Thursday, January 15, 2015

Life Changing Lunchbox

Life Changing Lunchbox... I don't want to go all "post holiday health nut crazy because I just ate my way through California and Mexico" on you, but I might for just a post, or 6.

I saw some Pin or blog post recently showing off a fancy metal lunch container with little silicon cupcake liners to act as separates and a perfectly organized 8 zillion part lunch and all I could think was: I NEED.

So the day after my return to Chiberia I ventured to The Container Store in search of the perfect solution. I found a few and took them home to experiment.

One solution is this 3-1 little lovebug that I am totally obsessed with: Stainless Steele Eco Lunchbox 

The other solution was two separate metal containers - one which is rectangular and has an adjustable divider and one small round one.

I wasn't able to find these silicon cupcake liners  at The Container Store so I just ended up buying regular ones, though one pack is extra large and has a waxy heavy coating on the inside making it a bit sturdier.

So here are some of the lunches I packed last week to be extra good on my first week back to normal life post eating my face off:

First Day at Work: Edamame, Cheddar, Turkey Jerky, Shredded Chicken, Fruit & Nut mix, Unsweetened Applesauce

Nicer looking pic from home

Day Two: Shredded Chicken & Hummus sando on Ezekiel Bread

Sando with Edamame, Olives, and Fresh Mozz
Day Three: Chicken salad with shredded Brussels for crunch, Edamame, Cheddar, Turkey Jerky, Fruit & Nut mix

Day Four: Working From Home = brekkie of Avocado Toast, and Yogurt Parfait!
Day Four: Working From Home = lunch of leftover flank steak, leftover kale, edamame, fresh mozz, & hummus on Ezekiel toast
Day Four: Working From Home = Dinner of Spaghetti Squash and Turkey Sausage Bolognese

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Mexican Culinary Vacation

Mexican Culinary Vacation... Growing up in a family of mish mashed backgrounds and cultures we ended up celebrating every holiday that involved family time and of course presents. Although we aren't religious folks we do like the festivities, namely the food and traditions that come along with the Holiday season. So a few years back, as my older brother & sister-in-law started celebrating Thanksgiving with us and Christmas with her family, we started to focus more on a made up version of Hanukkah as our main December Holiday. It looks a little something like this: We pick a random Saturday in December when I'm home on the Best Coast for some form of Winter Break from my Big Girl job - sometimes it happens to fall over Hanukkah, sometimes not. Then my mom gets 8 presents for everyone which are wrapped perfectly in some color theme (this year was grey, white, and burgundy... quite chic really). The rest of us do 1 or 2 gifts for each other  which is more reminiscent of  Christmas like gift giving tradition. Then we open pressies, eat brisket & latkes, and light some random candles while my nephew sings any song he chooses (that part is new this year since he is hooked on Frozen's "Let it Go").

Hanukkah Dins!
Once Hanukkah is over we are then on our own for the week of Christmas as they generally spend it with her family, so the last three years my mom (and sometimes dad) and I go on some warm weather vacation. It started with Panama 3 Christmases ago which was fabulous and then last year we ventured to Belize where we basically laid on the beach for 5 days reading books and doing NOTHING, basking in the glory of doing nothing. This year we decided to do something a tad more active so in searching, my mom found an intriguing option on Jetsetter - a culinary vacation in Mexico. Fast forward a few months we decided that would be a fun little getaway and so we went ahead and booked our trip to La Villa Bonita in Tepoztlan Mexico.

I'll start with a simple understanding of expectations when traveling internationally that we have come to discover: By the last day, your expectations will be perfectly adjusted and everything will be extremely charming, despite what your first reaction might have been.

We arrived on Friday afternoon to the airport in Mexico City and were greeted by Chef Ana Garcia and our companions for the next 5 days. Luckily we were the last to arrive so we didn't have to wait long to get on the road. We piled into Ana's astro van and off we went.

We got to Tepoztlan, which is about an hour and 30 minutes from Mexico City just before the sun was setting so we got a lovely view of our new home away from home. The cobblestone streets of this winding little hilly town are lined with a mish mosh of dilapidated buildings covered in graffiti and lovely vine covered estate gates leading to large properties with multiple houses. Ours was more like the latter, with a pool, gardens, a large open air kitchen with a terrace on top, 6 suites and of course Chef Ana's private home.

The open air kitchen

The incredible terrace at sunrise

We started with chips & guac, margaritas and crispy crickets! Which I tried thankyouverymuch. We spent about an hour getting to know our travel companions who came from Iowa, Indian, and Austin TX. We also got a brief overview from Ana about the next few days. However looking back on it, this could have been enhanced with a little more organization, for example a small map of the town and where we were located, some dining suggesting in town for the nights we were not cooking, suggestions of other excursions she could arrange for days we were not cooking, or even a more defined schedule of what we would be doing. Basically it was pretty hodge podge and off the cuff, which proved to be just fine once our expectations were adjusted, but up front it would have been nice to have more assurance of what was about to happen and where exactly we were.

Apps & Crickets

That night we enjoyed a chef's dinner which I sadly didn't snap pics of but can describe in detail as it was extremely Dahlicious. We started with a spicy peanut soup, which was served with sliced green grapes and a dollop of creamy greek yogurt. That was followed with a hibiscus quesadilla, which actually didn't have any cheese in it but was crunchy and fluffy and delightfully tangy with the sauteed flower stuffed inside. The main course was a seared yellow fin tuna caught fresh in Sayulita by her previous group of guests who participated in her Coastal Week trip. The tuna was rubbed with ground spices and peppers and chocolate - reminiscent of a dark mole in flavor. It was served along side roasted squash. For dessert we had a fruit type mouse but it was a fruit I have never had before, absolutely black as night and just slightly sweet, with a tangerine cream. The meal was beautiful and scrumptious and we went to bed happy and full, ready to wake for breakfast at 6:30AM before heading to Cuernevaca for a large market trip.

After a couple of hours in Cuernavaca wandering through the crazy maze of vendors selling everything from bags of pre-packed pinata candy to chickens heads to charcoal to Disney character trinkets, we grabbed lunch at a local lunch spot. Everything was Dahlish except for the plate that landed upside down in my mom's lap - luckily she happens to be worlds most easy going human and laughed it off real quick like. And on went the day. *Side note, Chef Ana graciously had her team of terrific help clean up all of the clothes that happened to be in the path of the flying enchiladas once we got home.

The WHOLE Enchilada... on her lap

Largest Cauliflower I have ever seen,,,

Chicken.. and butchers

Pre-packaged pinata goodies

Massive Pinatas


The most creative bar seating I've ever seen


Grinding corn at the mill

After Cuernavaca we came back to the villa and started our afternoon of making over 200 tamales for the local church. The process was pretty laborious but they truly resulted in the absolute most scrumptious tamales of all time. We made 6 kinds: Chicken in Red Mole, Pork in Green Tomatillo Mole, Ground Beef & Tomato, Zucchini & Corn, Cheese, and Strawberry with Raisins.There is definitely a technique to it and truthfully I don't think this is the type of thing I would ever do at home, however it was a fun experience and they were really the best tamales I've ever had. Thanks mostly in part to the absurdly fresh and made from scratch ingredients.
Making the leaves pliable for wrapping some tamales

Chef Ana giving strict instructions

Tacos by Marie for lunch while we made Tamales

My little tamale making station 

Ana showing us how to steam the tamales 

Before delivering the tamales to the church party, we tasted all of them ourselves for dinner alongside a lovely salad of cactus and tomato. YUM!

Cactus & Tomato salad

The next morning we got together for our daily breakfast of yogurt, homemade granola, coffee and a special main course That day it was fresh tortillas, fried cheese in a tomato broth with zucchini and black beans. UH Maze. Next we walked down to the market in Tepotzlan which was impressive but not quite as massive as the one in Cuernavaca. This one however boasted a lovely "food court" if you will  including rows and rows of stands with women making fresh tortillas stuffed, folded and grilled to gooey cheesy perfection. We took note of this particular part of the market to come back in our free time. That day the goal was to collect all of the ingredients we needed to learn how to make proper red and green moles from scratch.

I learned two important things that day; 1) Fry your sauces 2) Fry all of your ingredients.

Now when I say "Fry" I don't mean deep fry. The process here was also laborious but proved to be totally worth it. There are roughly 28 million ingredients in mole, and before throwing them in the blender, we were taught to fry/toast/roast/crisp whatever you want to call it, every ingredient. Every chili, every nut, everyTHING. Once you've done that and you throw them in the blender and make your lovely mole, then you fry the sauce. You add a large amount of lard to a very hot pot, let it get to its smoking point and then throw in your sauce and let is sizzle and simmer for.. HOURS. This really produces a level of flavor that was worth the time and the frying. Again not something I'm likely to make on my own but interesting techniques to know about. The moles were for our main dinner that night - the red mole was for shredded chicken while the green mole was for braised pork. We also made Dahlicious re-fried black beans and fresh tortillas of course.

Some of those 28 million ingredients

"frying" our ingredients & dumping them in the large bowl before going to the bender

Let the marg's fly!

MMMMMMole frying in lard!

Ana teaching us how to make tortillas

The next day was Christmas Eve day and despite the fact that we were in Tepoztlan in the middle of their dry season it was a day full of power outages and torrential downpours. But this didn't stop us from a wet walk to the market to collect some ingredients for our cooking class which would culminate in Chile Rellenos and Flan - which seem to be the two dishes all of us on the trip were most excited to make, and EAT.

Marie whipping up breakkie

Breakfast - YUM

An oddly grim yet beautiful corner on our rainy trek

To start the Poblanos have to be prepped, meaning you have to blister their skins on an open flame, which takes a bit of time, attention, and precision. Once they are properly charred they go in a sealed up plastic bag to sweat. Once they were sufficiently sweaty we removed them from the bag and rubbed the skin right off. At this point we were also instructed to cover our fingers with olive oil so that they didn't burn and of course touching your eyes is a big no-no. After the skins were off, we cut a slit down one side of the pepper, not going all the way through to the other side but creating a pocket. Once the seeds were all taken out (the HOT stuff) we stuffed the peppers with a few types of mild white cheeses - reminiscent of white cheddar and mozzarella then stitched them up with a toothpick to keep the cheese inside. Next we dredged them in flour and in an egg white & cream of tartar mixture whipped until there were high peaks. After that they were carefully fried  one at a time in a couple inches of very hot oil on the stove until golden brown, then set aside as we worked them in batches.

On the side we were simmering a lovely broth of stewed pureed tomatoes and some very light spices - to that we added sliced potatoes, carrots, and zucchini until fork tender. When the poblano peppers were ready for serving they were dipped in the broth and then served in a cream soup bowl with the veggies and a couple ladles full of broth. Served up with tortillas and cold beer this was a peak experience. Of course it was finished off with the most perfect caramel flan.

Blistering poblanos

Beyond in love with this bowl/pot. I want-need it

Frying up those chili's!


After a good rest that afternoon we freshened up with Christmas Eve dinner with Chef Ana's extended family. This was a really interesting spread which included an amazing pork shoulder roast with gravy, vegetables in red mole, Bacalao (a traditional salted cod dish), fettuccine Alfredo (what?? yes.. and it was a great addition), and her version of a Waldorf salad (also what?? but a lovely crunchy cold tart addition). The night was finished off with some dessert nibbles, hot fruit tea and a good night sleep.

Chef Ana's youngest son Augustine, my new BFF 

The next day, Christmas day, we were on our own after breakfast and headed to town to explore the center of Tepoztlan. We wondered every nook and cranny of that little place and found it more and more charming as the day went on. We stopped  at the cute coffee shop we had admired before and clearly for a lunch of THREE quesadillas from one of the ladies in the market. They were perfection. After an afternoon of reading back at the villa we ventured back downtown for dinner and ended up eating at a recommended place that served.. Italian. Odd I know but I had one of the best fettuccine bolognese of my life - I've actually thought of it multiple times now. Homemade pasta, and a crave worthy sauce. We topped the night off with a nutella crepe on the street. Go figure.

Gorgeous Coffee

The setting of Tepoztlan in the mountains is stunning

View from dinner out last night - absolutely lovely

The next day we woke up and did the hour and half drive to mexico city, post breakfast of course, and got back home just in time to have a big Chinese dinner. You can't say we don't love to eat!

My lovely traveling companion and I have talked and talked about our overall opinion of this trip and here is what we have concluded. The food was wonderful, the scenic town location of Tepotzlan is quite beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed our quirky group of fellow vacationers. We realized by the end that the town which had been so hyped as the chic, holistic focused getaway town for the who's who of Mexico city was more charming on the last day as our expectations were adjusted. We realized that while Chef Ana is totally adorable and hilarious, however Christmas week was a bit hectic as she was spread pretty thin between family obligations and catering gigs - it would have been a better experience we think to be there at a time with a little less else going on in her life.I would recommend going to La Villa Bonita for a 2-3 day stay attached to some other Mexico beach trip. All in all it was a fun trip, but I'm not sure we would rush back - but hey we've got new places to check off our travel list!