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Food & Drink : Shopping, eating and, yes, drinking in San Miguel



Show me a market and I’ll show you a good time. Anywhere. From rural China to flossy Florence, one of the first things I do in a new environment is visit the mercado. It gives me a more profound sense of place than any shopping street or major museum ever could. So it’s inevitable that whenever I make one of my frequent treks to San Miguel de Allende, one of the first stops on my itinerary is the Nigromante market. Given the star-crossed confluence of flor de calabaza and huitlacoche, the last visit was especially rewarding. Let me elaborate.

An aguas-frescas and fruit vendor prepares fresh produce at a Tuesday tangui in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Saffron-hued squash blossoms are seductive just from the very look of them, and in San Miguel they’re usually sold in fist-sized bunches. You can indulge in elaborate stuffed and fried versions (goat cheese is a good filler; beer makes a good batter), and they are fantastic, but sliced and sautéed with onions and chile and stuffed into a fresh corn tortilla with a little cheese of your choosing, they make for quesadillas fabulosas.

Huitlacoche, often called corn truffle, is a fabulous fungus that grows on corn cobs, and sautéed with more white onion and perhaps just a hint of funky epazote, it’s a winner as a taco. Both are even better with my house drink in Mexico, tequila sours. Here’s the recipe:

1 part freshly squeezed juice from the small, Mexican limes
1 part simple syrup, made by boiling equal parts water and sugar
1 part good silver tequila (I use Jimador in Mexico)

Mix together in a pitcher, adjusting the proportions to suit your taste. (I usually cut down on the syrup slightly.) The amount you make will depend on your tolerance for lime squeezing — preferably with one of the aluminum squeezers purchased at the Tuesday tianguis. Pour over ice.

But before we get to the tianguis, a once-a-week affair bringing together everything from used jeans and blender jars to mounds of chiles and slabs of shark, let’s keep walking through the Nigromante. Like most shoppers, I have a regular lady who at least pretends to recognize me and unfailingly adds a pilon to the produce I’ve purchased: This time it was sweet plums I’ve never thought to try before.

But my favorite part of the market is often the more casual (and just recently roofed) walkway outside the main building. Here, women from the countryside ply their piles of yellow and blue corn gorditas. Here, the first mushrooms of the rainy season are often to be found, and you can buy a package of brilliant-green, steamed garbanzos for snacking as you shop or a few waxy yellow chiles that grow, I was told, pointing uncharacteristically upwards. (We will refrain from assigning heat value to the growing posture.)

Later in the season, the camote lady reigns here as well. Massive and impassive, she sits behind her large tins of slow-baked sweet potatoes, ladling just a little of the naturally occurring miel (“honey”) into each plastic-bag-full of almost-candied tuber. A great dessert can be made by adding a drizzle of crema, the slightly sour Mexican cream, to each serving. Should you happen to be staying up the hill from the market, sustenance for the hike can be had by making a stop at the tamale vendor usually stationed with his cart right alongside the panaderia on Nuñez. Husk-wrapped, his tamales are made from a white, grainy masa and are filled either with a brilliant smear of red or green chile and chicken. A cup of atole (a masa drink de rigeur with tamales), will ease the shucked cylinders down and have you on your way in no time.

Temptations abound at the tianguis, too; they range from electric-crimson aguas frescas to fluorescent-green sausages. I’ve dared the latter (it’s cooked — and very good), but not the former. In fact, now’s a good time to admit that I’m freaky about things not cooked or boiled. Everything that comes home from the market that won’t be subjected to significant heat is soaked in water to which a few drops of iodine (Microdyn) have been added. Twenty minutes is all it takes and you’re ready to use the radishes and raw acelgas (purslane) together in a salad, maybe with a little crumbled queso añejo. The same rule applies to fragrant, fresh guavas, the rough-skinned zapotes with interior flesh as brilliant as a summer sunset, and even those limes you’re going to squeeze for sours.

Seafood, on the other hand, is fresher and safer here than you might imagine. Mexicans take their shrimp, shark, and snapper seriously, and I’ve cooked all three, bought from the main vendor nearest the parking lot.

Here’s where a simple tin bracero comes in handy. These grills (I got mine in Comonfort, a small town near San Miguel also famous for molcajetes) come in all sizes, from sit-down to stand-up, and, loaded with primeval lump charcoal they are perfect for grilling slabs of cazon or a marinated pork tenderloin. True, you might have to settle for lomo de puerco at the butcher shop just below the Plaza Cívica, but just cut it into manageable pieces and marinate it longer. Such are the challenges of cooking in a different culture.

One challenge I won’t meet, however, is the dispatching of live quail from the vendor in the tianguis. (She’s near the back, past the pirated CDs, the bogus designer fashions, the used screwdrivers, and the really rustic furniture.) I realize the hypocrisy of being perfectly willing to deal with the plucked product and not the fluffy, chirpy one, but such is life; she doesn’t sell them under cellophane. Her quail eggs, however, are terrific for botanas, hard-boiled and streaked with a purée you will have concocted from any (or several) of the dried chiles heaped on tarps set right on the ground. For a tapa nueva, try the quail eggs fried in olive oil and served on toasted bread, atop slices of Spanish chorizo from the Spanish shop on the road to Queretaro.) A little local honey might add a welcome touch of sweetness to your salsa, a round of freshly made cheese would not be remiss ... and this is the great thing about markets: You can count on some staples, but otherwise it’s a question of luck and inspiration. I recommend a quick romp through any of Diana Kennedy’s or Rick Bayless’s cookbooks beforehand, just to get in the mood, then hit the ground running.

Oh, and be sure to take small bills and a large shopping bag — preferably emblazoned with an image of either La Parroquia (the main church) or La Virgen de Guadalupe (the main virgin). But please, not Frida. Basta ya con Frida.

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