Monday, December 22, 2014

Food Truck Weekend

Before I begin this blog, I would like to offer sincere warm wishes of good health and peace to each of you and your families during this Holiday Season and for 2015.  I appreciate your support always.   

Food Truck Weekend
by Victoria Challancin

While Mexico has a long history of food stalls, or puestos, the concept of actual food trucks has been slow to take off.  Happily for me, it looks like that is changing.  Puestos do indeed have a long history here in Mexico, and hopefully are firmly and permanently entrenched in this culture as a quick, economical way to approach every sort of food.  Whether located in the local market or as something that springs up in the streets in the evenings, these food stalls serve the people well.  You can find specialty foods from modern hamburgers and hot dogs, to rich pozole (a hominy-based soup that comes in three colors with a glory of condiments), the ubiquitous taco in its many forms, empanadas, tortas (sandwiches), tostadas, corn, atole (a rich corn-based drink), aguas frescas, chorizo, frijoles, tamales, mariscos (seafood), huaraches (a shoe-shaped corn-based sort of open-faced taco), menudo (tripe soup/stew thought to be good for hangovers), antojitos (corn-based snack food which includes gorditas, tamales, tostadas, and more) grilled meats such as arrachera, and guisados (stews) made with everything imaginable.  The world of food-stall food is mind-boggling...and utterly delicious.  

I laughingly remember when my son returned from studying his last year of high school in France, I asked him rather foolishly what kind of food he had missed.  That is to say, what did he long for from Mom's kitchen.  Imagining that he might ask for lasagna or shepherd's pie, or some other favorite, I was a little taken aback by his response:  "Oh, Mom...tacos de cabeza y una torta con milanesa y tajín!"  Goat head tacos and sandwiches made of breaded thin chicken or pork with all the trimmings.  So much for Mom's cooking.  So it was off to the puestos for him, and my son, like most Mexicans, knew just where to turn for his favorite fix.

On December 13th and 14th San Miguel de Allende held its first Food Truck Weekend, which promised Comida-Arte-Diseño-Moda...all rolled into one event.  And it didn't disappoint.  While San Miguel only has two food trucks that I know of, neighboring Querétaro, which is a much larger city, has burgeoning food truck installations popping up everywhere.  Our small event, in fact, featured both of San Miguel's food trucks and five others from nearby Querétaro.  All were spotlessly clean and peopled with smiling entrepeneurs looking to expand their reach.

Here is a sampling of what the event had to offer:

With its smiling patron in a Frida Kahlo t-shirt, dressed in pink to match her truck, the CB Bakery offered sandwiches, milkshakes, caramel popcorn, and their popular cheese cake, which was sold out.

To give you an idea of prices, in case you aren't a local reader, there are approximately 14.5 pesos to one US dollar, reflecting both the pesos recent decline and the dollar's surge.  So that makes a hamburger cost about $4.15 and a hot dog about $1.40.  Just so you have a point of reference.

The Chef on Fuego, or "Chef on Fire," particularly interested me as I had heard that the restaurant that sponsors it features really excellent lamb.

Here is the friendly and knowledgable Chef on Fire himself

Happy to accommodate, the chef sent an employee to the mother restaurant, which was only fifty feet away so I could have a menu to take home.  In addition to reasonably-priced breakfasts (Hot cakes, French toast, any style of breakfast eggs, and chilaquiles (my absolute favorite Mexican breakfast), and huaraches with many toppings (mentioned above)--ranging from 45 to 69 pesos, or $3 to about $4.75, he also features the more substantial dishes he is known for:  BBQ ribs ($8.30) and pulled pork sandwiches ($6.50).  Baby back ribs, wings, hamburgers, hot dogs (fancy ones!), flautas, and even two pasta dishes also are available. Yum.

Of course Dr. Kebabs' truck pulled me over right away, given my love of Middle Eastern food.

I had to smile at how modern we have become with social media...even for food trucks.  Of course.  It's important stuff, I do realize.

Shawarma, much like Mexico's tacos al pastor, a terrific offering of marinated meat shaved with a special machine in the modern way
No Mexican food event would be complete without a table offering the beloved michelada, a beer-based libation made with beer (and Mexican beer is soooooooo very good), lime juice, chile, and several sauces.  Loosely translated, michelada, means "my cold beer."  Variations abound, such as one of my favorites that was introduced to me by my son, called Cielo Rojo, or Red Sky, which uses clamata juice and V-8.  In the above photo you can see salt, Worcestershire sauce (salsa inglesa, English sauce), and the popular salsa Maggi, a hydrolysed vegetable protein-based seasoning sauce similar to soy sauce, but without containing any soy--all used in a proper  michelada. 

Lemon juice and chile to rim the glass or, in this case, cup

When I asked the lovely young woman who was turning out the micheladas if the red powder was Tajín (a beloved chile/lime/salt seasoning used on just everything, especially tortas and cold fruits and vegetables such as cucumber, jícama, and mango), she told me it was best to use this blend, and had me taste it.  Yes, indeed, it was better--rich and slightly sweet with the taste of dried tamarind.  Yum, again.

Recipe:  Michelada
Cook's Note:  My son, who was born and raised in Mexico will be shocked and probably disappointed that I am including a recipe for michelada, but I do think my readers will want to have an idea of proportions--proportions that can be adjusted to taste, of course.  And should be.  This is how I learned to make it:

For one serving you need a lime and a small plate with coarse salt or a specific chile blend, such as the one above or Tajín

1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon Salsa Maggi, or to taste
A 12-oz bottle of Mexican beer of choice

To rim the glass with chile salt:  Cut the lime in half and rub around the rim of glass.  Invert the glass and dip in the chile-salt mixture.

Fill the glass with ice, if using, then add lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Maggi sauce.  Fill with beer.  Stir to combine.  Check and adjust seasoning

 This truck offered wings, burritos, and wraps--and a smiling young man eager to be helpful.  Although he had no actual menu, the chalkboard shows the types of burritos and wraps, plus salads and wings.

 The tiny puesto called Elocua, served gourmet corn.  Boiled and served with mayonnaise and queso fresco, esquites (or ezquites) are a popular street snack all over Mexico.

 Mayonnaise, plus popular sprinkles, mainly with chile

 Another truck that really grabbed my attention was Bistroka, a modern take on a fast bistro food, featuring a range of sliders with three bread options (see them in the basket?).  Unfortunately, I didn't really get a good photo of this truck, but I did nip a take-away menu, which shows that in addition to the slider menu below, they offer hamburgers, barbecue, Yucatecan cochinita pibil (an achiote- and sour orange-marinated chicken or pork dish), Italian-style meatballs, German brats, and even the beloved American Reuben sandwich.  And roasted vegetables with goat cheese for the vegetarians.

The other San Miguel truck, which is usually parked across the street from the Commercial Mexicana, or Mega, spotlights seafood.  You can see from the sign that they make empanadas with tinga a mild dish of shredded spiced chicken or pork) or crab. Also on the chalkboard menu are tacos of shrimp, tortas (sandwiches) of spiced pork, cod, or sirloin, tostadas of octopus or "beef feet", and pannacotta.  Of course.

Altomar (High Sea) is yet another truck which offered seafood, including caldo de camaron, the rich seafood broth so popular here, for basically $1 or 15 pesos.  [Note:  Mexico has the 13th longest coastline in the world, with 9930 km of coastline].  Their menu also includes tostadas de ceviche (several types), burritos, tacos, seafood hamburgers, and various sushis.   And more...always more.

What did I take home?
Because my husband stayed at home, I just had to make my orders "take-away" so I could share with him.  I don't have photos of all of the dishes, but here is what I ended up with:

  • A Philly Steak Slider
  • A Roasted Vegetable and Goat Cheese Slider
  • Octopus Tostadas
  • Crab Empanadas
  • A Mixed Middle Eastern Wrap of Shawarma and Falafel--and fries!
  • An order of Falafel
All good.  Each one.  Delicious.  And Chef on Fuego assures me that they are planning an even bigger event soon--and I can't wait!

 Octopus tostadas with guacamole...sigh...

Crab empanadas...sigh...yet again

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Please ask permission before using text or photos.  Thanks!

Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Autumn Cobb Salad with Smoky Butternut Squash Dressing

Autumn Cobb Salad with Smoky Butternut Squash Dressing
by Victoria Challancin

Beautiful food inspires the poet in us all, but when my own attempts at adequate description fail me, I simply turn to the great poets who say it better.   In this case, I will call on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and simply use her voice to say, "Cobb Salad, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways."

Let's see...there was the memorable New Orleans' style Muffaletta Cobb Salad with a Horseradish Vinaigrette.  Mmmm.  And then there was the stunning retro Mexican Shrimp Cobb Salad with Creamy Cilantro-Tomatillo Dressing.  Ahhhh.  Fun.  And I could never overlook the Shrimp and Gruyère Cobb Salad with Pickled Quails Eggs and Low-Fat Green Goddess Dressing.  Sigh...Yes, Cobb Salad, I truly do love you.  And your interpretations are endless.  Antipasto Cobb Salad?  Why not?  Sushi Cobb Salad?  Absolutely!  Indian-Inspired Cobb Salad with chicken, curried potatoes, raita, kachumber, and a chutney dressing?  Divine.  Vietnamese Summer Roll Cobb Salad?  Yes, yes, yes...just open up those summer rolls and serve with a ginger-soy dressing.  Satay Cobb Salad?  Gado-Gado as a Cobb Salad?  Greek Cobb Salad? California or Southwestern Style?  You bet.  Let your imagination go wild.  It is all in the presentation after all.  

A Little History of Cobb Salad
From an earlier post:  In 1937 an overnight salad sensation was born at Hollywood's The Brown Derby restaurant, when the hungry owner, Bob Cobb, three together an assortment of salad ingredients to satisfy his late-night hunger.  According to Arthur, Schwartz, NYC's "Food Maven," more than 4 million Cobb salads have been sold at the Brown Derby restaurants since that time.  It is easy to understand why:  the salad is beautiful, full of healthy ingredients, and above all, the recipe is flexible.  While the original classic recipe calls for chicken, bacon, and blue cheese, this salad begs for reinterpretation.  Because it is so perfect for San Miguel's al fresco dining style, I have prepared it over the years in a variety of styles ranging from Italian to Thai to Mexican, and of course, French.

I always feel a bit sad when I think of my many Down Under friends who are now ending their spring, just as we prepare for winter.  Maybe I can convince them to save this tasty recipe for autumn, just as I am gathering up their lighter food offerings for when our own weather warms up!

Cook's Notes:  The original recipe used pumpkin instead of butternut squash, but because I am so giddy at suddenly having access to the latter, I chose it.  I used mizuna as a spritely base for this and chose multi-colored tiny tomatoes, including some lovely chocolate-hued ones.  Although I used feta, blue cheese would have been lovely as well.  This certainly should have had some toasted pumpkin seeds atop it as well--I just didn't have time to make them in class!

Recipe:  Autumn Cobb Salad with Smoky Butternut Squash Dressing
(Original recipe from

3 cups pumpkin (or other winter squash--I used butternut), peeled, and cut into large dice
Seeds from the squash (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
1 head iceberg lettuce  (or other lettuce such as endive, arugula, baby kale--or mizuna, which is used here)
2 cups cooked chicken breast cut into chunks or shredded (I used a rotisserie chicken)
1 avocado, cut into large dice
4 hard-cooked eggs, cut into quarters or slices
4 slices crispy cooked bacon
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley

Smoky Pumpkin Vinaigrette:
1/2 cup roasted pumpkin chunks
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
Kosher salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 415 degrees F.  Spread the pumpkin or squash pieces on a sheet pan and toss them with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil.  Sprinkle with salt.  Roast for about 20 minutes or until golden and tender.  Remove and set aside to cool.

On a separate sheet pan, toss the seeds from the pumpkin or squash with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil and a little kosher salt.  Roast for about 7 minutes or until golden.  Remove and set aside to cool.

To make the Dressing:
In the jar of a blender, combine 1/2 cup roasted pumpkin or squash, garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar, smoked paprika and salt.  Puree on high until well combined and smooth.  Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.  Set aside.

To assemble:  
Arrange the ingredients in rows over a base of lettuce or chosen green leaves.  Sprinkle the top with parsley and pumpking seeds, if using.  Serve with the Smoky Dressing on top and/or on the side.

Parting Shot:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pumpkin Pie Wontons with Maple Cream Dipping Sauce

 Pumpkin Pie Wontons with Maple Cream Dipping Sauce

Just in Time for Thanksgiving:  Pumpkin Pie Wontons with Maple Cream Dipping Sauce
by Victoria Challancin

With Thanksgiving looming for Americans, even for expats like me, I wanted to offer a simple seasonal dessert that would be a perfect ending to a heavy meal of turkey and all the trimmings. Although I tend to stick to traditional family recipes for this beloved holiday, I can easily see substituting this easy-to-prepare dessert for my aunt's traditional pumpkin pie.  Good enough to eat a dozen, yet small enough to be satisfied with just one, this dessert is guaranteed to gratify all.

The filling comes together quickly, and the wontons fry in minutes.  Perhaps the maple cream dipping sauce is gilding the lily, but it is tasty enough to be included and offers that last bit of decadence to polish off a day of general gustatory excess.

Pumpking Pie Wontons with Maple Cream Dipping Sauce

Cook's Notes:  If using canned pumpkin, there is more enough to easily double this recipe.  And why not?  If opening a packet of 50 wonton wrappers, it is easy enough to make more than the twenty listed in the recipe amounts.  And trust me, these disappear almost as quickly as you can fry them, roll them in sugar, and put them on a plate!  You can use plain water to seal them, in lieu of an egg wash.  Also, these can be baked--but they are definitely better fried!

Recipe:  Pumpkin Pie Wontons with Maple Cream Dipping Sauce
(Recipe from
Makes 20 wontons, but can easily be doubled

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons canned pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (see the recipe below)
2 tablespoons Neufchatel cream cheese, room temperature
20 wonton wrappers
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water)--or just use plain water
Vegetable oil for frying
Powdered sugar or cinnamon/granulated sugar for dusting

Optional Maple Dip:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup Neufchatel cream cheese, room temperature (or use regular cream cheese)
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a small bowl, whisk together pumpkin puree, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice and cream cheese until combined.

Lay wonton wrappers on a clean surface.  Brush egg wash (or even plain water) along edges of each wrapper and place 1 teaspoon filling in the center.  Fold each wrapper into a triangle and pinch edges to seal.

In a large, deep saucepan over medium heat, bring about 1 1/2 inches oil to about 320 degrees F.  Drop 3-4 wontons (or more if you can add them without crowding the pan) into the hot oil and cook 2 to 3 minutes each side or until golden brown.  Alternately, you can spray the wontons with oil, dust with cinnamon sugar, and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden.

Remove wontons with slotted spoon and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain and cool slightly. Repeat with remaining wontons.  Dust wontons with powdered sugar or cinnamon-sugar.

To make the dipping sauce:  In a small bowl, whisk together powdered sugar, cream cheese, maple syrup and ground cinnamon.  Serve dip alongside warm wontons.

How to make Pumpkin Pie Spice Mix:
Makes 2 1/3 tablespoons
(Adapted from The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices by Tony Hill)

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Place all ingredients in a small bowl.  Whisk or stir to combine.  Store in an airtight container for up to 1 year.

Parting Shot:  

©Victoria Challancin

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México

Please ask permission before using photos or text.  Thank you1

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Day of the Dead 2014: Symbolism and Colors

On an altar in the main square of San Miguel de Allende, November 2, 2014

Day of the Dead:  Symbolism and Colors

by Victoria Challancin

In Mexico, my adopted home, we dance with death on a near-daily basis, but never as we do on el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when real communication with the dead is believed possible.  

Together, dear Readers, we have talked about The Poetry of Death, sampled the alfeñiques or sugar skulls/figures, strolled through the Day of the Dead Markets, we have built altars, visited altars, and seen even more altars, enjoyed the food...together we have done all this, and yet I know, that if you are a non-Mexican reader, you no doubt find it all strange, if not disturbingly macabre.

In a past post, I summed it up as I best know how:  ...with all the death imagery, that constant reminder of our mortality, humor permeates all.  In Mexico, it is not that loss isn't felt, that grief isn't present, or even that sadness isn't is more that a sensible perspective exists, allowing us to feel the sorrow, remember those who have most touched our lives, and always know that death is an inevitable part of life.  Death.  The one inevitable experience that no once can escape.  No one.

Reams have been written about Mexico's celebration of the Day of the Dead and its obsession with Death.  Reams.  Volumes.  Often I read that it is an example of how Mexicans laugh at death.  I don't believe that Mexicans laugh at death at all, rather they "celebrate" death as a means of staying connected and honoring those that they love, those who have passed on--albeit in a joyful and colorful way.  No dreary mourning here.  Instead, we have a vivid connection to the Cycle of Life.

The indigenous peoples of Mexico, such as the Nahua, Purepecha, Totonac, and Otomí believed that the souls of the dead return yearly to visit with their relatives.  And they come laughing, drinking, dancing, singing and generally being merry, just as when they were alive.  There is surely a message for us all here--seize the moment and live!

“The Mexican... is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”     Octavio Paz, Mexican Poet and Writer

(Note:  November 1st is known as All Saints Day and the 2nd is All Souls Day--the days when the dead return to us each year).   

Instead of wearing masks and costumes meant to scare away the evil spirits, Mexicans offer beauty in the form of floral arrangements, favorite sweets and food, and photos to both remember and welcome the loved ones who have passed on.

The Symbolism and Meaning of the Colors
The most common colors seen on the altars for Day of the Dead are purple, yellow, orange, white, red, and pink.  Each one carries its own meaning.

Purple:  suffering, pain, loss, and grief

Yellow/Orange:  the brilliance of the sun and a new day

White:  purity, promise, and hope

Red:  the blood of life which sustains not only the body but the soul and a symbol of sacrifice

Pink:  celebration and joy

A Catrina

Why Skeletons?
They dance, they prance, they cavort, they sing, they eat, and laugh.  They represent those who are no longer with us in the flesh, but are with us in spirit.  They remind us that they are still here, still a part of us, and they remind us literally of what is inside every one of us--our skeleton, representing our inner selves, our souls.  They also remind us of the good things in life:  good wine, family, eating, singing, dancing, and playing.  And they do it so well.

A friend and her partner dressed as a Catrina and a Catrín
Calaveras, or Skulls
In addition to the entire skeleton, the heads, or skulls alone are a beloved emblem for the Day of the Dead.  Often depicted in humorous settings, they can be caricatures of famous people such as actors or politicians, musicians, dancers, policemen, and revolutionaries.  The most iconic of these symbols come from the works of artist José Guadalupe Posada whose 19th century engravings form the basis of the beloved Catrina figure  (see above).  Note as well that the pre-Columbian Mexicans viewed the skull as a symbol of life, rather than death.

The Marigolds
Cempazuchitl, the Náhuatl or Aztec word for marigold, act as symbols for death in ancient Mesoamerican mythology.  Often they are seen broken open, so that their petals can be used to lead the dead home where they are honored and prayed for by their loved ones.  They are also woven into arches and left whole in vases or growing in pots--the "flower of the dead."  These flowers are also called zempasuchil. cempasuchil, or zempasuchitl.

Las Ofrendas, or Offerings
Favorite foods of the beloved are always offered on the altars.  You will see sugar cane, oranges, apples, pan de muerto, peanuts, seeds, beanstequila, beer, tamales, refried beans, charro beans, nixtamal, tacos, enchiladas, and more.  Photos always are lovingly placed alongside the food offerings.  Toys, pipes, hats, and other personal belongings also find their way to the altars.

Papel Chino or Papel Picado
The beautifully and often intricately cut tissue paper designs can been seen decorating not only altars, but also homes, streets, neighborhoods, and shops.  They often show skeletons cavorting in their very human ways, displaying the same antics as the living.  This delicate tissue also represents the wind and the fragility of life.

Pan de Muerto
One of the staple foods on any altar is pan de muerto, or "bread of the dead," which symbolizes the souls of the departed.  This slightly sweet egg bread can be found in a variety of shapes from simple round with crosses or bones atop them to elaborate skulls and skeletons.  

Candles and Incense
The candles, or fire,  are meant to guide the spirits to their final resting place as well as help them return to visit the living.  Incense also helps to carry the soul along, with soft scents, on its journey.

Alfeñiques, or Sugar Figures
Although I have written extensively about alfeniques before, and shown lovingly made examples from the local Day of the Dead Market, no post about Day of the Dead can miss mentioning these whimsical sugar figures, made with powdered sugar, egg whites, and a vegetable adhesive made of lemon.  Check out the link above for many examples of the types of sugar figures Mexicans put on their home altars.

Day of the Dead
San Miguel de Allende, México

Parting Shot:  
A Degas-esque ballerina offering, made by a precious Mexican friend and her father

Please ask permission before using text or photos.  Thank you!

Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México