Category Archives: Cultural Musings

A Party to Die For: Negra Modelo Celebrates Día de Muertos with Rick Bayless

 

Photo: Neal Agustin
In Mexico, ordering a ´dead´Negra Modelo, means you are looking for a really cold one. Photo: Neal Agustin

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Undoubtedly, one of my favorite rituals of el Día de Muertos, is cooking with the family, along with setting up the ofrenda (literally, “offering”) in honor of those who have departed.  Ofrendas are created to remember, invoke and delight our deceased relatives, and are the centerpiece of this symbolicaly-rich celebration.

My maternal grandmother took this festivity very seriously, and since her unexpected departure a few years ago, my uncle and my mother make a yearly pilgrimage to my grandma’s native Puebla, to continue on this three-thousand-year old tradition.

Ofrenda in honor of my grandma Julia.
Ofrenda in honor of my grandma Julia.

I did not make it to Mexico this time around, but luckily for me, Mexico came to Chicago. I had the privilege to be invited to celebrate el Día de Muertos with one of my favorite Mexican imports, Negra Modelo.  Negra Modelo drafted no other than Chef Rick Bayless to delight us with a walkthrough of this fantastic Mexican celebration through a few dishes.

During the event, I had the privilege to chat with Bayless, and hear his point of view on Mexican food and its execution outside of Mexico. An anthropologist at heart, this celebrated ambassador of Mexican cuisine, understands the cultural forces that have shaped Mexican food across the US.

 After the mariachi serenaded guests, (what a perfect touch!) Bayless delivered a cooking demonstration from a stage designed to look just like an ofrenda.

Neal Agustin
Photo: Neal Agustin
Photo: Neal Agustin
Photo: Neal Agustin

Guests were later delighted with a variety of fantastic Mexican dishes from this presentation. We are very excited to share one of these recipes with you so that you can bring it to life in your own kitchen.

Sugar skulls are a ubiquitous element of el Día de Muertos. They serve as a reminder that death awaits us at any corner. Negra Modelo invited local artists to create personalized handcrafts for guests to take home.

I was already a fan of the creamy, malty flavor of Negra Modelo, and after this party,  I have no doubt I will continue to like it in the afterlife.

Disclosure: I am a blogger sponsored by Negra Modelo. All opinions are my own.

 

Estampas de mi Ciudad – Death is a Party

  

“The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite playthings and his most steadfast love.”   

-Octavio Paz

Photos: Lissette Storch – Puebla, Mexico

In modern Mexico exchanging sugar skulls is a playful part of the celebration of el Día de Muertos, a festivity as complex, colorful and surreal as the Mexican people themselves. It is also a clear illustrative of Mexicans’ ancestral relationship with death.

Death is a verb and a noun.

In Mexico, death is an ultimate experience of life, and in what seems to be a constant attempt to make it look approachable, we have made her look human and we have dressed her up; we have given her nicknames, le hablamos de tú*.

Death is a ‘she’.

Originally, sugar skulls were created as a reminder of the fact that death  awaits us at any turn, and it is one of  the many expressions of our inevitable relationship with “the lady with many names”: La Catrina (“the rich or elegant one”), La Tía de las Muchachas (“the girls’ aunt”), La Fría (“the cold one”), La Novia Blanca (“the white bride”). Death is a character that wanders amongst us.

Death is life.

Like any other Mexican celebration, food is at the center of el Día de Muertos. Along with pan de muerto (literally, “bread of dead”) and cempasúchil flowers, sugar skulls are staples of this festivity. It is virtually impossible to stumble upon any particular element of  el Día de Muertos that does not have a deliberate purpose or meaning. From the bread that symbolizes the circle of life and communion with the body of the dead, to the flowers that make a nod to the ephemeral nature of life, this ritual, especially in rural Mexico, is rich in both form and content.

I grew up in the city, and for the most part, I participated in these festivities as a spectator. It was not until my grandmother died a few years ago, when my uncle and my mother took over perpetuating this three-thousand-year-old tradition, that I became involved and more intrigued by it.

Year after year, the family travels to a small village in the outskirts of Puebla to  set up an ofrenda for my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and other deceased  relatives. They are remembered with their favorite food and dishes. My grandmother  for example, loved to cook, so aside from prepared meals, her favorite kitchen tools are also set around her picture.

Candles are used either as symbol of hope and faith, or as a way to light the path of the dead as they descend. Water is included to quench the thirst of the souls, and as a symbol of purity. With these ofrendas, the dead  are remembered and invoked.

The celebration continues in the cemetery, where the living and the souls eat together, listen to music, and even enjoy fireworks.

For a few days in November, in Mexico, death is a party.

The cementery of San Francisco Acatepec, where my grandmother is buried.
Hablar de tú‘ means to address someone casually, vs. the respectfully ‘usted’ that is reserved to address those who you don’t know or those who haven’t granted you permission to do otherwise.

 

Nuestra Mesa – Receta para Hacer Pan de Muerto

Foto: Manuel Rivera Ciudad de México, México

Con las celebraciones del Día de Muertos a la vuelta de la esquina, pensamos en traerles la receta para hacer un tradicional, delicioso e indispensable pan de muerto.

Esta receta requiere dejar reposar los primeros ingredientes durante un día, así que si piensan hacerla, les recomendamos prepararla con tiempo suficiente.

Rinde para 45 panes de 100 gr. cada uno o un pan familiar de aproximadamente 4.5 kilos.

Paso 1:

Ingredientes

  • 120 gr. levadura fresca (usa 1/3 de la cantidad si es que piensas usar levadura artificial)
  • 340 ml. de agua
  • 400 gr. de harina

Proceso

  1. Entibia el agua en el microondas
  2. Revuelve los ingredientes con el agua hasta formar una masa
  3. Deja reposar la masa por un dia entero en un recipiente engrasado con aceite. Cubre el recipiente con plástico y colócalo en un lugar fresco.

Paso 2:

Ingredientes

  • 32 huevos
  • 320 gr. azúcar
  • 2.250 kg harina
  • 40 gr. de sal
  • 1 kg. mantequilla
  • 4 cucharadas de agua de azahar

Proceso

  1. Incorpora los primeros cuatro ingredientes con el agua de azahar,  hasta formar una masa homogénea y que no se pegue.
  2. Agrega la masa que preparaste un día anterior sigue amasando hasta que este bien incorporada.
  3. Deja que la mantequilla esté a temperatura ambiente y  agrégala en trozos de alrededor de 100 gr.  hasta integrarla toda.
  4. Forma bolas  de 100 gr si quieres hacer porciones individuales y de 400 gr.  para hacer un pan familiar.
  5. Forma los huesitos con pedazos pequeños de masa, Las puedes rodar en la mesa y aplanarla con los dedos.
Foto: Manuel Rivera – Ciudad de México, México

6. Barniza con yema de huevo y deja fermentar durante una hora.

Foto: Manuel Rivera – Ciudad de México, México

7. Mete tu mezcla a hornear a 200 grados hasta que los panes estén de  color café claro

8. Saca tus panes del horno y déjalos enfriar.

9. Derrite mantequilla y barniza con ella los panes. Después espolvoréalos con azúcar refinada hasta que queden cubiertos

¡Acompaña tu pan con un buen chocolate!

El chef Aldo Saavedra ha cocinado para huéspedes de establecimientos como el conocido Hotel Condesa D.F. y ha contribuído con sus recetas en proyectos con marcas de la talla de Larousse y Danone. En Nuestra Mesa, el chef Saavedra comparte con los lectores de La Vitamina T, su pasión por la cocina y por México.

Receta: Pastel de Elote

Foto: Chef Atzimba Pérez
Foto: Chef Atzimba Pérez

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Hace unas semanas tuve el privilegio de conocer a la chef Atzimba Pérez, orgullosa embajadora de la comida mexicana en Chicago.  Para esta extraordinaria michoacana, (cuyo nombre significa “princesa de agua” en Purépecha), la gastronomía ha sido una constante en su vida.

Parte destino, parte camino, Atzimba nos cuenta que su mamá preparaba la comida para celebrar las fiestas patronales, mientras ella ayudaba y observaba cómo se les daba vida a los platillos típicos de su pueblo. Atzimba nos dice: “Yo tenía mucha inquietud por descubrir nuevos sabores, y probar formas diferentes de hacer las cosas. Desde chica yo tenía mis recetarios y mis libros de cocina.” Más tarde, Atzimba abrió una lonchería para pagarse la carrera en gastronomía: “La comida era mi sustento físico y mi sustento económico. En la escuela vendía pies de queso para poder costear mis prácticas semanales.”

Plato a plato, Atzimba ha conseguido un lugar  como representante de la cocina mexicana en Chicago, donde recientemente estableció su propia compañía de banquetes.

Su comida es tan hermosa y orgullosamente mexicana como su nombre. Hoy, para celebrar lo que queda del mes patrio, les comparto con mucha emoción la receta de la chef Atzimba Pérez para preparar pastel de elote.

Ingredientes



  • 3 tazas de elote tierno
  • 5 huevos
  • 1 lata de leche condensada
  • 1/2 barrita de mantequilla
  • 1/4 de taza de aceite de maíz
  • 1 cucharadita de vainilla
  • 1 taza de harina
  • 1 1/2 cucharadita de polvo para hornear

Procedimiento

  1. Cierne la harina y el polvo para hornear.
  2. Derrite la mantequilla y licúala con el resto de los ingredientes
  3. Mezcla con la harina y el polvo para hornear
  4. Engrasa y enharina 1 molde refractario rectangular mediano ó 2 moldes pequeños.
  5. Vacía la mezcla y pónla a hornear a 320° durante 45 minutos hasta que obtenga un color miel.

Disfrútalo con un vaso de leche fría.

Según la receta de la chef Atzimba Pérez, reproducida con el permiso de la autora.  Para más información sobre Atzimba, visíta  su página de Facebook haciendo click aquí. 

Pilsen y su Calle 18: Una Puerta Dimensional a México en Chicago

Si estás en Chicago y te da un ataque de nostalgia, o si estás de visita y quieres descubrir un lugar diferente dentro de la ciudad, a sólo 5 kilómetros al sureste del “Loop” se encuentra  el barrio de Pilsen. Fundado por colonizadores de Europa del este a fines del siglo XIX, Pilsen fue nombrado en honor a la cuarta ciudad más grande de Checoslovaquia. No fue sino a principios de 1960 que la comunidad hispana empezó a hacer de Pilsen su casa. Ya para los 70, Pilsen era, como les hoy, una colonia muy diversa y predominanemente hispana.

Virtualmente un museo al aire libre, quien visita Pilsen podrá descubrir una serie de murales que sirven como vehículo para el discurso social. Exilio, lucha e identidad son los mensajes predominantes de esta expresión de arte urbano. Si prefieres un museo intramuros, no te pierdas el Museo de Arte Mexicano.  La entrada es gratuita.

La calle 18 es una puerta dimensional a una serie de negocios que van desde restaurantes, panaderías, dulcerías, hasta peluquerías. ¿Quieres pan como ese que probaste en las ferias de Acambaro? Aquí lo encuentras. Estos personajes llegaron como recetas en los morrales de artesanos michoacanos y aquí se hicieron pan.

Y si en tu paseo te da hambre, acuérdate de visitar Carnitas Uruapan, donde encontrarás desed chicharrón, hasta quesadillas de sesos y ensalada de nopales. Pasa a saludar al Güero Carbajal y díle que te recomendó tu amiga Brenda Storch de La Vitamina T.

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Carnitas Uruapan – The Best of Michoacán in Pilsen

Inocencio and Marcos Carbajal personally host patrons at Carnitas Uruapan.
Pride and Joy: Inocencio and Marcos Carbajal personally host patrons at their famous Pilsen restaurant Carnitas Uruapan.

Inocencio Carbajal becomes emotional as he shares a very personal story. In the late 70s, as a recent transplant from Uruapan, Michoacán, he had to make the decision to let go of his most precious possession- a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I asked Her to bless my choice,” says Inocencio, his eyes tearing up. “We bought our first piece of equipment with that money.”

Fast-forward four decades later, and Inocencio’s hardship has paid off.  As we arrived at the Pilsen eatery, a long line of patrons had already assembled.  Marcos Carbajal, Inocencio’s son, kindly invited us to tour the kitchen while we found a spot to talk.

The state of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico, is famous for its carnitas, one of Mexico’s favorite folk dishes. Usually cooked in large copper containers brought in from a specific neighboring town,  it is not uncommon to also find this treat being prepared in large stainless steel pots. “In many villages, eating carnitas is a Sunday morning ritual,” said Marcos, who periodically visits family in Uruapan, his father’s birthplace. “People know to arrive early, as usually only one pig is prepared, and they usually gather to eat after church. Many of our customers still follow this custom, but we cook a fresh batch every two hours.”

Although he kept in his heart the desire to go back to Michoacán at some point, Inocencio’s family and his growing business kept him in Pilsen. “All of a sudden, Marcos was ready to go to college, and I was happy that he had the opportunity,” said Inocencio.  For Marcos,  the word “pigskin” is not merely a seasonal one. With a degree in Economics from the University of Michigan, and thinking of helping his dad, Marcos left his corporate job to work in the restaurant full time, while also pursuing a Master’s Degree in Entrepreneurship from Northwestern University.

Although Inocencio has not returned to Uruapan, he has brought Uruapan to Chicago with him. The path he chose was not easy but, he says smiling, “I would do it all over again”.

His eatery’s menu is perfectly simple, with many well-achieved crowd pleasers. From mouthwatering pork carnitas, to menudo, chicharrón en salsa de tomate ( chicharrón in tomato sauce, of which I took a big container home), cacti salad and even quesadillas de sesos (brain-stuffed quesadillas), this place is the real deal. In fact, the cueritos I tried here are the best I have ever had in both, texture and flavor.

Carnitas Uruapan did not disappoint. My stomach was full and happy, and after talking to Inocencio and Marcos, my heart was too.

¡Viva México!

Carnitas Uruapan

1725 W 18th St  Chicago, IL 60608

(312) 226-2654

Ger a free carnitas taco with your to go order and and free order of chicharrón if you check-in on Facebook.

 

Quesadilla: More than Cheese Meets the Tortilla

Delicious quesadillas made with blue-corn tortillas materialize right in front of patrons’ eyes in La Marquesa, Mexico. Photo: Lissette Storch
Delicious quesadillas made with blue-corn tortillas materialize right in front of patrons’ eyes in La Marquesa, Mexico. Photo: Lissette Storch

You will never go hungry in Mexico City, where quesadillas,sopes and other garnachas* are easily found street-side and served either as a snack or a meal. Filled with a variety of stuffings ranging from flowers and vegetables, to meat and even insects, these portable pockets of pure joy are a staple of any modern Mexican meal. Given the apparent simplicity of their execution, it would be easy to assume thatquesadillas are predictable and uninteresting, but skilled artisan hands bring these delicacies to life in such way, thatdefeños** will consider traveling to indulge in a perfect one. La Marquesa, a national park west of Mexico City, is a popular weekend getaway as well as a quesadilla haven. Here, locals and visitors are able to choose from a multitude of establishments offering a variety of quesadillas among other local delicacies that include trout and even rabbit.

For a sampling of Mexico´s mestizo nature in a bite, (the fusion concept of a quesadilla already combines the Spanish word for “queso” with the Aztec word “tortilla“) try a chorizoand cheese quesadilla. More pre-Hispanic stuffings includeflor de calabaza (zucchini blossoms) or huitlacoche (corn fungus). The latter might not sound too terribly appealing, but trust me, there is a reason why Mexicans have consider it a treat for centuries.

If you are in Mexico City and the foodie in you wants to venture to La Marquesa, we recommend making a day trip out of this culinary excursion. Consider hiring a reputable cab company to drive you to and from the food area. La Marquesa is about an hour away from downtown Mexico City.

*Garnachas: Slang term for comfort-food, usually made out of corn on a comal.

**Defeño: A citizen of Mexico City.

La Vitamina T has moved!

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Chiles en Nogada: The Dish of a Revolution

Photo credit: Lissette Storch  Mexico City, Mexico
Photo credit: Lissette Storch Mexico City, Mexico

If you have the good fortune to be in Mexico late in the fall, you will likely find chiles en nogada appear on many menus. Literally “peppers in walnut sauce”, this seasonal delicacy attributed to the state of Puebla, was served for the first time in the 19th century to celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spain.

Part prayer, part recipe, the story tells that Augustine nuns from Atlixco, Puebla improvised this dish in honor of Mexican caudillo* (and later Mexico´s first emperor) Agustín de Yturbide, who made a stop in Puebla on his way to Mexico City after signing a document in Veracruz establishing Mexico´s independence. Fittingly, green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag, are represented on the plate.

Part warrior, part angel, chiles en nogada calls for poblano peppers to be stuffed with a mixture of meat and fruits, which allows for a variety of textures in every bite. To top it off, the walnut sauce is very light and deliciously accented with pomegranate, available in central Mexico through mid September.

Part indigenous, part Spanish, this plate is all Mexico, and the edible equivalent to CliffsNotes on this country’s dichotomies both in personality and history.

Do not pass up the opportunity to try it.

We recommend:

 La Hostería de Santo Domingo 

Belisario Domínguez 7o, Mexico City

La Parrilla Leonesa

Blvd. Manuel Ávila Camacho 1515, Cd. Satélite, Edo. de México

*Military leader

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Recipe: Beat the Heat with Mezcal and Sesame Seed Ice Cream – Nuestra Mesa

Photo: Manuel Rivera
Photo: Manuel Rivera

To beat this summer heat with a unique Mexican version of ice cream, our friend and contributor chef Aldo Saavedra, shared with us a recipe to make a delicious mezcal and sesame seed treat.

Just like tequila, mezcal is made from agave. This smokey-flavored artisanal drink is slowly becoming popular as another Mexican contribution to gastronomy worldwide.

Ingredients: 

Ice Cream Base

This is the foundation for any ice cream, and it can be used to create any other flavor. The sky is the limit! It is all up to your imagination.

  • 2/3 cup of sugar
  • 10 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups of whole milk

Mezcal and Sesame Seed

  • 7 tbsp of your favorite mezcal
  • 2 cups of toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 cups of semisweet chocolate (in chunks)

 Process:

  1. Boil the milk along with the cream and mezcal in a pot.
  2. In a separate container, whip the egg yolks with the sugar until fluffy.
  3. Once your milk mixture has reached the boiling point, add half of the volume to the whipped egg yolks, and continue to whip until the yolks and the mix are incorporated.
  4. Add the whipped egg yolks to the pot on the stove and stir with a wooden spoon on low heat until the mix thickens.

5. You will know it is time to remove your mix from the stove, once you are able to draw a finger on the wooden spoon without it dripping. Remove and let the mix cool over ice.


6. Once cold, put the mix in a blender with the sesame seed and blend.  Strain.
7. Transfer the strained mixture into a container and place in the freezer. Stir about every 10 minutes until it reaches the desired consistency.
8. Add the chocolate and mix.

You can store your ice cream in plastic containers in the freezer. Enjoy!

Mexican Chef Aldo Saavedra regularly shares with La Vitamina T’s readers his passion for his country and for Mexican cuisine as a cultural expression. Chef Saavedra has been part of the team in charge of delighting guests at a variety of reputable establishments, including Hotel Condesa D.F. He has also partnered in projects with global brands such as Larousse and Danone

Let There Be Fire! – The Universal Language of Grilling

Chimney starters help accelerate the process of getting the coal ready for grilling.  
Photo credit: Illya Samko

 

Summer is finally here, and in these latitudes, barbecue season often evokes images of sporting events and patriotic-themed cookouts. Of course, you need weather to cooperate, so as the words “barbecue” roll off your tongue, you have unconsciously summoned the idea of a picture-perfect day. Growing up in a part of the world blessed with rather benign weather year-round, it was not until I moved to Chicago that I understood why the state of the atmosphere often finds its way into the conversation or the news. Here, grilling is definitely a seasonal event and sometimes it is referred to as barbecuing.

In Mexico, barbecue or barbacoa, means something different- it is a dish that typically entails cooking meat on an open fire (usually lamb) in a hole that has been dug in the ground for this purpose. Barbecuing to us, is a parrillada or a carne asada (literally, “grilled meat”). These words immediately make me think of a Sunday spent surrounded by family and friends in Mexico. Putting the meat on the grill is the main event, and the process entails an unspoken ritual that, like any other party in Mexico, takes at least a whole day. To me, the most curious part of the custom is what is often done in hopes that the rain won’t spoil the day- scissors and knives are staked into the ground. In some instances, this is done forming specific shapes, in others, these artifacts are put outside along with ribbons or even eggs…

Last year, we asked a few suburban dads for their grilling tips right on time for Father’s Day. As I asked around, I realized that ideas were incredibly diverse-  from ingredients to techniques. Something I found particularly fascinating was that no matter who I was talking to, this conversation resonated.  The joy of grilling seemed universal.

Is it? I think it might be. I asked my friend Illya for a few grilling tips. He happens to be Ukrainian and someone who, like me, is truly passionate about food. What do we have in common? Our love for Mexico. His wife Myrna, is a Mexican transplant. What do you have in common? You speak the same language-  He is another guy who loves to grill.

Sizzling Hot: Our Primal Love for Food over Fire

 By: Illya Samko

 

Grilling in Monterrey, Mexico. Photo credit: Illya Samko
Grilling in Monterrey, Mexico. Photo credit: Illya Samko

Since man started cooking with fire, food has never been the same. There is something deeply primal about putting a piece of steak on the fire; the sound of  meat sizzling on the grill, its aroma and the divine taste of a fresh steak. I believe these images are seared into our DNA.

In the Ukraine, grilling is mainly associated with cooking pork. Pork shoulder is usually cut into cubes and marinated in mayonnaise, salt and onions. It is then skewered and cooked over charcoal slowly until it is well done.

Ukrainian grill. Photo credit: Ilya Samko
Ukrainian grill. Photo credit: Illya Samko

My greatest learning experience as far as grilling goes, took place during my first trip to Monterrey, Mexico (birthplace of my lovely wife, Myrna). Here, grilling  is a way of life to say the least. I was impressed with how Regios* know their grilling. They use a specific type of charcoal, Mesquite, which gives the meat a very smoky and distinctive flavor. The preparation process is as important as grilling itself- It takes a certain number of cheves** to get the thing going. First the fire, then the botanas*** and few hours later, when you are so hungry that you could eat just about anything, you finally hear that “magic sound” and smell the beef- you are lovestruck.

 At that point, in spite of all the beers you’ve had, your senses are heightened and the level of salivation is downright dangerous. Finally, the teasing is over and it is time to feast- the plate full of grilled goodness makes it to the table. Devour you will. Believe me. Not only is grilling a ritual that takes hours, it is also a way to celebrate anything. Mexicans seem to celebrate life if there is no other particular reason to party.

When grilling there are a few important things that you need to know. I believe these basic steps make a huge difference.

  • Never put any meat on the grill that came straight out from the fridge. Let it warm up a little. Room temperature is ideal.
  • Season your meat with kosher or sea salt and pepper. Good steak needs absolutely nothing else.
  • Be patient. You cannot rush a good burger, steak or whatever you are grilling.
  • After you take your steak off the grill, let it rest for about five minutes. This will allow all the juices to be redistributed back into the steak evenly.
  • I use a chimney starter to speed up the process of getting the coal ready for grilling. Using accelerators on the coal gives your food  a chemical taste.

Enjoy!

Born and raised in Western Ukraine, Illya Samko is a food enthusiast who loves to travel, learn about different cultures and try new cuisines. With a  degree in law, and a knack for anthropology, Illya has worked in London, New York and Chicago, where he currently lives with his Mexican wife, Myrna. 

 
*Regios short for regiomontanos, are a citizens from Monterrey, Mexico.
**Cheves is slang for cerveza or beer.
***Appetizers, snacks

Nuestra Mesa – Langostinos con Hierbas y Aceite de Oliva

Foto: Manuel Rivera
Foto: Manuel Rivera

¿Listos para celebrar a papá? Esta semana, y justo para el Día del Padre. el chef Aldo Saavedra, nos trae a Nuestra Mesa un delicioso platillo de Ensenada, Baja California.

INGREDIENTES

  • 1 kg langostinos
  • 150 ml aceite olivo
  • 8 hojas laurel fresco
  • 1 rama romero fresco
  • 2 dientes de ajo picados
  • 10 ramas de tomillo fresco
  • 10 pimientas negras enteras
  • 6 chiles de árbol (opcional)
  • 6 limones partidos por mitad

PREPARACIÓN

  1. Parte los langostinos por la mitad verticalmente y límpialos con agua. Déjalos sin pelar y con cabezas.
  2. Escurre los langostinos y pónlos en el refrigerador hasta el momento de usarlos.
  3. Pon el aceite de oliva a calentar en una sartén grande y un poco hondo.
  4. Ya que esté caliente el aceite, agrégale las hierbas, el ajo y la pimienta.
  5. Pon los langostinos a freiren el aceite con hierbas, ya que estén un poco fritas.
  6. Si te gusta el picante, agrégale los chiles de árbol secos, partidos en trozos pequeños.
  7. Agrega sal al gusto y sirve en un plato hondo.
  8. Se les puede acompañar con limón.

El chef Aldo Saavedra ha cocinado para huéspedes de establecimientos como el conocido Hotel Condesa D.F. y ha contribuído con sus recetas en proyectos con marcas de la talla de Larousse y Danone. En Nuestra Mesa, el chef Saavedra comparte con los lectores de La Vitamina T, su pasión por la cocina y por México.

My Search for the Holy Grail – The Best Taco al Pastor in Chicago

A few weeks ago, I set out to find the best taco al pastor (‘shepherd-style’ taco) in Chicago. This down-to-earth, charismatic delicacy is a dietary staple of  defeños*, and despite the fact that in Mexico City taco stands abound, any local will tell you that not all tacos al pastor are made equal.  Finding the perfect taquería is almost a rite of passage, one that speaks to the way we connect with our city and beyond- a Mexican’s relationship with their pastor is emotional… personal, mystical.

The Genesis

Finding good tacos (let alone authentic ones) north-of-the-border is not so easy. Our taco al pastor story in April made me aware of the fact that I am not alone in this realization. I asked La Vitamina T readers and friends to submit their favorite al pastor destinations in Chicago. A few Facebook posts and tweets later, I had a list of 18 different establishments  endorsed by locals, among them, several Mexican transplants. Similar to how my friend Dave from New Jersey can recognize a good Philly cheesesteak, I figured recommendations from Mexicans added instant credibility to the suggestions.

This is how my search began.

Below is the final list of nominees. I visited every  establishment on this list without letting the owners or staff know my intention, as I  thought this might  influence the quality of the service:

  1. Atotonilco (I tried the tacos in both locations, Joliet and Chicago)
  2. Big Star
  3. De Cero
  4. El Pastor
  5. El Tío Luis
  6. El Solazo
  7. Indio
  8. La Ciudad
  9. Lagartija
  10. Los Comales
  11. Los Gallos
  12. L´Patrón
  13. Mercadito (tacos al pastor are only a seasonal item, so we did not get to try them)
  14. Rubi’s Market on Maxwell
  15. Taco joint
  16. Taquería Juanito
  17. Tierra Caliente
  18. Zacatacos  (Berwyn location)

Several Pepto Bismol doses and 3 extra pounds later, my wandering through the streets of Chicago and its suburbs came to an end. Dozens of tacos have been sampled and scorecards have been tallied!

 Each taco has been carefully evaluated based on criteria that we believe brings to life un taco al pastor “hecho como Dios manda.” (according to God’s orders)**

 I am now ready to “go tell it on the mountain”!

* Defeño is a Citizen of Mexico City (D.F.)

** Mexicans say something is made como Dios manda (according to God’s orders) when something is accurately accomplished.

The Exodus

If you, like me, have lived in Mexico for the great majority of your life, you will be perplexed to hear what has been smuggled into menus, and sold and passed up across the country for the real deal: some of the most popular and readily available counterfeit versions are stuffed with ground beef and covered with cheese or something resembling cheese; others are called tacos al pastor, and are served with sliced lettuce and tomatoes. Heresy!  In certain places, you might be given a choice of hardshell or softshell taco. During my search I found that even some of the taquerías in predominantly Mexican neighborhoods have lost their way- in their attempt to  to cater to a non Mexican palate, they have begun serving some of these apocryphal versions.

This leads me to provide the following word of caution: If you are visiting Mexico and you are looking for a hardshell taco, you will give yourself away as a tourist. We simply don’t have them. We have tostadas, which have a crunchy surface similar to a totopo, which is considered a completely different plate.

In the northern part of the country, flour tortillas were made popular by the Jewish settlers in the area. Still, you will find that most tacos in Mexico are made with corn tortillas.

Leviticus 

Treating oneself to tacos al pastor is an experience that entails a known ritual. Taquerías usually go from the very informal ´hole-in-the-wall’ joint, to fancier establishments featuring a more elaborate set up. The dynamics are the same across the board, and patrons know what to expect:  quick service, dinner and a show. Taqueros (half cooks, half ninjas) conjure up juicy tacos with meat and pineapple they shave off from a giant spinning skewer, to then catch the pieces in a tortilla with quick, precise movements. They do this gracefully, while keeping tallies, processing new orders, and sometimes, giving change and even interacting with the crowd.

Tacos al pastor must meet the following criteria:

1. Must be roasted vertically in a spit called trompo (top), which is clearly visible.

2. Should be made with pork meat, seasoned with a variety of chilis and achiote, which gives them their color.

3. These tacos are served in small tortillas (about 4 1/2 inches in diameter).

4. Tacos al pastor must include a chunk of grilled pineapple, chopped cilantro, raw onion and limes.

5. Salsas are very important in taquerías, and often times they become and element of differentiation.

6. Lime should be abundant and readily available.

Methodology

Each taco was evaluated using a scale of 1- 5 points for a total of 30 points in six different categories:

  • Meat quality
  • Meat flavor
  • Tortilla size and quality
  • Portion size
  • Accuracy/freshness of ingredients
  • Quality of salsa

Points were assigned using the following scale to score each taco:

1= Disappointing

2= Meh…

3= Ok

4= Really good, but not extraordinary or the real deal

5= Perfect. ¡Órale! Am I in Mexico?

Revelation

I have eaten the fruits of ¨the promised land” and I cannot honestly say that my search led me to tacos al pastor exactly like the ones I would find in Mexico City, but I uncovered some really good ones that will definitely hit the spot.  Overall, I was surprised to find that the meat in the eateries we visited was generally saucier than it is in Mexico. Also, portions are usually much more generous and, for some reason, when it comes to tacos al pastor, those with pineapple are very hard to find.
Many taquerías only take cash, so make sure you stop at an ATM ahead of your visit!

And the Winner is..!

 

De Cero – 28/30 Points

De Cero (The Loop)

Taco al pastor at De Cero,   814 West randolph St., Chicago
Find juicy, spicy tacos al pastor at De Cero, 814 West Randolph St., Chicago

Meat Quality: 5  Meat was absolutely fantastic.  We did not see the trompo, but we asked and confirmed it is indeed there.

Meat Flavor: 4    Flavor is really nice, but the meat has a bit of a kick to it.

Tortilla Size and Quality: 5  Tortillas were fantastic. Perfect size!

Portion Size: 5   Perfect ratio. This bundle of joy offers the perfect burst of flavors in each bite.

Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients, a check for cilantro, onion, pineapple (although cubed) and lime! The ratios were so good in each bite, I did not let the cubes deter me.

Salsas 4:  I got red salsa with my order which was really, really  good. 

Note: We attempted to get tacos al pastor at De Cero in three different instances. We were persistent and were able to understand why these tacos fly away. Every bite is perfect. The tacos are a bit spicy (and pricey), so make sure you order an horchata to wash them down and know that the meal will be well worth your money. Luckily, this taquería accepts credit cards, so the amount of cash you brought with you won’t  limit the amount of tacos you enjoy.  I am really intrigued by their tamales verdes. I can´t wait to go back!

First Runner Up

Big Star – 27/30 Points

Big Star (Wicker Park)

Taco al pastor at Big Star, 1531 N Damen Ave, Chicago
Tacos al pastor at Big Star, 1531 N Damen Ave, Chicago

 

Meat Quality: 4  Really good and not too fatty.  Meat was a bit chunky, which is why we did not rate it a 5.

Meat Flavor: 4    Flavor was really nice, maybe a bit sweet, but really good. Saucy, not dry as it should be.

Tortilla Size and Quality: 5 Perfect size. Tortillas were great.

Portion Size: 5 Perfect portion

Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients. I loved to see pineapple on them, which is not easy to find, so I did not allow the cubes to worry me.

Salsas 4 Salsa is good and they have chiles toreados (grilled jalapeños), as well as pickled peppers and carrots. But, you will have to order them separately, as they do not come with your order.

Note:

We waited for about 3 hours to get a table at this famous eatery, which was even more difficult considering the aroma around the restaurant teases you with a preview of what is to come. There is a walk-up window with considerably faster service.  The bar is quite a bit noisy, so if this is where you want to hang out, you will have to be prepared to forego conversation and focus on your food, which is well worth it.  Bring cash with you.  They only take cash! Service from the greeters might be a bit rough, but will improve once you sit down.

Second Runner Up 25/30 Points  (Tie)

Taquería San Juanito (Albany Park)

Taco al pastor at Taquería San Juanito 4714 N Kedzie Ave,  Chicago
Taco al pastor at Taquería San Juanito 4714 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago

San Juanito was the only place where the meat was not saucy. I found their meat flavorful, but the taco had no pineapple, which lowered-down their score. Green salsa was particularly memorable.

Zacatacos (Berwyn)

Taco al pastor at Zacataco in Berwyn.
Taco al pastor at Zacatacos 6224 Cermak Rd., Berwyn

Zacatacos in Berwyn features the most tender meat you can possibly imagine. The tacos are a bit bulky and a come in a bigger tortilla, but are still really good. Salsas are amazing.

Of Note:

Bien Trucha (Geneva)

I really liked the concept of Bien Trucha, a modern-looking Mexican restaurant that reminded me of the vibe of restaurants in Mexico City. Food, not kitsch is the focus here, and the execution of the tacos spoke to quality. Also, Bien Trucha was the only establishment that got the pineapple right, as they had just a chunk of it  vs. the cubes I found in other restaurants.  I don’t remember getting any salsa with my tacos and had to ask for lime, but if you have had enough of taco talk, try their guacamole of the day or their Pulparindo cocktail! The photo below is not the best because I did not have very good lighting inside the restaurant.

Tacos al pastor at Bien Trucha 410 W State St, Geneva
Tacos al pastor at Bien Trucha 410 W State St, Geneva

Del Seoul (Lincoln Park)

This was not a taco al pastor and definitely not on the list, but in all fairness, some of the ones I tried were not really tacos al pastor either. This grilled  pork taco, a gift from the streets of LA (where fusion happens everyday) was so incredibly delicious, I thought it deserved to be added. The name of this Lincoln Park gem is code for those who know how to read it: Spanish speakers, will  phonetically  understand “Del Seoul” as “del sol”, or “of the sun”.  Mexican cuisine allegorically represents the sun in a meal with a tortilla.
Brilliant branding, brilliant food!
FInd this taco with tangy grilled pork, onion, cilantro, slaw and sesame seeds at Del Seoul  2568 North Clark Street Chicago
Find this taco with tangy grilled pork, onion, cilantro, slaw and sesame seeds at Del Seoul 2568 North Clark Street
Chicago
De Cero is our reigning champion, but if you think there is a 30/30 taco out there, let us know. In the mean time,  ¡a taquear!

 

Hybrid Animals, Hybrid Celebrations: Mexico’s Day of the Mule

Photo credit: Lissette Storch – Mexico City, Mexico

If you find yourself in Mexico during the months of May or June, and you see mules made out of dried corn leaves being sold everywhere, you might wonder if this handcraft is part of the local charm. It is, but only seasonally. This hybrid mammal appears just in time for the Catholic celebration of Corpus Christi or Día de la Mula (Mule’s Day), and sometimes you may find them stuffed with candy.

Some attribute the association of mules with this festivity to the fact that in the 1500s, the faithful went to church carrying the best of their harvest on their mules to give thanks. This is a nod to pre-Hispanic rituals, in which gratefulness was shown to several deities through offerings.  Even today, more than 500 years later, it is easy to see pre-columbian traditions seeping through modern-day celebrations.

Others explain this whimsical tradition with legends featuring mules kneeling down in reverence. My favorite one is the story of a man who, while wondering if he should dedicate himself to a life of priesthood, asks God for a sign. When he went to church on a Corpus Christi Thursday, he found himself in the midst of a crowd of men and mules. The man said to himself that if God were present, even the mules would kneel down. The story, of course, tells that a mule did.

Curiously, the word “mule” is also used it to refer to someone who is advantageous. If someone wishes you un ‘Feliz Día de las Mulas’ it could be either friendly ribbing, or time to wonder…

Estampas de mi Ciudad – Desayuno Chilango* (Breakfast in D.F.)

Tortas y Licuados  Mexico City, Mexico  Photo by: Brenda Storch
Tortas y Licuados Mexico City, Mexico Photo: Brenda Storch

You may or may not be familiar with the term torta, the Mexican interpretation of a sandwich. Tortas are brought to life using bolillos, a type of bread with the perfect amount of crunch and yield to provide textural contrast. When it comes to this Mexican plate, there are no rules:  budget and imagination are the only boundaries to what you can create. 

Tortas are usually served for lunch, except when they are filled with a tamal, in which case they are called guajolotas or “female turkeys”. This is a popular breakfast meal.  According to some food intellectuals, such peculiar name was given to tamal-stuffed tortas in the early 1900’s, due to the fact that back then, this plate was created with a low-quality bread called guajolote (turkey).

Licuados are close to the concept of a smoothie, with the exception that in Mexico, the fruit is usually mixed with milk and even cereal and raw egg yolks.

Here, licuados are a breakfast staple.

Just like sports have permeated the vernacular in the US, in Mexico, food has found its way into language in a rather ubiquitous way.  For example, the expression, “se comió la torta antes del recreo” (having finished one´s torta before recess) means a couple is expecting a child before getting married.

This photo was taken at one of the handful of stands offering tortas and licuados  in downtown Mexico City.

*Chilango is a term to refer to someone from Mexico City.