Packing for Mexico couldn’t be easier. Laptops, chargers, summer clothes, toiletries, and my DSLR were pretty much all we needed. Not only because we are light travelers, but because this beautiful town we were heading to had awesome weather and great people who consider us as families, no extra stuff was necessary.
This place is named Valle De Bravo, the paradise of paragliding.
However, paragliding wasn’t something we planned for our two-week trip to Mexico this May. A 7-day entrepreneur retreat was! From our perspectives, it was just as exciting as paragliding!
Han’s mission: teaching everything he knows about creating an online business throughout the 7-day fully immersive course together with his business partner, Hayden.
My mission: helping make sure everyone’s tummy is full and satisfied every day / learning real Mexican cooking from the chef of the retreat, Suzanne, Hayden’s super wife.
Having our clear goals in mind, with two 30L backpacks, the two of us started this special journey at the beginning of May…
GETTING READY FOR THE BIG WEEK
During the first week in Mexico, while Hayden and Han were intensively preparing for the course, Suzanne and I were carefully going through the menu for each day of the following week. I volunteered to be responsible for three desserts and two side dishes. She got everything planned out.
Other than getting the kitchen ready, we girls enjoyed our time before bringing a serious storm. We expected one week of extremely hard work and not to cook for a straight month after this whole thing was done.
On May 10th, one day before the training officially started, nine entrepreneurs with various backgrounds flew all the way from UK, Australia, Canada, and the US to Valle De Bravo. That being said, we had got 16 people to feed including ourselves and families. Nearly 70% of the group were male. You could imagine the volume we needed to prepare every day.
INTRODUCING THE TEAM
It’s time to put on our aprons! Let me introduce you the cook team!
Starting from the left, you have met Suzanne, half Mexican, and half Canadian. She’s the master planner as well as the chef behind all the deliciousness! (Obviously, our orders were given in both Spanish and English.) The beautiful girl in the middle is one of Suzanne’s many cousins. Her name is Ana, who was a great helper! The one on the right was me holding Sophie, one of Suzanne’s many dogs.
Given the fact that there was no dishwasher, no juicer, no my favorite food chopper, no microwave, and matches were required in order to turn on the ancient oven in the kitchen, I quickly realized that we needed to work fast, which included constant dish washing, cleaning, chopping, and preparation. I consider myself an efficient home cook. But under the circumstances, Suzanne led us reach to the next level of efficiency.
Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, when there is a tremendous amount of work involving a knife, cutting your fingers seems to be expected…
A SUMMARY OF REAL MEXICAN COOKING
Suzanne introduced real Mexican cooking to me by her marvelous cooking skills throughout the entire week. Here is a short summary I learned on the spot by working closely with her in the kitchen for 6 hours a day. I hope you find it useful.
#1. How To Prepare Tortillas As One Of The Essentials of A Typical Mexican Meal
“Dan and Lynn are trying to cut carbs.” We were collecting the information about everyone’s allergies and food preferences before the retreat started.
“Too bad that they are in Mexico now!” Suzanne replied.
That’s because tortilla is the number one ingredient in Mexican cooking. Don’t be surprised to find tortillas in your meals twice a day.
Tortilla chips are usually the first thing to be served in any local restaurant, together with salsa. Tacos, quesadillas, chimichangas, enchiladas, chilaquiles, tortilla azteca (you name it) all come with different shapes of tortillas. When tortillas are not cooked directly in your meal, you will find a stack of warmed tortillas wrapped up with a cloth sitting on the table, either in a restaurant or in a Mexican home.
People usually buy fresh homemade tortillas on the street or in stores. They sell by kilos. Warm them up directly on the stove one by one before serving. Often, tortillas are cooked together within a dish. In order to get the best results, it requires three steps of preparation.
- Depending on the dish, cut tortillas into required shapes. For example, Chicken Tortilla Soup calls for tortilla stripes.
- Lay tortilla stripes or quarters under the sun. Let them dry naturally.
- Fry them in vegetable oil before cooking.
#2. Everything Starts With Butter and Onion.
Pretty much anything that requires stove heat starts off with butter and onion. Suzanne says that it brings more flavor to the food. It doesn’t matter if you cook vegetables, meat, beans, or even soup. Melt a little butter in your pan and sauté a few slices of onion. Now we are ready to start adding our ingredients. I will have more examples on this later.
#3. The Beans!
I have never seen Suzanne using canned beans. She always cook beans and mash them manually if necessary. It takes hours to cook beans until soft. After her two kids go to sleep at 8:30pm, she either puts some beans in water to soak over night or turns on the stove to simmer already soaked beans. That’s when she gets to play video games with her friends. The night time belongs to herself.
There are three steps to prepare beans, another most common used ingredient in Mexican cooking.
- Hand pick out those beans with little holes on them. Those holes are created by bugs. We don’t want to put them in our mouths.
- Cover the good ones with water and let them soak for 6 hours, ideally over night.
- When ready to cook, bring it to a boil and simmer until most of the water is gone and the beans are tender. If you want, you can mash them at this point.
Before serving, Suzanne always fry cooked beans. This is when butter and onion come into scene. You can either pick the onion out when done frying or leave it in. All I have to say that it does make a noticeable difference. Those beans which have been properly prepared, cooked and fried do taste better!
#4. Salsa Is Not To Be Missed!
A meal without salsa is not a completed Mexican meal. As a must-have sauce, salsa goes by green or red. Green salsa is green because the main ingredient for it is green tomato (tomatillo), whereas the red salsa calls for roasted Roma tomatoes. The rest of the ingredients are the same – white onion, salt, chicken broth or water, cilantro and garlic. If you like spicy, add a couple of serrano peppers. Oh, you need a blender!
Both green salsa and red salsa can be used as a great soup base as well. I will share more soup recipes with ya on a later day.
For leftover salsa, fry them first (the same as frying beans with butter and onion). It will last longer with this extra move.
#5. Be Spontaneous, Creative and Flexible!
Last but not least, when you are put in a situation that people depend on you for eating, if I tell you there’s no stress as long as you plan well, I will be lying!
This isn’t only about Mexican cooking. I believe that this applies to any type of cooking. Planning isn’t enough. You never know what’s going to happen.
What are you going to do when you find out all the nicely prepared shredded chicken is gone the next morning and you were counting on it as the main ingredient for the main dish for the crowd? There is only an hour left before serving time.
You are frustrated because that equals to hours of your hard work, but there’s no time for frustration. You have to do something, right away…
That’s when your creativity kicks in. You need to stay calm and be spontaneous. Don’t panic. There’s no time for that. Trust yourself because you are the chef!
In this case, Suzanne no longer had chicken for Tortilla Azteca, a baked dish layered with fried tortillas, spicy cheese, corn, shredded chicken, and fried green salsa. She quickly decided to turn it into a vegetarian dish by increasing other ingredients and adding a sunny-side-up to each plate, something does not require hours of preparation and easy to cook.
“Very very good! Thanks so much for the amazing food!” Compliments came as people handed in their empty plates.
Lunch and dinner were set to be served at 11:30 in the morning and 5:00 in the afternoon. (Mexicans only eat two meals a day.) There were barely breaks in between. But when we did get a chance, we preferred lying down.
Coming out of nowhere, this little cute puppy made her way to the retreat. Suzanne’s dog Harley got quite upset whenever the puppy tried to get close to her. But both of them kept us company in the kitchen for the entire time.
How do you eat your limes? Mexicans eat limes straight with salt and pepper as a snack! Oh, my gosh!
The sunset on Lake Avándaro never failed to take my breath away every time I looked at it.
The retreat officially ended at Velo de Novia Waterfall. It’s a hundred times more beautiful than ever on that day because of these amazing smiles of amazing people!
May has been a great month to dear husbands and wives, in different ways. On May 18th, Han and I left Valle De Bravo for San Francisco with dead tired bodies but very full hearts! See you Valle next time, for visiting families, for paragliding, or maybe for another retreat soon!