I've had quite a few requests to blog my trip to New Mexico.
Truthfully, those two weeks were more about family than food. Except for a few forays into Santa Fe, I spent most of my hours at my parents' blissfully isolated home taking in the views, reveling in the silence, gulping down fresh air, playing with the dogs, reading and napping (the altitude, no doubt). I savored a few local treats (like quesadillas made with rustic, homemade flour tortillas and freshly roasted poblano chilies - purchased at the general store up the road - and New Mexican fresh goat cheese), but all without my photographer. So I haven't much to show for that trip.
But all is not lost. Last year Dave and I indulged in an awesome Stateside chowfest that will forever be seared in our memory. We documented it, of course. This exception to my all-Asian-food-all-the-time policy is for readers craving a Mexican-inspired post.
I've never travelled to Mexico. More than eight years we lived in California, yet never made it south of the border.
Until we went to Chicago.
The Windy City is said to be home to America's third-largest population of immigrants from Mexico. Every Sunday a good number of them seem to converge at the Maxwell Street Market, a jumble of vendors stretched a mile (or two or three?) up and down Canal Street (off of Maxwell Street, more widely known for its blues clubs), selling everything from prepared foods, fresh produce, and dried ingredients to children's clothing and hand tools.
Mexican food afficianados may well argue that much of what's on offer here is not 'authentic'. Who cares?! On that Sunday morning in May one year ago, for two visitors on home leave from Saigon jonesing for the jump and jive of a street food setting and the kind of real, honest flavors that reside only in a snack prepared a la minute in a portable kitchen, it was manna.
Our guide for this gluttonous morning was Eating Asia booster (even before there was an Eating Asia) and Maxwell Street regular RST, a Chicago resident and fount of knowledge on all things cucina Mexicana (food-focused travellers planning a trip to Mexico would be well advised to search out his Oaxaca et al posts on Chowhound's international board). We met early and spent three or so hours eating our way from one end of Canal Street to the other, starting with a succulent pork-filled tamale dabbed with tart tomatillo salsa and an unhealthy blob of rich Mexican crema.
Steps away, we found a vendor who, with his family, had been in business for only a couple of months. (Here, as at Asian food markets, a favorite vendor's disappearance - and the arrival of his or her replacement - is always noteworthy). He was enjoying steady demand for his carne asada (grilled beef) tacos - for good reason, we found.
Even better was his heavenly birria de chivo, tender stewed goat flavored with chilies, served with plenty of soothing, meaty braising liquid and topped with diced white onions and fresh cilantro.
We found plenty of vendors offering lighter fare, such as these plastic cups of mango, cucumber, and jicama strips, intended to be eaten with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of powdered chile.
On this perfectly clear day, aguas frescas (coolers of - here - with guava, lime, or tamarind) and horchata, an ambrosial beverage made from soaked, ground rice and flavored with cinammon, provided relief from steadily rising temperatures.
These charred cobs (elote asado) made us think of Saigon, where grilled corn is a popular street snack. Mexican vendors, like their Vietnamese counterparts, use older, chewy corn. But instead of dousing it in butter or sticky sweet sauce,
they slather it with mayonnaise and sprinkle it with crumbled queso anejo (aged cow's milk cheese) and dried ground chile.
Savory empanadas, griddled corn tortillas filled to bursting with mild white cheese,
find their sweet counterpart in empanadas de arroz con leche, addictive deep-fried flour tortilla turnovers enclosing creamy rice pudding and dusted with cinammon and sugar.
This vendor offered a choice of desserts, including sweet tamales and caramely slow sugar-roasted pumpkin topped with its own browned seeds.
Maxwell Street Market's wonderful nibbles are matched by its festive atmosphere, resembling that of an American county fair. Music from Mexico and points south blares from the stalls of CD and tape sellers and mixes with the cries of ice cream and cotton candy vendors. Old ladies kibbitz at the cheese stall,
kids crowd around clowns fashioning animals out of balloons while parents and grandparents snap photos,
and tank-topped teenage boys strut their stuff for clusters of carefully coiffed and made-up girls. And of course, in between the flirting and the gossiping and the strolling, bargaining, and stocking up for the week's coming meals, there's the eating.
Crowned the "masa madonna" by market regulars for her unrivalled way with ground corn, this deadly serious lady turns out ethereally light, tender tortillas.
Fillings taste like they've been lovingly stewed for days. Here, pork in a spicy and tangy red sauce.
Towards the end of Canal Street, down by the train tracks, a born showman sells dried chilies, more varieties than I ever imagined existed (and black peppercorn and rosehips and...) from cloth- covered folding tables lined up end-to-end in front of his van.
These leathery brown specimens are chipotles meco, one of two types of chipotle chilies, which are fresh jalapenos (opening photo, after some time on the grill) that have been smoke-dried.
The other type of chipotle - called variously chipotle colorado, mora, and morita, depending on size - are black-red in color; they're available dried and also canned, packed in a sweetish tomato-vinegar sauce.
In my experience, once tasted the complex flavor of a chipotle (sweet and smoky, a bit meaty, with hints of fresh and dried red fruit and brown or palm sugar) is rarely forgotten.
This chili man's superior dried ancho chilies (left) are sweet and earthy; roasted, soaked, ground, and cooked with garlic, Mexican oregano, cumin, and a dash of cloves, they make a fine sauce with which to nap an enchilada. On the right, an unusual and hard-to-find (at least in the US) dried green chile that need only be dipped in hot water for 10 seconds before it's ready to be stuffed with cheese, covered with tomato or tomatillo sauce, and baked.
Stuffed as we were, we couldn't depart Maxwell Street without sampling griddled corn tortillas stuffed with huitlacoche, a gray to black fungus that grows on ears of corn. Considered a delicacy in Mexico, huitlacoche is a blight in the US, where it's called 'corn smut'.
Huitlacoche began to make an appearance at our local produce market in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late nineties, but I balked at its prohibitive price. I wish I hadn't. It's wonderfully mushroomy with a hint of herb that I can't identify, the perfect complement to a thick, masa-forward corn tortilla. Our friend RST advised that this was not the best huitlacoche he'd had; we surmised it was perhaps too early in the season (in Mexico, the fungus comes with the rainy season).
Wonder if I could pay a corn farmer in Malaysia to let his crop go to smut?