My favorite food moments of 2013

Blue corn tlacoyos at the tianguis in Santiago Tianguistenco, 2013.

Blue corn tlacoyos at the tianguis in Santiago Tianguistenco, 2013.



I started this year a little heartbroken. Crayton and I had plunged ourselves into a new city. (An expensive one.) We made our home in a pre-war building in Queens, which had roaches in the kitchen and sputtering radiators that woke us up in the middle of the night.

We learned to ignore our neighbors. We fell back in love with the American drugstore. We watched snow flutter on the lone pine tree across the street, and in the summer we stood on the stifling subway platforms and sweated through our shirts. We saw a free concert in Central Park, went upstate to look at foliage, and enjoyed two musicals, one dance performance and one play.

I went back to Mexico a lot and brought home bags full of dried chiles, mole powders and my favorite toasted pumpkin seeds… and at the end of the year I realized that I wasn’t heartbroken anymore, because I had a foot in both worlds.

Piecing a new life together in New York has been frustrating, scary, and many times, not fun. But just a few days before 2014 begins, I admit that being here feels right. It took guts for both of us to leave our comfort zone and start over. I’m proud of both of us, and at peace with whatever’s around the bend.

Here are my top food moments of 2013.

1. Making tlacoyos with street food artisans.

Homemade tlacoyos in Xalatlaco, in the State of Mexico.

Homemade tlacoyos in Xalatlaco, in the State of Mexico.

For a while now, I’ve harbored a secret dream to learn how to make tlacoyos from a street vendor. This summer, I somehow convinced a woman I’d become friendly with to let me come to her house in the State of Mexico so I could learn. She’s been selling tlacoyos on the street for probably 40 years, and to say I had stars in my eyes when I showed up to her house would be an understatement. (I think I actually glowed.) She and her daughter were friendly and kind, teaching me how they nixtamalize their corn, how they use the metate to make their bean fillings, and, most importantly, how they fold the tlacoyo and where to place it on the wood-fired comal. Both of them asked me a few times, “Why do you want to learn this so badly?” I told them that I didn’t have a mother or grandmother to teach me, but, truthfully, I couldn’t quite put into words the real reason why.

2. Visiting the Santiago Tianguistenco Market.

Bunches of epazote at the Tuesday tianguis in Santiago Tianguistenco.

Bunches of epazote at the Tuesday tianguis in Santiago Tianguistenco.

Several people had told me that the Tuesday tianguis in Santiago Tianguistenco, in the State of Mexico, was not to be missed. I finally made time to go this spring and I’m so glad I did. The sheer size of the place was astounding, swallowing up nearly the entire downtown area with stalls of local beans, local and imported fruits, vegetables, charred tamales and regular steamed tamales, cacahuazintle-flavored atole, dry goods, chiles, cheeses, textiles, homemade mole pastes and powders, and all varieties of tlacoyos. It was a paradise for people like me who like nosing around and buying things they’ve never seen before.

3. Seeing up-close how pulque is made.

A field of maguey in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

A field of maguey in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

My guides and I traveled to Tlaxcala in July to visit a working pulque farm. We ended up wandering through agave fields and apple orchards with one of the staff, Don Miguel, who walked us through the pulque-making process and taught us about local quelites. Tlaxcala is one of the smaller states in Mexico, but I’m fascinated by the culture there — I’m eager to go back.

4. Learning about the foods of San Luis Potosí.

Cabuches, the edible blossoms from the biznaga cactus, at a market in San Luis Potosi.

Cabuches, the edible blossoms from the biznaga cactus, at a market in San Luis Potosi.

Campechanas are as to-die-for as they look: a cookie wrapped in crisp pastry, then topped with some of San Luis Potosí's famous cajeta.

Campechanas are as to-die-for as they look: a cookie wrapped in crisp pastry, then topped with some of San Luis Potosí’s famous cajeta.

I hadn’t known a thing about San Luis Potosí food when I showed up at my friend Esperanza’s house earlier this year. She was a great host, taking me to several markets where I oohed over cactus blossoms (cabuches) and tiny potatoes called papita del monte, and sweet, milk-sugar dipped pecans called nuez encanelado. My favorites were the jobo liqueur, made from a local plum, and the thick, spongey gorditas de horno, cooked over an intense wood fire and then drowned in salsa.

5. Hanging out in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.

The Sol y Luna B&B in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.

The Sol y Luna B&B in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Crayton and I had wanted to visit Chiapas for years, and in late June we finally were able to spend about five days there, splitting the trip between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. I think I underestimated how cool San Cris was going to be. The streets were pretty and quiet, the air fresh; the vibe seemed much more down-to-earth than Oaxaca City, where we’d traveled together a few years before. We drank excellent coffee and browsed around the textile shops, and we nibbled on local cheese and jamón serrano in a chill, slightly grungy wine bar. I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but I’ll never forget my early morning visit to the market. It felt like being in another country: women in furry black wool skirts (from San Juan Chamula, although I didn’t know it then) carried dead chickens looped over their forearms, like purses. Other women shuffled by wearing stiff, triangle-shaped embroidered shawls covering their shoulders, their thick black braids trailing behind their backs. Still other women sold hot pink tamales from colorful cloths, and bunches of wild mushrooms, and hormigas chicatanas from plastic buckets. I’m generally conscious of my gringa-ness in Mexico, but I’d never felt like a complete outsider before. It was jarring and fascinating. I want to go back.

6. The Mexican Cookbook Devoted to American Homes.

The Mexican Cook Book Devoted to American Homes, by Josefina Velázquez de León.

The Mexican Cook Book Devoted to American Homes, by Josefina Velázquez de León.

A few months ago, while researching a few recipes at the library inside the Fundación Herdez in Mexico City, I came across a cookbook of Josefina Velazquez de León that I hadn’t heard of. It was bilingual and aimed at American cooks trying to make traditional Mexican food. Which was basically me. As soon as I got home, I Amazoned it, and lo and behold, the book popped up. Since then, I’ve fallen hopelessly in love. I have started to refer to the book as “Josefina,” as in, “What does Josefina say?” or “I’m going to consult Josefina.” I store it in a Ziploc bag and don’t dare take it on the subway, even if I’m on the train for an hour and would love the company. While reading, I am known to sigh and squeal and pump my fist in agreement, particularly at lines like, “The reader will notice that almost all of my recipes for sauteing or frying call for the use of lard. Here again, she must take into account my aim of preserving the original flavor and quality of our traditional cooking.” Sing it, Josefina.

7. Making homemade tlacoyos in Queens.

Tlacoyos we made from red corn, nixtamalized on the Nixtamatic.

Tlacoyos we made from red corn, nixtamalized on the Nixtamatic.

I’d insisted to my new friends in the State of Mexico that I would make tlacoyos at home in New York, and take pictures to show them later. One day in November, I invited my good friends over for a tlacoyo party. I nixtamalized a bag of red corn I’d bought in Mexico, and once my friends came over, we rinsed the corn multiple times and fed it through the Nixtamatic. We kneaded the masa for a good 20 minutes, adding water as we went. The result — a soft, airy, damp masa — was the best I’d ever made, and similar to the kind I had seen and adored on the streets. We made two types of tlacoyos: refried bean, and acorn squash pureed with a little chipotle en adobo.

8. Eating poutine twice in Montreal, and biking a zillion miles.

Poutine -- french fries with cheese curds and gravy -- from Patati Patata in Montreal.

Poutine — french fries with cheese curds and gravy — from Patati Patata in Montreal.

This is the secret to traveling in Montreal: rent the local city bikes and ride everywhere you can, which means you’re hungry all the time, which means you have room for all the great local beer, poutine, and fabulous restaurants. I think this might be the first vacation in which I actually lost weight. Also, take the Fitz & Follwell bike tour!

9. Sembrado NYC
I don’t have any pictures of this place, usually because I’m there in the evening and the light isn’t too good. But Sembrado, in the East Village, has become my favorite taquería in the city. Mexico City-born chef Danny Mena nails all the details — the salsas on the table, the al pastor trompo, even the paper menu where you enter what you want with a little pencil. The alambres are better than the ones I’ve tried in DF, and the gringas satisfy with melty cheese and charred bits of pork. The chicharrón de queso and cebollitas preparadas are pretty acceptable, too. Every time Crayton and I go here, we’re reminded of home. It’s on 13th between 1st and A.

10. Getting a cookbook deal.
Forgive me for being self-promotional, but I am really, really excited to be writing my first cookbook — on Mexico City food! — for Kyle Books. Look for it in 2015.

Up for more? Read my retrospectives of 2012 and 2009.

Wishing you a Happy New Year and all the best in 2014!

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23 Responses to “My favorite food moments of 2013”
  1. Schmubb

    I love year-end lists and this one was FANTASTIC! I don’t know if you’re the photographer for these as well, but they’re really great! I’m pumped about the list, the book, and pretty much you.

    You’ve got big fans in Alabama!

    • Lesley Tellez

      Muchas gracias, Schmubb! Really appreciate your comment. I was the photographer on these. :-) I’m a fan of y’alls, too. Wish we all lived closer.

  2. Kate Blood

    Happy New Year, Lesley! What a fun round up! I’m looking forward to reading your book ;-)

    Best,

    Kate

    • Lesley Tellez

      Thanks, Kate! Hopefully I’ll be able to do some signings in the Bay Area. Hope all’s well.

  3. Mely Martinez

    Lovely post it took me to all those places you mentioned, even to the tlacoyo’s lessons. :).

    Glad to know you are getting settle in NYC, it is not an easy city, and indeed it takes courage to live there. We have moved 23 times all over Mexico and 6 in the States, and believe me every move is a new challenge no matter the place.

    Wishing you the best for this new year and keep the good work!

    I really enjoy reading you.

    Mely Martinez

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi Mely: Thanks so much for the well wishes. I had no idea you’d moved so often — we should’ve exchanged some tips! :-) Wishing you the best in the new year as well. Un abrazo.

  4. Bob

    2 and 4 are of particular interest to me as I’ll be passing through EdoMex and SLP later in the year. I don’t even have a sweet tooth but man those campechanas look great. Is it just me or are there a whole bunch of different food items referred to as a “campechana”? In Mexico City I’ve seen it applied to a seafood cockatil as well as a steak taco topped with crumbled chicharron and longaniza… anyway, great read :) Feliz Año Nuevo form Australia!

  5. Eileen

    Great post for New Years day! Thanks for the heads up on Sembrado. It isn’t often you see pork on a spit in the U.S., and I am going to go there on my next trip to NYC.

    Have you discovered the great MX food resources in Jackson Heights in Queens? I did a ‘Little MX walking tour” of that area with Dina Leor, owner of La Sirena in the East Village in NYC (lovely MX handicraft store) and discovered a place to buy incredible mole and all kinds of chiles, great little authentic MX restaurants, a store with a large selection of MX Cds, store selling all kinds of MX candies, etc. Great area, right around the subway stop at Jackson Heights. Dina is opening a space for MX culture and art in NYC, you should check her out. Google her and the walking tour and plans for cultural space come up. Highly recommended.

    Congrats on the cookbook deal!

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi Eileen: Actually, I live right near Jackson Heights — although I admit I don’t shop there for Mexican food. I’ve found great stuff in Elmhurst, where I live, and in Corona, which is the neighboring area. Someone else had recommended that I check out La Sirena and the walking tours; I did look on the website and didn’t see anything about it at the time, although I suppose I should call. Thanks for your kind words and happy new year!

      • Eileen

        Lesley, the walking tours of MX food and culture in Jackson Heights are offered in the summer. If you go to La Sirena’s website you can sign up for emails (infrequent ones, she doesn’t bombard your inbox) with info on the tours, plans for the MX cultural space, etc. Here is a link about the tour:
        http://www.timeout.com/newyork/restaurants/tour-cations-bakeries

        Do you know about the NYC Mexican Food Lovers group? See here:
        http://www.meetup.com/

        Big snow storm coming your way, get the Chocolate de Olla ready!

        • Lesley Tellez

          Okay, cool, thanks Eileen — will sign up now. And big thanks for the food lovers meet-up! Sounds right up my alley.

  6. Ruth Alegria

    Lesley, no ziplocks for Josefina!
    6. Don’t keep books in plastic bags. They need to breathe, and plastic may trap moisture, encouraging mold, warping, and pests. The plastic may also react with the book. If you really want to store a book in a bag, there are better options – try a paper bag or wrap the book in paper, tissue, or plain cloth. Acid-free materials are always best. There are acid-free boxes, too. You can buy archival, acid-free materials for this purpose at these stores:
    Brodart On their site, under the “Supplies” menu, click “Archival Supplies” -there you will find “archival book jacket covers.” There are different kinds, but I think the “fold-on” type is easiest to work with.
    Bags Unlimited
    Some bookstores sell pre-cut Brodart covers. Your local craft, art, or office supplies store may have such materials as well. Taking the care to store your books using archival materials will extend their lives.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi Ruth: Yeah, I kinda sensed it was the wrong thing to. (If you shouldn’t keep your clothes in plastic, I was guessing that important books probably wouldn’t be happy there, either.) I’ll move it to a cloth, or maybe I’ll find a small archival book jacket. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Dudangel

    Cada vez que leo tu blog me sorprende la forma en que describes y disfrutas de México y su cocina. Felicidades por el contrato para tu libro, estoy seguro de que será un éxito. Feliz Año Nuevo!

    • Lesley Tellez

      Muchas gracias por tu comentario. ¡Feliz Año igual a ti!

  8. Mark Peters

    Hi Lesley.
    Love your blog and articles.
    We are planning our next trip to Mexico – it is a long and expensive journey from Cape Town – but are longing to experience some of the foods you have shown and described, and will stock up on the Mexican dried chillies that we cannot get here.
    Although we have promised not to buy another food book (we have so many we just have to browse, and find 20 or so “we just have to try this one again” dishes within a half an hour), we will be looking out for your book.
    Best wishes for a fantastic 2014.
    iFelix Ano Nuevo!

  9. Carlos

    Excelente Articulo publica hoy Milenio, sobre Tu Trabajo.

    http://www.milenio.com/tendencias/comida-mexicana-amor-trasciende-fronteras-Eat_Mexico_15_219128087.html

  10. Girelle

    A very moving post, Lesley, enjoyed every minute of it, especially the part about making tlacoyos with the market lady. I am happy that I got to know you in person and do some cooking together with Josefina presiding over the beans! May 2014 be as wonderful as 2013.

    Cheers,
    Girelle

    • Lesley Tellez

      Thanks, Girelle. Really could not have made our posada happen without you — I’m grateful for your friendship!

  11. M @ Onthesamepage

    Hi there! New follower… Sounds like you had an amazing 2013! I traveled to Tulum/Riviera Maya this year, and wish I was able to eat more local fare… the campechanas look soooo good!!! I’m hoping to try out some of your recipes soon! -M

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi there, welcome! Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you’re reading.

  12. Doug Schryver

    OK, we love Montreal and we’ve been there in 2012 and 2013 for short visits. BUT, I always think of poutine as something you might eat at 2 or 3 a.m. when you’re very drunk and maybe trying to sober up. My drunk at 2 or 3 a.m. days are a distant memory (even though there are many ex-pats my age or older in Cuernavaca for whom it’s a seemingly daily state of being) so I’ve so far given poutine a wide berth. Plus, cheese curds were never one of my favorites even when I was growing up in upstate NY and they were in almost endless supply. They still strike me as like eating huge pencil erasers and it’s hard to get beyond the squeakiness.

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying the eastern US and Canada. It’s hard to beat NYC and Montreal, although Boston can give them a run for their money for certain things but it’s even harder to find a place to park in Boston. Maybe just go up on the train?

    New Mexico is the land of beautiful skies, drivers just slightly less bizarre than those in Mexico and green chile, which they insist on putting on everything here along with lots of melted, usually tasteless, cheese.

    Keep up the great blog and buena suerte with the upcoming cookbook.

    Doug

  13. Celmi

    I remember eating mexican food when it was uncool to eat home-made mexican food in public.

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