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!

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.

molotes y castanas

I know, I know, I already mentioned that there’s not much over in Ajalpan. But if you’re going to drop by, at least make sure it’s a Wednesday or Sunday, the two days of the week where the central market opens. That’s about the only place you can find moletes for miles. Molotes are true mercado food. You won’t find these in a proper sit-down restaurant, but they’re not equated with the street taco either. If you’d like a taste, you have to get yourself to the crowded, sizzling Wednesday market.

Molotes are finger food. First, masa is mixed with potato to form a dough. Then the dough is wrapped around refried black beans that are seasoned with hinojo leaves, or fennel. (Sometimes they’re stuffed with beef, but this vegetarian was thrilled to find a simpler, plant-filled version.) In true market fashion, the doughy refried bundles are then soaked in bubbling oil. The hint of liquorice from the hinojo, like anise, adds a satisfying flavor that works with the vibrant salsa verde that tops it off. On second thought, maybe anything and everything pairs well with fresh salsa verde.

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A few plastic chairs offer a quick place to stuff your face if you really want to stay a while. But molotes are best enjoyed right then and there, standing by the market stall.

Throughout town on market days, you’ll see families walking down the streets, baskets flung over their shoulders or grasped in their hands. Although I already suggested the town is more known for popsicles and molotes, one of Ajalpan’s main industries is basket weaving. When I ask how long this tradition has been in place, I can’t seem to get an answer. Hace mucho, says our guide, Irma.

After we’re stuffed with molotes, we visit a basket weaver at his home, where he and his family create containers with their hands and feet. Yes, their feet. Traditionally, people in Ajalpan would create the star at the base of each basket by holding the fibers in place with their feet and spinning in a circle.

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We watch him slit a strand of bamboo-like stalk with a blade and weave it through the edge of the basket to create a decorative edge.

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He showed us the horno, a  brick oven inside his open-air house. But this is no pizza oven. The traditional horno for the castanas involves five layers: dry earth, stone, sand, crystal, and salt. These tiers allow the oven to grow warm enough to change the hue of the baskets, warming them to a deep caramel color. Many buyers, who suspect that the baskets are painted or dyed, are surprised to learn about this basket-baking business.

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Of course, I end up taking a small 10-peso basket home. If a man makes a basket in front of me, how could I not buy it? Is it my obligation as a tourist, or was I totally roped into another purchase? “I’ll use it for tortillas,” I thought. Sure, all of those handmade tortillas I’m always making day in and day out…. It’s more likely to hold my red pens and dry erase markers. Maybe I’ll stuff it full of molotes for a ready supply of fried food.

I initially mistook Ajalpan for a simple, nondescript place hiding in Tehuacan’s shadows. But event the quietest pueblos have a specific product to offer– some secret process rooted in family tradition.