Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hail to the humble/elegant Yucatecan Panucho!

"Sunday in Merida" is an amazing cultural event celebrated in the Plaza Grande with free entertainment and vendors of all kinds -- a beautiful, festive family day. And after enjoying a 1-hour "Vaqueria" performed by the Ballet Folklorico de Merida, I looked around for lunch and encountered a mother and daughter turning out some very tasty Yucatecan Panuchos to order.

Don't confuse the humble yet elegant Panucho with a taco. It may look like one at first glance, but it is not!

Panuchos are based on a special twice fried corn tortilla (as we learned to do at Los Dos CookingSchool). Fried once after being formed with a little rim that is then flattened to seal what becomes an inflated tortilla. Then fried again carefully (without turning over) after a slit is opened to push in a spoonful of pureed or mashed black bean frijoles that are spread inside by pressing around gently with your fingers. The result is a tortilla with a thin inner bean layer. VERY elegant in my book!

You can top that tortilla with lettuce if you like, then with shredded meat like cochinita pit-smoked pork or pavo (turkey) prepared a number of ways. Then a slice of tomato and some purple pickled onions. Add some avocado if you like...and a little of the ubiquitous Chile Tamulado habanero sauce if you dare. It's a winner any way you slice it.

Hail to the humble/elegant Panucho!

NOTE: The awesome local drink is a green delight called Chaya, made from Yucatecan "tree spinach."  It has more calcium and protein than kale, and two times more iron and crude fiber than spinach. It also has very high concentrations of potassium, vitamin C and carotenoids. You can add a little something to that, too...

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

If it's Saturday, it must be Korean (in Merida since 1905)

"Younghee's Kitchen" is located at the edge of Merida's Slow Food Market at Reforma & 33-D. The market takes place on Saturday mornings and for the time being, the 6-month-old Korean restaurant is only open that one day from 8am to 4pm.

It's owned by Younghee Moser, who came here 12 years ago from Korea via Albuquerque, NM. Her husband Mike is a jeweler, and that is the family business 5 days a week. The ever-smiling, peripatetic Younghee has other ideas, which translate into a full house of happy customers eager for some of her Korean fare -- like the fluffy "Du Bu Jjim" (120 MEX or about 7.75USD, and includes miso soup, rice and 4 other condiments + Go Chu Chang chili sauce upon request). It's the only Korean restaurant in town.

That may not sound strange, but it actually is. Visit the Museum Commemorating Korean Immigration at #397 Calle 65 and Jenny Chang will tell you that all was not well 1905, when hacienda owners (who killed too many Mayans) imported 1000+ Koreans to work in the henequen (aka sisil) fields. Today they call that human trafficking -- not unlike the bringing in of Mexicans who currently work in Florida tomato fields under murky circumstances. It's a complicated story, at once very sad and beautiful to learn how the Koreans persevered and formed their community. There are a number of Koreans and their progeny in Merida today, but most of them eat at home, according to Chang.

Anyone else hankering for some spicy "Soon Bu Jjikye" stew -- with a raw egg dropped into the bubbling mixture -- can go to Younghee's Kitchen on any Saturday. She will definitely make it worth your while. OPA!

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Amazing Los Dos Yucatecan Cooking School

Yesterday finally dawned on my long-awaited date with David Sterling's highly-touted Los Dos Yucatecan Cooking School in Merida,* the capital of the Yucatán. I had signed up for an 8-hour class entitled "Taste of the Yucatán." What an amazing adventure!

Just don't refer to this area as Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Chef David made the Mayan-rooted independent character of the Yucatán abundantly clear -- a socio-political state-of-mind handed down throughout the rich (and sometimes troubled) history of this special place, as keenly illustrated by a unique and rather thrilling cuisine.  (I am still reeling from a lunch today of "Longaniza de Temozon" and "Queso Relleno Negro" at El Manjar Blanco, but once again I digress...)

In an opening 90-minute lecture, Chef David spoke exhaustively and lovingly about the Yucatán and the foundation/details of Mayan cooking. He also elaborated on the European and Caribbean influences. I don't think he took a breath the whole time. Me neither.

Our merry band of acolytes + chef then made a 60-minute foray into the Lucas de Gálvez Market to purchase some the day's provisions -- but mostly to learn more about a dizzying array of available foodstuffs/spices and where to find them. There is, for example, a big difference between the fragrant lima used in the Yucatecan "Sopa de Lima" and the larger limon (regular lime). Chef David cut one for us to smell, just to prove that point.

After our "Salbutes"** mid-day snack, we went to work. Chef David guided us in the preparation of a 5-course meal -- all of the ingredients having been meticulously prepped and laid out around the kitchen so that dinner could be served promptly at the end of the day.  It was all hands on deck to work on "Sikil P'aak" (the ubiquitous dip of toasted squash seeds, roasted tomatoes, Seville orange juice and Habanero Chile) and 3 other condiments. Doña Sono and Mario made sure we had our corn tortillas for "Panuchos" in order, as well as the masa-based Bean and Squash Seed Fritters ("Pol'kanes").   Individualized "Caballeros Pobres" (Bread Pudding Souffle w/Cinnamon Syrup and Nuts) were prepared and assembled to be baked just before serving. "Crema de Cilantro" soup and "Arroz Verde" also went into the pipeline. And then came the chicken.

"Pollo Pibil" -- based on the Yucatecan way of smoking banana leaf-wrapped meats in pibs, hand-dug pits lines with stones and fiery coals -- was the pièce de resistance. We readied the chicken breasts with a very tasty Recado Rojo/Seville Orange Juice marinade and made our banana-leaf packets, but did not dig a pit in David Sterling's backyard.  You don't have to go to such lengths either if you employ the stove-top smoking method. Line a cast iron Dutch oven with foil, make a hole in the center of the foil, heat the pot, add wood chips (mesquite in the U.S.), place a cake rack on bottom, stack your banana packets, cover the pot and seal. They went in at 2 and were ready at 3. No fooling around at Los Dos!

David Sterling was born in Oklahoma City, OK, and "weaned on chili." After a stellar multi-faceted career Stateside, he and his partner took a rather dilapidated edifice -- I saw the pictures -- and turned it into something quite wonderful about 13 years ago.  The Los Dos Cooking School is now the #1 Merida attraction according to Trip Advisor.  Double OPA!

* How big is Merida? It has 3 Wallmarts, but still is quite charming and very interesting. There are also some pyramids nearby, plus natural wonders like cenotes.
**You can pick David Sterling's brain about these fascinating dishes by referring to his 576-page Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, published last year by the  University of Texas Press. Or, by catching one of those new direct flights from Miami to Merida.  Don't dawdle!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Yiayia X's Cardomon Bread -- DELICIOUS!

When recently visiting relatives in California, my cousin and consummate baker Helen Bertron offered me a slice of Yiayia's X's Cardamom Bread for breakfast. I had no recollection of this bread, obsessing over the years only on Yiayia's Squash Pitta. But the bread was quite nice, and I asked for the recipe -- which I dutifully filed away. I'm a bread eater, not a bread baker!

A few weeks later, my Travel & Recipe Book Club read Ruth Reichl's Delicious -- her first novel, which I frankly had not given much thought (or credence) to.  But what a wonderful book, with a multi-layered story line and a number of surprising culinary twists and turns. I couldn't put it down!

What stuck in my mind -- 
and in my heart -- was the protagonist Billie Breslin's amazing proclivity for recognizing tastes and foods, starting with spices. As a child she was constantly smelling them and developing a skill that set her apart in her cooking/food world... something comparable to the great Robert Parker of wine tasting fame.

Gingerbread Cake
Here I had been cooking for years and never really stopped to smell the spices up close and personal. And what was the linchpin of Billie's Chapter 1 Gingerbread? Cardamom! Right then and there I promised myself to always smell spices as I used them. And also to bake Yiayia's Cardamom bread.

Cardamom is the 3rd most expensive spice after Saffron and Vanilla, and I finally tracked some down at Whole Foods for the reasonable price of $4.99. Best to get the pods and grind the seeds yourself, but couldn't do that this time. So I rounded up the rest of the ingredients and methodically went to work.

Cardamon Bread
Surprisingly enough -- to me at least! -- the bread turned out to be pretty darn delicious, thanks to coaching from Helen and an added assist from James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking.  So here's the recipe. Make a couple of the loaves and freeze one -- makes great toast!

And it always feels great to perpetuate a Yiayia recipe in hope that it is enjoyed for years to come, especially by members of her family!

NOTE: Shout-out to my book club cohort Linda Laquer, who baked Billie's Gingerbread Cake to Ms. Reichl's specifications -- totally awesome!

Yiayia's Cardomom Bread (Makes 2 Loaves)

2 + 1 eggs beaten
2 Active Dry Yeast packets
1/3 t. salt
2 t. ground Cardamon
2/3 c. sugar
2/3 c. scalded milk (NOT boiled)
6 c. flour
1 1/3 sticks melted butter + a little Crisco

1.  Add yeast to water warmed to about 110, let it sit to "proof."   
2.  Stir eggs, salt, sugar, milk and cardamon in a large bowl or pot.
3.  Add melted butter, and then the yeast/water.
4.  Add 2 cups flour, kneed well adding rest of flour cup-by-cup. 
     (Kneed dough until it is not sticky on a floured surface, 
     adding more flour at end if needed.)
5.  Let rise covered with lid and heavy blanket for 2 hours.
6.  Beat down and kneed again.
7.  Divide and add to 8X5 loaf pan lined w/Crisco.
     (Dough should not be higher than 3/4 pan or it will rise too high.)
8.  Let rise 1 more hour.
9.  Gently brush with the extra beaten egg.
10. Bake for 35-40 minutes at 350.