Monterrey, Nuevo León, One of Mexico’s largest and diverse cities, was once again the setting for NACUFS Pacific Region, Mexican Culinary Workshop; Maiz, Frijol, y Chile (corn, beans, and chilies for you gringos). Ten chefs including myself, and administrators from the nations top schools gathered at the distinguished Tecnologico de Monterrey (aka Tec), along with another dozen or so extremely hospitable staff and chefs from the Tec, made up this year’s group. I cannot begin to stress how friendly and helpful Gabriella, Adolfo, and the rest of the team were throughout the entire trip, especially around a bunch of chefs, egos and all, and most, myself included, lacking the proper Spanish vocabulary skills. So thank you again for your self-less time and first class service.
Above: Market staples; garlic, tamarind, piloncillo (sugar cane), and guajillo chilies.
After downing a few beers, and throwing down a couple of incredible tacos, getting over the “wow factor” of being in not only a different country, but an absolutely beautiful city, it was time to learn a few things and get down to business. What better way than taking a visit to a local market.
Above; more chilies, spices, and an employee at a local tortilleria
Not exactly like the vast open markets I’ve seen in Europe or even Southern California, but definitely the place to go for meat, spices, produce, and your daily fix of hand made tortillas. Very clean, very friendly people everywhere, seemed to be the theme of the entire trip.
Working up an appetite, For our first lunch we literally ate in a garage turned makeshift restaurant. The food was delicious, and amazingly fresh. Handmade enchiladas, gorditas, and taquitos. The head chef’s pride and spirit filled the entire crowded room, plate after empty plate, I can still see his beaming smile, pristine chef jacket and all, something totally unexpected but delightful nonetheless.
Not too soon after lunch, we headed to a local culinary and hospitality school, who work in tandem with the Tec. This would be our home base for the week, as we would prepare for our first course of study, chilies!
Many cooks, whether home or professional, know that removing the inner seeds and pith of chilies will dilute some of the heat. What I didn’t know (here’s a tip) is that there are other ways of not only mellowing, but sweetening the taste of any overly spicy pepper. Go down to your local Mexican market (don’t be shy). Pick up some piloncillo…what the heck is that, you may be asking, it’s pure Mexican sugar cane boiled down into a cone like shape. Take a few cups of water, a chunk of piloncillo and some brown sugar, boil the water until the sugars dissolve. Meanwhile, cut open your chilies and remove any unwanted seeds. Let the water come to room temperature. Place the chilies in the syrup for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator. After several hours the syrup will engulf the chilies, and the burn will be dramatically mellowed out. For me, this right here, was worth the price of admission. Being a chef in Southern California, I’m constantly surrounded by outstanding Mexican cuisine, it was just a breath of fresh air to learn a few new techniques.
Above: Salsas made in traditional Molcahete (mortar and pestle)
Chile picadillo, guajillo chile y queso panela, chilacas in masa azul (chili relleno in blue corn), chile y machaca (dried beef), and chile poppers con tocino (bacon)
After wrapping up in the kitchen for the day and later being inspired by talks from local and very passionate chefs, we spent the evening at EXPOTEC, an annual event where students present over 60 regional and international stands, including a multi-regional culinary Exhibition from different areas of Mexico, Central, and South America. Tons of great food and plenty of cheap beers made for an excellent night…
Day 2 Frijols y Maiz (beans and corn)
Ahh…nothing beats a long night of eating greasy (although delicious) food, and several giant sized beers, than waking up early to this…What is this you might ask? Just a little sample of some local delicacies; Escamoles (ant larvae), Chapulines (grasshoppers), and last but not least, Gusanos de Maguey (Maguey worms). Apparently these little guys don’t come cheap, people pay up to 1800 pesos/kilo (about $500 a pound!) Nothing against tradition, and I appreciate that they even made them into tacos, but it could have waited till after breakfast, or even lunch.
So after a light breakfast…gulp…we once again broke into teams and began whipping up the planned recipes for the day. Mexican food has always been at the top of my list. A lot of these dishes I’ve had before, numerous times, but again it was learning new techniques which made all the difference. Whether it was making a simple yet delicious salsa from scratch, to hand pressing the fresh masa into tortillas, or burning my fingertips from crimping the edges of the sopes, it seemed to connect on all levels of creativity for me and my peers.
On the agenda for the day; tlacoyos, a thick corn tortilla, fried, topped with black bean, cactus, panela cheese, and salsa. Sopes (fried corn boats) with chorizo, beans, and ancho chile salsa. Flautas de pollo (chicken flautas). Traditional enchiladas, first fried in oil, then dipped in salsa guajillo. Gorditas with cheese and potato. Along with tamales, and my personal favorite, Chilaquiles. Probably the simplest and most delicious I have ever had. Chilaquiles is basically a comfort food casserole, gaining in popularity for weekend brunch, most restaurants will get the most bang for their buck by using leftover tortillas, salsa, etc. The key for this recipe however, was using all fresh ingredients, as well as boiling hot salsa (to keep the chips crisp, not soggy) over fresh chips with plenty of cheese, smoky Gouda to be exact…my mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Later in the afternoon, each team was given a mystery basket of sorts to come up with several original recipes, based on what we had learned so far. One of the more unusual ingredients for most of us was a peculiar black fungus (think mushroom) that only grows on corn, known as cuitlacoche (pictured below). Growing up in Nebraska, I’d seen my fair share of corn, and corn fungus. Never did I realize that it could be edible, let alone a delicacy.
Cuitlacoche, a peculiar fungus
Our team decided to go with a masa based empanada, stuffed with machaca ( dried beef, a popular regional treat), and cheese, we flavored the masa with cilantro purée, and ancho purée, giving a two tone green and red hue. Also, we added a fresh tomatillo salsa and slaw, to cut the richness. Francisco, the head pastry chef at the Tec, blew our minds and made a dessert out of the fungus! He made a delicious cake, similar to a sweet corn bread, and made a caramel sauce with the cuitlacoche. It was somewhere between genius and crazy, but it actually worked, and tasted pretty good!
The surprisingly good fungus cake, and some of the other teams dishes.
Day 3, Lunch for 400 new friends
On the third day of our conference our team helped the staff prepare and serve lunch for the campus staff, faculty, students, and local community. The menu consisted of many traditional regional dishes, most of which were centered around the theme of the conference. We more or less were getting in the way of Chef Antonio’s staff, but in good spirits, they put us to work. I was picked for the dessert team, typically not my strong suit, but I was in good hands, after stuffing around 400 sweet tamales, I felt I had helped if not a little bit.
Clockwise; sweet bean tamales, spinach salad with almond, panela cheese, and guajillo vinaigrette, Mexican fruit salad, chiles en Nogada, usually reserved for very special occasions
Clockwise; clay pots for Cafe de la olla, Cuitlacoche (fungus) lasagna, one of the many amazing salsas, pan de elote (corn bread)
From the looks of their empty plates, everyone seemed to really enjoy the lunch. Towards the end, we were all introduced to the crowd, they were even kind enough to put us in the local paper.
Here’s a quick video of the lunch.
Discovering the city
Monterrey is truly an incredible place. With the backdrop of the Sierra Madres, and a sprawling city center, you didn’t need to look far to see its natural beauty mixed with a youthful up and coming vibe.
Statues within the city center
Backdrops of the mountains on campus.
Amazing chalk art murals.
More great views of the city.
Tequila and Mezcal (informative and delicious) tasting at Vinoteca!
Exhibit at the Modern art museum
El Rey del Cabrito! Head to tail roasted baby goat.
Market on the way to Guadalupe.
The excellent staff.
One last view of the city before flying out.
Needless to say this trip had a great impact on me. Experiencing a different culture, learning new techniques, and making new friends, what more could I have asked for. The service that the staff showed was above and beyond amazing, and kudos goes to all involved on the NACUFS side. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to experience this city again sometime, and highly recommend it to anyone else looking to travel south. Thank you for letting me share this with you all, don’t forget to follow this blog for more updates, until next time, cheers!
Chef Bryce Benes