Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Little Lunch With Friends

After a fairly long lapse, we were ready for a visit to our favorite restaurant in the Pátzcuaro area, la Marisquería "La Güera". Seafood is the specialty, of course.

Our neighbors,, Geni and Larry accompanied us. It's now a lot faster and easier to get to the restaurant because the construction of the 4 lane Libramiento Ignacio Zaragoza is essentially complete, lacking only the finishing touches of palm trees, "modren" statuary, and lateral curbs. There are even traffic lights, still undergoing testing, or just to familiarize the drivers of their existence.

Once parked, and at the restaurant, I saw that the staff was having their lunches. I think that it gives an appealing, "family" touch. Although I was curious to knw what they had chosen, I didn't ask, although at least some rice was evident.

We four went for a light selection of fare:
We split an order of Tiritas de Pescado Fresco, a sort of seviche in strips, presented attractively on a background of sliced cucumber, a little lettuce, chopped cucumber, some rings of purple onion, and the trademarked orange slices, all lightly sprinkled with chile flakes.

The fish takes about 20 minutes to "cook" in lime juice, so we filled the wait with an order of guacamole; and I had two tostadas de marlín guisado, shredded, smokey fish cooked with tomato and a little chile. Geni had one also. The guacamole was simple and freshly made.

Three of our group drank goblets of fizzy limonadas freshly squeezed from limes, while I had a Cerveza Victoria.

The Tiritas came, and they were outstanding, tangy, fresh and flavorsome. One order, $38 Pesos, is enough for 4 to have as an appetizer. I used to try to eat one by myself as a light main course, but it's just too much of a good thing.

We then ordered more plates to suit our individual desires.

Larry got a torta de marlín, a small French roll with the same marlin spread on it, which just about filled him, but he and Geni were able to share the large plate of warm, freshly cooked Camarones Para Pelar that we ordered. (Peel' em and eat 'em shrimp.) These are among the best products of the restaurant, and although I'm certain the shrimp comes to them frozen, it always tastes great and fresh. The headless shrimp are large. This time, the colorful platter came showered with finely chopped mild white onion.

There is no cocktail sauce, but some of us made up a tasty do it yourself sauce of mayonnaise and thick, smoky rich Salsa Chipotle.

To balance all the "cold" foods, I also got an order of nice, perfectly acceptable Papas Fritas (French Fries.) There was a new-ish condiment I wanted to try, made by the same company, Cosecha Purépecha, who manufacture the Salsa Chipotle and other fine bottled salsas. The condiment is a chile vinegar, but way above the common stuff. It has 2 or 3 different kinds of chiles, carrot, bay leaves and other spices, attractively arranged. It went very well with the cucumbers* as well as on the French Fries.

I think that about covers all. There were some extra limonadas and another beer.

The total bill was $366.20 MXP, or around $33.38 USD, plus a 12% tip.

We love that place. The neatly dressed, white jacketed, mostly attentive employees seem genuinely happy, and that's a plus.

*Cucumbers are very cheap in the mercado (at retail). Typically, 3 kilos for 8 or 10 pesos. Once every vendor was pushing them 3 x 5 pesos.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Bun For The Money?

We were in Pátzcuaro's alluring Mercado Soriana yesterday morning, picking up a few necessities (eg, 12 bottle cartons of Cerveza Nochebuena at 2 for 1 pricing) when we wandered over to the panadería section. At that hour there wasn't much fresh bread available, but there were some French style "pistolets" (usually called "bolillos" in Mexico, some teleras, the flatter oval rolls with two longitudinal creases, only one seeded baguette, and quite a few round, sesame topped rolls. The latter looked something like overly plump hamburger bins or uncreased Kaiser Rolls.

I started to put 4 of the round rolls on my tray, then saw the price card. I mistakenly thought that each one was 5 pesos, which is a high price here. But after some careful analysis using elementary decimal fractions, I understood that they were only 50 centavos, or 1/2 peso each. The bolillos and teleras were the same price, if I recall, and the lone baguette was 90 centavos. Eight cents.

Think about that. They cost about 4 1/2 ¢ each. No other bakery that I've been to sells bread at so low a price. Is it a function of buying power and production efficiencies, or are they undercutting the other stores and traditional panaderías with very aggressive pricing? I suspect the latter, and selling at under the cost of ingredients and labor. In my view, such practices are not limited to the well-hated (except by Mexican customers who throng to shop there) "Octopus of the North", Wal-Mart.

By the way, the rolls were plain but good, and we made some tasty sandwiches on them. For our dessert, we had some miniature pastries, based on cupcakes, which are very prettily fashioned and sell for only 4.5 pesos each. That's about 42¢. One, a fake whipped cream-filled Baba, was ok, but an elaborated "Hostess" cupcake, topped with a glazed strawberry half was unappetizingly dry. A nut-glazed cuernito is pretty tasty, especially when warmed in the toaster oven.

I guess you generally get what you pay for.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Culinary Adventures in the Inside Passage...

...of Pátzcuaro's mercado

In an effort to revitalize my sense of culinary derring do, seasoned with a dash of risk, we once again went forth where no guidebook dares venture. Today we walked along one of the inside passages of Pátzcuaro's
mercado. Our regular mercado path usually finds us in the bright sunshine of the market street where the fruits and vegetables are sold, as well as the odd pig's head and assorted viscerae.

We have made occasional exploratory forays into the cavernous gloom under the shed roofs.

There are discoveries to be made. This is not your Soriana, Wal-Mart or Comercial Mexicana.

The general layout of products and services places the fruits and vegetables outside along the street, the carnicerías and pollerías more or less together inside; a rather unattractive hall of fondas, and a small, fresh and dried fish section. Follow your nose.

The south side is dedicated to Sanitarios Públicos, peluquerías and natural herbal medicine tiendas. There is clothing and plastic wares near the clothing. You can pick up some Santa Muerte paraphernalia and 5 pairs of cheap socks, if you know where to look.

(HINT: they are in the passageway behind the attractive, ringletted señorita selling pepinos y jícamas, across from the outdoor vitrina de la víscera. Innards.)

There's the lower-end fruits and vegetables corridor inside, flanking the main outside pasillo. Our belief is that there are bargains there.

Yesterday morning we were returning to buy bananas from a particular inside vendor. My wife claims his bananas last longer. (Maybe I should be worried.)

The following review should not be misconstrued. This is not about a world class eating experience, deserving four stars in guidebooks and worth a special journey. It's about a tasty, cheap snack.

On our way in we pased at least 3 quesadilla stalls, as well as a couple of cocinas económicas; of the latter, at least one specializing in fish head soup.

One quesadilla stall which shone forth out of las sombras. It's called "Quesadillas Monse". My appetite quickened at the sight of crisping quesadillas being flipped in hot lard.

After a tortured deliberation as to whether to eat fish head soup or quesadillas, we turned to the latter. Monse's was very popular, and it was filled with happy munchers, while neighboring quesadillas stalls languished for clients. (At least, at that hour.)

Monse's even built a mini-comedor, or, call it a dinette, across the passageway from the hot fat frying. Or, you can sit right up against the fry station, and hope that the quesadilla cocinera es diestra and doesn't splash sizzling lard on your ascot. The tables of this cheerful nook held brimming bowls of salsa roja, salsa verde, shredded lettuce and crema.

CREMA? Who puts crema on fried food? Well, nearly everyone who was eating there. Yes, even on quesadillas de salchicha y queso (hot dogs and Oaxaca cheese.)

The selection of filings is limited, and that's probably good, because it tends to make freshness a likelihood. There's pollo con papas, rajas con carne de res deshebrada, tinga, queso Oaxaca, y salchichas. Weiners.

It's fun to watch the all-woman team in action. There's Monse, pulling queso into shreds, taking orders and alternately collecting payment*; there's the masa squasher pressing out the elongated ovals on the tortilla prensa; there's the quesadilla cocinera, wielding two spatulas, frying the elongated envelopes of masa y harina to crisp delicacies in manteca pura de cerdo.

Yes. The non-PC, non vegetarian, all natural, no trans fats, grasa verdadera. Pig fat. Real Mexican food.

There's even impromptu "found" entertainment. We were seated at a small table in the passageway, to which a man came to collect a costal of lettuce trimmings and outer leaves. It was stashed under our table, and Monse had to drag out a bigger sack of lettuce heads to retrieve it.

I was tempted to have another quesadilla, but it might have taken 5 minutes to make, and I was foolishly thinking of trying some menudo (Yes!) at the Plaza San Francisco. (I didn't. Probably a prudent choice.)

*No te preocupes. Even though the alternating money and food handling violates one of my Rules of Street and Market Food Hygiene, I choose to believe that the sizzling lard kills off any bugs. No stomachs were harmed in the making of this blog post.

The graphic image at the top, which bears only a passing resemblance to the quesadillas Monse's, was borrowed from stock image site.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Rotate For Freshness

We live in a region of rotating population. The Michoacanos go to the "otro lado", that is, the United States, to work and earn a better living, while the retirees/expats move here for cheaper living and a more temperate climate. (I'll grant that there are other reasons for the expat migration, but that's not my theme today.)

Sometimes the expats return to their home countries, for varied reasons. Some, including our dear friends and neighbors, live here seasonally. One of the side effects of the rotation of the expat population is The Moving Sale. These sales give us who stay a chance to buy funny looking table lamps, side tables, Bundt pans and other artifacts at bargain prices. We scavengers can get herb and spice collections for free or a few pesos. But to accept these herbs, spices and odd lots of ingredients has its dark side.

One departing expat left me a Number 10 can of tomato paste, and about a pound of fennel seed. Questions arose. How do I open and store such a quantity of tomato paste in the overcrowded and overworked freezer compartment? And fennel seed—used in making Italian style sausage— it takes about a tablespoon per batch. I have enough fennel, between his gift and my unfortunately concurrent purchases, to make enough Italian sausage to circle Lake Pátzcuaro several times.

Another vexing challenge is that of redundancy and of freshness. I appreciated getting a small bag of celery seed, but how many more baggies of orégano can I use—or basil? How fresh are they? Did they come from the Other Side 3 years ago? Most of these herbs are readily available in mercados and supermarkets. So who wants to have to spend time rotating for freshness and finding both suitable containers for storing on increasingly chaotic shelves?

One type of seasoning, though, gives me no hesitation in pitching it into el bote (the trash can). Those are the little, premixed packets of Taco Seasoning, French Toast Batter Seasoning, Tuna Casserole Sauce Mix, and Caesar Salad Herb Blend; that sort of stuff. The kind of seasonings that are composed mainly of salt, sugar and MSG with a little spice as an afterthought. ¡Salgan!

The real problem is how to seem grateful for these gifts from the departing expats yet while maintaining my sanity. After all, I don't want to make their leave taking any more dolorous than it already is. So, in the end, I accept with feigned gratitude, while silently cursing the Herbal Triage that awaits me.

Sometimes I can bestow some herbs and spices on others less fortunately endowed. A couple of days ago, I brought the Number 10 Can of Tomato Paste over to our next door, Alabaman neighbors, Geni and Larry, along with some 1 cup plastic freezer containers. They packed about half the contents into their vacuum sealed plastic bags, and gave me the other half in my freezer containers. It was a small price to get that tomato paste where I could use it.

So, there is hope.
But there is also a catch.
Geni told me that when they turn off their electricity to leave, I will get their tomato paste.