

Izote features the best in Mexican fine dining, located for more than 10 years in Mexico City's Polanco district. Izote is tradition and refinement perfected.

Chef Patricia Quintana speaks with Raramuri women, more commonly known as Tarahumara in Divisadero, Chihuahua.Aromas y Sabores 2011.

At the Mercado Municipal Revolucion in Morelia, Michoacan chef Patricia Quintana cradles symbols of Mexico's pre-hispanic cuisine, squash blossoms and corn smut. Aromas y Sabores 2011.

Chef Patricia Quintana:Mexico's culinary ambassador, chef, cookbook author, historian, and the first lady of Mexican gastronomy continues her mission to preserve the culinary traditions and heritage of Mexico's culinary treasures.Pictured here at the Cerro de la Estrella in Iztapalapa Department in DF.Aromas y Sabores 2011.

Chef Patricia Quintana has penned numerous cookbooks, runs the Mexico City destination restaurant, Izote, and founded Mexico's first culinary institute. She studied in Europe under chefs Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenôtre, Michel Guérard, and the Troisgros brothers. She brought back different techniques and ideas but has remained 100% dedicated to education and preservation of the 32 distinct regional cuisines of Mexico.

My friend Patricia loves the chile, she finds delight in the aromatic herbs of the markets, and deeply breathes in the essence of northern cheeses, of fresh tortillas. She never misses an opportunity to sample a market product,"we're like little birds, always eating tiny bites", She tells me.

One of my favorite moments with her was in Iztapalapa at the Central de Abastos. I pointed put this cool tortilla machine and she left the cameras and reporters to go make us some tacos de sal, fresh tortillas with salt. "Can you believe this flavor", said Patricia."ummmm"."Here, taste!" It's as though she was having a tortilla for the first time, with the curiosity and eyes of a child. Patricia is driven by this, and has the exhuberance and energy of a teenager. Great Mexican food will keep you young!

Chefs John Sedlar and Patricia Quintana with Rivera staff at a private dinner given on July 8,2011.

From the moment I met chef Patricia Quintana at the Rivera dinner--I was introduced to her by mutual friend chef John Sedlar--we talked as if we'd known each other for years. I spoke of the northern traditions being equal to any southern traditions of Mexico. She stared at me with a serious look at said,"Bill, we will go to the north together!" Finally, another traveler through Mexico that shared the same experience and belief, and from the highest authority. The American promoters of Mexico have traditionally followed in each other's footsteps to just a handful of southern states, replicating the same experiences, while completely failing to visit and comprehend the north.

This was a defining moment for me, this night, this dinner. I had used every trick and wile to get into this dinner so I could meet Paty and all my hopes for this fateful encounter have come to pass.

Dinner No. 1-Patricia Quintana at Rivera.July 8,2010

The meal at Rivera would be my first glimpse into the mastery of chef Patricia Quintana's cooking. Los chiles. Patricia is a walking encyclopedia of chiles, with know how in cooking and there complicated regional names and uses. Some chiles are only used dry in one part of Mexico, go by a different name, and the same chile will be used fresh somewhere else. Very few people know this much about Mexican chiles, I mean, regional cooks usually can't tell you about chiles outside their part of Mexico, and even supermarkets in the US mislabel chiles, Patricia knows them all.

A chile relleno using the chocolate flavored chile mulato showed Patricia's finesse with stuffed peppers. The mulato is almost exclusively used in its dry form in Mexico. The filling was queso fresco and the tender mulato was paired with a sour salsa of xoconostle(cactus fruit). The chile was marinated piloncillo(Mexican brown sugar), sherry and olive oil to give this dish such pleasure in its range of flavors.

Chefs John Sedlar and Patricia Quintana have been friends for decades.Here they prepare the private event to promote East LA Meets Napa(2010) in Rivera's kitchen.

Here she prepares Santa Barbara spot prawns using flavors of the Yucatan, her own achiote sauce was rubbed on the shrimp alongside unbelievable black beans sweetened by onions and slow cooking. I insisted there were other ingredients in the beans and she just shook her head.

This dish was an adaption of a similar dish she cooks at Izote.

Patricia loves to explore the genre of ceviches, always maintaining the simplicity that makes this Mexican seafood tradition so illusive outside of the country's ocean side communities. Keep it simple, start with superb ingredients, flawless citrus, and show restraint. Our ceviche of crab with pomegranate juice was inspired, and splashed into my memory with bright, sweet expression.

Escamoles, ant eggs, on the menu tonight.

The iconic tortillas florales at Rivera were wrapped around chef Patricia's sautee of escamoles. What a treat to enjoy the rare escamoles in Downtown Los Angeles!

The last savory course consisted of steamed fish stacked on top of a tamale of huitlacoche(corn smut).The finishing touch was the product of a blend of three chiles, chile meco(smoked jalapeno), mora(dried jalapeno) and morita (dried jalapeno from Chihuahua).This garnished the fish and a cream sauce and was layered with multiple flavors. My eyes jumped out of my skull when I tasted this blend in the kitchen.

There were so many nuances between chiles, fish, herbs, and huitlacoche that came together to form luxurious bite after bite.

I was hooked. I had to see chef Patricia again, and a month later I would have my chance in Mexico City.

Dinner No. 2-Izote by Patricia Quintana. August 10, 2010.

My first visit to Izote by Patricia Quintana almost didn't happen. I arrived late and they were shutting down the kitchen.My charm in full effect and soon I had the entire restaurant to myself, but Patricia wasn't in that night.

Fortunately, I had a shot of Oaxacan mezcal to keep me company.

Chef Patricia Quintana is a perfectionist. Every dish achieves a balance that allows all flavors to be present without needing aggressiveness, this is the hardest thing to do in haute cuisine, to coax refinement and elegance.

The sopa tarasca(Tarascan soup) is one of Patricia's lifelong companions in this pursuit of harmonious plates.

First the tortilla strips, avocado, chile guajillo, Mexican cream, and crumbled cheese are placed around the bowl.

The fragrant bean soup is poured over tableside while you anxiously salivate in anticipation.

Give it all a moment to meld its components into this comforting taste of Mexico, only as Patricia Quintana could summon.

Chiles en nogada.The famed Pueblan dish and the Giant Steps of Mexican haute cuisine. It's a difficult dish to master:a savory-seet picadillo of pork, beef, and seasonal fruit, a white walnut sauce, and a topping of fresh pomegranate seeds in a chile relleno of roasted poblano.

I've had this in Puebla, and various parts of Mexico. Patricia follows the original recipe and uses no egg batter on the chile.

As much as this dish excites--it's only available for a couple months out of the year(around September and October)--I often find the combination of savory and sweet ingredients to be overwhelming. I don't always feel so hot after one of these.

From the moment my fork breached the various elements and met my skeptical mouth--pure heaven.Nothing too sweet or heavy, nothing that clashed in the picadillo, or ground meat and fruit filling. I sometimes find the sauce to be perfect but the picadillo is too contentious with the rest of the dish. The best chiles en nogada I've tasted.

Dinner No. 3-Izote de Patrica Quintana,Casa Chapultepec.Patricia's House!May 20,2011.

Big Night at the house of Chef Patricia Quintana for Izote en casa. Aromas y Sabores 2011.

On the first night of our sojourn through Mexico for Aromas y Sabores led by Patricia Quintana our group of 90 was divided up between all the fine dining restaurants in Polanco, the upscale dining neighborhood in Mexico City.

Chef John Sedlar asked me where I was dining, he had been given a place neither of us knew. We had hoped to dine together and hang out a bit, but I said I'd be going to Izote. "Izote is closed for remodeling!", said John. "You're going to Patricia's house." "Really?"

I was blown away. I can't even describe how special I felt at that moment.It would be state tourism representatives, editors of magazines, fine dining aficionados from Madrid, a sommelier from DF, and me, this little street food blogger from Hollywood.Anyone wanna sing "One of These Things, is Not Like the Others" with me? Even John Sedlar was saying,"wow, look at you"

I have never feigned cool quite so deftly as when I arrived at her beautiful house in Chapultepec.

I sat next to sommelier Carmen Esquitin, who along with cookbook translator, Rosa from Madrid became my 2 tias on this trip. It was a beautiful night.

Our first snack was cebiche de pescado playero con salsa mexicana, a zesty, tangy ceviche that I stealthly drank the juice to the last drop, using the dim light to hide my uncouth behavior.

Savory empanadas san luis, turnovers filled with a stew of cheeses, chiles, and tomatoes as good as any on the streets of San Luis Potosi.

Tacos de canasta de chicharrones, one of Mexico City's essential street eats with all the power of pork skin in a salsa verde, with steamy, moist exterior but without the greasiness you find in the vendors that prepare these basket tacos on the street.

Patricia shows here how authenticity and light cooking can coexist.

The tamalitos de requeson was a fun presentation.Blue corn masa filled with Mexican style ricotta cheese where formed into 2 small tacos of masa, then steamed inside a banana leaf.

Since we would be going to Sinaloa, chef Patricia Quintana showed her prowess once again in the school of ceviches with a Sinaloan style aguachile. An aguachile is a spicy style of ceviche with only chiles, lime, and raw seafood. Our dish had raw scallops and shrimp in a mild green salsa.

The next course delighted the group of 10 diners, we all know the love and attention chef Patricia Quintana invests in soups. Sopa campirana was served in the pour over delivery so familiar at Izote. Did I mention we had the entire Izote staff at Patricia's house?

A soulful,tangy broth with wild mushrooms and squash blossoms was lavished upon us.

Red snapper in a spicy chipotle sauce, pescado en tinga, was our main dish of the evening. This dish was steamed in natural parchment from the maguey plant. This was raw beach-side cooking, with big flavors. Yes, Patricia can open all the stops if she wants.Every morsel of red snapper begged to be covered in this sauce.

Tamal de ganache de chocolate con natilla a la canela, a merengue of dark chocolate with a cinnamon custard, a variation on one of Patricia's favorite desserts. Divine.

The Izote staff did a marvelous job that night transforming Patricia's house into Izote. Upon our return of more than two weeks in Mexico they would have to get back to work when the newly fashioned Polanco hotspot reopened.

In the dining room we talked until the wee hours, discussing favorite Mexican dishes, and I received a bit of flack for my choices in low cantinas by the folks from a prominent magazine in Mexico. I don't think my new friend's wife is going to let him go out when I'm in town.

But alas, the night came to an end, and it was far past the rendezous hour I had set with John Sedlar. We were to go and check out Biko, rated one of the best restaurants in the world by Pellegrino. I left the group to attend sme business the next morning, and would rejoin the trip in Monterrey, Mexico before attending my most recent meal at Izote.

Dinner No. 4-The grand reopening of Izote by Patricia Quintana.

Literally, we had just landed in Df with 2 weeks of non-stop eating in our bellies, and we had an hour or so to freshen up and high-tail it over to Polanco.Only a dozen of us continued on to the state if Michoacan, including good friend Barbara Hansen. Lucky doesn't describe it!

Anette Handel from TV Azteca was at the scene of this exclusive look at the new Izote, she had been on Aromas y Sabores but wasn't able to do the Michoacan extension.

Patricia looked bright, cheery, and a vision of Mexican pride as she made the rounds. She showed no signs of wear from our exhausting food crawl all over Mexico. She is amazing.

The new design is more sleek and minimal with a banquette decorated with earth-toned pillows.

Sopecitos de camaron is a popular starter at the restaurant. The masa is so tasty and the shrimp with a mild chipotle just melts in you mouth.On this night we were served little sopes camerinos including one with cheese from Pijijiapan, Chiapas.The nixtamal is outstanding, you can't beat this masa.

Camaron en chia, why doesn't everyone do this dish? A shrimp ceviche with impeccable limes given to dreamy, smoky fragrance from mezcal and toasted chia seeds.Green chiles gave it a heat slightly beyond mild.

Ensalada de luchugas con esquites is street corn's "uptown girl." A light citrus dressing with fine field corn echoed the cries of street hawkers in the night air.

I first tasted Patricia's sopa tarasca on my initial visit to Izote and fell in love with this simple soup of bayo beans. Tonight I really tasted the earthen cookware and a slight edge in flavor, perhaps Patricia was still feeling the Purepecha spirit we had soaked up the week before in Michoacan. Whatever the reason, we loved this shot of soup and broke from our subject to discuss this intensity and warmth.

Pescado en tamal, fish tamale accompanied by sweet black beans and green chile. Chef Patricia Quintana is a consummate practitioner of the Mexican classics. Her command of tamales is unusual in fine dining, this is a discipline I usually rpefer from a specialist, but the hard work has been done, and the upmost respect given to this practice by Mexico's first lady of cuisine.

From the restaurant's regular menu, the superb custard,natilla, this time served with a truffle.

Another blissful night in Mexico City, dining with special people, enjoying sublime dishes prepared by a Mexican culinary living legend. I really do miss it all, everyday, but soon I'll be back with Patricia, and my tias Carmen and Rosa.In the meantime I follow my friend Patricia Quintana on twitter!

Chef Patricia Quintana is Mexico's true culinary ambassador, searching, studying, and revering all its unique scents and flavors. I recommend picking up one of her cook books, A Taste of Mexico is a great book to start with and is a part of my collection. It's such a drag to go to book stores and only see American cook book authors when I look for Mexican cook books, but we do have the internet. These other authors don't understand the cuisine with the depth, experience, and receptiveness of Patricia. You'll learn so much about all of Mexico.

At Izote by Patricia Quintana you'll encounter traditional Mexican cooking done with the care and attention to detail that remains rooted in tradition , elevating the cuisine without loosing a thing. This is authentic Mexican cuisine, this is the voice of Mexican gastronomy that I follow. Don't miss the new Izote bt Patricia Quintana, make it a requisite stop on your next Mexico City trip.

Restaurant Izote de Patricia Quintana
Presidente Masarik 513 Local 3
Polanco, Mexico City
Tel: 52-80-16-71.
Izote on twitter