The Lemon Plum

 

Lemon plum

Lemon plum

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Just look at this beauty, caught in the prime moment of being juicy and ready to eat.

This is a “lemon plum.”

Yet another fruit I’d never eaten before, but found in one of my local green markets. I loved the shape and color of the fruit, and was told these plums have a lemony flavor. And so they do!

It seems hard for me to claim that I’m finding all this produce just because I’m (mostly) vegan, but it’s true. I like eating fruit, especially berries. Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries all find their way into my grocery basket. I don’t go out of my way to find new fruits to eat, but when I saw these beautiful plums I couldn’t resist.

Of course I’ve eaten plums before, but the plums I normally eat are a deep wine color, and their flesh is dark, dense and very sweet. The lemon plums have a lighter color flesh, and while they are sweet, the lemony flavor makes them taste more refreshing.

I suppose I’ve just written an ode to a plum, but why not?

Yes, I celebrate “one ingredient” foods, including this gorgeous, delicious lemon plum. It may have one ingredient, but the flavor is more complex than anything a processing food plant’s chemistry lab can compete with any day of the week.

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On the road to health: tough choices

It’s been a little over a week since I’ve begun my adjustment from vegetarian to my new eating habits, which includes giving up eggs, dairy, and processed foods in addition to already having given up meat over a year ago.

Patience is the key in this situation, but it’s been a challenge so far.

First, I’m surprised to report that what I thought would be hard has been easy and what I thought would be easy is much harder than I thought.

What do I mean?

Giving up eggs was, in my mind, a huge sacrifice. But over the past week, not only have I done without them, I have not craved fried eggs or omelettes. What I realized is I was using eggs as a “crutch food” (I made that up) because I’d convinced myself I needed some animal protein in my diet.

However, giving up dairy products has been extremely hard for me, and I’m starting to understand why.

Mouth feel.

When you eat food that turns your brain “on” it has “stuff” in it that let’s your body know it’s higher in calories and is more satisfying to eat.

Butter is an example of a food that creates an experience that you cannot get from olive oil or avocado. (I have not eaten nut butters yet, like cashew butter, but I can see I will be compelled to try them.)

It’s the same for me with cheese. Cheese is calorically dense, and creates a reaction in the brain and body when it’s consumed that increases satiety and is just … satisfying… to eat.

Which leads me to…

I’m freakin’ hungry.

I’m willing to concede that if I’m hungry, it’s my own fault because I could just “eat something else” but what’s happened to me over this past week is strange.

I have to THINK much, much more about whatever it is I want to eat and how I’m going to prepare it and do I have everything I need to prepare what I want, etc.

I’m not saying thinking more about what I’m putting into my body is a bad thing, but I am saying it is taking up mental energy and I will need to get to a place, reasonably soon, where I am not spending this much time thinking about what I’m going to eat and struggling with the available choices.

And I have struggled with my choices.

There are two items I had put on my “give up” list that I’m not currently prepared to give up.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is a processed food, and adds a LOT of calories to meals (120 calories for ONE tablespoon, ouch!)

In cooking, you can give up olive oil by using a non-stick pan on a high heat burner, to brown onions and to cook veggies.

BUT, when you add olive oil sparingly, it makes it easier to cook the food more rapidly and to achieve browning, plus it adds mouth feel because it is a fat.

So for right now, I’ve mostly done without it, but in cooking I do use a little. While I am continuing my transition into this new eating lifestyle, I’m going to have it on my list of available ingredients.

Salad Dressing

Same principle as olive oil.

I’m not prepared to use lemon/lime juice, or vinegar by themselves as my salad dressing, along with other herbs and spices. I know I could, but with everything else I’m giving up I just don’t want to give up all salad dressing.

My compromise?

I found a low calorie salad dressing (35 calories per tablespoon) and I measure it out so I don’t over-use.

In case you are wondering it’s: Briannas Special Request “Lively Lemon Tarragon Dressing.” And while “canola oil” is an ingredient, it is number 8 on the list. Without oil, the number one ingredient is water and the number two is honey, so…

But there is an up-side item I have added to my diet that is a great find.

Chia Seeds

When you add Chia seeds to foods they get a great crunch, and while they look similar to poppy seeds, Chia seeds are a superfood. They have TONS of Omega 3’s in them, which make them an extremely healthy addition to salads, and yes, even a bowl of oatmeal.

Results, so far

Results so far have been good!

Sleep patterns are normal. I wake up in the morning, refreshed, without an alarm clock. (Reminder: I do not use caffiene.)

My digestive system loves me. My body is running like clockwork. With all the water I drink, and Vitamin C along with the higher amounts of fiber in my food, everything works properly.

Energy! I have more of it, which I especially notice when I go out for my daily walk, which has turned into a daily walk/jog because I have THAT much excess energy to burn. I’m doing 4-6 miles a day.

And yes, the scale loves me too. I’ve lost a few pounds, and while I’ve been attempting to get to my goal weight for a while now, with my new eating regimen, it’s becoming easier to get rid of the unwanted weight.

That’s it for now, but after only one week in, I think it’s good progress!

Is it possible to be an unhealthy Vegan or Vegetarian?

As my regular readers know, I’ve begun the process of transitioning my ‘eating preferences’ from vegetarian to something that I would have called vegan a few days ago but I’m now realizing is not vegan.

It’s something else.

There is no convenient label for what I’m trying to do, but I’ve also realized something kind of terrible in the last few days also… it’s possible to be an unhealthy vegetarian or vegan.

That’s blasphemy to many, I’m sure!

But please, before I start getting annoyed comments from the folks that have adopted vegetarian and vegan eating habits, let me explain what I mean. You may even agree with me.

First, let’s start with the basics. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you’re not eating meat and that helps dramatically reduce unhealthy saturated fats from your diet. That’s for sure. It’s an excellent start on a road to better health.

Next, if you are vegan, you are further reducing saturated fats by eliminating both eggs and dairy products. Kudos to vegans who are off both eggs and dairy and consuming much less saturated fat. Yay!

HOWEVER.

What I’ve noticed in many of the vegetarian and vegan recipes online is that there is a new boogie man hanging out and readily made available to veg-peoples: processed “veg” alternative foods.

Would you like some fake veg-meat? Or how about some fake veg-cheese? Sure, you can have that… and along with it, tons of oil, sugar and chemicals to preserve it on the shelf.

Want some fake sour cream? Non-dairy ice cream made out of tofu? Oh yeah, that’s our best seller.

See, the thing is… I don’t want to eat that fake chemically laden, oil enriched, sugar coated stuff.

I don’t want to eat food that will stay on a shelf for a month and not go bad. The food we eat should be alive, and if you don’t eat it, it dies and can’t be eaten if you want to stay healthy.

The food industry is SO damn sneaky. They want to make consumers feel really good about their food choices (while charging them a whole lot more than the “regular” products because it’s “healthier”) and so they provide them with plenty of opportunities to buy stuff that, frankly, I don’t see how it’s better for you over not eating it.

THAT is the key.

If you compare eating MEAT, vs. eating fake processed veg. food on the supermarket shelf, I’m sure the argument would be … HEY, this is HEALTHIER than MEAT!

Okay. So what?

Is it healthier than NOT eating the fake veg thing you have in your hand and eating… I don’t know, a carrot? An apple? A carrot and an apple?

And the answer to that is NO, eating fake veg thing is NOT healthier than eating an apple. (Okay, okay, an organic apple.)

Also, and I’m sorry people, I have to point this out… eating baked goods with dark chocolate, raw sugar, wheat flour and oil is not “health food” either.

Imagine… a vegan nightmare…

Breakfast: eat a bowl of sugar coated shredded wheat, with some sugar laden rice milk for a “healthy” vegan breakfast.

Lunch: I can have a baked potato with fake veg cheese, fake sour cream, and fake bacon bits. (I cannot make this stuff up, I’ve seen the recipes and it looks gross.) As my desert, I’ll have chocolate chip cookies with soy milk.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Now, if I’m not doing that and not eating the way some veg peoples do, what am I doing?

WHAT I AM DOING:

WHAT I AM NOT DOING:

  • I’m avoiding as much processed food as I can, which is freaking HARD TO DO.
  • I’m avoiding using processed oils in my food (yep, even olive oil), although again, this is freaking HARD TO DO.
  • I’m avoiding high fructose corn syrup, and avoiding as much sugar as I can (yes, including things like raw/organic honey. It’s still sugar.)

In case you are wondering what the hell am I eating… here is today’s sample:

Breakfast: oatmeal with slivered almonds and two tablespoons of chia seeds (omega 3’s)

Lunch: Half of the following:

Can of Amy’s Organic Lentil Vegetable Soup (minimal oil) with this other stuff I added:

half can of whole kernel corn (no oil, salt or sugar); half can of diced tomato (no oil, salt or sugar); and half of one sweet potato cut into cubes, and one half cup of cooked Reinzi “i bambini” Fusillini with spinach and zucchini (ingredients: duram wheat semolina and 25% vegetable puree.)

Dinner: Finish soup from lunch. Handful of fresh raspberries. One fresh persimmon.

(Cheat item: Pomegranate Blueberry Mash sparkling water drink with fruit juice concentrates and crystalline fructose… sigh. 40 calories per serving, but that’s just my justification.)

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I don’t mind telling you…this transition is very freaking hard… so far.

But the fresh raspberries tasted AMAZING tonight, and I think I can expect to start tasting food differently now … if I’m serious about getting off the other stuff I’d been putting in my body.

How about you?

Top Secret Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)

As with most things in my life, even black beans is a story.

In the past year, I’ve been practicing vegetarianism. Once in a while I come across a food at one of my local Jersey City take-out places that I fall in love with and crave. So it is with a particular Latin American take out spot in my neighborhood that makes the most heavenly frijoles negros (black beans) I’ve ever eaten.

Those beans are so damn good, I was determined to crack the code on them so I could replicate the flavor at home.

One of the first and easiest steps was to look up recipes on the interwebs. There are tons of them, most of which I don’t like, and which I knew didn’t match what I was getting locally.

The take-out black beans I get have an almost creamy consistency, and had nothing in them except disintegrated cilantro, and some magical blend of spices I needed to decode through some alchemical testing in my laboratory… er, I mean kitchen.

It turns out that the base flavor profile I was looking for hinged on an all-important ingredient: vinegar.

Yes, vinegar is used in the making of black beans. I think people who don’t cook them would be surprised to know that is what creates a tart undertone to the beans and makes flavor explode in your mouth with each delicious bite.

But not just any vinegar will do. Oh no.

Goya Distilled White Vinegar - a top secret ingredient

Goya Distilled White Vinegar – a top secret ingredient

I know this because I had to try out several kinds until I found the right one that matched my local take out. Not surprisingly when it comes to humble dishes simply prepared, this vinegar is the least expensive on the market.

I can buy a bottle of Goya Distilled White Vinegar in a plastic bottle for 85 cents, which is more than enough for many pots of yummy black beans. (I’m also saying do not use “cider vinegar” because I’ve noticed a lot of internet recipes call for it. It doesn’t taste right.)

The other ingredient you must have is fresh cilantro. If you don’t have it, don’t make the beans. The flavor profile won’t be right. Period.

Okay, here we go.

This recipe is one of my favorite “riffs” on frijoles negros and has some traditional elements and other flavors I enjoy too. This version of the dish is more acidic / tart because of the ingredients I prefer; but feel free to make your own riff too.

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TOP SECRET FRIJOLES NEGROS

  • 1 can of Goya Black Beans – do not drain liquid (29 oz.) (Reserve 2 tablespoons of beans from the can in a separate dish)
  • 1 can of stewed or diced tomatoes – do not drain liquid (14.5 oz.)
  • 3 sprigs of fresh Cilantro, well washed
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium size onion
  • 2 Tablespoons – Goya White Distilled Vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons – olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 fresh lime
  • water (as needed)

Dice the med. size onion and set aside. Mince the 3 cloves of fresh garlic and set aside.

In a pot, empty most of the contents of the can of Goya Black Beans, including the liquid (minus 2 tablespoons of beans) and immediately add 2 Tbsp of Goya White Distillied Vinegar.

Bring the heat up enough to allow the beans to slowly start to bubble.

Chop the cilantro (including the stems) and mix it into the pot, and cover.

Once the beans have begun to bubble, add the can of diced tomatoes with liquid, mix, and re-cover.

In a pan, put 2 Tbsp of olive oil and bring up to saute heat. Add the diced onion to the pan and cook until translucent.  Add the minced garlic and stir rapidly – just enough to permit it to perfume. Add salt and pepper, mix.

Stir the onion and garlic mixture into the pot of beans, and re-cover.

Slice the fresh lime into quarters. Squeeze the juice from two lime quarters into the pot, stir the mixture, and re-cover again. (Discard the actual limes, do not put them in the pot.)

Allow the beans to continue cooking, and take the 2 tablespoons of beans you reserved and put them into a bowl and mash them thoroughly. Add the mashed beans into the pot. The mashed beans will create a creamy consistency.

The beans can stay covered on the stove with their flavors blending together for many hours, with the heat very low, as long as you keep checking the pot. If the amount of liquid is too reduced, add water until the consistency is where you want it. (I prefer my beans to be pretty liquidy with lots of delicious broth.)

Before you’re ready to serve the beans, squeeze the juice from the remaining two quarters of fresh lime into the pot and mix thoroughly.

Serve and enjoy!

Film Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a lovely movie. It’s about an 85 year old sushi chef who owns the only 10 seat sushi restaurant in the world to be given 3 Michelin stars. More importantly though, the film is about a lifelong quest for perfection in this food art.

I don’t eat sushi, so when I saw all the food being prepared my thought wasn’t, oh that looks delicious, but more about how beautiful it looks.

Some of the very rare tuna (toro, in Japanese) is a gorgeous shade of transluscent ruby red, glistening with the veneer of soy sauce applied just before the patron consumes their meal. If it wasn’t food, you might think it was a precious jewel sitting atop a perfectly formed piece of rice to support it.

The movie also gives us a look into Jiro’s family, his relationship with his two sons, the younger of whom left to open his own restaurant years ago, and the elder son, now 50 years old and who has worked for his father since he was 19, and will inherit the business when Jiro retires or passes away.

This movie is incredibly zen. Jiro’s pursuit of sushi perfection has made him strict in his daily routine, and he never takes a day off (except national holidays.) He does the same things ever day, day after day, and has done so for 75 years.

I’d recommend anyone see this movie if they enjoy watching an artisan who has achieved a level of mastery very few, if any, have done.

A word about what I’ve eaten in New Orleans

Dear readers, it is with tremendous reservation (no pun intended) that I broach the topic of food and New Orleans in the same sentence. So much has been written about what to consume, and where to consume it that I dare not presume to know anything more than what I experienced.

This post is not about what to eat in New Orleans. It’s about what I ate so far during my stay here. Your tastes and needs could vary wildly from mine and probably do. 🙂

Since my plan was to be here for weeks and not days and because I didn’t want to spend hundreds, if not a thousand bucks on food while I was here – most of the places I targeted were of the budget conscious variety.

However, an amazing source of information about resto’s in NoLa is The New Orleans Menu. If you want an exhaustive site with reviews, maps, days open, address, phone, full menu’s etc. CLICK HERE. The site is run by Tom Fitzmorris, who has written a daily newspaper column on this topic since 1981. Needless to say, Mr. Fitzmorris has already forgotton more than I will ever know about restaurants in NoLa. His site is arranged by neighborhood, and where to find a place that is open on Monday, when many places are closed.

TRAVEL TIP: There is a pesky trend of places only being open for breakfast or early lunch, and may close between 1:30-2:30pm. So if you come in for a leisurely lunch, you may be in for a surprise. It is best to call ahead if you aren’t sure and even if they answer the phone and are open, ask what time they close.

A list of budget conscious places where I ate:

  1. The Lucky Ladle – great breakfast, generous portions, reasonable prices (under $10), awesome and personable service by the husband/wife team who run this establishment on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District. This place is a hangout for locals and is well loved in the neighborhood. Closed Mondays, and the rest of the time they close at 2pm. They accept credit cards and they have a display of tasteful artwork by local painters on the walls. I recommend the “Bob Special”.
  2. Central Grocery – the Muffuletta sandwich is what they are known for and with good reason. For $7.50 you can buy a “half Muff” which is bigger than most large sandwiches. Depending on when you go, I bet there could be a line out the door since it’s in the middle of the French Quarter on Decatur. Accepts credit cards. I’d recommend this for take out.
  3. Slice – after reading Mr. Fitzmorris’s recommendation of this pizza spot on St. Charles Ave. in the Lower Garden District I decided to give it a go. I was happy with my slice of pie with andouille sausage ($3 bucks). It doesn’t have much atmosphere, but it makes up for it in tasty food. Their open kitchen overlooks booths and classic rock plays in the background. They accept credit cards, open Mondays.
  4. The Trolley Stop Cafe – while the food here is basic breakfast and lunch fare, the prices are reasonable (most under $10), and the waitstaff are really nice and helpful. They’ll bring you drink refills before you realize you need one, and they get you your order quickly, plus they’re not looking to rush you out if you want to linger. There is tons of local atmosphere to soak up. Located on St. Charles Avenue near the St. Mary Street intersection. They accept credit cards, but they close around 2pm (except for Thurs/Fri/Sat).
  5. Mona’s – this Lebanese place on Frenchman Street (just beyond the end of Decatur Street at Esplanade) had good hummus with pita for around $5, and many other menu items were under $10. Two locals recommended this spot to me. The service wasn’t good and the decor non-existent. They accept credit cards. (One side of this place is a grocery store. I was able to buy a high quality can of stuffed grape leaves for $3.29. They went perfectly with the Greek salad I made at home.)
  6. Down the Hatch – I cannot recommend the decor and bar atmosphere.. I enjoyed their delicious hamburger and fries and it was reasonably priced (under $10). They accept credit cards.
  7. Dry Dock Bar – you’ll have to take a free ferry on Canal Street across from Harrah’s casino to Algier’s Point if you want to eat at the Dry Dock. I got a hot sausage po’ boy which I enjoyed a lot, but what I dug even more was the gritty, local atmosphere. It’s dark and dingy inside, something Elmore Leonard would like. I ate at the bar and yakked with the bar maid, she made me instantly feel like I was one of her regulars. You gotta love that about a place.
  8. VooDoo BBQ – St. Charles Avenue in the Lower Garden District. I wouldn’t recommend their St. Louis ribs (mine were overcooked) but their side-dishes of creamed corn pudding and sweet potato souffle were worth it on their own to grab as take out items. Although this place feels very “fast food” because you order and pay at the counter then bring a sign with a number on it to your table, they do have very pleasant waitresses who come to your table and ask if you need anything, and get you drink refills.
  9. Leonardo’s Trattoria – St. Charles Avenue, Central Business District. All of their pastas are made in house. They make pizzas in a wood burning oven. Their rigatoni bolognese ($16) was excellent, the service was with a smile. (One small nit – even though the resto was empty, my drink went unrefilled too long into my dinner.) The “decor” is a half dozen televisions all playing different movies on mute (Godfather, Rocky, Oceans 13, Saturday Night Fever, football) and the music playing over the speakers comes from the movie soundtracks of the films being shown. It’s kind of jarring to hear That’s Amore followed by the Bee Gees followed by Italian Opera. I’m just saying.
  10. Stein’s Deli – Magazine Street, this place is as close to a New York deli as you are going to get in New Orleans. I had the hot pastrami on rye with mustard (a NY classic sandwich) and they did it up right. The fact that they had full sour and half sour pickles means they know what they’re doing. I know local New Orleanians like Barq’s but in a deli, a real deli, you find Dr. Brown’s Cream soda. Not only did they have regular, they had Dr. Brown’s Diet Cream. Ahhh, a slice of NY heaven.

NON-budget conscious:

I had the most delicious roast beef au jus sandwich for lunch at Houston’s on St. Charles Avenue. The decor and atmosphere at Houston’s is upscale, with uniformed, aproned waiters, a piano bar, and old fashioned leather booths. My sandwich with an incredible plate of delicious (but slightly greasy) string fries and soda plus tip was a whopping $25 bucks. In my book that is a complete rip off, but hey, I gave it a try and the food, atmosphere and service was, as you’d expect at those prices, excellent.

Places I would SKIP:

  1. Joey K’s on Magazine at 7th – mediocre chicken fried steak, not as reasonably priced as other places, so-so service, bad blackberry cobbler dessert with gummy dough over top and sitting in the bottom of the bowl. I would not recommend this place at all, and I’m not going back.
  2. Domilise’s – I’m sure someone will write a rant about how can I possibly besmirch the good name of Domilise’s because it’s a NoLa tradition, but frankly being packed like a sardine in a tiny, greasy box and paying $11 dollars for a HALF a fried shrimp po’ boy that was nothing special with no available tables…I don’t give a hoot that Anderson Cooper’s picture is on your wall along with other celebs, if you’re not going to be nice to your customers, and have a decent place to sit and not over-charge for mediocre food in a sketchy-looking neighborhood, well, I’m not going back.
  3. Blue Plate Cafe – don’t worry, you won’t come across this place unless you are looking for it. The New Orleans Menu site gave this cafe three stars. I ordered “The Beast” roast beef sandwich. The waiter commented “Good Choice.” After two bites I called him over b/c the beef was dried out and overcooked. The waiter AGREED (the same one who said GOOD CHOICE moments ago) and added, “They make the roast beef here and sometimes they overcook it.” Ummmm…why was this served to me? I sent it back – the only plate I sent back since being in NoLa. The waiter was gracious about it. I ordered a hamburger – medium and it came charred and well done.  Overcooking roast beef is one thing, but any basic diner cook better know how to make a hamburger. Apparently they don’t. I wouldn’t recommend this place. (After I got seated, a line of people appeared out the door, a waiting list materialized and people waited on a bench outside for a half hour to get in. All I could think was WHY, but I know why – it was filled with well dressed white people who like it.)
  4. Surrey’s – Lower Garden District location (1418 Magazine). So, some people like coffee in the morning and couldn’t think of starting a day without it. For those that don’t drink coffee (me) but need caffiene (also me) I prefer diet Pepsi, or if one is not handy, diet Coke. I was informed when I requested my caffiene delivery system of choice that they had run out of all diet Coke. How on earth can a diner or cafe RUN OUT of diet soda? If they told their patrons they ran out of coffee, there would be a riot, right? Let’s just say that didn’t put me in a great mood, but I was determined to eat breakfast here so I glumly agreed to drink ice water. (The waitress was miffed at me for being unhappy that she had no diet soda to offer. I guess that’s my fault??) The $12.50 crab gratin with 2 eggs and garlic bread sounded good, and the eggs were cooked perfectly, the garlic bread was tasty but there were crab shells in my gratin. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to eat crab shells for breakfast and I certainly don’t like paying $12.50 for that experience. I also did not like the untoasted, mushy “crumbs” they used as topping. When I mentioned to the waitress I got shells in my gratin – AFTER I paid – I was treated so rudely that not only would I never go back to such a place, I would go out of my way to tell people to avoid being treated in such a surly manner. And yes, like the Blue Plate Cafe, there was a line at this place.

Overall, I’m disappointed in the food I’ve had in New Orleans since I’ve been here.

What on earth has happened to the dining experience in New Orleans? And why aren’t locals more demanding of good quality, good service and consistency from their restos?

I thought I could eat on the cheap and still have delicious local food made by the locals. It just ain’t so with consistency. The tourist places are over-priced, especially in the French Quarter. There is no way to know if a place has decent food until you try it, and at least half the time it’s disappointing.

Okay, fire away, I know I’m gonna get blasted about this post the moment I publish it. Feel free to disagree, provide your own recommendations, or what have you……

Candid comments on traveler safety in Puebla and Oaxaca Mexico

When I told friends that I was going to Mexico on vacation, most of them said Oh No! or It’s too dangerous for Americans! or The US State Department has warnings about travel to Mexico!

Everyone I spoke to also thought I was completely nuts for travelling alone. Solo. By myself. Me, myself and I.

But let it be said: I am a New Yorker. If you live or work in New York City, you’ve experienced the highs and lows of what human beings have to offer. Most NYers have street sense – and I’d like to think I have some.

So.

I spent 8 days in Puebla and Oaxaca Mexico by myself, with a minimal knowledge of Spanish. A woman all alone in the great big country of Mexico. And guess what happened to me? Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Not only did I meet nice and helpful people, I wandered around churches and parks, flea markets and mercados, the zocalos at night, restaurants, and shops. I took taxi’s to small villages – BY MYSELF.

I went to the huge Pueblan bus station, asked for a ticket in Spanish, found the right gate, and took a 4 and a half hour bus ride to Oaxaca BY MYSELF. (The ADO GL bus is phenomenal, extremely comfortable, has 2 bathrooms – one for men, one for women – and offers movies and a beverage service, for the not-so-back-breaking price of about $35 bucks USD).

I spoke to people on the street, asked directions in the worst imaginable broken Spanish, and ate what the locals eat in the places where the locals eat. I took out my camera whenever I fancied, and took candid shots of people everywhere. I used cash everywhere I went.

Never, EVER did I feel in danger.

Not even when I went to the huge, somewhat dark and close-quartered mercado in the city of Oaxaca – when the staff of my hotel told me not to go because they thought it was not safe for tourists! I walked through the mercado, bought a cookie and a glass of juice, smiled at some of the old ladies selling fried crickets, and walked around at ease.

The only precaution I took while in Mexico was that I did not drink the local water. I drank only bottled water,  used it to brush my teeth, and all of the drinks I ordered were without ice. But, I ate soup at least a half dozen times, I ate green salads (to the horror of some who warned me not to), and I ate street food. I ate candy bars made of pepitas and honey. I never got sick. I never had a stomach ache. I never had any digestive trouble of any kind.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every place in Mexico is safe. I imagine it’s not. Everyone talks about “the trouble near the border”. It’s as if someone from New York would feel badly if they heard there were riots in Chicago. We wouldn’t like to hear that, we wouldn’t want it to happen, but it wouldn’t be something that would affect us directly while walking down the streets in New York. So it is in Puebla and Oaxaca, it is not touched by the troubles at the border.

So if you have a sense of adventure…if you want to experience the richness of Mexican culture, cuisine, and heritage, then plan a trip to Puebla or Oaxaca and leave your fears at home.

Also – a smile is free, needs no translation and is always well received!