I've forgotten how easy it is to live in the United States. In the past 11 days, I have: -- Thrown the toilet paper in the camode, not the trash can -- Received emailed instead of paper receipts -- Ordered takeout Indian and Thai takeout online with my credit card -- Turned on the hot water and received actual (scalding) hot water in two seconds, instead of waiting and letting the tap run for two, three or four minutes. -- Purchased a cell phone plan in 30 minutes, from the man who greeted us when we entered the store (instead of a surly employee at a window) -- Ridden in climate-controlled subway cars with passengers who follow rules, such as not blaring music, not eating, and not smoking -- Experienced the glory of buying multiple things in one store, including paring knives, coffee filters and earphones. On the second day we were in town, Crayton and I pretty much got our new lives together. We bought new winter coats, went grocery shopping, got flu shots, bought new gloves, investigated two cell phone plans and purchased one. At the end of the day, we realized all of this would've taken at least two days -- at least -- in Mexico City. So far my only mishaps have been not walking fast enough (New York pedestrians are like chilangos behind the wheel of a car), and taking the wrong subway train, or walking west when I should've been walking east. And not to jinx it, but... I think we may have found an apartment. In Queens. Signing the lease tomorrow. I did a Google maps search for "restaurants" (another New York luxury) near our new place, and was shocked at all the excellent Thai and Chinese options that popped up. We're going to have a fabulous time.
This was me last night around 9 p.m. We moved just in time for the coldest week of the season -- today the temperature hovered around 20 degrees.
a lament on how I couldn’t take any of my American pantry goodies with me to Mexico City. Four years later, I run a food tourism business in Mexico (can you believe it?) and my pantry has become an extension of my new passions: dried chiles that smell like campfires, dried corn ready to be nixtamalized in my table-top grinder, indigenous salts, Mexican herbs, hand-ground chocolate picked up on side trips to Oaxaca. My cooking style, more and more, ignores the stuff I grew up and instead relies on using Mexican products in ways that make sense to me. Sprinkling homemade chile morita powder on my mother-in-law's traditional creamy Thanksgiving mushrooms, for instance, sounds completely practical to me, and it turns out its awesome. (The morita adds a touch of smoke and the right kick of heat.) The movers told us that they wouldn’t take any food to New York. So I went to Costco and spent $100 on a vacuum-sealer. Two days ago I picked through my pantry and vacuum-sealed bags of chile pasilla oaxqueño, and a kilo each of dried white and red corn. I vacuum-sealed my Oaxacan oregano, and my pimienta gorda, and my dried cacao flowers, which still smell heavenly even though I bought them in Oaxaca in August. I vacuum-sealed some chile mulato, just in case I’m going to make a mole from scratch (you never know), and a few handfuls of pumpkin seeds, which are meatier and more flavorful than the pumpkin seeds they sell in the U.S. I'm not sure how much of this stuff will make it through customs, by the way. The first trip on Sunday will be a learning experience. All the vacuum-sealing isn't entirely about whether I'll be able to find Mexican ingredients in New York. Deep down -- really deep down -- I'm terrified that once I move, I'm going to forget everything I learned and tasted. I didn't speak Spanish fluently or even know what a tlacoyo was until four years ago. What if in New York I lose my Spanish and my newish longing for the smell of fresh masa on the comal? What if what fed my passion was this crazy, insane city, and once I leave I'm just a regular old American again? These ingredients, carrying them in my suitcase, makes everything feel real. This did happen. It wasn't a dream. Hopefully in New York I'll have the best of both worlds. I'll have the Mexican ingredients I love, and the American and ethnic ingredients I love, and we'll be able to order Thai takeout from our phones. (Dude. Living in the future.) What I'm not sure about yet is this budding Mexican part of me, and how it's going to do in Nueva York. Supongo que verémos. UPDATE: Everything made it through customs. I asked the customs officer whether I could bring cheese the next time around, and he said yes. The only prohibited items were meat, fresh vegetables, plants and seeds for growing plants.My first post for this blog -- almost four years ago to the day -- was
"O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron's beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men -- to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us -- with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen."-- From Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon (first published in 1967)
1. The Tamales Course at Fundación Herdez. This four-day course was probably the best cooking class I've ever taken in Mexico City. The instructor gave an exhausting overview of tamales from prehispanic times to the present, and we supplemented our knowledge with a trip to the Botanic Garden at UNAM. 2. Judging a small-town tamale fair. We arrived to Tetepango, Hidalgo thinking we'd peruse the tamales and atoles and that would be that. Instead we ended up judging more than 100 homemade tamales and atoles, in flavors like cajeta con whisky and bean maguey-worm. It was a blast. 3. Making homemade tortillas at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana. This was my second-favorite cooking class of the year. We made tortillas with guajillo chiles, and tortillas embedded with quelites. Mine inflated (ya me puedo casar), and I realized that a huge part of making good tortillas is a hot comal. I'm blaming my non-inflated tortilla failures at home on my stupid electric stove. 4. Visiting the farmers of Xochimilco. I'd heard of De La Chinampa, a group that supplies organic, locally grown produce to restaurants and local residents in Mexico City. In March, I finally had a chance to see the chinampas up close during a trip with Ricardo Rodriguez, the organization's director. We met a farmer, who explained his farming practices to us; then we floated around the most tranquil part of Xochimilco that I've seen. 5. Touring Queens with Madhur Jaffrey. In April, I was one of the few lucky ones who got to take an Indian food tour of Queens with Madhur Jaffrey, part of an event with the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Ms. Jaffrey was gracious and kind, and she taught us the history and preparation of every food we tried. This ranks in my top food experiences ever. 6. Puebla's International Mole Festival. In May I tasted some of the best foods in the state of Puebla -- moles, molotes, tlayoyos and more -- and listened to Rick Bayless, Marcela Valladolid, Mark Bittman and others share their personal experiences with mole and Mexican food. Completely worth the journey there and back, and I'm already looking forward to the festival again next year. 7.The joy of Oaxacan tamales. I thought I had tasted tamales before I went to Oaxaca. Let's be clear: I had not tasted tamales. These tamales have ruined me on all other tamales, now and into the future. Every time I make tamales, I know they will not be as good as the Oaxacan ones, and that is the cross I have to bear. 8. Burning a tortilla on an outdoor stove, for homemade mole. During the same June trip to Oaxaca, I took a cooking class with Susana Trilling. I volunteered to make the chichilo mole (no one else wanted to do it), which entailed burning a whole tortilla on the clay comal and then adding the ash to the stew. Can I tell you how fun this was? 9. Roast suckling pig in Mealhada, Portugal. When we were in Portugal in July, Crayton insisted (yes, Crayton!) on taking a side trip to Mealhada, also known as roast suckling pig central. We got lost on the way there, so we had to pull over and ask for directions in Crayton's Brazilian-style Portuguese. Eventually we found Pedro Dos Leitoes, a huge restaurant with skewers of pigs roasting in the front lobby. We gobbled down an entire lechón with the crispest skin, plus potato chips, salad, bread, olives and dry, fizzy white wine. 10. A long weekend in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. So what if the city is feíto? The food is fantastic, and I'd love to go back. I had the best time touring the markets with my friend Janneth and her mom, Martha. We stopped at little restaurants and I helped make homemade tamales de masa colada. 11. A food tour of Tijuana. I'm going to write about this soon -- hey, it barely happened in October (wince) -- but Crayton and I had the pleasure of taking a food tour with Bill Esparza, a blogger and Mexican food expert who lives in LA. Of the places he showed us, my favorite was Mariscos Ruben. The goopy, creamy taco de marlin still lives on in my dreams. 12. My first homemade chile en nogada. In hopes of channeling the 19th-century Poblana nuns who invented this dish, I went to Puebla to buy my ingredients and I peeled walnuts for six hours. When it came time to fry the chiles, curls of smoke wafted out of my kitchen and floated over my guests' heads. In the end -- the chile was spectacular. I forgot one more thing that I'm thankful for: you reading this blog, and commenting (or not), and generally making The Mija Chronicles a lovely place to be. I wish you a wonderful New Year, and hope you get a few moments of reflection before all the craziness begins. Un abrazote a todos!I'm grateful for so many things this year. We saw a little bit more of the world. We had lively conversations with good friends and stared out at gorgeous vistas and sipped excellent wine. (And excellent mezcal.) I got to come back to a city that I love like no place else -- fetid air, crushing traffic, raw chicken vendors who hoot at me and all -- and I got to learn and share everything I know about Mexican food, a job that I still cannot believe is mine. My family, thankfully, stayed healthy, and my husband did not complain when I had to work weekends, on vacation, or until 9 p.m. on a weeknight. (Thank you honey, and I promise not to make you visit any more markets if you don't want to.) I'm also thankful for the vendors who said hi to me when I was walking down the street, and for the stoic tlacoyo lady who prepared her last tlacoyo of the day for me, for free -- "Un regalo de navidad," she said. I'm thankful for the roof over our head and the abundance of food in our lives. I really don't know how I ended up with this life, but I am so glad it's mine. Here are some of my favorite food moments of the year:
Disclosure: McCormick spices paid me to feature the Flavor Forecast report on The Mija Chronicles. I wrote the article myself, and the opinions are of course my own. Flavor Forecast report. The 2013 report, released today, attempts to identify not only the most up-and-coming ingredients around the world, but also what those ingredients say about the world we're living in, and the type of cooks we are. The report predicts that the highlighted flavors and trends will become mainstream in the next five years. In this year’s report -- spookily -- I actually saw myself. One of the trends is “Global My Way,” a cooking trend built on using ethnic ingredients in a non-traditional way. That is, like, my onda. Remember roasted carrot tacos with Korean chili sauce? Mamey muffins? Here are a few other of the trends I found interesting: 1. No Apologies Necessary: Embracing rich foods as a sort of momentary escape. Flavor combinations include decadent bitter chocolate, hazelnut and passion fruit; and charred orange, black rum and all spice. (Or... extra-dark Mexican chocolate cream pie, which is a recipe I've been toying with. Maybe it needs a passion-fruit sauce.) 2. Personally Handcrafted: This reflects the exploding DIY movement at home, and the idea of spending time on a recipe instead of being rushed. Flavor combos include cider, sage and molasses; and rosemary, smoked tomato, chile peppers (fresh or dried) and sweet onion. 3. Global My Way: The flavors the team selected were anise seed and cajeta, and Japanese katsu sauce and oregano. Some of these flavor combinations might seem weird -- I will be honest and say I've never heard of katsu sauce until now -- but past reports have been dead-on. McCormick’s team, comprised of chefs, food technologists, sensory analysts, and people who work in what’s called “consumer insights," chose rosemary as an up-and-coming ingredient in the year 2000. They chose chipotle in 2003. I’m interested in what you think about this report. Do you see yourself in any of the cooking trends? Do any of the combinations sound good to you, or too strange?I have a box of smoked paprika in my kitchen, and lately I’ve been sprinkling it on whatever I have cooking on the stove. Eggs and vegetables, sometimes, or shrimp and garlic. Not until recently have I really stopped to think about that one seemingly small choice. Why paprika? Why not something else? What does it mean about the way I cook? This is the business that McCormick is in, and the objective of its annual
I had little patience for Mexico on Thanksgiving Day. It's just a regular day here, so nobody really knows you're whipping up a huge, crazy meal in your kitchen and that you need things now. My cheese vendor at Mercado San Juan forgot to create my cheese plate, which he swore he’d have at 11 a.m. The dude I ordered olive tapenade from likewise didn’t have it. I wanted to kill everyone, but when I went to get a coffee, the coffee guy said, “Hola hola hola! Feliz Día de Thanksgiving guerita!” And the Oaxacan vendor gave me extra charales enchilados. “Señorita Lesley... verdad?” The tortilla lady greeted me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, “Qué milagro!” When I went to grab a snack, the tlacoyo lady, who never talks EVER, asked me for the first time, “De dónde es usted?” And then when I said Estados Unidos, she said, “A poco es de allá?” I blabbered on and on, telling her about my fascination with Mexican food, how I fell in love with street food and fondas when I got here, how I really didn't have any choice but to create a street food-markets-food tourism business, all the while she flipped the hot tlacoyos on the comal. I said goodbye and wished her a happy Thanksgiving. Even the chicken guys didn’t hoot at me while I walked by, I like to think because they recognize me by now. Or maybe it was the great spirit of Thanksgiving. The meal came together, even without the cheese plate and the tapenade. Here was my Thanksgiving menu: Appetizers Panela cheese with epazote and chile cuaresmeño, purchased at Mercado San Juan Fried charales enchilados, from the same stand Main dishes* Quelites salad made with quelite cenizo, parsley, chivito, tomato, organic sprouts and parmesan cheese, with a lemony vinaigrette Crayton's mom's mushroom casserole (mushrooms, parsley and onion bathed in heavy cream and butter, and baked) Pan-fried brussells sprouts with bacon Pears poached in red wine (I used a recipe from Joy of Cooking) Mexican chocolate cream pie -- A riff on this Food & Wine recipe *My friend Pam made the turkey, two types of stuffing, mashed potatoes and baked sweet potatoes. Hope you all had a wonderful holiday! Would love to hear of any dishes you plan to make again next year.
Day of the Dead is celebrated tomorrow and Friday in Mexico. This week I'm finally feeling the spirit. Here is the altar I put up yesterday in our living room: ... and the Pan de Muerto I had for breakfast, purchased from La Puerta Abierta Bakery in Roma. (Verdict: thumbs up, although it didn't have any orange-blossom water.) Here’s our small-but-growing collection of oficios, which are palm-sized figurines depicting various professions. This year we scored with the chef lady and some skeleton dudes reverse-dunking a basektball. (Those dudes aren’t pictured, because they’re on the altar itself.) And the skull-shaped earrings I bought at Mercado de Medellín! Hope you all have a fantastic Day of the Dead, and that you remember your loved ones who've passed on. More on Day of the Dead from The Mija Chronicles: How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar A Plain but Lovely Pan De Muerto A Visit to Toluca’s Fería de Alfeñique (Sugar-Skull Market) Traditional Day of the Dead Candy
Eat Mexico and showed her my blog. She said: “You’ll cook us a Mexican meal then!” I nodded vigorously. Of course I would. Crayton looked at me like I was insane, because what woman cooks a huge meal on her vacation? But I couldn’t think of a better gift than cooking for this person who looked after me during a key period in my life. So one afternoon, I went to the Mexican grocery store in Madrid called La Canasta Mexicana. I spent $25 Euro on masa harina, dried chiles, tortillas, queso fresco, canned black beans, chipotles enlatados, and canned whole cactus paddles. I went to a separate grocery store and bought cilantro, white onion, chicken and oregano. Then I came back to her house and cooked -- chicken tinga, refried black beans, chipotle-cascabel salsa, and tlacoyos. The latter gave me some trouble. I didn’t know how to use masa harina, and I didn’t follow the directions. I tried to remember how the tlacoyo ladies folded them but I couldn’t get it quite right. The dough was too thin in some parts, and beans spilled out. “The tlacoyos might be a toss up,” I told Crayton. (Which in itself was very Maria Rosa -- she always used to worry that her dishes lacked salt or seasoning, when in all actuality they were fabulous.) When it was time to eat, at the madrileño hour of 11 p.m., I plated the tlacoyos with their diced nopal, cilantro, onion and crumbled queso fresco. I heated the tortillas and wrapped them in a dish towel. Put the salsa in a little bowl, and the extra refried beans in another bowl. Maria Rosa uncorked a bottle of cava and I introduced each dish. Everyone was wide-eyed. Tla-whats? Tinga? In the end I shouldn’t have sweated the taste, because I was surrounded by people I loved and it showed in every bite. Do you ever have one of those meals where you feel like your heart is going to burst when you sit down? That was me. I wish I would have taken more pictures, because I don't want to forget that meal.The last time I spent a substantive time in Madrid, in 1998 and 1999, the Mexican foods I missed the most were chips and salsa. I couldn’t even find tortilla chips in the grocery store, which boggled my California mind. When my mom came to visit, she smuggled me in a few bags, along with tortillas and canned enchilada sauce. One night we cooked enchiladas for my Madrid host mom, a loving, generous woman named Maria Rosa. A few weeks ago I went back to Madrid, and I was lucky enough to stay with Maria Rosa for a few nights. I told her about