Archive for the ‘Nieve’ Category

Ice cream with a view

September 10, 2007

You can find good nieve almost anywhere in Oaxaca, a random street corner in Colonia Reforma even. This melon had a lovely creaminess to it that didn’t keep it from being light and fresh with the flavor of real melons.

But possibly the most beautiful place to eat nieve is at the ice cream “jardin” at the base of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. The ornate façade of the cathedral faces west an open plaza ringed by walls.

Just beyond that plaza to the east are five or six nieve vendors set up with wrought-iron chairs and café tables, as well as bright striped metal parasols.

A few steps above and to the north is an even larger plaza with giant steps leading down from the street. This plaza is reputed to be a popular place for dance groups to rehearse, though the only thing I’ve ever seen is a pick-up soccer game but that itself was good entertainment. Sitting on the giant steps and facing south, you can see palm trees and then past them, the mountains to the south of the city. It’s not the most majestic view, definitely not the most breathtaking, but sitting there, looking out at the mountains, the church, and even the slightly dingy plastic tarps and parasols of the nieve sellers, it’s easy to feel a sense of peace.

If you have a little cup or cone of nieve, of course, you can feel glee as well as peace. I’ve only tried one, El Niagara, but have been told they’re all more or less the same. My little cup was filled with durazno, or peach, on the bottom and then cajeta, or goat’s milk dulce de leche, on top. They’re more like sorbet than the super-fatty, super-creamy ice cream I love most, and yet I never feel like I’m missing something. The durazno had little chunks of peach! Nothing ever tastes false here.

Neveria, si; pasteleria, no

August 2, 2007

I am not a fan of Mexican bread. It’s often too dry or too sweet or not sweet enough. I’ve had nothing approaching the heft of a hearty, levain-type bread, what MFK Fisher likes to call “honest bread,” or the delicate crackle of a perfect croissant, or even the homey, soothing quality of super-soft Korean white bread. Most Mexican breads improve greatly upon being dipped in hot chocolate, which is almost always served with any sweetish bread, or “pan dulce.” Still, one can only drink so much hot chocolate, and I miss the excellent toast I normally have for breakfast every morning in NY, along with my favorite butter from Sahadi’s. (When I found little diner packets of Lurpak butter, which isn’t even my favorite, at El Cafecito in Puerto Escondido, I emptied the entire basket into my purse.)

Still, I wanted to see the Pasteleria Ideal in Mexico City. Another old-school place in the Centro Historico, it opened in 1927, but with more gilt-edged elegance than the Churreria “El Moro.” You enter into a large room with majestically high ceilings. You could be in a faded ballroom, except there are trays and trays of donuts, muffins, pastries, and rolls lined up in arrays before you. On Sunday morning, there were wheeled racks of breads being rolled around, nearly blocking the grand staircase, but the sign unequivocally declared that the second floor was the exhibition room for cakes.

Nearly every cake was at least 3 tiers tall—wedding cakes, baby cakes, First Communion cakes. Shrek was clearly, peculiarly popular, as were other cartoon characters. Nearly every cake also had icicles of hardened frosting dripping from each tier. One cake was almost twice as tall as Erin. Mona and Leslie, who make hand-made cookies and truffles that look like they came from a machine, must be rubbing off on me, because all I could think was how sloppy they looked. Erin took some fantastic pictures and I’m glad I went, but I can’t even remember what kind of bread I ate. All the chowhounds who are in awe of Ideal should get on a plane to Korea and go to the basement food wonderland of any upscale department store.

But Mexican ice cream, or nieve, that I truly love and respect as something I have never had before and will likely never have outside Mexico. The Roxy Neveria in Condesa is a legend, too, with the look of an American soda shop, with its striped awning and white-lettered list of flavors, except American shops generally don’t have the Virgin Mary hanging behind the counter.

It was clearly beloved by the Mexican families who double-parked to jump in for a cone or a cup. It was so beloved by me, that after eating my first cone of “nuez de macadamia,” I went back and had a second cone of “rompope.” The macadamia was wonderful, so nutty and rich but also pure, like fresh milk. The rompope, which I ordered because I didn’t know the flavor, a Mexican eggnog spiked with rum, I didn’t like as much, but it was surely not regrettable.

I hesitated for a bit before my second cone, but I felt it was the only fair way to treat my body, as I had just had a very bland meal at a health food store/restaurant across the corner. It was the kind of health food that used to plague America—so tasteless, even a vigorous shake of the salt on the table couldn’t save it. When I ordered my second cone, the boy at the counter urged me to go back to my table and sit down, as he would bring it to me directly. People can be so sweet when they realize how much you love to eat.

¡Oh, la playa!

July 24, 2007

I have almost a month’s worth of posts to catch up on, including all the food I ate in Mexico City and the mole negro cooking class that literally brought tears to my eyes, but I have to gloat a bit about where I am, here and now.

Erin, Elena, and I are in Puerto Escondido. It’s a surfer’s paradise, which means there are many bare-chested men walking around. Sadly, surfers are not our type, but there are many other natural wonders to observe and enjoy, including, of course, very fresh mariscos or seafood and other culinary delights. And even if the food wasn’t that great, even I could be happy just swinging in a hammock on the roof terrace of our hotel“, drinking Dos Equis and reading Rebecca West’s amazing “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” But on this first day of our stay here, the food has been happily surprising.

Life here feels even sweeter because we survived a 9-hour overnight bus ride from Oaxaca City to get here. Erin had to knock herself out with sleeping pills, and Elena got some serious cricks in her neck, but as soon as saw the beach, the memory of the bus ride just melted away.

While you sit in your lounge chair under a straw palapa, you can get almost anything you want from the peddlers walking up and down the sand. You can buy a blessing or a wish from a giant clay pig (at least, I think that’s what he said), you can get your name engraved on a grain of rice (isn’t it weird what tourist-things travel all over the world?), and you can eat a delicious ceviche-like shrimp cocktail with a freshly tart, picante flavor, served in plastic dixie cup with fresh wedges of lime.

Or you can get nieve de coco, or coconut ice cream, from a sweet man who is so proud of his product that even after we had asked for two cones, he insisted we taste it first. This nieve, with a sorbet-like texture, would not have been out of place at the foodiest of foodie NY restaurants, with its rich, pure, and salty-sweet flavor. I have another great photo of Erin with her ice cream cone, but it’s a tad too bodacious for this blog.

And at least so far, even your run-of-the-mill, random lunch place knows how to cook a fish with respect. At Vitamina, on the Adoquin, the pedestrian street lined with your usual flip-flops, crafts, and caftans, I had a lovely whole huachinango, or red snapper, that tasted as rich and fatty as bluefish or mackerel. It had been prepared “al Diablo,” in a creamy, just slightly spicy sauce. With some hot tortillas and a neverending pitcher of watermelon agua, how could I be anything but muy satisfecha? How could I be anything but satisfecha on a beach in Mexico?

Finding peace in ice cream

July 2, 2007

Oaxaca is surprisingly noisy. I thought I was leaving the biggest, baddest city in the world, to come to a place that was almost rural and definitely simpler. But Oaxaca is really, really noisy.

I’m living now in an apartment that faces the street. It’s not a major thruway, but because it’s on a slope, every car has to rev its engine to make it up the hill, and the ones that want to go fast are as macho as any motorcycle. Are there no decent mufflers in this town? There are also rockets or fireworks that go off almost everyday. I first started to hear a spate of them on June 14, the anniversary of the government’s first failed attempt to expel the teachers demonstrating in the zocalo, but apparently, today’s rockets were let loose by the multitude of churches that cluster downtown to celebrate, I don’t know, the saint of fireworks? If I close the windows, it’s much better though by no means quiet, but that means I give up the night breezes that give us all hope during the heat of midday.

I’m starting to feel the annoyance of life again. It was so easy not to have a cellphone, and as much as I missed living alone during my homestay, it was also so easy not to cook or to clean or to think about anything like where to get drinkable water. I miss my Brooklyn block, which only has three early-morning motorcyclers and your occasional loud party down the block. I miss my friends, who are all friends of choice, not of convenience. I wish I had taken that other apartment in nearly suburban Colonia Reforma. My God, if it’s this noisy on a Sunday, what will it be like tomorrow?

So I have to focus on what is good and right: strawberry ice cream at the Mercado Organico.

It was only during my third trip to the market that I noticed the vendor selling sweet rolls and hot chocolate was also selling freshly made ice cream. I had been getting ready to leave, having already consumed a delicious, chewy piece of pizza-flatbread and the best cup of coffee in Oaxaca, but then I saw a man walk by with three blue dixie-cups filled with ice cream. It called to something deep in my soul and I practically ran back to the stall.

It was fresh. Creamier than most “nieve,” the sorbet-like ice cream most available in Oaxaca, it was studded with fresh, tart strawberries and pecan bits. It was being kept cold in a wooden pail packed with ice and salt, but it wasn’t just the romance of the old-fashioned ice-cream making that made it taste so good. It could have come out of a high-tech, stainless steel freezer and I would still have been rolling my eyes to heaven. It’s rare and magical when ice cream hits that perfect balancing point between rich and fresh, sweet and tart, creamy and yet refreshing.

The ice cream will be the subject of my meditation every time I feel like screaming because of the noise outside my windows.

The wonders of Mexican ice cream

June 5, 2007

So far, the food I’ve eaten has been very good in a way that is deeply satisfying. The polite way to say, “I’m full” is “Estoy satisfecho,” which seems particularly appropriate when it is literally true. But nothing was new or revelatory until I ate at “Nieves Chanito” in Mercado Juarez on Tuesday.

After looking longingly at the meat market in Mercado 20 de noviembre, I almost didn’t believe it when our cooking class actually stopped to eat at a stall proclaiming, “Nieves Chanito.” I didn’t even know what “nieve” meant; after all, wasn’t “helado” ice cream? Luckily, I didn’t have to wonder much longer.

The list of flavors in foreign countries is always so exciting: the thrill of ordering a completely unknown flavor. According to Soledad, our teacher, the most “tipico” flavors of Oaxaca are “tuna” (cactus fruit) and “leche quemada” (burnt milk). Since I’d never tried either, it was an easy choice.

“Nieve,” it turned out, isn’t ice cream, but more like a creamy sorbet. And “tuna,” it turned out, means “delicious.” We had just seen a ripe cactus fruit in the market, which you eat by tearing a little hole at one end and squeezing out the soft, pulpy red fruit inside. The tuna nieve looked exactly like the fruit and tasted just as fresh, perfectly balanced between fruity and sweet. It was nothing like the toxic orange sorbets I hated as a child at Baskin-Robbins, and somehow nothing like the artisanal sorbets at Il Laboratorio del Gelato either. I don’t think it was just that it was served in a plastic dixie cup, though I did love the artlessness with which it was all-natural and probably organic.

“Leche quemada” on the other hand, turned out to be an even more unique flavor. I don’t understand how they got the flavor of burnt milk into a creamy white sorbet, but they did. When I told my family what flavor I ate (everyday, I report to them what I ate), they all said, “Que rico!” I’m not sure I would agree. It’s definitely an acquired taste, the kind of taste that just doesn’t exist for an American palate, not even this well-traveled, well-eaten Korean American one. It didn’t taste bad, but I ate all of it more out of curiosity than love. With each bite, I thought, “I don’t get it,” and would eat another spoonful to see if I could.

So much to hear, eat, and taste.