Sunday, October 4, 2009

A day trip to San Miguel de Allende

I feel as though death is staring me in the face everywhere in Puebla state. Not the anonymous, tragic, newspaper-headline kind or the blood-curdling, terror-inducing kind, but the kind I was hoping to encounter here, the kind that moves and breathes amongst the living. Funeral processions through the streets, stores selling coffins, crosses, funerary flower arrangements, constant church bells, some of which communicate the death of a barrio resident, colorful and eclectic municipal panteones, gates open and beckoning. Everything reminding me of why I am here. But food, new friends and adopted family, the other lado of this fellowship year, are taking precedence, at least for this week. Still, la muerte permeates my new world, inviting me to dive in.

Wednesday started with a morning run, one milkshake-sized glass of fresh-squeezed orange, papaya and pineapple juice (for 15 pesos…be jealous, be very jealous) and yet another steaming plate of huevos mexic, courtesy of yours truly. Just as I was getting ready to tackle the morning paper, El Sol de Puebla, and a cup of café de olla, a delicious brew which I have now mastered after the purchase of my own stovetop olla and teensy colander, my landlord’s son Gustavo hurriedly knocked on my open door and asked if I wanted to go to San Miguel de Allende with him and his brother Bush. ¡¿Hoy?! ¡Sí, ahorita, en veinte minutos! I leaped into the shower and in twenty minutes we were off on an all-day road trip, three-astride in Gustavo’s Chevy truck. Traveling through five states on the brand-new highway, we passed abandoned haciendas and train stations, sixteenth-century stone convents perched atop green hills, an ancient aqueduct, towns with nearly impossible indigenous names—try saying Atotonilco three times fast. How about Zacualtipan? Xochicoatlán?—and beautiful campo, flowers, trees, cactus, everything green, green, green until the next mountain robbed further sight.

Besides taking stabs at the names of passing towns, I learned a chingo de nuevas groserías (rough translation: a shit-ton of new bad words). I can now swear like a sailor in both English in Spanish, thanks to Gustavo and Bush. It was also an eye-opening lesson in the rules of the road. How annoying is it when someone lumbers along in the left lane going the speed limit? Not a problem. Tailgating in Mexico is an accepted and much-used practice. Lesson 1: Do not slow down to this idiot’s pace. Rather, speed up as to appear as if one wants to clobber said idiot. Idiot takes note, changes lanes, allowing you to continue at your accelerated speed and claim your rightful place on the road, never mind if this lane-change is fully complete or not. Lesson 2: Shoulders exist for a reason. Take full advantage to pass to the left or right, taking note of impending oncoming traffic. Lesson 3: Beef jerky (carne seca) is just as satisfying—only drier, chewier and stringier—while on Mexican road trips. Even better, passengers can drink. Bush and I sipped tepache—fermented piña juice with chile and lime, only slightly alcoholic but intoxicatingly sweet. Dark, sweet, fermented nectar and the open road. Ahhh.

Finally, three hours and a business meeting later (something about packaging car parts…yawn, I’ll wait in the truck, thank you!), we arrived in the famously picturesque San Miguel de Allende, home to countless retired American expats. The town’s quaint charm easily explained why.

No sooner than we clambered out of the truck, stretching our stiff limbs and beginning the climb up a narrow cobbled street, did we see a funeral procession from some church for mass to some cemetery for a burial, passing through the street at the crest of our climb. My jaw almost dropped to see this parade of people, the first few carrying the coffin, followed by a full mariachi band playing some upbeat tune, another cluster of mourners and finally the line of trucks and cars. Like I said, la muerte keeps peeping in on my life here in Mexico. After lunch and a couple of cervezas, we walked, climing and descending the cobbled streets, peeking into stores full of beautiful artesanías and taking pictures of every picture-perfect balconied window, ancient wooden door, streetlamp and stone pediment. The intricate stone-carved facades of the churches only added to San Miguel de Allende’s allure. The fading sunlight enhanced the bright yellows and oranges of the buildings and made everything oh-so-dreamy. In the end, Gustavo, also a fanatic of the vibrant paper calavera sculptures, surprised me with my very own calavera. Actually, four—The Beatles crossing Abbey Road! Sorry Paul, Sorry Ringo, but in Mexico, you’re already goners.

With the setting sun, we headed back for Cholula, stopping briefly at the lookout over the city below. By eleven o’clock, the carne seca and lunch having worn off, we ended the night at a tiny taquería down the street from home. Taking Gustavo and Bush’s suggestion, I tried pozole, a broth with corn, pork and/or chicken, and cilantro. Not just ordinary corn, enormous white kernels boiled until they burst open, giving them an incredibly interesting texture. As Bush so aptly put it, sopa de palomitas (popcorn soup!) The filling and warming soup came with slivered radishes, lettuce, diced onion, lime, dried oregano and chili powder, added to taste. There is definitely more range to Mexican food than I had imagined.

Waiting at home all day Monday for the no-show plumber to install my new hot water heater gave me the opportunity to spend some quality time with Sra. Zanella and observe her in the kitchen.  We made chile poblanos stuffed with quesillo, a stringy Oaxacan cheese that melts beautifully, and stewed with onions and nata (cream). She literally scooped the nata that had risen to the top of her fresh milk, whisking it a bit to get rid of some of the curdy lumps. Full-fat, unpasteurized fresh milk is one of a kind. I risked the pathogans and drank a full glass. She also taught me a trick to make peeling roasted chile poblanos a breeze—let them sit in a closed plastic bag after roasting. Their own steam helps finish the job of loosening the skin.

The rest of the week, I kept working on all that produce! Sra. Zanella had prompted me to buy a chayote, a green, spiny vegetable thing. Another item I would not have ventured to buy. But because the chayote had already been roasting, preparing it was a breeze—once I had safely peeled it! The chayote is a vegetable of many uses, one that takes on the flavor of whatever is it prepared with. It can be eaten raw as the foundation of a salad, used like a potato in a soup or stew, or prepared simply, heated with melted quesillo, salt and lime. I chose the latter as a light dinner one night. The texture was something between potato and squash, very tender, and the flavor really subtle. Everything is better with a generous hit of melted cheese, and chayote was no exception.

Next, I tackled the half-kilo of tomatillos, still in their husks, sitting on top of my refrigerator. I also had some ripe avocados on hand, a smaller, darker-skinned variety with a smaller seed. I have fallen in love with salsa verde, a salsa made from tomatillos, onion, pepper, lime juice, cilantro, salt and a touch of sugar. I especially love the creamier variety that incorporates avocado. Even without a traditional molcajete or the modern equivalent, a hand-blender, I decided to try my hand at making my own version, using a potato-masher instead. With a little extra muscle, it turned out delicious. The most important thing about this salsa is balancing the tartness of the tomatillos with a bit of sugar. The acidic lime juice, spicy jalapeño, fresh cilantro and salt help round out the flavor. The avocado did the trick, adding creaminess to the taste and texture. This morning, I made a traditional breakfast using the sauce. Two fried eggs on top of a warmed corn tortilla smothered in salsa verde. Delicioso.

Tomatillo salsa with avocado

8-10 small to medium sized tomatillosPublish Post
3 small avocados or 1 large Hass avocado, cubed
1 small onion, diced
1-2 jalapeños, diced
juice of 2 limes
fresh cilantro

Tomatillos can either be broiled or boiled. To boil, cut tomatillos in quarters or halves, depending on size. Place in a large frying pan and cover with water. Bring water to a boil and let simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the tomatillos with a slotted spoon. In a medium bowl, add the tomatillos, avocado, onion, and jalapeños. Using a hand-blender, pulse ingredients until blended. Do not puree, as you want the salsa to retain some texture. Add lime juice, cilantro, sugar and salt to taste, stir to incorporate. This is a flexible recipe, and all ingredients can be adjusted. Use only one jalapeño if you aren’t a fan of spice. Serrano chiles can be substituted for the jalapeños. Tomatillos vary in tartness, adjust sugar accordingly. 

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