Saturday, July 23, 2011

East LA Meets Napa and a Love Letter to Mexico

Dear Mexico,

Remember me? I’m the gringa who loved you as a schoolgirl in Texas, a college girl in Arizona and as a working girl in California. I’ve been all over your regions (it’s not as dirty as it sounds), and frankly, you had me at hola. Maybe it was your vibrant bougainvilla and calla lilies. Your earthy chiles and moles. Your briliant Kahlos and Riveras. Or perhaps it was the spirited mariachis and rancheras. Those red-tiled roofs and Mayan ruins. And who could forget the warmth of your sun, your smiles and your tequila? You know how some people close their eyes and picture soft, ethereal music with unicorns flying in slo-mo? That's not what I see. You, dear Mexico, are my happy place.

I’m sorry that your streets have been infiltrated by those notorious drug lords. But they won't stop me from visiting. And I’m sorry that some people still think of you as the land of refried beans and cheap booze with a worm. Haven’t they been to a tiny village in Oaxaca and tasted a real handcrafted smoky mezcal? Their loss. Or sat under a palapa in the Yucatan and unwrapped a steaming banana leaf filled with a gift from the corn gods? That's a shame. Or relaxed on the zocalo in Patzcuaro with the dreamiest, creamiest tres leches cake? Oh well. More for me. And if they haven't savored a delicate huitlacoche soufflé in Mexico City's Zona Rosa or Condesa district, well, what can I say? That’s a gringo for you.

But thanks to the East LA Meets Napa premiere food and wine tasting event that was held in downtown's Union Station a couple of weeks ago, I got to meet some of your culinary disciples in LA. The event celebrated the food of Michoacan and wineries of Latino vintners in the Napa Valley. It was a benefit for AltaMed, a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare for underserved Latino communities in Southern California. So when my blogging buddy Lynne of Cook and Be Merry and I scored an invite, I was not only excited over the 60 food and wine pairings, I was happy that a good cause would be served too.

And now, Mexico, after all that food, wine, tequila and music, I really need to see you—bad. This long-distance relationship is hard. We tried Skyping once, but you're a big country. But at least I can get a little fix of you here in LA. You should see what some of these restaurants are doing. It's really sexy stuff. And I wouldn't be cheating on you if I have your permission to go to their place once in a while. If you think of them as your children and not your rivals, I know you'd approve. I bet they'd even make you proud. And Mexico, just 'cause I'm seeing other chefs, it doesn't mean I won't be thinking of you.

Until we eat again, mi amor,

Lentil Breakdown

Colorful antojitos, La Casita Mexicana

Cold avocado and shrimp soup in mini bamboo bowls, Setá

Shrimp taquito with guacamole and salsa brava, Yxta Cocina Mexicana

Pineapple & prickly pear + lime, chia & cucumber aguas frescas, Lotéria Grill

Chicken in green mole mini sopes, Lotéria Grill

Black quinoa and squash blossom sauce over corn custard, Rivera Restaurant

Handmade tortillas, La Parrilla Restaurant

Handmade jellos, Attila the Flan

Passion fruit cream with mango jelly, raspberries and passion fruit pearls, Porto's Bakery

Warming tequilas (shot after too many shots): Tributo Tequila

To find out more about Latinos' contributions to the U.S. wine industry, read AltaMed's new book, In Their Own Words, which chronicles 17 vintners' stories from the Napa Valley, some of whom began as farm workers.

My photos from Mexico (at top): Calla lilies, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas; Diego Rivera mural, El Pan Nuestro, Ministry of Education, Mexico City; Palenque ruins, Chiapas; Family on motorcycle, Mexico City

Related Links:

Ode to a Farm Worker

Travel Bite: Street Snacks, Mexico City

Travel Bite: Market Day, Chiapas, Mexico

Travel Bite: Xochimilco Snack Vendor

Cultural Musings on Dia de los Muertos

Nopales Cactus Salad (with Cahones)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nopales Cactus Salad (with Cahones)

Who needs Viagra when you've got this prickly pair?

Mexicans have been eating the potent prickly pear cactus, or nopal, for hundreds of years. And just look at the Aztecs. Talk about testosterone. Now they had a pair to spare.

Nopales is the stem or paddle of the cactus, and nopalitos are the pads that are cut up and ready to eat. So technically this should be called Nopalitos Cactus Salad. But I think my pal, Nopal, with his prickly pair, would find that diminutive emasculating. So I'm going with the more virile Nopales Cactus Salad. Who wants a cutesy cactus when you could have cahones, comprende?

Cooked nopales looks like bell pepper, tastes a little like green beans and has a slightly slimy texture. But don’t let that turn you off. Without a little slime, we’d have no politicians, and who would give all those rich people their tax breaks? Like a politician, the nopales must have their spines removed first. Sometimes you can find fresh, cleaned and diced nopalitos at a Latin store or farmers' market, so you don't have to mess with the needles. But once you have the cleaned cactus in your hot little hands, this is really easy to make. Its bright, earthy flavor is truly distinctive. The Mexican oregano, which tastes altogether different from the Mediterranean kind, really makes it pop. And cactus is full of fiber, amino acids, vitamins A, B6, C and K. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some L-M-N-O-P in there too. Plus, it makes you a bad-ass since you can say you ate a cactus. Just don't call it Nopalitos.

Nopalitos, I mean nopales in the raw

Kick, I mean cook some cact-ass


1 pound cleaned cactus paddles, diced (to clean them yourself, watch video)

½ cup radishes, diced

½ cup tomatoes, diced or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered

¼ cup red onion, diced (about ½ an onion)

¼ cup packed cilantro, chopped

2 TBSP olive oil

3 tsp lime juice

1 tsp dried Mexican oregano, crushed (available at Latin markets)

Salt and pepper to taste

Serve with crumbled cotija or feta cheese

Blanch diced cactus in boiling water for 5 to 7 minutes or until tender. Drain and rinse well. Let cool, and combine with the remaining ingredients in a serving bowl. Chill several hours until the flavors have blended. Serve cold or room temperature with warm corn tortillas.

Related Links:

Travel Bite: Street Snacks, Mexico City

Travel Bite: Market Day, Chiapas, Mexico

Travel Bite: Xochimilco Snack Vendor

Cultural Musings on Dia de los Muertos

Ode to a Farm Worker