Saturday, April 27, 2013

Plazas Past and Present

Templo de la Santa Cruz
Plazas are everywhere in El Centro Querétaro and each one seems to take on a unique personality, based on its own inherent characteristics.  Typically though, these gathering places are picturesque backdrops for an historic monument or a significant building.
One of my favorite plazas is distinctly Querétano.  Nestled in the sloping El Centro district, the plaza del Templo y Convento de la Santa Cruz contains several monuments including a statue of Fra. Junipero Serra.  Just on the other side of these gentle foothills looms the city’s historic aqueduct, which linked essential water to the enclave in the early days.

The plaza is one of the oldest and most treasured in the city, since Querétaro was originally founded on this site in 1531.  Surrounded by so much history, is easy to get transported back in time and caught up in past events. The original church is still impressively beautiful, but in its day this was a seriously intimidating structure. 
Peeking through arched porticoes, we get haunting glimpses of the past as the desolate interior walls continue to reverberate and whisper of the lives of those who lived here long before us. 
There’s a museum located in the old convent now, but some of the grounds are in ill-repair and unavailable to the public.

During the day, the plaza is abuzz with activity.  Buses swarm past, regularly depositing loads of commuters into the fray.  Locals make their regular pilgrimage to church while spates of vendors hawk their wares in colorful stalls. 
Amongst the purple jacarandas and the plaza’s famous thorn trees, the air takes on the aromas of tortillas toasting, corn roasting, and other mouth watering treats that appeal to the locals, passing shoppers, and to tourists. 
You don’t have to be a hopeless romantic to fall in love with this plaza. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Tostadas al Gusto

Tostada al Gusto

This evening I learned the art of the simple Sunday tostada cena (dinner) from my host señora, Licha. The intent is pretty much the same as the taco/tostada dinner that I have been preparing at home for years.  It’s an informal way for everyone to help themselves and still achieve a good dose of vegetables while enjoying a selection of hardier meats and/or cheeses.  Essentially, you just peek in the refrigerator and see what’s available and go from there.
The crowning jewel on this night was Licha’s spectacular Chorizo Salsa.  As usual there are no exact measurements, and the limited number of ingredients is cooked quickly together.  Begin by sautéing seeded and chopped Serrano peppers in a bit of oil to soften, then add one or two chopped tomatoes, and continue until a loose salsa forms.  To this, add one or two Spanish chorizo sausages with meat removed from casings and chopped.  Cook the sauce briefly to combine flavors; season to taste with salt, and serve warm.  That’s it.

Leticia with Chorizo Salsa

Here in Querétaro, they usually don’t bother to cook up a mess of tostadas (corn tortillas).  Instead of frying an endless quantity over a hot pan, they opt for a stack of the pre-cooked packaged ones.   In Licha’s world everything has an order.  Accordingly, we begin by spreading refried beans onto the tostada and top it with a good layer of Chorizo salsa, and then a thin slice of smoked ham; add a layer of crisp shredded lettuce, a bit of chopped tomato, and finish with a few dabs of sour cream. 
On round two, I substituted a healthy schmear of herbed goat cheese for the beanswhich I actually preferred.  The goat cheese and Chorizo salsa were a superb combination.  We also had a variety of hot sauces on the table for everyone to add as they wished.  There was Valentine’s sauce, a robust chipotle flavored hot sauce which seems to be everywhere here; and my personal favorite, the old standby chipotles in adobo sauce. ¡Salud!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Market Outcome

On my first weekend in Querétaro, Licha, my host señora invited me to accompany her on a weekend shop to the sprawling mercado where she has shopped for well over 20 years.  It’s the traditional type featuring stalls of specialty goods jammed tightly together―their smells blend into a visceral memory of either pleasure or disgust.    

These endearing mercados are slowly becoming squeezed out by large megastores similar to Wal-Mart and other one-stop discount outlets.  It’s tough to compete against a blinding array of conveniently packaged and processed goods at cheap prices.   However, in this city, the long-standing mercado is where the hard-core locals tend to shop.  This is a page ripped out of the history book:  valued relationships are built from frequenting the same vendors year in and year out. There is an easy flow to the rumble of conversationit’s rooted in a well-worn rhythm etched in time.  They know about each others’ families and the sense of community is clearly evident. 

Some mercados cover city blocks several stories high, with similar products allocated to particular levels.  In Querétaro, mercado Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez "La Cruz" covers much of a city block with an open air flea market guaranteed to attract even larger crowds on the weekends.  Here, Licha does a quick inspection of her favorite stalls, and then, based on the shopping list she carries in her head, she circles in on the best and cheapest offerings available.  There’s the initial banter back and forth with a discussion of her current needs, and once that is sorted out the merchant proceeds to fill her order as she stands by, watching hawkishly.   Clearly, the señora has an established reputation that she guards closely, and in doing so, she receives the very best cuts of meat and freshest produce at the cheapest price available.

If there is one thing I have learned from Licha thus far, it’s about chilies and this señora knows her chilies.  She stops at her stall of choice and picks over heaping bags of dried pasilla, negro, and ancho chilies.  Over the course of the week these would flavor the dishes that she prepares, and what a difference they make!   

One evening we had beef in a deep chile-flavored sauce that she called guisado.  I had noticed it on many menus and wasn’t exactly sure what it was.  Turns out, it is a generic term, similar to the way we use “stew” in the US.  However, this was no bland stew; it was an elegant, well crafted affair deftly balanced by an experienced hand:  the meat a strip steak of sorts had been sliced into small pieces and gently simmered in a pre-cooked and pureed sauce simply constructed with a bit of onion, poblano pepper, dried negro, pasilla, and rojo chilies.  She tells me she’s not a big fan of refried beans, but since she offered them here, they must complement the guisado.   Homemade corn tortillas, lightly toasted on a comal, were the best utensil for mopping up every bit of the lingering sauce.  It’s the little touches, and in this case she passed peeled cucumber slices with an optional squeeze of fresh limenot traditional, but certainly the perfect fresh note for these flavors.   


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