Tag Archives: eating

Chicago’s New Maxwell Street Market: Little Mexico

When you are in Chicago and if you want a bit of Mexico — with her street food and open air tianguis market culture — make your way to Chicago’s near west side for the New Maxwell Street Market every Saturday.   The backdrop is the city’s stunning Loop and Magnificent Mile.

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Beyond the Loop on the near west side is a historic immigrant neighborhood where Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Eastern European Jews, African-Americans, and now Latinos from Mexico and Central America settled.

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The original Maxwell Street has been developed for a University of Illinois at Chicago expansion.  The new market, a neighborhood gathering place, is now located on Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Polk Streets, just west of the Chicago River. You get there from Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road by CTA Bus #12 or by foot.

Serving horchata and aguas de tamarindo, sandia, jamaica

Serving horchata and aguas de tamarindo, sandia, jamaica

In my days of living in the midwest, I confess I never made it to the Maxwell Street Market, known for its blues musicians, flea market bargains and once-in-a-lifetime antique treasures.  So, when I arrived in Chicago from Mexico City to visit friends on my way back to North Carolina and the opportunity came to explore, I said “yes.”

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The line for Rubi’s snaked down the block

Be sure you come hungry!  What I found were several blocks filled with street vendors not much different from Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Sunday market except on a much smaller scale.  The standout was the food vendors. People from all ethnic backgrounds, including plenty of visitors toting cameras, formed lines snaking down the street for tastes of savory tacos al pastor, steaming tamales, traditional aguas — fruit waters — made from tamarind, watermelon, lime and coconut.  There were at least four stands selling nieves, the famed ice creams that more resemble the intense flavors of an Italian gelato.

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There is also organized live music, and if you are lucky as I was, you might come across an old African American blues musician belting out a tune on a guitar or saxophone, reminding me of the Mississippi Great Migration and The Warmth of Other Suns.

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There’s not much remaining of the original Maxwell Street’s flea market atmosphere.  What I saw were sellers of new tires, perfumes, electronics, out-of-date packaged foods and snacks, nail polish and make-up, hardware and garden tools, office and school supplies, used and new clothes, shoes, records, and a few chachkahs.  There were few antiques per se.

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Dried hibiscus flowers

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Dried star fruit, papaya, kiwi, pineapple, mango

What attracted my attention were the dried tropical fruits, roasted nuts, tamarind pods, spices and chili peppers that we see throughout Mexico and especially Oaxaca.  I heard mostly Spanish spoken by buyers and sellers.  

At the food trucks and under the cooking tents, women prepared and cooked fresh tortillas and grilled corn on the comal, men tended the spit-roasted pork and grilled pineapple, a family displayed their made that morning sweet and chicken-stuffed tamales,  and young girls ladled out fruit drinks into clear plastic cups.

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The children strolled hand-in-hand with parents licking on a cone of traditional Mexican ices.  Neighborhood shoppers bought fresh berries from the few produce vendors interspersed between the aluminum kitchen utensil and car cleaning supplies stalls.

Pods of tamarindo fruit ready to pluck the juicy centers

Pods of tamarindo fruit ready to pluck the juicy centers

If I lived there, I would have filled my shopping bag, tempted by what is familiar to me and the tastes I love.  As it was, I settled for a glimpse into what it means to keep the culture through a reverence for its food.

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Of course, saying a prayer at the home altar to the Virgin Mary, a patron saint, and the Baby Jesus  will help ensure that the culture is preserved.  Locals shop for religious icons at the market, too.

Lunch at the San Juan Market, Mexico City

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My lunch at La Jersey, Mercado de San Juan, Mexico City

San Juan Market is where many of Mexico City’s top chefs shop.  It is known for its exotic meats, fish, fruits and vegetables.  It’s where I buy vanilla beans for $1.50 USD each to bring back as gifts to the USA.  I made my way there from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, past architectural wonders of the city.

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Once I got there and started looking at the food, I realized I was hungry.  Then, I noticed a large group of people gathered around one of the stalls.  La Jersey has been there for over 85 years.  Out from behind the counter came baguettes of crusty French bread filled with layers of exotic, European cheeses and Italian meats.

Three young men, who introduced themselves as lawyers on lunch break, were sitting on stools biting into hefty sandwiches and sipping good red Spanish table wine from small tasting cups. The wine comes gratis with the lunch.  They beckoned me over, offered me the empty seat next to

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them, showed me the menu and recommended what they considered to be the best sandwich filled with prosciutto, salami, and a rich, smooth German cheese. Order Number 3, they said.  A cuarto (that’s a quarter sandwich).  When it came, it looked like more than I could possibly consume. There are probably 20 sandwich selections on the menu.  And, at least 100 different cheeses are available for sale on the deli countertop and in the cases.

Note: You are surrounded by butchered animals ranging from chickens to hanging legs of lamb, goats and other edibles.  I consider it to be part of the food chain, but just a word of warning :)

Once my sandwich came, they oriented me to using the tamarind savory jam topping to spread over the cheese.  The bread was scooped out leaving mostly crusty outside, better to hold the more than ample fillings.

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Next comes dessert, also included in the fixed price along with the wine.  It is a slice of French bread slathered with mascarpone cheese drizzled with local honey and topped with a crunchy walnut.  Two bites, then gone.  Mmmmmmm.  The man on the left ordered a fresh fig, quartered, and filled with homemade vanilla ice cream, topped with honey.  He ate it before I could get my camera focused.

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More about it.  Where to find it.  La Jersey also has a small deli in the Downtown Hotel complex at Isabel la Catolica #30, two blocks from the Zocalo.

Street Food: Perhaps the Best Tamales in Oaxaca

It was one of those perfectly glorious Oaxaca days.

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Our walking destination: corner of Calle Armenta y Lopez and Calle Cristobal Colon on the southwest side of the Zocalo.  There on the southwest corner, tucked into the shade of the Parisina building protected from the strong Oaxaca sun, is perhaps the best tamale stand in all of Oaxaca city.

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Who says so?  The people who line up everyday starting at two o’clock in the afternoon.  Sometimes the line snakes halfway down the block.  The busiest times are from two to four in the afternoon, when most locals take their lunch.  Eating on the street is a Mexican tradition.

For me, tamales are right up there with Oaxaca’s famed seven moles.  Here at this little corner of heaven is a selection of ten different tamales:  mole negro wrapped in banana leaf, cheese with squash blossom, spicy green chile with chicken, raja chile (sliced jalapeño) with chicken, yellow mole, red mole, spicy red mole, bean, chipil, sweet with pineapple and raisins, and corn kernels.

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Customers are loyal and keep coming back.

Why do you like these tamales? I ask the patient man waiting his turn.  Estan muy rico —  they are very good — he answers, emphasizing the very, and then adds, and they are big.

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Another hears my question and adds, Si, muy rico.  Riccisimo. El mejor de Oaxaca.  The best of Oaxaca.  There is an echo as I hear muy rico repeated among the crowd, like a chant in the round.

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Indeed they are big.  The tamales are wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves depending on the variety, each giving the masa a distinctive flavor. They are plump filled with lots of steamed ground corn, lots of salsa or mole, and either chicken, cheese, pork or herbs.

Note:  Most of Oaxaca corn is organic, and there is social/political resistance to Monsanto and genetically modified versions coming in.  Original corn is  astoundingly flavorful, nutty, crunchy, delicious and nutritious.

It takes the Dueña at least five hours daily to make a fresh batch of each variety which she transports to the corner every day except Mondays.  She is there promptly at two o’clock in the afternoon and closes at eight o’clock at night, sometimes earlier if she sells out.  People gather to wait for her opening.

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Today I bought at least one of every variety to take home and serve at a gathering of friends this Sunday afternoon.  I don’t think I could put out a tastier spread!

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Special thanks to Stephen for this discovery and introducing me to these delicious tamales.

My confession is that even after a hefty lunch elsewhere, when the Dueña offered me a taste of the frijol tamale with a touch of hierba santa slathered with a picante salsa, I could not resist.  I added my own muy rico y mil gracias.

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Eat Like a Mexican: Tasting Mexico City Street Food with Eat Mexico Culinary Tour

Forbes Magazine says Mexico City is the hottest place for food.  They are not talking temperature.  Mexico City has it all — from gourmet cheeses and meats found in pricey restaurants to humble street food like tacos and tlacoyos. Today, I focus on eating on the street where people consume complete meals or snacks, sitting on stools or standing at the curb. This is Mexico’s version of fast food and is something I have shied away from.  But my secret yearning to sample was finally realized because I want to eat like a Mexican, too!  Thanks goes to Lesley Tellez who started an off-the-beaten-path, non-touristy culinary walking tour called Eat Mexico (see below for contact information).   

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This is real food, homemade by women and men who work at portable cook stoves at street corners or at little stationery stands who continue home-style family traditions.  We discover, however, that humble is a misnomer and what we taste rivals any high-end restaurant for quality if not for presentation. Lesley has done her research well.  All the food is delicious, and the preparation is safe and clean.

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Our guide Natalia and guide-in-training Arturo, meet us at the designated spot, then lead us down a side street to a corner seafood taco stand that has been in business for over forty years.  We belly up to the outdoor bar, gaze at the selection of fresh crab, shrimp, lobster, fish, and octopus through the protective clean glass that separated us from the cooks.  We choose either the blue crab tostada or a deep fried mixed seafood quesadilla. Luckily, Debbie and I can share so we choose one of each, drizzled with lots fresh lime and Valentina sauce.  YUMMY and AMAZING after first bites.

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After a block or two, we turn the corner near the San Juan artisans market and come upon a stall that is operated by a third generation cook.  Right on this corner, whole turkeys are cut up on the seat of a plastic chair, then deep-fried in a giant cauldron filled with oil until done.  The meat is then sliced, layered on a toasted roll (torta), slathered with homemade chipotle chili salsa (another OOOH, AAAAH here), and topped with avocado.  We are invited to add a papalo leaf to the ingredients before closing up the sandwich to eat.  This is a minty herb with a sharp, flavorful taste unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before.  We each get a half-sandwich to sample.  What I notice while I inhale this treat is how the plastic plates are wiped with a cloth only used for this purpose.  The plate is covered with a clean piece of paper before the sandwich finds its resting place.  I have no concerns about sanitation here.

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It’s the middle of July and the rainy season in Mexico.  As we enter San Juan market, boxes are filled with just-delivered mushrooms, varieties of which I have not seen before.  This market offers a gourmet food experience and many top chefs shop here for exotic meats (like ostrich, lion, and kangaroo), fruit and vegetables.  We sample fresh rambutan, chico zapote, mango, jackfruit, figs, nectarines.  The mamey tastes like a creamy sweet potato and I love it.  Eat it solo for dessert or try it as an ice cream.

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Coffee, anyone?  The barista grinds beans from Veracruz and brews me a cup of Americano from the espresso machine.  MMMMM, good.

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Next, is a tasting of fruit jams and jellies, tapenades, and honey.  I walk away with a jar of jalapeno jelly and rose petal jam.  Next door is the cheese purveyor who puts out a sampling plate of world-class varieties like smoked gouda, pistachio infused manchego cheese, brie, and a mozzarella, all made in Mexico.  He offers us cups of red wine to sip along with the tasting.  Baguettes of fresh, crusty French bread hang from the overhead rack above his stall, ready to take home.

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By now, I am full, but we press on.  Our guide Natalia explains the history of the market dating from pre-Hispanic Aztec times.  Mexico, she says, gave the world three gifts:  chocolate, chiles, and vanilla.  At the next intersection is the chile vendor where some of us buy mole rojo and vanilla beans at 20 pesos each (that’s about $1.50).  Natalia recommends we put a vanilla bean in the sugar jar for a great taste.

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At the Oaxaca specialty food stand, we pop chapulines (grasshoppers) into our mouths.  No one is reticent.  The big ones are the females.  The little ones are males.  They are roasted with salt and chiles, crunchy and tasty.  I say no to another taste of Oaxaca quesillo.  No more space in my stomach.  Debbie buys a bag of peanuts roasted with chile, salt and lime juice.  I watch her pop a few!

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We move out onto the street in the direction of the common people’s market Arcos de Belen.  On the way, we stop at a molina to see how the corn is ground. Next door is the tortilleria where the masa dough is formed and cooked by machine. (In Teotitlan del Valle, we can still get handmade tortillas!)  Natalia gives us a history of corn as part of the cultural identity of Mexico, where it was first hybridized eight thousand years ago in the Oaxaca valley close to where I live.

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After we tour the market food courts, we all pass on a taste at the fresh juice bar (estoy lleno–I am full) and move on to the corner where a woman sits making blue corn tlacoyos.

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The finish is at the pulque bar, where the double swinging doors look like a saloon entrance.  The décor is decidedly neo-Aztec with bright figures painted on walls and ceilings.  We cozy up to a side bar where the owner brings us a sampler tray of flavored pulques – pineapple, celery, coconut, oatmeal, guayaba plus au natural (a viscous, sour taste).  The sweetness helps mask the milkiness. Natalia tells us the Aztec history of the drink and explains that it is fermented, not distilled, from the agave plant and must be served fresh.  It is cheap, gives a nice buzz, and is favored by university students who represent most of the clientele this day.  I take a liking to the celery and pineapple.

University students at the pulqueria

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We say our goodbyes at the next street corner.  What a great adventure, very fun, educational, and gastronomically delightful. I have a map but I’m not going to share it with you!

I recommend you sign up for Eat Mexico Culinary Tours and discover this great food experience for yourself!

P.S. The cost of $85 per person includes guide services, map, a bottle of water, and all food and drink along the way.  We sign up in advance and pay online.  Very easy.  Eat Mexico sends lots of email communication to tell us where to meet, what to wear that would be comfortable, and a little bit about our guide so we recognize her.  Be sure to check out Lesley Tellez’ The Mija Chronicles blog, too.

Crunchy, No-Cook Nopal Cactus Salad with Fruit and Sprouts: Healthy, Fresh, Fast, Easy

My sister Barbara and I were in Puebla, Mexico recently and during our three-day stay we ate at El Mural de los Poblanos Restaurant three times.  We can’t get enough of Chef Lizette Galicia’s good food.  We each have a favorite salad there.  Barbara loves the fresh nopal cactus tossed with tomato, onion, cilantro, queso fresco, radishes and little slices of fresh serrano chiles. I love the sunflower sprout salad tossed with toasted pecans, sunflower seeds, radishes and a light olive oil and lime dressing.  Everything goes crunch.   Be patient.  There is a recipe and photos below!

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This week I bought three nopal cactus paddles at my organic market, spines and all.  I buy them in the Teotitlan del Valle market already trimmed, diced and waiting to be cooking.  Those spines pricked me in the market and the check-out clerk had to cover her hand in a plastic baggie.  Today, I put on my thick rubber dishwashing gloves to handle them.  It was much easier than I thought.  With paring knife in hand, I scraped off the spines and trimmed the edges.  Facile.

Based on the ingredients in my kitchen and Chef Lizette’s method for preparing perfectly crunchy, delicious nopal, here is my recipe I know you will find tasty.  It is a merging of these two salads we love, a blend of nopal and sunflower sprouts.

Norma’s No-Cook Nopal Cactus Salad with Fruit, Sprouts, Seeds

Ingredients (Norma’s Innovation)

  • 3 cactus paddles, cleaned and diced
  • 2 cups fresh sunflower sprouts, washed, dried
  • 1/4 c. sunflower seeds
  • 1 small romaine or bibb lettuce, washed, dried, torn into 1-2″ pieces
  • 8 strawberries (mine are organic, small, flavorful), whole
  • 1 medium mandarin orange, peeled, segmented
  • 1 mango, ripe, seeded, cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 1 T. coarse sea salt
  • 2 T. vinaigrette salad dress (scratch or bottled Cesaer)

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Method (attributed to Chef Lizette Galicia, El Mural de los Poblanos)

  1. Clean the cactus paddles.  Here is a link to how to do it.
  2. Put the diced cactus in a small bowl.  You should have about 3/4 to 1 cup.  Add coarse sea salt.  Stir.  Let sit for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the diced red onion to the cactus.  Stir.  Let mixture sit while you prepare the other ingredients.
  4. Wash and dry lettuce and sprouts.  Put into mixing bowl.
  5. Soak berries in water for 2 minutes with 1 T. of white vinegar to clean. Drain. Dry. De-stem.  Add to salad.
  6. Add mandarin segments to salad.
  7. Prepare mango by cutting it in half along the seed plane.  Score each half as if it was a tic-tac-toe board in 1″ cubes.  Fold the skin under and peel flesh from skin with paring knife.  Add to salad.
  8. Go back to nopal cactus and onion mixture.  Turn out into a mesh strainer.  The mix will be slimy like okra.  Run under cold water for 5 minutes or until the water is clear.  Taste for saltiness.  If too salty, continue to rinse.
  9. Drain cactus and onion well over a bowl.  Put bowl in refrigerator for 10 minutes until mix is cold.  Add to salad.
  10. Toss salad well with sunflower seeds.  Dress and serve.
  11. Serves 4.
  12. Enjoy!

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The health attributes of nopal cactus is legendary. Years ago, Andrew Weill, M.D., exclaimed that by eating nopal cactus you would get more vitamin C, reduce cholesterol and add fiber to your diet.  Health experts say it also reduces blood sugar to help keep diabetes under control and is great for weight loss.  Lore has it that it can prevent a hangover and control hypertension, too.  Let’s eat more nopal!   Just be careful not to prick yourself :)  

I am planning to make this again next weekend for the TMM-Day of the Dead Photography Workshop 2012 Reunion.  I’ll be writing more about that. Suffice it to say, seven women in the workshop last fall connected and wanted to get together again.  They are coming to North Carolina from all over the U.S.