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Posts Tagged ‘Casa de Cocinas’

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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Cooking Class in Beijing,  2008

Cooking Class in Beijing, 2008

I admit, I rarely cook Chinese food at home. Despite having taken several cooking lessons in Beijing, I seldom dust off the wok.   The reasons are not unreasonable:    too many ingredients  that can be too hard to find.    Too much prep which goes along with too much clean up.  There is also a considerable amount of technique involved as well as some specialized equipment.  And when you are finished, there are all those barely used bottles of esoteric condiments mouldering in your fridge  and bags of spices that will gather dust in your cupboard, growing more mysterious with every passing year.

It is simply easier to pick up the phone and order your favourite special combo #4. But you can get tired of the usual Moo Goo Guy Pan,  sticky sweet Lemon Chicken and my particular weakness,  curry laden Singapore Noodle. (Most Chinese meals end with a starch:  Singapore Noodle ends with me asleep in a carb induced coma)

Enjoying Tea & Vegetables at a Yunnan restaurant

A Tea Toast at a Yunnan restaurant 2008

When I was staying  in Beijing for a summer, Emily, Younes and I would come home most nights, open up the TimeOut (a weekly English language entertainment magazine) and decide on which type of regional cuisine we would enjoy that evening, (from Shanghai, Yunnan, Hunan, Mongolian hot-pot)  and then rip out the name and address of a specific restaurant to give to the taxi driver. In eight weeks, we never ate at the same place twice. And we never cooked Chinese cuisine at home.

Anyone who has ever studied the Chinese language knows that Chinese folks talk about food more than any other topic, to the point that in some parts of northern China, people greet one another with “Have you eaten?” (chifanle meiyou) rather than “Are you well?” (ni hao?).  Jonathan Lipman, Department of History, Mount Holyoke College

The Inspiration for the Class

The Inspiration for the Class

But a recent cooking class at Casa de Cocinas has given me motivation to retrieve the wok from the back of the cupboard.  Michael and Valarie Coon run this very special cooking school in San Miguel de Allende that focuses on global cuisine.  In a  fast paced  three-hour session entitled A Taste of China , Michael prepared  recipes from  Fuchsia Dunlop’s  “Every Grain of Rice”.  Fuchsia, who deserves to be more well-known outside of Britain,  is considered to be the best writer in the West on Chinese food. She also crafts recipes for delicious, authentic Chinese meals that the home cook can create in their own kitchen.

‘Fuchsia has a rare ability to convey an encyclopaedic knowledge of Chinese cuisine in a compelling and totally delicious way.’ Heston Blumenthal

And just in,  “Every Grain of Rice”  was selected this past Tuesday as one of the top cookbooks of 2013 by Canada’s “Globe and Mail”:

Fuchsia Dunlop, a Brit who trained as a chef in Chengdu, China, is the go-to Western authority on regional Chinese cooking. Her latest, loaded with easy, extraordinarily tasty recipes (gingery beef brisket soup with goji berries), is also peppered with easy-to-follow instructions on Chinese cooking basics, from using a wok to proper knife cuts. Indispensable.

Some of the ingredients for  Dan Dan Noodles

Some of the ingredients for Dan Dan Noodles

One of the benefits of attending any of these courses is Michael’s encyclopedic knowledge of food and his interesting stories of cooking personalities he has met during his culinary travels around the globe.  He  actually  had spent time in China with Fuchsia during a chef/cooking tour  for the Culinary Institute of America.  He put together a menu from her cookbook which not only fed us in style and in quantity, but allowed him to demonstrate the different techniques for preparing all the courses.  (It is primarily a demonstration class but you are encouraged to take part as much as you would like.)

He also generously  divulges his best culinary sources here in San Miguel, makes suggestions for  substitutions and when necessary, adapts the recipes for our altitude and availability of ingredients.

As always, the  class was entertaining, educational, full of practical advice & tips, and of course,  the meal was superb! Here is what he prepared for us:

 “A Taste of China” @ Casa de Cocinas

Smacked Cucumbers with Garlicky Sauce

Classic Dan Dan Noodles (Plus a variation)

Twice Cooked Pork

Pomegranate Ice Cream (his own creation)

Classic Dan Dan Noodles

Classic Dan Dan Noodles

Stir Frying the Twice Cooked Pork

Stir Frying the Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork being Served

Twice Cooked Pork being Served

Twice Cooked Pork & Jasmine Rice

Twice Cooked Pork & Jasmine Rice

It has been a long time since I have tasted authentic Chinese food from the Sichuan and Hunan regions in the south of the country:  savoury, pungent, spicy and of course it had that unique numbing flavour that you get only from Sichuan peppercorns.  The consensus of the class was that the Classic Dan Dan Noodle was the favourite, but really, for me,  it was hard to pick just one dish.

The food was as wonderful and remarkable as I remember enjoying in  those Sichuan restaurants in Beijing seven years ago,  and I cannot wait to bring my wok (and a supply of those special peppercorns)  to San Miguel and get started!

If you would like to attend one of Michael and Valarie’s special cooking classes, you can email them at insideroute@aol.com and they will put you on the mailing list for their schedule of classes, culinary trips, tastings  and more.  If you would like to try the Dan Dan Noodles, Michael’s adaption of her classic recipe is here.  (more…)

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