Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Carnal Knowledge: a "butcher's hook" at a Mexican meat market

Mexicans are a meat loving people. They don't often eat it in large, thick, juicy cuts, but as often as they can afford it, in smaller, thinner cuts and portions. Nor do they have a visceral antipathy, but relish odd cuts of offal meats; tongue, cheek, tripe and pata de cerdo (pig's feet).

For those Norteamericanos accustomed to buying their meat is small, plastic trays, sealed in transparent film, the scene in a typical carnicería can be somewhat unnerving. It's a little disconcerting to have a scalded pig's head hanging next you you as you banter with the Jefe de Carniceros and place your order. They are often flanked by various dangling sections of of viscera and cecina, thin sheets of dried, salted meats. It's a very customized experience: name your cut or grind, and the staff will do it while you wait. If nothing else, meat in Mexico is fresh.

You get a pretty good slice of reality in these meat markets. Occasionally you must dodge wheelbarrows of porcine parts pushed by porters though the pulsing pasillos.

My first encounter with a carnicería was in Cuetzalan, Puebla in 1980. It was earthy scene: basically a wooden stall with various cow parts strewn about. I patiently waited my turn, doubt racings through my mind, as the butcher hacked away at a furry cow's leg for the customer ahead of me.
My turn came, and I got a really gruesome looking, raggedly cut of pot roasting beef, with many veins. It ended up in a slow cooker as Carbonnades a la Flamande, simmering away as we explored cave systems in the area.

There are some people who believe that if you eat meat, you should understand and experience the whole process. I absolutely agree in theory, but I definitely prefer to blind myself to the animal's moment of Ultimate Sacrifice and subsequent butchering. That's the way it is. My upbringing didn't prepare me for watching the slaughter.
As a child, I used to revulse at the bloodied spring lamb hanging in the Italian butcher shops, but now I am hardened to the sight of animal parts hanging from hooks. I wouldn't eat chicken for many years after visiting the Kosher live chicken store in Bensonhurst, NY.

Some of our Mexican friends offered us a live guajalote (turkey) last Sunday. Really. We could take it home, fatten it, kill it, pluck and eviscerate it, cook, freeze, whatever, etc. We thanked them, but no, I didn't want to do that.

In the end, we eat less meat here than we did back in the U.S.A. Part of it comes from lingering squeamishness, but part of it is that beef of a quality to which we are accustomed is hard to find. It's also expensive; and with a nice selection of vegetables and fruits available in the mercado at very low prices, we are encouraged to eat more vegetables and less meat. We have not, by any means become vegetarians, but our diet refects a healthier outlook than it did in the Old Country.

More photos of Carnicería La Norteña in the Pátzcuaro mercado here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Caldo de Pollo con Verduras

Yesterday's dinner: This was a fairly ambitious project, spanning two days. However, it isn't technically difficult.
On Monday, we went too the mercado and bought calabacitas (courgettes), ejotes (green beans), chayotes, (mirlitons), aguacates, apio (celery), a whole pollo (chicken). We already had on hand onions, garlic, carrots, Italian style parsley and cilantro; dried garbanzos and epazote.

First, select your chicken; with care, it will provide several meals.

I picked over and rinsed about 2 cups of dried garbanzos and put them to cook at low heat in plentiful plain water.
The second step was to make a vegetable broth. I cut up onions, garlic, carrots, celery (with the leaves) and dried epazote (a powerfully medicinal smelling herb) and salt and pepper, and brought it to a boil. Meanwhile, I washed the chicken in cold water, salted it with coarse kosher salt and let it rest for 30 minutes. When the vegetables came to a simmer, I rinsed the excess salt from the chicken and submerged it in the stock. I let that come back to a boil, turned down the heat to a simmer, covered, and let cook 20 minutes with a cover. At that point, I turned off the heat, and let the garbanzos and the cicken rest for 2 hours while I took a nap.

Back at the stove, I continued cooking the garbanzos, but with a little epazote. When they started to become tender, I put in a little salt. The chicken was removed from the cooking liquid and the stock strained. All these components were refrigerated overnight.

Day two; I began by removing excess fat from the stock and discarding it. Then various vegetables were prepped: Susan trimmed the ejotes. I peeled and chunked new carrots, celery and cut up the calabacitas and the chayotes. (I should have cut the latter a bit smaller, but they were ok.) I put the ejotes on to cook in lightly salted water in a separate pot. Meanwhile, the freshly cut carrots and celery went into the chicken-vegetable stock. When I judged them "right", in went the chayotes and then the courgettes. After that, the par-cooked green beans. I poured in the garbanzos and their liquid. (Could have used more, but it was ok.)

While all this was going on, a pot of plain, white steamed rice was simmering on the back burner, while I removed the skin from the chicken and hacked it into serving sized pieces. I washed a good handful of parsley and cilantro and chopped it coarsely, for a last minute addition to the soup kettle. When I tasted the stock, it seemed a bit weak, so I boosted the salt a bit and 'cheated' with a heaping tablespoon of Knorr-Suiza Caldo de Pollo en polvo. The chicken chunks were reheated separately in some of the stock.

The assembly/plating was as follows: a largish, deep soup bowl, a scoop of hot rice; vegetables and stock to cover; then two pieces of chicken meat. Finally, two slices of aguacate for a garnish. Small, Mexican lime halves in a bowl were passed to squeeze on to the soup, and a small amount of ground red chile was available to spice things up. It was very tasty, soothing (made me sleepy), and I was too sleepy to take a picture. We ate two bowls each, the second one without any chicken. This is great, "down-home" food; comida casera at its best.