Thursday, January 28, 2010

Culinary Tour to Isla Mujeres, Mexico

It started out as a thought, a small whim no bigger than a speck of sand, or maybe a shell, and the opportunity for a much-needed vacation.

I would design a culinary tour to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and the Yucutan. Combining delicious food and travel—what could be better than that?

But I have to back up. My friend Lori moved to Isla Mujeres, Mexico about 4 years ago. She is one of those people that makes you wonder what the hell you’ve done with your own life. Driven is an understatement. Anyway, Lori set off for Isla Mujeres with her husband, daughter and a small trailer, and visions of all sorts—making mango wine to sell on the beach, managing property, landscaping. What she ended up doing—very successfully—is opening a restaurant, Mango Café, just over a year ago. And long story short, she just opened her second eatery last week.

I love traveling, and I love food, as you know. Combing the two in such a culturally and culinarily (um, is that a word?) rich place is as natural as putting chipotle peppers in raspberry sauce (believe me, it is beyond delicious!!). I knew if anyone could help me set this tour up, it was Lori. Not only is she a great chef—just wait until I post about her food, you will drool on your keyboard—she is a wonderful people person and knows everyone on the island.

Isla Mujeres lies just off the coast of Cancun, offering the beauty of the Caribbean coast without all of the drunken tourists and hubbub. Isla Mujeres is about seven miles long, and reminds me of my hometown, where everyone knows each other. There are plenty of tourists there, but you can still feel the quaintness of the small neighborhoods that dot the island.

Scouting for this tour was hard work. I had to check out the beaches, eat great food, drink daquiris on the beach, tour guest accommodations and survey other local attractions. The more I saw, the more I knew that Isla Mujeres could be a great destination for a culinary tour. The details and possibilities just fell into place, and all of the sudden the reality of the tour washed over me like a wave. So here it is:


The tour will run for seven days and six nights, April 10-17. Participants will stay at Casa de Las Palmas on Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It is an incredible, luxurious villa that looks out over the ocean. Each room has a private bath, and guess what? My friend Lori helped to design and decorate the villa. It is beautiful and includes a kitchen and large dining table so we can have cooking classes on premises. But take a look for yourself….


Each day, except when we tour Merida and Isla Contoy (see below), we will start with a delicious breakfast catered by Chef Lori Dumm who owns Mango Café and Blue Iguana Deli. Lori puts together flavors in ways that will surprise you, and leave you wanting more. Breakfasts might include bagels with chipotle cream cheese, or her famous Concha bread French toast with orange-rosemary syrup. Organic Oaxacan coffee will be provided.

Every day, you will have one cooking class in the morning or afternoon, and a chance to explore the island with an optional group activity. The cooking classes will be taught by Lori Dumm and Oscar Flores. Oscar comes from a family of chefs, and cooks traditional Mexican recipes, such as enchiladas, seafood soup, and mole. Just tasting his homemade Guajillo chile enchilada sauce felt like pure indulgence. Lori makes the most amazing “fusion” food. Some of my favorite items on her menu include a chile relleno stuffed with cream cheese, eggs, and bacon and her Korean pork barbeque sandwich with jicama slaw and pickled jalapenos. Mmmm.

You will definitely have time to do more than eat— that is, if you want to. There will be optional group activities each day—they might include sailing, snorkeling, hitting the beach or discovering the zoo or turtle sanctuary. You can certainly check out the small island on your own, or head into Cancun if you desire. The island is only 7 miles long and is very easy to get around!

The meal that we DON”T cook will be on your own, or feel free to stop by the market and cook something up in the huge kitchen at Casa de Las Palmas.


During this tour we will have the opportunity to explore some of the beautiful places in that area.

We will take a day trip to Isla Contoy, a national park/island that is teeming with birds, and very few people. We reach the peaceful island by boat, and enjoy the pristine beaches, clear water, snorkeling and/or birdwatching. We will enjoy a cooking class on the beach and learn to make a traditional Mayan grilled fish dish called tik n chix. This trip depends on the weather.

We will spend Tuesday and Wednesday traveling to Merida, a beautiful colonial city, and the capital of Yucutan. Tuesday morning we will leave Cancun and head to the ruins of Ek Balam and cenote Dzinup, both near the town of Valladolid. Ek Balam is thought to have been the longest continually inhabited Mayan city in the Yucutan, and lies about 100 miles from Cancun en route to Merida. Cenote Dzinup (a freshwater pool formed by collapsed limestone) is one of the most beautiful cenotes in the Yucutan, and great for a refreshing swim! We will spend the night in Merida, and wake up to explore the markets with chef Lori Dumm. After gathering some ingredients, Lori will help us create a delicious lunch before heading back to Isla Mujeres.

All in all, I guarantee you will have a fabulous, relaxing and delicious time. Please check out some photos from my recent trip on Flickr.


Since this is my first year running the tour, I am asking a reduced rate of $1500/person. $400 extra for single occupancy, $150 less for non-cooking companion.

Cost includes: breakfast and meal cooked during class each day on Isla Mujeres, a daily cooking class, a daily yoga class, trip to Isla Contoy and Merida, and all fees associated with those trips, and lodging, golf cart rental for getting around the island (shared).

Cost does NOT include: round trip airfare to Cancun, ground transport to/from Isla Mujeres from airport, entrance fees to optional group activities on Isla Mujeres (range from $3 to $50), lunch or dinner (whichever one we don’t cook during the class), and any personal spending money.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Isla Mujeres, Mexico-Food, food, food and fun.

Um, this might take me a while. I have way too much to post. But let me sum it up before I break it down.
I am designing a culinary tour to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

SAVE THE DATES: This year's tour will run from April 10-17. 2010. Many, many details to come, but let me start with a few visual aids:)

One day of the tour will take you to Isla Contoy by boat--a day use-only national park/island, teeming with birds, a friendly sting ray and snorkeling opportunities. The guides cook up a traditional Mayan fish dish called Tik n Chix, fish marinated in annato (achiote), lime, orange juice and salt. On this day we had makarel. Fresh guac, chips, seasoned rice, a salad and salsa fresca perfectly complimented the fish--and the beautiful island.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Brazilian Cheese Bread (Pão de queijo) and Chimichurri

Have you ever eaten something at a restaurant and figured it was probably too complicated to replicate at home? The first time I tried Pao de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Balls) at Cabana Room (in Madison, WI) I fell in love with them. The golf-ball sized appetizers were served warm, with a bright-green chimichurri on the side. The balls were baked to a golden yellow, chewy on the inside and puffed up with enough holes to soak up the dipping sauce. The slightly salty, buttery flavor made the cheese balls just melt in my mouth and provided a perfect base for the bold spiciness and tang of the chimichurri dipping sauce. I figured I was relegated to eating at the Cabana Room every time I had a craving.

Eventually my practical side (you could be saving this money for a vacation) and my creative side (I bet if I added a touch of flaked chile to the chimichurri it would taste even better!) ganged up on my frivolous side. And won. I decided to try the cheese balls at home. I looked up the recipe online, only to find that it is very simple. No yeast, no leavening. Heat, mix and bake. Easy and delicious. And a surprising bonus--gluten free! Toss the ingredients for the chimichurri in a food processor and you are set.

Pão de queijo

1 cup milk, 6 tbsp butter/oil, 1 tsp salt

2 cup tapioca flour (At Asian food stores or ethnic grocery)
1.5 cup grated cheese (try parmesan and cheddar or farmer's cheese)
2-3 eggs

Turn oven to 375.
Boil milk, butter, salt. Add in flour, mix and let cool about 10 minutes.
Mix in cheese and eggs. Knead well.
Drop in balls on cookie sheet.
Bake until golden and puffy, about 20-25 minutes.

There are many variations for this recipe online, but this one worked great).


1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley
1 small bunch cilantro
oregano (add a sprig, or to taste.)
olive oil (to thin. about 1/2 cup? add until desired consistency)
3-4 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic
flaked red pepper
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
pinch salt

Pulse herbs in food processor. Add garlic and pulse. Add remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust.
You can vary herbs. Some people omit cilantro. Some people add lots of fresh oregano. Try different ways to see what flavor you like.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Butternut Squash Soup with Apple Confit

Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, roasted carrots, salad, soup, and pie. Sounds like Thanksgiving dinner, right? Actually, I'm fondly recalling our neighbor's Christmas Eve dinner not to long ago (just last year!). The fare was appropriate, and delicious. I am truly thankful for our neighbors. We live in the kind of neighborhood where we entrust each other with house keys, pets and children. We have the kind of neighbors you can ask for that extra egg or cup of flour for a recipe, or get unsolicited help unloading a truck full of dirt, and of course share a meal and a beer.

Joining our neighbors and a few other friends for a winter night feast was a great way to celebrate friendship and abundance. The food was simply amazing. Fluffy mashed potatoes and carrots roasted with Calvados set off the main dish--roasted turkey with homemade gravy and stuffing. Romaine lettuce salad with cashews and a sweet-and-sour dressing complemented the bread bowl, which was served with brie cheese and marinated peppers and olives. And there were plenty of desserts, from cookies, to pumpkin bars, berry pie and Grand Marnier cake.

My offering to this motley crew was squash soup. I gleaned the recipe for this first course from the pages of Fields of Greens, by Annie Somerville (which, by the way, was a birthday gift from my neighbors). I have made squash soup plenty of times, but the addition of Brandy, crème fraiche and apples made this soup stand out. The recipe calls for Calvados, but I didn't have any. Next time, I'll borrow some from my neighbors.

Butternut Squash Soup with Apple Confit

Light Vegetable Stock (Recipe below)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
five-pepper mix or white pepper
3 tbsp Calvados
4 lbs butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks (about 6 cups)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 McIntosh or other flavorful apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 crème fraiche

1. Make stock and keep warm. You could substitute vegetable broth, or store-bought stock, but I don't recommend it. The lightness and beautiful flavor is irreplaceable.

2. Heat olive oil in sauce pan and add onions, 1/2 tsp slat and a pinch of pepper. Sautee over medium heat until the onions begin to caramelize, about 15 minutes, adding a little stock if they begin to stick.

3. Add 2 tbsp Calvados and cook 1 or 2 minutes, until almost dry.

4. Add squash and 1 tsp salt to the onions. Add just enough stock to cover the squash. Simmer over medium heat for about 30 minutes.

5. Puree soup in a blender or food processor. Add a bit more stock if too thick.

6. While the soup is cooking, make apple confit. Melt butter in a saucepan, and add apples.

7. When they are heated through, add Calvados and cook for 1 or 2 minutes. Add apple juice and cover and cook for 15 minutes, until soft. Then cook uncovered for 8 to 10 minutes
to reduce liquid. Mash the apples, leaving confit chunky.

8. Stir half of the confit into soup. Season soup with salt and pepper.

9. Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with some confit and a swirl of crème fraiche.

Light Vegetable Stock

1 yellow onion thinly sliced
1 leek top
4 garlic cloves, in skin
1 tsp salt
2 medium carrots chopped
1 large potato
1/4 pound mushrooms
2 celery ribs
6 parsley sprigs
3 sage leaves
6 thyme sprigs
2 marjoram sprigs
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp peppercorns

Pour just enough water into stockpot to get onions cooking. Add onions, leeks and garlic and cook for 15 minutes. Add remaining vegetables and cover with 9 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 1 hour. Strain stock.