Ask any transplanted Californian what they miss most about “home,” and 9 times out of 10 they’ll immediately fire back, “Mexican food.”
I was no different. So Tadaaki and I spent our honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta (not exactly paradise, but a familiar haunt). Instead of disco hopping with my pals from Carlos O’Brien's and Chayo the flower girl, we played cards. The only “gringos” in our hotel, we rented a top floor apartment equipped with a kitchen. Tadaaki had no problem communicating with the Mexicans and felt right at home. The fishermen used the same throwing nets as he did in Japan. The cookie lady on the beach promptly veered our way at Tadaaki’s call, “Ne, ne obasan, kochi ni oide.” No matter it was Japanese, she knew what he wanted.
One of the reasons I love to learn languages, is to communicate with the people who produce my food—in the kitchen, on the field or from the sea. At Club Med, the floor staff all wanted to speak English, but the women patting out tortillas at the Mexican food area kindly responded in Spanish to my tentative overtures. Slow to warm up (like me), we struck up a gradual understanding. I watched what they were making, asked a few questions, then made my selection following their advice. Food is all about developing trust. No sense in asking, if the person giving opinion has no feeling for your taste. One question I always asked, was which salsa would be good for a given dish. At first the answers were noncommittal…something to the tune of “they’re all good…whichever you like.” But as the week progressed, a couple of the women began to give me more exact guidance. “Use this one….put crema on the beans…try the enchiladas!” The food was our bond.
The hand-patted tortillas puffed up on the griddle as they should, and were chewy and bright with that unmistakable taste of cooked corn kernels soaked in slaked lime. I couldn’t get enough. In Japan, one company sells tortillas made only from corn, so they lack the bite of lime and are disappointingly insipid. Normally a toast and jam “girl,” I had tortillas, beans, cheese and salsa for breakfast. Every day. And for lunch. And dinner. Club Med is mind-bogglingly democratic in its selection of foods. They even serve sushi. Sushi in Mexico? I don’t think so. Though the sushi counter, often thronged with eager diners, appeared to be the most popular spot (other than the homemade French fries area). But for me, the Mexican food section was home. It was hard to beat the homemade tortillas, beans, cheese (a bit of crema perhaps) and salsa. Oh, and guacamole with homemade tortilla chips for lunch and dinner (and drinks). I probably ate more guacamole at the Food Blogger Camp than I’ve eaten in the last 10 years.
But it was the salsas that held me captive. How could I taste every one of them on one single plate of food? Too often, I ended up using three different salsas in a sort of bizarre medley (and often finished with several spoonfuls of the ubiquitous salsa fresca). I would have been in heaven with a ramekin of each salsa and a bowl of chips to taste each one’s nuanced flavors. The salsas had heart and the salsas stood out amid the mind-numbing plethora of other foods. One night we had a tequila tasting. It was fun, but I say, bring on the salsa. Please.
I’m obsessed with chiles. For years, I subscribed to a magazine called Chile Pepper. It was on our honeymoon trip to Mexico, where I discovered the dizzying array of chile pepper varieties. I quickly scooped a handful of each into separate plastic bags, having first scribbled their names on scraps of paper. Back in Japan, Tadaaki tried to grow the chiles, though we soon got the varietals mixed up and they cross-pollinated (no surprise). When possible, we saved the seeds, but eventually those original chiles petered out. Last year our only three scraggly jalapeño plants died, so no chiles. At all. But this year, I grew the chiles from heirloom seeds bought in Berkeley, and we ended up with a bumper crop of jalapeños, serranos, pepperoncini, and cayenne (though the plants on Tadaaki’s field were much more prolific than the ones I planted in my SSU! kitchen garden….hmm, same seedlings). I ate chopped chile on everything from salad to sushi. Every day. Every meal. That fiery blast of vitamin C kept me alive during the fall doldrums.
On that same honeymoon trip, I also bought a book that changed my life: Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico. Through that book, I learned to cook Mexican food. Not Tex-Mex, but real Mexican food that real Mexican woman were cooking. I found huitlacoche in my cornfield (corn fungus to the uninitiated) and discovered that quesadillas were not made from flour tortillas and cheese, but corn masa and any number of fillings (including huitlacoche). I learned to make chorizo by hand and chilaquiles, the ultimate hangover cure (not that we needed it), a dish that still brings me to my knees, it is so grippingly good. Fried day old tortillas are layered with roasted guajillo chile salsa and cheese, covered with chicken stock and then simmered until the stock is absorbed. Served in a pottery soup bowl, with a spoonful of thick sour cream (crema), sautéed chorizo, a squeeze of lime and a few fresh onion rounds, these chilaquiles achieve the ultimate balanced combination of heat mellowed by cream, with the richness offset by lime (and vinegared chorizo). The back bite of fresh onion clears your mouth for the next unforgettable bite. I’m “jonesing” for chilaquiles right about now. Aren’t you?
Tacos…enchiladas…sure, I did those as well. Refried beans made from organic beans were a revelation in their obviousness (so easy, yet transcendentally better than the obligatory paste served at most Mexican restaurants). This food was like I had never tasted anywhere. Even in Mexico.
But in the market place of Zihuatenejo we came across some crowd-stopping fare. Fluffy, air-light chile rellenos (I never did make those) and a complex mole (never made that one either). The carnitos tacos were also pretty damn tasty. But the very favorite thing I ate in Mexico was almost laughingly simple: Arbol chiles fried in hot oil, then tossed with coarse sea salt. Done. The first one was toasty, complex. Perhaps one of the best things I have ever eaten. The second one was still just as compelling, though the heat was rising. The third one had me reaching for my beer. Unexpectedly seductive and just as addicting, they’ll go down well in the summer with edamame and beer. I’m hooked.
Shredded Chicken: Cut 1 kilo (2 lbs) free-range chicken thighs into 4-6 large chunks. Cover with cold water, add an onion cut into wedges, a few peeled cloves of garlic and some peppercorns. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered until the chicken is cooked. Remove from heat and let cool naturally in the hot water. Scoop meat out, drain and shred. (Alternatively make loosely scrambled eggs from 7 large eggs and salt.) Preheat the oven: 180˚C (350˚F). Tomato Sauce: Cut 500 grams tomatoes in half and place face down on foil-lined cookie sheet. Broil until black spots appear on the surfaces. (Replace canned tomatoes during the off-season, but use Muir Glen whole tomatoes.) Blend broiled tomatoes with 1 peeled clove garlic and 2 serrano chiles, toasted on a heavy dry iron pan over high heat until slightly blackened. In a large frying pan, heat 2 tbsp. canola oil over high to medium high heat and fry sauce until thickened and slightly reduced (about 5 minutes). Add ½ tsp. salt and 125 cc (½ cup) sour cream (preferably Japanese, Mexican crema or crème fraîche—American sour cream tends to curdle). Tortillas: Heat ¼ to ½-inch of canola oil in a small iron frying pan. Fry 12 corn tortillas quickly (one at time), turning gently with rounded tongs. They should not stiffen, just become supple. Stack between double layers of paper towels. Cheese & Onions: Grate 250 cc (1 cup) Chihuahua or American with Cheddar cheese. Fine chop one onion. Assembling the Enchiladas: Dip tortillas in creamy tomato sauce and shake off a little of the excess sauce. Lay out one by one on a couple cookie sheets. Distribute evenly the shredded chicken (or egg) among all the tortillas, placing it in a rectangular-shaped mound across the middle of the tortilla from edge to edge. Sprinkle with a little chopped onions and roll loosely. Set in a gratin dish, side by side. Smooth any remaining sauce over the top of the enchiladas, strew with the cheese and remaining onion. Bake for 10 minutes until heated through and cheese is melted.
Make-shift organic burritos with equally make-shift organic Mexican rice & green pepper salad