Carne Asada and Tongue Tacos on Fresh Corn Tortillas in Mascota, Jalisco

We were in Mascota for business, but as always, it was just a pretense to try a new restaurant for lunch. Russ had suggested several times before that we eat at Tacos de Ollita, but I resisted each time because I could see from the sidewalk that it was also an appliance store. Who wants to eat among boxed and unboxed refrigerators and stoves? This didn’t seem to bother him at all, so I finally agreed. We couldn’t have made a better decision.

First of all, there was the decor of aforementioned large kitchen appliances.

Then there was the unexpected, never before encountered agua de zarzamora — a refreshing drink of pureed wild blackberries mixed with ice-cold water. Next came a recited menu of traditional dishes. We ordered carne asada, grilled flank steak, and lengua, steamed tongue. Both were served with handmade tortillas, salsa verde and frijoles. Both were excellent and priced at 65 pesos and 55 pesos, respectively.

The carne asada was actually tender, compared to shoe leather-like carne asada we have been served so many times before. The tender perujuano beans were wonderful, the salsa verde was noteworthy and the tortillas de maize were the best we have eaten in Mascota. Nothing compares to freshly made corn tortillas that are well cooked with a slightly charred flavor.

Assembling lunch was easy. The idea is to create your own taco by putting something of everything in a tortilla, one of Mexico’s greatest contributions to the food world.

“Why haven’t we eaten here before?” I asked Russ. “Because you weren’t in the market for a new fridge?” he ventured.

The restaurant also goes by the name of JR Saloon. They seem to have a slight identity crisis regarding their name, but there is no confusion about their traditional Mexican dishes. Rosy the cook will prepare special orders, such as chile rellenos and chiles en nogada if you call ahead. We plan on taking her up on this offer on our next trip to the mountains.

Tacos de Ollita is on the main street going into the center of Mascota at Calle Hidalgo #45. It will take you about two hours to reach Mascota if you start at La Juntas on the northern side of Puerto Vallarta and head straight up into the mountains,  driving through Ixtapa and passing the San Sebastian turn-off. Open seven days a week. Phone 01-388-386-0695.

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Tacos de Cabeza on the Plaza in Bucerias, Mexico

It was lunchtime and we were in Bucerias. The street vendor on the plaza, the one who sells tacos filled with cabeza –beef head parts of tongue, lip, cheek, eye and brain — had caught my eye before, but we had never stopped to try his delicacies. We knew from past experience how good tongue tacos can be, so it was time to pull up a couple of plastic chairs on the curb and tuck in.

Before you get all squishy about this, remember that our food choices are cultural. Where we were born, what our moms dished up, which foods we associate with good times, what we can afford — all these factors collaborate to form our ideas of acceptable food. If Mom didn’t serve tongue tacos for lunch, Mexico will provide the opportunity to rectify this cultural gap.

Eating all parts of the animal is customary in Mexico. We have tried all of the following, though I will admit Russ sometimes did the tasting for both of us: cow tails, chicken feet, goat heads, intestines (menudo), brains, sopa de medula (spinal cord soup). The latter was served to us in a rather fancy restaurant in the interior of Mexico. I passed. This might have been during one of my vegetarian periods, so I had a good excuse. Russ said it was tasty. Somewhere along the trail, we (meaning Russ, but I include myself by association) also had brains with peas, which he recalls tasting funky. “It didn’t blow my hair back”. Very little goes to waste, an economy you have to appreciate in  a country where so many live on so little.

Only tongue, lips, brains and surtido (assorted), were available today. We each ordered tongue tacos. Today’s limited menu saved me from having to try eyeball tacos for journalistic purposes, but Russ reports from a past experience that such a taco contains one cooked, chopped cow eyeball, adding, “It’s OK.” Today, he also ordered a lip taco, which I tasted, but didn’t like as much as the tongue.

The tacos were served with chopped onion and cilantro, which we were assured had been washed with Microdyn, and a flavorful picante tomatillo salsa. There was also salsa without chile, but the picante version was not overly hot and was very good.

I recommend the tacos con lengua (tongue) with hot salsa. At nine pesos apiece, two or three tacos make a reasonably priced lunch, with a beautiful view of Banderas Bay thrown in for free.  This is street eating at its finest.

If you have room for dessert, ice cream is a one minute walk away at La Michoacana.

Scenes from Bucerias to enjoy, as you walk around eating your ice cream…

Cool Mango Popsicles on a Hot Mexican Day

It is so tempting to buy popsicles on a hot day at La Michoacana, the franchised ice cream shops found throughout Mexico. Their paletas are very colorful and fruity, but often too sweet. I like the chunks of fruit in La Michoacana popsicles, even the seeds in the watermelon and cantaloupe popsicles, but I’m suspect of the bright colors. I hope they are not using food coloring.

To make your own popsicles, buy a popsicle mold or use paper cups and wooden sticks. Determine the total volume of the molds, and cut up an equivilent amount of fresh fruit. For this batch, I used mango, pineapple and a few tablespoons of dried coconut.

Roughly process cut-up fruit in a blender, but don’t puree the mixture. The texture is more interesting with chunks of fruit. Stir in coconut, if you are using it. Spoon into the molds.

Depending on how cold your freezer is, freeze for 6-8 hours or overnight.

When frozen, run the mold under tepid water for easy removal.

Notes:

Stir in some unsweetened yogurt into the processed fruit, or use an equal amount of fruit and yogurt. Strawberries with yogurt is especially tasty.

If your sweet tooth cries out for more “–ose” — fructose or sucrose — add stevia, agave syrup, or honey.

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How to clean and disinfect fruits and vegetables in Mexico

This is not a pretty topic, but it’s something not to be ignored: how to clean fresh fruits and vegetables. For those of us who live in Mexico, the practice of soaking all fresh produce in an antibacterial solution is necessary. Soil, microbes and bacteria are found on the skins of fruits and vegetables. In Mexico (and other countries, including those north of the border), where sanitary practices are not always followed, from the time produce is grown and harvested, until it is delivered to the store, there are opportunities for contamination: unclean hands, waste water run-off, animal wastes, fertilizing with fresh manure, irrigating with unclean water. Washing fruits and vegetables in tap water, or even purified drinking water, is not sufficient if you want a sanitary kitchen producing healthy food. Tap water, no matter how pure, will not kill bacteria. Purified drinking water does not kill bacteria. Using an antibacterial product in a soak solution will ensure clean produce, whether it is to be eaten raw or cooked.

Anything with a skin that you plan on removing before eating, like cantaloupes, watermelon, limes, and mangoes, should be soaked. Produce that grows close to the ground, like cilantro, especially needs to be soaked. Anything eaten raw needs to be soaked, whether it is peeled first or not. (Bacteria on the peel can be transferred to the peeled fruit by your hands or knife.) Any produce that will be cooked should be soaked, because it may not be cooked long enough to kill certain bacteria, or it may contaminate other, already cleaned produce (that will be eaten raw) if stored in contact with them. In short, everything fresh in the plant world that passes through your kitchen should be soaked in an antibacterial solution.

This lesson was driven home to me a few years ago when I walked to our neighborhood store very early one morning. Produce was being unloaded from a truck and placed directly on the pavement. No plastic bags or newspaper or anything, were between the cilantro, lettuces and watermelons and the cobblestones. I will not go into details of the other substances I sometimes see on the same cobblestones, stuff I would never want to come into contact with anything edible, but the sight of this was enough to make me turn around and vow never to shop there again.

Later, when I had time to think about this rationally, I realized that anything purchased in the cleanest supermarket may have spent some time on the ground or pavement on its way to the store. Or handled by unclean hands. Or other situations I don’t want to talk about here. So I did shop at this store again, but I am now extra careful about cleaning produce no matter where I purchase it. This is an easy practice if you make it part of your kitchen routine.

Common products used in Mexico are Microdyn and Bacdyn, both of which contain the active ingredient ionized silver (which I do not believe is the same thing as colloidal silver, but I am not a chemist), and both are equally effective. They are usually sold in grocery stores in the produce department and come in different sized bottles. North of the border, grapefruit seed extract is used, as well as other commercial products. A solution of Clorox (sodium hypochlorite) and water is effective, but a rinse with potable water is needed, plus chlorine has environmental issues. Microdyn and Bacdyn solutions don’t need to be rinsed off, a plus if you live in Mexico or another country where drinking water is purchased.

I use Microdyn, and have noticed that different sized bottles contain different concentrations. The largest bottles are not as concentrate as the smallest, so more Microdyn is needed.

To soak: first wash off any obvious soil. Always read the instructions for the proportion of solution to water and how many minutes to soak. Various brands and different sizes of the same brand call for different amounts of concentration to water. Use tap water, not purified water, because the antibacterial product kills any bacteria in the water as well. After all, this is the same procedure for purifying unclean drinking water.

After soaking for the specified time, place produce in a colander or on a  clean dish towel to drain. You don’t need to rinse off the soak solution (unless you used chlorine bleach, and then only with pure water). Allow to air dry completely, as drier produce stays fresher longer in the fridge.

If you elect to clean your fruits and vegetables with chlorine bleach, do not use scented chlorine or color-safe bleaches. The University of Nebraska, USA, suggests using 1 1/2 teaspoons bleach (5.25% sodium hypochlorite) in one gallon of water. Do not wash before storing. Rinse just before using. Clorox brand bleach contains 5.25% sodium hydrochlorite.

Ohio State University, USA, instructs to soak produce for 15-20 minutes in a chlorine bleach solution. The amount of bleach to add to water depends on the percentage of chlorine it contains. For 2% chlorine, use 3/4 tablespoon per quart of water. For 4% chlorine, use 1 teaspoon per quart of water. For 6% chlorine, use 1/2 teaspoon per quart of water. Rinse thoroughly with safe drinking water.

North of the border, a product called Fit is sold for cleaning produce. The makers claim it removes chemicals on the surface, but their web site offers no claims that it kills surface bacteria.

Cleaning products that contain grapefruit seed extract are more effective, as GSE, as it is known, has been found to eliminate fungus and bacteria.(It is used in hospitals as a cleaning agent.) Look in health food stores and natural food stores for products containing grapefruit seed extract.

Produce can also be cleaned with a solution of one cup of vinegar to three cups of water. Either spray fruits and vegetables with this solution, waiting three minutes before rinsing in clean water, or soak produce for three minutes and then rinse in water. Use a scrub brush to clean dirt in crevasses.

Cross contamination is common. Unsoaked squash or broccoli  are cut up for cooking in your kitchen. Then salad ingredients are prepared on the same cutting board, using the same knife. Cross contamination has just occurred. Even hands contribute to cross contamination. By soaking every fresh fruit and vegetable, you will join the practice of the majority of cooks and kitchens in Mexico.

Soaking Tips:

Disinfect all your produce as soon as you come home from shopping. Make it a policy to not put any uncleaned fruits and veggies in the fridge. This way, everything is ready to grab and eat, or cook, without stopping to clean and soak. And an unsuspecting family member will not reach for an uncleaned apple.

The same disinfectant solution may be used many times over, provided the water appears clean and does not have dirt and spoiled plant parts accumulating. I normally prepare one container of Microdyn and water and re-use it until all the produce brought home from the market has been disinfected. This is on the advice of my husband, a former chemist, who says that ionized silver, the active ingredient in Microdyn and Bacdyn, does not break down or get “used up” with successive soakings.

Be aware of cross contamination. Don’t allow unsoaked produce to be stored with clean. If you used a cutting board and knife to trim before soaking, wash them thoroughly with hot water and soap before prepping soaked veggies.

Cilantro, tomatoes and other produce may have obvious soil or dried mud on the surface. Rinse off completely before using a soak solution.

To clean tight heads of  lettuce and cabbage, remove the outer leaves. The inner head is already clean, as it grew from the inside, protected by the outer leaves. If you buy a head of cabbage already cut in half, a common occurrence in Mexico, it will need to be soaked, as you have no way of knowing if the knife, hands and cutting board were properly cleaned first. Never buy watermelons or papayas that have already been halved at the store.

Mushrooms and strawberries are too absorbent to soak in a solution without becoming water-logged. Walmart sells a spray to use on fruits and vegetables, and this is probably the best way to clean these two. The active ingredient is “citrus seed extract”. Spray and wait 10 minutes. For other spray products, follow the instructions.

A special note for travelers: if you are on the road in Mexico, or anywhere, and want to disinfect the fruits and vegetables you purchase in the markets, travel with a zip lock bag and a small bottle of Microdyn, available in any grocery store, even in the smallest Mexican towns. Disinfect your produce in the zip lock bag first before eating. You do not have to use purified water, as the Microdyn disinfects water, also. In fact, Microdyn will disinfect drinking water if you are unsure of its purity, though these days, purified water can be purchased anywhere in Mexico. We also travel with a small cutting board, knife and vegetable peeler.

More reading:

What Does it Take to Clean Fresh Food? (NPR)

How Clean is Your Grocery Shopping Cart? (SNOPES)


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Mega Hassle Soothed by French Bread with Ibarra Chocolate and Sea Salt

While reading David Lebovitz’ blog today about his hassles with store clerks, I realized that France and Mexico have at least one thing in common: the customer is not always right.

I recently bought a bag of sea salt at Mega Commercial, the one that is outside Bucerias. The price posted on the shelf was 12 pesos, but when I got home and checked my receipt, I had been charged 54 pesos. As I had opened the bag and used some of the salt, I asked for the difference in price when I returned to the store. You would have thought I was trying to hold them up. They didn’t call the police, but it seemed to come close to that.

The cashier called a woman over. She talked to a guy with a radio standing at the front of the store. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. Have you noticed how people won’t look at you when they really don’t want to even listen to you? You are not even acknowledged? I stood my ground, so she had to talk to someone else. She came back and told me it had been “muchos dias” since I bought the salt. I told her it was only 6 days ago. I wish I was fluent enough to say, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

The shelf where the salt came from still had the sticker price of 12 pesos, which she promptly removed when I showed it to her. Two more people were then involved in the conversation. Twenty minutes after I had begun this parody of a client-business relationship, I had my money back. Neither side felt very good about it.

I went about my shopping. When I checked out, the original woman I had spoken to, the same one who finally returned my money, came up to the cashier, asked her to step aside, and did some fast finger work at the cash register, the register screen went blank, and she told me my total. I carefully examined my receipt, and could find nothing amiss, but I know she got the money back.

I still like salt, and I will still shop at Mega. It beats driving all the way into Puerto Vallarta.

To calm my frayed nerves when I came home, I baked a loaf of French bread with Ibarra chocolate and coarse sea salt (yes, the same salt that caused me grief). Baking is always soothing, and nothing beats a warm slice of freshly baked bread with a cup of tea if you have had an encounter with an uncooperative store clerk.

My regular readers will know by now that I am attempting to use Mexican Ibarra chocolate, which is sold for making hot chocolate, in recipes that would otherwise use Belgian bittersweet chocolate, or other comparable, high-quality chocolates. So far, I have not been disappointed. If you try this substitution in other recipes, use less sugar than is called for to compensate for the sweet Ibarra.

French Bread with Ibarra Chocolate and Sea Salt makes 2 loaves

8 oz. whole wheat flour

8 oz. unbleached white flour

2 teaspoon instant-rise yeast

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup tepid water, plus more if necessary

2  (6.2 oz./180 grams) discs Ibarra chocolate (or bittersweet chocolate)

4 teaspoons of coarse sea salt for sprinkling on top of loaves (optional)

Read recipe through completely, assemble and weigh or measure all ingredients. Chop chocolate to about the size of chocolate chips. Ibarra chocolate is harder than most chocolates, because it contains less fat. Micro-wave the discs for 10 seconds to soften to make chopping easier.

Place flour, yeast and water in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix for 2 minutes on medium speed (I used speed setting #4 on my Kitchen Aid). If the dough is too dry, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add salt and knead 8 minutes. Add chocolate pieces and knead just until chocolate is incorporated, about 1-2 minutes.

At this point, you have the option of kneading by hand for a minute or two. I always like to finish bread dough by hand to form a smooth ball. It may not be necessary, but after years of kneading dough by hand, I can’t turn it over completely to a machine.

If you feel that you don’t need this manual connection, form the dough into a ball, place on a floured surface, and cover with a large bowl. Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes.

Using a dough scraper, cut the dough evenly into two pieces. With the heel of your hand, shape each piece into a rectangle about 10″ by 4″ (25 cm. by 10 cm.). Starting with a long side, roll up the rectangle into a cylinder. Pinch the seam closed along the length, place on an oiled baking sheet seam side down, and slash the tops diagonally with a serrated knife.

Cover the loaves with a linen dish towel that has been dusted with flour. Allow to double in size, about 1 hour. While the dough is rising, pre-heat the oven to 450 deg. F. (230 C.).

When the bread has doubled in size, spritz with water, using a spray bottle, and sprinkle with coarse sea salt.  Bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown. To test for doneness, pick up a loaf, using a clean dish towel, and tap the bottom. There should be a dry, hollow sound. If the sound is more of a dense thud, return to the oven for 5 minutes more and test again.

When done, cool on a cake rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Allowing the bread to cool slightly before cutting will give a texture that is dry, not steamy and gummy.



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