Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Bad Dream: Where's my Luger, Peter?

A little while ago, I had a bad dream in which I was invited to eat at Peter Luger's Steakhouse, in Brooklyn, NY. It was my first visit, as I would seldom if ever pay that kind of $$$s for a meal there. But in this dream, someone else was paying. I found myself, fully suited and cravatted, in company with friends and friends of friends. Some of the latter were very rude diners, going so far as to reach across the table, to sample morsels using their fingers. On top of that, the obsequious waiter would suggest side dishes, but they sometimes wouldn't ever arrive. I ordered a side of sauteed spinach (FOOL! I can make that at home.) and it never came.
(Click on photo for an enlarged view.)

But the worst moment was when the dining companion next to me hastily got up to take a cell phone call or something. In doing so, he disarranged the chairs, and in the momentary confusion, the waiter came and cleared our plates. I could see my unfinished steak over on a sideboard. I cried out; "Don't let him take it away!", but in moment, it was too late. It was gone. (I could describe its grain and texture, and the degree of doneness. I'd been pleased that it hadn't been pre-sliced. I'd just begun to get a sense of its savor.)

I got the captain's attention after a bit, and haltingly explained what had happened. He listened sympathetically, but with a thread of skepticism. He asked me which cut of meat I'd been eating, and he might be able to replace it. I was so consternated, that I couldn't tell him. He gave me a menu, and despite several scans of the list of steak offerings, I couldn't remember. My credibility was fading fast. I despaired of ever finishing that famed steak.

My dining companions scattered, to return to their corporate endeavors, and I was left holding a couple of cellophane-wrapped peppermint candies.

After this post, I shall be banned from Peter Luger's for life. Ni modo.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bitter Oranges and Sweet Mermelada

From late last winter, this post has been slowly aging in its cyber-cellar, until now it is ready for publication.

Yesterday, near Pátzcuaro, we visited a neighbor's ranchito along with a friend. Our amiga pointed out the orange trees and said "Son naranjas amargas."
I asked if they could be used to make mermelada, and she didn't know. These are not the same as the "Naranjas Dulces, 5 kilos por 15 pesos", described in another post. These oranges are bitter, but free.

I'd like to know more; whether they might be used to make a tasty, coarse shred orange marmalade. I suppose I'd need pectin, wouldn't I? I soon found out that it wasn't necessary.

A week later, there was a call at our gate. Our young amiga and her cousin had brought me some 5 kilos or so of oranges. I soon set to work.

After finishing the preparing, cooking and canning of a test batch of mermelada, I'm now having a medicinal brandy. ;-)

I started at about 5 a.m. cooking the washed and scrubbed oranges, then boiling them in plain water until tender. Although the recipe in the book, "Better Than Store Bought" suggests 6, large Seville Oranges, boiled for an hour, the 12, small to medium Mexican Seville (?) Oranges were done in about 35 minutes.

They are cooled in the liquid, which is reserved. Then each orange is cut in half, and the pips and membranes are scraped into a wide, copper clad bottom, stainless steel Revere Ware pot).

That pulp is cooked with the water for an hour. This step extracts the pectin. This mess is then food milled.

The resulting strained pulp is mixed with the finely cut peels. (I did that with a sharp knife on a cutting board, 2-3 peels at a time while the pectin was extracting.) Others recommend using a food grinder with a coarse plate, but that sounds less attractive in its results.

(We then went for a walk)

On our return, I divided the total into two batches of about 6 cups each. To each I added about 6 cups of sugar. There's also fresh lemon/lime juice in it. Each batch is cooked over a fairly high flame until the mixture thickens, and the liquid falls from the spoon in sheets rather than droplets. (Yeah, right.)

Now it's poured into sterilized jars, and, in some cases, a circle of brandy paper is placed on the gel before sealing. In other cases, I said, the heck with it, and just dribbled a little brandy on top of the marmalade.

The jars are wiped off with a hot, damp towel.
(I just heard a lid, "POP!")

This looks pretty good, and the tiny tastes we had indicate that it's worth it. However, I wouldn't think making any less than 4 pints is worthwhile.

Tip to Myself: Get the proper jars ahead of time next time you plan to make this.

UPDATE: We now have the jars, and the oranges are ripening on the trees. After the Christmas holidays, I will make more mermelada.
While looking for a picture to (a-hem) borrow as an illustration, I came upon a Chili-Orange Marmalade recipe. It's from a Danish chili (sic) lover! I didn't use his picture, but I will definitely try his recipe.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


We have a bottle of locally purchased salad dressing. (No, we didn't buy it. Our departing neighbor gave it to us.)
It's labeled, " All Seasons Aderezo Campestre RANCH Picante".
In other words, it's Picante Country Ranch Dressing". Its country of origin is Canada. (I didn't know that the Canadians did picante anything.)
It was shipped across the border, at Laredo, Texas by an exporter.
It was distributed within Mexico by a distributor in el D.F. Who shipped it to a bodega somewhere in Michoacán, I guess, from where it was transported to the store where our neighbor bought it.

It's a well-traveled salad dressing.

I also found it on a blog, VidaMexicana.blog3
It appears to be in Spanish AND an Asian language.
This stuff must be widely distributed.

Oh. It's not bad, for bottled dressing.

Confronting Menudo

After many years, I think I've finally overcome my fascination with menudo, and the thrall in which it held me.

Let's face it. To eat menudo is a test of machismo. To eat it, without quivering or without echarme las tripas (puke my guts) would mean I was ready to experience the fabled " Real Mexico". On my first meeting with menudo, I failed the test. It took place in a small, Mexican cafe, near the railroad tracks, in Lordsburg, New Mexico, on a Sunday morning, about 7:30 a.m., sometime in the 1980s.

a sort of restorative soup, is tripe and sometimes other innards, cooked with onions, garllc and chiles. In El Norte, it often contains maíz pozolero as well. In the North, it's cooked blanco, sin chile; en El Sur , se cuece con chiles y lo sale rojo, sin maíz.

Sunday mornings, I knew, were prime menudo time, because the vatos locos borrachos de la noche pasada needed the curative powers of menudo para curar La Cruda. La Cruda (note the feminine ending) is a hangover of mythic proportions, scaled to how much machismo you possess. (I'd read The People's Guide to Mexico cover to cover, so I knew this stuff.)

When they brought the bowl to our table, I immediately and instinctively knew I wouldn't be able to eat it.
There was A Smell.

I applied as much crumbled orégano, chile piquín, y cebolla picada and limón as possible to mask the odor of somewhat aging viscera.
Not only was there a smell, but it was visually repulsive; a slightly viscid broth with unidentifiable fragments of innards rising to the surface to greet me.
I cautiously took a spoonful.

Not only did it smell funky, and look repulsive, but it was tepid. Brrrrr.
My brave wife took charge, called over the owner/waiter, and asked if it could could be heated more en la microonda.
Soon it returned, steaming hot and smelling as bad as before, but palatable for Susan, who cleaned the bowl.
As for me, I slunk out of Lordsburg, covered in shame. Me avergonzé.

Years went by, and in 1991, we traveled deeper into México, specifically to the fabled Silver City of Zacatecas. Our train arrived at dusk, and our taxi drove us down cobbled streets illuminated by the soft glow of wrought iron faroles de dragones lanterns. We were immediately enchanted.

The next morning, as I took a walk in the frosty air, I chanced upon the Plazuela Genaro Codina, with the statue of the eponymous Prof. Genaro Codina, playing his harp.
This charming little plaza became the center of my world in Zacatecas. Its two principal culinary attractions are side by side: La Panadería La Flor de México and Menudería La Güera.
There is also the Mercado El Laberinto, hidden away inside, and slightly hard to find.)

The Menudería opens very early. The front opens to the plazuela, doors wide open. Its walls are of polished gray stone with swirls of white. In the front of the shop, two señoras stand at the gas range, maintaining the large pots of menudo. It is a spotless eating place.

Theirs is a superior menudo. The pieces of tripas are larger and not iggy-squiggly. The caldo is boiling hot, and stoutly seasoned with aromatics and red chiles. The large size comes with a portion of meat on the bone. No pozole corn, just meat and chiles and herbs. The tortillas are hot. You can drink coffee (Nescafé) or orange juice.

I liked it. No; I loved it. It fortified me against the freezing cold, rarefied air of the 8000 feet a.s.l. of Zacatecas. After a bowl or two of that Menudo La Güera, I could climb the steep hills without gasping (much).

Years later, we moved to Michoacán. It's a different, and in my opinion, generally inferior version. The tripe is cooked apart from the caldo. The tripe is bland, white and squiggly. It's cut up into serving pieces, placed in your bowl and a ladle or two of caldo is poured over it. To me, it's like eating a bowl of tasteless, gelatinous wigglies in a relatively insipid chile broth.

Last week, here in Las Cuevas, they were cooking a menudo de olla for the early morning workers and cooks outside the church while preparing for the Día de La Virgen de Guadalupe. That menudo was bubbling nicely in a large clay olla over a charcoal fire. Everything in one pot; the broth, the seasoning and the víscera. It looked...umm... interesting. But we were on our way to a breakfast elsewhere, so we couldn't try it.

Yesterday, our neighbors killed a large beef animal for the wedding today of Sr. Jesús O. and his bride, Sra. Praxedes.
I observed some of the butchering, which employed an ax as the principal tool, as the skinned head of the animal gazed sightlessly over its own dismemberment. It gave me pause. (I will probably recover my my brief spell of queasiness in time for dinner.)

Besides the obligatory, considerably simplified local version of barbacoa a la penca para la comida; menudo will be served for breakfast. Gracias, muy amable. Yo me quedo con mi pan tostado y huevos revueltos.

(Please. Let's not talk about eggs.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Confessions of a 79% Coffee Addict

The terrible truth is that I am a coffee addict. I recently had my suspicions confirmed when I took and online quiz. (See below) My years I'd worked the graveyard shift as a baker had taken their toll.

Now, it's one thing to be a coffee maven, but it's a terrible thing to lose your mind to caffeine.
The signs become clearer when, instead of grinding selected Chiapas beans, you start drinking Nescafé Clásico. Not for nothing is it referred to as "No es café". That stuff used to taste like the condensations of a Mexico City bus' exhaust. Now, it doesn'
I don't drink it for the taste but for the kick-start to my day.

After one mug, I now switch to decaf. Do any of you coffee snobs know that there's a decent decaf with the Clásico label? I'll bet not.
We were introduced to this at the Restaurant del Arcángel, near Tzurumútaro. They have an espresso machine, but at 9:30 in the morning, the only coffee available was Clásico Descafeinado and a tea kettle of boiling water.

Accept no substitutes. Folger's Instant Decaf tastes bad. Very bad.

Real coffee, good coffee, is available for you mavens who scorn instant.
You can hardly get around Pátzcuaro's Centro without bumping into a cafetería. I might go so far as to say that Pátzcuaro Centro is two plazas defined by coffeehouses.

The sight of the Hygeia ice cream cartons of the Palomares coffeehouse fills me with nostalgia, but my Mundo de Café Centro revolves around the La Surtidora, on the Plaza Grande; or at the Gran Hotel, on the Plaza Chica. Those are favorite gringo aggregation social loci.

When I'm on my own, I sometimes get a café cortado at Lilian's Coffee, a tiny place niched into the Hotel Los Escudos, which has its own coffee shop. (We drank there once. Once only.) Lilian's is excellent, maybe a bit over priced, although the coffee is served in a paper cup. They also sell whole bean and ground coffee, but it's prepackaged, I think. I also like having choices of different types of beans, even though I almost always buy the same kind.

La Surtidora has the advantage that you can buy a variety of beans. (They also sell puros (cigars), both marcas nacionales y Habanos. However, that's another story for another day. One bad habit is enough for now. La Surtidora serves a deep cup. It's good, with the occasional trace of grounds to remind you that it's the real stuff.

If you are in Uruapan or Quiroga, you can buy excellent coffee at Café Tradicional Uruapan. The coffee at Café La Lucha is ok, but to me, it lacks that deep roasted flavor I prefer. Their drinking chocolate tablets are very good. Buy some to take home. The aroma alone is heavenly.

In Morelia, Café Europa has very good coffee. (Just not at their Wal-Mart Super Center outlet.)
There are several branches. There's a big café on Avenida Madero, but I haven't tried it. We usually bought coffee beans at a small Europa outlet on Humboldt, near the Casa de las Artesanías. (I haven't been there recently, so I'm not sure it's there.) Another café with food is the Europa on Avenida Enrique Ramírez, just beyond the Superama. They have especially nice service there.

Take The Coffee Addiction Test.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

¡Alto! ¿ Jugos there?

Our isolated ranchito is well served by numerous motorized vendors that supply our needs. There's the gas trucks with their jingles and romantic musical pleas to housewives, the verduras truck, the artículos de limpieza truck (Fabuloso by the 2-liter Coke bottle, etc) and the "Beep-beep!" hot tortilla man, and now, we have the Naranjas Dulces driver.

"¡Aproveche! ¡Naranjas dulces, cinco kilos por quince pesos!", goes his recorded cry.

My wife warned my that if I succumbed to the blandishments, I would have to juice the oranges myself. Well, I'm retired. Now I'll have orange stains on my hands
in addition to the time already there.

Some vendors have a schedule. The suave blandishments of the Gas Del Lago truck come at 7:30-ish in the morning. The blaring klaxon of the tortilla truck awakens any lingering slugabeds.
I'm not clear if the Naranjas Dulces man has a fixed time. Being México, it's not a clockwork naranja.

The truck came up our street this afternoon while I was dozing. I sprang to my feet, threw on my pants, and slipped on my flip flops.
Usually, the Naranja Man turns around in front of our landlady's house. That, in combination with my inertia, and other inhibiting factors (miedo de exprimir, lack of sex apeel, whatever) have until now kept me from making a purchase.

This time, I made it. Out in the mellow Michoacán afternoon sun stood the truck, heaped with oranges. Our neighbor, the venerable Sr. Jesús O. was just finishing up his purchase. We shook hands, as is the custom on every meeting. He recommended those oranges to me. "Mucho jugo."
Sr. Jesús O. is a man of few words.

The teenage boy in charge of Atencíon a Clientes looked dubiously at my pale güero face and asked me how many I wanted.
"Cinco kilos, por favor." I said. He scooped them up from the waiting bin and deposited them in a large bolsa plástica. I gave him exact change. (Maybe he should have thrown in an extra medio kilo for me having exact change. ¿quien sabe?)

Cinco kilos is a whole lotta naranjas. Squeezing them ought to improve my arm strength as well as helping our Vitamina C intake. I figure on getting a liter or two from these juicy fruits.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

¡Holey Moley Molcajete!

(Even though they're not my kitchens, I'll be reporting on interesting eating places here.)

Yesterday, Rose Calderone, Susan and I had a pleasant visit with Didi of Posada Espíritu Libre, looking around Quiroga and environs.
Our appetites whetted by the mountain air, we then went to supper at Taquería Los Compadres, on the main street. (Unfortunately, I didn't get the address.)


This place is a hole in the wall, but its food is first rate. (Note the shapely female silhouette on the sign painted on the facade. I'm not sure of its significance.)

The restroom is placed in an interesting spot under the stairs, which provides for some challenging personal configurations. Men, especially.

I'm of the opinion that places that specialize in one or two dishes, and keep their menus simple, often serve the best food. At Los Compadres, the menu (on wall signs) consists of various combinations of grilled meats, chicken and cheese, served in a variety of ways. At its heart, the ingredients are simple.

The Especialidades de La Casa are its molcajetes. (I have to confess, that before this visit, I thought of the molcajete presentation as a tourist gimmick, something on the order of Curried Chicken Salad served in a pineapple half. But this is a terrific dish; unlike one that Susan had in another, larger restaurant in Morelia, where the molcajete was a sloppy mess of acidic sauce and greasy food. But, enough about that.)

We ordered the Super Molcajete, which is more than enough for 4 hearty eaters. The cooks start by heating a molcajete (volcanic stone grinding bowl), inverted over a gas burner. The owner then throws a few carnes onto la plancha to asar them. Voilá! Carne asada!

These are then cut into fine ribbons and placed over some onion sections and salsa in the now heated molcajete. Strips of cooked chorizos are added, as is pork. There was supposed to be some chicken in it, but I couldn't detect it, and really, didn't miss it.

Word comes from another aficonado of Los Compadres that you can specify the degree of picante in the molcajete. Ours must have been "default", because it was tasty but not very picante. That's easily adjusted with an application of the table salsas.

Nopales are grilled and artistically draped over the sides of the bowl. An avalanche of shredded Queso Oaxaca crowns the creation. The cheese gradually melts due to the retained heat of the stone bowl.

We were presented with this monster molcajete, along with hot tortillas de maíz and a salsa roja and a salsa verde. Both were good, although I gave the edge to the red sauce. As you dig down, various goodies emerge from the depths of the seething crater. The cebollas were especially coveted.

The napkin consumption per person ranged up to 5, and the lime halves usage up to 8, depending on the personal squeezing power of the diner.

There was some leftover food, which they wrapped for us.
With 5 or so soft drinks, our bill was $210 MN for all four of us, plus tip.

If you are still hungry afterwards, you can find pan dulce vendors and candy shops all up and down the street. (You won't be hungry.)

SPECIAL NOTE of MERITORIOUS SERVICE: The plates and utensils were delivered to the table *before* the food came. This is a sign of good service, one not always experienced in other restaurants hereabouts. Quiroga seems like a progressive city, after all.

Footnote: On a walk after the meal, we stopped in at Café Tradicional de Uruapan, located in the inexpensive Hotel Tarasco, and purchased some excellent coffee for brewing at $45 pesos a half-kilo. I brewed some this morning, and what few hairs I have stood at attention.

On the Plaza, a couple were selling musical Christmas lights of different styles, playing different songs; which blended together in a not unpleasant cacophony. It was sort of a musical molcajete for Christmas.