Monday: Fajita Republic in Nuevo Vallarta
Tuesday: Golf, then diner at La Cantina, Fish Tacos, margaritas and a light show using the fountains in a huge entertainment complex to create holograms. After a couple of
margaritas, this kind of show can seem like interplanetary travel.
Wednesday: The perfect day – Bucerias and shopping – Sayulita – surfing, hippie beach – San Francisco (San Pancho beach) for margaritas and sunset – Back to Bucerias for the best dinner of the trip.
Thursday: Surf and Turf at Quinto, a steak house restaurant next to an infinity pool set on top of a tower overlooking the ocean and the Vidanta property.
Friday: Return from paradise – airport food – I don’t want to talk about it
Sunday: Guacamole and Cotija Cheese with chips, tomatoes and cucumbers
I’m a little confused as to what day it is, or what time of day and I’m not sure what the heck we’re having for dinner tonight – the wonderful side-effect of a great vacation.
In the last week, SWMBO and I went to Mexico for the first time. We traveled with Tim and Hilda (also Tim’s first visit) and were the guests of our good friends Hilly and Dick who spend serious time in Mexico each year. The result of all this, apart from my parachronicity (think about it), is that we roasted nothing and cooked very little. So this posting will be more of a travelogue than anything else.
The first thing that struck us about Mexico was that getting through customs in Puerto Vallarta is a hell of a lot easier than in Bermuda (the Mexicans are more efficient, Mr. President) and a great deal less stressful than JFK.
The place we stayed – Dick and Hilly’s place at Vidanta Vallarta – was not unlike how I imagine the Garden of Eden, minus that bothersome forbidden tree and with crocodiles instead of a snake. Below is a shot of the landscaping around our building taken from the deck of our suite:
You cannot get up in the morning before the gardeners and the golf-course maintenance crews begin their endless task of meticulous pruning, raking, planting and watering. And you cannot come close to looking as happy and pleasant as the Mexicans – from the maids and gardeners to the top of the house or the owner of the restaurant. Ah, you will say, but you were staying in a posh resort. But, in fact, we drove into the city, and then spent a day over the hills at less fancy beaches in the south (Bucerias, Sayulita, and San Franciso), eating mediocre tacos, good guacamole and drinking margaritas and Victoria beer. And the people were just as friendly. Even the police who shook Dick down for 200 pesos were pleasant about it, however corrupt and black-hearted they were at the core.
And the weather in Puerto Vallarta and on that larger stretch of Sea of Cortez we visited is perfect, day in and day out. And the avocados are better there and they certainly know better than we what to do with them. And . . . I suppose I’m saying that you should go to Mexico (or go back) as soon as you can. Have a margarita and three pounds of guacamole for me.
Speaking of guacamole (Spoonful of guac at Fajita Republic above) – it is ever present and slightly different at each restaurant, and completely addictive. You will see from the menus above that we made it on the Sunday after we returned. And on our first (sunless) day back in the ‘burgh, we cooked a fine recipe from Jose Ortega, a sort of Mexican Bobby Flay. (We share it with you below)
Which lands us squarely in the center of my favorite subject – food. We had good food, sometimes great, but the key was to stick with the fresh fish and vegetables from the area. Our last night we went to a high-end steak house on the top of a tower with a magnificent view and an infinity pool. We had a ball because of the company (which included Dick and Hilly’s good friends, John and Donna, whom we hope to see in Pittsburgh), and the food was fine (particularly the guacamole), but the better meals were in local Mexican restaurants.
John and Donna introduced us to Fajita Republic, in Nuevo Vallarta, a raucous open-air restaurant full of attitude, laughter, and margaritas served in mugs, six at a time, by our ham-fisted waiter. The guac, served in large wooden spoon with a huge bowl, was outstanding, as were my fajitas rancheras with onions and chorizo. And I became addicted to Donna’s suggested appetizer – queso frito (think of the best grilled cheese you ever had, now imagine something infinitely better minus the bread).
But our best meal came on Wednesday, which was pretty much a perfect day, if your overlook the speeding ticket. Dick and Hilly drove us to Bucerias where we wandered through a veritable bazaar of shops and stands and where Dick helped Beez to negotiate a much lower than asking price for a silver necklace. After that we went to the hippie and surfers’ beach, Sayulita, where we read, sunbathed, had lunch and watched the fascinating array of people. Then came sundown and margaritas at a gem of beach in the beautiful town of San Francisco. But the high point of this perfect day was dinner at Dugarel Plays (I can’t explain the name) back in Bucerias. This was the best dinner of the trip – simple grilled spiny lobster tail with grilled prawns and vegetables, and of course, more guacamole and margaritas (well, martinis for me).
It bears remembering that Dick, our designated driver, had not one beer or margarita during the entire day – a feat worthy of one of the desert fathers. This also allowed him to watch the rest of us become progressively more tipsy. I am happy to report that he more than made up for this sobriety on Thursday night in order to give us a memorable send-off.
LENTIL CAKES WITH MUSHROOM CREAM SAUCE
(Adapted from Hugo Ortega, owner of Origen restaurant in Oaxaca)
Well – I’m still being parachronistic. This is a dish we cooked just yesterday – having trouble giving up that Mexican cuisine. This gave us one of the best meatless Mondays in a long time.
Timing: 1 hour – just 35 minutes after you’ve cooked the lentils which you can do ahead
Ingredients: For 4 diners
2 cups of cooked black beluga lentils (we used green French lentils and cooked a little more than 1 cup of dried lentils to get about 2 cups of cooked)
8 ounces mushrooms (button or white)
1 Cup Heavy Cream
1 avocado, sliced
2 radishes, slice
1/2 Cup olive oil
1 medium white onion, fine dice
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 Cup shredded Cotija Cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (we used Pecorino)
1/3 Cup Chopped Cilantro
1/2 Poblano chile, thinly sliced
1/2 Cup milk
1 Cup Panko or other breadcrumbs
1/4 Teaspoon dried oregano
Before making the lentil cakes, cook the lentils! and allow to cool
Dice, slice, shred and grate onion, poblano, cotija and parmigiano (or pecorino) cheese, garlic, radish (don’t slice avocado until nearly ready to serve).
Beat egg and milk together in bowl and place panko in separate bowl
In food processor, pulse lentils to a coarse puree and scrape into a large bowl.
Heat 2 Tablespoons of oil in alargeskilletover medium-high and, when hot, saute 1/2 of the onions until just browned (2-3 minutes). Add garlic and cook about 30 seconds. Add onions and garlic to the bowl with the lentils. Add both cheese and stir in the cilantro. Season with salt and pepper. (you’ll want at least 2 good pinches of salt here – probably more – you have a lot of lentil to season)
Shape the lentil mixture into patties (think sausage-size, not hamburgers – about 2 1/2 inches across and 3/4 inches thick.
Dip the patties into the egg and milk wash and let excess drip off, then coat with breadcrumbs.
Clean skillet and heat remaining 1/4 Cup olive oil over medium high, then cook patties until browned all over (2 minutes or so per side). Work in batches, if you need to – the patties have have the space to brown.
Heat remaining oil (2 Tablespoons) in medium skillet over high and add the sliced chili and the remaining onion. Saute until just browned – up to 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until tender (5 minutes or so), then add the cream and bring to a simmer and then cook about 3 more minutes until sauce thickens. Season with oregano and with salt to taste.
To serve, spoon the mushroom sauce onto plates and top with patties. Garnish with radish and avocado.
EXTRA Guacamole de la Casa Guillermo y Barbara
Note: There are myriad ways to make guacamole. Your accountant, my trainer or the Pope’s driver might have the best recipe. But, we like ours.
From time to time, imagine a Mexican reporter showing at at our house and asking me for our world-famous recipe for guacamole. Delusional, perhaps, but then you haven’t had our guacamole. Sometimes, I make guacamole in a food processor, with lots of herbs, grated garlic and lots of ground pepper. This version is not only a good dip but a perfect condiment for BLTs. But usually, I make something like the following:
Ingredients: Serves 8 as an appetizer
4 avocados – How do you get a ripe avocado? Well, you can go to a fancy store and ask them. But if you shop at Whole Foods or the Giant Eagle, as I do, here’s a strategy: Rock hard avocados will be ripe in about 4 days. Avocados with a little give, in about 2. You might also get lucky and pick a perfectly ripe one.
1-2 Serrano peppers, minced or 1 jalapeno, minced
1/2 medium white onion, minced
1 Tablespoon of finely chopped cilantro, with some rough chopped for garnish
Lime juice to taste (1-2 limes)
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Optional – diced tomato (2-3 Tablespoons), cubes or diced cotija cheese (or Queso Fresco)
Once you’ve halved your avocados, squeeze a little lime juice into the center and rub a lime across the avocado. Make cross-hatch cuts (2 or 3) through the flesh, then scoop the flesh into a bowl with a spoon. Roughly mash with a fork. Add the other ingredients and season. Mix and mash a bit more – we like our guacamole fairly chunky, but follow your gut. Taste and adjust seasoning and add lime juice if needed.
Scrape guacamole into a bowl, place bowl on a platter and surround with tortilla chips and crudites, if you like (we use halved cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, Belgian endive or the small inner leaves of Romaine). With guacamole and chips you should have a margarita, a beer, or a martini.