Panzanella a la mexicana

Panzanella is a traditional Italian bread salad. Not bread pudding. Not breaded chicken. Bread salad. No lettuce needed. Just tomatoes and cucumbers, and some creativity.

A la mexicana typically means one combination: tomato, white onion, and green pepper– the colors of the Mexican flag. As it turns out, this combo works for italia too. But we’re going to swap the white onion for red in this case. Because hello, living abroad is confusing sometimes and we all need an excuse to cry. Chop that lil’ guy up.

Maybe you’re beginning to notice: bread salad is hardly salad, and this recipe definitely doesn’t categorize as cooking. We’re chopping vegetables and heating bread in a pan since it won’t fit in the toaster. We’re peeling and tossing, toasting and slicing. Why make it complicated?

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Since most teachers here work a spaced-out 11-hour day (my classes stretch from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. but I’m not complaining I swear..?), meals need to be easy and fresh. We’re in Mexico and I refuse to survive off of convenience store snacks alone if I don’t have to.

Salads are the quickest: simple food prep with no time waiting for the oven to preheat. This salad is fresh and speaks for itself: no heavy sauces, seasonings, or cheesy toppings involved. Did I also mention I’m getting incredibly lazy? It was my turn to clean the apartment weeks ago and I still haven’t gotten around to it. Hora latina, they say.

Savor your time, eat some oily bread in a bowl, and call it a Thursday. It’s about time for a carb-induced siesta. We’ll talk later.

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Panzanella a la Mexicana

What you’ll need:

  • 3 tortas (or other baguette-like white bread)
  • 5 roma tomatoes, diced in large chucks
  • 1/2 cucumber, halved and chopped
  • a handful of chiles, thinly sliced (because, Mexico)
  • a handful of cilantro, or whatever hasn’t wilted too much from last week
  • juice of 3 limes
  • olive oil (in copious amounts)
  • salt and pepper

Directions:

Toast the tortas in whatever way possible. Maybe you’re living the high life with a toaster oven on your counter and a functioning oven below your stove. Good for you. Otherwise, light a match.

As the tortas toast, toss all chopped tomatoes, cucumber, chiles, and cilantro in a big salad bowl. Slice up the toasted bread into one-inch cubes. Add the bread to the bowl, drizzle drench it all with olive oil and fresh lime juice, give it a toss, and season generously with salt and pepper. Voilà. Done. The crispy bread turns soft, oily, and citrusy. Not a bad combination.

This certainly doesn’t keep until the next day. So get down with your pals and eat it all in one sitting. Si. Se. Puede. Buen provecho!

Guatemala stop-over

It was the Wednesday night of semana santa, and I’d crossed the Guatemalan border the evening before. I wasn’t sure what I’d find or where I’d stay, let alone how I’d feed myself. It’s official. I’ve become a lazy traveller.

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I landed in Huehuetenango. It’s about 2.5 hours by bus from La Mesilla, the less-than attractive border town beside Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. And after asking a taxista where to stay and then immediately not taking his suggestion, I tracked down a quiet hotel at the edge of town.

As it turns out, crossing the Guatemalan border at night isn’t the best of ideas. Not knowing the currency exchange rate is even stupider. But that’s a story for another time. And everything’s okay now, right? So after defusing with a 5-hour nap, I woke up starving and desperate for a bite. I trekked back toward the plaza principal, where I’d wandered aimlessly that morning, this time with a better idea of where to eat.

But I didn’t expect to find a full-blown festival. Every woman in Huehuetenango was out with her own stand or tent, grilling, frying, and flipping foods. I sat down for the first thing I could find resembling vegetables.

It’s called chorizquito,” one woman told me, laughing. I’d already finished the tiny styrofoam plate. “But yours is sin carne.” Chorizquito without the chorizo? So that’s what I’d just scarfed down.

A chorizquito sin carne is a thick, small white corn tortilla slathered with refried beans. It’s topped with pickled cabbage, two grilled green onions, a piece of boiled yellow corn, salsa roja, and two halves of a small golden potato. Then it’s closed up like a sandwich with another tortilla– this one covered in mayonnaise. Somewhere in there, there’s supposed to be an enormous serving of sausage. In Guatemala just like in Mexico, food vendors are happy to alter a dish to make it vegetarian. It’s just that on their part, it’s practically required that they laugh at you in response.

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How the hell are you supposed to eat this? It looks like a tortilla sandwich but is impossible to pick up. I’d watched the old guys at the foldable table beside me. They took off the top layer and used that thick tortilla to grab hold of each vegetable, like a utensil in of itself. Full from one, chorizo-free chorizquito, I wandered around the feria while the sun went down and other vendors set up.

Feria isn’t festival, they’ll tell you. It’s just feria: a mix between a block party and a state fair. No government agency has funded it; taxpayer quetzales aren’t at play. Instead, the feria emerges from the community. Anyone who knows how to prepare something out of anything is out here cooking it. Plastic “tupper” containers crowd card table tops. The lids practically burst from too many contents. Roasted potatoes. Slaw. Pickled carrots. Salsa roja. Salsa verde. More salsas. Chicken wings, chicken thighs, chicken feet. Tamales piled so high in wicker baskets that they threaten to burst from the woven blankets that swaddle them and trap heat. Steam sneaks through the cotton folds.

I returned to the same coffee shop I’d visited that morning upon finding myself lost in Huehuetenango. It’s called Monte Alto, and it’s possibly the only reliable source of WiFi in town. It’s a chain pasteleria where the counter servers wear puffy red fabric bakers’ hats.  From the same corner table by the sidewalk, I’d reserved a room at La Chacra de Joel Hotel, and then booked it across town to check-in and immediately take my all-day nap.

The atmosphere in Monte Alto has shifted since the early, boiling morning. Now, the temperature has cooled. The lights dim, rock music blares, and flowers occupy each table where before only existed sugar. The evening counter girl is young. Her eyeliner is winged at the sides, piped with a precision that matches the elaborate cakes in the display case beside her. Delicate dark chocolate slivers are stuck in the edges, leaving puncture wounds when they threaten to fall. The girl rests her elbows on the counter, flirting with an officer. The bright yellow letters on his bullet-proof vest read, PNC.

From the edge of the cafe, I watch the feria emerge like dress rehearsal where only parents are welcome. It smells like fire, gas, oil, grease, and salt. Two grown sisters swat one another with styrofoam plates before they use them to fan the flame. It’s a family affair; business isn’t taken too seriously.

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Women deck foldable tables with cloths: patterns of sunflowers and marigolds, red diamonds like playing cards. A thin woman with a ponytail lifts a green tub onto her head. It’s enormous– large enough to bath a golden retriever. The tub holds another afghan-sized blanked, bundling up something secret and steamy. She dashes off. It’s almost time to go. I anticipate someone parading with a megaphone. But no one arrives to shout ” Lights” nor “Action.”

Guatemala doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time. It’s nearly 6:30 already– only a half hour of sun remains. Cotton candy clouds blur with the poles that carry sugary treats stacked half a story high. A man selling blue bundles of soft sugar drifts to the far corner of the plaza principal. 

Six teenaged girls line up for photos, pulling selfie sticks from their aprons as they set up their own food stand. Three tables form a frame  around their group. They dance around, unpacking ingredients, already washed, peeled, sliced, and marinated. Pride sifts out. That powerful feeling of creating something that you know is delicious, beautiful, or satisfying. With no mamás in sight to help, they pose for photos in front of their crates and baskets of prepped creations, ready to sell.

Something’s brewing in Huehuetenango, and I only have a moment to taste it.

 

 

comitán de dominguez

The best thing about solo travel is that you never have to be alone; there’s always another backpacker who’s down to pair up. And when you’re ready to set off soltera again, there’s no awkwardness about splitting up. “I think I’m off tomorrow,” and it’s goodbye. This was the case when semana santa gave me a full 9 days to explore southern Mexico. This trip, I met up with a Russian-American New Yorker who shared my idea for a tentative itinerary. We met in San Cristóbal de las Casas and made our way to El Chiflón, a series of cascading waterfalls in southern Chiapas.

Comitán de Dominguez is a stopover town between San Cris and El Chiflón. It’s a pleasant, calm city of only 140 thousand people. A lunch spot with the traditional zócalo. Warm weather. A coffee farmer selling hand-packaged bags of café molino to afternoon park snoozers and coffee shop snackers.

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On Calle Central Norte, just two blocks from the central square, we stumbled upon a tiny tostadería that opened up to the owner’s home. Tostadas are small fried tortillas topped with whatever you want– typically a simple salsa, chicken, and lettuce. The back wall of the cafe slides, closing off the courtyard and play space for family and neighbors’ children. We weren’t particularly close to the sea, but this place specialized in seafood. And the design felt more Brooklyn hip than small town Mexico.

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Mexico is a string of one contradiction after another, just like this boutique tostadería (which, be the way, is called La Tostadería.) The food is served on a cutting board like a hipster breakfast place, and a single flower sits in a repurposed glass soda bottle. But the menu is written in sharpie on neon pink and green posters. They’re taped to the counter as if the materials were an afterthought.

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I ordered the tostada de champiñon and an empanada de flor de calabaza (squash blossom). The prices are extreme when compared to market or street food in Tehuacán. But the care and presentation feels ornate. If a fried tortilla topped with mushrooms can be considered ornate. It was delicious, okay?

To get to El Chiflón, we then snagged seats beside bags of onions and potatoes on a run-down school bus. “Media hora,” said the driver when I asked about the distance. We had our informed suspicions about Mexicans’ ability to speculate travel time. Whether it’s an hour or two, they revert back to the automatic response: “media hora.” Nearly 90 minutes later, along a winding mountain road, we hopped off the bus and into a three-wheeled cab at the edge of the national park.

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The falls are striking. But what we didn’t expect were the cascading turquoise waters below: the river seemingly snaking through the tropics, leading to a long series of smaller falls. Families line both sides, picnicking, barbecuing, wading in the water.

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On our return, I bought a strawberry popsicle which promptly melted all the way down my arm in the wind. In the heat, I think I’ll stick with fried foods. It’s the responsible thing to do, really. And we turned back to Comitán for more.

san cristobal de las casas

San Cristobal is magic. That’s what everyone had said. The colonial city overflows with spirits, hot food, fog, and brisk evenings. I knew Mexico was haunted. But as it turns out, it can also be shockingly cold. Naturally, I hadn’t done my research. I’d brought shorts and one sweater.

The colonial city was built in the 16th centry. While its Spanish charm still rings loudly, navigation is easy; tourism has taken root. Streets are cobblestone and buildings are vibrant yellows, pinks, and blues. Soft celestes and whites cover chapel exteriors. Flossy blouses and embroidered house dresses stack to the ceilings of market stands. Antique huipiles run at tourist prices, each one a work of art. San Cristobal is a pueblo magico, officially– a preserved, recognized historic town in Mexico. The architecture is charming but simple: two-story buildings, arched windows, too many churches.

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Upon tracking down my hostel (that’s Puerta Vieja, which I can’t recommend enough), I stopped in Doña Ame Tamales. The restaurant is located on Calle Diego Mazariegos, just three blocks from the zócalo. At 12 pesos for a café americano and 14 to 16 pesos for a tamal, it’s a cheap breakfast for a traveller’s town. They even offer vegetarian and vegan options. (I told you it was touristy).

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Later in the afternoon, I took a break from Mexican food. I was thrilled to find a Salvadoran restaurant in town. It’s a mother-and-daughter run pupusa cafe. Pupusas are a traditional dish in El Salvador. To make a pupusa, you start with a ball of masa dough the size of a baseball. Then, carve out an indentation, as if you’re forming a shallow bowl or the start of a pinch pot in a middle school art class. Fill the masa dish with beans and cheese (or chicken– whatever you want), and seal up the ball again so that it’s filled like a cream puff. Flatten the ball like a thick pancake (or small tortilla) so that the filling stays inside. Fry that up on a griddle, flipping like a pancake. And then top the pupusa fresh slaw and salsas.

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Although I’d eaten pupusas with my hands in the Ignacio Ellacuria community while I was visiting El Salvador five years ago, I gathered that that wasn’t so acceptable in a city. Using a fork and knife (because you’re a proper lady), slice into the pupusa, and savor the soupy black beans inside. The tangy slaw adds a contrasting flavor to the savory, creamy pupusa. It’s crazy how one meal, like a good book, can transport you to a time and a place. Like baking quesada, a Spanish cheesecake, in a Boston apartment while working (for free) for a recipe site. Or crimping Argentine-style baked empanadas in a friend’s kitchen in Texas, recreating what had been our daily lunch for six months in Buenos Aires. I might have just spent 14 hours on a bus passing through southern Mexico, yet with one bite I’m back in tropical, mountainous El Salvador. No place seems too out of reach.

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Despite the obvious backpacker status, San Cristobal hasn’t lost its charm. It feels old. This is the city that Sandra Cisneros visited when she set out to write her second book, tapping away on a type writer at a secretary school, sitting beside women working toward an opportunity for escape from their present life. Employment.

I’d just taught The House on Mango Street to my 10th graders in Tehuacán. The book feels different every time I re-read it. And I chose this trip to break open Cisneros’ new nonfiction collection, A House of My Own. It’s funny to read about one of your favorite writers travelling to a place you are literally travelling to in that moment. She calls Chiapas “Mayan country” where the women where huipiles, the woven tunics that precede Colombus, and where the people smell of leña, that mix of smoke and wood. Cisneros wrote her book of poems, Loose Woman, in this town, in 1985. Thirty years later, her descriptions are picture-perfect. She describes the used, worn huipiles that are sold on side streets. “By pulling the garments inside out,” she writes, “I could read their history.”

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You go to San Cristobal for the stories and the adventure; the place is filled with voices. It’s the hub for daytrips to the cañón de sumidero, to the towns of chiapas del corzo and comitán de dominguez, and the breathtaking blue of the cascading water at el chiflon. But you’ll want to stay in San Cris for the way the sun beats on the golden-yellow buildings at midday and the coziness of a glass of wine and a serving of mezcal in the gauzy evening. The air is fresh, and artisans stroll the streets, arms piled with cozy blankets and tops to wrap yourself in when the daylight fades away.