Simply food

PUERTO VALLARTA MEMORIES

It’s been several years since we wintered in Puerto Vallarta’s old town and we’re missing the vibe enormously. We are saved by the recollection of two fabulous salads.

Stepping out for dinner

For several years in a row, we rented a condo at the top of a hill on an estate called Selva Romantica. The surrounding district is the so-called Zona Romantica. I suppose we expected a romantic holiday. The Zone is more honky-tonk tourist than dreamy, but regardless we always had a good time. It also comes with special tourist police to keep away the beggars and drug dealers. They seem to be effective for the streets are safe at all hours of the day and night. The condo building layout was idyllic, with large units stacked like toy blocks down the hillside, and a huge infinity pool and cabanas at the top. Whale sightings were not uncommon from the deck. As you’d expect from something called the ‘romantic forest,’ there were trees and flowering shrubs everywhere. The best unit we stayed in had a large private patio, shaded by trees, where I wrote my heart out. We explored the surrounding countryside, shops and sights, made friends with some fine musicians and artists and enjoyed their shows, both aural and pictorial, but mostly lazed around the pool and journeyed out once or twice a day to breakfast, lunch or dinner. We tried to cut ourselves down to only two meals a day, or we would have ended up like blimps.

Then two years ago, we decided to give Portugal a go, booked flights to the UK and onwards to Lisbon, and began to research what we were going to do in the delightful resort town of Cascais. Being a foodie, the first thing I did was try to educate myself about the local grub. I discovered pastéis de nata, their incredible sweet custard tarts. I embarked on a deeper investigation of Portuguese delicacies by dining at some of Toronto’s best Portuguese restaurants, which serve the very large expat and immigrant community. Well, we all know what happened next. In fact, my reservations at a local resto were cancelled the very day the lockdown hit.

Breakfast at Fredy’s Tucán

In the interim, we have been nowhere. Not Portugal, nor Mexico. EasyJet is being silly about refunding our air fares, so we may have to go to Cascais after all.

I can stifle my yearnings for Puerto Vallarta by cooking up some of the delicacies we enjoyed there. We had several favourite spots, two of the best on Basilio Badillo were but steps from our condo. When I say steps, I mean that literally. One hundred steps down the hill deposited us onto the street.

For breakfast we often had Yelapa eggs, a sort of huevos rancheros, at Restaurante Fredy’s Tucán. That is when we didn’t have eggs Benny. A strong bloody Mary got the day off to a good start. For casual lunch and dinner, we could usually be found at Joe Jack’s Fish Shack. Apart from outstanding fish, and English style fish and chips on Fridays, they serve a mean mojito and I learn through experience not to have more than two. They also had a great Brussels sprouts salad, which I see is no longer on the menu, but as an homage to Chef Joe Jack, I shall try to recreate it here.

Cricket tacos – never again!

We have other delicacies at other spots, though deep fried crickets are not to be repeated. Café des Artistes where Chef Thierry Blouet has ruled for 30 years is also in the old town and we enjoy many French flavoured meals there. The Hacienda San Angel, once actor Richard Burton’s villa while he filmed Night of the Iguana, has a formal restaurant on the roof overlooking the cathedral, with a fabulous mariachi band. Just take care not to sit too close to the musicians. The food was sublime. Out of town a few miles south and perched on a cliff is another unique dining experience. The place is called, with unremitting logic, Le Kliff. I don’t believe we had a bad experience at any of these spots. In any event, we have returned to each of them time and time again.

At one of them, and I cannot recall which one, I had an amazing version of a caprese salad, where the tomatoes had been slow roasted with garlic to concentrate the flavours. It is an ideal dish for this time of year, when tomatoes can be somewhat lacking in taste. That is today’s second offering.

As to whether we shall be able to return to PV, or whether we shall ever get to Cascais, that seems to be in the lap of the gods. For now, we shall have to be content with enjoying the memories through good food.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS SALAD

Blanching the sprouts leaves takes the bitter taste away. The dressing and topping make for a complementary medley of flavours.

Shopping list

  • 2 lb / 1 kg Brussels sprouts

Dressing

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 2 TBSP lemon juice
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup EVOO
  • Salt and pepper

Topping

  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 4 rashers of thick cut bacon (lardons)

Preparation and cooking

  1. Using a small paring knife, cut off the bottom of each sprout, separate all the big leaves and discard the core. The outside green ones are what you want to keep. Steam the leaves over boiling water for no more than 2 mins, just until they are barely tender and still a bit crunchy, and bright green. Drain and submerge the leaves in ice water to stop the cooking process. Dry them off in a salad spinner or use paper towels.
  2. In a small bowl, mix the minced garlic, lemon zest and juice, mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk in good quality EVOO to make an emulsion.
  3. Prepare the lardons: cut the bacon into thick strips about 1 in long. Boil in water for about 10 mins to reduce the fat. Dry and pan fry with a little EVOO. Reserve on a paper towel to drain and cool. Leave any fat and oil behind.
  4. To the bacon fat, add more if EVOO if necessary. Fry the minced garlic until it is barely brown, perhaps 30 secs Tip in the breadcrumbs and fry until the mixture looks like wet sand. Keep at room temperature.
  5. In a large serving bowl, toss the leaves with about half the dressing. Check for seasoning and add more dressing as needed but keep it on the dry side. Serve onto individual plates, add a generous sprinkle of fried breadcrumbs and top with lardons.

WINTER CAPRESE SALAD WITH ROASTED TOMATOES

When tomatoes lose their taste in winter, it’s time to turn up the flavour by slow roasting them, creating a delicious version of a summer favourite.

Shopping list

  • 8 large ripe tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tsp white sugar, granulated
  • 250 g / 9 oz fresh bocconcini or mozzarella
  • Handful, fresh basil leaves, julienned
  • EVOO
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper

Preparation and cooking

  1. Heat the oven to 135°C / 275°F
  2. Line a baking tray with aluminum foil, lightly brush with a little EVOO.
  3. Rinse and dry the tomatoes, remove the eye. Cut each tomato in half and place cut side up on the prepared tray. Distribute the crushed garlic evenly.
  4. Lightly drizzle with EVOO, add a sprinkle of sugar, salt and pepper.
  5. Roast for around 2-2½ hours, or until the tomatoes are lightly dried and darkened. They will shrink to about half of their original size and should not be wet. Remove from the oven when done and set aside on a clean dish to cool.
  6. Drain the cheese, pat dry and cut into ½ in slices. Layer tomato slices alternately with cheese slices on a dish and scatter the basil on top or create individual plates. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Serve at room temperature.
Featured image: Selva Romantica’s hilltop infinity pool

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This is Nigel’s 331st blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Check out the Archive and Categories too.

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