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

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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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