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.

 

 

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.

 

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.