Almost Fearless

Mexico-Inspired Gift Ideas

Today I continue yesterday’s madness — and I don’t know if I pointed this out, but I’m including all the recipes so you can print them out. So instead of just giving someone a bag of dried chiles, you’re saying, “here cook something.” Which might be worse. Hopefully you know if your friend is into that.

We spent the last two Christmas seasons in Mexico and while most places have a ton of Mexico ingredients (when I was in Houston, they had a larger selection of Mexican spices than my local Mexican grocer did) there are some staples I think are key. So I put together this “Get Me Back to Mexico Care Package” which just highlights the ingredients that are harder to find stateside, so you can recreate your favorite Mexican dishes the way you remember them.

This combined with my Thai list are basically all the things I want in my pantry. (By the way, Afar’s Gift Guide for Travelers also includes a $1,950 bike — in pink — I can not make this up, because I don’t know any women who don’t love pink, especially the “well-traveled” kind. By the way, all the ingredients below cost slightly less than the sales tax on that bike, so there you go.)

Agua Fresca (Jamaica — Hibiscus)


2 quarts water
3/4 to 1 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you would like it to be)
1 cup dried hibiscus flowers
lime slices

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Boil the water and use it to brew the flowers. Let it steep for five minutes then strain out the flowers and discard. Add the sugar and mix. Serve with a slice of lime.

Flor de Jamaica (Hibiscus flowers)
Flor de Jamaica (Hibiscus flowers)

Cochinita Pibil


1/2 red onion
3 cloves of garlic
5 black peppercorns
2 cloves
100 g achiote paste
3/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons apple vinegar
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1.5 kg (about 3.3 lbs) pork shoulder (with some fat on it)
banana leaves (if you can get them)
salt as needed


2 Red onions cut into rings
A little oil for grilling
1 habanero
cilantro (if you want)


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To make the marinade, dice your onion and garlic and grill it up until soft. Put the grilled onions and garlic, plus the peppercorn, cloves, achiote paste, orange juice, apple vinegar and oregano into a blender and pulse until smooth.

Cut your pork shoulder into 2 inch cubes and place in a pan. Cover with the marinade. Then stir it a bit, cover it and stick in the fridge for at least 12 hours.

When you’re ready to cook, preheat your oven to 350 F (180 C) and cover the pan with 3-4 layers of tin foil to form a tight seal. If you had banana leaves, you would put the meat in the leaves first, fold them up like a package, stick it into the pan, then cover with tin foil.

Prep the topping by grilling up the red onions and a little diced habanero (remove the seeds first).

After about 2 hours, check it, cut one piece open and see if it’s done, if not leave it in for 15 – 30 more minutes. Once it’s ready, you just shred it with a fork a little and stick it on top of some rice, so easy.


The one ingredient that’s a little harder to find is the achiote. It’s critical! (You can read the full post on this recipe here.)



4 lbs beef
6 guajillo chiles
6 ancho chiles
12 cascabel chiles
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
5 whole allspice
10 garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
1 onion
Salt to taste (I used 4 tbsp of coarse sea salt)
1 cup of water

1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped cilantro
Corn Tortillas

The full recipe is here. It’s a little long so I’m going to leave it off, but those dried chiles are so important. Also you can use them in a ton of other recipes like making your own adobo sauce, which is the starting point for making fantastic Mexican tacos. It’s a very common pantry item, along with the fine mesh sieve everyone uses to strain out the peppers once the sauce is done.

Guajillo chiles
Guajillo chiles
Ancho chiles
Ancho chiles
Cascabel chiles
Cascabel chiles

Fresh Tortillas!

The recipe for corn tortillas is just equal parts water and corn flour to make the masa, a dough that’s pressed into tortillas. If it’s too sticky, add more flour; if it cracks, add more water. Then you grill them without oil or anything, in a frying pan. Done. Makes a huge difference when you use fresh tortillas, you might not think it’s worth the effort, but trust me, you don’t know what you’re missing.

But, you need a tortilla press. I’ve seen two main types: the little metal ones and the big heavy wooden ones. Whenever I was at a taco stand, the women always seemed to be using the wooden ones. They look like something someone dreamt up in shop class, but they work great. Just use plastic wrap (they do) on the top and bottom to prevent sticking.

This one looks very similar to what I had in Mexico:

Tortilla Press
Tortilla Press

Luckily, almost everything else, from habanero sauce, to mole, to cilantro, are available in most markets. If you’re really missing horchata, you can make it from anywhere. The biggest thing that made something taste really “Mexican” was the freshness of the ingredients: fresh avocados, tomatoes, spring onions, mango, pineapple and so on. And the lack of cheese and sour cream on most dishes (that’s a big difference in the US, they add cheese to all Mexican dishes).

Oh and mezcal. But I’m sure you know where to buy tequila or mezcal (pretty much any liquor store).

No Mexico for us this year, but we’ll be back after New Year’s. Can’t wait! Happy Mexican Christmas!


Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • I am so excited to taste these things for real when we make it to Mexico next year! Then I can have Mexican food ruined for me the world over for the rest of my life, much like Thai and Vietnamese food have been…

    Which leads me to:

    Oooh, you’re heading back to Mexico?!? When/Where will you be? We’re thinking of heading down in late Jan/early Feb with our dogs in tow, so perhaps our paths might cross?

    • Yes, we will be in Mexico City… well me and the kids. I’m going down there while Drew does the US film tour, so we’ll be around from Feb 1st – mid-April. I’m also doing a few side trips, like Oaxaca and perhaps Guanajuato, so lots of chances we’ll run into each other. Where are you going?

      • We actually still don’t entirely know where we’ll be when we head down—since we’ll be driving we figure we can just kind of make up our itinerary as we go along!—but we had flagged both Guanajuato & Oaxaca as potential bases to investigate further, so it does seem like we may wind up in the same place at the same time. Not sure if we’ll tackle Mexico City on this specific trip, though I do want to eat my way through it some day…

  • OMG you are making my mouth water. I never would have anticipated it when I first started following your blog, but the food posts have become some of my faves 🙂

    Now, the thing I want to know is who are these travelers that the AFAR gift guide is supposedly for? Rich socialites perhaps? People who do not care about packing lightly? I mean really, a BIKE? And a $2000 one at that? Yes, their gift guide is surely for travelers who also happen to be rich socialites. No wait, people who travel and have rich socialite benefactors (since they are the ones that need to do the buying and all that…)

  • Now that you’ve got a home in Spain, are you going to invest in that cute pink bike? Ya know ya want it!