Cinco De Mayo: Five Fiesta-Worthy Foods To Make Or Try

elotesIn the United States, Cinco de Mayo (“fifth of May”) is essentially yet another excuse to get hammered. In the Mexican state of Puebla, however, the holiday commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Cinco de Mayo is also celebrated in other regions of Mexico; as in the States, it’s a day of honoring Mexican pride and heritage. This year, instead of the standard chips and guacamole (and crippling hangover), try some beloved Mexican foods that are well suited to serve a crowd. They’re easily made, or purchased if you live in a community with a sizable Hispanic population. Buen provecho!

1. Flor de Calabaza (squash blossoms): Available now at your local farmers market or specialty produce shop, and a favorite of Mexican home cooks. Try sautéing them and tucking into quesadillas or dipping in batter and frying (stuff them with fresh goat cheese mixed with chopped herbs for a really special treat; click here for the recipe).

2. Elotes: Whether served as whole, grilled ears of corn or kernels-in-a-cup, these mayonnaise, lime, and chile-slathered street eats are worth every ripple of cellulite they produce. True, corn isn’t in season right now; see if your favorite local farm stand, market vendor, or specialty grocer has frozen kernels for sale.

3. Churros: Fried, sugary goodness in phallic form: what’s not to love? Uh, except maybe churros con cajeta (filled with caramelized goat milk).

4. Antojitos: Traditionally found in the fondas, or beer bars of Mexico City, these small, fried or griddled masa dough “cravings (antojos)” or “little whims” are now more commonly associated with street food, and have regional adaptations. The differences in shape and fillings are often subtle: a chalupa (not to be confused with the Taco Bell concoction) is a thin, fried cup with a slight depression for holding meat and/or beans, shredded cabbage, crumbled fresh cheese or crema, and avocado or guacamole, while a huarache is like a slightly thicker tortilla in the shape of a sandal (hence the name). In Oaxaca, regional antojitos such as tlacoyos (like a skinny huarache) and memelas (think round huarache) may be topped with black beans and complex salsas indigenous to the region. In a word, addictive.

5. Michelada: Forget margaritas. This refreshing beverage has hair-of-the-dog built right in, and indeed, it’s a traditional Mexican hangover helper (as is a steaming bowl of menudo). Combine one icy cold Mexican beer (My pick: Pacifico) with fresh-squeezed lime juice, tomato juice or Clamato, a dash of hot sauce and a pinch of kosher or celery salt. The variations are many, but this recipe from Food52 is a winner.

[Photo credit: Flickr user the queen of subtle]

Want more antojitos? Check out this assortment, below:
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Mexican food in Mexico: surprisingly different

Mexican foodBefore sampling Mexican food on a recent trip to Mazatlan, Mexico, we shared some of the misconceptions commonly held by others who have not been there. Don’t drink the water. Mexican food is not healthy. All Mexican food is spicy and all about tacos, burritos and enchiladas. What we found blew away pretty much all of that.

Mazatlan sits on the west coast of Mexico and boasts an abundance of seafood. Running the largest fleet of shrimp boats in the world, shrimp is on nearly every menu, prepared a number of ways. We ranked local eatery Al Agua as tops for shrimp and especially for it’s Coconut Shrimp. There’s really something to be said for sitting at the shoreside restaurant and watching as shrimpers off the coast catch what you are about to eat. It does not get any fresher than that.

Shrimp is a big export here too but not the only game in town. Marlin, Grouper, Octopus and clams are also used extensively on restaurant menus and “fresh” is what its all about. Combined with locally-sourced ingredients, we quickly forgot the “Mexican food is not healthy” misnomer and focused on unique combinations of vegetables, rice, beans and spices.

“The staples of Mexican cuisine do include corn and beans – which are full of fiber – but also vitamin-rich peppers, tomatoes and fruit” says Chef David Suarez, busting myths about Mexico for CNN. “Authentic Mexican food incorporates seasonal produce, fresh cheeses, seafood, herbs and meats, as well as complex carbohydrates.”Locally grown herbs and spices like chiles, cilantro, epazote, cinnamon, and cocoa are expertly used and for those who like it hot, this is the place to get it. Still, fire-hot spicy is not the standard but is available and offered as a preparation option in the kitchen (“make it hot for me”) or through a variety of sauces and additions tableside (“let me make it hot”). Chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño chilli, is also common in Mexican cuisine as are garlic and onions but not to overpower the fresh seafood star of the show.

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“People tend to think of Mexican food as just tacos, burritos and enchiladas – lots of cheddar cheese, sour cream and jalapeños” Chef Julieta Ballesteros told CNN. “Although some of these dishes do exist in traditional cuisine, that’s definitely not all there is.”

In fact, we had a hard time finding the cheesy, gooey and fat-filled entrees commonly tagged as “Mexican food” in the U.S. They were most commonly found on a children’s menu, blowing away the notion that frozen taquitos, canned refried beans, Taco Bell, Doritos and other processed foods are authentic in any way. Initially, that was kind of disappointing and it took a while to get the hang of associating “healthy” and “Mexican”.

But thinking differently about food in Mexico was typical of other misconceptions that failed to pass the reality test. We also never found anyone even remotely resembling a drug lord or the Frito Bandito. A visit to the all-but-abandoned Port of Mazatlan revealed a safe and desirable place to park a cruise ship.

Even the whole “don’t drink the water” thing that dogged Mexico for decades has been rendered a non-issue. Every Mazatlan restaurant we tried served bottled water and purified ice as standard fare. Not once did we see glasses served with iced tap water as we might commonly see in the U.S.

We did, however, see a whole lot of tequila “influence” in Mexico. And by “influence” I mean they hung shot glasses around our necks and started pouring shots as we got off the plane, much like a flower lei is given to those visiting Hawaii.

For those who associate Mexico with tequila, you will not be disappointed. There are some tequila-infused sauces and menu items but we got the impression that those were silly things designed mainly for tourists.

Mazatlan Mexico’s food is bold, fresh, safe and interesting not to mention tasty, especially alongside a frosty Pacifico beer and a shot or six of a locally distilled tequila.

Photos: Chris Owen



Visit Mazatlan, Mexico

Summer travel: best U.S. cities for localized food lovers

best cities food loversWhat’s that you say? Summer’s half over? Those of us living here in the Pacific Northwest had no idea, given the lack of sun in these parts. But even if you’re getting slapped by the mother of all heat waves, it’s still early in the season for the best produce summer has to offer. As for where to get great food featuring locally-sourced ingredients? Allow me.

Some cities are inextricably linked with food; they’re destinations unto themselves if you’re the type who plans trips around meals. I do. Museums are great and all, but personally, I’d rather eat.

As a longtime proponent of sustainable agriculture, I want to support local growers as well as get a sense of place when I take a trip (that the food be good is still number one). That’s why a city like Santa Fe is so intriguing to me. The cuisine is rooted in the state’s history, indigenous peoples, and native foods, and there’s a fantastic farmers market. The fact that Santa Fe is beautiful in its own right seals the deal.

If you also let your appetite guide your vacation-planning, I’ve listed my favorite U.S. cities in which to stuff my face, based upon repeat visits or previous/present residency. It’s like choosing a favorite child, but someone had to do it.

Seattle
I currently reside in Seattle, and work at a cheese shop in the 14-month-old Melrose Market in Capitol Hill. So perhaps I’m a bit biased when I say that Melrose rocks. But really, I don’t think I am. It’s the best thing to happen to Seattle since Pike Place opened in 1907 and became the model for public markets nationwide. But Melrose isn’t a tourist trap, and you won’t find anyone hawking crappy t-shirts. It’s housed in two adjacent, restored historic automotive shops built entirely of reclaimed materials; there’s a soaring cathedral ceiling, and lots of exposed brick.

[Photo credit: Flickr user La Grande Farmers’ Market]

The Benefits of Buying Eco-Friendly Local Foodbest cities food loversAlthough home to just four dedicated retail spaces and a wine bar, sandwich shop, and restaurant, Melrose has garnered lots of national media attention. The Calf & Kid (aka My Day Job) is a European-style fromagerie, while Marigold & Mint is a lovely little nook full of antique apothecary jars and cut flowers and produce from the owner’s organic farm. At Rainshadow Meats, without question one of the finest local/sustainable butcher shops in the nation, there are hard-to-find cuts like pork cheeks, and excellent housemade charcuterie.

There’s also Bar Ferd’nand, a miniscule wine and tapas bar, Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop, and the jewel in the crown, Sitka & Spruce. Chef/owner Matt Dillon’s farmhouse mod space features an open hearth, room-length communal farm table, and rustic but refined, hyper-localized cuisine–this time of year look for foraged mushrooms, local goat cheeses, halibut, and Juan de Fuca spot prawns. Do.not.miss. Next door, Taylor Shellfish Farms–one of Washington State’s most beloved growers of oysters and Manila and geoduck clams–just opened a retail shop where you can scoop live shellfish from tanks, or puchase live Dungeness crab or housemade geoduck chowder.

Should you make it over to the Scandinavian-flavored Ballard neighborhood, be sure to dine at La Carta de Oaxaca (get there early or be prepared for a very long wait). Seattle can’t do Mexican food to save its life (I speak as a native Californian), with the exception of this Oaxacan treasure, where everything is made the slow, traditional way. Best of all, two of you can fill up–including beers–for under 30 dollars. For a more upscale treat, hit Bastille, a truly beautiful bistro featuring produce and honey from its rooftop garden.
best cities food lovers
Portland, Oregon
Portland has a vastly different vibe from easy-going Seattle. And while the attitude may be a bit much at times (do not raise the ire of a barista), it’s also got a phenomenal food and mixology scene (and yes, better coffee than Seattle). There’s no one neighborhood with all the great eats; they’re scatted throughout the city: Southeast, Pearl District, Alberta Arts District

Carnivores won’t want to miss Beast or Olympic Provisions (which also makes its own charcuterie for retail). There’s Cheese Bar, which specializes in beer parings, six glorious farmers markets, distilleries, artisan ice cream, and new favorites Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty (wood-fired pizza in the former–and much-missed–Lovely Hula Hands space) and Little Bird Bistro, the sister restaurant from former Food & Wine Best New Chef Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon.

If street food is your thing, Portland is swarming with food trucks, carts, and stands: Mississippi Avenue and downtown are both hot spots; check out Food Carts Portland for the inside scoop. If you feel the need to work off some calories in between food cart visits, (this is one of the best cities for outdoorsy types, after all), sign up for the Grub on the Go bike tour with Portland Urban Adventures.

Santa Barbara
I grew up near Santa Barbara, and have lived there a couple of times. It’s truly one of the most picturesque cities in the world, and over the course of 30-plus years, I’ve watched it evolve from sleepy small town to L.A. North. Spendy boutiques aside, Santa Barbara really didn’t start turning into a sophisticated dining destination until about five years ago.

The original hidden gems focused on locality–Bouchon, and the venerable Wine Cask (which recently changed hands and is now co-owned by the very genial owner of Bouchon) are still going strong. The executive chefs at both restaurants now lead farmers market tours, which I highly recommend. Both the Saturday and Tuesday farmers markets are major community events, and the sheer breadth of offerings–dozens of varieties of citrus, tropical fruit, olive and walnut oil, goat meat–is dazzling. Seafood lovers won’t want to miss the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, held at the Harbor.

The Hungry Cat
is my favorite restaurant in town (it also has a raw bar), followed by the superbly fresh Arigato sushi. Milk & Honey makes fantastic cocktails (and the small bites aren’t bad, either), as does Blue Agave. My true addictions, however, are Lilly’s Taqueria–a downtown hole-in-the-wall where for under five dollars, you can stuff yourself senseless on the best street tacos this side of the border. I also never fail to get an adovado or carnitas burrito at Taqueria Rincon Alteño. The same guys have been running the place for at least ten years, and it always feels like coming home.
best cities food lovers
Oakland, California
Nearly a decade of living in Berkeley, on the Oakland border, has enabled me to see this much-maligned city grow up, both aesthetically and culinarily (it’s always had a great Chinatown and taco trucks). In the gentrified Temescal neighborhood, you can literally hit a different restaurant every night of the week on the block between 51st St. and 49th St. on Telegraph Avenue. There’s Asmara for Ethiopian, Chez Panisse alum eateries Bakesale Betty and Pizzaiolo; Doña Tomas, and the new outpost of San Francisco’s wildly popular Burma Superstar (delicious). On 44th, late night chef’s haunt Koryo has great, cheap Korean bbq. Just around the corner: the wonderful Sunday Temescal Farmers Market.

Nearby, on 51st and Shattuck is the new Scared Wheel Cheese Shop, while down on Grand Avenue, by Lake Merritt, is Boot and Shoe Service (sister to Pizzaiolo), Camino (chef/owner is longtime former Chez Panisse chef Russ Moore). Don’t miss Market Hall Foods in nearby trendy Rockridge.

Brooklyn
I admittedly don’t know Brooklyn well; I couldn’t tell you how to get from Point A to Point B. But I know that some of the best food in New York lies within this dynamic borough. In Williamsburg, keep an eye out for Leeuwen Ice Cream’s roving, butter-colored truck–after you enjoy the heavenly pizza at Fornino. I also love the Brook Farm Genbest cities food loverseral Store, which has all manner of lovely vintage and vintage-inspired items for the kitchen and dining room. Bedford Cheese Shop and Stinky Bklyn (in Cobble Hill) are two of the country’s finest cheese shops, full of esoteric domestic and imported selections.

Over in Bushwick at Roberta’s, chef Carlo Mirachi, a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef winner, fires up pizza and other treats in his wood-burning oven, and utilizes produce from his rooftop garden. If you’re still hungry, other tasty stops: Fatty Cue or Fette Sau (both in Williamsburg) for barbecue, Saltie for crazy-good sandwiches, (Williamsburg), and the oddest ice cream flavors ever at Sky Ice (Park Slope). Be sure not to miss the various weekend Brooklyn Flea markets, where you’ll find all manner of good-to-eat treats, artisan beverages from Brooklyn Soda, and retro kitchen equipment. Note: every Saturday is the Flea’s new dedicated food market, Smorgasburg, in Williamsburg.

My other top picks for great food, made with local ingredients:
Chicago
Denver/Boulder
Santa Fe
Portland, ME
Drop me a line and I’ll be happy to give you some tips on where to get your feed on!

[Photo credits: Portland, Flickr user qousqous; courthouse, Flickr user Silverslr; Vietnamese food, Laurel Miller; pizza, Flickr user h-bomb]

Chef Rick Bayless opens airport restaurant at Chicago O’Hare

airport restaurantMexican food authority, cookbook author, cooking show host, Top Chef Master, and all-around culinary badass Rick Bayless debuted his new O’Hare eatery, Tortas Frontera, over the weekend.

As its name implies, Tortas Frontera is devoted to the deliciously messy Mexican sandwiches, here served on bread from nearby Labriola Baking Company. Alas, as reported by Grubstreet, it’s located past security in Terminal 1, leaving non-travelers tortaless, margaritaless, and bereft. We can only hope that Bayless’ use of local and fresh ingredients (he’s a longtime champion of small family farms) will inspire other airport restaurants to follow suit.

Bayless is the chef/owner of Chicago’s acclaimed Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco. His second O’Hare restaurant is scheduled to open in Terminal 3 later this winter.

French and Mexican food put on UNESCO heritage list

Good news for fine dining: Mexican and French cuisine have made it onto UNESCO’s list of Intangible World Heritage.

At a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, the UNESCO committee named several cultural practices as important for world heritage and in need of preservation, including Spanish flamenco and a dance called the huaconada performed by the Mito people in the Peruvian Andes.

The BBC report is only preliminary and there’s no news yet about whether the Spanish practice of making human towers that we reported on Monday has made it on the list.

So now you can tuck in to baguettes and burritos with the knowledge that you are preserving important world heritage. As we’ve reported, eating French cuisine the way the French do can keep you thin, and if Mexican food is more your style, check out the best Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles.

[Image courtesy user Styggiti via Gadling’s flickr pool]