Monday, January 31, 2011

A Mexican Cook's Meal of Choice?

For this week’s anecdote I am going back to Mexico where my travel adventures began.

Many years ago during my summer vacations I visited a friend who lived in San Diego and we always made at least one foray to Tijuana. We usually rode the trolley to the border then walked up and across the ramp above the multitude of cars below that were going in both directions. After descending the ramp we walked through a very touristy plaza with all kinds of shops, outdoor cafés, and farmacías. I must admit that I love those kinds of places.

However, my companion, a non-Spanish-speaking lady, wanted to visit the real Tijuana without the hordes of tourists.

After quickly bypassing the tourist area we began walking up and down the busy business sections and shortly before noon we decided we were quite hungry. There were plenty of sidewalk stands selling all kinds of yummy tacos and we were tempted to buy some but we really wanted to sit down and eat a meal in comfort. My friend wanted to eat in a typical Mexican restaurant where no gringos had ever gone before. She wanted our meal to be completely authentic without any north of the border influence.

Finally, we found a little neighborhood café deep in the heart of Tijuana, which seemed to suit her just fine. She wanted to sample menudo because she had seen a recipe for it in a San Diego newspaper and she thought it looked delicious. I love menudo and hoped also that it would be on the menu but it wasn’t. I rather imagined that menudo would be offered on Sunday and suggested to her that perhaps we might return to Tijuana on a future Sunday.

So, we ordered a combination plate of tacos and enchiladas, arroz y frijoles. We took our time, savoring every bite, and observing the other Mexican patrons. Soon all of the diners had left except us. Then we noticed that the cook and the waiters were apparently getting ready to eat.

“I wonder what a Mexican cook eats for lunch,” said my friend.

“She’ll eat what everyone else has eaten,” I said all so knowingly. I mean, what kind of question was that to ask? What else would a Mexican cook eat in a Mexican restaurant in Tijuana, México?

Then I watched in horror as the cook set out some items on the counter and began preparing her lunch.

She had bypassed all those lovely, delicious antojitos and fixed herself—a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!!!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Solving the Mystery of Argentine Pie

In visiting and also living in other countries such as Spain, Portugal, and England, the one thing I’ve learned is that the aromas one encounters on almost every street corner in each country, whether a small village or large city, are literally breathtaking and tongue-drooling. In other words bakeries and pastry shops abound and the choices are mind-boggling.

When my companion and I arrived in Cádiz, Spain, we naturally had to search for local cuisine. It was in Cádiz that I sampled my first real paella and for as long as we were in Andalucía I ate paella almost daily.

However, this little tale has more to do with tapas and empanadas—the kinds one might find in pastelerías or pastry shops all over Spain—than with rice and seafood. On our second day in Cádiz after eating a mid-day meal of soup topped with fried bread accompanied by paella at an outdoor café, we walked around the streets of the old part of Cádiz. By midafternoon I realized that hunger struck me whenever we passed a pastelería—the aromas seemed to be hunger-inducing. My companion was not as interested in these establishments as I was and I almost always entered them alone. Her problem was that she was trying to lose weight and did not want to be tempted.

Now, I must tell you that if you want to lose weight then don’t go to Europe, even if you spend a lot of time walking as we did—five to seven miles everyday. The fun of all that walking besides seeing the sights and meeting the people is sampling the local cuisine. Nonetheless, I found myself alone whenever I wanted to try a new dish or pastry. My friend bought fresh fruit and vegetables and freshly baked bread everyday in the local markets and except for the occasional dining out that was what she lived on. Not me. I could never abandon an enticing pastry shop.

And finally as we passed one with all kinds of empanadas (meat pies) in the window I just had to go in and buy one. I pointed one out to the proprietor—one that looked particularly good and bought it. Stepping outside I bit into it and was instantly reminded of something that I had tasted many years before—the Argentine pie from a Cuban bakery in Puerto Rico. I had always thought that the meat was a combination of shredded chicken and pork. To be certain I re-entered the shop and asked the proprietor what kind of meat was in the empanada.

He replied simply enough, “Atún.”

Good grief! I was flabbergasted. How could that be? How could anyone make tuna taste that good? Now, I had to rethink my whole take on that Argentine pie. For many years I had made my own version, never quite getting the seasonings right. Could it be that all I needed was to substitute tuna for chicken and pork?

Several years later back home in Texas I found a Spanish Tapas cookbook in a local bookstore. It was that cookbook that fully explained tapas to me and I realized all the mistakes my companion and I had made while in Spain regarding eating customs. But my greatest discovery was the recipe for empanadas de atún—mixing the tuna with sautéed chopped sweet onions and lots and lots of Spanish paprika.

I now know how to make delicious Spanish empanadas de atún but I can also make an Argentine pie similar to the one I sampled from that Cuban bakery in Puerto Rico. However, I call it Palmaltas Pizza and it has appeared in my novel A Caribbean Summer.

And now it is time to return to México where all my travel adventures began and the fantastic discovery of just what a Mexican cook really eats.

To be continued . . .

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Good Cup of Coffee in Spain and Portugal?

Continuing my journey through the Iberian Peninsula:

My companion and I decided that although our pensao was very charming and comfortable it was more expensive than what we wanted and not close enough to Old Lisbon, a section of the city that we soon fell in love with where there were sidewalk cafés, travelers galore, mimes, and a band of Inca musicians from Bolivia! We soon found an old hotel right in the center of things that had been converted into a bed and breakfast pensao. It was several stories high and we were given a small bedroom with two beds and a bidet [and please don’t ask me to explain that!]on the second floor. We had to share the bathroom with the other rooms in our section but luckily we were the only ones there that week.

One of the most charming things about that pensao was the old-fashioned elevator—the kind you see in old black and white movies that look like a cage. There was a trick to operating it but luckily we never got stuck. The dining room was located next to a large sitting room and both were on our floor.

We looked forward to our breakfast the next morning after checking in and a hot cup of coffee. Before that we had not been able to find anything to our liking. The pastry shops where many Lisbon citizens seemed to stop for coffee in the mornings only served little demitasses of espresso or cappuccino and I must admit here and now that I am one of those people who must have hot, black coffee without milk or sugar every morning or I cannot survive.

When we sat down for breakfast in the elegant dining room we were served hard rolls, butter, and various kinds of jams and jellies—a breakfast we were to encounter for the rest of our stay in Portugal and one we would eventually tire of. But that morning we were delighted with our fare, especially when the waitress brought out two pitchers—one with very black, thick strong coffee and the other with hot milk. My friend, trying to do as the Romans do or rather the Portuguese, poured half coffee and half milk into her cup but not me. I poured only the coffee into mine. Now, you’re probably thinking that it was so strong that I relented and had to dilute it with the milk but you’d be wrong. I drank it that way and soon became addicted to it.

After five days we left Lisbon and traveled west by train to Estoril and Cascais, two of the loveliest and friendliest places on earth. We found the Pensao Mariluz in Estoril and stayed there five weeks. Mariluz served the same breakfast as the ones we had in Lisbon and the same coffee—a pitcher of hot milk and a pitcher of thick strong black coffee.

We had many adventures in Estoril and Cascais, not to mention our surprise at discovering that the beaches at Estoril were topless ones, but this is a tale about coffee and those other tales will be incorporated into one of my future novels.

We settled into the Pensao Mariluz where we had a small bedroom with two full beds, a wardrobe, lavatory, the inevitable bidet, and a balcony [the only one in that establishment] with a table and two chairs and sun umbrella on the second floor overlooking a courtyard surrounded by lovely old trees. Once acclimated we soon set out to explore the surrounding area. Since we ate breakfast there everyday all coffee worries evaporated. We ate lunch at a charming cafeteria by the beach and brought bread, wine [also diet cola, which was more expensive than the wine], fruit, and cheese at a local supermarket for our evening meals. But when we traveled by bus or train to other villages and cities we once again encountered the coffee dilemma—those dreadful demitasses of espresso.

Once my companion went to the trouble of explaining with sign language exactly the kind of coffee we wanted in a restaurant in the lovely city of Coimbra. She even got up and followed the waiter to the back of the establishment and directed him as he made the coffee. Then she came back and proudly announced that we would soon have the coffee of our dreams. A few minutes later the waiter appeared with—demitasses of espresso! So much for sign language.

After five weeks of living in Portugal you would think that I would have picked up a modicum of Portuguese but somehow I never caught onto to the rhythm or tone of the language. Sometimes I could get the gist of what was said and we did carry around a tiny dictionary but I pronounced everything Portuguese with a Spanish pronunciation and no one seemed to understand me.

When we finally arrived once again on Spanish soil I evolved a technique for ordering coffee.
In each coffee or pastry shop I would simply say, “¿Me da una taza de café negro sin leche y un vaso de agua caliente, por favor?”

The waiter or clerk would look at me strangely but nonetheless bring me a tiny cup of black coffee and a glass of hot water. Then I would pour that very strong thick coffee into the glass of water and there it was—coffee that almost resembled the coffee that I brewed at home! If only I had learned to order that way in Portuguese.

But not all our food and drink adventures were disasters. We made some very pleasant and tasty discoveries . . .

To be continued . . .

Monday, January 10, 2011

How Not to Order Food in Portugal

My traveling companion had a great and urgent desire to go to Portugal but I wanted to stay in Madrid a little longer. However, she soon talked me into taking the night train to Lisbon. To this day I do not understand why we had to take that train—we missed seeing the Spanish countryside altogether. But she had been to Europe before and had slept in sleeping cars with her husband and insisted that this was the best way for going a long distance. As it turned out we were to share our sleeping cabin with two young Asian men who were not traveling together. One of them was traveling with a group of girls who had the cabin next to ours. I wondered why we had to share our cabin with the young men instead of the young women but as it turned out it didn’t really matter. My friend, the expert in sleeping arrangements, insisted that we take the bottom bunks and the two men each took a bunk over us. We left the train station rather late, perhaps around 9:30, and after settling in on our bunks my friend was soon sound asleep and snoring peacefully as were the young men. But I couldn’t sleep at all. The bottom bunk was naturally right over the rails and I spent a sleepless night of clickety-clack noise and snoring.

When we reached Lisbon the next morning my friend was refreshed and ready to go out in search of a pensao for us to stay in. I was exhausted and wanted only to go to a nice place and sleep in a decent bed. We were traveling according to the advice in various travel books and intended to find the best and least expensive rooming houses, bed and breakfasts, or pensaos that were listed. But as we alighted from the train I was not in the mood to traipse around Lisbon looking for a place to stay. Luckily for us the train was met by an array of gentlemen who represented different pensaos. I recognized the name of one of the pensaos printed on a car and suggested that we go with that particular chauffeur.

Off we went on a rather wild ride through the streets of Lisbon with our chauffeur who turned out to be the proprietor of a lovely pensao situated on a busy commercial street not too far from Old Lisbon, the part of the city that had once been destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in long rectangular blocks. The pensao’s décor inside resembled something out of the Arabian nights, possibly a remnant of long ago Moorish invaders. We met the proprietor’s wife with whom my companion tried to bargain for room plus breakfast to no avail. Then we were led down tiled steps and up and around corners to our room, which to our delight overlooked the busy street below. The room was big and airy, clean and neat with two beds. The bathroom presented a puzzle that we were to encounter many times—how to flush the commode. My friend soon found a button on the wall and pushed it. Voilá—the commode flushed!

Our next problem after a morning nap was where to eat for lunch and dinner. We left our pensao and set out looking for a restaurant. We soon found one that was very busy with lunchtime diners and decided that it must serve very good food. Now since I spoke Spanish I assumed that I would at least be able to read a menu in Portuguese. But there was nothing on that menu that I could recognize except omelet and I didn’t want an omelet—I wanted something Portuguese. A waiter came by to take our orders and my friend ordered an omelet, something she was to do every time she couldn’t figure out what else was on a menu. And, by the way, they were American style omelets not the delicious Spanish egg and potato ones. Most of the people in the restaurant were eating plates piled high with huge French fries and possibly chicken. I didn’t want that either. Finally the waiter brought me various kinds of something that looked like fried pies or croquettes. I later learned that they were called salgados and I fell in love with them. The travel books looked down on salgados and said not to bother with them. Please, do not pay attention to everything in travel and guide books.

Our next problem, of course, was where to eat that night. After another nap in our room we set out in the evening for a stroll and a search for a restaurant. The lunch restaurant was closed so we strolled up and down the now almost deserted street. We came to a tiny bakery that had a rather extensive menu sign posted outside. We wandered inside but didn’t see any indication of a restaurant or any food other than a few pastries. We pointed to the sign outside to the clerk and he took us behind a counter and pointed to stairs that led downward.

I quite happily started to descend the stairs when my friend grabbed my arm and asked if I thought we were going to be kidnapped. I could already see a large room with tables and chairs and people dining quite happily. I told her not to worry and we descended to a charming neighborhood restaurant. The waiter brought us the menu and we discovered that there were two prices for everything but didn’t understand what that meant. We ordered a double meal when we should have ordered a single and two plates. While we were waiting the waiter placed a plate of olives and another of various kinds of bread rolls and butter. We really didn’t want all those things but we didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings so we sampled the olives and I must say that I never acquired a taste for homegrown and cured Spanish and Portuguese olives no matter how much I tried. I love the ones in the supermarket at home but not these. We also didn’t want to be rude so we sampled the various rolls, also, and of course, the butter.

Soon, however, the waiter brought the main course—Porco com ameijoas a Alentejana, Pork with Clams seasoned with wine, garlic, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, and parsley and served with a green salad. It was unbelievably delicious!

We went out of our way to compliment the restaurant staff especially the cooks. The food in that little Portuguese hideaway turned out to be among the best of our Iberian adventures. And the staff, in turn, showed us what wonderful and hospitable people the Portuguese are.

And for good reason—when we received our bill we understood why we were charged double for our meal—that’s what we had mistakenly ordered. But they had also charged us separately for sampling the olives, each roll we had taken a bite out of, and each pat of butter used! For the rest of our trip we didn’t touch olives or bread and butter in eating establishments although we did buy them in the local markets.

Were we ever going to learn how to order food—and to our dismay that most necessary of beverages—black coffee?

To be continued . . .

Monday, January 3, 2011

How NOT to Order Tapas in Spain!

Shortly after My traveling companion and I arrived in Madrid and had explored our area, even walking blocks and blocks to the El Prado Museum and exploring the grounds and nearby park, we always came back to the Plaza Mayor to eat. We stayed at a charming little place called El Hostal Macarena and discovered that directly across from us was a place called El Cuchi Restaurante, a restaurant that specialized in, would you believe—Mexican food? Well, I had not come all the way to eat Mexican food in Spain—I eat Mexican food quite frequently in my own home. I wanted real Spanish cuisine.

As we walked around the Plaza Mayor we noticed that people always stood at the counter or bar in the eating establishments—all with the word Tapas above the menu.. Very few sat at the tables inside or the ones outside on the Plaza. I soon realized why—the price of the food went up depending on where you ate. If you sat down inside, you would be charged more than if you stood up, and even more if you went outside. This was a disappointment to me—I loved outdoor cafés but my companion and I were on a budget and so we settled for standing up at the counter.

Our main problem was that we didn’t understand the menu written all over the walls of these establishments except for tortillas. I immediately ordered a slice of tortilla and received a nice thick slice of an egg and potato omelet, which really resembled a frittata.

Since we didn’t want to eat Spanish tortillas for every meal, I tried to watch what others were eating. However, I didn’t recognize anything at first and I couldn’t match what was being eaten to what was written on the wall. At one place the proprietor was making cute little fried somethings or other and I asked what they were in perfect Spanish. He didn’t reply but gave me a couple and didn’t charge me anything. I think they were probably croquettes of some kind and they were delicious. Now here was our first mistake. We should have gone from establishment to establishment asking what those little appetizers were and we would probably have received free samples. But no, we were too honest to do that or to be really honest, the thought never occurred to us.

One evening we were particularly hungry and entered one of these Tapa places and saw a big basket full of something that looked like deep-fried onion rings. Now, if you’re going to think that we actually thought that was what they were, you would be wrong. I knew they were deep-fried squid rings. I had eaten a lot of squid in Puerto Rico and loved it, especially a marinated squid salad. My companion and I decided that since we finally found something we recognized and liked we would order the basket of fried squid rings.

I asked the proprietor in my oh-so perfect Spanish if we could have the basket of squid. He didn’t blink an eyelid and handed it to us. He offered us a fruit drink of some kind and we stood there stuffing ourselves with the delicious squid. We were also very proud at having found something relatively inexpensive to eat. Scanning the menu wall I spied calamares fritos and noticed how unbelievably inexpensive they were. I told my friend that this was the cheapest meal we could have possibly have chosen—it was only going to cost us a few pennies, American money.

We finished our basket of squid and drank our juice and asked the proprietor for the bill. His answer translated into English [I can’t remember the ratio of pesetas to dollars] was, “Seventeen dollars.” We were stunned.

“¿Cómo puede ser?” I asked. How can that be?

His explanation? The price on the menu wall was for one or two little squid rings not the whole basket. Then I looked around and saw that people were eating fried squid sandwiches with one or two squid tucked into sliced bread rolls.

We paid without arguing, ducking our heads in shame as we left the establishment.

Much later I discovered what amateurish turistas we had been. In Spain tapas bars and taverns are patronized before lunch and before dinner—the tapas are little appetizers for the larger meals to come. It took us a long time to realize that regular restaurants didn’t open until very late in the evening. Even nine o’clock was an early dining hour.

But as we continued our trip westward toward Portugal we knew we had learned a valuable lesson in ordering food and would not make such a gigantic mistake, price-wise again.

Or would we?

To be continued . . .