learn the secrets of your local MEXICAN MARKET

Want tortillas that were made this morning? Bins of fragrant chiles to choose from? Delicious cheeses to use in authentic Mexican recipes? Find these and more amazing foods in every aisle.






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Publication: Sunset
Author: Ciarmello, Christine
Date published: March 1, 2013

POP MUSIC BLARES from hidden speakers. Streamers and balloons hang from the rafters. Large, colorful lettering drawn on wooden boards points to intriguing nooks like the jugo and salsa bar, a palm-frond hut that attracts a line for its freshly made aguas frescas. The market air smells of posole spices - cumin, orégano, chiles - and just-baked sweet bread, pan dulce. Pounds of bagged masa, the corn dough used to make tamales and tortillas, are stacked on a table: masa preparada (with lard added), sin preparada (without lard), and con chile (spiced with chiles).

Silvana Salcido Esparza, chef of the popular Barrio Café in Phoenix and Barrio Queen in Scottsdale, glides past the trays of pan dulce and heads straight to the section of the store devoted to tortillas. "Hard taco shells and yellow cheese are not Mexican," she declares. Born to Mexican immigrants and raised in California's Central Valley, Esparza has been a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation chef award, and perhaps more important has, as she says, atole por las venas (atole is a classic chocolate drink). Her meaning: Mexico is in her blood.

In the market, she examines a stack of white corn tortillas and nods approvingly. If she found that they weren't fresh, no doubt the commanding Esparza, with a salt-and-pepper buzz cut and tattooed arms, would take it up with the manager. But freshness isn't an issue here at Pro's Ranch Market, in Phoenix's Garfield neighborhood, so she smiles and chats with the tortilla makers. The store devotes 40 employees to producing some 150,000 tortillas daily, grinding corn from scratch and using presses from Mexico. The tortillas are bagged warm. At day's end, anything not sold is fried into chips, and after 48 hours, those chips are discarded. How old are the tortillas at your store?

Dedication to the tortilla is just one reason to shop at the West's many Mexican markets (found in just about every city and town). Because of their devotion to home cooking, Hispanic households in the States spend 44 percent more on groceries each week and shop three times more often (an average of 26 trips a month) than the typical U.S. consumer, according to the most recent Food Marketing Institute report. So these markets cater to customers who prize freshness and crave a variety of fresh, dried, and packaged ingredients, plus a stunning array of prepared sauces and salsas - often at bargain prices. Here, Esparza walks you through the store to point out the true finds, with tips on how to use them.

The tortilleria

MASA

"There are 100 things you do with masa," Esparza says. Unless you're feeding a she recommends skipping fresh corn dough, often sold 5- to 10-pound bags, because it's highly perishable. Instead, buy it dried (Maseca brand) in the packaged-foods With this, you can add water to make dough, and press it into your own tortillas. recommends adding a big pinch of flour to Maseca for a softer, less grainy dough.

use it To make gorditas (hot pockets), form balls of dough and flatten. Place a cube of Oaxaca cheese and a piece of roasted poblano in the middle. Fold closed pinch the edges, then fry and top with salsa. (Uncooked pockets freeze well.)

FLOUR TORTILLAS

Tortillas from white flour come in different sizes and are often labeled for their intended use: burrito, fajita, etc. Esparza says that the large ones, from the state of Sonora, are sometimes referred to in slang as sobaquera (sobaco means armpit) because their roughly 15-inch diameter stretches from elbow to armpit.

USE IT Depending on size, roll for burritos or fold for fajitas.

CORN TORTILLAS

Available in various sizes (often 4-inch and 7-inch diameter) and in white, yellow, and sometimes blue corn. Pro's Ranch uses local corn from Elfrida, Arizona, near the Sonora border.

USE IT Fry for chicken tinga tostaditas (recipe at right), roll into enchiladas suizas (recipe on page 77), or warm for tacos.

The bakery

BOLILLO

A light, crusty submarine roll.

USE IT Split and fill with jalapeños, ham, and melted Oaxaca cheese for a quick sandwich.

PAN DULCE

Sweet breads are huge in Mexico, and pan duke, with its sugary topping, rules.

USE IT To avoid artificial coloring, choose the white or brown (cocoa) varieties.

The packaged-foods aisle

HOT SAUCE

Esparza says Tapado is the best: "The body is thicker than the other sauces." By the looks of how it dominates the shelves here, few people would disagree.

use it Pour on everything.

CHIPOTLE CHILES IN ADOBO SAUCE

A chipotle pepper is a dried, smoked jalapeño; adobo sauce contains tomatoes, cloves, cinnamon, sugar, vinegar, and salt. "A perfect combo of savory, sweet, and spicy," says Esparza, who likes Embasa brand for its rich color and smokier flavor.

USE IT A spoonful of pureed chiles kicks up the flavor of tomatillo salsa, barbecue sauce, and the sauce for chicken tinga tostaditas (recipe at right).

SALSA VERDE

Canned green salsa is a good shortcut to avoid peeling and roasting tomatillos.

USE IT Esparza livens up canned salsa (Embasa brand, for the thick texture) with pureed chipotles in adobo and a few dashes of Tapado.

ACHIOTE PASTE

Mayan in origin, it's made from annatto seeds and imparts smoky, peppery flavors and a reddish hue to marinades and sauces. Esparza dilutes the paste with sour orange juice.

USE IT Smear a slurry of the juice and paste over chicken or tilapia. For chicken, roast or cook slowly in a dutch oven. For fish, wrap in a banana leaf and grill.

NARANJA AGRIA (SOUR ORANGE JUICE)

The juice of the Seville orange. Fresh is best, if you can find the fruit, but it's also available by the jug. Look for pure juice; some products labeled "sour orange marinade" are made with citric acid instead.

USE IT Add tart kick to achiote and other marinades.

CAJETA

This caramel sauce is akin to dulce de leche. Esparza loves the full, tangy flavor of Coronado brand, made from goat's milk. For a milder flavor, look for one from cow's milk.

USE IT Top an ice cream sundae (recipe on page 77), or simply spread on a saltine for a "todie-for" salted caramel treat.

The dried-chiles aisle

ANCHO

A dried poblano with a rich, smoky flavor that Esparza especially likes with beef.

USE IT For salsa, reconstitute and purée with broth, garlic, and salt, then cook. Cool, then add cilantro and diced onion.

GUAJILLO

Has little heat but a fragrant, earthy flavor; Esparza calls it "the king of dried chiles."

USE IT It's central to mole sauces and also commonly used in red chile sauce (chile colorado).

ARBOL

"As flavorful as the habanero, but with a fraction of the heat," says Esparza. And it's an exception to the dried-chile rules (see below): It's brittle when freshly dried and doesn't require rehydration.

USE IT Throw it in soups, canned pinto beans, and rice to give lift to a dish (pull it out before serving). Infuse tequila with it by dropping a few in the spirit, or use it in sangrita de toro (recipe at right).

NEGRO

A chilaca that's dried; may be sold as "dried pasilla." It has a black color and deep flavor, like a spicy prune.

USE IT Reconstitute and purée with other dried chiles, then slow-cook with beef or pork.

* Chiles are sometimes mislabeled, and some fresh ones change names when dried. For identification and flavor profiles, Esparza likes The Great Chile Book by Mark Miller.

The cheese counter

CREMA

Called Mexican sour cream, it's less tangy than the standard kind. Crema Mexicana is thinner; jocoque is thicker, like crème fraîche. You'll find crema in the dairy case, but check the cheese counter for a fresh crema bar, where you can taste before you buy.

USE IT Drizzle onto enchiladas (recipe at right) and tostaditas (recipe on page 73).

OAXACA

A semisoft melting cheese often sold in a mozzarella-like ball meant to be torn off in strips, it's closest in texture and flavor to string cheese or Monterey Jack.

USE IT Top enchiladas (recipe at right) or grilled nopales.

COTIJA

A semihard, salty, crumbly finishing cheese similar to parmesan.

USE IT Makes a sharp-flavored garnish for red chile enchiladas or tostadas.

QUESO FRESCO

Semisoft and creamy; used for cooking and as a condiment.

USE IT Crumbled in enchiladas (recipe at right).

MENNONITE

Increasingly popular semisoft cheese, introduced to the state of Chihuahua by Mennonites.

USE IT Make mac 'n' cheese, with adobo chipotles for kick.

The produce section

TOMATILLOS

These common tart, tomatolike vegetables are the tion for salsa verde. Esparza likes the harder-to-find tomanllo, a tinier, more expensive version, for its more concentrated flavor.

USE IT In enchiladas suizas (recipe at right). Or, for a simple salsa verde, peel and roast tomatillos until tender, then purée with arbol chile.

NOPALES

The stickery pads from the prickly pear cactus are hard to clean. But at Mexican markets, nopales often come already cleaned (dethorned and peeled) and either whole or chopped.

USE IT Parboil cleaned, chopped nopales, then dunk in an ice bath so they don't get gummy. Sauté with garlic, onions, tomato, and scrambled eggs or tofu. Or, if you buy whole cleaned pads, brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill on one side until olive-colored, about 4 minutes, then turn, top with Oaxaca cheese, and grill 3 minutes more.

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