Margarita at Lu Cocina Michoacana
Lu's covered patio served as the unofficial gathering place outside the festival. Treating myself to a welcome beverage, I was surprised to discover the ultimate margarita. Simple, clean flavors—highlighted by the garnish of a small flower of fresh melon—perked up with the brightness of fresh Mexican lime, this drink put the sugary-sweet beach bar versions to shame.
Hibiscus Salad with 2007 Cotija Cheese at Lu Cocina Michoacana
A signature item at Lu, the crunchy hibiscus flowers ( they're fried and sugared) are beautifully balanced against a salad of organic lettuce and arugula, avocado, toasted peanuts, cucumber, and shredded chicken. Blackberry and citrus vinaigrette brings it all together, while slices of aged cotija cheese add depth.
Very little food was passed through the festival, so it was a pleasant surprise to be offered this rabbit pâté. Though the pâté itself (and the bread it rested on) were French in style, the dark mole sauce and sweet corn topping gave it a very Mexican flavor. While there were many Mexican traditional and modern dishes on offer, this was one of the few that brought ingredients and technique from outside the country into play.
While not altogether different than the gordita you can get on the street all over Mexico, the subtlety of the hand-pounded salsa on top accentuated the simplicity of the preparation: just feet from where I ate the dish, a woman expertly ground the masa and shaped each gordita, while her daughter griddled them nearby.
Squash Flower Blue Corn Quesadillas
While I waited for the gordita to be formed, the daughter offered me a freshly made tortilla, oozing with melted cheese, just barely pushing into sight the unmistakable orange of squash blossoms. It didn't much resemble the over-sized, monochromatic Tex-Mex dish of the same name. The slightly sweet flavors of the cheese, the strong corn of the tortilla, and the barely-there savory hints from the squash blossom were three simple ingredients that came together to form a complex and palate-pleasing snack.
The setting for the festival is as impressive as the collection of chefs and ingredients within: a 16th century Jesuit school built of pink stone now converted to a cultural center. In its time as a school, Mexican national hero Hidalgo was educated here.
Attendees are greeted by traditional woven basket art as they descend into the festival floor.
Mexican Macadamia Nuts
A nut thoroughly associated with its native Hawaii may have found a new home, as these soon-to-be-exported Mexican versions expressed the exact buttery nature and full-flavor that so many Macadamia nuts seem to be missing.
Playerbas Micro Greens
Entrepreneur Alex Ancona supplies a variety of micro greens, specialty herbs, edible flowers, and tiny vegetables to high-end restaurants around the country (Pujol and Biko in Mexico City, among others) from his farms in the state of Morelos and Playa del Carmen (the name is a combination of Playa, from that town name, and yerbas, meaning herbs). Spicy wild mustard, leeks that make a toothpick look giant, and a bite of begonia with a refreshing flavor were just a few highpoints in his smorgasbord of tiny treats from the soil.
These creatures hopped around their glass case, showing off the strong jumping legs that make them such a treat, unaware of what they were about to become later that evening.
Frog Legs with Trio of Yucatecan Sauces
A far cry from the usual deep-fryer fate of frog legs, these deboned hoppers were grilled for a strong char flavor. To mellow the charring, three Yucatecan sauces, from the home state of Chef Federico López, were served: si-kil-pac (a Yucatecan pumpkin seed dip), salsa tamulada (made from the brown habanero or chile chocolate—quite a kick on that one), and a puree of the bitter, white pith of an orange, tempered by the addition of lime and orange waters.
Cotija Cheese Ice Cream with Avocado Flower Honey, Toasted Macadamia Nuts, and Avocado Cream
Dessert was an area where many of the chefs excelled, letting loose with interpretations of the local ingredients in sweeter settings. This offering from Federico López and Pablo Salas to finish their dinner at San Miguelito restaurant centered on cotija cheese, an aged cheese whose maturity gave a slight, but welcome, funk to the sweetness of the ice cream. The funk was counteracted by the sweetness of avocado blossom honey, and a light puree of avocado and mint. A dusting of macadamia nuts supplied the texture, while a scene-stealing herbal note came from a powder of hoja santo sprinkled over the plate.
Taco of Fresh Cheese and Greens Cake with Mole Rojo
Another excellent bite from the featured indigenous cooking booth, a slab of fresh cheese wrapped in cooked greens hidden under a blanket of mole rojo. A messy but rewarding plate, each nibble yielded a different ratio of the earthy, freshly-made tortilla, the thick sauce, local greens, and staunchly-unmelting cheese.
Pez Diablo Påté on Tostadita with Dusting of Chile Negro
Chef Rubi Silva served this small but powerful amuse bouche at the dinner in her Los Mirasoles restaurant in Morelia. The space is incredibly beautiful, set in an old stone house with intricate ironwork chandeliers and a jungle of plants between the dining area and bathrooms. The fish pâté was thick and smooth, and the spicy flavor drew from a sprinkling of chile negro, or as it's known elsewhere in Mexico, chile pasilla. The heat dominated in flavor, but the fish cooled and calmed.
Sampling of Mescal and Paired Cheeses at Lu Cocina Michoacana
A final dinner at Lu formalized some of the tastings that were offered within the festival, offering two joven (young or white) mescals with aged cotijas. Both mescals were Don Mateo de la Serra, but one used the Cupeatra agave—paired with the six-month aged cotija cheese—and the other from the Cenizo (meaning "ash") agave, which went with the twelve-month cotija. Like Remy from Ratatouille discovering new flavor combinations for the first time, the smoothing effect the cheeses had on their respective mescals was phenomenal, opening new flavor doors with each bite.
Avocado-Pit Grilled Lamb over Corunda with Pair of Traditional Sauces at Lu Cocina Michoacana
Offering a study in the many uses of avocado, Chef Lucero Soto marinated lamb in avocado oil before grilling it over charcoal studded with avocado pits. The green sauce, xanducata, is then made with avocado leaf. The red sauce, like the green, is a traditional Purépecha sauce, this one called atapakuá. Despite the many strong and competing flavors in the dish, a light corunda (triangular tamale-like starch, this one stuffed with vegetables and cheese), kept it balanced and provided an excellent vehicle for the sauces.
Uchepo of Milk with Lyophilized Avocado and Michoacan "Pasta" Ice Cream at Lu Cocina Michoacana
The uchepo, a sweet fresh corn tamale common in Michoacan, receives an upgrade and dessert-ification in this phenomenal closing dish. Bolstering the sweetness with a little milk, the tiny tamale is paired with a piloncillo (Mexican conical hard sugar) crisp, and a scoop of the ultra-rich traditional ice cream of the region called "pasta," which is made with many (many, many) egg yolks. The dish is sprinkled with lyophilized avocado, a technique which concentrates the flavor of an ingredient by removing the water without disturbing the shape, and receives a final uplifting blast from tiny basil leaves.