Monday, January 11, 2010

Aprendemos cocinar, part 3

In December 2009, Josh and I learned to cook in Mexico. Here's the latest installment of our story.

We arrived at our vacation destination not at 7pm on Christmas, as planned, but around 1:30am December 27th, thanks to Aeromexico. Well-fed and relieved to have arrived, we drifted off into a deep sleep, with an alarm for 8:30 and a 9:00 start time. For some reason, Maria (Jon and Estela's household helper) brought coffee to our room at 6:30 in the morning, so we thanked her and went back to sleep. Just half an hour later, Jon came in to tell us that breakfast was served - turns out in our exhaustion we'd forgotten to change the time zone on our phones. WHOOPS!

Still, everyone was quite forgiving. We beat feet to the outdoor breakfast table, not knowing what to expect. Here's what greeted us:Ham and cheese between two tortillas, with salsa verde, avocado, onion, and kiwi on the side. YUM.

But before long, eating gave way to cooking (with more eating to come, of course). We walked in to the kitchen to see an incredible spread laid out for us. It was unbelievably beautiful and inviting - and have I mentioned lately that you should visit Cause you should. Or you can find them on Facebook. Here's what's in store:

I'm sorry my camera and my photography skills aren't better, because that kitchen is so gorgeous and the photos don't do it justice.

On to the food! We made seven or eight recipes every day, and the first day included a couple really fun ones. We began with nopalitos, which are cactus leaves grown right on the property. They are spiny and irritating, but delicious and healthy to eat.
You start by laying a knife flat against the leaf and moving it from side to side to remove the spines, being careful to impale each of your fingers individually with the barbs. Okay, just kidding - but I recommend buying them cleaned. We made ensalada and sopa de nopalitos before moving on to the heavy lifting.
When was the last time you cooked a squash blossom? We used them several times, and lamented the, you know, seasons of Washington - gorgeous, floral produce is available year-round in Tlaxcala.

Next up? Tortas de Papas con Espinaca, or potato pancakes with spinach. Only instead of spinach we used shrimp! FLEXIBILITY, people.
Jon taught us the prep techniques while Estela ran the frying, charring, and sauteeing station at the stove. Oh, and by the way, the torta recipe is available for free on the website!

On day one, we also made an almond chicken dish with tortillas blended right into the sauce, and mushroom soup, and these incredible fried flour dough cakes with vanilla sugar pressed into them. We ate lunch with our compadres and co-students - Tim and Athena from Santa Barbara, and Robin and Diane from Sitka, Alaska - before heading out to the Xochitecatl and Cacaxtla archaeological sites for the afternoon. And at the rate I've been posting these stories, you should hear about that in midsummer.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Aprendemos cocinar, part 2

It's Christmas Day. Christmas morning, that is - 7:00am. Josh and I have been up since 4:00, all packed up, passports in hand, having ridden a shuttle bus two hours to the airport. We're at the Aeromexico check-in counter...

and we're alone. There's no line, no one milling about, no employees behind the counters. Just Josh and me and signs with the Aeromexico reservation hotline. Which I call, asking when we can expect to check in for our 9:00 flight.

"Um, we don't have any departures leaving Seattle today."

"Well, I'm holding a flight confirmation that says we're going on vacation to Mexico City. Confirmed November 18th for departure today, Christmas, at 9:00."

"Oh, that flight was changed. You're leaving tomorrow."

"Changed when?"

"December 11."

*Head explodes.*

I mean, seriously. SERIOUSLY! It is the two-thousandsies, and the airline had my credit card number, email, cell phone, and (presumably) access to Google and Skype. But they just cancel a flight and don't let us know. Luckily, our friends at Mexican Home Cooking are incredibly flexible, and the airline was at least willing to make our return flight one day later as well. We'd get our whole vacation. But the bus home cost more than a hotel room at the airport, so we checked in for the night and set about trying to enjoy Christmas Day in Seattle.

First up was to hop on the city's newest attraction, light rail from the airport to downtown.We had the (new, clean) car to ourselves, and $2.50 and 30 minutes later we were in Chinatown. The lines for dim sum were outrageous, and we waited 45 minutes, standing smashed against hungry Chinese-American, Jewish, and all-around heathen masses, before we sat down to some good old fashioned fa-ra-ra-ra-ra.
He's, um, smiling at me!

The rest of the day was pretty boring, as we waited out our sentence. The next morning started early again and we were glad to see staff at Aeromexico. We checked in and passed through security, no problem, and got right on the plane, on the tarmac.

And stayed there. First, there was an indicator light on that wouldn't go off. Out to the runway, back to the gate a couple times. They fixed that, or so they said, and then had another little problem - some little insignificant part wouldn't work. It was called, um, the STARTER.Okay. End of rant. We got off the plane and finally took off six hours past schedule, flew five hours with no food and one drink service, and landed in Mexico City long after the last bus to Tlaxcala had departed. We called Jon (our home cooking host) with a calling card and he directed us to an authorized taxi to Tapo bus station. An unofficial taxi driver tried to scam a fare out of us, but Josh stayed strong and we found the ticket counter. We didn't find any food though, as the bus was leaving five minutes later and we couldn't miss it. On the bus we got to see Enemy of the State in Spanish, but we didn't get to see any toilet paper. What's up, Subway napkins?!

The bus got us to Tlaxcala station, where we called Jon again and he told us his taxi driver would meet us inside in 15 minutes. We were so hungry though, too hungry to take photos in the shut-down bus station - not a bad way to start a culinary vacation, but still - hungry enough to poke our heads outside the door and see a hot dog stand. I knew enough Spanish to say "Uno con todos, por favor," and Josh and I tucked into the best hot dog of our lives. It had tomatoes, and onions, and mustard and mayo and, best of all, bright green pickled jalepeƱos right on top. We just died and went to heaven.

Soon we saw a short man holding a sign for Mexican Home Cooking. We were reasonably certain he wasn't after our kidneys, but that certainty faded when we turned onto the second of three dirt, um, roads? Pothole collectives would be more accurate. Turns out the driver was our buddy Yair, who took us all over creation that week, but at the time he was a wee bit scary!

You've already seen some of what we arrived to. Jon welcomed us with a fire in the fireplace of our room, and when he heard we hadn't eaten he produced bowls of creamy oyster soup, then spicy beef stew with the bones still flavoring the broth. And immediately, we were transformed. Those spoonfuls of homemade dinner melted the terrible travel right off our skins, and brought us back to Earth.

And that's why we chose this kind of vacation in the first place, because cooking and eating is so fundamental to the kind of joy we want to bring into our lives. A cup of the right soup, or hot chocolate, or a bite of Mom's macaroni and cheese* can make a bad day beautiful, and our trip was gorgeous from there on out.

*with collard greens! HOLLA!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Aprendemos cocinar, part 1

Well hey there, Internet. What's up? I'm sorry I haven't responded to your emails lately, or your calls. I've been following you on Facebook but just not up to chatting. Life is crazy now, with a new job and the holidays, and Fuji the cat and lots of hopes for a baby. But most of all, I just haven't felt like sharing. On the good days, life is pleasantly boring: chatting with friends on the way to work, learning to navigate my new job, cooking dinner and spending time with Josh. Boring! And when life isn't good, well, I just don't want to advertise that to the world.

Which brings me to Christmas Day, 2009.


Josh and I have never had a vacation. Thanks to Mom and Dad we had a couple days at a nice B&B after our wedding, and we've taken weekends in Kyoto before, but never a full-on vacation, until now. After the turmoil of the last year, and much-needed visits with our parents in November, we decided to use some of our savings to get away for Christmas.

Where to go was an easier decision than I expected. See, we're not really beach people, Josh not liking bright sunlight, and when we've had time off together before we've ended up wondering what to do with ourselves. Especially in a strange city, everything is a bit expensive and confusing, right? So I wanted a pre-arranged trip. And since the only thing we both really like to do is cook and eat, a culinary vacation was the way to go. With just a little research, we found our heaven away from home: Mexican Home Cooking in Tlaxcala, Mexico.Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Don't you feel more relaxed already?
Me too. We had tickets to arrive on Christmas and leave New Year's Eve, with five days of relaxation, morning cooking classes, and afternoon sightseeing in between.And we got those five days, in spades! I have tales of dozens of chiles, tortillas with ham and salsa verde dripping with fresh cheese at breakfast, stories about which dishes enhance "marital function" according to Madame Estela. Sadly, first come stories of cancelled flights and Seattle dim sum - and a bus station in Ciudad Mexico around midnight.

It was all worth it, though, and you can see why for yourself. Check out a couple more pictures, and Jon and Estela's web site (, if you haven't been there already!), and I'll share more soon.

P.S. Happy New Year everybody. Here's to sabor (flavor,) especia (spice,) and amor in 2010.