Monday, August 30, 2010

Week #51 Yucatecan (Mexican)

Mexico is a huge country with a wealth of culinary variety, and so far, I've only managed to explore the food of Oaxaca and Michoacan in this blog. To remedy that, I thought I'd best sample the eats of at least one more region before my 52 Cuisine series ends. So we're feasting on the delights of the Yucatan, the part of eastern Mexico that sticks out rather like a foot into the Caribbean. If you've ever done the obligatory college spring break jaunt to Cancun or the island of Cozumel, that's the territory we're talking about.

La Flor de Yucatan, in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles, is a friendly neighborhood bakery that happens to sell a vast array of savory eats as well pastries and wedding cakes. It's tiny, with no place to sit inside, and only a picnic table in back if you want to park it and dine on the spot. But that was just fine by Himself and me. The casual air made the experience much more personable, and one lady in line urged me to get an extra bottle of the Cristal Negra soda I'd picked up, saying it was very, very good and more economical to buy it that way. She was right--it was good, but I knew better than to buy two.
Here's our welcome, a fresh highly-potent habanero chili atop our container of relleno negro. Hmmm, an invitation or a warning? (It was certainly a warming!)

The relleno negro was a generous serving of beautifully seasoned broth with an abundance of shreds of pork. I don't quite get the "relleno" part, since nothing is stuffed. The "negro" or black has to do with the dark roasted peppers that make the broth black. Those roasted peppers added rich, smoky flavor but curiously little heat. This is great as a soup, but you can also fish out those large pieces of pork and eat them rolled up or sandwiched inside a fresh tortilla. Don't forget to sip the broth, though. It's too good to waste.
You can buy the roasted chilis in paste form, in blocks a little smaller than a deck of cards. Just break off a tiny piece, about a half teaspoonful, dissolve it in your marinade (lime juice is good), smear it on some chicken, pork or beef, you're set to bake or grill. There is a ton of flavor in this tiny package--as soon as I opened the wrapper, the potency of the chilis hit my nose and eyes, so use it judiciously!

Panuchos are crispy fried tacos loaded with shreds of charbroiled turkey and lots of fresh veggies, pickled onions and jalapenos. The panucho provides a full range of flavors in one handy little package. If you get the same item on a soft tortilla that has not been fried first, it's called a salbute.

The tacos contained cochinita pibil, which seems to be the Yucatan's most popular dish. It is pork that is marinated in citrus juice, which helps tenderize it, and annatto seed, which adds both a delicate flavor and an orange color. Then it's wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted. While its rather musical name is Mayan for "baby pig roasted underground," it's more commonly made of pork shoulder or loin these days.

Food Trivia Time: Know how some cheddar cheese is creamy white while some is bright orange? It's because the orange cheddar has been colored with annatto. Cows that graze in fresh pasturage produce milk with yellow or orange tinted milk fat. This has led producers of butter and cheese over the years to color pale milk products with either annatto seed (also known as achiote) or beta carotene. Since beta carotene can oxidize and turn food some unflattering colors, annatto is the preferred choice.

Here's a comparison of the two types of tortillas. The taco, on the left, has the usual double layer of thin soft tortillas, while the panucho on the right has the single thick tortilla that's made even thicker by frying. By the way, those pickled red onions seemed to find their way into almost everything we got, not that I'm complaining. (And if you're wondering why none of the tacos that have shown up in these blog entries have crispy tortilla shells, it's because those are a fairly recent invention that occurred right here in Los Angeles, not in Mexico. That story will have to wait for another day, though.)

Because of its location and the way it juts out into the Caribbean, the Yucatan has seen more of an influx of culture and food from Europe and the Middle East than the rest of Mexico has. It shows on the menu. Take kibbeh, for example. This Lebanese-influenced creation is sort of a large felafel, but this type has ground beef mixed in with the chickpea flour and fresh mint leaves. It is fried, split open and slathered with habanero spread and topped with, yes, more pickled red onions. I find this more flavorful and easier to swallow than your basic felafel, which is just too dense with bean protein to eat much of it. (There's nothing like running out of whatever you're drinking just as you've tried to swallow a mouthful of felafel to make you resort to snatching up someone else's beverage!)

We brought home a bag of sweets, including these handmade pastelitos filled with vanilla pudding and an assortment of fruits like guava and pineapple, and crusted with sugar. There's something so very satisfying about a handmade pastry. I'd rather have one of these than a box full of the mass produced stuff.

It turns out that the fresh habanero chili accompanying our lunch is a standard feature of meals in the Yucatan, which is one of the more southern reaches of Mexico. It's pretty warm there, and all the sweating that ensues from chomping on a habanero will certainly cool you down. I'll have to work my way up to that level of heat, though. Our friend Ted once ate a whole fresh habanero on a dare, and while he survived it, it forever changed him--and me, too. Every time I see one now, I think of him. So no, neither of us were brave enough to eat that fresh habanero. But next time? Only if they have at least a case of Cristal Negra on hand for us. A case for each of us!

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