Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Heart Mercados

One might assume that growing up in Laredo, Texas gave me the experience and pleasures of the open air farmers' market. In fact, the grocery shopping experience was sterile in Laredo; even H.E.B., that big Texas chain that seems to have every Mexican ingredient you can think of was just a small, sleepy, supermarket back in the day. The forbidden delights of ripe stacked mangos, wild avocados, chirimoyas, guayabas, canteloupe, and watermelon sweltering in the Nuevo Laredo market heat across the river from Laredo, was a temptation to bear stoically. What you could eat on the spot was all you were going to get; naturally, you couldn't take fruits and vegetables across the Rio Grande. But the luscious taste and smell of this fruit in the midst of the clamorous Nuevo Laredo market on a warm summer day with my parents was knowing that all was right in the world.

[caption id="attachment_1106" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="A typical mercado in Mexico"][/caption]

I'm fascinated by markets, in fact, I don't ever want to live too far away from one, as crazy as it may sound. I love the shouting, the bantering, the smells, the colors. I love not knowing what will surprise me and get my attention. I love knowing about the lives of those that grow my food. I'm lucky to live in the Washington, D.C. area, which has excellent access to locally grown food. And I'm especially fortunate that I travel extensively to two other places that have incredible markets: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Florence, Italy. When I arrive at either of these two places, I drop my bags and head for the market.

[caption id="attachment_1110" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="A mercado in San Miguel de Allende"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1109" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="A mercato in Florence"][/caption]

This week I am in Florence, ogling the spring vegetables that the old familiar farmers bring in from the hillsides of Tuscany here at the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio. I have known many of these characters for years now and they know me...no matter how dumpy I might look as I head bleary-eyed to the market...I'm “signora bella” to them and I'm worth an extra sprig of basil or parsley thrown into my bag with a friendly smile and advice as to how to prepare my purchases. Today there's wild asparagus, harvested from the hillsides. Tiny round zucchini with flowers still attached. Wild strawberries (fragole di bosco) and baby artichokes. I could go on, but you get the picture. What really catches my eye today is that kind of green bean that is called Italian bean in the U.S. But it's the kind of green bean my mother used to make a dish she called ejotes con carne de puerco.

[caption id="attachment_1111" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Italian green beans"][/caption]

I wanted to buy only a small quantity of the beans but there was no way this was going to happen. In the interest of freshness, some of the farmers here don't like to take the produce back at the end of the day. They would rather practically give it away. So, one of my favorite farmers packed up a two-kilo bag for which he charged me only one euro; he knew it was late and the chances of selling it were dwindling. Not bad. But I'll be eating green beans for a while.

[caption id="attachment_1108" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Farmer at the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio"][/caption]

So here I am, mixing it all up, keeping alive my memories of my mother and Laredo. Thinking of all the roads taken and not taken, as I quietly stir my ejotes here in Florence.

Ejotes en Carne de Puerco

2 pork chops cut into small cubes
1 lb. Italian beans chopped ½ inch wide approximately (regular green beans will work too)
4 medium sized ripe tomatoes, chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and whole
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp. freshly ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
corn or canola oil to cover ¼ inch of pan
corn tortillas to accompany this dish

Heat the oil in a pan and add the cubed pork along with the garlic cloves. Cook at medium heat until the meat and the garlic cloves are a golden brown, add the onion and cook for another 10 minutes. Add  the tomatoes and green beans and continue to cook for another 5 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste and the freshly ground cumin. Lower heat and cover, cook until the green beans have softened and the tomato has dissolved.

Note:  For a vegetarian version of this dish, simply leave out the pork.  The cumin gives this meal a fragrance that allows it to stand on its own simply made with vegetables.

Unfortunately, my dinner guest devoured the meal before I had a chance to take a photo of the finished product.  Perhaps this will inspire you to shop at your local farmers' market this weekend and make this recipe!  Let us know!

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Jícama Happy Hour

What would you do if all of the Doritos and Fritos and various brands of potato chips suddenly disappeared from the planet?  Would you season some cardboard and call it a day? You could make your own totopos, of course.  Or you could throw together a tasty jícama treat for your next happy hour.

Jícama, from the Nahuatl word "xicamatl," is a vine cultivated in Mexico and other Latin American countries, the root of which is edible.  The tuber's texture and crunch make it a pleasantly cool addition to many dishes, including salads and salsas.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nothing Beets Olive Oil

The first time I tasted extra-virgin olive oil, I couldn't believe I had lived without it (Well, ahem, sort of.  See video.) for so many years. Now I hoard it like people hoard bottled water in fear of some catastrophic emergency. And, as insane as it may sound given today's travel restrictions, I even bring it back from Italy upon my frequent trips to Florence.


So...it's true. I have said in a previous post that I don't like to mix my cuisines, that is, my Italian and my Mexican, but there are Mexican dishes that can only be improved with olive oil.

Vegetables, in general, are always perfectly enhanced with the flavor of a good quality extra-virgin olive oil drizzled over them.  Beets (betabeles), in particular, are a side dish my mother always served.  She prepared them in a simple way: boiled and salted.  In Laredo, at this time of the year our citrus trees were loaded with oranges, tangerines, limes, and grapefruit.  Here is a recipe that combines the beets—roasted, not boiled—with the citrus of the season, along with the very Mexican flavor of cilantro and the unmistakable mediterranean flavor of good olive oil.

Roasted Beets with Blood Orange Slices

Approximately  1½ lbs beets
4 blood oranges (or regular oranges)
½ cup walnuts
½ cup chopped cilantro
½ cup water for the bottom of baking pan
½ cup extra virgin olive oil to drizzle
sea salt


Remove the greens and wash the beets thoroughly. Place them on a baking dish in which they all fit snugly.  Pour the water into the pan so that it covers about ¼ inch of the bottom of the pan. Drizzle the vegetables with the oil. Sprinkle with salt to taste and cover with aluminum foil. Cook at 350 degrees for approximately 45 to 60 minutes until you can pierce the beets with a fork all the way through.

While the beets are cooking, remove the peel from the oranges with a sharp paring knife. Cut in slices, starting from the end of the orange. Put aside.

Remove the beets from the oven and peel them. Quarter them and arrange them in a serving dish.  Add the orange slices, cilantro, and walnuts.  Taste again for salt, toss carefully, and drizzle with more oil if needed.

For further reading about olive oil, see this informative post by David Lebovitz.