Mexico City Moments

September 27, 2015

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Why is this person I've never met before kissing me?

Because that is how people greet each other in Mexico.  One kiss, on the left check, even if you're being introduced.  It took me a while to stop holding out my hand, American-style, or keep myself from turning my head for the two-cheek European kiss.  

It's emblematic of this country: not an air kiss, but a warm one, usually accompanied by a hug.  This is a big-hearted, energetic nation which comes as a shock to anyone whose first thought at the word "Mexico" is "danger!"

The capital is a strange place of enormous contrasts; very rich, very poor and very large.  There are 19 million cars here, and the traffic is not bad, it's insane. People think nothing of a two hour ride to get from one place to another.   "It gives us more time to eat!" said one friend, scooping up a taco from a stand near our idling taxi. 

And the food! I've had so many memorable meals here. These are just a few highlights.

The sea urchin (from Baja California) at the wonderful Merotoro, a restaurant so open to the green park outside you feel as if you're eating outdoors. I also loved the octopus chorizo tacos there.

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The chiles en nogada at the Nico's, a fifty-year old restaurant that was just inducted into the Fifty Best Latin American restaurants. It's one of those places where the waiters know their customers so well they might be family, and people stroll through the restaurant so easily you feel you're all eating at one big table. The food is traditional, and cooked with enormous care and skill. 

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Their guacamole is also the best I've ever had. 

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I was there for Mesa Redonda, a conference put together by Enrique Olvera (Cosme, New York) to discuss some of the most serious issues facing the world of food.  Michel Bras, the poet chef of the kitchen discussed terroir in loving detail.  Nicola Twilley – one of the most interesting writers tackling the science of food – had fascinating (and provocative) ideas on sustainability.  Jorge Larson, a biochemist, talked about biodiversity and Soledad Barutti, a firebrand from Argentina, took on food systems.  I think the entire audience fell in love with David Hertz, a Brazilian chef who's been working with Gastromotiva in the favelas, training the poorest people in the world.  My topic was communication, followed by Alex Ruiz, the Oaxacan chef, on tradition. Then the wonderful Lara Gilmore (wife and partner of Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana), and Wylie DuFresne discussed creativity in the kitchen.  The talks, which are on pod cast, were short, pithy, and extremely enlightening. I learned so much. 

The next morning, at 4 a.m. we gathered at La Central, the largest wholesale food market in the world. 

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Lots of fascinating moments here, but for me the big surprise was the huitlacoche stand; turns out that all it takes is lots of water to make an ordinary ear of corn become this:

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I'll be posting about great meals at Pujol (Olvera's Mexico City restaurant), where we had this impressive expression of mole, old and new

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and Quintonil, where Jorge Vallejo is making light almost Japanese-inflected dishes like this ceviche of cactusIMG_6549
 

Here's the chef showing off his rooftop garden to Wylie

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And I'll be writing about the terrific wines now coming out of Baja California, like this one:

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But that's for another day. 

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Mexico DF: Dinner at Rosetta

September 24, 2015

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You know, just walking in the door at Rosetta, that you're in for a wonderful evening. There's something casually elegant about the graceful rooms in this old mansion in the Roma district.  Vines twine up the wall and a sprig of mint graces every jug of water; there's an interesting – and rather feminine – sensibility at work here.

With her delicate but modest beauty, chef Elena Reygadas looks like a Botticelli. The food that emerges from her kitchen has the same qualities. Consider, for example, the understated dish above.  

It looked like a classic risotto. The mussels were plump little pillows, the octopus cooked into remarkable tenderness. The stock was subtle, but filled with flavor. But what stopped me cold was the texture; I took a bite and it was the most perfectly al dente…. what?  Not rice, surely, too crisp for that. Some new grain, perhaps, I've never before encountered? I took one bite, then another, fascinated by every bite and absolutely unable to identify the grain.  And little wonder: This crisp, delicious and delicate substance turned out to be celery root. 

The chef worked with Giorgio Locatelli in London, which explains the Italian influence; she makes gorgeous ravioli, her pasta as delicate as flower petals.  But in her heart she never forgets where she is from; Mexico is never very far away. The first course?  Beetles, perched on nasturtiums and kale.

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It's typical, I think, that the chef made them look so pretty.  Typical too, that they had an appealingly meaty taste – slightly smokey, a bit crisp, with an appealing snap.  Close your eyes and you'll swear you're eating delicious little bits of fried beef.

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The beetles were paired with grasshoppers, cooked into crunchy little crackers.

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Next came oysters; my photograph is fuzzy, but even in focus they looked like orchids painted by Georgia O'Keefe. 

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Carpaccio of sapote: slightly tanic, refreshing, surprising.

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Corn, airily disguised as quenelles.IMG_6521

Lechon – so crisp, so sweet, so seductive.

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Hiding behind this soft, sweet cloud is a scoop of ice cream. 

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 I've been so impressed by the food I've eaten in Mexico City.  There's great ambition here, and from the classic (the fabulous, fifty year old Nico's) to the new classic (Pujol) and the Japanese-inflected (Quintonil), I haven't had a single dish I wouldn't happily eat again. But Rosetta stands apart for the sheer pleasure of the place; this is a restaurant you come to when you want to relax and simply put yourself into the hands of a talented chef.

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Oaxacan Breakfast Every Day, Please.

September 22, 2015

The wonderful chef, Alex Ruiz, a man with a big smile and a bigger heart, invited a group of us to have breakfast at his restaurant, Guzina Oaxaca (he's taken over the space in Polanco once occupied by chef Patricia Quintana.

It was, I think, the best breakfast I've ever eaten.

It started with hot chocolate- not too sweet, not too rich, tasting mostly of cocoa beans and extraordinarily refreshing.

And this plate of fresh vegetables IMG_6529

which soon became a fresh salsa, pounded in a molcajete.

We spooned it onto quesadillas, cheese and squash blossoms folded into hand-patted, just made tortillas. 

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and onto these spectacular black beans, which were unlike any I've had before.  The beans were cooked with avocado leaf, which left behind a whisper of anise-like flavor, and epazote (the fiercest green I know), and then refried in lard with smashed plantain. The resulting flavor is sweet and vegetal, with the slightest hint of pork, as if a little pig had just passed through on his way to play.

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That salsa also went onto chilaquiles

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and huevos rancheros

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These pork ribs, cooked with chiles and purslane, were irresistible (and especially good scooped into a bit of black bean and wrapped in warm tortillas).

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Hungry yet?  There was more to come. IMG_6539

 

And finally, the densest, darkest, most devilish version of huevos rancheros – blanketed in a richly flavorful mole.  

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I'll improve this post – but right now I'm running out to my next meal.  But I was so enchanted by this meal I wanted to put it up while it was still fresh in my mind – and mouth.

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A Few Delicious Moments in New York

September 19, 2015

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Summer lingers in the city. The weather's wonderful, and I’ve been wandering the streets, stopping in to meet friends.  Here are  a few of the most delicious things I’ve eaten over the past few days.

Riding the crosstown bus the other day, I got a text from Lisa and Hiro; they had just sat down at the bar at Le Bernardin.  I looked up; we were crossing Seventh Avenue, and I hopped off and went to say hello.

And ended up staying for a few delicious morsels, like that fluke in ponzu-chimichurri sauce above.

I really didn't meant to stay, but when these crisp little caviar sandwiches, with gruyere and smoked salmon arrived, how could I possibly leave? 

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 Then there was this pounded yellowfin tuna, with jamon Iberico and sea beans.

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I got up to go, but seduced by the joyous beauty of hamachi with rice krispy in kochujang sake vinaigrette sat down again.  It was just so much fun! (And such a pleasure to eat.)

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Finally, I really had to leave.  I stayed for one last bite – lobster tail in lemongrass consomme with a refreshing little spring roll on the side – and walked out the door, feeling as I always do, that a great restaurant lifts your spirits and leaves you feeling both refreshed and fortunate.

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That night I had the immense pleasure of stopping in at Food 52 for breakfast as dinner. It's a lovely space that feels more like a cozy cabin than a working office, filled with people who seem to revel in their work. We had a delightfully eccentric evening meal: matzo brei, corn pudding, peach cobbler, a summer squash casserole and fat slices of bacon – and even better conversation.  You'll be able to hear all about it soon, on their podcast. IMG_6487

The next day, walking downtown after a radio interview I ran into Mario Batali, carrying a dozen eggs.  He was off to the Four Seasons to celebrate his birthday (it's today).  I was on my way to meet friends at Il Buco Alimentari, but along the way I ran into yet another friend, and pulled her along with me.  I love it when this city feels like a village. 

Lunch was impressive.  My favorite moment? These figs, topped with lardo, marinated kombu and maracona almonds and sparked with lime zest.  Spectacular – and unusual – combination.

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I’ve always admired the octopusIMG_6492

And I loved this, miso-marinated hamachi topped with trout roeIMG_6494
 

Still, try though I may, I can never resist their version of spaghetti caccio e pepe:

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Lunch was over, but not the day.  Last night Bruce Cost cooked these gorgeous prawns.  Fished from a tank, they were so lively they tried to jump from the pot. Is anything better than a perfectly steamed prawn?

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For a final flavor he served these pig feet stewed in rock sugar with lots of vinegar and ginger. It's a dish you eat slowly, savoring every delicious morsel, thinking how lucky you are to be alive.

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Pumpkins? Already?

September 18, 2015

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The apples were eclipsing the peaches and tomatoes at the farmers market this weekend, but there were still peaches – even apricots – so it was hard to be too unhappy about the changing seasons. Then I spotted the first of the pumpkins.

“Go away!” I wanted to shout at them.  I’m not ready to wake up in the dark at 6 a.m., not prepared for crisp cool evenings.  I want summer to linger a little longer.  But that crowd of plump orange pumpkins made it difficult to ignore that fall is coming.  Too soon.

Then, as if to underline reality, I opened a vintage issue of Gourmet from 1977, and the first photograph to leap out at me was this pumpkin souffle.  There is some consolation: it is, at least, cold.

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Recipes may be little time machines, but it’s the ads in these old issues that prove how much our food (and wine) have changed.  I’d almost forgotten there was a time when I thought of Chianti as a thin, harsh wine that came in rustic straw-covered bottles.


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And finally…. I thought home mushroom farms were a new-fangled notion.  But I was wrong.

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