Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tequila Tasting

Guadalajara, Mexico

The mere mention of tequila elicits a rather strong reaction from most people. It is not the gagging green-faced look that mentioning, say, peppermint schnapps or cognac will get as the word quickly becomes a body retching memory of the first time you broke into your parent’s liquor cabinet and downed the closest thing to candy Kool-aid with the next door neighbor. No, the pained look is usually one of guilt and regret brought on by a fuzzy recollection of a parade of astringent shots compliments of a friend with a name like Jose Cuervo. Your new and fleeting amigo most likely fueled you with liquid courage and led you prancing in and out of debauchery, and landed you bowing to the porcelain goddess for a good part of the next day.

Ahhh, tequila, or as I like to fondly refer to it: te-kill-ya. I have to say, I love the stuff. For me, it is a kick start, a “boo-ya!” an “aie-yiiii-yiii-yi!” taken like a champ with a lick of salt, a bite of lime and a shake of the head. That, of course, was until I got a hold of the good stuff. Who knew there was a shelf above the frat-party elixir? Top shelf tequila: made for sipping; not to be seen in the same room as a salt shaker and a lime. That was my first revelation in the tequila realm, my second came after moving to Mexico – oh my god! There are thousands of different tequilas made here that are protected and coveted and certainly not released over the border – let the tasting begin!

Last Saturday I was invited to a tequila tasting party. People were instructed to bring a bottle of their favorite tequila. You would think, with fifty people grabbing last minute bottles off the nearest liquor store shelf there would be a few duplicates in the bunch. Nope. Most people paired up to bring a nicer bottle than they could afford on their own; 20 bottles made it to the party. In Mexico, there are 100 distilleries making over 900 brands and over 2,000 different labels.

Good tequila is meant to be savored, like a fine brandy. It is often served in a brandy snifter, but more commonly in a special glass, called a caballito (little horse), which is slightly smaller in diameter than a regular shot glass and over twice the height. Usually, the tequila will be served alongside a similar glass filled with sangrita, which is a sweet, sour, spicy mix made from a combination of water, tomato paste, orange juice, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, onion, red pepper sauce, salt and spices. So where does the salt and lime come from? Apparently, in 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic spread to Mexico. This was during the Mexican Revolution and medical supplies were scarce. Making good use of an already well-loved natural resource, doctors began prescribing tequila, lime and salt as both a prevention and a treatment against the flu. Tequila, at that time, was a bit more rough around the edges and Mexican’s had long been using the tried and true method of a little sodium chloride on the tongue to mollify the fiery flavor, chased with the citrusy lime juice to kill the aftertaste.

Regardless of all the possible chasers and sides, for the tequila tasting fiesta we were purists. The bottles were lined up with comment pages below and everyone was given a caballito. It was an informal affair, and everyone had their own style of tasting. Some, seriously trying to hone in on the subtle nuances of the potent agave juice, while others gagged it down, secretly wishing they were at a jello-shot tasting party. Here are a few of my favorite witty remarks from the tequila stained comment sheets:

“tore all the taste buds from my tongue”
“I threw it in the plant”
“This has ‘party whitey’ all over it!”
“burns like a urinary tract infection”
“Spring Break!!! Ft. Lauderdale ‘87”
“excellent engine-degreaser”
“raw, and not in a good way”
“I would use it as nail polish remover”
“good for cleaning wounds”

They weren’t all bad. This group falls into a sort of neutral category. Depending on how you feel about the described dominant flavor, it could be your cup of tea or a poo sandwich:

“smoky with a nutty after-burn”
“fairly smooth with a celery aftertaste”
“radish aftertaste”
“the wasabi of liquors”
“unique flavor, tastes odd in a musty attic sort of way”
“tastes like a saddle”

Reactions ran the gamut; there was definitely no clear winner. But one comment did stand out among the rest, one that was obviously inspired by poetry in a glass. Of the Tequila Corralejo Reposado, one taster wrote, “This is incredibly smooth. There is the taste you love and the bite is like a kiss, not a slap.” Spoken like someone who has been kicked in the ass a few times by the rough and wild, but is not afraid to seek a seductive embrace from an old friend.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Hamburg, Germany

Italian, Thai, Japanese, French... rarely, if ever, do you hear someone say "German!" when asked, "What do you feel like for dinner tonight?" "German" for most conjures up images of beer maidens in low-cut ruffly dirndels carrying enormous steins, baked pretzels with mustard and bratwurst covered with heaping mounds of sauerkraut. But as I will get into later, and admitting my Wisconsin - and therefore Germanic/Scandanavian - roots (which explains in part my penchant for meat and potatoes), I really dig German food. I do. Would venture even to say I love German food. And not the least of which is due to the culinary season currently in its prime here in Germany - Spargelzeit, or literally translated, asparagus time.

Mmmm, white asparagus. These ivory spears are a close cousin of the green variety but affectionados will tell you that their delicate nutty flavor is far superior. Naysayers, like the New York Times’ frugal gourmet Mark Bittman, make fun of the amount of hollandaise sauce that is poured over the stalks, claiming that anything tastes good when drowning in a mixture of butter, eggs and herbs.

Fair enough, but sauce or not, when done just right, i.e. the outer waxy skin is peeled off and the stripped spears are put, standing up, into a tall pot of boiling water with a sprinkling of salt, a pinch of sugar and a pat of butter (my mother-in-law swears by this technique), with the heads sticking out of the water; spears removed when you can sink a fork into them with little resistance but still the retention of the slightest bit of crispness (it takes a few batches to figure out when they are just right) – they are deeeelicious.

Fans also point out that a pound of white asparagus has only 100 calories. What they neglect to mention is that these asparagus are traditionally served covered either in hollandaise sauce or melted butter – either of which probably pack on at least another 1,000 calories – the majority of it from fat. Accompanied by neutral boiled potatoes and salty cooked or cured ham and mmmmmmmmm – what more do you need? Let me answer that for you, a glass of Riesling.

For the botanists in the group, despite the fact that green and white asparagus are of the same species, crop breeding over the last few thousand years has produced variations with entirely different characteristics. White aspargus are grown in dry sandy soil which is heaped on top of beds to prevent direct exposure to the sun. Protecting them from the sun prohibits the production of chlorophyll thereby retaining the white color. Those stalks that do peak however do not turn green, though the tips will turn a dark violet color – which changes the flavor slightly and decreases their value.

The over 70,000 tons of white asparagus consumed in Germany during spargelzeit is grown mainly in the asparagus triangle – an area between the towns of Heidelberg and Mannheim in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Stands spring up on sideroads and booths in the shape of strawberries pop up in local city centers selling the spears as well as smoked ham, different varieties of potatoes, boxes of prepared hollandaise sauce and fresh strawberries – also in season.

Spargelzeit begins in mid april and runs through late June. In today’s global culture where you can walk into any supermarket and get fruits and vegetables picked in Mali, Peru or Spain when they are in season or produced in a greenhouse somewhere in New Jersey when they are not, white asparagus remain available for only 3 months in the year. Which means we eat as much as we can while we can.

In fact, I believe that is what is happening for dinner tonight...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Wednesday Market

Guadalajara, Mexico

Every day is Market Day in Guadalajara. Each neighborhood has a specific day of the week when it bows to the grocery goddess, blocks off several streets, and welcomes growers, sellers and purchasers alike. Each market, or tianguis in Spanish, is a little different, each with a unique personality. “The Wednesday Market” is the pride of my neighborhood. For the most part, it shuns the distractions that other markets flaunt such as socks, knock-off sunglasses and bags, pirated DVD’s and household necessities and distills its wears down to Mexico’s greatest treasure: Food. The market is renown throughout the city as the place to go for fresh and delectable fruits and veggies from all over Mexico. Anything needed to stock the fridge and cupboards is available for the taking - artisanal cheeses, a variety of flavors of homemade yogurt, fresh corn tortillas, honey dripping from the comb, prepared salsas and other traditional foods, dried fruits, nuts and grains, freshly fried potato chips and pig skins, potted herbs, meat, fish, and freshly cut flowers still glistening with the morning’s dew.

The hustle and bustle of Market Day is apparent well before reaching the tarp-covered, food-flanked streets. The rhythmic chanting of sellers offering low prices echoes through the neighborhood drawing anyone within ear-shot to the mecca of all things delicious. Women return home from their weekly excursion pulling some version of a radio-flier pull cart stuffed with that week’s finds.

To venture into the maze of culinary delights is to know Mexico; the vibrant colors and energy for which Mexico is famous are embodied by the market. One display spills into the next, and I am made pleasantly dizzy by the abundance of choice. Smiling men and women offer samples of their tasty treats. Friendships are formed and people are reunited every week through the hospitality and tradition surrounding food.

Each week I go to the Wednesday market giddy with anticipation of the treasure hunt ahead of me. Inevitably I come home with an ingredient I have never seen before, or taken the time to properly investigate. Usually, my ingredient of the week comes with directions or advice from a fellow shopper or the seller herself. Hungry and happy from the sensory orgy of my shopping adventure I dive into the kitchen, unwrapping my many packages. There is no hesitation towards the meal I will immediately begin concocting with love.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Swine Update

Guadalajara, Mexico

A few days ago, a restaurant owner shared his Swine Flu conspiracy theory with me. He was certain that the government (I think he was referring to the man, or el hombre) was whipping up a Swine Flu frenzy in order to distract the population from the bad economy. He argued that the economic crisis was at a point where people’s desperation was about to become violent. This at a time when the U.S. State Department, much to the chagrin of their southern neighbors, placed Mexico on their list of potential failed states – right next to Pakistan! The restaurant owner believed, with this new diversion we will all band together in a touching display of humanity to fight the piggy pandemic. A pandemic, he felt, that did not actually exist. Aside from the obvious gaping holes in his theory (for example the devastating hit the Mexican economy is taking in the loss of billions of tourist dollars), it is an interesting theory. At least, it was until the Swine Flu hit Jalisco.

As of this morning, the number of reported cases of Swine Flu in Jalisco has mounted to 26 and there are now three possible cases of death by the flu. Schools were closed last week as a precautionary measure and the government was set to let learning continue Monday of this week. Now with the mounting cases and casualties, the government has declared that all schools in Jalisco must close until Monday, 18th. It is 90 degrees here and it feels like “school’s out for summer!” However, access to the summer blockbusters has been denied. Two days ago, there was a diagram in the paper that demonstrated the new protocol for cinema seating. Three empty seats must be between each person in every direction; meaning in a 16 seat area, four people would be seated. As of today the cinemas, bars, clubs, all public spaces, etc. have been closed until the 18th. One can only imagine the economic impact of this decision.

Personally, I do not think there is cause for alarm; conspiracy theories yes, but alarm, no. My husband, Carter, is a teacher, so the shutting down of our schools and city gives us bigger things to ponder, like what to do with all this time off. As I mentioned, it is 90 degrees and nothing is open, I think we will head to the beach. Vamos a la playa! Viva Mexico!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Swine Flu Stew

Guadalajara, Mexico

I feel I need to preface this post by saying that I am deeply sorry for the deaths that the Swine Flu has caused. That being said, I would be crazy not to take advantage of pork being on sale due to the international finger pointing at an unsuspecting Wilbur.

My first sense of the seriousness of the outbreak was when Mexico City mandated that soccer games would be played in empty stadiums. Closing schools and limiting travel is one thing, but denying Mexican soccer fans of their right to congregate, cheer and sing shirtless amongst each other was another thing. This is serious. I am in Guadalajara; a five hour drive from Mexico City, the epicenter of the “Influenza H1N1 Pandemic.” Although there are still no reported cases of the Swine Flu in Guadalajara, all precautions have been taken: schools are closed, restaurants are only open for take-out, the doors of cinemas and public meeting places are shut until further notice, and the ubiquitous surgical mask is the newest fashion statement.

People are being careful, but not irrational. Al pastor is the taco of choice in the state of Jalisco. Al pastor refers to spit grilled meat in the style of Turkish döner or Lebanese shwarma. In Mexico, the vertical spinning meat popsicle is always made of pork. Since the Swine Flu outbreak, I have yet to see an empty spit. It is good to see people still sucking down the hog with no fear. It is also a relief to see that Mexican’s are taking the international crisis with a bit of humor. A friend spotted a bronze statue of a man fitted with a surgical face mask in the middle of the city center of Guanajuato. I have come across several twenty peso notes on which concerned citizens have taken the careful precaution of covering Benito Juárez’s immortalized mug with a surgical mask. A large poster was plastered on a wall near the university picturing an audience of pigs watching TV, below it read: “Vaccinate This.” I am not exactly sure what that means, but I am sure it is funny to someone.

We do not have a TV and I have stayed far away from what I am sure is an extremely sensational news story – I can just imagine Fox News’s panic inducing special report on “Porky Pig Pandemic!” It is a time like this that shows how shock and fear are so totally isolating. It is the solidarity of humor that I find so refreshing. It is something people can share and bond over; have a good giggle while perhaps eating a plate of freshly assembled street-side tacos al pastor.