How a trip to Mexico changed her heart ... and taste buds

On a recent trip to Mexico I fell in love. And my husband doesn't mind. In fact, he encourages and even shares my passion -- for the tastes and flavors of Mexico.

In February, we spent the month in San Miguel de Allende, about four hours northwest of Mexico City in the high desert plains. The weather was perfect -- slightly cool in the morning, sunny and warm by afternoon -- day after day. It is only now with Pittsburgh entering its own spring that I dare write this without fear of the wrath of friends and neighbors.

In San Miguel we rented a house and shopped at open markets, grocery stores and supermarkets, cooking almost daily. We tried new-to-us ingredients whenever possible.

Our favorite expedition was to the Tuesday farmers market, Tianguis del Martes. We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed shopping bags and set out. The market was a little more than a mile from our house and enormous, with table after table of goods stretching in all directions. There are no sections; everything is a jumble -- piles of new and used clothing next to fruit- and vegetable stalls, with toys, tools and household goods displayed on tables. We walked through, relishing the sights and smells, selecting produce as it appealed to us. We bought vegetables of many kinds: tomatoes, avocados, carrots, red peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and chayote squash, which is similar to zucchini, light green and rounded. I had to try nopales, or cactus paddles, sold by vendors who scraped them free of needles, ready for cooking. A passing taste of fresh country cheese, sold in wide strips rolled into balls, prompted me to make an about-face to buy some. I wound up slightly addicted to its tangy flavor.

With our bounty, I made lunch salads of tomato, red pepper, avocados and fresh cheese. I cooked simple dishes of squash, fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic and nopales seasoned with salt, pepper and a bit of chile flakes that burst with fresh flavor.

The market also supplied our fruit: papayas that we ate daily with a squeeze of lime for breakfast; bananas; tiny plums that were red inside and out; oranges and mangoes. Happily, we didn't need to buy lemons or limes -- the trees in our house's garden provided us a bountiful supply. At one of the two fish vendors in the market, we bought mahi-mahi, tilapia, and red snapper that I cooked with vegetables or seared in a large cast-iron skillet, as we had no grill or working oven at the house.

We initially eyed the chicken at the market with suspicion -- what was with that deep yellow color? -- and passed on buying any. When we later ate chicken elsewhere, it was a revelation, flavorful beyond what we were used to, a different bird entirely. On a return trip, I sought out a chicken vendor, intent on buying some for soup. After I paid for my bag of parts and started to walk away, the chicken man called out "Bonita" (Pretty One) and beckoned me back. He motioned for my bag, opened it and added a generous handful of pieces. The soup, made with many of the vegetables I had bought that day, tasted especially sweet.

Concerns about sanitation meant that we had to walk past the luscious-looking strawberries heaped on market tables. We had been cautioned to avoid produce that couldn't be peeled or soaked in a special disinfectant solution. We were also warned against eating prepared foods at the market and so could only look enviously at the people sitting at the long tables downing handmade tortillas rolled around various fillings, tortas, whole fried fish and other delicacies.

We also ate out. I remember one transporting experience at the La Gruta (The Grotto), a hot springs outside of town. There I had chicken enchiladas -- a simple dish, but the tortillas were fresh and intensely corny, the green sauce full of flavor. I tried chicken posole, a soup with hominy, the speciality of a small restaurant near the city's center recommended by our landlady. In that dish, I delighted in the contrast of the raw crisp vegetable garnishes -- radish, chopped onion -- with the hot soup. A soup lover, I also had to try a nearby restaurant's mushroom-and-nopales version, light and tasty. At brunch in a charming garden spot, I homed in on the most unusual-to-me dish on the menu, egg wrapped in mint leaf. I was served a tight package formed by a large leaf, unlike any mint I know, wrapped around a soft-cooked egg. Bites of liquid yolk mixed with slightly minty greens proved a taste sensation.

We enjoyed the take-out rotisserie chicken sold throughout the city. We found the green sauce in a plastic bag that one place included delicious. It was a generous portion of sauce, so we carefully doled out the leftovers to eat with meat and fish and sorely missed it when we ran out.

After a long walk on a hot day, I learned the restorative properties of fresh coconut water, poured into cup or plastic bag straight from the coconut, enlivened with a squeeze of lime. I got brave toward the end of my stay, no longer able to resist the carts selling handmade ice cream that dot the city center. I stuck to those treats made with milk, not water, and enjoyed various nut flavors -- walnut, hazelnut -- plus coconut and avocado, without untoward effects. I tried to hold out (calories!) against the Mexican nut patty candy -- think peanut brittle rounds crowded with nuts or seeds -- sold in candy stores and groceries.

Having said adios to Mexico, now back home in Pittsburgh, how have we incorporated our flavor experiences into our cooking and eating? I find I eat my food a tad more spicy now. I am apt to reach for a squeeze of lime to brighten flavor. Always partial to avocados, we probably seek them out and eat them a bit more. And I plan on serving garnishes of fresh, crisp vegetables, especially sliced radishes, with hot soup.

But my big discovery in this respect is salsa verde -- green salsa, made with tomatillos, the light-green cousin of tomatoes which grow within papery husks. What I loved about this sauce in Mexico was its complex flavor, tangy without the excessive heat I can't tolerate. I found that the prepared versions, easily found in local stores, are excellent and can bring me back some of the flavors I miss without laborious cooking. An added bonus is that most, at 10 calories per 2 tablespoons, are free of calorie concerns.

Salsa verde has become my go-to condiment. Soup a little flat? Add a dollop. Leftover chicken boring? Serve with a side of this sauce. I have become especially fond of it as a topping on grilled fish. And, a lover of savory breakfasts, I eat the leftovers in the morning, spreading a toasted English muffin half with avocado, then adding fish, salsa verde and lime juice.

I've developed a number of recipes that use my new favorite. None of them pretend to be authentic -- they are one gringa's attempt to replicate Mexican flavors. I make two variations of turkey -- appropriately a food originating in Mesoamerica. One calls for liberally seasoning turkey thighs with salt, pepper, onion and garlic powders and cumin and roasting them until they reach 165 degrees on a meat thermometer. Then slicing them and serving the meat with salsa verde, preferably wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla. In the second recipe, salsa verde is an ingredient in both turkey meatballs and the sauce in which they are cooked. Another recipe has become a favorite lunch or light supper: Eggs poached in a sauce whose predominant ingredient is, you guessed it, salsa verde. Trader Joe's and Herdez are my current favorite brands, tasty and mild.

This Monday, May 5, is Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride, and a good time to try Mexican-style dishes. Or, you may want to perfect your dishes over the summer and serve them on Mexico's Independence Day, on Sept. 16.

Buen provecho!

A Gringa's Huevos

Amounts are approximate. The recipe is easily doubled. Serve with corn tortillas and desired garnishes.

1½ tablespoons olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped onion

1 chopped tomato

3/4 cup salsa verde

Few dollops of goat cheese (optional)

2 eggs, preferably free-range

Garnishes: chopped avocado, fresh cilantro, chopped green onion, grated cheese

Heat the oil in a small frying pan. Add onion and cook until soft but not brown. Add tomato and stir. Cook 3 to 5 minutes until the tomato softens. Add salsa and cheese

Heat the sauce until the cheese melts. If the sauce looks watery, cook down until it thickens. Using the back of a spoon, make 2 depressions in the hot sauce.

Crack an egg into each depression. Alternatively, crack each egg into a small dish before tipping it into the sauce. Turn down heat to low, cover and cook until eggs are cooked as you like them. They are especially good with soft yolks into which you dip torn-off pieces of fresh tortilla!

-- Elizabeth Boltson Gordon

Turkey Meatballs with Salsa Verde

For the meatballs

1 pound ground dark-meat turkey

2 teaspoon kosher salt

Few grinds fresh pepper

1/3 cup salsa verde

1 egg, beaten

3/4 to 1 cup bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, uncooked oatmeal, or a combination (I used bread crumbs and oatmeal)

½ medium onion, chopped (I used more onion)

For the sauce

3 cups salsa verde

1 cup chicken broth (I used Trader Joe's Low Sodium Chicken Broth)

For the meatballs

Mix all the meatball ingredients together. Depending on the salsa verde you use, you will need more or less binder in the form of bread crumbs or oatmeal. You want the mixture to be thick enough to hold together when you make a ball. Dipping your hands into cold water, shape the mixture into golf-ball size balls.

For the sauce

Pour the ingredients into a saucepan large enough to hold the balls without crowding. Bring the sauce to a boil. Taste. If it's too spicy or strong for your taste, add more soup. Bring sauce to a light simmer.

To assemble: One at a time, carefully place each ball into the simmering sauce. Don't let them touch. Cover, turn down to a low fire, and cook about 30 minutes until done.

Serve on rice, quinoa or polenta, with black beans and squash on the side.

-- Elizabeth Boltson Gordon

Elizabeth Boltson Gordon is a writer in Point Breeze:


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