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Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

Finally, we have returned to our other, and possibly favourite home, in San Miguel de Allende. We were preparing ourselves, mentally (lots of wine in the garage) and physically (lots of de-icer also in the garage) for a winter in Ontario, but fortunately, the good doctor gave us dispensation to travel outside the country, as long as my husband Ben returned  every 21 day for his immune therapy treatments.  Hell yes!

So on our first Saturday afternoon in SMA,  after a late riotous Friday night with many of our friends at The Fat Mermaid, one of our favourite haunts :   the paintings speak for themselves …..

 

So on that Saturday afternoon, we were finally vertical and strolling, shopping bags in hand, heading to the weekly Organic Market, where asking for a plastic bag marks you out as a probable climate change denier.  As three young Mexican men walked past us, drinks from the night before in hand,  their leader said in well articulated and droll English:  “Good Morning, Old People”.  We laughed at the time, still smile when I think of it, and all of our friends that we have told this story to have had a good belly laugh as well. (It’s only a few weeks after Christmas, so there is lots of belly to go around.)

I think we laughed mostly because yes, we are significantly older than those lads, but also humour is best when it cuts closest to the truth.  And yet,  we don’t feel at all old.  Why would we, in this paradise for expats from the United States, Canada and Europe?  I have heard folks describe San Miguel is a Disneyland for adults and some don’t mean that as a compliment.

But in the past week since that Saturday, we have enjoyed 1 original play, an intimate live musical performance at a Canadian crooners home, (we were told that Brian Adams is staying a few doors down, but no sightings as yet),  had a lively book club meeting, graced 2 local bars for nightcaps, dined out 3 times with friends at good restaurants at a fraction of the cost of Toronto, enjoyed a fabulous Golden Globes party, went to colourful flea market (where I scored training shirts for just under $25 for 2), and worked out hard at a well equipped new gym 5 times.  That’s just in 7 days! This week, we will hold a pool party, attend a tapas evening, go to a lecture on Wild Flowers of San Miguel de Allende, dance to a live salsa band,  and oh yes, go to the gym faithfully Monday to Friday.

If you were of a different frame of mind, (less eating and drinking specifically)  you could attend any number of yoga classes, (to help access your major Archetypes don’t ya know), take life coaching & spiritual counselling, attend empowerment seminars to help yourself and/or the planet, and conspire with folks who believe that all of the wrongs of the world can be righted by simply ridding the world of capitalism and capitalists.    Mmmh I wonder what deserted island they would banish Ben and I to?

There are over 100 NGO’s here as well, and almost 100% of them are headed by retired Americans of good will, devoted to worthy causes that range from rescuing strays to feeding the hungry  to building homes in the campo for the poor.  That’s an awful lot of energy dedicated to the good people of San Miguel and they are appreciative of it. (Although they don’t really understand it:  if you don’t have to work, why can’t you just relax?)

Ben says that if you retire to SMA, you must have a business card that says either writer or artist.  Or you can challenge your competitive energy into games like bridge or golf or poker.  There is another group that monopolizes the bar stools at their nearest local and rarely sees the sun, tottering out only after happy hour is over.

Certainly there are issues here:  from petty crime and vandalism to  drug related drive by shootings, to the larger social, economic and environmental issues that are present throughout Mexico.  But for the most part, it is a safe, secure, and extremely beautiful place to be.   And did I mention warm?

My point is that here,  you can be what ever you choose, redefine yourself if you want to, and find happiness with friends that will accept you for what you bring to the table now, at this age, despite or in acceptance of your orientation, finances, politics or world view.

Walt had it right: ”Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age and dreams are forever.”

Post-Script:  I have taken on a writing venture, which most of you will already know about, but in the off chance you have not been engaged, I am requesting the participation of women, (40-75) in The Friendship Project.  My intent is to gather input over the next 4 months via a survey, sent by email, and then put the results into some kind of meaningful context and  self publish or take it into social media.Or a combination of all of those.

The purpose is to find stories and anecdotes from women that can help other women deal with the challenges that face us making friends as we move through this stage of our lives.  It sounds sort of sincere and serious, and some of it will be. But I also want us to have some fun with it too. If you want to play, please email me lonsdale.19@hotmail.com.  

 

 

 

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My  first experience of Broadway was the musical Grease, starring an as yet undiscovered John Travolta.  At the intermission,  I confessed to being taken aback by his suggestive and enthusiastic pelvic gyrations.  Vulgar I think was the word I used.   An elegant lady  of a certain age (ironically, likely my age now) looked down her well powdered nose at me and remarked with that distinctive New York  disdain:   “my dear, you are either very young, or  you’re not from New York!”.

Well, she was right on both counts:  I was 15 when I first visited the city of dreams and  it was love at first sight.    Noisy, crowded, polluted, even dangerous, whatever the downsides to this urban environment, New York offered a world of possibilities, experiences, and potential.  Born and raised in small Northern Ontario towns,  I embraced the city, in concept and reality:  years later, when I read that Bangkok was the “the Mount Everest of Cities”,  to be attempted by only the most intrepid of urban adventurers, I extended my stay from 2 days to a week!

So I had spent a week in  Mexico City almost exactly 4 years ago (on my way to San Miguel de Allende and beyond) , but given that I did not speak Spanish, the boutique hotel staff spoke no English to aid me and I had read recent reports about personal crimes (kidnapping & robbery), I scuttled back to the confines of my hotel room every night as the sun was setting. Cowardly I suppose, but considered prudent.   During the day, I went to outstanding museums, enjoyed fabulous lunches, rambled through the parks, took the tourist bus  and vowed to come back to explore this fascinating and vibrant city when I was better prepared or in company.

And so when my friend Raven emailed with the good news that Michael and Valarie Coon, also friends and proprietors of The Inside Route and Casa de Cocinas, were leading one of their well-regarded culinary tours to Mexico City, I was among the first to hit the “yes” button.  The 3 day itinerary hit all of my urban appreciation buttons:  markets, museums and a hi/low mix of restaurants that would give us an overview of the food scene in D.F. (District Federale).  My fellow travellers were an affable, eclectic mix but united in our love of all things food:  conversation during the journey went back and forth between discussing their most recent visit to the famed French Laundry in Napa California to the joys of digging clams out of the beach in Maine. My kind of people.

Our 3 day trip could realistically only be an overview:  would you presume to know all the culinary and cultural  landscape of New York or London or Paris in just a few days, or even in a few visits?  Mexico City is the biggest city in the world, but as you stroll from café to boutique shop to museum in the desirable residential neighbourhoods of Polanco, Condessa, or Zona Rosa, it feels approachable and surprisingly human scale.  There are over 160 museums, one for every niche, including the new Mucho Mundo Chocolate Museum which naturally was on our agenda! And from taco stand to trendy bistro, the food is spectacular:

If anywhere could make the Paris and New York food scenes look stagnant, it’s Mexico City.  The nation’s cuisine has even been awarded Unesco World Heritage status – a global first.  July 13 BA High Life 

Here are a few of my  highlights.

MeroTero  Amsterdam 204. Colonia Condessa.  It ranked #26 out of  Latin America’s Top 50 Best Restaurants, and is one of only 5 Mexico City restaurants on that list.   The braised pork cheek with lentils was succulent and full of deep Unami flavour:  the warm almond cake was the best of three excellent desserts and will live in my gustatory memory for a long time.

Gabriela Cámara, the star restaurateur behind Mexico’s impossibly hip seafood shack Contramar, is tackling a new protein. Its name derived from the Spanish words for fish and bull, MeroToro is the Slow Food queen’s take on surf and turf. Still, expect a similar combination of refined food in an informal  setting. Cámara’s executive chef, Jair Téllez, combines the flavours of Baja with the best possible ingredients—admirer José Manuel describes the restaurant’s short seasonal menu as “Mexican cuisine in a Mediterranean style” (entrée, $15-$26)  Conde Nast Traveler

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El Huequito.  Bolivar 58

On an episode of “No Reservations”,  Anthony Bourdain  judged them “shockingly good” and “head & shoulders” above other tacos al pastor he has tasted.  Now all of us in the group, having read  at least “Kitchen Confidential”, conceded that while his arrogance is  palpable, his palate cannot be doubted.  The shaved pork was tender and succulent not greasy at all, the sauces were smartly tangy  and I pretty much ate everything on my plate. Yes, that entire plate.

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Maximo Bistrot Local. Tonala 133, Colonia Roma,  http://maximobistrot.cm.mx

The chef is Eduardo Garcia, formerly of the esteemed Pujol, and  he spent a stage at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin.  I have been to Le Bernardin for lunch and it was one of the finest meals that I have ever enjoyed anywhere.  I can still remember swooning over the personal box of macaroons. A very popular and busy bistro, Maximo experienced some infamy as a result of the spoiled daughter of a very senior bureaucrat  throwing a tantrum when denied her desired table. Her threats to have “my daddy close you down for health violations” were recorded on the smartphones of  disapproving dinners, and the aforementioned bureaucrat lost his job. Class tinged scandals aside, the food is sublime:   the asparagus with hollandaise, a poached egg and truffle was textbook in execution and exquisite in taste.  It is a classic bistro that really delivers on the promise of fresh food, sourced from the markets daily and prepared simply and carefully and perfectly.  Of all the places we dined at, this one is on “my must return to” list.

Aqua y Sal Cebicheria:  Compos Eliseos, 199-A Polanco.

So much of what passes for ceviche in Mexico is just cooked seafood in a sweet tomato sauce, which very likely started life as ketchup.   This popular restaurant offered a dizzying array of ceviche choices, from the Pacific coast to the Veracruz to the Yucatan, all with distinct and sophisticated flavours.  Ok, I’ll go back to this one too.

Cebiche Brunch

Cebiche Brunch

Markets:

We strolled throughout the Mercado San Juan, the so called “Chef’s Market” where we oohed and ahhed over the fresh earthy morels, caressed the baby vegetables (before we were gently told not to), and happily grazed on  plentiful free samples of aged manchego and Iberico ham.

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Our last 2 markets were my favourites:  first up, the fabulous Jamaica de Mercado  where I bought an armful of fragrant Casablanca lilies, 20 lavender tinged  roses and 2 bunches of astalomeria, all  for less than 20$. We marvelled at the range and quantity of flowers, the imaginative and massive arrangements, and wondered where they were going, who was buying them, and how did they move all of this product every day so it was fresh and fabulous every morning?  I could have stayed for another hour but I was filling up the back of the bus already. Flowers, like food, a personal weakness.

Our last stop was the  sprawling Nueva Viga Fish Market, the second largest in the world after Tokyo.  The variety was  overwhelming but on Michael’s advice, we stayed in one long aisle and went down to the end, taking note of products and prices before making our purchases on the way back.  For me,  2 kilos of fresh  head-on gigantic shrimp and 2 dozen small clams found their way into the ice packed coolers that the Coons thoughtfully provided.  3 hours later back in San Miguel, the clams were sweet and briny in a delicious  pasta al vongole.    The next day, the shrimps were marinated in a bath of olive oil, a little anise liquor, white wine, lots of garlic, lemon juice, coarse salt and a pinch each of sweet smoked Spanish paprika and red chilli flakes.  A couple of minutes on the plancha on each side and these beauties were bronzed and on the plate. I would have taken a photo but by the time we looked up from eating,  there was nothing but shells left 😉

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Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

My ability to take photos with my iPhone is pretty limited, so I enclose a photo gallery taken by my talented new friend Nancy Gardner.  Enjoy! And book a trip to DF!

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Do you remember that song  by David Bowie and Queen? It came out in 1981 and spent 10 weeks on the charts before reaching number 1. About that time, I had landed my first job: an entry level sales position which demanded three consecutive months of achieving quota or you were out on your ass, along with your navy skirt suit, sensible pumps and shiny new leather briefcase. Whenever I was feeling the down draft from the corner office about meeting my numbers, I found myself humming it under my breath, in an endless loop. Apparently, I was actually managing my stress without knowing it: according to Lifehacker.com, humming a tune decreases anxiety and is a coping mechanism for situations like having someone in authority breathing down your neck. Or since we were in the 80’s, the collar of your white silk blouse with red dicky tie!

But I digress.  I am no longer marching to someone else’s tune,  but I have the luxury of  creating my own set of pressures. I live in San Miguel de Allende Mexico, where the air is sweet, the hummingbirds dart among the flowers, and the meat is as tough as an old leather boot. I go to restaurants  armed with a package of various dental devices to remove the sinew and stringy bits.   The saving grace is that meat is rarely expensive:  but how to turn all of those cheap cuts of shank, rib and shoulder roast into something not only edible, but tender and delicious?

I was inspired by an episode of  Canadian Chef Michael Smiths’s cooking show, where he demonstrated the difference in results between a braising a beef stew for 2 hours in a traditional dutch oven, for 8 hours in a slow cooker and for 30 minutes in a pressure cooker.  From my perspective, even though I am in no hurry,  I liked the look of the pressure cooker result better:  the carrots and onions looked brighter, and had retained more of their original colour and texture and the meat was still brown and appetizing.  Both the oven and the slow cooker results were pronounced tasty and tender, but the colour of the meat was tending to coal and the vegetables looked anemic and mushy.  Also in the pressure cooker’s favour was the use of gas, which is relatively cheap here in Mexico, versus electricity, which is wildly expensive. Which is to say, about the same as in Ontario, thanks to Dalton McGinty’s wasteful and misguided green energy policies.

But I digress. Since my esposo has been on an energy conservation crusade here, I thought that there might be merit in trying out the technology.  If you are interested in all of the very good reasons to use a pressure cooker,  the full technical and chemical explanation is at www.foodrenegade.com/pressure-cooking-healthy.   The short answer is simply common sense:  less cooking time, more nutrients, less liquid, more nutrients.  And due to those 2 factors, plus the nature of cooking under fast high heat, more intense flavour. And you get “denatured” proteins without the hours of cooking time (denatured is a  fancy chemical word for “broken down”, which is how you get from shoe leather to succulent, regardless of the process you use. )

CHEFS ARE EMBRACING a green technology that makes cooking faster, flavors more intense, braised meats more tender, stocks richer, whole grains easier to handle and root vegetables more flavorful. The good news for home cooks: This transformational piece of equipment is not a pricey Pacojet nor a complex sous-vide setup. It’s a common, relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use pressure cooker.  WSJ January 18, 2013

And from England, endorsement from a famously obsessive chef:
Pressure cookers are used by chefs but rarely on TV. Heston Blumenthal writes about them regularly, heaping praise on them for their stock making abilities, believing it’s the best method not just for flavour (he raves about the “depth and complexity” you can achieve) but for clarity too. Guardian, July 7 2010
 In looking for  the best combination of quality, functionality and price,  we of course turned  course to America’s Test Kitchen, that happy laboratory of culinary nerdism. The results of their testing gave us the optimal criteria:  straight up sides with a broad disk at the bottom for even heat distribution, made of sturdy, non reactive stainless steal , and a minimum of 8 quarts. As for price, the “Rolls Royce” of their tests came in at $280 USD!  Santa Claus brought us their runner-up:  a 10 quart Elite Fagor, made in Spain and purchased on eBay for less than half the price.
We  jumped into the deep end of the pool, and  made one of Ben’s favourite dishes, the classic beef stew,  Boeuf Bourguignon.  It is an adaption of the definitive recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child et al. (If you would like the adaption, please send me a comment and I will forward it to you.)  It shaves two and half hours off the cooking process by using a  pressure cooker. 
Despite starting at 7pm, we did not sit down to dinner until 9:30.  Some time saving!  I could provide excuses, such as set up time for photos, but the fact remains that we spent 1 hour at least getting the three pounds of beef to a nice rich burnished brown.  Browning is the necessary step to achieving the Maillard reaction, in which the protein molecules and simple sugars start their complicated dance,  ensuring a deep and complex flavour in the resulting dish. Crowding the  pan with protein will produce steam, and moist protein  turns an unappetizing and flavourless grey.  So since we only used one, albeit large sauté pan,  it took a little longer than we planned.  In fact, we were so anxious (not to mention hungry) that I was still reading the critical instructions for sealing the pot and bringing it up to pressure while Ben struggled with the lid while the pot was sitting on a burner on high flame!
The makings of a classic

The makings of a classic

Cooking time was twenty- two  minutes under pressure (we added 2 minutes of cooking time for our high altitude)  and then 15 minutes to lower the pressure.   After reducing the sauce for 5 minutes  while we sautéed the mushrooms, we were ready to plate and to taste our first foray into the world of pressure cooking.
It  was delicious:  candy sweet carrots and onions, a rich red broth from the red wine and tomato paste, and of course, tender unctuous  morsels of beef.  With a glass of hearty but fruity red wine (we both cooked with and drank a Malbec) and a green salad of our first crop of baby arugula, it was the definition of comfort food  on a crisp Saturday night in San Miguel. (I cannot call our evenings here cold:  that would be an insult to our Canadian brethren who are freezing in the dark)
A pan of rich and wonderful goodness

A pan of rich and wonderful goodness

  I would do some things differently next time:  the Julia Child recipe called for  a coating of flour on the beef which did not add much.   Next time I would use cornstarch to thicken and get that attractive shiny glaze on the beef. We served the stew on noodles which was not the best vehicle for capturing the sauce:  mashed potatoes would be a better choice. (Ben wholeheartedly agrees, never having met a potato he did not like, with the exception of frozen french fries, for which he has a finely tuned radar)  And of course, we would rather spend the time cleaning  3 pans than waiting for all of that beef to brown!
Next up,  Pho!  (Rhymes with Duh) This  savoury and deeply satisfying Vietnamese  broth can take 6 to 8  hours to produce, simmering away on the back on of the stove. The pressure cooker is an ideal method to produce a similarly flavourful result in about an hour.

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So declared my friend, “La Rubia Elegante”,  when she received our invitation to spend a precious day away from work and head to the hills outside San Miguel de Allende.  Our destination was  the tiny village of Santa Rosa, where we were promised an excellent vantage point from which to view  one of the world’s iconic road races:  The Panamericana. Started in 1950, the original  Carrera Panamericana  ran for only 5 years before being suspended for fears of continued causalities.  The border to border race on open roads in Mexico was considered the most dangerous road race in world:  in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, it saw the participation of the best motor racers in the world at the time.  Today’s race was resurrected in 1988, and its current North American Co-ordinator is a resident of San Miguel, Gerie Bledsoe. Here is what he has to say about the event:

 We have few opportunities in our lives to become part of a legend.  But La Carrera Panamericana, the Pan Am, is one of those rare opportunities.  It is the last open, top-speed road race of its kind in the world.  No one can predict how long it will survive in this modern age.

  This October, 100 vintage racecars–each with a driver and co-driver—will line up in southern Mexico for the 26th year to race nearly 2000 miles back to the north.  It’s seven days of racing (time trials) over closed, paved roads, through some of the most beautiful country north of the Equator. Seven days of freedom. It’s a week of feeling very special and a lifetime of memories.

No doubt it was Gerie that arranged to have some of the cars  in the central square of San Miguel ( El Jardin) on a sunny Sunday. Like flies to honey, tourists and residents clustered around these vintage hot rods, getting their photos taken with the cars, or getting to sit in the driver’s seat and dream. To participate in the modern Panamericana, all you need to do is purchase an old car (pre 1965) and fix it up to meet the safety standards. According to Gerie, you can spend about $30,000 or you can drop a “small fortune”.  There are no speed limits.  Updated insurance is advised. No cash prizes for winning this race:  only bragging rights

Santa Rosa Place Setting

Santa Rosa Place Setting

Santa Rosa is also the home of a factory store which produces fine quality majolica using traditional methods and local clay:  decorated by hand, these artisans create wonderful pieces for decoration, display and everyday use.  And the prices are very good as well:   place settings and serving pieces very similar to those used by the fine restaurants and offered by upmarket culinary stores in San Miguel are for sale here for 17 – 31% less than retail. You can custom order by size, pattern and colour too:  we ordered  Chinese red luncheon plates in the Italianate style for less than $12 each, ready in 3 to 4 weeks.  The selection can be a little overwhelming, so go with styles, sizes and colour schemes in mind.

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Pickled Pig’s Feet with Peanuts

Shopping completed and with the race a few hours off,  we needed to find a place for a long leisurely luncheon.   Our best option, since the roads had been closed for the race, was the Restaurant de La Sierra.  A cafeteria that could seat up to 350, it offered  excellent sight lines, but a pretty average  menu.   We decided to stick with the basics and order guacamole and arrachera, that special thin long cut of marinated beef that is  like a skirt steak, but uniquely Mexican in flavour, and frankly,  pretty hard to mess up.  Feeling adventurous, I also ordered the house mescal and the manitas de cerdo, or pickled pigs feet. They were surprisingly tasty (I am a sucker for anything pickled) with a mild flavour and chewy texture. I  learned later that they are a delicacy enjoyed in  the American South, Asia (since the Ming dynasty) and any place that poor, thrifty eastern Europeans had settled.  Like jars of pickled eggs and sausages, pickled trotters have a place on the counters of many Tennessee and South Carolina roadhouses.  I also read that since they are so high in collagen, pig’s feet  are considered a “super-food”  in the quest for younger, more supple skin. Perhaps some rebranding is order however:  “creme de couchon” anyone?

A few hours and a few mescals later,  you could hear the high throaty pitch of the Porsche and the low baritone of a North American V-8  approaching the town.  When they slowed to pass through Santa Rosa, you had a moment to appreciate the timeless design and the power of these vintage race cars before they accelerated up the hill and into the setting sun.  Heading home later, we saw evidence of that power:  a boxy blue European sedan,  possibly a Volvo or Alfa Romeo, had lost control on the curve,  sailed off the road and  smashed head on into a large tree below.  An ambulance was just leaving the scene. I emailed Gerie to get an update but no response as yet.

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