Comida Mexicana is alive and well in Minneapolis

It can be a challenge to find great restaurant food when eating out far away from home. And finding great Mexican food in the Midwest is even more of a challenge. When we hit the jackpot at Marissa’s Deli on “Eat Street” in Minneapolis, I knew there was only one reason: Flor the cook is from Mexico — Puebla to be exact — and she knows her stuff. In between serving customers, she was pressing corn tortillas on her wooden press, a sight that is, to me, the gold standard of authentic Mexican cooking. ¡Que milagro!

My son orderd a quesadilla al pastor (top photo). He liked it enough to immediately order another. My daughter-in-law had pork stewed in a tomatillo-green chile sauce, served with beans, rice, tortillas and sweet grilled onions, just like they make them in Mexico. You may know already that I don’t eat pork (see About on masthead at top), but I have to say that her dish looked delicious.

I more or less stayed true to my eating habits, and order beef — tacos de cabeza. I really wanted tacos de lengua (tongue), but Flor was already out of it. I guess I’m not the only one who knows how good tongue tacos can be. So I settled for cabeza, muscle meat of the head. To the squeamish, this may be more information than you really want to know, but this is how it is in Mexico — all parts of the animal are eaten. This culture does not waste much. I was glad to see that this culinary value can stay with cooks, even when they are out of their motherland.

The tacos were served exactly like you would see them in Mexico, with lots of chopped cilantro, a great salsa verde and lime wedges. The only difference was that the plastic plate was not encased in a plastic bag to facilitate dishwashing, a practice common in Mexico. Flor was the dishwasher as well, and obviously has some sense of restaurant decorum to serve plates without plastic bags.

The setting is simple — a few chairs and tables near the counter where you place and pick up your order, a TV on the wall tuned to a telenovela, one of Mexico’s beloved soap operas, and a tub of  jalapeños en escabeche on every table. Marissa’s Deli is attached to Marissa’s grocery store, and there is also Marissa’s Bakery, a muy mexicana panadería selling pastries glowing with brightly colored icing and tons of sugar. Hot pan de muertos, egg-rich “bread of the dead” with dough formed in the shape of bones on a skull, was ready for All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos.

Sugary churros and flakey pastries were tempting, and I would be lying to say we did not take home a bag with almost something of everything.

Maybe Flor will  move back to Mexico someday and open a restaurant. Until that day, if you are anywhere close to Minnepolis, Marissa’s Deli is worth seeking out. It doesn’t get any better in or out of Mexico.

Marissa’s Deli; 2750 Nicollet Ave.; Minneapolis MN; (612) 871-4519

Marissa’s — Mercado Mexicano in Minneapolis

Just when I was starting to miss Mexico — its colorful markets, sweet tropical fruit, chiles of all colors and sizes — I found Marissa’s in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What a vibrant, honest to goodness Mexican grocery store, as good as any tienda south of the border. I felt right at home cruising the aisles of produce, with selections of nopal, pineapples, tomatillos, cilantro, chiles, even the elusive epazote.

Beautiful murals cover the walls depicting agrarian scenes from the homeland, scenes that every Mexican must picture when they are so far from home, scenes that no longer exist in much of today’s modern Mexico, but still found in the interior of the country. For the murals alone, Marissa’s is worth a visit.

This is surely the best Mexican grocery store I have ever found outside of Mexico. Large, well organized, with a very extensive inventory, there is not much this store does not carry for a cocina mexicana. Every essential ingredient called for in your Mexican cookbook, plus a few non-essential goodies, like neon-colored gelatins and conchas, a favorite pan dulce, are in abundance. But maybe these are essential to cure homesickness for any mexicano far from home. Just walking the aisles took me back to my little Mexican town for a short while.

My experience with Mexican cooks has given me an appreciation for their great love of  traditional food of Mexico. The average home cook is not experimenting with Italian or French recipes. The mothers and grandmothers of the household are cooking pots of beans, buying freshly made tortillas, making fresh and cooked salsas every day — feeding their families the dishes they grew up on, the same food their mothers and grandmothers made. And if these cooks are living far from home, stores such as Marissa’s, found in every town in the U.S. where there is a sizeable Mexican population, are providing all the special ingredients for these timeless dishes, some of which have been made since Pre-Columbian times.

At Marissa’s you will find corn husks and masa for tamales, dried chile ancho and guajillo for salsas, nopal for salads, epazote to season beans. I went in looking for cajeta to make Chocoflan, and there it was. This was a busy store, testament to the many, many kitchens in this town serving up authentic Mexican food.

And like all the little tiendas in Mexico, Marissa’s also carries other essentials, such as loofahs, tortilla presses, pinatas, earthenware pots, and traditional candles.

Besides the grocery store, there is also an attached deli with an extensive, authentic Mexican menu and a bakery with pan dulce of all kinds. We had a great lunch prepared by a young cook from the city of Puebla, and took home sweet breads for dessert. If I can beg or borrow more computer time while I’m visiting, I want to tell you about our lunch. If you find yourself in Minneapolis, don’t miss breakfast or lunch at Marissa’s. This place is the real deal.

Marissa’s Grocery Store, Deli and Bakery; 2750 Nicollet, (612) 871-3628; hours Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.

Home roasting coffee in a popcorn popper

Did you know you can roast coffee in a hot air popcorn popper? It helps to have a West Bend Poppery II model and a spouse who can remove the thermostat in the popper and modify the chute. Once those requirements are met, you are on your way to having freshly roasted coffee on a weekly or daily basis.

Here we were, living in the Mexican state of Nayarit, a state known for growing organic coffee for export, and we were going to the store like everyone else to buy ground coffee. How long can self-respecting foodies keep this up? Locating green coffee beans grown in our state was easy. Figuring out how to roast them wasn’t. A skillet on the stove was a hot, smoky, messy process. Back to the drawing board, I mean internet.

A quick search gave us information about modifying a hot air popcorn popper to roast coffee. The West Bend Poppery II was the hot-air popper of choice. Didn’t we have a hot air popper around, one we didn’t use because neither of us was really into popcorn? A quick search located the unused popper, and I couldn’t believe it! It was a West Bend Poppery II, bought for a few dollars from a yard sale when we thought popcorn was a good idea.

The same internet site gave directions for modifications. You don’t exactly dump coffee beans in and plug it in like you would with popcorn. Some changes were in order. I won’t get into the details, mostly because they are beyond my sphere of knowledge, but it involves removing the thermostat and installing a non-plastic chimney. If you try to use the plastic chute, it will melt with time. Ours did.

While roasting, the beans release chaff. For this reason, I do it semi-outdoors, on a low wall in my laundry room, where the popper fan blows the chaff  over the ledge. The top of the chute has an angled part to direct the chaff outside.

Coffee goes through several stages in the roasting process, two of which are “First Crack” and “Second Crack”. You can hear very audible cracking sounds. After the first crack, it is roasted enough to make a cup of coffee, but you will want to continue to the second crack if you like a dark roast. Unplug the popcorn maker when smoke starts pouring out of the chimney. The beans will be fragrant and dark. The roasting needs to be stopped immediately, so put your coffee on a pan (I use a pizza pan for a large surface area) under a fan.

Roasting Coffee in a Popcorn Popper

  1. Measure 2/3 cup of organic green coffee beans into a modified popcorn popper.
  2. Plug it in and stay close to listen and watch. After 2-3 minutes, you will hear the first crack.
  3. Second crack happens soon after. Smoke starts during second crack. You can either stop it during second crack or let it go all the way through for a very dark roast. I alway watch for smoke. When it gets serious, the popper is unplugged, interrupting the second crack state.
  4. Immediately cool the beans on a shallow pan under a fan. Use a hot pad to handle the pan.
  5. If you are really into the ultimate cup of coffee, keep the roasted beans in a container that can ventilate for 24 hours to allow release of carbon dioxide. Then, and only then, will the beans yield an incomprable cup of coffee.
  6. For long-term storage, the beans can be frozen, but need to be at room temperature to be ground. If you are roasting small batches, roast enough for one week and keep the beans at room temperature, tightly sealed.

You are in for a treat if you have never made cinnamon flavored Cafe de Olla, the way it is made in Mexico.

More Reading:

Getting Started Roasting Coffee at Home (Sweet Maria)

How to Roast Coffee in a West Bend Popper (eHow)

Coffee Roasting CoffeeResearch.org
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Albóndigas, Mexican meatballs with tomato and chipotle broth

Mexico has its own version of meatballs, called Albóndigas. Often made with a mixture of pork and beef and served in a tomato broth, this is down-home Mexican cooking. My version contains no pork, but rather range-fed beef. The usual accompaniments are steaming corn tortillas, chopped onion, cilantro and avocado. Russ, my astute taster, looked for a dish of rice when we sat down for dinner. A bed of rice would be fine with this, and I’ll make some for him when we have left-overs tomorrow, but here in Mexico tortillas supply the carbs for albóndigas.

If you aren’t used to taking the time to form meatballs — and I’ll admit I don’t do this too often —  put on some music to help pass the time while you form those little balls. Our FM station from Guadalajara, 91.9, plays hours of jazz and classical music without commercials. On Saturday afternoon, they feature Cuban son, a style of music with Cuban and African influence, popularized by The Buena Vista Social Club. I had those albóndigas rolled in no time while my feet kept time to the Afro-Caribbean beat.

My pride and joy, homemade beef stock, is in this dish. Homemade stock can not be had for love or money — you have to make it yourself. If you love to cook, if you love great food, do yourself a favor and learn to make this simple liquid gold.

Another essential ingredient, and one my kitchen is never without, is chipotle en adobo, canned, smoke-dried jalapeños. Muy picante, they are wonderful added to any soup, but be sure to mince very finely.

This recipe is adapted from The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. A transplanted Brit, Mrs. Kennedy was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican government for her writings on regional Mexican cuisine. Without her books, our tables would be less interesting and lack a certain alegría de vida.

Abóndigas in Tomato and Chipotle Broth

  • 3/4  lbs. (680 grams) ground range-fed beef
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 small (6 oz./170 grams) finely chopped calabacitas or zucchini
  • 1/2 teaspoon each Mexican oregano and mint, or 4 fresh leaves Mexican oregano and mint, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon comino (cumin) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) fresh tomatoes (cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes and then peeled) or 1 3/4 cups (420 ml.)  canned tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2  chipotle chiles, finely minced
  • 3-4 cups light beef broth, preferably homemade
  • salt to taste
  • chopped cilantro, diced onion and cubed avocado for garnish
  • warm corn tortillas
  1. With your hands, blend meat with next seven ingredients. Form into 1 1/2″ (3.5-4 cm.) balls.
  2. Zizz tomatoes and chipotle chile in a blender, but don’t puree. Tiny pieces are interesting.
  3. Heat oil in skillet over medium-low flame, and cook onion for 4 minutes until translucent.
  4. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more.
  5. Add tomato and broth and bring to a simmer. Gently add meatballs and simmer covered for 1 hour. Adjust salt.
  6. Serve in bowls with a generous serving of broth, garnishing with cilantro, onion and avocado, and serve tortillas on the side.

Notes:

Etymology: Albóndiga is from the Arabic word, “al-bunduq”, meaning small hazelnut, i.e., a small round object. Albóndigas were brought to Spain by the Moors during Muslim rule. The dish continued to travel, arriving in Mexico with the Spaniards.

Like so many dishes blending onion, garlic and tomatoes, albóndigas are better the next day. They freeze well.

Traditional Mexican cooks don’t use canned tomatoes, and all the recipes for albóndigas call for fresh tomatoes, but it has become impossible to find really ripe tomatoes in Mexican stores. They are as unripe and pallid as tomatoes north of the border. Tomatoes in Mexico are now farmed on a large scale, with shipping and storage being a priority, not taste. If you can’t find red, ripe tomatoes, canned tomatoes offer reliable flavor.

Mexican oregano (Lippia berlandieri) and Mediterranean oregano (Origanum vulgare) are two different herbs. The former is the one commonly used in Mexican cuisine, while the latter is called for in Italian and Greek recipes.

Don’t forget to disinfect your veggies, especially cilantro, a close-to-the-ground plant, and therefore exposed to more contaminants.

Cover of "The Cuisines of Mexico"
Cover of The Cuisines of Mexico


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Agua de tamarindo, a refreshingly tart Mexican drink

Tamarind, known as tamarindo in Mexico, is found  throughout the country as a favorite drink on food vendor counters and carts.  Besides being the main ingredient for the ice cold, tart drink, agua de tamarindo, it is mixed with sugar to make an overly sweet candy that children love. One popular tamarind candy is called Pelon Pelo Rico. The name translates to “Delicious Bald Hair” and describes the strings of candy that are squeezed out of the smooth-topped little container. Maybe it would have looked more string-like when I squeezed it out if my kitchen hadn’t have been so hot. Only a kid could love this stuff.

Purchased agua de tamarindo is usually too sweet, the sugar masking its characteristic tartness. If I make it myself, I can control the amount of sugar added.

To make your own, first crush the pod covering and peel off the shell. It’s almost like peeling a hard-boiled egg. Pull off any strings. You will be able to feel seeds incased by the pulp. Or you can buy a package of shelled pulp from a street vendor, as I did, but you will still have to remove the strings and seeds.

To remove the seeds, bring 2 cups (about 1 lb./.5 kilo/.5 liter) of pulp and 2 cups (.5 liter) of water to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer covered for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool uncovered.  When it is cool enough to handle, pick up about eight seeds and squeeze in your hand. The pulp will ooze out between your fingers and you will be left with a handful of seeds. It probably is not the most efficient way to separate the pulp, but it gets the job done quickly. After fifteen minutes, I had one and one half cups of pulp. Discard the seeds.

Recommended music: Santana’s Supernatural provided the right Latino beat for this job.

For each two glasses of agua de tamarindo, stir together one and one half cups of water and one quarter cup of pulp. Sweeten to taste. Pour into ice-filled glasses.

Notes:

Etymology: Tamarind is a Latinization of the Arabic words تمر هندي, meaning “Tamar Hindi”, or Indian date.

Tamarind is not a New World native. It originated in tropical Africa where it is still found wild. Tamarind was brought to the Americas, probably in the 17th. century, possibly by the Portuguese.

Worcestershire Sauce contains tamarind pulp, as do many East Indian chutneys.

More reading:

Tamarind (Wikipedia)


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