Could You Cook Your Holiday Dinner Here?

foodWe recently had the very good pleasure of traveling to our friend’s hometown, San Ignacio, Sinaloa. It’s just over an hour from Mazatlán. On the way we stopped for one of the best breakfasts I’ve had in a long, long time. The meal was at Cuata’s, just south of San Ignacio. I had stewed ribs with nopales, and Greg had carne asada/grilled beef. It was accompanied by the most marvelous queso fresco — panela cheese, and the mooooooosssst glorious homemade blue corn tortillas ever!

Now, surely this wonderful meal, made with items from a stew pot, griddle, and grill, came out of a well stocked and well staffed kitchen. Indeed it did, though it was a kitchen that many chefs might find challenging to work in. More power to the cook! Cuata’s kitchen, without gas, electricity or running fresh water, was a Christmas reminder to me that sometimes simple is best!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To keep Cuata company as she cooks, there are several pet pericos.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Heartiest of heartfelt holiday wishes to all our readers. I am grateful for good friends, beloved family, open-air awesome restaurants like Cuata’s, the good health to be able to enjoy food like she serves, and the ability to share a bit of our lives with you. Thank you for being here with us!

Cooking Class at Molika: Pesce in crosta di sale

I’m privileged to have a terrific group of lady friends who like to cook, and we get together to learn and to teach one another once a month or so. In addition to our Thai cooking classes, we’ve made timballo (Italian “drum” with pasta and eggplant), tortas ahogadas, rajas, chicken mole, macarones, and lemon cake, among some other wonderful things.

Well, my friend Magda got the wonderful idea to book us a series of classes with Héctor at Molika, downtown on Belisario Dominguez near the Plazuela. While I’ve known Héctor for several years — he’s a GREAT bread baker (sourdough and ciabatta plus other good loaves) and I am in love with his grilled vegetables (which we also frequently make at home) — I discovered that he also truly shines as a teacher!

He is funny, charismatic, and I LOVE that he teaches METHODS rather than recipes! In one two-hour class on cooking fish, he demonstrated SIX different methods of preparing the fish we commonly have available here in Mazatlán. For me who learned to cook fish while living in Japan, I learned a lot. For example, he taught us to cut off the fins (see video above) before cooking the fish (you’ll know that most Asians LOVE the crispy fins and would never think of removing them before cooking), saying that the fins have too strong a flavor.

My favorite? Well, by now you know me. I love something different, and especially something impressive. And Héctor delivered: Pesce in crosta di sale, or fish in a “tomb” of salt. I’ve eaten many fish baked in salt crust before, but nothing quite like this!

Rather than just salt with aromatics, Héctor made a salt dough with the 2 salt : 1 flour, eggs, fresh herbs and a bit of water.

He kneaded it (see video above),

Rolled it out,

Pressed two pieces (top and bottom) to the form of the corvina, sealing the dough with beaten egg, decorated it a bit,

Trimmed it to shape (video above), and then baked it for 45 minutes.

The fish of course turned out incredibly moist, aromatic and flavorful. He said he prefers to use robalo rather than corvina, but I was plenty happy with this.

He suggested that we cut the rock-hard crust in the kitchen (you can see above that’s pretty challenging), then take the encrusted fish to the table, where we open it in front of our guests. That way the room fills with the wonderfully aromatic scents.

Finally, unlike Japan where everyone knows how to eat fish on the bone, Héctor suggested we remove the flesh from the fish in front of our guests, serving it up on plates. He removed and discarded the skin, saying that baked/steamed fish skin doesn’t taste good. I can hear the shocked gasps of my Asian friends now, but it was nice for me to learn a more European approach. I will definitely give this gorgeous dish a try. I must admit that I preferred the taste of several of the other dishes he prepared! This one was just a presentational stunner, like my timballo (thanks, Allison, for teaching me!).

We made pescado en papillote, fish steamed in paper. We stuffed the fish with aromatics: lemon peel, garlic and fresh herbs (basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme), then garnished with sliced fresh celery, onion and carrot. It was interesting to me, again with my Asian influence, that Héctor taught us to peel the celery, removing the fibers. Definitely a finer dining touch than I’m used to.

Above you can see Héctor opening the papillón.

A third dish we made in this two-hour class was the dish I swore every single Japanese restaurant serves: sole meuniere (lenguado). Many of the ladies were very happy to have Héctor teach them how to filet. Cleaning and preparing fish is fortunately one of the many skills I learned well in Japan. One of the key points he pointed out is to filet fish when it’s cold, fresh from the icebox. That way it’s much firmer and easier to handle.

Héctor studied and cooked in London before returning to his native Mazatlán, and he uses lots of olive oil and sea salt, as you’ve already seen (way more than I’m used to, though I will start putting a bit more olive oil on for taste at the end), and for this dish he used a whole lot of butter as well. Nobody said good cooking isn’t fattening! He did caution us to check the ingredients on the butter we buy, as ideally it should be made from milk, and not contain emulifiers and a bunch of chemicals. I do think that’s part of the baking challenge I’ve had since I moved here — gotta buy better butter.

And here we have the finished lenguado/sole, covered with sauce from the pan and garnished with a bit of parsley.

I had been craving salmon and asparagus, and just that morning bought both to make for lunch, so was fascinated to see Héctor make this as part of our repertoire for the day. He of course used clarified butter as it withstands higher heat, to get the nice crispiness on the salmon. Note: he removed the skin before cooking. I guess this is also either a European way or alta cocina, because personally I love the crispy skin. I was sooooo gratified to see him cook it the way I feel it should be. Héctor told us that salmon, tuna and swordfish should always be left rare in the center, and I heartily agree. People here in Mazatlán always seem to overcook fish.

The fifth dish he made was swordfish. He cubed the fish, sauteed it with fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes, capers and olives. In addition to the lemon (yellow lemon) rind he added to most all these dishes, he also added a bit of lemon pulp. This concoction he poured over his famously to-die-for ciabatta, and oh my!!!! The bread somehow soaked up and enhanced the lemon flavor of the sauce, and it was soooooo delicious!

I’ve left my favorite dish for last. Fortunately, it was also probably the easiest to cook: pescado en la bolsa, fish in a bag. He used the same ingredients as most of the other dishes — fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes, olives, capers, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil. The wonderful part, besides the incredible taste?

He put all the ingredients in a ziploc bag and cooked it in near-boiling water on the stove! It took just a few minutes and there was nothing except the serving dish to clean up! My son is in Scouts, and they cook just like this on their campouts. Maybe not quite the gourmet ingredients as this, but still very tasty nonetheless.

Thank you, Magda, for setting this up for us! Thank you, Héctor, for a marvelous class! We are very much looking forward to our next one.

Anyone wanting to arrange a class for a group of friends, please give Molika a call: 669-981-1577. Héctor’s English and Spanish are flawless, and his kitchen skills are a gift to Mazatlán.

Wonderful New Restaurant and BB in Cerritos

We made a terrific new discovery today, out of the blue. A wonderful little restaurant right on the beach with a laid-back style and … drumroll please …  a very creative menu: Jamaican jerk beef, sun dried tomato quiche, shiitake mushroom and vegetable spring rolls with mango-habanero salsa … How unusual is THAT for Mazatlán?

As if creativity weren’t enough (you know you can recite the ceviche/aguachile/pescado o camarones a la diabla, mojo de ajo o a la plancha of 90% of our local restaurants), items are made fresh, the menu changes weekly, and it includes lots of fresh veggies, salads and homemade soups. The owner loves music, so she chooses a musician of the week (this week is most rightly dedicated to recently departed Etta James) and tailors her weekly menu to the theme. As I said, creativity reigns in this place.

The restaurant, called “Surf’s Up,” is owned and operated by a vivacious young Canadian woman named Leanne Wright (that’s her at left, between my two boys). She relocated here from Vancouver a year ago, and together with her parents has spent the past year readying the cafe and an adjoining four-room bed and breakfast called “El Sol La Vida” for business. The “resort” opened nine weeks ago, and is located right next to Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay (Camino al Delfín #520) in Sabalo Cerritos. It is definitely worth the drive!

The inviting interior with open kitchen seats maybe 20-24 people, and there are outdoor terrace tables as well as numerous tables on the beach. The view is spectacular, the setting very peaceful and yet vibrant. Surf’s Up is open Wednesday through Saturday 8 am – 4 pm, and any evening for dinner with a prior reservation (669-164-1896). They also serve a Sunday brunch from 10 – 4. In addition to the substantial meal menu, there is a full coffee menu (lattes, cappuccinos, frappes).

Leanne (that’s her at left, between my two boys) told us she’s worked in food service for 14 years, and loves to travel the world taking cooking lessons with top chefs (this summer she’ll be in Tuscany). She buys breads from Héctor at Molika and produce from the new Organic Farmers’ Market in Plaza Zaragoza. Turns out that in addition to being an outgoing and upbeat cook with a keen sense of design (the whole place is really charming), she’s a highly ranked amateur boxer who will travel with the Canadian team to this summer’s London Olympics (she won’t be boxing, though, due to injuries from a car crash). And, no, she hasn’t yet made it to la cancha German Evers to see one of our local boxing matches.

There were three of us for lunch today, and we had the above-mentioned spring rolls served with a terrific side salad (spring mix lettuce with sweet onion, four colors of bell peppers, craisins, almonds and cheese);

a very tasty chicken tostada (the sweet onions made it);

and roast beef on ciabatta with potato slices, two kinds of cheese, grilled onions, and mustard seeds. This last was listed on the menu as a breakfast item. The breakfast menu is lengthy and also creative, and is served all day.

For dessert we split a homemade oatmeal cookie with coconut, raisins and almonds. Leanne was just taking these out of the oven as we entered, and the smell was to-die-for. She also had slices of apple coconut cake available.

We all very much enjoyed our meals. Each of them was solidly good tasting, beautifully presented, and a welcome breath of fresh air in an exceptional setting. Keeping in mind this restaurant is only nine weeks young, it is our hope that as Leanne settles in and gets more comfortable, the flavor of her recipes will rise to the high level set by the creativity of her menu.

Menu items (most accompanied by soup or salad) ranged from 80 – 100 pesos, which we felt was very reasonable, though for some reason the hamburger is priced at a very high 150 pesos. Yes, it’s Henderson’s sirloin, but … My fear is that as Surf’s Up gets popular the extensive menu may have to be trimmed, and Leanne will obviously have to hire and train some more staff, which seems so often to make for difficulties with a new place. Changing menus each week can place added stress on a kitchen staff as well and quality may suffer; we will have to check back and see.

After lunch we toured the four rooms and common area of the bed and breakfast, El Sol La Vida. The rooms were large and airy. The wood carpentry has been beautifully done. All rooms except one had a terrace or patio.

Bathrooms have onyx sinks and marble tile work. Shower enclosures are glass block. Rooms are $129 Canadian per night, and the one without a terrace is $99/night.

Leanne’s parents were owner-operators of a garden center for years and it shows with wonderful landscaping and floral treats throughout the property.

The pool is heated and well positioned. There is a poolside bar, and some incredibly comfortable-looking seating, plus easy access to the beach.

I wish Leanne and her parents all the best of luck! I do hope this place gains popularity in a way that will allow them to succeed; it has a terrific energy about it.

Welcome to Mazatlán, and thank you for being here!

One other small note:
As we drove in, we noticed a very interesting property next door. Danny said it reminded him of the Lord of the Rings. Sure enough, Leanne told us that the guy who built it had the book series in mind, and the 5-bedroom uniquely built place is now a rental property, called Sand Castle. Like elves? Check it out!

Fastest Restaurant Service in the World/Karne Garibaldi


México, the land of mañana, a place where ahorita (“right now”) means “I am aware of it; we will get to it, eventually…” So imagine our shock this afternoon when we walked into a restaurant across the street from our hotel in Guadalajara, and before we could even sit down onto our table appears FRESH food: limes, chopped cilantro and onion, chips and salsa, and hot corn tortillas! A waiter showed up with pen and notepad in hand, smiling, asking us for our order, before we had barely sat down!

“What do you have?” I naïvely asked. “Beef cooked in its juice, small, medium or large.” Easy enough. (They do have quesadillas if you don’t want meat, but not much else.) Our small orders showed up in about 20 seconds. We had been sitting for all of 30 seconds, maybe, and we were eating fresh hot food! The slowest part of the process was us. Had we been experienced diners, it would have been a seamless, fluid transaction.

For us it was quite disconcerting. The place, Karne Garibaldi, is evidently pretty famous in Guadalajara, founded in the 1970s and currently with five different locations throughout the city. Since August 31, 1996, they have held the Guinness World Record for fastest service: 13.5 seconds from kitchen to table! This is not a taco stand; it is huge, comprising what are basically three large dining rooms. We didn’t count, but would guess there are sixty tables and seating for a few hundred people. We normally clocked people getting served their main courses and drinks between 30 and 50 seconds, but that’s still pretty darned amazingly speedy!

Remarkably to me, the staff all worked together like a well-oiled machine and, they were happy doing it! The hostesses seat groups of people and stand at the table with their hands in the air as the guests sit down. The side dishes all show up, and a waiter shows up. The waiter runs (literally) the order ticket to the kitchen, and the food and drinks are served lickety split. Other waiters wander around with fresh guacamole or other side dishes you might want to add to the standard-issue salsa, grilled cebollitas, limes, and their famous frijoles con elote (beans with corn). Waiters who are not busy taking orders or serving clear plates from tables. And boy, can they carry the weight! These are heavy pottery dishes! The entire time we were there, we only small smiles and great examples of team work, so often missing in restaurants today. Someone has done a great job instilling a culture of team work and customer service. Even the manager or crew supervisor was pitching in non-stop. Lots of nonverbal communication and staff member helping staff member; it was really fun and beautiful to watch.

Outside the restaurant in Plaza del Sol a line of cars waited a long way down the street for valets to park them, such is the demand on this place. We personally found the meat in its juice a bit bland, but there was plenty of salsa, lime, cilantro and onion to spice it up. And, thankfully, it was meat, not tripe or ears or eyes or…

The menu includes a large variety of drinks (including Greg’s beloved Coke Zero in a BOTTLE!) as well as Mexican desserts (jericalla, pastel mil hojas, flan, mousse de guayaba). Prices are reasonable (see menu at left). The small orders were enough for us as we went home very satisfied. It is only a few pesos more for the next sizes up, so a hungry diner won’t go broke. This is a great place to eat and probably a great place to work.

Just remember, next time someone tells you that Mexicans like to take their time… there are exceptions to every tendency!


Turkish Cooking with a Mexican View


In my last post I told you all how I fell in love with Turkey: her beauty, history, people and blend of cultures. Well, I also loved the food. Succulent, savory lamb, and roasted and raw vegetables in multiple combinations with every meal. I especially loved how the Turks prepared eggplant, or patlican (pronounced “patlijan”).

So, I bought Greg a book called “Turkish Cookery,” figuring his real gift would be that I’d try out some of the recipes. Today was my first try. I was of course worried. I’ve never cooked anything Turkish before. But man oh man oh man, was it good! At left is a glimpse of the meal we ate today on our Mexican terrace overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The weather here in Mazatlán has been very hot and humid. We took a long sweaty walk along the malecón/boardwalk this morning, and I then spent a couple of hours gardening. So, a cool meal sounded best today. Cucumbers are in season here, so first on today’s Turkish menu was cacik (pronounced jajik), yoghurt with cucumbers.

This dish is similar to Indian raita. I’d call it a cucumber-yoghurt salad, though my boys called it “cucumber soup.” I guess it is sort of like a gazpacho. It was easy-peasy to make and I HIGHLY recommend it on a hot day!

Peel, thinly slice and chop 2 large cukes. Sprinkle them with a bit (1 teaspoon or so) of sea salt. Let them sit. Put 500 grams plain yoghurt in a bowl, and with a whisk whip in about 1 cup of water. Add to the yoghurt mixture the salted cucumbers along with a clove of crushed garlic. Stir, and garnish with chopped fresh mint and dill. You can also drizzle a bit of olive oil on top (I didn’t and it still rocked). Be sure to chill this and eat it cold; the flavors really came forth after a couple of hours in the refrigerator. So refreshing!

The second dish I made was the one I was really craving: patlican salatasi, or eggplant salad. I ate this dish, or adaptations of this dish, quite a few times during my trip. Every time I’d ask the waiter, my meal mates or friends what the dish was called. Everytime they’d tell me “patlican,” “eggplant.” “Yes, I know it’s eggplant. But what is the name of the dish?” No one seemed to know. The photo in the cookbook looked like the dish I was craving, but what would it taste like????

First step was to mix the juice of one lemon with 1/2 cup of olive oil.

Then, just like in Japan, this recipe required that I roast the whole eggplants over an open flame, till the inside becomes tender and the outer skin becomes charred, then hold under cold running water for a few seconds before peeling off the skin. In Japanese cooking I absolutely love eggplant roasted in this fashion, and my taste proves consistent for Turkish cooking as well, evidently. After peeling the roasted eggplants (I roasted 3 big ones), you put them in a bowl and mash them up with a fork. I also used two knives like pastry knives to make sure all the pulp was cut and easy to eat.

Into the mashed roasted eggplant I dumped the oil/lemon juice, added a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, and a couple of cloves of minced garlic (the garlic wasn’t called for in the recipe, but hey, we love the stuff). I garnished the plate with sliced tomatoes (the recipe said to also garnish with onion, green pepper and olives), and we ate the roasted eggplant salad with French bread. Mmmmmm! Definitely a hit!

As long as I was roasting on top of the stove (too much work to start the grill, I guess, or maybe I just like that grill to be Greg’s territory), I figured I might as well roast the shrimp we had for lunch as well. After grilling I drizzled these with a bit of sesame oil and a bit of homemade aioli.

What to serve all this in? While in Turkey I bought a few Kütahya bowls, underglazed and handpainted. You can see them in the photo at left, the bowls to the right of my Japanese plates. The Kütahya remind me of our Mexican Talavera, don’t you think? In the same way as Talavera, Kütahya painting varies widely quality-wise (and price-wise!).

Here is a close-up of some of the food. Afiyet olsun!!! (Bon apetit!)

And here is a photo of one of the handsome men who lunched with me, a new convert to the joys of Turkish food 🙂