Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Week Twenty: A Journey to Uzbekistan

Studying and experiencing the cuisine of the Republic of Uzbekistan enlightened me.  With limited knowledge of the country’s culture and people, I expanded my usual research to include more than just food, and I discovered a history that goes back to the Bronze Age, around 3200 BC.  Because of its location along the original Silk Road in Central Asia and its long history of rule by various empires and countries, Uzbekistan’s cuisine reveals many influences with definite nods to Persia, China, and India.  Uzbekistan farmers raise wheat, barley, corn, and rice, which accounts for the strong presence of rice, noodles, and bread within the cuisine.  The primary source of protein is mutton due to the fact that sheep can be grazed on desert pastures which cover half of the country.  Interestingly, I found that most Uzbek dishes are defined as much by the methods used to make them as they are by the actual ingredients.

Monday Night Dinner:  Lagman (Handmade Noodles with Soup)

Lagman, also called Lagman Shurpa (Lagman=Noodles, Shurpa=Soup), consists of rich, brothy soup served over homemade noodles.  The dish presents an example of the Chinese influence in Uzbek cuisine as this dish’s preparation resembles that of the lo meins introduced by Chinese travelers along the Silk Road.  In Uzbekistan, the noodles range from gently pulled for wide noodles to exquisitely long thin strands.  The soup begins with a stir-fry of meat (lamb or beef) and vegetables.  After being stir-fried, they are covered in water and simmered for about an hour to infuse the flavors of the stir fry into a rich broth.  I followed a recipe featured on the Lola Elise website that included a stir-fry of beef, onion, bell pepper, carrot, potato, tomato, and garlic.  Overall, I was pleased with the flavors of the dish.  This was my first attempt to make handmade noodles of this size, and although they were tender and delicious, they would have been lighter had I rolled the dough thinner and/or pulled them into longer strands.  The broth had a rich flavor profile, and the best bites of the dish came at the end of the meal when I had small pieces of leftover noodles to combine with a big spoonful of broth, meat, and veggies.

Sunday Afternoon Snack:  Tashkent Non
Tashkent Non

Uzbek non is a flatbread.  Like Indian naan, this is a yeast flatbread traditionally baked in a tandoor; however, its shape and presentation are a bit different than naan.  While it is shaped into a round like naan, the middle is compressed with a decorative stamp called a chekich, which results in a bread that looks like a large bagel with a thin layer in the middle, instead of a hole.  A chekich is stamp made of tines organized to create a decorative pattern and also serves to punch holes into the bread so that the center does not rise.  Nigella seeds are traditionally sprinkled on the bread, but sesame seeds are also used.  I used black sesame seeds, because their color and crunch provide the same elements of nigella seeds.  (I was surprised that the Middle-Eastern market near my house didn’t carry nigella seeds, and I didn’t feel like driving all over the city in search of them.)

I followed a recipe from someone who had previously traveled through Uzbekistan and found that the different cities and regions made their own variations of non.  Tashkent is the largest city and capital of Uzbekistan, and this recipe reflects the style of non found there.

As a note, I attempted to make a homegrown version of a chekich with a biscuit cutter, some toothpicks, and tape, but it didn’t quite do the job.  If you looked at the link I provided for a chekich, you already know that this was a creative, yet pathetic, attempt to mimic this tool  My centers puffed more than they should have, and the pattern disappeared when the bread baked.  Can’t get them all right.  At least the bread was light, fluffy, and tasty!

Sunday Night Dinner:  Plov
To say that Plov, also known as palov and osh, is the national dish of Uzbekistan is an understatement by all standards.  In general terminology, it is a rice pilaf with meat and vegetables.  Mutton is the preferred meat because of its high fat content, but lamb, beef, and chicken are also considered acceptable proteins in this dish.  By Uzbek standards, the dish represents so much more than a simple pilaf.  To date, I have yet to encounter a dish with as many customs, rules, and possibly even superstitions associated with it.  This is a dish defined by its preparation, not so much by its ingredients.  For the most part, men make plov.  Each man develops his personal manner of preparation, and it is not hyperbole to say that each man’s plov defines him and his family.  After reading that plov is also popular in other former Soviet states, I took a few moments to ask a friend who grew up in the Ukraine about plov, and he told me that his mother always made it with chicken because lamb was not easily available to them.  He also shared his experiences of seeing men gathered around a big platter of plov eating it by hand with mutton grease running down their forearms.  He definitely agreed that it is a SERIOUS dish in Uzbekistan.

As I prepared to select a recipe for Plov that best represented a traditional preparation, I discovered that most Plov recipes are not so much recipes as they are guidelines and specifications.  Based on my research, the most important rule is NOT to combine the rice with any other elements.  The components are to remain separate, even when plated at the end.  I integrated several different sets of instructions into my own personal guideline and saught to “define myself and my family” to my best abilities.  Here is a general overview of my steps to making plov:
  • I began with the zirvak, the stewed meat, vegetables, and spices that serve as the base of the dish.  In a 4 quart dutch oven, I sautéed the lamb meat and onions in vegetable oil until the onions were golden brown.  I seasoned them with cumin, coriander, salt, and pepper.  Then, I added water, put the lid on the pot, and cooked the mixture over medium high heat for 15-20 minutes. 
  • I removed the lid and added julienned carrots on top of the stewed lamb and onions…making sure not to mix the carrots into the lamb and onions.  I nestled a whole bulb of garlic into the center of the pot, and I continued to cook this mixture untouched for fifteen minutes without a lid.
  • The next steps, also known as the Rice Steps, carry the most weight with Plov masters.  Again, it’s very important to keep the rice separate from the other ingredients.  I placed basmati rice (washed, of course) in a flat layer on top of the carrots ensuring that there was enough water in the pot to cover the layer of rice.  I put the lid on the pot and let the rice absorb the water for 5 minutes. 
  • After five minutes, I removed the lid and flipped the rice with a spatula trying my best to not mix in the carrots as I turned it.  I put the lid back on and continued to cook it until the rice absorbed all of the water.
  • When the water was absorbed, I carefully moved the rice to the center of the pot into the shape of a dome.  I poked holes through the rice to the bottom of the pot with the end of a wooden spoon, and I covered the rice with a plate.  Then, I put the lid on the pot and let the plov cook for another 10 minutes. From what I can tell, this homemade “percolator” step aids in pulling the flavor and fats from the zirvak into the rice.
  • After about 10 minutes, all of the liquid disappeared, and I prepared our platter of plov.
  • I removed the bulb of garlic from the center of the pot and harvested the deliciously sweet cloves of garlic.
  • I transferred the the rice from the top of the pot to the bottom of my platter to create its own layer.  (Not getting carrots mixed into the rice is a trick that a plov master will have to teach me.  From what I read, the most important part of this step is not mixing in the onion and meat with the pilaf, which I did accomplish, so I'm not going to worry about those stray carrots.)  I topped the rice pilaf with the lamb mixture and garlic cloves.  Then, I garnished the platter with scallions.
I served the dish with non and a side salad of tomato and onion.  The amount of flavor imparted into the rice from the lamb and vegetables surprised me.  The way the components came together resulted in a rich, flavorful dish, and the side salad of onion and tomato provided the perfect fresh bite against the heaviness of the plov.  I’m definitely not a Plov master, but I’m pretty sure this was good enough to make me a Plov apprentice!

This week represented so much more than a lesson in cuisine.  I self-enrolled in a crash-course lesson of the history, culture, and customs of Uzbekistan.  It truly felt like a journey as I discovered land, people, and cuisine completely foreign to me.  As I cooked plov, I thought of the generations of fathers passing down family recipes to sons, and I openly embraced their customs and endeavored to appreciate something far greater than the dish.  I discovered the tradition.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Week Nineteen: A Journey to the Philippines

As this project continues, I realize the difficulty in defining a cuisine from a country influenced by multiple cultures over centuries of change.  Such is the case with my journey to the Philippines.  Filipino dishes have evolved from the converging influences of China, Malaysia, Spain, Germany, the United States, Japan, and India.  The resulting cuisine is one that combines the best of these cultures and finds reverence in its bold combinations of sweet, sour, and salty.  For this week’s menu choices, I focused on cooking the best known and favorite dishes of Filipino cuisine as a way to experience its flavor profiles.

Interestingly, @FilipinoFood posted this tweet “Best Pinoy Food is _____” early yesterday morning, and the three dishes I prepared for this week’s menus were definitive favorites based on the responses.  At my last count, Adobo led with 30% of the vote, and there were multiple mentions of Pancit and Lumpia.  At least I know I selected the right dishes for this week’s project.

Monday Night Dinner:  Adobo Chicken and Steamed Rice
Adobo Chicken
Without a doubt, Adobo is the most famous and beloved dish in the Philippines.  By most accounts, it is considered the national dish.  In its most basic form, adobo is made by stewing chicken and/or pork in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic.  (Variations with the addition of coconut milk and sugar are made in specific regions of the islands.)  The components of the sauce exemplify the flavor profile of combining sweet, sour, and salty. 

After Monday night's dinner, I understand why this dish is so beloved.  The bold flavors of the sauce resulting from such a simple combination of ingredients presents a tangy, delicious flavor that beckons one to keep going back for another bite.  For my preparation, I used bone-in chicken thighs and breasts, and I served it with steamed jasmine rice to soak up the extra sauce.  This is a dish I will make again, especially for a quick weeknight dinner.   

Friday Night Dinner:  Lumpia and Pancit Bihon
Burnt Lumpia is the most inspiring blog focused on Filipino Food that I found during my research.  I referenced the site several times when looking for authentic presentations of Filipino dishes.  In addition to great articles and recipes, the site includes valuable links to national articles and stories related to Filipino cuisine.  Those links lead me to my choices for lumpia and pancit.
For all practical purposes, lumpia are simply Filipino-style spring rolls.  Characterizing exactly how they are different from other spring rolls is a question I still cannot answer definitively.  I’ve read conflicting information all over the internet.  Some state that they are never fried while others state that they are usually fried.  There are numerous variations of fillings, too.  In many cases, the lumpia wrapper is thinner than those used in traditional egg rolls, and the actual rolls are smaller and more compact.  Most of the lumpia fillings include cabbage and carrots, which are typically found in spring rolls, but I also found lumpia filling recipes that include green beans, sweet potatoes, garlic, and celery, which are not standard in spring rolls.  Confused?  Yes, I know.  It’s a bit much to decipher as an outsider, but when I found a Washington Post article about Feli Orinion, a Filipino woman in Washington D.C. known in high-profile circles for her lumpia, I found a path to successful lumpia. 
To say that I loved Feli’s Lumpia is an understatement.  Thank goodness I shelved the extras in my freezer before my husband and I sat down to enjoy the eight rolls I fried up for us.  If not for that, I probably wouldn’t have any lumpia in my freezer for later.  There are three key components to this recipe that make the resulting lumpia such a success.
1.  The filling includes a long list of ingredients:  carrots, green beans, celery, onion, green cabbage, sweet potatoes, water chestnuts, garlic, sesame oil, ground pork, soy sauce, and freshly ground black pepper.  When I read this list originally, I thought it would be too many components, but in actuality, they complement each other to create a delicious bite full of different flavors and textures.

2.  The reason that this long list of ingredients works well lies in the preparation of the vegetables.  The recipe calls for each vegetable to be individually chopped finely in a food processor.  This is genius because it provides for each bite to contain the full mixture of vegetables resulting in multiple flavors and textures delivered in a single bite.

3.  The flour and water paste used to “glue” the wrapper end to the lumpia keeps the lumpia tightly rolled resulting in even cooking when fried.

The perfectly balanced Filipino bite occurs when these lumpia, full of sweet vegetables and seasoned with soy sauce, are dipped in a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, freshly ground black pepper, and a pinch of sugar, which spans the full scope of sour, salty, and sweet.
Pancit Bihon
Pancit is a Filipino noodle dish with many variations depending on the type of noodle used, as well as the vegetables, meats, and seasonings included in the dish.  With so many options, I chose a recipe for Pancit Bihon by Janet Rausa Fuller featured in the Chicago Sun-Times.  Fuller’s mother has been making the same Pancit Bihon for years, and after several long telephone calls, Fuller translated her mother’s notes into a recipe for the rest of us to enjoy. 

Traditional Pancit Bihon is made with thin rice noodles, soy sauce, citrus, sliced meat, and chopped vegetables.  Chinese sausage and cabbage are also common ingredients in this dish.  Fuller’s recipe includes pork loin, Chinese sausage, wood ear mushrooms, garlic, carrots, celery, and cabbage.  The sauce, which also serves as a marinade for the pork loin, includes soy sauce, sherry, sugar, salt, and pepper.  (For my pancit, I substituted Shaoxing wine for the sherry.)  I stir-fried the dish in a wok and served it with lime wedges to brighten the heavier flavors of pork loin and Chinese sausage.  The dish was simple to make and came together quickly.  As with the adobo and lumpia, the pronounced bold flavors of sweet, salty, and sour combined to produce a satisfying and balanced flavor profile.

All in all, I really enjoyed this week’s dishes.  Despite the fact that Filipino cuisine has so many influencing factors, these dishes and my research have helped me better understand its unique flavor profile and combinations of ingredients.  I predict that my freezer filled with two dozen lumpia will be empty in the very near future.....

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Week Eighteen: A Journey to Haiti

My favorite thing about living in Miami is the diversity of cultures.  At last year’s company holiday pot-luck, that very ideal was illustrated by a quick glance at the spread: yucca in garlic sauce, Cuban-style pork, turkey and dressing, empanadas, and mac & cheese.  Just as we were filling up, my friend Lisy brought in a huge pan of Griot.  I had no idea what it was, but I discovered quickly that this is a dish I wouldn’t mind tasting again and again.  As I began my preparations for cooking Haitian cuisine this week, Griot served as the center point of my planning.

Despite the fact that I live in a city with a rather large Haitian-American community, I have not spent a significant amount of time visiting the markets and restaurants committed to Haitian cuisine.  After reading a few recipes online, I immediately recognized the influence of French, African, and Spanish cuisines imbedded in Haitian cuisine’s ingredients and its cooking methods.  Interestingly, I’ve always heard how about the extreme spiciness of Haitian food, but I’m not sure this is a fair assessment.  While almost every recipe includes Scotch Bonnet peppers, the use of this spicy pepper is actually more as a flavoring agent than as a fiery component.  Onion, shallots, scallions, garlic, cloves, and thyme appear in recipes just as frequently as Scotch Bonnet peppers, and those ingredients seem to round out the actual flavor profile of the cuisine.  Sour Oranges are often used in marinades for stewed meats and seafood, which are almost always served with rice and beans.  Practically every meal is accompanied by a pickled slaw called Pickliz, which includes a vinegar base, cabbage, onions, carrots, peas, scotch bonnet peppers, cloves, and peppercorns.  Fried green plantains and malanga fritters are also popular side items and appetizers.  With this bit of knowledge, some online recipes, and multiple conversations with Lisy, I mapped out my plan for Haitian menus at home over the weekend.

Thursday Night: Prep the Pikliz
After reading only a few blog postings, I quickly understood that Pikliz is a core component of Haitian meals.  Not only is it used as a condiment, its vinegar is added to sauces and main dishes in order to brighten their flavors.  A Haitian refrigerator is never without pikliz.  This pickled slaw was simple to make.  The most important component is time as it needs at least 24-48 hours to pickle.

Saturday Night:  Akra (Malanga Fritters) served with Pikliz, Lambi a la Creole (Stewed Conch in Creole Sauce), Diri Kole Ak Pwa Rouj (Red Beans and Rice), and Prestige Beer

Akra fritters are often served at important events, such as christenings and weddings.  Grated malanga is mixed with a binder of pureed black-eyed peas, shallot, scallions, garlic, bell pepper, and scotch bonnet pepper.  The fritters are flavorful and interesting on their own, but when eaten with pikliz, the flavors sing.  The brightness of the pikliz is the perfect balance to the rich, warm flavors of the fritter.  Without a doubt, this dish was the best part of Saturday night’s dinner.

I had to have beer with fritters, so I picked up some Haitian Prestige Beer.  Nothing to write home about, but I can see how it would be refreshing in the hot island sun. 

In all honesty, I have been trying to love conch since I moved to Miami, and I still haven’t found a special place in my heart for it.  Knowing that conch is an integral part of Haitian cuisine, I set out to make Lambi a la Creole and hopefully change my mind forever.  I thought I covered all of the bases.  At the fish market, I enthusiastically said “yes” when they offered to tenderize the conch for me.  I brought it home and beat it with my rolling pin some more.  I marinated it in onion and sour oranges, and I stewed it in a creole sauce for over an hour on low heat.  As I removed the lid from the pot, the aromas imparted to me a feeling that I had finally succeeded in finding a conch dish I would love.  Alas, I grabbed a spoon and sampled a bite only to discover that even the tenderest conch is still too chewy for my taste.  The flavors of the conch and its Creole sauce were amazing though.  The conch had a sweet flavor, and the sauce provided both depth of flavor from the tomato paste, onion, and garlic, and brightness from the fresh thyme and Scotch bonnet pepper.  I served it alongside Red Beans and Rice seasoned with onion, garlic, scallion, cloves, Scotch bonnets, and sprigs of fresh thyme.

Sunday Dinner: Griot (Fried Pork), Riz Djon-Djon (Black Mushroom Rice), Banan Pese (Fried Plantains), and Sos ti Malis (Haitian Sauce)

While none of these components is difficult to make, figuring out how to deliver them all to the table at the same time proved a bit of a challenge, but I put my planning skills together and figured out a way.  Everything about this meal was delicious!

For the Griot, I marinated chunks of pork shoulder in sour orange juice, onions, shallots, and garlic for a little over 24 hours.  Then, I began stewing the pork, its marinade, and some additional water over low heat for an hour covered and then another thirty minutes uncovered until the liquids evaporated.  Just before I assembled the platter for our dinner, I fried the pork chunks until the edges crisped.  The resulting dish was a moist tender morsel of pork sealed in by the quick fry process.

When I started planning my Haitian menus, my friend Lisy said that Riz Djon Djon is an absolute must.  The rice’s color is derived from a broth made with black djon djon mushrooms native to Haiti.  (When I asked where I could buy djon djon mushrooms, she told me that most people use the Djon Djon Maggi cubes and offered to purchase some for me when she was in Little Haiti later that week.  Although my normal response would have been to decline and forage local markets for the djon djon mushrooms, I decided to take her up on that offer and follow the lead of someone who knew better than me.)  To make the dish, I sautéed garlic, onion, and shallots for a few minutes.  Then, I added the rice to firm its texture and allow it to soak up those flavors.  Next, I added mushroom broth, cloves, and pigeon peas to the pot and cooked it until the liquids evaporated.  I turned the heat to low, added fresh thyme and a scotch bonnet pepper, put a lid on it, and moved on to another dish.

When I read the folktale explaining Sos ti Malis in Taste of Haiti by Mirta Yurnet-Thomas, I knew I had to make this sauce.  Here is her account: 

"Two men, Ti-Malice and Bouki, are good friends. Bouki is gullible, while Ti-Malice is a prankster and more astute. Ti-Malice has meat for lunch everyday and Bouki just so happens to show up at Ti-Malice's house every day around lunch time. Haitians, being good natured, offer whatever they are eating to their guests. So Bouki winds up sharing Ti-Malice's meat every day.
One day, Ti-Malice decides to trick Bouki and prepares a very hot sauce for the meat, hoping to deter Bouki from coming back at lunchtime to eat his food. Bouki tastes the meat with the hot sauce on it and runs all over town shouting to everyone 'Come taste the sauce Ti-Malice made for me'; and that's how Sauce Ti-Malice got its name."

This delicious sauce includes onion, garlic, shallots, bell peppers, tomato paste, pikliz vinegar, and fresh lime juice.  It is served warm and drizzled over meats.  It also serves as a condiment for fried plantains.

Interestingly, the recipes I found for Haitian Fried Plantains differed slightly from most “tostones” recipes.  Instead of frying pieces, smashing, and then refrying them, the Haitian recipes called for an extra step of soaking the smashing discs in salted vinegar water before refrying them.  I only soaked them for a few seconds, but I must say this additional step resulted in a more flavorful, seasoned and crispy fried plantain.

This Sunday menu was the highlight of the week.  All of the components came together in a way that complemented each other.  I will definitely save this menu for another night with friends.  Saturday’s akra fritters and pikliz stood out as an amazing stand-alone dish, as well.  All in all, we had another week of inspired dishes.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Week Seventeen: A Journey to Mexico

This week’s journey to Mexico proved to be quite an experience.  Normally, I research a country’s cuisine and cook its dishes at home to better understand it, but I decided to change the platform this week and write about my food discoveries while actually visiting Mexico City over the weekend.

Chatting it up with the locals
Despite the fact that I am a consummate planner, one of my favorite aspects of travel is discovering the unknown.  Give me a few minutes with a stranger, and I will find a way to steer the conversation to food.  It’s an easy topic, too, because people love to share information about their favorite tacquerias, drinks, or interesting food facts.  Here is a random list of what I learned through conversation about Mexican cuisine:
  • Ant Eggs are the caviar of Mexico…a delicacy.  At least that’s what the driver from the airport to the hotel told me.  Of course, when I asked if he had tried them, he told me he hadn’t.
  • Always begin your dinner with a shot of tequila.  Never order a margarita.  Words of wisdom from the driver taking us to dinner at Izote on our first night.
  • Never ask for extra parmesan cheese on a pizza in Mexico.  Do eat your pizza with ketchup and hot sauce.  We traveled to the pyramids with a couple and their teenage daughter who moved to Mexico City three years ago.  They told us that every time they have asked for extra parmesan cheese on pizza, the waiters look at them oddly and state that the pizza already has cheese on it.  After several tries, they have given up on ever having extra parmesan, but they have not succumbed to the lure of ketchup on pizza.
  • When eating potato chips, douse them in a sauce.  I learned from the teenage daughter that a typical school snack is potato chips smothered in hot sauce and/or Maggi sauce.  (I didn’t know what that was, but I have since learned that Maggi is a brand of seasonings and bouillons popular in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.)  She told me that her favorite is plain Lays potato chips with Maggi Sauce, which tastes like a cross between soy and Worcestershire sauces.
  • Pulque is the Viagra of Mexican farmers.  Chavez was our driver for dinner on Sunday night, and he also drove us to the airport on Monday morning.  When he picked us up from dinner on Sunday night, he asked what we had eaten, if we liked the country, and all of the usual conversation.  Then, he asked if we tried pulque when we visited the pyramids.  We hadn’t, and he proceeded to explain that it was similar to tequila, but it is made from maguay, instead of agave.  He went on to tell us that it has a milky consistency, instead of being clear like tequila.  Finally, he arrived at his favorite aspect of pulque, which is its natural “Viagra-like” affect on men, and he praised it with great fervor.  No joke….when he drove us to the airport the next morning, we were only in the car for about five minutes before he turned the conversation back to pulque.  Only a man with first-hand success would speak so highly of a drink.  Clearly, it works for him.
Vendor/Street Food
When I envisioned this long weekend, I planned to try more street food, but sometimes all of the planning in the world does not work out.  We did manage to fit in some time on Sunday afternoon in Chapultepec Park.

I have never seen so many different types of potato chips in my life. We saw cart after cart filled with full arrays of chips, chitos, chicharron, and sauces. We opted for the papas mos adobos with fresh lime juice squeezed over them, and they were just as rich, salty, messy, and delicious as they look. 

We stopped to try a Torta from a vendor with a long menu of options.  I selected the Torta Oaxaquena, which included chorizo, bologna, cheese, lettuce, and tomato.  What made this sandwich so delicious was the fact that the vendor made it fresh for us. 

Xochimilco is a small town located just south of Mexico City.  Its major attraction is its canal system traveled by a fleet of gondolas that seat up to twenty people and may be rented for one to four hours.  Vendors travel the canals in smaller boats selling their food, drinks, and wares.  There are even gondolas with marimba players and mariachi bands that you can hire to play at your gondola for a certain amount of time.  Interestingly, I expected this to be a tourist attraction, but I only saw one other boat with tourists.  For the most part, this is an activity for locals that need to get away.  It’s like a family picnic on a boat!  We ate lunch before arriving in Xochimilco, but I could not resist the esquites vendor.  (If you haven’t tried esquites and you live in Miami, I highly recommend a brunch stop at Jaguar in Coconut Grove to try them.)  It’s a simple dish:  corn, mayonnaise, fresh lime juice, cojita cheese, and a dash of chili powder.  This vendor sold it by the cup, or you could order the full cob of corn with toppings. I opted for the less messy version of the cup.

Friday Night Dinner at Izote de Patricia Quintana
Patricia Quintana is considered a culinary trailblazer of Mexican cuisine.  She trained in Europe with renowned chefs, such as Paul Bocuse, and she applied her studies to elevating traditional Mexican cuisine.  After reading of her accomplishments, I felt like this would be a great introduction to the city for our first night’s dinner.

Our waiter met us with a tequila menu and a limited understanding of English.  With our limited Spanish, we managed to begin our meal with a Herradura Reposado.  To my surprise, it arrived with an accompanying glass of something that reminded me of Bloody Mary mix.  I immediately started googling “tequila service in Mexico” and discovered that tequila is served with sangrita, a mixture of tomato juice, orange juice, lime juice, onions, salt, and chili peppers.  The concept here is to sip some tequila and then sip some sangrita.  Never mix them together.  Just drink them intermittently.  I must say that I would drink more tequila in the US if this was the customary way of serving it.

We began our dinner with an order of four tamales:  cheese with epazote, cheese with squash blossoms, cheese with forest mushrooms, and finally masa with shredded chicken in spicy tomato sauce.  I was surprised that only the chicken tamale had the traditional masa in it.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a tamale not made with masa, but I must say that I welcome the opportunity.

I couldn’t help myself when I saw Ant Eggs sautéed in Butter on the menu.  I had to try it!  It reminded me of a quinoa salad with lime juice, epazote, and chiles for flavor.  I would not order it again, but I can certainly appreciate the ingenuity of transforming something like an ant egg into a dish this flavorful.

For our next course, the hubs ordered ensalada de jimote, a salad of fresh tomatoes and goat cheese in Hoja Santa leaves served with caramelized onion cilantro vinaigrette.  My favorite part of this dish was the tangy goat cheese in the peppery Hoja Santa leaves. 

I opted for the crema de elote, which was a simple corn soup with a drizzle of chipotle chile oil.  The picture does not appropriately reflect the amazing flavor and aroma of this dish.  The bowl is presented with the fresh corn and chile oil in the bottom and the server pours the rich, creamy corn soup over these elements tableside.  The rich cream, sweet corn, and smoky, yet slightly spicy, chipotle chile oil presented a perfectly balanced bite.  This was my favorite dish at Izote.

For our main courses, we ordered pierna de cerdo al vapor con salsa de tomatillo y la esencia de agave (steamed pork shank with tomatillo salsa and agave essence) and enchiladas de pato al mole negro (duck enchiladas with mole).  The richness of the pork was perfectly complemented by the tomatillo salsa, and its tenderness was not like any I have tried.  As for the duck enchiladas with mole, the duck was cooked well, and the mole sauce had an amazing depth of flavor; however, the mole sauce overwhelmed the dish.  In addition to smothering the plate in mole, the duck inside the enchiladas was also cooked in the mole.  While I appreciated the flavors, the heavy hand with the sauce made it impossible to eat very much.  It was just too rich.
Overall, we enjoyed our experience at Izote.  The menu certainly offered a large variety of dishes with native ingredients and preparations, and the quality of the ingredients shone through.  I would go there again, but next time, I would not order as many plates as the portions were much larger than I expected.

Saturday Lunch at La Gruta
After climbing to the top of the third largest pyramid in the world, I was ready for lunch!  The couple who so graciously drove us to the pyramids recommended lunch at La Gruta.  I must say it was quite a show as the restaurant was literally down in a cave-like grotto.

We started the meal with a round of India beers and an order of Molcajete with guacamole, chicharron, queso fresco, and grilled baby onions.  Chicharron sure does make a great chip for guacamole dip!  The restaurant also served each person a complimentary jicama salad which added a crisp, refreshing balance to the richness of the molcajete.

Based on the recommendation of our traveling companions, I ordered the Tortilla Soup.  It was okay…I’ve tried better and worse.  One thing that did surprise me was the presentation of the soup with the dried chiles, cheese, guacamole, and chicharron chips served on the side. 

For the main course, I ordered Maguey Skin stuffed with Roasted Rabbit.  I knew it would be a heavy lunch, but I was curious to try something outside the norm.  The rabbit was perfectly tender and flavorful.  As an aside, this was actually the only meal I ate in Mexico that was served with rice and beans.

Saturday Night Dinner at Pujol
I booked the weekend around our reservation at Pujol.  It was one of the most amazing meals I have experienced anywhere in the world…not just Mexico City.  We opted for the nine-course tasting menu, and I cannot imagine a better way to experience the art of Enrique Olvera. 

 Amuse Bouche
Elotitos Tatemados
Mayonesa de cafe y polvo de chicatana

Taco de chicharrón de queso y guacamole

Ensalada de nopal curado en sal.
Romeritos y habas. Pico de gallo de apio. Vinagreta de axiote.

Tamal de tuétano y chipilín.

Salsa tatemada. Queso cotija.

Sopa de berro, papa y chayote.

Chochoyota de chicharrón prensado. Crema de rancho.

 Taco de cordero lechal.

Puré de chícharo y aguacate. Salsa de tomate y hoja santa.

 Pechuga de guajolote en salmuera.

Molote de plátano macho. Chichilo negro. Puré de zanahoria blanca.

Cerdo pelón en recado blanco.

Frijol alfayayocan. Rábanos encurtidos.

Nieve de mandarina. Eucalipto.

Sal de gusano. Mezcal flameado.

Cremoso de aguacate.

Leche de coco. Nube de macadamia salada.

Sunday Night Dinner at El Califa Tacqueria

In Mexico City, most people enjoy long Sunday lunches, sometimes stretching to 7:00 PM, which means that most opt for small dinners or snacks in the evening.  After walking Paseo de la Reforma and all over Chapultepec Park on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to chill out in a casual spot and enjoy our last night in the city.  We asked the concierge to recommend a tacqueria with a relaxed atmosphere, and he recommended El Califa in the Condessa neighborhood.  It was exactly what we needed! 
Tacos al Pastor is one of my favorite dishes to order in an authentic Mexican restaurant, but in the United States, it is rare (almost non-existent) to have them served authentically.  The dish is suspected to be the result of Lebanonese immigrants applying their process for cooking lamb used in gyros to pork for tacos with a whole fresh pineapple on top dripping its juices down over the meat.  As we walked into El Califa, I immediately spotted the rotating spit and my heart jumped for joy.  I knew we would have a great ending to a wonderful vacation. 
El Califa served a wider variety of sauces with their dishes than the other restaurants we visited.  Most restaurants served three sauces:  mild red salsa, medium smoky salsa, and hot green salsa.  At Califa, they also served a mild Tamarind sauce, which was a nice complement to the tacos al pastor, and their smoked chile salsa was the best we had anywhere in the city.

My journey to Mexico City was full of surprises and amazing experiences.  I cannot wait to go back and sample more of this city's amazing cuisine and culture.  What an incredible weekend!