Archive for the ‘Oaxaca’ Category

I am 100% Natural

September 5, 2007

I’m tired of Mexican food. It became unavoidably obvious during Mimi and Alex’s visit, as I tried to show off Oaxaca’s culinary highlights. Until they had come, I’d been punctuating my big Mexican comidas with a simple pasta for dinner or even just a slice of wheat toast spread with peanut butter. But as we ate beautifully light tamales, the best fried pork in the world, steaming bowls of pozole, mole negro of course, an unbelievable dish of chicken stuffed with plantains in a guava-chile mole sauce, another unbelievable Biznaga creation of chicken in a chile poblano sauce, even simply cooked fish and octopus, one after the other, something in me rebelled.

I knew I had reached some desperate point when my body steered me towards 100% Natural, a self-described “healthy” restaurant on the south side of El Llano. My friend Lisa had told me about this place months ago, and how much she loved it, but since Lisa is allergic to my top ten favorite things to eat, I didn’t rush off to try the food there. But suddenly, I felt almost pregnant, like my body had cravings I couldn’t control. I had to eat something that wasn’t, well, special. As we walked there, I kept apologizing to Mimi and Alex in advance. I had the awesome responsibility of making sure they ate well in Oaxaca, and what was I doing?

As we waited for our menus, the informational cards on the table describing 100% Natural’s philosophy and advice for healthy living seemed to confirm my worst fears. “They tell you to eat lightly for breakfast, lightly for lunch, and then lightly for dinner! When are you supposed to eat?” I giggled as I read out loud the advice for how to get ready for bed, which included the suggestion that if you do not have the energy for intimate relations with your partner, you should say goodnight through loving words and kind caresses. Maybe you’d want more sex if you weren’t so weak from fasting! But it wasn’t really funny. There was a real chance the food would be seriously undersalted, especially since I didn’t see any salt on the table.

There were two menus, one full of fruity and veggie drinks to which you could add a shot of wheatgrass or yeast or whatever else health-food people like to drink. I didn’t look at it too closely, though I was very happy with my big goblet full of agua de jamaica, which is hibiscus flower, combined with watermelon juice.

The other menu listed many, many food items, and believe it or not, there were several dishes that appealed to me. I thought about getting Mexican-flavored health food, whole-grain tortillas made into enchiladadas or chilaquiles, but I couldn’t deny that my heart was drawn to a dish that containing tofu, bean sprouts, broccoli, and sesame pasta. I couldn’t stop thinking about the tofu, even as I wondered what kind of tofu could possibly be available in Mexico, even as I knew I was violating every rule of ordering in foreign countries. Tourists who eat sushi in Mexico deserve to eat bad sushi.

The anticipation and the fear were abated a bit by the bread basket that arrived soon after we put in our orders. There was, not surprisingly, no butter, but there were three little ramekins filled with a green salsa, a tangy white cream sauce, and pickled vegetables. The bread, also, was excellent. It was moist and tender, wheaty and flavorful, with a real crust to contrast to its soft crumb.

And then the food arrived. Mimi was happy with her shrimp, Alex with his turkey sandwich, and I, I was thrilled with my tofu-sesame spaghetti. It did need a little salt, and luckily, it turned out the big shaker on the table full of something that smelled nutty was actually sesame salt. The tofu, however, had been marinated generously, and the broccoli and other vegetables were cooked not too long, not too short, just right. The pasta, gracias a Dios, was almost al dente.

I turned to Mimi and Alex and bestowed the best compliment I could: “I think I would eat here again.”

Oaxacan breads and sweets, part II

September 4, 2007

I take back everything I said about the bread being bad in Oaxaca.

Two Saturdays ago, I’d mainly perused modern bakeries, selling traditional breads in part, but very different from the bakers in markets with their goods on trays or in deep woven baskets. My experiences with the breads in the markets had been mixed—good pan de yema in hot chocolate making class, but sort of stale and dry at other times, and then other moments that were so lacking I can’t even remember what I ate.

But last week, I wandered up to Mercado Sanchez Pascuas to buy some fruit and decided it was time to take the plunge. There were several bread vendors there, on the white counters near the west end of the market. I chose the man furthest north, a few meters down from the vegetable seller. I would eat the bread with the pink sugar on top. And then for good measure, I asked for another plain, dark and wheatier looking roll. 4.5 pesos, total.

Well, let’s just say I’m not going to be wasting any more of my hard-saved money on “European artisanal bread” at Pan & Co. Mexican bread is good enough for me! The crust on both was hard but not tough, and the bread inside chewy yet soft and flavorful. The roll with the pink sugar on top had a sweet glaze all over the top that made my plastic bag sticky immediately, but it was a pleasant combination with the plain texture of the roll inside and more soothing for an early morning meal than something like a cinnamon roll or a muffin, which are both sweet and heavy with butter. The roll also had a big hollow inside, the tell-tale sign that yeast had been given time to do its thing.

The other roll, with its sprinkling of sesame seeds, was even better. It perhaps could have used a tad more salt, but it had no need to be embarrassed that it was otherwise unadorned. It didn’t rise to the level of a great French baguette, but then, very few breads do, even in New York. This flat little roll had more flavor than most of the bread in the U.S., and probably most of the bread in New York, too.

Two days later, I went back and got another flat, plain roll with sesame seeds and then something that looked like a brioche with its little topknot. This time, sadly, the roll was a tad stale, but with a strong enough flavor to stand up well to slices of avocado with salt and a bit of pepper, a simple and filling breakfast I learned from Erin. The brioche, though, blew my mind. There was whole wheat flour in it, but not enough to keep the crumb tender, and then surprising ribbons of cinnamon and dots of raisins.

This vendor is clearly something special. When Mimi and I went back to get a bag of bread, hoping to soothe Alex’s stomach with something relatively bland, we bought a few rolls from the woman next to him and then a big brioche roll and a little flat roll with sugary sesame seeds and crushed nuts on top. The big bag of bread from the other baker was fine, but this guy’s stuff just shined.

I’m so glad. I hated not liking a whole category of Mexican food.

Tacos arabes y orientales

August 31, 2007

I was really excited to try these. I just loved the idea of “Oriental tacos.” I didn’t expect flying carpets or Buddha figures, but I’d read a little bit about “tacos arabes” in Puebla on Chowhound, and I’d imagined a beautiful collision between shwarmas and tacos to create something completely, fabulously new.

So after three months of thinking about them, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed when I finally got to La Antequera in Colonia Reforma, on Calzada Porfirio Diaz a few blocks north of Belisario Dominguez. The menu listed quesadillas, tortas, and two types of tacos, “arabes” and “orientales.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Arabes are larger, orientales are smaller.”

A truly unexciting answer. Still, I ordered one of each and a side of “cebollas,” imagining unctuous, rich, sautéed onions.

When they arrived, they just sat there like limp rags. The “arabe” taco had, instead of a corn tortilla, a slightly thicker bread around it. It wasn’t quite like pita, a little chewy, a little floury. The bread had good flavor, and the meat inside it was salty and flavorful also, but there was nothing else going on. It came with a side of tart red salsa, and I sprinkled it on liberally, but there was nothing else to help it gain some dimension. The onions turned out to be quite pale, not at all caramelized as I’d hoped, and watery to boot.

The “orientale” was a smaller version, with a tortilla wrapped around. Just like the waiter said.

I think the experience could have been different in a group. I can imagine a happy table of friends sitting around a plate filled with meat, another plate stacked high with hot pita-like breads, drinking beer and making tacos one after the other. But my two sad little tacos and even sadder bowl of chopped onions wasn’t that.

If you are meat-lover, you are more likely to fall head over heels in love with the “carne frita” or fried meat of pork at El Biche Pobre.

Oaxacan breads and sweets, part I

August 30, 2007

This is for my sister, who can happily spend a day looking in bakery windows and display cases, maybe tasting a mouthful or two, but really just happy to see rows and rows of sweet things.

Mexican sweets and breads are a mystery to me. There are so many varieties, each with their own name, and I have yet to find a source that will give me all the information I crave. In the markets, a stall may specialize only in pan de yema, an eggy bread with a light anise flavor, or in a chewy, flat roll with a hard crust and pink sugar sprinkled on top. Then there are sweet sellers, with little stacks of honeyed, sticky cookies and cones filled with white cream. By the doors of Mercado Juarez and on corners around Oaxaca, there are several women selling alegrias, “joy” bars made of amaranth and piloncillo, the brown sugar sold in little cone-shaped cakes, and similar bars made with peanuts or pumpkin seeds, as well as round flats of pecans embedded in a crumbly brown sugar. I’ve seen several street vendors sitting around with cases filled with bright gelatins and little flans, clearly specializing in anything that can quiver. Then there are those women with the huge glass jars of stewed fruits in syrup. I haven’t even begun to describe the more modern bakeries and their enormous range of offerings. And apparently, if I go to Puebla or San Cristobal de las Casas, I will find sweets that can’t be found here in Oaxaca, trays of caramels and candies and things I cannot even dream of. The only thing I have really grasped so far are “nieves” and “paletas,” the sorbet-like ice creams and popsicles that taste proudly and intensely of fruit.

To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to really try and taste, as I will generally pick eggs over pancakes, a slice of pizza over a cookie, a piece of levain bread over a tart. And if I do have something sweet, I want it to be small and perfect, like a piece of very dark chocolate or a scoop of ice cream from Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I hadn’t gone out of my way to try more than the few desserts that had come my way, as there was so much mole to be eaten and I feared wasting time eating things that were sugary and sub-par. But considering that I’ve been going around saying I don’t like Mexican desserts and breads, without trying more of them, I realized was being quite unfair. I’ve been missing my sister so much, I wanted to do what she would do, if she were in Oaxaca.

So I decided to spend Saturday afternoon perusing 3 different bakeries in a 2-block radius around the zocalo. I found two more bakeries in this area on my way home, but decided to save them for another day, as my hands were full of bread. I had also started frequenting the enormous bakery, Pan Bamby, on Porfirio Diaz at the corner of Independencia, and so I’m adding that to this post, too. I only bought one pastry or bread at each bakery, so I can’t really speak with authority, but at least I am starting to get a sense of what is out there.

Pan Bamby is the largest bakery I’ve seen in Oaxaca. In the evenings, it’s full of people piling their trays high with bread, buying 10 or 20 rolls, loaves, and pastries. It sells what is expected, the same stuff I see at the giant supermarkets and the smaller weekend markets, but in greater varieties and quantities. So they sell bolillos, the torpedo-shaped white crusty rolls, for a peso a piece; conchas with their swirl of crumble on top, numerous kinds of flaky pastries filled with chocolate or jam or just dusted with sugar.

Their bolillo was terrible, even though it was fresh and warm and the crust crackled promisingly. It just didn’t have any flavor.

But then I had a sweet, soft croissant-shaped roll, with a very tender crumb and such an appealing, lovable flavor, like Hawaiian bread or Portuguese sweet bread. I also had a very good bandilla, a long, rectangular pastry of flaky layers, topped with sugar, a perfect light cena with tea. My neighbor had left me a bag of their garlicky breadsticks when she went back to Iowa, and they were strangely addictive, as well as scarily durable.

Fidel Integral, which specializes in whole-wheat breads, is on the same street further south, except that at that point, Porfirio Diaz has become 20 de Noviembre. Located between Hidalgo and Trujano, just north of Mercado Juarez, Fidel isn’t as large but I could get a sense of what breads must be available by seeing what Fidel chose to make in whole wheat form. Fidel also sells bolillos and conchas and bandillas. They also make a fantastic whole wheat roll, just a simple dinner roll that has great flavor, so great that it’s oddly addictive for something so plain. I also tried something a hard, crumbly sweet bread, shaped like a long, oblong stick, because it looked so much like these “butter sticks” in Korean bakeries I used to love. It tasted just as I had imagined it would, sweet but with a real wheaty flavor, and very good with a cup of coffee in the afternoon.

Walking south from Fidel, if you turn a left at the next corner, you will find yourself in front of Tartamiel. It definitely has the cutest logo, a smiling yellow bee with the tip of its tongue sticking amiably out of its mouth.

It calls itself a “pasteleria frances,” and it did seem to be aiming for a different tone. The English language is poor in only having one word, “bakery,” to describe a place that sells baked goods, when Spanish and French both distinguish between places that sell breads, panaderias or boulangeries, and places that sell cakes, pastelerias or patisseries. There was no way I could buy a cake to taste, but I did buy a little “tartaleta de queso,” and it was really quite good. The crust wasn’t so noteworthy, though it was sturdy and correct, but the cheese part I liked a lot. It was firm, like NY-style cheesecake, and it clearly wasn’t relying just on sugar to make itself appealing.

The last bakery, at least for this post, is Vasconia on Independencia, between 5 de Mayo and Reforma. This place is a little different, selling slices of creamy cake in a window swarming with bees, as well as empanadas with various savory fillings, bread rolls filled with chorizo and cheese, and your usual conchas and donas or donuts. I bought a little empanada filled with champinones, which weirdly is the Mexican way of describing basic button mushrooms, calling them by their French name to signify their high-class ways. “Hongos” describe the gorgeous wild mushrooms you can find in the Sierra Norte during the rainy season. I got excited when I took it out of its bag when I got home, because the top almost caved in as I pressed it, it was so delicately flaky, but overall, I liked it the least of everything I ate today. It felt right and looked right, but the flavor was a little off, probably because Mexican butter just isn’t great, and this was probably made with margarine anyway. I think it must be easier to get away without high-quality butter if the pastry is sweet rather than savory. The mushroom filling was pretty good, though, mixed with tomato sauce.

So it was a very good day! But I miss my sister more than ever.

Tacos in the crisp mountain air!

August 29, 2007

One of the things I love most about Mexico is how good food can just happen to you, right when you least expect it.

Last Wednesday, I got in a car at 7:30 in the morning to go with two Puente staff members to a town far, far away in the mountains, one of the communities they work with. They were going to check in on how the amaranth was growing, give advice to the farmers, and then lead a cooking with amaranth workshop. It was gorgeous country, but for the first time in my life, I felt carsick with every U-shaped curve. So when we stopped in Ayutla, a larger town on the way to Tejas, they asked if I wanted some breakfast. I stumbled out of the car, thinking, “Okay, something hot to drink might be good,” but that there was no way I could actually eat anything.

And then we sat down at a fonda that declared, with multiple exclamation points, that they had “caldo de pancita.” It smelled so good, suddenly my nausea went away and my appetite returned. I tried to figure out what “pancita” is, and in the end, I decided it must be some kind of beef belly, as it was lovely and smooth, soft and chewy at the same time. Garnished with some raw chopped onions, spicy chopped “chiles de canario” that were bright yellow with black seeds, and a spoonful or two of salsa, the soup made me instantly feel better. (But I don’t have photos because I felt too ill getting out of the car to think of documenting anything.)

On the way back, they asked again, “Should we stop to eat or just go home as quickly as possible?” Again, I wasn’t really hungry, but then one of them said, “Mmmm, tacos de tripa, que sabrosos,” and the question was answered. I started with two, one of tripe and one of “suadero,” which isn’t in my dictionary,” and then couldn’t resist and ordered two more, another suadero and one of “maciza,” which I think is some sort of thigh meat of beef. I don’t know if it was the cool mountain air, but they were so good! This time, I had my camera, but I kept forgetting to take a picture in my eagerness to eat. I finally managed to remember to take a photo of my very last taco.

It’s funny, Pola the agronomist asked me if I was vegetarian, because nearly all the volunteers are vegetarian. Ha ha ha ha! Given the type of American who comes to Oaxaca, Oaxacans must think all Americans are liberal, Bush-hating vegetarians. And even I am two out of three.

Update on Marco Polo

August 28, 2007

Mimi and Alex have arrived in Oaxaca, and they are like putty in my hands. I understand that kind of mind-meltdown, the joy of being on a vacation where someone else makes all the decisions for you, and I am happy to be that person. So off we went to “Marco Polo” on Sunday afternoon for a big, big lunch.

We started with a “cocktele de jaiba,” shredded crabmeat in a icecream sundae glass, and tostadas de cazon, or shark. Both weren’t particularly memorable, but we all loved the chopped salsa of raw onions and hot fresh peppers. When we had arrived, the waiter had whisked it away, so I was glad I had asked for it back. Shark turned out to be a shredded meat, firmer than most fish, almost with the texture of Korean dried squid, but with not much else going on. Not bad, just not as exciting as you think shark is going to be. And the crab cocktail was a little too sweet, even after I squeezed lime after lime into it.

But everything else was delicious. We had something called “vitaminas al vapor,” which turned out to be a seafood soup stuffed with all kinds of squid, octopus, fish, and shrimp, as well as bits of soft egg and a flavor to the tomato broth that we couldn’t quite identify. The broth was sweetish, but in the way fresh seafood can be sweet, not annoying. It actually did taste kind of nutritive, so maybe “vitaminas” is a reference to that?

We had red snapper “al horno,” and then an order of pulpo, or octopus, cooked in butter and garlic. It was simple, meaty, and wonderful.

And finally, the bananas baked in the oven I had been wanting to eat for so long. This is one order, believe it or not, of one platano macho, or plantain, split in three parts, and then served with a little trio of rompope or Mexican eggnog, condensed milk called “leche Nestle,” and crema, which is more like crème fraiche than heavy whipped cream. The bananas had that tart flavor that I love about bananas and plantains here, that made the rich, creamy, roasted taste more striking by contrast.

We ate so much even Alex wasn’t really hungry for dinner.

Ricas tostadas en El Pochote

August 27, 2007

This tostada is on my top 10 list of things I love to eat in Oaxaca, and pretty high up, too.

I’ve raved before the Mercado Organico at El Pochote before, but I will rave again. On the far wall from the entrance, next to the lovely Korean woman selling baked goods, there is a husband-and-wife pair that sells tostadas with a wide range of topping choices. A tostada is a crunchy taco, but not those U-shaped boats we all ate growing up, made by Taco Bello or Dos Pasos or whatever they called themselves. It’s flat, a little ripply usually, and not as hard-crunchy as a tortilla chip, thinner and crisper.

There are an array of topping choices, sparkling with different colors. Each tostada starts with a thin base of black bean puree, and then, you have to start making some decisions. There are nopales, cactus paddles, one that is spicier than the other, but both deliciously tart and fresh. There are sauteed mushrooms, and one type has small kernels of corn, too. There’s spicy chicken tinga, shredded white chicken breast, and then two kinds of requeson, a fresh ricotta-like cheese. One has green specks, herby, and the other is spicier and redder, but not actually hot. Just fragrantly spicy. You can thin avocado sauce drizzled over everything, as well as salsa. No matter what combination you get, one topping or 3, it’s 15 pesos. You feel almost righteously healthy eating so many vegetables, but you’re not making any sacrifices.

Probably my favorite is half spicy nopales, half mushrooms with bits of corn, topped with the spicy requeson, and then drizzled with both salsa and guacamole. It’s so simple and yet illustrates so perfectly what I love most about Mexican food, the way fresh, bright flavors and textures contrast and complement each other. (To think, melted cheese over everything represents Mexican food to most Americans!) The slightly tart nopales, the savory mushrooms, the spicy salsa, the creamy requeson, the crunchy tostada. It’s hard not to get it all over your face, but it’s worth every messy bite.

I think the wife recognizes me now, she smiled so broadly at me this weekend. It’s my Saturday morning ritual!

(This is my 100th post. Can you believe it?)

Rice and greens, or arroz con quelites

August 24, 2007

Mercado Hidalgo is considered a little “fresa,” which literally means “strawberry” but is also Mexican slang meaning “snobby.” It’s located in upper-class Colonia Reforma, on Emilio Carranza on the block north of Palmeras, and its produce does sparkle. I saw stuff that I hadn’t seen in other markets in Oaxaca, like huitlacoche and fresh figs. I almost flipped when I saw the figs, as it doesn’t quite feel like summer unless I eat some fresh figs.

They also had beautiful bunches of quelites, a type of Mexican green, leafy vegetable, which inspired me to actually try one of the recipes from my new Mexican cookbook, “Alquimias y Atmosferas de Sabor,” by Carmen Ramirez Degollado, the chef and owner of the beloved “El Bajio” in Mexico City. I’ve been trying to read more Spanish, since I remember more from reading than hearing, but the only thing that really holds my interest enough to get through more than a few pages are cookbooks and food magazines. Unfortunately, reading them doesn’t challenge me as much as reading literature or news articles would because I know enough about how recipes are constructed to figure out most of what I read through context. For example, as I read a recipe calling for “chayotes tiernos,” I guessed that “tierno” meant fresh or tender, didn’t bother looking it up in the dictionary, and then was shocked when my Spanish teacher described her ex-boyfriend as acting very gentlemanly and very “tierno” on their first date. It turns out a man can be as tender as a vegetable.

Rick Bayless translates “quelites” as “lamb’s quarters,” and recommends substituting it in his recipes with chard or collard greens in the U.S., some green with strong flavors. But I’m not sure that he’s describing the same thing I bought, as my “quelites” were more like spinach, just better. They had a similar sweet flavor, and reminded me a lot of Korean spinach with its leggy stems, but without the furry aftertaste of a lot of American spinach. Also, I know that the word “quelites” is used to describe a whole category of Mexican greens, including even amaranth leaves which are also called “quintonil,” and amaranth leaves are distinctly stronger and more bitter, more like chard.

But I digress. The recipe was very simple, a rice with greens dish, calling for the rice to be fried with pureed raw onion and garlic. Then broth was to be added with the bunch of raw quelites, two parts broth to one part rice. Like most Mexican recipes, it assumed a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and I wondered, “Stalks and all? Should I pulverize the leaves and make it a green rice? Should I throw the leaves in whole?” Finally, I decided to just destem them, chop them roughly and throw them in with the broth leftover from cooking my pork shoulder.

Well, I put in way too much broth, forgetting the leaves would emit a fair amount of water themselves, and I ended up with a rice with greens porridge. I mistakenly thought I could avoid burning the rice this time by adding more broth earlier on. I also think there’s a reason chicken broth is normally used to cook rice, not pork broth, because although the flavor was richer than it would have been with water, it wasn’t rich in quite the right way. But the quelites didn’t turn turd green, I got to try cooking with them, and I still enjoyed my rice mush very much. Thank God I had my shameless solitude.

Hot baked fish at Marco Polo

August 23, 2007

So my maniacal devotion to Rick Bayless continues, and I am going through his Oaxaca list of recommended restaurants like a pilgrim on the trail to a sainted relic. Monday was my day to eat fish, to give my body just a bit of a rest from the picadillo I ate on Sunday and the big pot of quinoa, chorizo, potato, and carrot I made on Saturday. So off I went to Marco Polo.

The restaurant has several locations, but it’s generally accepted that the best one is on Pino Suarez, the east side of El Llano or Parque Juarez, as it’s known on all the maps and to no one else. Given how far inland Oaxaca is, seafood is very popular, and the restaurant was crowded at four in the afternoon.

My first regret, as I looked at the menu, was that I was alone. So much I wanted to try, and yet how much could one woman eat? Shark (cazon) quesadillas, shark tostadas, shark all kinds of things, not to mention a whole section for cebiches and pulpos. I took a deep breath, told myself I could come back, and calmly ordered one dish: a filete de pescado al horno, or a filet of red snapper baked in their outdoor, wood-burning oven.

Honestly, when it finally arrived and I had already eaten half the bread basket, it didn’t look like much. But then I took my first bite and smiled. The fish had real flavor, its own flavor and more. I could taste the fire in which it had been cooked, the slight bite with the ground chiles sprinkled on it, and when I smeared a bit of chipotle mayonnaise on it, the fish just took off into outer space. It wasn’t at all undercooked, and of course, it wasn’t overcooked, just the perfect texture to give you something to chew, even as it melted away.

The little mound of rice it came with was very good, too, and I was sorry there was so little of it. Instead of tortillas, there was a dry bolillo, or torpedo-shaped hard roll, that did nothing to change my mind about Mexican bread, and then some flat tostadas, crispy and perfect for dipping into the darkly spicy salsa.

Sadly, because I had scraped every last bit of fish off its foil, I was too full to try the platanos baked in their oven, drizzled with a little crema. I am going to strong-arm my friends Mimi and Alex, who arrive this Saturday, into going with me again.

Tacos of picadillo, a.k.a., delicious shredded pork

August 21, 2007

The Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, just a little north of Quetzalcoatl with its bright green entrances on both Porfirio Diaz and Tinoco y Palacios, is probably my favorite everyday market in Oaxaca. It’s not as overwhelming as the Mercado Abastos, or as colorful as Mercado Juarez, and it doesn’t have the steamy meat market-slash-taco stands of Mercado 20 de noviembre, but it feels like a neighborhood market, and increasingly, like my neighborhood market. It’s smaller than the ones closer to the zocalo described in the all the guidebooks, and on a weekday afternoon, you might even think it was half-empty. But every Saturday and Sunday morning, it’s bustling with people buying fresh blandas, flowers, tamales, all kinds of produce, various jugos, and even some barro verde, the pottery with the dark green glaze. Unlike the surly people at Mercado Juarez, the people at Mercado Sanchez don’t mind if you handle and pick your fruit yourself. Because it’s smaller, you can also see more clearly where people are clustering to buy their chicken or pork and gauge which carnicerias have the freshest meat. It’s also easier to notice who has criollo tomatoes, those heirloom tomatoes that have so much more flavor, or even criollo avocados with their enormous pits and a high, clean taste, if somewhat less rich and creamy in flavor. (You can find some fantastic photos from Planeta.com.)

This past Sunday, after a fortifying breakfast of chocolatle atole and empanadas, I enlisted my Spanish teacher and friend Lety to help in sussing out the best places to get the ingredients for the picadillo pork tacos I planned to make that afternoon. She pointed in one direction to indicate her favorite carniceria, but from across the market, I misjudged where she was pointing and had already started talking to a woman in a very smelly stand when she came over and whispered, “I meant that one.” I murmured my apologies, pretending I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, and we quietly scurried all the way to the other end of the meat section.

I didn’t know if I could literally translate English phrases for pork cuts into Spanish, if pork shoulder is “espalda” or “pierna” or something completely different, so to our new butcher, I just asked for the cut of meat that had a lot of “grasa” or fat. “Ah, espaldita!” he said. He proudly showed off the layer of fat glistening on the piece of pork, and Lety nodded with approval. Later, when I asked her if I should trim some of the fat off before we cooked it, she said, “But that will remove the flavor!” God, I love Mexico.

After seeing the “picadillo” recipe in Rick Bayless’s cookbook last weekend, I had spent all week just thinking about it, when and where I should buy the meat, whether I should cook it on Saturday or Sunday. I had read the recipe over and over, charmed by the thought of taking shredded, cooked pork shoulder, and then browning it, scraping it up as it stuck to the pot, with chopped onion, a handful of raisins, a handful of chopped almonds, a little cinnamon, an even smaller pinch of freshly ground cloves, and a roasted tomato-pasilla oaxaquena sauce. But I’d never even tried it, so I was thankful to have Lety there to say, “Oh, it looks a little dry,” or “Add a little sugar.”

The picadillo was as easy as promised, even though it took about 2 and half hours to make, to simmer the pork shoulder with all its fat, to grind the cloves in a little molcajete, to chop and toast the almonds, to make the sweet smoky salsa, and then to cook it all together. But it was very laid-back cooking, though there was a moment when I realized trying to understand Spanish and chop almonds at the same time is the kind of multi-tasking that is yet beyond me. But otherwise, we chatted easily as she told me about the terrible people at her workplace and I told her about the horrible blind date I went on before I left New York.

Lety even showed me how to make horchata:

1) Carefully clean and wash about 1 cup of rice. Let it soak in water about 2 inches above the rice with some broken canela, the equivalent probably of 2 American cinnamon sticks. Let it sit for about 2 hours, until the rice gets soft enough that you can pinch a kernel in half.

2) Blend everything in the blender as smooth as possible.

3) Strain into a pitcher, reserving any rice-cinnamon paste for “atole de arroz.” (I only had a strainer, but I imagine a cheesecloth would be better.)

4) Add water and sugar to taste. Make sure to stir it up immediately before pouring it into a glass, as some sediment will sink to the bottom.

Incredibly clean and pure. I can totally see myself doing this in Brooklyn on a hot summer day. Other recipes I’ve seen say that you should add ground almonds, and I imagine that would be wonderful, too, as well as some pureed bright red, tiny cactus fruits with their prickly armor of skin.

I chopped up some jicama, radishes, avocado, and pickled jalapeno for garnish and heated up some of this week’s pot of black beans while Lety warmed and wrapped the tortillas in a towel. With the bright pink pitcher of horchata and a little leftover mezcal, we had a very colorful feast.

And the picadillo I liked as much as last Sunday’s supper of greens, onions, and cheese tacos. It wasn’t at all spicy—which Lety assured me was normal—but it had such a range of flavors, from smoky to rich to slightly sweet and nutty. It was complex and yet easily appealing, almost as warming as Lety’s company. Definitely one to add to the taco buffet dinner I intend to host when I get back to New York.


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