Queretaro: Colonial Charm in the Highlands of Mexico
My first morning in Queretaro, about a 90 minute drive north of Mexico City, I walked along the cobblestone streets in the city’s historic center to the fairy tale castle-like La Casa de la Marquesa, once a private home built in the 1756, now a restaurant and hotel. The menu reflects the vast citrus groves, ranches, cactus and cornfields that are part of the highland landscape here.
Plump figs, recently picked, sit on platters in the ornate dining room. Fresh oranges squeezed with cactus or beet juice are served on silver platters by waitresses dressed in garb that I at first thought was from another era of Mexico history but which I am told were designed to look like what Mary Poppins might have worn if there had been a Mary Poppins.
My host recommends Encarcelados – layers of fried eggs, beans, and ham topped with green sauce and crispy pork skins (a very popular food here and though not at all healthy, much more tasty than the pork rinds sold in the U.S.).
Accompanying breakfast and served in delicate cups are endless servings of hot coffee and crema caliente or hot cream. I decide not to worry about calories as I will be exploring the historic district, known for its fountains, city gardens and brightly painted buildings with wrought iron balconies, oversized carved wooden doors and, of course, this being Mexico, the most wonderfully ornate churches, many in a Spanish style characterized by elaborate engravings and known as Churrigueresque.
There’s an over the top creativity in this ultra clean city (there always seem to be uniformed groups hosing down the streets) and I peak into a restaurant and bar that was once an old apothecary shop whose interior walls are still stacked with the small drawers that once held pills and another one made of stone where water cascades down the length of a wall. The city is made of public squares, each with a fountain and often a statue or two as well. Food vendors sell candies, cook tacos on hot griddles and slice fruit that is then rolled in spices. A gaggle of school girls in uniforms ask if they can take my photo and want to pose with me. Most restaurants, if there is space, have outside seating since the weather is almost always fair.
Queretaro, though it has sophisticated cuisine, is also famed for its enchiladas, which are stuffed with beans, Oaxaca cheese, potatoes and topped with a red chile sauce or a cream sauce and often served with horachata, a sweet rice water drink common in Mexico. Guacamole with pork rinds for scooping are served with almost every meal, including the oyster and octopus tacos (much better than they sound) we taste later that night at Harry’s Bar, which features a blend of New Orleans and central Mexican cookery.
Evenings, after exploring the cathedrals with their 24 carat gold interiors, end with a stop at one of the many hot chocolate and churros (fried pastries) shops that dot the walkways. And each night I promise myself that I will walk an extra mile or so tomorrow not only to see more sights but to hopefully leave a few calories behind before I go home.
(Creamy Enchiladas with Chicken, Tomatoes and Green Chile)
2 28-ounce cans good-quality whole tomatoes in juice, drained
Fresh hot green chiles to taste (roughly 3 serranos or 2 jalapeños), stemmed
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil or rich-tasting pork lard, plus a little oil for brushing or spraying the tortillas
1 medium white onion, chopped
2 cups chicken broth, plus a little extra if needed
1/2 cup homemade crema, crème fraiche or heavy (whipping) cream
About 2 cups coarsely shredded cooked chicken, preferably grilled, roasted or rotisserie chicken
2/3 cup shredded Mexican melting cheese (Chihuahua, quesadilla, asadero or the like) or Monterey Jack, brick or mild cheddar
12 corn tortillas
A few sliced rounds of white onion, separated into rings, for garnish
Fresh cilantro sprigs for garnish
In a small dry skillet, roast the chiles over medium heat, turning regularly, until they’re soft and splotchy-black, about 5 minutes. Place in a blender or food processor along with the drained canned tomatoes. Blend to a smooth puree.
In a medium-size (4- or 5-quart) pot (preferably a Dutch oven or Mexican cazuela), heat the oil or lard over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring regularly, until golden, about 7 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high, and, when noticeably hotter, stir in the tomato puree. Cook, stirring, until darker in color and thickened to the consistency of tomato paste, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir in the broth, partially cover and simmer 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. The sauce should be a slightly soupy consistency—not as thick as spaghetti sauce. If it is too thick, stir in a little additional broth. Keep warm over low heat.
Other preliminaries. Stir the crema into the sauce. Put the chicken in a bowl and stir 1/2 cup of the sauce mixture into it. Taste and season with additional salt if you think it needs it. Have the cheese at the ready.
Heat the oven to 350°. Smear about 1/4 cup of the sauce over the bottom of 4 to 6 nine-inch individual ovenproof baking/serving dishes or smear about 1 cup of the sauce over the bottom of a 13×9-inch baking dish.
Lay the tortillas out on a baking sheet (2 sheets if you have them, for more even heating), and lightly brush or spray both sides of the tortillas with oil. Bake just to warm through and soften, about 3 minutes. Stack the tortillas and cover with a towel to keep warm.
Working quickly so the tortillas stay hot and pliable, roll a portion of the chicken into each tortilla, and then line them all up in the baking dishes.
Douse evenly with the remaining sauce, and then sprinkle with the cheese. Bake until the enchiladas are hot through (the cheese will have begun to brown), about 15 minutes. Garnish with onion rings and cilantro sprigs. These are best served piping hot from the oven.