Making the Most of Taos, New Mexico

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New Mexico is a magical place; that’s why it’s known as the Land of Enchantment. (Although my friend who grew up there refers to it as the Land of Entrapment.) Even the airport hints at the character of the state: colorful and arty souvenirs, a meditation room, and– these days– lots of Breaking Bad t-shirts.

In October, I attended the Growing Food and Justice Initiative Gathering in Taos.
I haven’t written much about work on this blog, but this conference was so tied to a sense of place, I’d be remiss not to mention it. And I’m considering renaming the blog to reflect my food justice work. But I digress.

GFJI brings together food justice activists who are concerned with racial justice and spiritual reflection. It was hosted at the fierce, indigenous and Hispanic-led Taos County Economic Development Corp, which has a massive incubator kitchen, a mobile matanza (slaughterhouse), greenhouses, and teaching gardens. I attended a workshop on the acequias movement. A practice of cooperative water management passed down from Spanish colonialists, it has been effective for centuries in a desert setting. Water usage is determined by time and allotments instead of volume and price. But corporations are buying out shares– often for use elsewhere– seeing water as a commodity rather than a public good. There is a local struggle between traditional, sustainable practices and “modern,” extractive usage. We also heard from notable farmer and climate change activist Winona LaDuke, who spoke of our collective addiction to energy (and like addicts, we do unspeakable things to maintain the habit). She shared a haunting story of South Dakota after a recent blizzard, riding in on horseback amongst tens of thousands of dead cattle. And she devastatingly referred to South Dakota and Appalachia as “national sacrifice zones” for energy production.

There was also replenishing dancing and singing with the Taos Pueblo folks. And there were other workshops from people around the country, not as relevant to this blog.

Food

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The first morning, I had breakfast at the counter at Michael’s Kitchen Cafe and Bakery. It’s one of those local spots with regulars and chatty staff. I wanted my green chile fix. Grown along the Rio Grande in the Hatch Valley, these chiles are rich in vitamin C and have a distinctive, earthy flavor and heat that is unique to their growing region. I had the breakfast enchilada, with scrambled eggs, smothered in a meaty green chile, with a side of beans. There was also a sopaipilla (fry bread) served with cinnamon butter. One evening, a few of us had decent margaritas at Adobe Bar, a cozy venue with live music and a local favorite. Both were walking distance from El Pueblo Lodge, a sweet, dog-friendly hotel in the center of town.

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The kitchen staff at TCEDC also served delicious food. One evening, there were chicharrones prepared outdoors over a propane stove. There was a wok-like disk for cooking, apparently welded from a retired piece of a tractor, an example of ingenuity common in the area. Another evening we had a feast of locally produced and donated meats (bison, pork, beef, lamb) with sweet, roasted root vegetables. The last day, we sampled some of the items that graduates of the incubator kitchen class developed for commercial production: sticky buns dotted with green chile, chocolate chip quinoa cookies, a butternut squash soup– all delicious.

cedar wood carvings of santos at Barela's Traditional Fine Art

cedar wood carvings of santos at Barela’s Traditional Fine Art

Outside

I took a detour on the way back to Albuquerque and stopped at Carson National Forest. After an intense weekend, all I wanted was to walk around and hear the rustle of the wind in the leaves. Up in the mountains, there was already snow on the ground. There were pine trees all around and the leaves on the aspens were bright yellow.

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Albuquerque

I stopped at La Montanita Coop in Albuquerque to pick up a few foods that are trickier to find on the east coast: green chile, blue posole, blue popcorn, Mexican oregano. The prepared foods were quite good too: I had a tasty and reasonably portioned breakfast burrito that morning and brought a citrusy kale salad and green chile and cheese tamale to the airport. In the meantime, food will continue to bring me back to this place.

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Making the Most of Tucson, Arizona

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

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The first time I saw the sky in the southwest, I was stunned. Buildings and trees hug the earth, and the light is clear and bright, so the sky is broader and bigger. The earth is tan or red in places, and the cacti, mesquite trees, and scrub brush only add to the otherworldly look of the place. Tucson is a small, affordable, and manageable city in the Sonoran desert, whose population increases in September because of the arrival of students (about 50,000 young people) and soon after, the snow birds from the east coast (about 20,000 seniors). Roughly half of the people in this progressive and arty town are Chicano, so it also has a good Mexican vibe.

We ventured south to Nogales, Arizona as part of the conference. The border fence cuts Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) in half. We learned about water issues and militarization in the border region. Starting salary for a border patrol guard is $50,000, so it definitely seems like a way out for people who would otherwise be stuck in retail or food service jobs.

We stayed an extra day after a conference to do some sightseeing, and a local activist and friend suggested Pasqua Yaqui pride. The tribe fought long and hard against conquest and became known as fierce warriors. Shockingly, the Pasqua Yaqui were only legally recognized by the US government about thirty years ago, so the attendant advantages of tribal recognition (land, financial resources, access), are relatively recent. Pride day included lots of traditional dancing and music, food, vendors, resource tables, and a souped up car show on the reservation. It was a lovely celebration of solidarity, tradition, fun, and a sobering reminder of our nation’s history.

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There is no shortage of delicous Sonoran food in Tucson. One evening, we went to La Indita, a casual, family run place which serves indigenous Tohono O’Odham and traditional Mexican food. The homestyle guacamole, the Tohono O’Odham style beef with red chile, and calabacitas were delicious. The flan was very sweet and perfectly creamy, not curdled and overbaked like so many places do. Another evening, Cafe Poca Cosa, with its rotating selection of Mexican dishes in an upscale setting, truly dazzled. We shared the plato poca cosa after noting the portion sizes at an adjacent table. On that night, the sampler included a rich chicken mole, a layered creamy broccoli dish, and a spicy beef dish. There were rich beans and pillowy corn tortillas on the side.

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Another evening, we had a margarita at a local favorite on Congress. And, in true city as small town fashion, we ran into our host at Cafe Passe, a good coffee shop with a huge outdoor patio in the back, on the popular 4th Avenue. Around the block is a mural to a young Mexican American who was gunned down by border patrol.

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And of course, I loaded up on southwestern staples at Native Seed/SEARCH. This store sells seeds and food products. It’s a bit on the pricy side, so some locals balk at the idea of shopping here, but living on the east coast, I can’t easily access many of these items. I stocked up on prickly pear cactus candy, mormon tea (for allergies), blue posole, bolita beans (hands down makes the best refried beans), corn snacks, and Ga’ivsa, cracked roasted Pima corn. Chiltepins were sold out, likely due to an article in the current issue of Edible Baja Arizona. All the more reason to return soon.

Berlin This Time: Food

hibiscus salad

hibiscus salad

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vegetarian spreads

vegetarian spreads

donor kebab

donor kebab

German food conjures images of hearty but bland foods like meat and potatoes, so I was pleasantly surprised by the food this time. Vietnamese immigrants began to arrive in the 50s, and earlier waves from the Middle East provided even more culinary options, including many vegetarian options. At Siam in Kreutzberg—a cleaned up East Berlin neighborhood often compared to Park Slope in Brooklyn―I had one of the most delightful and surprising meals in recent memory. A hibiscus and seaweed salad packed a combination of flavors and textures: sliced Asian pear in a sweet, floral, vibrant red hibiscus marinade, salty and chewy hijiki seaweed, crisp cucumber and romaine lettuce, hints of chile, served with a giant crisp rice cracker. This was followed by a solid vegetarian pho. Another day, my mind was blown by Sudanese falafel at Sahara Sudanesische Spezialitaten in messy, hip, and gentrifying Fraudlenshein. Sure, I’ve had the Arab or Israeli versions, with pickled veggies and tahini. But the Sudanese version had falafel, peanut sauce, and haloumi in a pita for just a few Euros. Wow. I was delighted that the friendly African dudes working the counter were rocking out to cumbia.

Since I was in Berlin, I also had the requisite and ubiquitous currywurst, donor kebab, and spatzle. I am still puzzled why currywurst is so popular (besides the price point). It’s a sliced hot dog with ketchup, sprinkled with curry powder, served with or without fries (chips). Donor kebab entered the menu through Turkish immigrants and is now a mainstay. Generous amounts of sliced, seasoned lamb (like a gyro), veggies, mayonaisse-based sauces, served in pressed, warm bread. It’s a salty, creamy, meaty mess of a sandwich with a perfect combination of amazing flavors. Spatzle is a pasta, made from potato, and sauteed so the outside gets slightly browned. I had a good one made with spinach and a cream sauce.

Besides beer, the beverage of choice is Club Mate. Apparently made from an old recipe that was recently rediscovered, it is Argentinian yerba mate tea with a slight fermentation, making a tannic, sparkling, slightly sweet caffeinated drink. Bars serve it with vodka.

There are bio (organic) markets all over. Yogurt comes in clear glass or plastic, which somehow makes it seem tastier. My vegan host introduced me to vegetarian pates and spreads made from ingredients like beets and horseradish or shitake mushrooms. They are quite good, available in cans that I brought home for easy meal options.

Food in Sarajevo

Our Bosnian AirBnB host explained that the restaurant scene in Sarajevo isn’t well established. Most people grow some of their own food and eat at home. There were plum, pear, apple trees and vegetable gardens attesting to that fact all around. And the spectacular fruit market is cheap and exciting. But, she continued, food is inexpensive, so we should explore. Particularly at breakfast, though, even amongst abundant cafes, it was hard to find one that offered food in addition to coffee. Bosnian coffee is served like Turkish coffee, strong, in a small tin serving pitcher with the grinds at the bottom. One option for breakfast are the pies, made with a phyllo-like dough, and filled with meat, cheese, potato, spinach, or– most tasty– pumpkin (zucchini). These are ubiquitous and cost a few bucks, but my favorite bakery was Forino.

The local beer, Sarajevsko, is organic. There is a spring in the complex housing the brewery and it was the only source of fresh water (besides rainwater or melted snow) during the siege, so it is also thought of with great affection.

The best restaurant we went to is a pescatarian place called Karuzo. Decorated with a timeless nautical theme, things take a bit longer here: the chef and owner also acts as the waiter and dishwasher, with the kitchen downstairs. The food was exquisite, and a macrobiotic salad with seitan and seaweed was fresh and clean, with excellent flavors and textures. Stuffed cabbage with tofu was quite good. We were introduced to good wines from Herzegovina, a growing industry that is just entering the export market. And finally, a chocolate apple pie was delicious. My only disappointment was that a trilingual cookbook by the chef had incomplete recipes, clearly untested, lacking notes on the techniques that bring the food to the next level.

We had good meals at an enormous Austro-Hungarian place next to the brewery and good falafel in the old town at Zaatar. In general, the food here is a bit bland and emphasizes meat. When I returned home, all I wanted to eat was Korean, Thai, and Mexican food. Hopefully, stability in the region will increase options.

The scene at the fruit market

The scene at the fruit market

Stuffed cabbage at Karuzo

Stuffed cabbage at Karuzo

Macrobiotic salad at Karuzo

Macrobiotic salad at Karuzo

Cabbage, onions, and grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and smreka, a fermented juniper berry drink

Cabbage, onions, and grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and a glass of smreka, a fermented juniper berry drink

Bosnia coffee

Bosnian coffee

Mexico City: Food is Love

One of the things I was most looking forward to before visiting Mexico was the food. DF did not disappoint. We ate at a few restaurants, which ranged from a few bucks cheaper than NYC prices to comparable, but street food is definitely the way to go. A local directed us to Coyoacán after a visit to La Casa Azul. It was a paradise of food vendors and we wandered around sharing several different items. In general, I skipped vendors that had lackadaisical food safety practices, looked for groups of locals, and followed my nose. I didn’t spend enough time eating the same things at different places, so rather than compare, here are my favorite things I ate. I also didn’t have a chance to eat at Pugol, recognized on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013 list by San Pellegrino, but my eyes popped out of my head as my friend described the tasting menu, so next time for sure. Yelp hasn’t branched out to Mexico yet (my friend joked that Mexicans don’t believe in it, but I suspect it’s tricky to specify the lady selling corn under the blue tarp). Another thing that hasn’t caught on is Instagraming everything you eat; we definitely stuck out as five cameras came out before eating just about anything.

In no particular order:

Tlayuda– I’ve never seen this in the States before. A crisp, oblong tortilla, with a layer of beans, onions, nopales (prickly pear cactus, almost has the flavor of okra or green beans), from Oaxaca.
Esquites– Corn, but not the ubiquitous sweet corn, this variety has a very large kernel. Like elote, we had it with lime, chile, and cojita cheese. But esquites comes in a cup, with the delicious pot liquor from the corn. I haven’t seen this in the States, either, but I’m told I can find it on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.
Nieves– Literally, snow. Think of the best Italian ices. Flavors range from fruity to creamy, and the best we had were from Tepoznieves. We paired a fruity watermelon with a creamy Mil Flores, a blend of spikenard (an aromatic), gardenia, lily, white chocolate, and almonds. Incredibly delicious.
Paletas– Popsicles, but again, the flavors ranged from fruity to creamy. Best came from a paleteria called La Michoacana.
Tropical fruit– Fresh cut fruit, enhanced with lime, salt, and chile. My favorite was the combination, which had watermelon, pineapple, papaya, and mango.
Cajeta– Similar to caramel, but made from goat’s milk, so it has a mild tartness. Eat it on toast or ice cream.
Churros– Real churros, fresh and hot, not like the ones people sell around NYC. These were filled with cajeta.
Potato chips– Fresh potato chips, served with chile and lime. Dorilocos is a version made with Doritos, but that just seemed silly.
Torta– A sandwich with layers of beans, cheese, and meat, grilled to order. The guy near the corner of Isabel la Católica and 5 de Mayo made mouth-watering tortas.
Chile en nogada– A poblano chile filled with ground beef, raisins, topped with a white walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds: a great combination of sweet and savory in the colors of the Mexican flag. We went to La Hosteria de Santo Domingo, at the recommendation of locals. The dish can easily be shared.
Oaxacan omelette– We ordered a selection of breakfast items at Café El Popular and shared them. Everything was delicious. I ordered the Oaxacan omelette, filled with Oaxacan cheese and bathed in a red chile sauce. The cafe con leche was rich and strong. The waitress asked you to say when for the coffee, then poured the milk from up high, just to the rim of the glass.
Quesadilla– A thin corn tortilla filled with well-seasoned meat and cheese, not the bland flour tortilla and fillings you get in the States.
Concha– A sweet bread in the shape of a shell, with a thin glaze of sugar on top. We wandered to a hole in the wall bakery, Fruity Pays, after noticing the smell of sugar in the air.
Pulque– Agave that is fermented, not distilled (like tequila or mezcal). It has that fermented taste, a little sour, and is sweetened with fruit. I had blackberry. It’s a delicious drink, very refreshing and filling. I haven’t seen this in the States either, but I hear you can find cans of it in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Margarita– I was surprised how hard it was to find a decent margarita. The best was at an upscale cocktail place called La Casa de Las Sirenas. They even had a nice selection of Cuban rums.
So little time, so many delicious things to eat. ¡Buen provecho!

Chef’s Night Out: Talde (Brooklyn, NY)

Eating with chefs is one of my favorite things. There’s an unconscious understanding of the value and pleasure of the present moment, of mutuality, of generosity, of constant learning. Even though I had just met three of the other guests, we started trying each other’s cocktails right off the bat. Without a word, each of us took turns divvying up the different plates. And we all had a lot to say, critiquing out of a spirit of shared learning and exploration. No silent inhaling of calories, no fussy eaters, and no stiffing on the check.

My friend Sung is my favorite kind of chef: she’s an artist with an insatiable quest for learning. She is dizzyingly excited by food and has an appetite that outsizes her tiny frame. Talde is an Asian-American restaurant in tree-lined Park Slope. There are mahogany wood-carvings on the white walls, and the food is served on inexpensive, colorful decorative plates. We started at the bar, ordering perilla leaves, kung pao chicken wings, and pretzel pork and chive dumplings. Perilla, an herb in the mint family, had a nice bite of shrimp, coconut, bacon and peanuts. The dumplings worked well, the fattiness of the pork was absorbed by the saltiness of bits of pretzel. But the chicken wings were the real standout: crisp and juicy, with a perfectly balanced sweet spicy sauce and a cool buttermilk ranch. For cocktails, we tried a few, but the standouts were the lychee martini, nine roses (four roses bourbon, dry vermouth, chinese 5 spice), a slushy cocktail with green tea and whisky (the flavors were right, but we would have preferred it on the rocks), starfruit sangria, and the watermelon margarita (served with a salted slice of watermelon). The bartender and the server were clearly having fun and highly competent, which is the best kind of service.

At the table, we had the kale salad, lobster tom kha, whole roasted branzino, Korean fried chicken, smoked char siu pork shoulder, orange beef ribeye and broccoli, and shrimp egg foo yung fried rice. And the halo halo for dessert. We can put it away.

We all agreed that the branzino and the pork were the standouts, both for technique and for flavor. The whole branzino was wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled, boneless except for the head, packed with tomato and topped with an abundance of fresh herbs. The fish was moist and had a hint of turmeric. We had been torn between the branzino and the sea bream, but the waiter recommended this choice, saying it was her favorite. She made the right call. The pork was served sliced like a loin, not shredded. It was bursting with umame flavor, and served with watermelon and peanuts. Close seconds were the ribeye, where we could detect a hint of orange essence on the broccoli, the beef was well-seasoned and the dehydrated slices of orange pulled it all together. The kale salad, with two types of kale, fried and raw, shaved radish and squash, was bright and tasty. The hibiscus tofu tasted almost like a smoked mozzarella. And the ponzu dressing balanced it all out.

We had a blast. We are an opinionated bunch and there were so many interesting ideas and flavors. We left inspired and content. Will definitely be back.

Making the Most of Toronto

view of Toronto skyline from City Island

view of Toronto skyline from City Island

My visit to Tronno (as they say) was a whirlwind, but I wanted to share a few tips before I get completely sucked into the vortex that is NYC.

Navigation

The subway runs north and south and east and west, and there are an extensive network of buses. It is very walkable. I used Hopstop to help navigate. Finding your way around the city is relatively easy. The one exception is public transportation from the airport (a real money saver over taxis), with unclear signage both on where to locate it and how to pay for it. I asked at the courtesy desk and was told to purchase tokens at the money exchange desk. There are different rates for single tokens or more than one or paying exact fare, all of which isn’t clearly indicated. Thankfully, I had a few extra Canadian dollars from my last visit, so I didn’t have to pay high exchange fees.

Accommodations

I used Couchsurfing again with great success. I stayed with two lovely gay men who happily shared tips and fun things to do in the city (everything from Veggie Pride to the LGBT film fest). I learned more about local politics in a short conversation with them than I did during the rest of my stay. Time didn’t permit much else besides the conference, but it gave me a good sense of what was going on and I explored the neighborhoods they suggested. Their home was lovely and I had a comfy pull out couch in a private attic room with a balcony. Couchsurfing is not for everybody and not for every type of trip, but you get to meet fascinating, like-minded people who are willing to share their homes with you for free. It is peer-reviewed and you can verify your identity through credit cards. It makes me happy to confirm that we don’t have to monetize every single thing in our lives, real cultural exchange is possible, and people can travel more often than they think.

Food

I knew that I’d appreciate the local food culture after reading this article in a local free paper. Between the awesome cover art of silverware in a dishwashing rack and understanding that chefs don’t care much for brunch, I was interested. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time outside of the TBEX conference to explore, but this article helped me understand the local food scene, which is similar enough to my hometown.

The conference reception at the elegant Roy Thompson Hall, catered by Core caterers, gave all of us a taste of the different neighborhoods. The standouts were maple syrup quickly chilled on food grade snow, then gently wrapped around a cube of gouda, cheddar or blue cheese. And desserts by Bucket and Whisk, including huge chunks of gummys (my favorite was the cola) and crispy campfire sandwiches: buttery rice crispy treats with a house made, slightly charred marshmallow in the middle. The Cheesewerks mac and cheese and osso bucco were also standouts. The Mill Street Tankhouse ale was perfect to wash it all down. And I also appreciate the candy bars that aren’t widely available in the States, like Mr. Big, and– most exciting– Coffee Crisp. There were also photo booths, including a machine that made a flip book out of you acting foolish. Overall, it was an impressive and well executed event, and I say that having worked hundreds of events like this in NYC.

maple syrup wrapped cheese at the TBEX reception

maple syrup wrapped cheese at the TBEX reception

As I made my way back and forth to the convention center, I managed to check out a few places. I had good espresso at the Pocket and good coffee at Jimmy’s. There are microbreweries all over, and I swung by Tallboys, which sells craft beer in large cans. Limited editions like Kensington Brewery’s Fisheye IPA are produced in aluminum cans with a sticker slapped on for a label. I also visited Soma for a perfectly spicy and rich Mayan hot chocolate and a biscotti. The pristine production room is visible through glass. I had three plump meatballs, crostini, and ample tomato sauce at Hey Meatball, a fun, well designed single concept restaurant that serves local meats and house made sodas. And finally, I wandered into Butterfly Bakery, where I had excellent shrimp dumpling dim sum for two bucks!

The final conference reception was held on City Island, a huge park that is accessible by ferry and has great views of the downtown skyline.

Conference

TBEX is a conference for travel bloggers. The best workshops that I attended discussed storytelling and the potential of tourism to create change. I met lots of interesting people and have lots of new ideas to implement. Coming back to NYC was a particularly busy time, so I will write more about this at a later date. That said, I go to a lot of conferences for work in real life, so I was pretty beat doing this on my free time.

Textile Museum of Canada

Armed with a complementary pass from Tourism Toronto, I went to the Textile Museum of Canada. My interest in textiles stems from an art professor who once said that when the history of art is rewritten to acknowledge the contributions of women, quiltmakers will be credited with inventing modern art.

Guatemalan huipil at the Textile Museum of Canada

Guatemalan huipil at the Textile Museum of Canada

There were two shows at the Museum: Ancestry and Artistry: Maya Textiles from Guatemala and Shine. One featured huipiles from Guatemala, colorful indigenous clothing. The influence of outsiders had an impact on the garments: the Spanish introduced embroidery, and in modern times, visitors from all over the world share images. My favorite was a story about a Westerner who brought a copy of Audubon’s bird book as requested by an artist, and returned the following year to see a huipil with a sewn image copied from the book. The second exhibit included textiles sewn with gold and silver thread, tiny mirrors sewn into garments, paired with contemporary sculptures. My favorite was a huge image of fast food, made out of woven soda cans.

I had a great time in Toronto and hope to visit again soon!