For the past six to eight months I've been working on finishing my Mexico City cookbook, which is finally complete. (More on that shortly.) But the biggest news of all is... I had a baby! Tomás was born two months ago. So far motherhood has been challenging, exhausting and, at the beginning, terrifying -- who was I to take care of this little being? Lately I've started to chill out a bit and realize that none of us actually know what we're doing. The key for me has been to keep trying. And to soak up all the joy that hits me when he smiles. Mija is now a mom.
I admit I hadn’t really thought the whole thing through when I decided to make pozole with a whole pig’s head. Josefina had suggested that using a pig’s head was the most authentic way to make pozole, and other cookbooks, including Diana Kennedy’s, had agreed. I had already made pozole with pig’s feet and pork shoulder and it turned out well enough. What if the pig’s head tasted better? Didn’t I owe it to myself to at least try? So I took the subway and walked, in the rain and howling wind, about a half mile to the International Meat Market in Astoria, where I purchased a 9-lb. frozen pig’s head. Only after I was headed home — in a taxi, because there was no way I was trekking on foot with nine pounds of meat on my arm — did I realize that I didn’t have a pot large enough to cook it. Moreover, why did I not ask the butcher if he had anything smaller? I called Fany. “Do you have a pot I can use that would hold a nine-pound pig head? I’m making pozole.” Fany, who rents a commercial kitchen space, did not ask for further details bless her heart, and she offered the use of a 20-quart pot. “It needs to sit on two burners,” she said. Three days later -- after thawing the head in the fridge, cooking up a 12-quart pot of pozole corn, and taking a car to and from Fany's kitchen in Red Hook -- I returned home with the gigantic pot, ready for the next step. I placed the pig head in the pot and filled it with cold water. The head immediately started to ooze blood, turning the water pink. I tried to move the pot to a more inconspicuous area of the kitchen — both for safety’s sake and because, let’s be real, I didn’t want to look at a whole pig head in water for the next several hours — but I couldn’t lift it. The pot was too heavy. “Crayton!” I called into the living room. “Shaw!” My husband and my friend, bless their hearts, helped me change the water two more times. (Diana Kennedy's Essential Cuisines of Mexico had suggested changing the water "as often as is practical.") We heaved the pot onto the edge of the sink and I slowly drained the pink fluid, then placed the pot on the floor and filled it up with several large mixing bowl’s-worth of cold water. Finally it was midnight and time to go to bed. But I still had to put the pig’s head in the fridge to soak overnight. Working quickly, because it was late and I was exhausted, I removed a middle shelf in the fridge and threw away everything but the essentials, while Crayton and Shaw measured the available fridge space. They placed the pig head on the bottom floor of the fridge, above the crisper. We wedged the pozole corn on a shelf above. The next morning at 7 a.m., I changed the pot of pig-head water one last time, even though my back felt a little creaky. Finally it was time to cook the head. I covered it in more fresh water and a little onion and garlic. It simmered away, uncovered, for about three hours. The aroma was intense: pure and clean and rich, like the best slow-cooked stew. It was the kind of smell that travels down the hallway of our apartment building and invites us when we got off the elevator. (We have several great cooks on our floor.) More than one cookbook had cautioned about not overcooking the head, and so once the meat was tender and slightly falling off the bone, I turned off the heat. But then… how could I have not thought of this? How do I get the pig head out of the broth? The head was too heavy and well-cooked by now to lift out by the ears. They’d come off if we pulled on them. Crayton and I carefully placed the hot pot on the kitchen floor and stared at it. I grabbed the largest strainer I had, hoping to maybe scoop the head out from underneath, but the strainer barely fit over the snout. My tongs were too small, too, and I silently cursed myself for giving away the extra-large grill tongs we’d kept for years for no reason. What we needed was a lever of some sort to lift the head out of the broth. But nothing I had was strong enough. And then I remembered the wooden spoon I’d bought in Puebla, for mole. It was about two feet long and made of solid wood. I bought it for purely sentimental reasons -- it was the spoon I'd use to stir my dream mole pot someday, in my dream outdoor kitchen. I’d never used it for anything and it had also sat for years in my kitchen. But right now it was going to lift a cooked pig’s head out of boiling broth. I wrapped my hands in several layers of dish towels. Crayton used the wooden spoon to lift the pig head ever-so-slightly out of the broth. Trying to be as agile as possible (this is when yoga comes in handy), I squatted down and grabbed the head on both sides and then lifted it up. The head dripped streams of hot broth. I placed it a cutting board, where it released more broth, which puddled off the side of the countertop and onto the floor. We’d done it! But we still had to carve it. Or, I did. None of the recipes I read had described how to carve the head in detail, and I was way too tired to consult the Internet. (I had just cooked a mo-fo pig's head!) So, after letting the head cool off a bit, I took my sharpest knife and sliced off the meat as cleanly as I could, praying that there were no savory inner parts that I was missing. When I’d done a more or less decent job, I looked at the small pile of meat on the cutting board, and the possibly 20 quarts of broth on the stove. This was not going to be enough meat. It would have to do. We boxed up four quarts of broth for the freezer, filled up our 12-quart pot, and tossed the rest down the drain, about 18 cups worth. (I know, I know. But seriously -- where was I going to put it? I had no room in my fridge and several other recipes to keep testing.) The broth, by the way, was the best I've ever made. Crayton texted me a picture the next morning, when I got on a plane to Mexico. (Forgot to mention that I was also leaving for Mexico the very next day for two weeks.) "Breakfast pozole," his message read. My pozole recipe will be in my upcoming cookbook, with adequate advice about cooking a pig's head. If you find yourself inspired to cook pozole now, here are a few other non-pig-head recipes to check out: Pati Jinich's Pozole Rojo Pozole Blanco from The Latin Kitchen (recipe by Melissa Guerra) Rancho Gordo's Pozole Verde
conchas because I’m obsessed, but there are plenty others I like too: the campechanas topped with burnt sugar that remind me of the best, crispiest pie crust; the puerquitos that taste like piloncillo and molasses; the cocoles, lightly sweet and sprinkled with anise seeds, which taste just about perfect with a cup of coffee. Mexico’s history with breadmaking dates to the beginning of the Spanish Conquest, when, according to Spanish chroniclers, a freed slave named Juan Garrido -- one of the first black men in Mexico -- planted the first wheat seeds, which had been accidentally included in sacks of rice. The first wheat mill opened in Mexico in 1525. Over the course of a few centuries, bread consumption grew slowly, until eventually, in the 19th century, it became present on most tables next to tortillas. According to CANAINPA, Mexico's largest union group for bread makers, there are currently more than 700 types of bread registered in the country. Another article I've read places the number of unique Mexican sweet breads at 1,200 (!), with savory breads numbering 400. Interestingly, as CANAINPA's site notes, the modern panadería — a place where each customer grabs a set of tongs, and serves herself — did not exist until the 1950's. Before that, Mexican bakeries kept the bread behind glass display cases. If I’m being honest, most breads I’ve eaten at neighborhood bakeries in Mexico City look beautiful but don't taste like much. I've eaten the best bread in pueblos, or at nicer restaurants like El Cardenal that use good-quality ingredients. I think change is coming, though. More and more of Mexico's high-class food scene has embraced typical Mexican ingredients; surely recognizing traditional breads will not be far behind. Here are some of my favorite pan dulce photos from my archives. Feel free to share your favorite type of pan dulce with me in the comments! For more on Mexican pan dulce:I am pained when I walk by a bakery in Mexico and can’t go inside. It’s like going to a shoe store for me — I want to look at every single piece and wonder if maybe it’s my type. I usually stick to
- The Nuestro Pan Dulce blog catalogs different pieces of Mexican sweet bread en español, and it's highly worth a visit to begin learning how to tell these breads apart.
- My favorite Mexican food experts, Yuri de Gortari and Edmundo Escamilla, made a great video that showcases a local Mexico City bakery and talks about the history of wheat in the country. (You can also hear the gas guy shouting "Gaaas!" in the background around the four-minute mark.)
- No mention of pan dulce would be complete without the story of my old encounter with the bike-riding pan dulce vendor (complete with audio!) in my former neighborhood.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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!
One of the things I’ve quietly been toiling away on over the past few years is a cookbook proposal. Late last year I found an agent. And just recently, I signed a contract. Kyle Books, a small publisher based in London, will publish my book -- tentatively titled Eat Mexico -- in the Spring of 2015. It’ll be a mix of recipes and stories about Mexico City’s street food, markets and fondas, told from my perspective as a third-generation Mexican-American woman. There will also be gorgeous photographs of the city and its food, and the people who fuel the informal and more casual food economy. Going to cooking school, launching Eat Mexico -- it all seems to have been leading to this. I'm thrilled, and I really hope you’ll follow me in this process. More to come!
I just spent a week in the South visiting friends and Crayton's family. We had fun, but the trip made me realize that despite being a Southerner by marriage for eight years, I still don't know how to conduct a proper conversation. Strangers -- the waitress at Waffle House, the lady at the gas station on the way to Charleston, a woman planting flowers in front of her home -- would ask me, "Hi, how are you?" I'd answer "fine" and then think... wait. Did they really want to know how I am? Did I answer correctly? Does not coming up with some sort of Southern witticism make me sound like a Yankee? (Or, what I truly am, a Southern California girl?) Crayton would answer as if he was born knowing the answer: “Hi, how are you doing?” In Greenville, SC, it took him less than five minutes to ascertain that the guy behind the rental car counter was a Clemson fan. At a restaurant in Charleston, a guy in the men's bathroom commented to him about the weird angle of the sinks, and Crayton replied, “Well, whatever gets the job done.” He's full of these little sayings. So is his family. While visiting his grandparents outside Greenville, I listened a lot. They did most of the talking, and it hit me that with a small arsenal of pleasant replies, you can propel a conversation forward in a genteel way. These replies include:
- Well, how about that.
- I'll be.
- Isn't that something?
- I know you had fun/enjoyed that (or any sentence that politely repackages what the talker has just said to you).
Remember when I posted in June about not feeling like I was home? That's changing. More and more, I’m feeling like I belong here, no doubt because I've spent my first solid 30 days in New York without jetting off to somewhere else. (I had to double-check that on my calendar -- had I really not spent a straight month in New York since January? Yes, it's true.) In the past month, I have... 1. Gotten off the subway, and a growing number of times recognized east from west. A few days ago I even corrected Crayton: “Are you sure Ninth Avenue is this way?” 2. Got a haircut I liked. 3. Ran into a Queens friend randomly at a restaurant in the East Village. 4. Gotten over my longing to take cabs and walked the streets on purpose, because the city is stunning on summer nights when there’s a breeze. You can look up at the fire escapes criss-crossing the buildings and the skyscrapers all lit up and glowing, and not have to worry about bumping into anyone. 5. Distinguished the sounds of the local and express trains at my subway stop, which in turn determines whether I need to run as I'm approaching the turnstile. 6. Relished how fast New Yorkers walk, and the fact that you can say “Excuse me!” to someone in your way in a loud and urgent tone, and generally no one takes offense. (Or at least I don't think they do -- I've been "excuse me"-ed often, so I'm guessing it's a normal thing.) 7. Had my first Queens Chinese breakfast. Yeah, zhaliang! 8. Decorated our apartment walls, installed a stainless steel worktable in our kitchen, and bought fresh flowers for all the sunny rooms in the house. 9. Attended the Viva La Comida street food festival in our neighborhood, which made me realize all over again why we picked Queens. Thanks for organizing, Jeff. 10. Ate a lovely dinner on a friend's rooftop in Hell's Kitchen.
I’m excited to be here, and excited about the opportunities ahead. Thanks again for sticking with me.
Yesterday, my friend Fany and I were trying to make plans to hang out, and I told her I'd be in Mexico for the next two weeks. "Again?" she said. "You know, you haven't arrived." She was right: I hadn't arrived. I'd moved to New York at the end of January, but I'd been gone in Mexico twice already (more than a month in Mexico, if you counted up the days), in San Diego once, and in Portland and San Francisco. Being in New York still felt like an extended business trip. I didn't feel yet like I was here to stay. I kept repeating that little sentence in my head -- I haven't arrived -- and it made me feel better about this anxiousness I'd been feeling lately, this need to establish myself right away, to do something big and important now. Arriving in Mexico City, I'm sure I'd felt the same way, but my freshest memories were of how routine and comfortable everything was. I'm curious: when you moved to a new city for the first time, what little things made you feel like you'd truly arrived? How long did it take you to really feel like you were home?
moving to New York. Five weeks in a new place is not long enough to put down roots, and a glimpse of my former life -- a two-week glimpse amid gorgeous weather -- might unravel the fragile routine I'd built for myself. I had already come to grips with the icy Queens wind (the secret is a warm coat with a hood), and the long hike up the subway steps (burns calories), and the fact that we can't go out as much because everything costs too much money. When the plane was about to land in Mexico City, I already felt like I was home. I snapped a picture of the lumpy, jeweled blanket of the city and posted it on Facebook. At Puerta 9 inside the airport, that first whiff of sewer air hit me just like it always does in that spot. (Good ol' aguas negras.) That night at Ruth's house, my nose promptly stuffed up from the dust and particles in the air like it used to, too. (I hadn't missed that.) Before I went to bed, the tamales oaxaqueños guy sang his little jingle outside the window. I really wanted to exchange a knowing glance with Crayton, but he hadn't come on this trip because he had to work. The next morning was eerie. I wore the same flowered shirt I'd worn in my old life, and rubbed the same moisturizer on my face. I looked in the mirror and the same tired face stared back at me. What had changed? I walked to my cooking class just like I had a million times before, and everything was the same but different somehow. The morning sun shone harsher, more flourescent. The food stands looked too quiet, and the drivers weren't zany enough. Then I realized the biggest thing missing was Crayton. He wouldn't be there that night when I got home. After class I walked for about 20 minutes, trying to find a medical supply shop that would sell me a wrist splint. On the way there, I remembered how many times I'd tripped on the cracked sidewalks, and how slowly people walked, and how they took up the entire width of the sidewalk even if they were only three people. Other details I hadn't noticed much when I lived there jumped out at me: kids maybe five years old sitting on the sidewalk and begging for change. An old woman carrying a bulging rebozo on her back who asked me for "una caridad." The hordes of young office workers lining up outside Banamex, waiting to use the ATM. It took me less than 24 hours to realize that I didn't miss Mexico City as much as I thought I would. Not because New York was necessarily better, but because I'd been so comfortable in DF for so long. Maybe for that reason alone, it had been time to move on, and the universe knew before I did. (When we originally found out we were moving, I cried for three days.) Arriving to New York in the dead of winter required a level of patience -- mostly with myself -- that I didn't think I possessed. One afternoon I found myself blinking back tears on the subway platform just because I was so overwhelmed with living out of a suitcase, being constantly cold, and not knowing anything about the trains or how long it took to get anywhere. I'd gotten through that okay. Once I peeled back those layers, I actually liked New York and my new life. I spent the rest of the week feeling blissful about Mexico City, seeing friends, eating tacos and tlacoyos, riding my bike, drinking mezcal. The happiest part was knowing that I had a home and a husband to return to, and a city where I'm still finding my way. Some more pictures:I'd been kind of nervous about visiting Mexico City so soon after
While going through some old stuff from high school and college last weekend at my dad’s, I found this book, which I thought I’d thrown out. I opened it and saw that I’d written on the inside. “This book belongs to: Lesley Téllez 6/26/91.” I was 12 years old. I loved this book. Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls (a 1970s/80s-era update of the original 1957 version) was my first real cookbook, and I adored the hamburgers with smiley faces on the cover, and the baked bologna-and-egg cups, and the cool picture of a star-shaped watermelon-and-cottage-cheese salad. Granted, the “crater ham loaf” never looked appetizing, but the mashed potatoes -- which I underlined and wrote “YEAH!!!” over the top -- certainly did. And, I’m going to be honest, so did the hot-dog pizza. Mostly because it was real, homemade pizza. Apparently I used to go through this book and make little check marks next to recipes I liked. Crayton said I should launch a blog and make every recipe, but I don't have time for that. (If I didn't do it when I bought the EZ-Bake Oven Gourmet cookbook, I won't do it now.) Instead I’m going to keep it on my shelf, and maybe my 9-year-old neice will cook with me when she comes to visit. I can already see myself: “Doesn’t this pink meringue pie look interesting? Let's make it!” What was your first cookbook?