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!

Mini Mango Pasta Salad

I’ve moved (again). It’s hardly considered moving when you can fit all of your stuff into a backpack and a tote bag, call a taxi, and switch homes in a matter of minutes. I changed apartments three times in Colombia. Now onto the second space in Mexico.

Living with a host family had its ups and downs. While my family cooked the most delicious frijoles refritos, filling memelas and rich cremas, I did miss being in the kitchen, putting together my own meals. I loved speaking Spanish with my host family. But after four months, it’s a little uncomfortable to feel like a guest in your own home, to always be texting about curfews, and to find yourself locked out at 3 a.m.

I’ve moved into an apartment with four other teachers. This means fewer TV shows and more music, less agua de papaya, and more limes squeezed into cold beers.

Here’s the meal plan: Ingredients are fresh, food is cheap, and jalapeños are soaked in tequila. Oh, and as long as its mango season, we’re eating mangos. Seriously, do as you’re told. Everything you need for this pasta salad costs about 35 pesos (or two dollars) at a vegetable market down the street. We’re using canned corn (breaking the fresh rule, I KNOW, OKAY, SORRY) because it’s actually cheaper (at 8 pesos) than buying four ears worth ( at 15).

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We’re using a jalapeño because, hello, this is Mexico. And mango is it’s best friend, coming to the immediate rescue in the heat department. Red onion and roasted corn are a no-brainer summer combination, cucumber adds some crunch, and everything (everything) tastes better with lime.

We’re going to chop it all up real small – I’m talking chiquitito  so that you nearly get a piece of every veggie in each bite. And we don’t want to overwhelm the munición pasta with too-large chucks. This pasta is baby pasta. Try to be delicate with it. Sing it a lullaby as it cools.

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Mini Mango Pasta Salad

Makes one family-sized bowl (fit for five normal people or three hungry roommates)

What you’ll need:

  • 1 package munición pasta (200 g) (or any other tiny pasta will do)
  • 1 can (230 ounces) corn, drained and rinsed
  • 1 jalapeño, diced
  • 1 cucumber, diced
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 mango, sliced AND diced
  • juice of 4 limes
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, plus some for sautéing
  • handful of fresh basil leaves, torn
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Ready that lil’ pasta: Let’s boil some water. You’ve done this before. You got this. Cook those munición guys for just about 5 minutes. (They’re quick and we do not want to deal with mushy pasta).

Sauté: Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. Sauté the corn with the jalapeño until everything browns just a bit.

Chop: Add the cucumber and red onion to a large bowl. When the pasta and corn/jalapeño mixture cools, add those in too. Fold in the mango last.

Mix the dressing: lime juice, oilve oil, salt, and pepper. It’s simple, a little tangy, and light. Whirl it around with a fork (because you don’t have a proper whisk), and drizzle that shit over the whole salad. Stir it all about.  Then fold in some basil leaves from your little plant pet. Cute shit? Cute shit.

 

cocina de eloisa: memelitas

Eloisa is the queen of our poblado el riego home– that’s the light blue three-story house in the neighborhood I’m constantly forgetting the name of every time I climb into a taxi. Where do I live? Just a minute, it’s on the tip of my tongue.

Living with a familia mexicana delivers its challenges: explaining my every move, finding the door sealed shut with a metal bar if I stay out too late, getting a heavy dose of side-eye and asked to stand on one leg so that they can evaluate how many cervezas I may have downed on a Wednesday night. After all, they say that The U.S. has security cameras; Mexico has mamás y abuelas. (The women are always watching.) But apart from the suspiciousness, this family life isn’t without its benefits: delicious, homemade meals served with a bottomless supply of sarcasm.

The chef extraordinaire, mother of two, and ultimate queen of this castillo is Eloisa. She has opened her home to native English teachers in Tehuacan for nearly a decade. Semester after semester, she feeds gringos and works hard to ensure that they leave “gorditos”– heavier than they were when they arrived.

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One Saturday afternoon, while mixing masa with agua, she taught us to make memelas. The masa, or tortilla dough, it similar to that of tortillas. But when we roll it up and flatten it in the iron prensa, we have to be sure not to press too hard; flattening it completely leaves a paper-thin dough that won’t support its toppings. We want these memelas thick like a 10-peso coin. After a brief toasting on the griddle and a simple flip, it’s time to crimp the firey-hot edges with our fingers. These borders will keep the salsa, frijoles, and cheese from slipping off the sides.

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At a cocina economica, you can order memelas one of 3 ways: con salsa roja, salsa verde, or bandera: half red and half green, topped with white cheese which completes the Mexican flag. Memelas have become my go-to food fix. Whether it’s 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., I’ll pick them up with my hand (“En méxico, usamos las manos,” says Eloisa), and finish a plate of three. They’re filling, flavourful, and cheap. An order of three down the street will run at about 15 pesos. And of course at home, with the blender running and salsa pouring, there’s nothing quite as fresh.

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.