In Mexico, the zocalo is the plaza in the center of town, surrounded by cafes and a church, there’s usually a fountain in the middle and plenty of benches. It’s the place to see and be seen: children play soccer, vendors hawk balloons and shaved ice, old men nap, couples neck. In Boston, Zocalo restaurant is a bit different, but no less vibrant.

One of four outlets owned by the Ole Restaurant group, Zocalo offers contemporary Mexican cuisine based on traditional recipes made with the freshest ingredients. This summer, Ole is hosting a Chefs of Mexico series, which invites out-of-town chefs to the Boston area to cuisines from various parts of the country. The series kicked off last week, and I was lucky enough to snag an invite from my friend Sarah, aka Loose Gringa.

Chef Fany Gerson kicked off the series. I didn’t know much about her before I went, which surprised me a bit because we are both in love with Mexican sweets. I would broaden that to say that I’m in love with Latin American sweets generally (see here), but Gerson specializes in Mexican ones. In addition to writing two books all about Mexican desserts (including the aptly named My Sweet Mexico), Gerson runs La Newyorkina, which makes and sells paletas (Mexican-style popsicles) through out New York.

Upon arriving, Sarah and I beelined it for the bar. It was a gorgeous weekend in Boston, the perfect afternoon for something cold and fruity with a kick. After hemming and hawing over Zocalo’s ample drink menu, Sarah and I decided to get the watermelon jalapeno margarita. Made with jalapeno-infused tequila, I worried that the drink would be too spicy, but it was perfect, offering a bit of spice that countered the watermelon and salted rim.

Later, we had a hibiscus margarita, which was a wonderful blend of citrus and floral flavors. We also drank a chia seed limeaide, which I adored. I got hooked on chia seed drinks when I lived in Costa Rica, but I hardly ever see them around here.

Dinner was almost everything I hoped it would be. We started with an amuse bouche of teeny corn tortillas topped with cactus leaves and salsa and then quickly moved on to an appetizer: tuna tostadas with fried leeks, avocado, and guajillo aioli. The tostadas were basically house made corn chips, and their salty crunch went perfectly with the rare tuna.

The second course was a  crema panna cotta and roasted beet salad with tangerines, spiced candied pepitas, and honey vinaigrette. Lots going on here: creamy and slightly sour panna cotta, sweet beets, crunchy pepitas, and micro greens. I’d never had a savory panna cotta before, and while it was interesting, I’m not sure I’d order it again. The panna cotta was mushier than others I’ve had, and there was just a lot going on on my plate.

For an entrée we were given a few options. I went with achiote-marinated shrimp with  plantains, black bean sauce and pickled red onions. While the plantains and the shrimp were a wonderful combination, the achiote marinade didn’t add much. Sarah did much better with pork belly in a smokey tomatillo sauce.

Dessert was sort of a let-down for me. While My Sweet Mexico offers a host of unusual sweets, the final course was a chile-spiked boca negra (chocolate cake). I don’t really enjoy chile and chocolate, and think the combination has been overdone in Mexican restaurants to the point it’s cliche, so I was a bit disappointed. Fortunately, Gerson sent out a bowl of her famous paletas afterwards. They were amazing- coconut, hibiscus, and (I think?) tamarind. I was so glad that the meal ended on that high note.

happy gringas

Ole is hosting two more Mexican dinners this summer- you can learn more about them here.

Mastering Pork Belly

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to master pork belly, along with running three half marathons and renovating my bathroom.  Now that it’s March, those three long runs are looking less tempting and my bathroom design is languishing. But I’m happy to say that I haven’t slacked on the pork belly.

“Mastering pork belly” is a rather ambiguous term, of course. I wasn’t envisioning a sous vide creation, or something that would look like it was Momofuku’d. I simply wanted tender meat, rendered fat and a crispy skin.

The inspiration for this came while I was in England over Christmas. The British chain Waitrose might be my favorite grocery store ever. Or perhaps I’ve just fallen for British food propaganda. They’re crazy for local, organic, and sustainable. Everything is packaged with clean white and green logos, and seems to come from a farm just down the street where the pigs were happy and the farmers were kind. They also provide easy recipes for cooking things that you might not be familiar with, like gammon and guinea hens. Their marketing was so effective that I decided I too could cook a pork belly.

Things didn’t turn out quite as I planned. Rubbed in smoked black pepper and braised in apple cider, the flavor was good. But the meat was a bit tough, and the skin never got crispy enough. I knew I could do better.

Since then, I’ve done three more pork bellies, and I’m happy to report that things are coming along nicely. Nicely enough that I decided to share once recipe and a few techniques.

Buying a pork belly here is the first challenge. One grocery store I went to only had pork belly slices in the case- I had to ask the butcher to find me a whole one. He obliged, but when I got home I discovered that the pork belly had bones in it, which I wasn’t interested in. Lesson: one needs to specify that one wants a whole boneless pork belly. Another time I asked for a “whole pork belly” I literally got the whole pig belly: pig nipples and all. I’ll spare you further description, but suffice to say that you can’t be too specific when ordering a pork belly.

A sharp knife is also required when cooking a pork belly. The key to crispy skin is to score it, a task that’s almost impossible with even the best of knives.  (My mom’s Cutco’s fared miserably with this task.)

After that, pork belly is quite simple. Like other large cuts of meat, you simply go low and slow. In this case, I braised the pork belly for six hours at 200 degrees, and then set it on a rack to roast for two more hours at 250. Finally, I turned the broiler on, and set it under there for 20 minutes to crisp up the skin. I watched it pretty closely, and used foil to cover the areas that were getting dark fast. The result: tender meat, little residual fat and wonderful crisp skin.

There’s no wrong way to eat pork belly, but in this case I decided to do tacos. Made a quick cabbage slaw, and served rice and beans on the side. My guests seemed to agree: leftovers were scant.

“This is so good it could make a vegetarian eat meat,” Chicky told my Dad. Mission accomplished.

Pork Belly Tacos

Combine each of the following in a roasting pan/Pyrex dish:

– 1 can Coors lights (or other beer)
– 1 can Goya chipotles in adobo sauce
– 2 Tablespoons Victoria Gourmet Smoky Paprika Chipotle Seasoning
– 1 cup Goya recaito cooking sauce

If these ingredients aren’t available, substitute with two fresh jalapenos, a couple dried chipotle peppers, a cup of fresh chopped cilantro, a chopped onion, and two Tablespoons of smoked paprika. Adjust to your taste preferences.

Heat oven to 200 degrees. Score pork belly and set in Pyrex with braising liquid. Cover with tin foil and cook for six hours, until most of the fat has rendered out of the meat. Using tongs, transfer the pork belly to a roasting pan. Increase oven heat to 250 degrees, and return meat to the oven, uncovered. Let cook two hours.

With meat still in oven, turn broiler on high to get skin to crisp. Watch closely, and use tinfoil to cover areas that darken quickly. After 15 to 20 minutes the skin should be crispy.

Serve with tortillas, cabbage slaw, sour cream and cilantro. Rice and beans on the side are a good addition.

Vegetarian Enchiladas

This is a story about Mexican food. Or rather, pseudo-Mexican food, as I’m pretty sure they aren’t hawking these on the streets of Oaxaca. But it’s darn tasty food, and hence I’m sharing it with you.

I’m a sucker for Mexican, and to be honest, after three years in Boston, I still haven’t found a place that I love. Masa is ok, but it’s more fusion than Mexican. Border Cafe doesn’t quite cut it, and Tu y Yo is rather inconsistent. If you have suggestions for good Mexican or TexMex, pretty please leave them below.

For the past three+ years, whenever I get a hankering for Mexican I end up making it myself. This has resulted in some kind of gross quesadillas with refried beans and also some pretty awesome huevos rancheros. Mostly, it’s been the former.

To me, good Mexican is all about the tortilla. And there is only one kind of tortilla: corn. Please, please don’t come at me with one of those tasteless flour things. (Side note: I have bought “corn tortillas” from Market Basket and found they were actually flour ones. Beware!) Corn, however, I am obsessed with. In the heat of the moment I’m not above grilling a tortilla on the stove and slathering it with butter or cream cheese, a charming trick I learned when living in Costa Rica.

Last month, my friend Maria and I decided to host a Cinco de Mayo party. Of course, we couldn’t get our act together and we had to have the party on May 14, but it was a good time nonetheless. On the menu: guacamole, chicken enchiladas, veggie enchiladas, rice and beans and a tres leches (recipe to come!). It doesn’t happen very often, but I was actually more excited about the veggie enchiladas, and in the end, I thought they came out better. So that is the recipe I’m sharing with you today.

The picture above is the only photographic proof I have of their existence… that was them in the pan on the left.

Rather than a traditional chili sauce, these enchiladas are smothered in a creamy corn sauce, spiked with garlic and chili. Because everything gets toasted before it’s put in, it’s nice and smokey with just a hint of spice. And despite copious amounts of cheese, the abundance of spinach, zucchini and mushrooms makes them almost seem good for you.

Vegetarian enchiladas with corn sauce (and optional pepita pesto)
(adapted from Eating Well)

For the corn sauce:
2 whole cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 10-ounce packages frozen corn, thawed
2 cups low-fat milk
1 small can green chiles
1 roasted jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped (add more or less depending on your heat tolerance)
1/2 teaspoon Cholula sauce (or your favorite hot sauce)
3 drops liquid smoke (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste

For the enchiladas:
8 ounces mushrooms, diced
10 ounces fresh spinach, chopped
1 small onion, diced
2 small zucchini, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces cream cheese
24 corn tortillas
1 cup grated cheese (half cheddar, half jack)

For the pesto (optional):
1/3 cup hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
2 jalapeños, quartered and seeded (adjust to taste)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
3 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

To prepare corn sauce: Roast garlic in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat, shaking the pan often, until the skin is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add half the corn and roast, stirring often, until lightly toasted. Reserve the garlic; transfer the corn to a blender or food processor. Toast the remaining corn. Place all but 1/2 cup of the corn in the blender. Peel garlic and add to blender along with milk  and blend until smooth. Stir in reserved corn. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

To prepare enchiladas: Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat two 9-by-13-inch baking dishes with cooking spray.

Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and onion, and cook, stirring often, until softened. Add zucchini and cook until softened, then finally add the spinach and cook until wilted. (You may have to do this in batches.) Drain off excess liquid. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. Stir in cream cheese and mix until evenly combined.

Heat tortillas  in a toaster oven, the regular oven, or in a pan on the stove. Heating them will reduce breakage when you roll the enchiladas.

Sprinkle a scant tablespoon of cheese down the center of a warm tortilla and cover with roughly 1/4 cup of the veggie mixture. Fold one side of the tortilla over the filling, then roll up tightly, like a cigar. Place the enchilada seam-side down in the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining tortillas, cheese and veggie  mixture to create a single layer of enchiladas in each pan. Then, spoon corn sauce over the enchiladas, covering completely. Sprinkle with cheese. Cover baking dish with foil. Bake for 25 minutes, or until heated through. Uncover and bake for 5 minutes more.

For the pesto: Toast pumpkin seeds in a heavy skillet or toaster oven until just slightly darkened. Place in a blender or food processor with jalapeños, cilantro, sour cream and lime juice. Blend until smooth. Season with salt.

Top the enchiladas with the pesto and serve. Makes enough to feed a crowd of 10. Or 6, if you want leftovers (they re-heat really well!).