Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Day in Oaxaca

It was kind of an odd day. We started the day with breakfast with our host family and decided it must have been leftovers from their Christmas Eve feast rather than some sort of traditional Christmas breakfast. We started with bananas, then thick slabs of caramel jello and chopped bits of bright green apple jello, then spaghetti in a creamy mushroom sauce, then chicken breast stuffed with fruits, then finished with sandwiches of thin sliced ham lunchmeat with mayo on Pan Bimbo (the Mexican Wonderbread equivalent). Z and I rushed off to church, but found it locked and empty and had to assume they had cancelled because it was Christmas.

We wandered back to our place, stopping to sit in a park and talk for a while, then found C moving all our things into a new room when we got back. Our new room is upstairs, and we have a kind of balcony (without any railing) where we can sit in the shade of a pomelo tree and listen to all the songbirds while we eat or work or relax.

For lunch we ate at the fantastic La Olla Restaurant. Z ordered tacos with nopales (cactus) and after finishing about half decided that their sliminess was grossing her out a little too much. C & I agree that nopales are mucous-like and that we don't really like them any more than we like okra, but we were pleased that she wanted to try them.

C ordered chiles rellenos, Oaxacan style. I had some a couple days earlier at the restaurant Flor de Oaxaca and they were tasty, but made me pretty sick that night. At La Olla, they came in two types of chiles - one was stuffed in a dried Oaxacan Pasilla chile (smaller and smokier than the chiles called pasillas in other parts of Mexico), and the other in a chile de agua, which is light green and thin-skinned and usually medium spicy. The stuffing here, called picadillo, rather than the ground beef or cheese that you might get at a Mexican restaurant in the U.S., is made of shredded chicken with almonds, raisins, capers, green olives, herbs, tomatoes, onions and a long list of other ingredients that make it as complex and lovely as a good mole. They stuff the chiles, dip them in a batter made of whipped egg whites mixed with the yolks and a bit of flour, then fry them and bathe them in a light tomato sauce. There's a recipe from Diana Kennedy here which looks pretty accurate. These at La Olla were the best I've ever had.

I, however, won the best ordering prize for the day - I got a thick white fish, perfectly seared in garlic and olive oil, served with spinach and over mashed plantains. It doesn't sound so great, but the three together were perfection.


We also ordered ponche, which is a hot fruity punch kind of like spiced cider, with tiny apples, spears of sugar cane and cinnamon sticks, and hibiscus blossoms.

And we finished with a delicious cake of freshly ground oaxacan chocolate and cinnamon and a bit of passionfruit puree on the side, and then a very tasty flan.


That evening we went down to the Zocalo briefly, hoping there would be a replay of the fireworks from the night before (which I missed because I was sick from those darn chiles rellenos from Flor de Oaxaca), but we were out of luck. Just lots of people walking around. We read the Christmas story and watched some fireworks from our balcony before we said goodnight to Z. Overall a pretty merry Christmas - I hope yours was good too!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mexico City

Mexico City. No matter how I try to describe it, I'll fail. It was a madhouse, the entire zocalo packed with thousands of people there for the - wait for it - ice-skating. Although it was in the mid-70's while we were there, they somehow had set up a big ice-skating rink in the middle of the zocalo and another area that pumped out snow as fast as it melted, where kids wore helmets and threw snowballs at each other. It was so much more crowded there than when we were there in 1995, even during the indepence day celebrations, that I had to look it up, and yup, it is a substantially more crowded city. The population has increased from 15.6 million to 21.2 million (compare this to NYC's 8 million). I'm so used to my isolated life that I sometimes find it frightening to be around so many people and to picture a future world where it's hard to find a city that isn't so densely populated. The subways are extremely efficient, but while in 1995 I found them cleaner and in better condition than the New York subways, the intervening years haven't treated them as kindly. So crowded and dirty and smelly - they're far worse than in NYC in 1990. There's no subtlety to the commercialism. A 50-foot Christmas tree was decorated entirely with flashing Pepsi logos. Giant logos and characters everywhere you look.

Obviously children dictate the terms of the family Christmas photos - the Alameda had not just carnival rides and hundreds of vendors selling everything from roasted bananas to plastic buckets, but about 50 gigantic Christmas photo stands, each flashier than the last, about 2 stories tall and 20 feet deep, with all the latest characters. The one that I tried to convince Z to take a family photo in was a rather tame Simpsons theme, with life-sized Simpsons characters, big clouds painted in the back, "Los Simpson" written over the top, and, of course, Santa dancing to Shakira. The Smurfs were rather popular, but I saw one girl holding out for it all: she turned down a stand that had the Smurfs, woodland creatures, Disney Princesses, Tinkerbell floating overhead, and blue glitter-coated reindeer, complete with the metallic din of digital carols from flashing Christmas lights.

We tried lots of new foods we've never tried before. In Coyoacan, we ate at Tostadas Coyoacan, a stand in the middle of the market with rave reviews doing raging business that dished up tostadas topped with things like ceviche, cochinita, salpicon, champinones, chicken mole, and camarones.

We also tried tacos de canasta, which we've heard is a favorite food of Chilangos (people from Mexico City). At a mere 4 pesos (about 25 cents) each, these tacos come filled with spiced mashed potatoes or refried beans or chopped beef or mole verde with shredded pork. They're traditionally wrapped in a cloth and stacked together in a big basket while they're hot, so the corn tortillas are kind of steamed by the time you eat them. The place we ate served them out of big stainless steel buckets.

Not knowing what to expect, but wanting fish and seeming to remember that bacalao was a type of fish, I ordered the bacalao at Cafe Tacuba, which was deliciously prepared with a flavorful sauce, peeled almonds and pinenuts, but the fish itself was shredded, tough and salty. It seems to be a traditional holiday food, showing up on lots of the special Christmas menus, along with Romeritos, which I never dared try after the bacalao. I saw one store selling cans of bacalao, imported from Norway, and an internet search revealed that it is dried salted cod. Not my favorite.

I got a bit sick from a spinach salad at a vegetarian restaurant (Vegetariano Madero) - I knew the raw spinach was risky, but figured it was the type of place to disinfect the veggies. I figured wrong. I was smart enough to recommend that Z choose the salad with cooked veggies. It was great to have veggies again after so much meat and tortillas, so I got a bit over-excited in my ordering, I guess.

A safer source of veggies was the juices at Jugos Canada, just across the street from our hotel. We watched them squeeze the oranges and juice the carrots before they poured it into a glass. My favorite was the "Canada Especial" with papaya, guava, orange and carrot juice. C preferred the orange and carrot blend, and Z liked her "Antigripal" (flu-fighter) with lime and honey added to her pineapple, papaya and orange juices.

As a follow up to the churros and chocolate we had in Madrid a couple of years ago, we had fantastic churros with hot chocolate at Churreria el Moro, where they had two enormous vats of boiling oil into which they cranked the batter, spinning the tubes of dough into big wheels, then cutting them up to serve sprinkled with sugar or cinnamon sugar. They have 4 different kinds of hot chocolate and we tried 3 of them. I have to say the place in Madrid was better, even though this one has also been serving churros and chocolate for over 100 years.

Our best meal, though, was probably at the fancy"El Cardenal", where we ate an appetizer with avocado, queso fresco, and a fresh tomatillo salsa. I had chicken with a sauce made from "natas" (some kind of thick cream) and chiles. C had small beef steaks beautifully served over tortillas and beans and topped with a sauce made from a type of cactus fruit we'd never tried before. Z ordered the quesadillas with flor de maguey - cactus blossoms. We finished with a decadent "flan de queso" - a richly cheesy flan, that was made with something similar to ricotta cheese.