World Peace and Ice Cream

Paleteria La Michoacana

Paleteria La Michoacana

Ice cream is a salve—for a broken heart, an anxious mind, a fierce disposition. Ice cream has the power to change any situation for the better, which makes me wonder why Häagen-Dazs is not offered at peace negotiations instead of Nespresso. Think about it—a bunch of frayed nerves downing endless cups of hot jet fuel while attempting to change the course of the world. Now imagine this scenario with ice cream.

Ice cream is like Disney crack; it has the power to lift spirits almost instantaneously and transport us to another world, ripe with new sensations and unexpected pleasures. Sex and ice cream—both can be pretty orgasmic, depending on the quality. And you have to enjoy it slowly or your brain will freeze. Ice cream I mean. The first time I ate real Italian gelato in Rome I felt I’d been hit by a thunderbolt. A tiny glass dish holding one scoop of lemon perfection rendered me speechless as every spoonful fired up taste buds I never knew I had. Up until then, mass-produced chocolate and vanilla on cones tasting of pressboard were my only experiences with frozen dessert, and they were far from sinful. But this, this was not just ice cream. This was right up there with George Clooney – da morire!

Christina Tosi's Ice Cream with Corn Flake Brittle ©First We Feast

Christina Tosi’s Ice Cream with Corn Flake Brittle ©First We Feast

For me, ice cream is a guilty pleasure although it shouldn’t be—guilty I mean. I don’t eat it by the bucketful, neither do I consider it to be one of the four food groups. My sister eats pie with ice cream for breakfast, arguing to my raised eyebrow that it has all the aforementioned four food groups so is ergo, a meal in itself. Making ice cream a breakfast food is a slippery slope, even though fruit and dairy are on my good list. That said, pastry chef Christina Tosi makes a luscious ice cream dessert topped with old fashioned corn flakes so maybe my sister is on to something.

Cafe and Cardamon at Pola

Cafe and Cardamon at Pola

Gourmet ice cream has become an official food trend, spawning bespoke gelaterias on every continent and inspiring many a celebrity chef with an insatiable thirst for outrageous flavours and combinations. Around the world, hints of cardamon, chai tea and saffron mingle with soy chicken, sea island salt and unagi. Even vegans are jumping on the ice cream wagon.

And then there are the DIYers, the ones who not only own the most expensive ice cream makers on the planet, but use them as a fine painter would a canvas. My friend Evelyn is one such aficionado, creating gastronomic delights that defy description. Her concoctions have been known to induce a chocolate coma of which there is still no known cure.

Pola2Mexicans love their ice cream and the Yucatan is no different. Here in Merida, cocoa, chile and coconut reign supreme. You’ll also find sorbets and paletas made with milk from corn, and gorgeous yet subtle concoctions from the fruits of the indigenous mango, tamarind, mamay, caimito, and guanabana. Many of them are too sweet for my tart loving palate, but I have been tempted on occasion to succumb to the colour alone. Merida has a plethora of sorbeterias, paletarias and heladerias. Old timers, like Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon have been around since 1907 and remain a local favorite. New kids on the block like Pola Gelato Shop are giving the traditional establishments a run for their money with sorbets and gelatos like Cucumber and Pineapple and Jamaica Flowers with Honey.

Even the local neighborhoods are a hotbed of cool entrepreneurship with homemade paletas sold from brightly painted houses, and vendors literally pedalling ice cream from street to street.

Yes, ice cream will solve world peace one day and you can say you read it here first.

Robyn Sue Fisher had a successful career as a consultant in the biotech industry. But when her professors at Stanford Graduate School of Business encouraged her to follow her dreams and become an entrepreneur, she decided to focus on a product she’d always loved – ice cream.

Lose Your Soul

Tonight I am going to a tequila tasting and I admit to having a love/hate relationship with this particular libation. Over the years, I have consumed 3’s dressed up as 9’s and paid the price. And after a particular ribald night out with a gal pal and a bottle of Don Julio, earned the moniker “1-800 Home Wreck”. Of course I blame the tequila and not my lusty heart.

©Graeme Robertson

©Graeme Robertson

But now I am in the Yucatan and the local distillation that has inspired many dangerously delicious concoctions, as well as one of Merida’s coolest hangouts—is mezcal.

The word mezcal means “oven-cooked agave” and is mostly made in Oaxaca. It has a mild or strong smoky flavour which reminds me a bit of certain brands of Scotch I’ve sniffed. I’m not a Scotch drinker but I do admit to a blossoming fondness for mezcal. One of my favourites so far is called Pierde Almas, which literally means ‘lose your soul’. Guess I better stick to sipping this one.

One day I hope to tour a real mezcal operation but in the meantime, enjoy this visual tour of tequila harvesting in Mexico.


Oasis in the Yucatan

o·a·sis n. pl. o·a·ses (-sēz) A situation or place preserved from surrounding unpleasantness; a refuge: an oasis of serenity; Hacienda San Jose Pachul

What to do when it’s 40C in the shade and your very soul demands to be quenched? You find an oasis. The Yucatan is classified as a tropical desert, so on a scorching day in April, I sought out refuge with five equally parched compañeras who also longed for cool waters, salty breezes, a richly layered ambiance and delectable comestibles. We found our oasis, sin salty breezes, at Hacienda San Jose Pachul. I have written about HSJP before, and taken many trips with visiting friends, always to great jollity. Two hours inevitably turns into four, and on this particular hot and sultry day, we arrived before noon and left as the sun was beginning to set. It was our monthly book club and Evelyn suggested we enjoy our discourse of ‘Tasty: The Art and Science of What we Eat’ by spending the afternoon surrounded by ‘umami’. We hired a driver and in 45 minutes, were bobbing in the pool, accompanied by rustling bamboo and Richards’ home grown sour orange margaritas. We had arranged with Chef Jose to have a ‘plating’ lesson which I was very much looking forward to. My lack of plating skills means I serve everything on a platter (very forgiving and easily impressive) or family style, in lovely serving dishes that share the table with the wine and conversation. Our first course was a luscious Banana Gazpacho made with bananas (plantains actually) from the hacienda. It was cool and sweetish with a bit of heat and left my palette longing for tart and fresh. Jose has beautiful dishes which are a huge component in successful plating. Also, colour and texture and remembering to lovingly wipe off the soup from the edge of the bowl (my bad). Course #2 was a refreshing Butter Lettuce with Mango and Panela Cheese. This was a perfect combination of fresh mango, Panela cheese, sweet yellow and red peppers, grape tomatoes and parsley, topped with julienne of jicama and drizzled with a combo of sour orange and ‘unclassic’ caesar salad vinaigrettes. Yum. After savouring the last of the wine pairing we traipsed back to the kitchen to help assemble the Stuffed Poblanos with chicken, Oaxaca cheese, fruit and vegetable crudités, nestled in Tomatillo Sauce. The crowning touch was a honey chile pasilla sauce drizzled ever so sparingly across the peppers. A final dip in the pool and we were back preparing a seriously umami dessert of Hacienda Banana Cake filled with coconut cream in a strawberry tres leches and topped with chile ancho chocolate sauce. I’ve begged for the recipes and am happy to share one with you here—buen provecho!

Hacienda San Jose Pachul’s Banana Gazpacho:

Hacienda San Jose Pachul's Banana Gazpacho

Hacienda San Jose Pachul’s Famous Banana Gazpacho

1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 medium white onion finely chopped 2 garlic cloves finely chopped 6 ripe medium/large plantains peeled and sliced 1/4 cup sugar 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock 1 tsp habanero sauce salt and pepper to taste 3 cups milk 1/2 cup finely chopped celery, red onion, red bell pepper 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

  • Sauté the white onion and garlic in oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • Add sliced plantain with the sugar and continue to sauté stirring constantly.  If the mixture is too thick, add some stock if necessary to cook through and a smooth consistency is reached.
  • Add the rest of the stock with the habanero sauce and salt and pepper and reduce over medium heat for about 10 minutes, taste for seasoning. Add more salt, pepper or sugar to balance the flavours, depending on how sweet the plantains are. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • Once the mixture is cooled down, mix in the blender some soup base with some of the milk, blending only to achieved medium light and silky consistency. Do not over blend, you want to leave some texture. Do this in batches until the banana mixture is finished.  You may need to add some more milk or stock to achieve the right consistency.
  • While blending, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
  • Chill mixture.  When ready to serve portion soup into bowls, and garnish with the finely chopped celery, red onion and bell pepper, sprinkle some chopped parsley and finish with a spritz of olive oil.

Mexico Inspired Christmas Slaw

Merry Christmas to all and to all, a happy and healthy New Year!

Cooking in the Yucatan is often a challenge, given we do not have the bounty in our markets that they do in say, Oaxaca or other parts of Mexico. I bring spices and condiments from Canada but it is the lack of diverse produce that is a challenge in my Merida kitchen.

For awhile I took my whining to new heights and now? I have  become resourceful, and look at recipes as I would the road signs in Mexico—it’s a guideline to get you from A to B but you’re pretty much on your own.

So, in honour of Christmas, I have concocted a colourful salad that incorporates my love of all things sweet, sour, crunchy and yes, healthy. It deserves your best white dish to offset the beautiful colour.

(This is a ‘guerrilla’ recipe meaning it’s locally-inspired, low cost and a bit unconventional, hence the lack of exact measurements.)

Alison's Mexican Christmas Slaw

Alison’s Mexican Christmas Slaw

Mexican Christmas Slaw

  1. Shred a combination of purple cabbage, jicama and carrots
  2. Add pomegranate seeds, reserving the juice for the dressing
  3. Toss lightly with your favourite homemade sweet/sour dressing
  4. Mix in some lovely micro sprouts that have a bit of bulk – I used same radish sprouts for a nice peppery bite
  5. Sprinkle with salted pumpkin seeds (the green ones) and a few more of the sprouts
Pomegranate Dressing

Mix the juice from the pomegranate with juice from half a small orange (I used a tangerine). Add a tablespoon or so of a nice white vinegar (I used my Cava Vinegar but a white balsamic could be nice too). Whisk in a little dijon mustard, sea salt and pepper, and a nice healthy oil (I used a grapeseed oil this time around). I like my dressings on the tart side, with not too much oil but you can adapt the ingredients to your own taste. Just start with small amounts so you don’t end up with a tub of dressing. Disfrutas!


Future of Food by National Geographic

A Stunning Exhibition by National Geographic

A stunning photography exhibition in Rome explores the ‘Future of Food’ with amazing pictures by National Geographic. Hosted at Palazzo delle Esposizioni until 15th March 2015, the exhibition displays over 90 photographs taken throughout the world by the magazine’s leading professionals.

‘Cook It Raw’ comes to Merida

"The food is so fucking beautiful!" ALESSANDRO PORCELLI
Cook It Raw comes to the Yucatan

Cook It Raw comes to the Yucatan

Let’s be honest. The Yucatan has never been on the world’s culinary map and I can confirm that one tires quickly of panuchos, salbutes, sopa de lima and crank-it-out cochinita pibil. As far as I know, the Yucatan has not produced a local gastronomic genius like Peru’s Ricardo Zarate but perhaps it’s time. Or maybe its time to get down to the milpas and experience this ancient cultures’ Mayan cuisine just a little more intimately. Several of the world’s top chefs think so, and will be joining Alessandro Porcelli this week for an authentic immersion in Part 3 of  ‘Cook It Raw’ in the Yucatan.

I finally got to see the great videos by Munchies at Vice and was left with one big question. Why does one have to be a world class chef to experience this back to the land, meet the people, get your hands dirty, get Raw kind of culinary immersion? I have been wanting to take cooking classes here ever since I moved to Merida, but I don’t want to sit in some restored colonial home kitchen with everything chopped and laid out for me. I want the real deal. I want to fish and dig holes with the men. I want to grind, chop, steam, bake, wrap and smoke with the women. And I want to share the experience and the food with the families, the village, the people who make this wonderfully authentic food for themselves day in and day out.

typical seller at the market in Merida

typical seller at the market in Merida

Maybe, just maybe, Cook It Raw will open itself up to plebeian cooks like me, who long to know more about the ingredients grown and raised here, what they mean to the Mayan culture, and how I can integrate that knowledge within the not so raw confines of my own kitchen.

Fisherman at Sisal, courtesy of Munchies

Fisherman at Sisal, courtesy of Munchies

When Tinned Tuna Becomes Gourmet

Tincan in London

Tincan in London

When we were kids, my mom used to serve us ‘tinned things on toast’. Maybe having 6 kids in 7 years drained her culinary energy, but very possibly, ‘tinned things on toast’ was considered an acceptable dinner option in the 60s. I actually liked salmon and peas on toast, and the first time I ate real asparagus, I thought it tasted like grass. So imagine my surprise to find that tinned food is making a comeback. Or perhaps it has just found a new audience who weren’t raised on Finnan Haddies (on toast, of course).

As a graphic designer and foodie, I am both attracted and appalled at this news story from the great folks at Munchies. The lovely packaging of all those tinned products beckoned, while the idea of coughing up big bucks (it’s London) to eat food out of a tin is well, repellant. That said, curiosity has got the best of me and when I make it to London this month, I’ll be checking out the new Tincan Restaurant in the hopes I can bring back some fishy art, particularly, Jose Gourmet canned goods, branded by Luis Mendonça—fabulous!

Footnote: I am not a purist or food snob—I do have tinned food in my own pantry here in Merida. I also admit to loving tinned sardines ON TOAST with lots of black pepper, but I only eat them when Ric is away because they are very smelly and give me breath that is more akin to a fish market on a hot summer day, than a mermaid. Think I’ll be bringing back some sardines!