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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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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Los Gallos for tacos y cortes in Puerto Vallarta


Los Gallos specializes in meat tacos and cuts of meat with all the trimmings. Its proximity to Puerto Vallarta’s Costco, the mega-giant warehouse club that is spreading across Mexico, has added a new reason to go grocery shopping.

The meat selections are numerous — arrachera (flank steak), lomo (pork short loin), costilla (chuck short ribs), and more. It’s a good thing they gave us tortilla chips, all kind of salsas, pickled vegetables and little bowls of frijolitos rancheros as soon as we sat down, because we were hungry and it took a while to check out  the extensive menu and make our selection.

My table mates decided on a kilo (2.2 pounds) of arrachera — tenderized flank steak — served with a steaming stack of corn tortillas. I added pickled onions and guacamole (thin avocado salsa to you gringos) to my tacos. Also a great tomato and chile salsa. One salsa roja was muy picante, one was mild.

While our waiter, Alexandro, was of the opinion that no tenderizer was on the meat, I have to differ. I have sliced enough flank steak during my restaurant years to know that it has a definite grain and chew. This was perhaps the most tender meat, let alone the most tender flank steak, any of us had eaten. Whatever they used to tenderize it, it was extremely tender and very good.

Another menu option is Al Pastor. This is thinly sliced, marinated pork stacked on a skewer with pinepple on top and onion on the bottom. As it slowly rotates in front of the heating element, pineapple juice drips down over the meat, bathing it with an enzyme in its juice, the natural meat tenderizer bromelain.

Al Pastor has an interesting history in Mexico.  Supposedly, the cooking style was brought to this country by immigrants from Lebanon who, in their home country, cooked lamb on spits for making shawarma, bread-wrapped meat similar to Greek gyros. Pastor: lamb: shepherd. The name stayed true to its origins while the meat changed to pork.

The price was right: 210 pesos for one kilo of arrachera. Salsas, pickled vegetables (a little too vinegary for our tastes), beans, tortilla chips and tortillas were all part of the order. That came out to a little under $5 U.S. per person, plus beverage and tip.

Los Gallos is located on Avenida Fluvial, #234. Hours are 10 a.m. to midnight, Tuesday through Sunday. Phone: 225-0267 and 225-0268. Call for delivery in the Puerto Vallarta area.

UPDATE: Los Gallos has closed and is now a new restaurant, called Dos Adelitos. I have not eaten there, but it appears to be a similar type of meat-heavy restaurant with a  Jalisco theme.  (Jan. 16, 2011)

Notes:

Los Gallos has possibly the cleanest restrooms we have ever seen anywhere, always a good sign in a restaurant.

We missed our chance and walked right past the complimentary keg of tequila inside the entrance. Don’t be as foolish as we were.

More Reading:

Arrachera: What and When? (Rachel Laudan, A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics)



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Qué es La Jícama?

Jícama looks like a cross between a potato and a huge turnip. I love eating cold slices as a snack, and so do most Mexicans. Have you noticed the frequency of street eating in Mexico? For every holiday, every evening on the plaza, at every beach, every bus stop, every market, there is someone with a cart selling sliced watermelon, cucumber, pineapple, or jícama — all sprinkled with chile powder and spritzed with lime juice.

While I can’t advocate street eating for us weak-stomached foreigners who have no way of telling if the vegetables have been disinfected, if the knife, cutting board and hands are super clean, we can prepare jícama at home using our favorite method for cleaning and disinfecting produce. And we can use chile powder or not, lime juice or not.

Jícama in the stores can look unappealing sometimes. They can be a little beat up, muddied and oddly shaped, or smooth and clean as a whistle. Look for smooth, light skinned, small jícama. Don’t worry about a little dirt. Just scrub it off and soak the tubers in a disinfectant solution.

The skin pulls off when you grab the end with a paring knife. If it doesn’t want to pull away, as sometimes happens, use a vegetable peeler. Often you can pull off a piece of skin with your fingers, once you get it started.

Use a paring knife to finish cutting out little rootlets or nicks. Then slice, dice or chop.

For an easy snack or an appetizer that is muy mexicano, squeeze some lime juice over cold, sliced jícama, and sprinkle with coarse salt and chile power. Or sauté chopped jícama in a stir-fry as a substitute for water chestnuts. Or sprinkle with cinnamon and a pinch of brown sugar. Or use as a base for spreading guacamole or ceviche. Or add to a fruit salad or vegetable salad. Or just eat it cold, sliced and unadorned.

Notes:

  • Etmology — The name jícama is from the Nahuatl word, xicamatl.  Jícama is the name of this native Mexican plant, as well as the name of the edible root. It also goes by the names of yambean and Mexican turnip.
  • The tuber can weigh up to twenty kilograms, but you will never see them in the stores this big. Usually they are between one half to one kilo (1-2 pounds) in weight. A half kilo-sized jicama is young and juicy.
  • Jícama has a water content of 86-90%, and is high in dietary fiber.


More Reading:

Jícama (Wikipedia)

Jícama Factbites

Jícama Mexconnect


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