27 February 2015

On Monday I was out in the car which is really unusual for me. Even more unusually, I had my youngest son with me.  And I ran out of gas in the left turn lane of a busy intersection.  I certainly don't speak enough Spanish to fix the problem.

But this is Mexico and after some honking right at first, everyone figured out there was a problem and got around me except for the man who was stuck behind me.  Instead of going around me, he got out of his car to help because he'd figured out I wasn't local.  He rounded up a few people to help push the car to the side of the road, then he dealt with the insurance so they'd bring gas to me (sadly, I was right next to a gas station, but it wasn't open yet).  Then my phone died (this is why I don't drive places- I can't get into as much trouble on foot) so he left his extra cell phone with me so I could call someone if no one was showing up with gas.  He ran off to the test he was late for after that.

A man showed up with 5 liters of gas about 30 minutes later and sent me on my way.  What should have been a horrible experience (and it wasn't fun no matter what) turned out to be really rather positive.  That's happened to us over and over again as we've been living in other countries.  I know the negative stereotypes of Muslims and Mexicans all too well, but our experiences with them have never matched up with what so many Americans think about them.

Coco Helado

There's a stand at the Wednesday tianguis that sells fresh coconut.  You can get a bag of coconut water or the coconut meat, ready to eat (with chile, salt, and lime, if you like).  I usually get it plain and bring it home, blend it up with water and a little sugar, then drink it.

But today I turned it into ice cream.  I've been meaning to do that since we were in the Yucatan and ate coco helado there and loved it.

Since my coconut was young coconut and very tender, I skipped most of the straining and squeezing.  If you have young coconut, try this. I made one coconut's worth, but two would have been better in my ice cream maker. One coconut made enough for two people. This will be written for 2 coconuts to serve 4-5 people.

Coarsely chop the meat from 2 young coconuts and put it in a blender.  Add enough water to just cover the coconut and blend really, really well.  I did the long soup setting on my blender.  Pour that through a fine strainer into a large measuring cup (at least 4 cups).  Dump whatever is left in the strainer back into the blender, add a little more water and some sugar (the recipe I was working from said two cups, but I think that is crazy and would start with 1/2 cup and go from there).  Blend that really well again, then pour it through the strainer to add to the rest of the coconut you already strained.  If necessary, add enough water so it equals four cups.  Taste it and add more sugar if you want it.

Put it in the fridge for a few hours till it's well chilled, then freeze it in an ice cream maker.  Stir it before you pour it in.

22 February 2015


These are giant baked Yucatecan tamales.  You really should get the Yucatan cookbook and make these from that recipe, but here's a simplified version.  They do taste noticeably different if you bake them in banana leaves, but you can use aluminum foil if you can't find banana leaves. I actually find frozen banana leaves to be easier to work with and you can find them in Asian or Latino groceries in the US.  (ETA later than these are great with turkey too.  Our leftover Thanksgiving turkey and broth went into making lots of these tamales.)

For 6 large tamales you'll need about two cups of cooked shredded chicken, 1 kilo of fresh masa (or reconstituted), about 2 cups of achiote sauce, and a bit of onion and tomato.  I think it's worth making a lot of sauce and freezing it because you can make baked or steamed tamales with it, or colados.  So this recipe is for a lot of sauce. If you have the chicken and sauce in the freezer, you can put these together in about 30 minutes.  They bake for 90 minutes with no attention from you, except flipping them halfway (which I've forgotten to do sometimes and they still were good).  I have found that tamales are way more forgiving than people make them out to be.  Or, more likely, that I don't have high standards.

Banana leaves aren't entirely easy to work with, but they're doable.  If they're not frozen, you need to warm them up a bit to make them flexible enough to wrap food.  Usually people suggest that you pass them slowly over a flame, one at a time, but that seems impractical.  You can steam then, but I rinse them and lay them out in the sun to dry and warm up.  It works nicely.  You'll need to cut the hard rib off the side of the leaves, then cut them into rectangles about 10x16 inches.  You don't want them to have holes or tears.  Save largish chunks of leaves in case one of your original rectangles tears and you need to double wrap one of them.  You can save  the rib bits to tie them, and you can cut a leaf into strips for tying too. I have to admit I've never tied them.

For the sauce, blend 1 cup of water with one charred head of garlic (peeled and separated into cloves),  5 tablespoons of achiote paste, and one canned chipotle.  Add that to 7 cups of chicken broth and heat it. Take two cups of hot liquid out and blend it with 3/4 cups fresh or reconstituted masa, then whisk it back into the broth.  Try to avoid lumps.  Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer 10 minutes. You can add a little salt if you think it needs it. That will mostly depend on the broth you used.

For the masa, use either 1/2 cup lard or 1/2 cup oil or 1/2 cup butter.  Whip that with 1 tablespoon of baking powder, then slowly add the fresh masa.  Add a few tablespoons of chicken broth to get it to a spackle consistency.  If you accidentally add too much, it's fine.

Preheat the oven to 350/175.

Lay out your 6 pieces of softened bananas leaves and divide the masa between them (about 200 grams each).  Pat the masa out into a rectangle about 7x10 inches on each of the leaves, then top each with a strip of shredded children pieces, sauce, a few thinly sliced tomatoes, and a few bits of thinly sliced onion.  You'll use about 1/3 cup each of sauce and chicken on each tamale. You'll need two Romas or one larger tomato.

To fold and tie, lift one long side of the leaf  to fold the masa over, then pull it back.  Tuck the other side around the masa, then fold the first side back on top to make a packet.  Fold the ends over and tie it all up.  I just kind of wing it.  Put all six on a baking sheet and bake for 90 minutes.  If the masa is still soggy, wrap the test tamale up and back a little longer.  They've always taken 90 minutes for me, but they can take longer.

20 February 2015

Mexican Cookbooks, Again

Here's my current status and opinions about Mexican cookbooks.

I still like Rick Bayless's Authentic Mexican and even if you only get one Mexican cookbook, this would be an acceptable choice because it's usable and good.

Diana Kennedy's books are more comprehensive and better overall, but a little more overwhelming if you've never tried to cook much Mexican food (no, it doesn't count if you've dumped taco seasoning mix into ground beef).  I have her Essential Cuisines as a real book and I really like My Mexico.  The first is a good choice if you're only getting one Mexican cookbook.  I think the second requires a bit more experience.  And if you've traveled around Mexico some?  It's wonderful.

The other book I'm using all the time is David Sterling's Yucatan.  This book is beyond wonderful.  I got it before we went to the Yucatan because it looked like the perfect combination of a travel book and a cookbook, and it is (and I got it so I wouldn't be totally clueless when we had to eat there).  It's not for a beginner though unless you're ready to tackle a challenge, and it really helped to go to the Yucatan (not Cancun, mind you) to see what goes on there with food, but this is one of the best Mexican cookbooks out there, no question.

19 February 2015

So I'm not at all looking forward to leaving Mexico, but I am excited about getting to be back in DC again for a while.  I don't know if I could ever get tired of that city, although I wouldn't want to move there permanently.  So that's one thing this job is perfect for. Anyway, I'm having fun making plans.

I'm getting ready to do a history of Washington DC course with my middle son who will be a sophomore next year.  This year's Mexico class has been great and I'm glad he's had the chance to learn a lot about Mexico and see some things too.  DC will be easier since it's a much smaller place with a much shorter history and it's possible to see much more in a shorter time.

I'm also thinking about doing an around the world food fest while we're there.  I wouldn't tell my family about this since they think we already do this every day, but since DC has so many ethnic groceries you really can cook food from many, many places around the world.

I've read a few blogs of people who've done this, but they did it by country and I don't think that's the best way to do it because food doesn't divide up neatly by country.  Northern Mexico and Yucatean food are way more different from each other than Kazakh and Kyrgyz food, but when you do it by country, you get one night for all of Mexico and two for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. And how in the world do you do China and Russia with one meal?  And you lose all the different ethnic cuisines that aren't represented by a political entity which is about the saddest thing ever.

So I'm thinking about wandering around the world's food geographically rather than by country.  I could begin in northeast Russia, work west and south through Asia, then looping through Africa, then up to Europe, and over to North and South America.  It sounds so fun!

And I'll be working on Arabic.  Maybe I'll be spending so much time on it that I won't be able to do much else, or maybe it'll just be a couple of hours a day (I'm sort of leaning toward that).  But whatever happens, I want to take advantage of living in DC and doing things I can only do there.

16 February 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

It seems that everyone is reading and talking about this book, and they should be.  It's lovely.

15 February 2015


Vaccines.  I'm not opposed to allowing personal exemptions for immunizations, but I think that they shouldn't be easy to get.  I like the idea of requiring people to talk to a doctor about the perceived danger of vaccines and the real danger of not getting them.  At the very least it shouldn't be easier to get an exemption than the vaccine.

Also, if you do choose to not vaccinate, you should expect that there might be some social consequences for that decision.  Maybe some people don't let their kids play with yours if there's an outbreak of a preventable disease among unvaccinated children, or you can't send your child to school for a few weeks during an outbreak, or you just have to expect that most people aren't going to agree with you and some might disagree vocally.

I hang out online in a few places where there are anti-vaxxers, mostly for entertainment value, and many seem to be pretty incensed that people are calling their choice into question or that some people might ask if their kids aren't vaccinated.  These are the same people who get angry when other parents ask if there are guns in the house before letting their children play there.  If you want to store guns in your house, fine.  You can also not vaccinate.  That's fine with me too. But please don't get mad if I ask about these things before I send my children to your house, or if I choose to not have your children over to my house because I have baby who hasn't been vaccinated yet (that isn't an issue for me right now, of course).  You make your choices and I make mine.

Free speech.  I hate what's going on in Denmark and what happened in Paris last month.  People should be able to publish even things designed to mock and goad.  And they are.  Governments aren't banning that speech- in fact, they are protecting it with the lives of police officers.  Free speech is working the way it's supposed to. It's simply protection from government stopping your speech, and it's the responsibility of government to make it as safe as they can for you to create speech.

But.  Even if government isn't challenging your right to free speech and doing everything it can to protect your right to say inflammatory things, that doesn't mean you can expect all forms of speech to be appreciated and respected by everyone.  You might not get thrown in jail but there still can be some serious negative consequences to saying anything that's legal.  I don't think it's unreasonable for publishers to not just care about what's legal, but to also care about other consequences too. Personally, I think most speech is worth fighting for, including satire, but I'm not convinced the specific speech that is in question in Paris and Copenhagen is worth people dying for.   That's something everyone gets to decide for themselves too.

Alabama and gay marriage.  Alabama, you look crazy.  Do what the Supreme Court says.  You're on the wrong side of history here.

Go away, Putin.  I would hate to see serious financial problems in Russia because it's devastating for everyone there, but I don't know what else could possibly make you go away.

North Carolina shootings.  It doesn't really matter if this was a hate crime because it feels like one to the Muslim community.

Airline fees. Airlines love to think of reasons to convince you to pay a little more.  One of those reasons is to reserve a seat.  The problem is that airlines need more flexibility that advance seat reservations on some internet ticket booking site allows.  If a family with small children has to book a flight on short notice, their stupid rules blocking out huge swathes of seats make seating that family together really, really difficult.  Flexibility, people.  And why aren't ticket prices dropping in the US if they said they had to raise prices when oil was expensive?

Hummus.  It's still not bean dip.

Mexican food.  It's not hard tacos, burritos, and cumin.  In fact, I almost never use cumin in Mexican food and I like cumin and always have it around.  It's just not used all that much in a lot of Mexico. Also, you should probably not eat at a restaurant that sells any type of Mexican-inspired food and tops it with cheese that isn't white.

Tianguis.  You should go to the one on Wednesdays.  One reason why you know this is because none of my expat friends go to that one, but my Mexican friends do.  Everything is cheaper at that one and there's a much wider variety of food.  And it's grittier.  You could almost call the Monday tianguis a farmer's market.

Cooler weather. It's been cooler this February than it was last February and I love it.  It wasn't hot last year, but it wasn't cool either.  But it is this year.

Airplanes and their woes.  I am so glad that we don't have small children anymore because flying gets so much easier with older children.  Until they start flying on their own, but I still think it's more stressful to deal with a two-year-old on a plane than worrying about your teenager flying alone.

13 February 2015


Tulum was our last site.  Everything is roped off since there are so many tourists, and we were quite far back from the main buildings, but the setting was truly spectacular.  It was worth going just for that.  But in the end, I'd have skipped Tulum and Coba and flown out of Merida after visiting Chichen Itza which would have left more time to see sites further south.  It felt almost trendy to be here.

Tulum was at its height just before the Spanish arrived, unlike all the rest of the sites we visited.

12 February 2015

Waffled Falafel

So I'd read about people sticking everything in their waffle irons.  It works nicely as a sandwich press and last night we tried falafel.  I just used my normal falafel recipe and cooked it in a well-oiled waffle iron.  Easy and they fit in a puffed flatbread nicely.  If they're sticking, just cook them a little longer and they should come out more easily.

This was way easier than deep-frying and they tasted better than baked falafel.

Caribbean Sea

I thought the beaches along Mexico's Caribbean coast were absolutely stunning.  I can see why people thought it would make a great tourist destination. Blue water, white sands, palm trees (although they were wiped out on some beaches in recent hurricanes). Some of us were able to see some sea turtles and there's a photo of a sting ray here too.

But it was also very boring.  It was great for sitting on the beach and splashing about a bit in the water, but when I'm at the ocean, I want waves.  

11 February 2015

Pan de Cazon

This one didn't go over so well with my husband, but my son and I liked it.  It is admittedly weird, with dogfish shark and beans layered with tortillas and tomato sauce, but it's a lot tastier than it sounds.

I decided to make it when I went to the tianguis again after going to Campeche where they eat lots of cazon.  The fish sellers in the tianguis have told me what kinds of fish they have and I never can remember them all, but cazon finally meant something to me.  And it's cheaper than the dorado.

10 February 2015


We hadn't really planned on stopping at Coba on our way to Tulum, but when we didn't need a second day at Palenque and got a little ahead of our basic schedule, we added it.  I'm glad we did.  Not so much because of the site itself, although I liked it, but because I loved staying in Coba the night before.  We were at a very basic little hotel that was clean, quiet, and friendly.  I finally had a little time to stop at an abarrote and bought some achiote seeds, paste, bitter oranges, and some other spices.  Those bitter oranges turned some red onions here in Guadalajara into some very good cebollas curtidas. There's a lovely lake in the middle of town with a pleasant boardwalk too.

The site is large and you can rent bikes to get around.  I walked around with one son and my husband biked around with the little which worked nicely.  Get there early before the tour groups and go straight to the main pyramid so you don't have to climb it with a million people.  I like to walk and wasn't sure if I was up to biking yet so that worked for me, but a lot of people rented bicycles (except the tour groups which were arriving as we were leaving.

Coba was first settled around 1 AD and wasn't abandoned till the Spanish conquest, although its peak was around 800-1100 AD.  This is your best place to actually climb a great big pyramid if you're doing the Cancun loop, although Ek Balam's pyramid is worthy too.  I'm still not sure if everyone who was on top with us made it back down.

This was our first site in Quintana Roo.  Like I've mentioned, Yucatan charges and additional fee for some sites.  Quintatna Roo doesn't do that, but all the signs said that everyone, including children, was supposed to pay the INAH fee to enter.  We are quite familiar with INAH rules after visiting over 30 sites in Mexico so I didn't buy a ticket for our 7-year-old and no one cared. We didn't have to test their resolve at Tulum because we were there on a Sunday and foreign residents don't have to pay on Sundays.

Tamales Colados

One of the boys tried these somewhere in the Yucatan and liked them so I made them last night since I had all the stuff even though I didn't even try.  They're a little different from most tamales because you mix the masa with chicken broth, strain it, and the cook it again for a few minutes.  Then you combine it with chicken, red sauce, and a bit of tomato and onion (the same fillings I used for the horneados).  Then they're steamed normally inside banana leaves.

It's the texture of the masa that's really different.  It's almost creamy and you're better off leaving the tamal in the banana leaf and eating it with a spoon. I loved them.

09 February 2015


We stopped in Valladolid to take care of a few errands like the laundry and paying the phone bill, and we ate in a little fonda there, and got coconut ice cream again.  It's a lovely little town, but there were parades of people from tour buses being led around by guides and it just felt weird.  Once we got to Chichen Itza, almost everything after that was so different because of the tour groups.  By the time we got to the coast, everything felt like a caricature of Mexico.  No wonder Valladolid makes the tour bus circuit.

08 February 2015

Ek Balam

This site is just north of Vallodalid and is also on the tour bus loop, but it's far less crowded than Chichen Itza which is a good thing since it's far smaller.  Yucatan state charges a large fee that is too large, in my opinion, but I can't fault them for taking advantage of those tour buses.

07 February 2015

Chichen Itza

My husband and middle son went to the new Chichen Itza light show the night we drove into town. They both really liked it.

I didn't love the hotel choices around Chichen Itza.  They were either overpriced and a little tired, or really expensive.  And that was the place of the horrible restaurant.  But it was worth staying near the site so we could be there when it opened to avoid the crowds.  The tour buses from Cancun don't arrive till 10 or 11, so that gave us a couple of hours to explore before it was hot or terribly crowded.

You can't climb on anything here, not surprisingly, but there are lots of good signs and it's a great site.  It's not my favorite because it's too touristy for that, but I'm glad that so many people who go to Cancun make it to Chichen Itza.

It was interesting to come here and see gods and designs from central Mexico.

06 February 2015


This is a nice little site with two pyramids next to the main church in Acanceh.  It's a quick stop although you might need to track someone down to unlock the gate.  The caretaker is enthusiastic.

Budin de Flor de Calabaza

This is a simple dish that is filled with Mexican yumminess. It's based on a recipe from My Mexico.

It's built in layers:

12 quartered corn tortillas (a bit dry, and you can fry them a bit, but don't make them crunchy)
2.5 cups cooked squash flowers
1/2 pound queso fresco (or chedder, or jack, or whatever you have), sliced or crumbled
7 poblanos' worth of rajas with 1.5 cups crema and salt to taste

You'll need at least two pounds of uncleaned squash flowers- this take a lot of them.  I had 13 bunches that had 12 flowers in them and I could have used another bunch or two.  Take of the stems, rinse, and coarsely chop the flowers.  Mince half of a small onion and fry it in a bit of oil, then add 2 cloves of minced garlic and cook for another minute.  Add the squash flowers and saute for about 10 minutes till they're tender and there's no liquid. Add a little salt to taste.

Preheat the oven to 175/350.  In a 9x13 dish, spread 1/3 of the poblanos in the bottom, then top with 1/4 of the tortillas.  Put on half the squash flowers, then 1/3 of the cheese.  Then do 1/3 of the remaining tortillas, then 1/2 of the remaining poblanos, then 1/2 the remaining tortillas, the rest of the flowers, 1/2  of the remaining cheese, the rest of the tortillas, the rest of the poblanos, and the rest of the cheese.

Bake for 45 minutes and let it sit 10 minutes before serving.

05 February 2015


This is a sadly ignored site that is really cool even if it's not quite as impressive as Chichen Itza or Uxmal.  So visit it.

There is a lot here to see and it's a later site than the ones we'd be doing further south and lasted till he mid-15th century.