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bienvenidos a tehuacán

I’m staying with a local family here in Tehuacán, a small city in the south of Puebla. They’ve put me and another teacher in their third floor bedroom (the penthouse, as we call it), and they feed us and feed us and feed us. Lunch is the largest; served at 4 p.m., it’s a meal that requires hours of slow-cooking prep. Six different pots of taco makings often crowd the table: frijoles, nopales, quesillo, calabaza con tomate, chiles secas, chiles frescas, chiles chipotle, jalapeños adobado, and an ensalada tossed with cilantro. It’s a dream. I have to chase lunch with a coffee every afternoon just to keep from slipping into a food coma.

In my first weeks in town, I joined a local guide, Irma, and toured the central market. Los mexicanos compran flores por todo, she said. The smell of fresh flowers permeates the open-air space, erasing the odors that seep from butchers’ counters. Weeks later, with a house full of sickies, I return downtown for an herbal remedy. A woman hides behind a table piled with fresh flowers, herbs, and what resembles bags of wood chips, but might as well be the cure for cancer. She tears up bunches of plants, stuffs them into a plastic bag, and says hierve en agua con miel. I slip her thirty pesos.

img_2890I love the informality of it all—la familiaridad. The cocinas economicas parallel a family’s living room. The hand-painted signs for tienditas and restaurantesI like the silver saucer-like trays and tongs that clink when you pull them from a pile on a panaderia counter. Selecting each fluffy concha pastry or crunchy, sugar-coated oreja and spacing them across the dish. The juice shops that resemble neighborhood lemonade stands: orange plastic cloths draped over foldable tables, and 3-liter pitchers filled with jugo de mandarina. Tehuacán is fuss-free. It feels fresh.

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Downtown, coapeñas crowd the market doorways with baskets stacked with tortillas in tans, beiges, and blues. Señoras stand outside their homes with extension cords hooked up to their comales, circular flat tops, where they fold quesadillas and drizzle memelas with salsa verde. A neighbor down the street keeps us supplied, selling handmaid tortillas by the kilo for 13 pesos.

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Tehuacán is small. Life here feels simple and manageable. The streets are sun-soaked by noon. My shoulder scrapes cement facades as I angle my body toward the shade. The sidewalks are swept, the cement-locked trees, groomed– trimmed like show dogs in bubbly globes or sharp cubes. When I get to a new place, I like studying the people. But here, it’s too small to stare. People-watching in the zócalo (the central plaza) means seeing the same potato chip fryers, the same couples holding hands, young students from school chasing after the same balloon vendors. I even met the same taxi driver twice—in an embarrassing encounter. (A story for another day.) Likewise, I can’t help but feel that someone’s watching my every move—and they are. Mexican families are incredibly protective. I’m learning that in this town, everybody knows everyone. If I don’t come home for lunch—even if that means grabbing a salad at the neighboring café, Titina’s, I feel as though I’m cheating. And somebody’s going to tell.

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Sunshine Chili

Once you know the basics of chili, you hardly need a recipe to throw it all together. It’s the easiest: one pot, one knife, one spoon, and done. Keep some diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and any beans on hand, find yourself an onion, and then use whatever other vegetables you feel like chopping up. Spiciness level is up to you. You’re in control!

This chili is a break from the usual bell pepper-based stew. The veggies are all warm colors: corn, carrots, and tomato. A single-lady jalapeño adds a subtle kick. And the cannellini beans are your basic white bean. (They’re literally called the Common Bean.) They thicken up the whole dish in the end for a filling one-bowl meal. Of course, you can add more vegetable stock if the chili’s too thick for you. It’s yours! Do what you want.

Sunshine Chili

Serves 4

What you need:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 jalapeño, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups corn (frozen is fine)
  • 4 carrots, chopped into small pieces
  • 1 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 3/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups cooked or 1 (13-ounce) can white beans (I used cannellini), drained and rinsed

Instructions:

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion for 5 minutes, until fragrant. Add the garlic and jalapeños and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add the corn, carrots, chili powder and paprika and let cook for 3 minutes, stirring so that the spices are evenly distributed.

Add the vegetable broth, bring to a boil, and then let simmer for 10 minutes.

Stir-in the tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and salt until the paste is evenly incorporated. Let simmer for an additional 10 minutes, until carrots are tender.

Add the beans, allowing the chili to simmer for 1o more minutes. (Stir it occasionally.) Add more spice if that’s how you like it. Done! I like to top it with cilantro and crushed blue corn chips.

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Tortilla Soup

I’m on my way to Mexico!

Excited to leave chilly Baltimore behind (it’s been a nice stay, Mom and Dad), I’m off to Puebla, Mexico to teach English to high school students. Puebla is the state just south of Mexico City. Its people are called poblanos. If you’re imagining peppers now instead of people (or was that just me?), that’s because Puebla is home to the poblano pepper. Can you imagine if they’d never released those to the world and kept that mild veggie a secret? I CANNOT. When dried, they’re called ancho chiles. So yes, they have two separate identities. MAGIC. There’s nothing a poblano can’t do.

I’m anticipating lots of spicy foods in my lunch break future, and hope to share some new recipes here in the upcoming months. But you don’t have to travel far for a hot bowl of one of my favorite Mexican dishes: tortilla soup. I didn’t make this soup with poblano peppers (although I totally wish I had), so chop two or three up and toss them in the pot too, along with the jalapeños. It’s a tiny touch spicy. The blended tortillas thicken the broth, and the added chickpeas beef it up a bit. Warm up with this at home:

Tortilla Soup

Serves 4

Original Recipe from Thug Kitchen

What you need:

  • 1 white onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 jalapeños
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 5 cups vegetable broth
  • juice of two limes
  • 8 corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch squares
  • 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas (or 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas)

Instructions:

Chop the onion and carrot. Mince the garlic and jalapeños.

Heat the oil  in a large pot, and sauté the onions until translucent. Then add the carrot and jalapeños for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and spices for another minute. Stir-in the diced tomatoes and tomato paste. Then add the broth. Bring to a boil, and then lower to a simmer. Add the lime juice and tortillas pieces, and let simmer for 10 minutes.

Working in batches, pour the soup into a food processor. Pulse until smooth, with no large chunks. Serve each bowl topped with chickpeas. Go crazy with other toppings, like cilantro, crushed tortilla chips, and avocado.

 

 

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Fried Falafel Cakes with Hot Pepper Dip

I say *fried* because I once worked at a restaurant where we *baked* our falafel (mind-blowing, I know), which made our calorie-conscious customers practically orgasm before they added it to their kale salads. (It’s healthier, it’s true.) But typical falafel is fried, so we’re gonna stick with the rules on this one.

While it’s sometimes rolled into balls and fried or flattened and flipped like patties, you can mold your falafel into any shape you like. Dig out that dinosaur-shaped pancake iron, and mash the batter into that, if you really feel like breaking with tradition. I made my falafel crab cake-sized. Small and delicate, eaten with a fork like a lady.

I recently toured a friend around Baltimore. The one item of required eating in this city is obvious: crab. But since it feels like winter before winter officially strikes, we weren’t about to pick apart crab bodies at a picnic table. Crab cakes were the appropriate alternative.

I was less than impressed with a “vegan crab cake” I tried to make a while back. Let’s just say I’m not into the fake meat substances. I like these falafel cakes better. There’s nothing crabby about them, sure. But whereas they’re often seen as street food or tucked into a blanket-like flatbread, they can also stand alone on a plate.

I served these falafel cakes with this hot pepper dip because I’m OBSESSED and have been caught eating this veggie dip solo, right out of the fridge with a spoon. It’s spicy and goes well on anything. Almost.

Fried Falafel Cakes

Makes 9 patties

Original recipe from Hot Vegan

What you need:

  • 1 (15.5-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (or 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas)
  • 1/2 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup dried bread crumbs (or crushed saltine crackers)
  • Olive oil or grapeseed oil for frying

Instructions:

Piece together that handy food processor. Add the chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt, pepper, and 1/4 cup of the breadcrumbs (or cracker crumbs). Whirl it around until everything combines. Adjust the seasonings if you like to do that. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, using your hands, form the mixture into patties. Roll them around in the breadcrumbs. Set them in the oil (carefully! They’re delicate little guys!), and cook them for four minutes on each side, until golden-brown. Serve them hot with some yummy sauce.

Hot Pepper Dip

Original recipe from Food52 Vegan 

What you need: 

  • 1 cup chopped cashews, soaked in water for 3 hours and drained
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tbsp hot pepper paste
  • juice of one lemon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pinch of cayenne pepper

Instructions:

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor, and pulse until creamy. Add a teaspoon more water if it’s too thick. This will keep in the fridge for 5 days.