Episode 378 – Early Adventures in Cooking In Mexico

When in Rome….

I’m certainly not a “Mexican cook”. First of all, I don’t make my own tortillas, whether corn (mais) or flour (harina de trigo). Second, I don’t have my own signature spice rub. Third, I don’t know how to use more than half a dozen of the seemingly infinite varieties of fresh and dried peppers.

But, I am definitely cooking – and consequently we are eating – more “Mexican” than North American foods while we’re in Mérida.

That means far fewer salads or fresh (uncooked) vegetables and more salsas; almost no pasta but more rice, potatoes and tortillas; virtually no beef but lots of pork, chicken, and even turkey (which is popular year-round in the Yucatan); a lot more eggs than we ever eat in Canada; and desserts that as often as not come from street vendors. Warm churros and cold helado (Mexican ice cream that is more of a fruit sherbet) are inexpensive and delicious, as are the slightly sweet cakes and glazed donuts from the bakery.

SAUSAGE

Sausage has become a big part of our protein intake, and here in the Yucatan it is made from turkey at least as often as from pork. We discovered early on that the “hotdogs” here have the texture of sawdust, and almost no taste. There’s no point in buying them to eat as a quick lunch at home, but when cut into chunks and grilled on a street vendor’s cart and then served on top of a tall plastic cup of fresh “patatas francas” (french fries) and doused with habanero sauce they’re suddenly looking pretty good.

At home, we’ve tried several versions of chorizo, including the bright green version which gets its colour from a thick paste of charred green chiles, cilantro, and oregano. It’s tasty, but we still prefer traditional red chorizo flavoured with smoked chiles and a special paprika known as “pimenton”. Most of the chorizo sold here is smoked and ready-to-eat without cooking, but the complex flavours definitely benefit from being heated up, which may be why using the sausage in scrambled eggs is so popular. Mexicans eat the egg and sausage mixture with tortillas for breakfast, but I’ve been making it as a dinner dish.

Around $2.50 CAD for 6 sausages (2 meals for us), and they actually stay that bright green colour when fried!

We’ve also tried Mexican longaniza, which is slightly spicier than chorizo, and is a bright orange colour which comes from the addition of annatto seeds. The longaniza we bought was a turkey version – the most common in this part of Mexico. Again, the local folks eat it with eggs, tomato, and salsa, but I found a Portuguese recipe for longaniza with rice that appealed to me, as well as a Mexican potato dish that uses garlic and crumbled longaniza. Just as chorizo can be found in many countries’ recipes, so longaniza appears in just about all the Latin American countries, as well as Spain (the original), Portugal, the Dominican, and the Philippines. As is so often the case in our kitchen, the sausage ended up as soft tacos in flour tortillas, garnished with fried onions and poblano peppers, shredded manchego cheese, and a spicy salsa taquera made with roasted chiles.

Just under $3.50 CAD, and again enough for 2 meals. Sausage goes a long way when used in typical Mexican dishes, where its purpose is to add flavour as opposed to being the main ingredient.

SALSAS

One of my favourite things to make is fresh salsa (more correctly in the case of what I make, “pico de gallo”), which I can use for just about anything: on tacos, on eggs, as enchilada topping, or just scooped up on totopos (the Mexican word for tortilla chips). It’s really easy to make, and very satisfying since everyone likes it. Exact ratios of the ingredients aren’t necessary; I judge by the colour mixture (roughly one third each of the colours in the Mexican flag) and taste testing. What I’ve found works best for me is to chop and mix 1 part sweet white onion, 1 part plum tomatoes (the only kind of tomato readily available here), and 1 part combined green bell pepper, poblano pepper, tomatillos and fresh (or canned) jalapeno pepper, then VERY lightly sprinkle with salt and liberally squeeze fresh lime over it all before letting it marinate in the fridge for at least an hour. I love cilantro, but here in Mexico where it is recommended that produce be soaked in a dilute iodine solution (we use MicroDyn) to ensure its safety for North American stomachs it’s just not worth my time soaking and drying fresh herbs. The salsa is delicious even without it. I’ve also discovered that if a batch turns out slightly too watery, adding some mashed avocado solves the problem. Just make sure only to add it to what you’re eating immediately, since the avocado turns an unpleasant brownish colour if stored.

The grocery stores’ shelves here feature dozens of salsas (simply the Spanish word for “sauce”), and we’ve been doing our best to try as many varieties as possible.

A typical week’s selection. L to R back row: Adobo salsa, salsa verde, salsa taquera, tequila (not a salsa, but always on the counter, and I suppose if we overdid it we’d end up “sauced”!)
Front row: habanero salsa, salsa casera (home-style), and fresh chile salsa.

CHEESE

Then there’s cheese, a perennial favourite in our diet no matter where we are. Manchego is probably the most common variety here. It melts beautifully in quesadillas, shreds nicely to top tacos, and is mild enough to accompany just about anything. We go through about a pound a week. Queso Oaxaca, which looks a lot like ropey mozzarella, is what goes into my chiles rellenos (stuffed poblano peppers lightly battered with beaten egg-white and fried until crisp on the outside and melty inside, and then served with adobo sauce). Panela is a delicious soft pure white cheese that doesn’t melt when heated, a bit like paneer or halloumi, but much less rubbery; its firm “bite” makes it a sandwich favourite for me. Asadero is another “stringy” cheese that melts evenly and makes a wonderful base for spicy or mild cheese dip. Who says warm cheese dip and totopos (tortilla chips) aren’t a meal?

Our most unusual cheese “discovery” here has been the way that huge balls of Dutch Edam cheese are used by the many (literally hundreds) of marquesita vendors. A marquesita is a cross between a crepe and a waffle cone, cooked to order on a hot press, sprinkled liberally with freshly shredded Edam – it’s always Edam – and rolled into a tube to be crunchily eaten while strolling through parks and markets in the evenings. Philadelphia cream cheese and Nutella are also offered as fillings, but 90% of what is sold is the Edam cheese option.

Interestingly, per kg/lb cheese is more expensive than most meats, except for beef.

EGGS & TORTILLAS

We’re eating a lot more eggs here than we have anywhere else. As is the case just about everywhere except Canada and the USA, eggs here are not refrigerated, and should be used within 3 weeks/21 days of being laid (a date shown on their carton). That’s because they’re not washed before they’re sold, leaving their natural protective coating (the cuticle) intact. In most countries, laying hens are vaccinated against salmonella, eggs are packed near where they are laid (not transported to central packets far away), and chicken coops are kept scrupulously clean to prevent eggs accidentally coming in contact with feces. In Canada and the US, the cuticle is washed off eggs, which then need to be refrigerated and can be kept for 5 weeks/35 days.

Room temperature egg whites whip up faster by hand (for coating those stuffed poblano peppers), and the whole eggs seem to fry and scramble faster – but the latter could just be my imagination. At any rate, scrambled eggs with sausages and diced veggies, and huevos rancheros, have been on regular rotation in our Mexican menu.

Our new staple food, used as a base for – or accompaniment to – more than 50% of what we’re eating.

CARNE: POLLO, PAVO y CERDO (Meat: Chicken, Turkey & Pork)

Mexicans – at least here in the Yucatan – eat a lot of poultry and pork, and much less beef (carne de res) than the typical Canadian, and we’ve noticed that the price per pound increases in roughly that same order.

In our very first week, I bought a couple of rib steaks from the in-store butcher at our nearest grocer and seared them on our gas range’s griddle. Meh. They were cut thinner than we normally like, were leaner than we normally like, and were just generally not worth the price we paid. Friends who winter here in a very modern house with a glistening stainless steel propane barbecue swear by Costco’s steaks, which are on a par with what Costco sells in Canada (i.e. delicious), but that would mean a special trip via an Uber and renewing the Costco membership we’ve let lapse during our world travels. Without a barbecue, and shopping in the Mexican grocery chains and markets, we’ll just angle for the occasional dinner invitation and eat other meats at “home”.

That said, I have bought ground beef, usually mixed 50/50 with pork, and made several batches of chili con carne, plus peppers stuffed with ground meat, rice, and onion, and simmered in tomato sauce.

Chicken is Mexico’s most popular animal protein. Whole birds or legs roast to perfection coated in spice rubs from the ladies at the large farmer’s market who do their best to work with my rudimentary Spanish and come up with the right amount of spiciness. “Picante, pero no demasiado picante” (spicy, but not too spicy) seems to work. Of course, chicken breasts are easily grilled and sliced to go into enchiladas when I’m not simply coating them with breadcrumbs for schnitzel and making a Mexicanized version of chicken parmesan using panela cheese. Schnitzel may not sound Mexican, but thinly sliced cutlets sold as “milanesa” are ubiquitous, and my usual accompaniment of home fries qualifies as “papas bravas”, so I’m going with that.

It doesn’t have to be a holiday; turkeys are available year-round here. We’re somewhat fascinated by the half turkeys sold at the grocery store, that are literally cut in half right through the back and breastbone – something we’ve not seen anywhere else. They’re too big to fit the roasting pan we have, so I haven’t attempted cooking one, but I understand that roasted turkey served with cheese sauce is a popular family dinner dish. I’m up for trying just about any food combinations, but I think in this case I’ll stick with gravy and cranberry sauce.

But… pork. It’s ubiquitous, it’s inexpensive, it’s versatile, and it’s delicious. It’s available both raw and smoked, as roasts, chops, loins, and cutlets, but most often ends up either sliced paper thin to fast fry, or shredded after marinating it in spices and roasting it low and slow until it falls apart. It’s amazing how many ways you can used differently spiced pulled pork, if by “ways” you’re actually referring to what kind of wrap or bun to serve it on.

My latest adventure is not in cooking, but in shopping: tomorrow we get our first grocery delivery from Chedraui, a grocery store that came highly recommended for quality and price, but is not within walking distance. The order I placed at 5:30 this evening is scheduled to be at our door between 10 a.m. and noon tomorrow. If that’s successful, I’ll be able to create a weekly shopping list and menu, which will free up more time for music and events. Mérida Fest is coming up in January!

6 comments

  1. I’m drooling!  One of my favorite Mexican meats that I used to get at the mercado in San Antonio, Texas, was a roast goat.  i don’t know where in Mexico that comes from, but apparently not the Yucatan.  You mention Oaxaca.  I once had a dish of roasted (toasted?) grasshoppers in a Oaxacan restaurant in Washington, DC.  Always wondered if that was typical Oaxacan, or something touristy. Good eats and Happy New Year! Al

    Liked by 1 person

    • Feliz Ańo Nuevo to you as well!
      You’re pretty adventurous – I’d have loved the goat, but probably balked at the grasshoppers. They ARE apparently a street food treat in Oaxaca though, toasted and sprinkled with chili and lime. On second thought… crunchy, chili, lime … doesn’t sound bad!

      Like

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