The Lowly Tortilla

The tortilla is the soul of Mexico. Whenever I arrive back in home after a trip abroad, the first thing I long for is the fragrant aroma of freshly made tortillas. According to culinary historian José Iturriaga, it is the only pre-conquest food still eaten in unadulterated form today--all other dishes are a fusion of outside ingredients and cooking techniques.
The tortilla, originally called by the Mexicas tlaxcalli, or “cooked thing”, is traditionally made by soaking corn in water and lime, a process called nixtamalización. Originally ground on a metate of volcanic stone and patted out by hand, nowadays most tortillas are produced by machine, but the end product is the same. Tortillas made of locally grown and prepared masa (dough) and pressed by hand are far superior to those spit out by machines. The qualities to look for in a good tortilla are elasticity (the ability to fold without breaking), aroma, and of course, taste: not too strong as to overwhelm other food flavors. Although yellow corn is more nutritious, white corn is superior in texture and flavor.
Nowadays, many tortillas in Mexico are made of factory processed corn flour from large scale industrial farms, using inferior, genetically modified varieties of corn--much of it imported from the United States. George W. Bush’s government approved legislation allowing free import of these products, underpricing Mexican farmers and threatening production of traditional criollo, or heirloom varieties of seed.
Fortunately, in Mexico City, good handmade tortillas are still available in street and indoor markets, as well as in many restaurants. When I eat in a Mexican restaurant, the first thing I try is the tortilla, and my judgment of the place goes from there. An exquisitely flavorful tortilla, exuding an earthy bouquet of corn with a residue of smoky aroma from the comal (griddle) where it was roasted and a slightly elastic texture, is what I look for. Like bread in France, a well-made tortilla is a sign of good things to come.
In el DF, here are a few of my favorite places to get extraordinary, hand -made tortillas:

El Bajío
Avenida Cuitláhuac 2709, Colonia Obrera Popular
Metro: Cuitláhuac
Tel. 5234-3763.
Open Monday - Friday 10 AM - 6:30 PM,
Saturday, Sunday 9 AM - 6:30 PM

Parque Delta Mall, Av. Cuauhtémoc 462,
Colonia Narvarte (not on map)
Tel. 5538-1188
Open Daily 8 AM-8 PM

Alejandro Dumas 7, Colonia Polanco
Tel. 5281-8245
Open daily 8 AM -11 PM

Reforma 222
Paseo de la Reforma at Insurgentes, Colonia Juarez
Open daily 8 AM -11 PM

Chef Carmen Titita, author of several cookbooks, is a big name in the Mexico City culinary scene. Her original restaurant is popular with families, especially on weekends. The food is traditional, with interesting choices: try the duck in black mole and the chongos (a weirdly wonderful curdled milk dish) for dessert. Recently, two branches of El Bajío have opened, one at Parque Delta, a sleek shopping center; it is more accessible to the Centro, but lacks the ambience of the original location. The branches in Polanco and Reforma are open at night. The menu in all four locations is the same, and the tortillas are memorably meaty and smoky.

Calle Durango 200, near Plaza Cibeles,
Colonia Roma
Metro: Insurgentes
Tel. 5514-3169
Open Monday-Saturday 1 - 6:30, Sunday 1:30 - 6:30

This fashionable spot is one of the best seafood restaurants in town. The large open room, simply but creatively decorated, has a bright, Pacific-coast beach atmosphere. The menu is pure Baja: tuna sashimi and pescado a la talla, (a whole open fish grilled with 2 salsas–half red, half green) - are outstanding. Vivacious owner Gabriela Cámara, who is active in Slow Food International, serves tortillas, made in-house from organic corn grown in Xochimilco, right in the Distrito Federal.

Sra. Victoria, at the Tuesday tianguis in La Condesa, sitting on the sidewalk on calle Pachuca brings in amazing handmade blue and yllow tortillas from the state of Mexico and selles them by the dozen. If you can't get there, a lady in the Medellin market in la Roma, accros from La Morenita, the seafood restaurant, has them everyday, and sells salsas as well.

Most markets, Coyoacán, San Angel, Jamaica, Merced etc. and tianguis (street markets) such as those in Condesa, Roma and Polanco, include people who sell handmade tortillas out of baskets. Keep your eyes peeled.


Turkey Day: Doing it yourself in Mexico City

Mexico City, November 27th: “A Thanksgiving ball was given tonight by the American Colonyof this city and was largely attended, President Díaz being among the invited guests. The affair was a great social success, many representatives of the highest society of Mexico being present.”
-from The New York Times, 1902

Although the paper of record found this item “fit to print” more than one hundred years ago, today much less ado is made about the oldest and most beloved American holiday south of the border. By some accounts up to one million Americans live in Mexico, and the festive tradition of celebrating the harvest, begun in 1621, will soon be upon us. Most gringos live far from their families and old friends, making a nostalgic Norman Rockwell-style dinner (which never existed for most of us anyway) unfeasible. Many ex-pats have changed their way of thinking about the holiday. Stanton Gray and his partner Bill Reiner have lived in San Miguel de Allende since 1996. Asked about Thanksgiving in Mexico, he said, “I love the freedom….the holiday doesn’t exist here, so we can do exactly what we want. We’ve done the traditional turkey dinner, but sometimes we just hang out with Mexican friends who don’t even know what’s going on, or sometimes we just forget about it”. My own tradition, going to grandma’s house in Brooklyn, ended more than 30 years ago and I’ve been winging it ever since.
But for those who long to recreate the comforts of home here in Mexico, it’s not only possible, but easy as pie. Most large supermarkets sell everything you need – fat turkeys, sweet potatoes, stuffing mix etc. I, however, prefer to shop at the extraordinary San Juan Market in the centro of Mexico City and buy my fixings there. This unusual market, located a few blocks below the Alameda, has been serving the foreign community since colonial times, providing the best local and imported foods possible. Several stands sell beautiful, plump farm-raised gobblers, free of fat injections and nasty chemicals--don’t worry, the butcher will discreetly eliminate the head and feet for you. But you’ll have to baste it yourself, like granny did. I suggest soaking a cheesecloth pad in butter and placing it over the breast-throw a little of the pan juices on every now and then to keep it from drying out. The taste of these birds is incomparable, and they can be reserved ahead of time.
While “camotes”, the pale Mexican version of the sweet potato, are readily available, they are not as sweet and don’t have that evocative orange color. Not to worry. Señora García at stand #218 will take care of you. She sells the yams we all remember. I like to bake them, then mash with orange juice and lots of butter, spread in a baking dish, top with sliced, peeled apples, brown sugar, more butter, and brown in a hot oven. This is my Brooklyn grandmother’s recipe. I won’t give you her turkey recipe, as she always overcooked it. You can, however, pick up some pre-shucked oysters at the nearby seafood stands if you like them in the stuffing.
Moving down the aisle, stop at #260, Hermelinda Guillén’s puesto celebrated for its wacky wild mushrooms. Tucked a way in a corner is a bin of gorgeous fresh pearl onions, so you have no excuse not to include a few in your repast. In the same aisle you’ll pass all the Brussels sprouts, green beans, nuts, and yellow potatoes you need. But what about the cranberry dilemma? Fresh ones are as rare here as good tamales on Park Avenue. You may find the tinned jellied variety at your local Sumesa but serving that wouldn’t be fair to your other princely culinary creations. If you’re lucky enough to procure a bag of the real stuff at Sam’s Club or through a clever smuggler/visitor from the US, good for you. If not, Ruth Alegria, culinary tour operator and chef offers her version using dried cranberries (arándanos in Spanish) which are widely available here:

Dried Cranberry sauce /Mexican dried cranberry salsa

Recipe ingredients:
2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup apples, cored and chopped
2 tbsp butter
2 cups cranberry juice
Juice and grated peel of 1 orange
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
(Optional) for a Mexican touch:
1 dried guajillo chili, rehydrated in piloncillo (brown sugar) water and finely chopped
2 tbsp raw pumpkin seeds, chopped for garnish
To prepare the relish:
Sauté the cranberries and apples in the butter. When the cranberries have plumped up add the rest of the ingredients. Let simmer for 1/2 hour. It should have a thick consistency, if not allow to simmer 15 minutes more. Stir to avoid sticking or burning.
When thick, cool and refrigerate. Can be served hot or cold.
Mexican version:
Add the guajillo chilies for the last 10 minutes for a subtle effect.
Garnish sauce with the crushed pumpkin seeds.

As for the pies, well, I just haven’t found a good American-style one down here. You’ll just have to do it yourself. Pull out the old Joy of Cooking and get to work. They do sell pre-made piecrusts at the super, is you want to cheat, but I think cheating in the kitchen is best left to other holidays, definitely not Thanksgiving. All that said, you might decide to forget the whole thing and go out for tacos.

Thanksgiving shopping:

Mercado San Juan (calle Ernesto Pugibet, between Buen Tono and Luis Moya)
- Turkeys: Gourmet Gastronómica González, stands #95-97, tel. 5510-2094, 5518-6101
- Sweet and other potatoes: Sra. García Valdez, stand #218, tel. 5521-9879, 5512-6360
- Pearl Onions: Sra. Guillén, stand #260, tel. 5521-6165; you will find all the fruits you need for your pies around the corner.
Pre-baked turkeys to go:
- La Casa Del Pavo, Motolinia 40, centro tel. 5518-4282 – If you don’t want to do it yourself this is a great alternative. Call in advance to order your bird.

If you want to have someone else cook for you why not try the Thanksgiving dinner offered by the American Legion? They are located in a beautiful Art Deco house in the Condesa, and for 150 pesos they will serve a full dinner starting at 2 PM:

Alan Seeger Post 2 A. C.
Celaya 25, Condesa
Tel. 5564-4490


Literary Aspirations : Restaurante C25

(note: as of late 2012 the space is now occupied by a simple albeit café. '25' no longer exists)
Located just off of the circuit of Avenida Amsterdam by the Citlaltepetl fountain, Restaurante C25 is a laid back, grown-up kind of place, set in a lush garden patio--just what the Condesa needs. It’s part of Casa Refugio, a privately maintained refuge for exiled writers and journalists. Profits from the restaurant help maintain this worthy venture. (For more information see their bi-lingual website www.casarefugio.com)

The open patio area, one of the few in the neighborhood unhindered by passing traffic, is graced by a sleek fountain and verdant foliage. The setting is both urban and urbane, tranquil yet conducive to long conversations – the background music is restrained and appropriate. The contemporary fusion menu, which includes Mexican and French dishes, with a bow toward the Orient, is not overly long. There are 7 entradas, 4 soups, 3 pastas, and 7 main dishes, all concocted by the young husband-and-wife chef team of Nasheli Martínez and Abel Hernández.
Nasheli runs the kitchen. She’s inspired by the variety and quality of produce and meats available in Mexico; her favorite is duck. “Duck goes so well with many different sauces, from Thai to Mexican; as a raw material, it gives me a chance to be creative”. The “house special appetizer” is a gordita de chicharrón de pato, sort of a deconstructed version of this most typical “antojito”: the masa shell wears a frizzy toupee of shredded roast duck “chicharrón”. It’s served with pineapple salsa and a touch of Asian soy/sesame marinade. A double order could pass for lunch with no complaints. My favorite soup is the “sopa de tortilla azul”, a new take on the classic tortilla soup, this time with a seafood base and shredded crabmeat.
Several standard salads – including a nicely done Greek - are on the menu. An interesting pasta option is the spaghetti with “chorizo de camarón”, the house-made shrimp sausage is a novelty that works nicely under its blanket of fresh, basil-y tomato sauce.
Two dishes with duck breast in a starring role grace the eclectic entrée menu – a classic French “pato a la lenteja”, juicy duck breast over a bed of lentils, seasoned with smoky bacon and fragrant with thyme, would please any grand-mère. The “pato 25” presents succulent slices of magret, with a sauce of chabacano (apricot) and 3 chilies, served with a timbale of mashed potatoes and sautéed snow peas. For those in a nautical mood, I recommend the “robalo azafranado”. The filet is coated in a “powder” of Iberian ham and gently bathed in a light saffron cream sauce.

The revolving dessert menu might include the “buñuelo de láminas de wonton” filled with pastry cream and Orange liquor or a homey “apple surprise”.
The wine list, with several good Mexican selections, is well chosen, and there is
something for every budget. Dinner for two should run $200-300 pesos per person, while an ample “menu de degustación” can be enjoyed for 400 pesos.

Restaurante C25
Citlaltépetl 25, Condesa
Tel. 5211-4514
Open Monday – Saturday 1:30 - 11:30 PM
all major credit cards accepted


Chefs to the Rescue

Mexico’s top chefs cook up a storm for charity

From Aztec sushi to tortilla jell-o, it was a gastronomic blast at the Salón de Eventos of Ambrosía, the city’s best culinary academy, this past Sunday afternoon. Guests wandered from table to table like they were all at a wedding, laboring over where to spend the five meal tickets allotted them. Would it be Mikel Alonso’s wonderfully odd “sopa de frijol con ceviche de camarón” poured over a “gelatina de tortilla”? Or Daniel Ovadía’s savory osso buco of lamb with the creamiest mashed potatoes I’ve had in a long time? Perhaps Casa Mexico’s fish tamal with recado negro served over cous cous with “espuma de mar” (what is in the foam, I asked…. “the sea” was chef Margarita Salinas’ reply).
For a third year, Chefs Al Rescate, a select group of Mexico’s best cooks have whipped up a mouthwatering dinner to benefit building projects in the poorest areas of Mexico; this time in support of indigenous weavers of Guerrero.
Star chef and TV personality Eduardo Osorno of Solea coordinated the project, which has continued to expand each year. It started in 2006, when a small group of like-minded volunteers raised $76,000 pesos to help a community on the Baja Coast that had been devastated by hurricane John. Chef Osuno explained that “what began as an effort to aid the Mulegé community, today has become a commitment by some of the best chefs in the country to work to support the most needy people in our nation”. Proceeds from this year’s event will go toward building of the Taller Textil Indígena MAS PRODUCE (Mas Produce textile workshop) in the mountainous region of Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest communities. Women in these tribes produce some of the most extraordinary hand woven and embroidered huipiles in the country and this building will provide a place for them to work, teach and sell their wares. Over 500 people and their families will benefit from this project. Organizers hope to surpass last year’s successful event, held at the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, which brought in over $200,000 pesos to build kitchens and housing for migrant workers near the border.
Charitable events of this kind, so common in the United States, are still a novelty in Mexico, and this one, at $500 pesos per person (which included drinks and more than enough food) was generous and accessible to many.
In addition to the above mentioned chefs, others who contributed their food, time, and services are Mónica Patiño (Naos), Alejandro Kuri (La Casa de las Enchiladas), Daniel Ovadía (Paxia), Alejandro Martínez (Brássica), Christian Bravo (Hacienda Temozón) and José Ramón Castillo (of Qué Bo!, whose mole and tamarind filled chocolates surprised us all). The event was generously supported again this year by Philadelphia, the cream cheese folks, who provided samples to take home, but unfortunately, there were no bagels in sight.

For more information about Chefs Al Rescate, go to www.mas.org.mx; there is a link to their page in English.

If your mouth is watering, it’s not too late to sample the chefs’ fare:

(Hotel W)Campos Eliseos 252, Polanco
Tel. 9138-1818

Palmas 425, colonia Lomas de Chapultepec
Tel. 5520-5702

Presidente Masaryk 407, Polanco
Tel. 5282-2064

La Casa de Las Enchiladas
Newton 105, Polanco
Lago Alberto 416, Anahuac
Liverpool 169, Zona Rosa
Rio Lerma 257, Cuauhtemoc

Avenida de la Paz 47, San Angel
Tel. 5550-8355

Av. Vasco de Quiroga 3900-1, Santa Fe
Tel. 1084-8750

Casa México (opening in December)
Génova 70, Zona Rosa
Tel. 5525-1196

Hacienda Temozón
Carretera Mérida-Uxmal, Yucatán
see: www.haciendasmexico.com

Qué Bo! Chocolates
Julia Verne 104-B, Polanco
Explanada 737, Lomas