Viva La Mexico

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Every year about this time I come down with a serious case of wanderlust. I begin to fantasize about various global destinations and the sights, sounds and, most importantly, the foods that I might encounter there. But sometimes fate has not seen fit to dovetail my wanderlust with opportunity, and at such times I turn my thoughts to past destinations and all of the culinary marvels I devoured there.

Hands down, one of my favorite places to revisit in my mind’s eye is Mexico City. The teeming metropolis of nearly 20 million people is an embarrassment of food riches, all to be had for mere pesos. And while some (misguided) guidebooks will steer tourists away from Mexican street food with dire warnings of digestive disaster, I ate my weight in the stuff and lived to tell the tale. Here, I’ve taken a culinary trip back to that amazing city with four of my favorite street foods: tacos, tlacoyos, shrimp cocktail (not always a street food but that’s where I had it) and potato chips with hot sauce.

Cochinita pibil is actually a dish from the Yucatan Peninsula; traditionally a baby pig is buried in a pit, smothered in piquant achiote paste and slow cooked in banana leaves. Don’t worry: I’m not asking you to make a pit in your backyard, but I do ask that you take a trip to a Mexican grocery to pick up some banana leaves and achiote paste. The juicy pork is to-die-for shredded and served in a taco topped with spicy
pickled onions.

Tlacoyos are essentially football-shaped, thick tortillas stuffed with beans or meat. Here I’ve stuffed them with refried black beans and topped them off with Mexican crema, radishes and hot sauce.

If you’re used to the wan shrimp cocktail you may remember from your 1970s fine dining experiences, this Mexican coctel de camaron will be a pleasant surprise. It’s spicy, a little soupy and packs a nice kick. And finally, as I learned in Mexico City, if you haven’t been slathering your potato chips in hot sauce, then you’ve been doing it wrong.

Coctel de Camaron (Shrimp Cocktail)
4 – 6 servings

2 cups pico de gallo (I recommend the homemade pico de gallo available at Cinco de Mayo market)
1 cup V8 juice
Juice of 1 lime
1⁄2 cucumber, peeled and chopped
Handful of fresh cilantro, torn
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped,
if desired
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 avocado, chopped
1 pound cooked medium (40 count) shrimp, shelled

Combine all of the ingredients except the avocado and shrimp. Add salt and pepper to taste. Gently fold in the shrimp and avocado. Serve in chilled glasses accompanied with tortilla chips.

Cochinita Pibil Tacos with Pickled Onions
makes 8 – 10 tacos

For the cochinita pibil:
1⁄2 cup orange juice
Juice of 2 limes
11⁄2 ounces achiote paste*
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano*
5 cloves garlic, crushed
Pinch cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
2 pounds cubed pork shoulder
4 banana leaves*
*Available at Mexican groceries, such as Cinco de Mayo [1312 Eastern Ave.]

Whisk together the orange juice, lime juice, achiote paste, apple cider vinegar, oregano, garlic, cinnamon, cumin and salt in a bowl. Add the pork and stir to cover thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 6 hours.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line the bottom of a Dutch oven with the banana leaves. (The leaves are large, they should hang well over the edges of the Dutch oven.) Pour the pork, along with all of the marinade, into the banana leaf-lined pot, and fold the excess leaves over the pork, tucking in the edges to make a packet. Cook, with the lid on, for 3 hours. Carefully open the banana leaves and shred the pork with 2 forks.

For the pickled onions
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped
Cilantro and lime for garnish

In a small jar or bowl, mix together the sugar and vinegar. Add the onions and chiles; allow to stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour. To assemble the tacos, place a handful of cochinita pibil on a warm corn tortilla, and top with pickled onions. Garnish with fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime.

Papas Fritas (Potato Chips) with Hot Sauce
makes 4 – 6 ounces chips

1 pound Yukon gold potatoes
2 cups lard
Sea salt
La Botanera Hot Sauce (available at Mexican groceries, such as Cinco de Mayo; you can certainly use your favorite sauce but I urge you to try it with La Botanera—it’s muy autentico!)

Slice the potatoes very thin (less than 1⁄8 inch) using a mandoline Heat the lard in a heavy bottom pan, such as a Dutch oven, to 350 F. Fry the potatoes in batches, being careful not to overcrowd them, until light golden. Remove with a mesh strainer, lay on paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt.

To serve, generously douse the chips with hot sauce.

Black Bean Tlacoyos
Makes 4 tlacoyos, with black bean filling left over

For the black bean filling
1⁄2 small red onion, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded
and chopped
1 14-ounce can refried black beans
1 tablespoon oil or lard
Salt and pepper, to taste

Saute the onion and jalapeno in the oil until soft. Add the black beans, stir to combine and add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside while you make the dough.

For the tlacoyos
1 cup masa harina (corn flour),
available at many grocery stores
and Mexican markets
3⁄4 cup water

Stir the corn flour and water together until completely combined. Work the dough for 2-3 minutes until it comes together. If it’s too dry, add more water. Form the dough into a ball and divide into 4 equal portions. Roll each portion between your hands to form smaller dough balls. For each tlacoyo, place 1 dough ball between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Using a cast-iron skillet or other heavy pan, press down firmly on the ball to form a disc, slightly thicker than a tortilla. Place a spoonful of black bean filling in the center of the disc, and gently fold the disc in half, into a half moon shape. Press the edges together and gently press down to flatten the disc into an oblong football shape. Repeat with each dough ball. Fry in a dry nonstick skillet over medium high heat for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until crispy.

To serve, top with Mexican crema (a sour cream and cream mixture available at Mexican groceries), chopped radish, hot sauce and fresh cilantro.

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