To Mexico, with love

September 30, 2009 § 3 Comments

 

Michele and Nitzan, Pardess Chana, 1996, in front of a Hibiscus!

Michele and Nitzan, Pardes Chana, 1996, in front of a Hibiscus!

I grew up traveling back and forth between Israel and the States. Although I was not always thrilled with the feeling of not completely belonging to one place or the other, many memorable and life-shaping experiences did come out of our travels. One of the most formative and worthwhile of these was spending my senior year of high school at an agricultural boarding school in Pardes Chana, Israel, about an hour north of Tel Aviv. At that time, Pardes Chana was transitioning from being a small town, more or less supported by agriculture and trades, into a suburb. All around the area, large swaths of land were being transformed into developments, filled with white stone “villot”, and there was talk of a fast food chain buying a storefront downtown. The town still had an old-school-Israel vibe, something not quite modern, but certainly not third-world either and it was securely divided between the Sephardi side, families from Morocco and Yemen, and the Ashkenazi part of town, families from Russia and Eastern Europe.

At the time though, the social politics and demographics of the town did not interest me nearly as much as did roaming its surrounding citrus groves and lush, tree filled old neighborhoods. The smell of orange blossoms was more than intoxicating, it was enchanting. My walks through that fragrance bewitched me completely, changing me from the volatile 16 year old I was when I arrived into someone who resembled the woman I’ve become.

The other students in my program came from backgrounds very similar to my own: they had grown up in two or more places (Israel being one), were bilingual (some spoke 3 or even 4 languages) and had a slightly confused identity that they were actively grappling with. Not surprisingly, many of the people I met that year ended up living in far away places, but thanks to the internet I am in touch with a good number of them, including my roommate, Michele, who now resides with her husband and son in Mexico City.

Michele grew up literally all over the globe, and seems to have a unique ability to acclimate to almost any cultural newness. One frustration, though, of living in Mexico is the scarcity of many ingredients that we here in the States do not consider exotic or special. Recently I asked her to tell me what is readily available there, so that I could try to source (or invent) a few recipes that she could make with local ingredients.

Among other surprises from Michele’s list is that lemons are no where to be found in Mexico, only Mexican limes. Also, she mentioned that they have dried hibiscus flowers  in abundance (known there as ‘jamaica’), something I had to search for a bit here, when I first encountered a recipe last Passover that called for them. This recipe was originally printed in the New York Times last spring and came from Patricia Jinich, who grew up in Mexico and is the Chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. So thank you Ms. Jinich and here’s to you Michele, in Mexico, with love.

Spinach Salad With Mushrooms and Hibiscus Flower Vinaigrette

Adapted from Patricia Jinich

Time: 15 minutes, plus 2 days’ chilling

FOR THE VINAIGRETTE: IMG_0807

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 garlic clove

2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup olive oil

3/4 cup dried hibiscus flowers, also known as jamaica flowers (I get mine at Christina’s in Inman Square Cambridge, but you can also order them from mexgrocer.com)

IMG_0804

FOR THE SALAD:

18 to 20 ounces spinach leaves, rinsed, drained and thickly sliced (whole spinach– which is what you should use here as baby spinach will not stand up to this dressing– needs to be washed very well as it is usually extremely sandy)

1 pound white or brown button mushrooms, trimmed and sliced (I like criminis/baby bellas)

6 thinly sliced scallions, white and light green parts only

3/4 cup caramelized almonds (see recipe below).

1. For vinaigrette: Two days before serving, prepare vinaigrette. In a blender, combine vinegar, lime juice, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper. Process until smooth. With motor at lowest possible speed, add vegetable oil and olive oil in a thin stream until emulsified, about 10 seconds.

2. Add hibiscus flowers and allow to soften in liquid for a couple of minutes, then process until roughly chopped. Pour into a container, cover, and refrigerate for 2 days to 1 week.

3. For salad: In a large salad bowl, combine spinach, mushrooms and scallions. Add vinaigrette to taste (all may not be needed), and toss gently. Sprinkle with almonds and serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Caramelized Almonds

Adapted from Alisa Romano

Time: 25 minutes

1 cup whole almonds, shelled

1/3 cup pure maple syrup or brown sugar (I prefer maple syrup, but both work fine)

1 tablespoon butter or pareve margarine.

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 9-inch-square baking pan (or similar size pan) with parchment paper. Scatter almonds in pan; pour maple syrup or brown sugar on top, stirring to cover nuts. Cut butter into small dice and sprinkle on top.

2. Bake for 10 minutes, then stir nuts to make sure they are covered with syrup. Continue to bake until nuts are browned and syrup has thickened to consistency of caramel, another 7 to 10 minutes.

3. Remove from oven, separate nuts, and allow to cool. Once completely cooled, nuts may be stored in a covered container for several weeks.

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§ 3 Responses to To Mexico, with love

  • JimmyBean says:

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  • [...] else about Pardes Chana Agricultural was so great that I managed to overlook the terrible food for the most part, and even found a few [...]

  • Faye Levy says:

    Hi Ari,

    I found you through your comment on CafeLiz. Your salad sounds delicious.

    In Mexican grocery stores I’ve shopped at in southern California dried hibiscus is sold for making tea.

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