Maria de Lourdes Benitez: Spices, Dried Fish & More at La Merced in Mexico City
They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some are narrow and long, some are fat and short. Some are the size of an infant’s tiny fist with wrinkles to boot. If you’ve spent any time in a Mexican Mercado which sells fruits and vegetables, you’ve surely passed by the stalls and wondered what in the world all the varieties of chile peppers are for and how are they used in cooking. The countless types can leave even master chefs perplexed at times, and often, it comes down to the person selling them to provide the indisputable advanced knowledge of what to do with them.
In Mexico City’s La Merced, a mega Mercado which consumes several city blocks just east of the historic center, the masses of not only chile peppers, but also fruits, vegetables and meats can easily render the uninitiated with a sense of awe and blatant curiosity.
On a recent trip to this Mercado, I decided to dig a bit deeper and obtain some hints at the various products sold and their uses. I met with Maria de Lourdes Benitez of “Casa Galicia” for an interesting and educational visit during a “Spices/Chiles 101” meeting.
First off, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in this business.
I’m originally from Jerécuaro, Guanajuato in the southeastern part of the state, but have lived here in Mexico City for 35 years now. I have been selling chiles and spices here at La Merced for 8 years. Prior to doing this, I was a housewife and knitter of all types of baby items. I used to knit baby clothing, quilts, shoes and everything you can imagine for infants.
So, the bulk of what you sell here is?
Chiles, chiles and more chiles…haha! Seriously, I sell guajillo, pasilla, ancho, mulato, arbol, mora, morita & catarina chiles. I also have a variety of spices such as cumin, ground moles, nuts, ablandadores de carne (meat tenderizers) and several species of dried fish.
I have to ask you, can you please share with us how some of these peppers might be used in a dish?
Por supuesto! (Of course!) Let me start off by giving you some idea how the guajillo and ancho chiles might be used. First, they could be used in a dish called ‘pollo adobado’ which is started by boiling the ancho and guajillos. They are then removed from the water, strained and blended with pepper, garlic, clove, onion and a ciruela pasa (whole prune) for added flavor. Once blended, we pour the mixture over chicken pieces and bake in a 170 degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Sorry for not giving you exact measurements of the different ingredients but a lot of this depends on the cook’s personal preferences for flavor.
Now, if we take a different chile like the pasilla for instance, we can use this one over grilled steaks. We call this dish ‘bistecs en pasilla’. Here, the procedure is simple and starts off with grilling the pasillas and tomatoes on a comal (griddle), then blending this mixture with onions and pouring the entire sauce over grilled steaks. This dish comes out very tasty and is easy to make.
Lastly, if you want to make a quick salsa, I recommend using the ‘catarina’ chile. This one is not too spicy, and again, is grilled to bring out the flavors. We would start off by grilling it on a comal with some tomatoes then blending them to make a fresh salsa. Oh, and of course you don’t want to forget to remove the stems whenever you’re working with some of these chiles.
Wow, thank you for sharing so much detail on some tasty-sounding dishes! Now, you mentioned dried fish. I’ve seen these sold in many mercados and often walk away puzzled at the varieties and curious about how people prepare these. Can you also shed some light on these?
Well, I have several varieties and just to let you know, the peak seasons for dried fish are both Christmas and Lent season. During Christmas, people eat a lot of bacalo (salted cod) because it’s part of a national tradition here in Mexico. As for the types I sell, the list is long and includes: corvina, popocha, campeche 1st and 2nd grades, robalo (bass), bagre (catfish), and bacalo de noruega (Norwegian cod). One of the most popular, especially during Lent season and Holy Week is the robalo (bass). People really consume that fish a whole lot during that time.
Can you take us through the process of preparing a couple of these you mentioned?
Sure, first let me tell you that with all salted fish here, we would start the process by soaking it in water over night. The purpose for this would be to desalinate the fish. Once we’ve done this, then we would prepare the fish to our liking or to the method best suited for the particular fish we’re using. Let’s start off with the real simple bagre (catfish). As mentioned, we first desalinate then properly drain and rinse. Once this is done, we heat a comal with hot oil and grill the fish until done. We top off the cooked bagre with lettuce, lemon, jitomate (red tomatoes), avocado and chiles. And there you have it, a quick and super simple dish.
Now, a fish that’s a bit more complex to prepare is the bacalo, which is the traditional Christmas fish here in Mexico. For this one, we follow the same desalination procedure then break apart all the fish into small pieces by hand. We pre-cook some potatoes and set those aside along with cubed onions and jitomates. Then, we take the cubed onions and jitomates and sauté those in a heated pan with olive oil. Once cooked, we add the pieces of bacalo and let simmer for about ten minutes upon which time we will add the precooked potatoes, some olives and chiles gueros. We continue cooking for ten minutes until all ingredients are nicely done.
So, there you have it! Those are just two types of dried fish we prepare here in Mexico. And as I mentioned, these are very popular dishes people make during Christmas and Holy Week.
Thanks Lourdes for that excellent rundown of the world of dried fish and the varied uses. Now, I also notice that the bulk of your business here is taken up by these multi-colored powders or spices you have in these bins. Can you tell what these are and how they are used?
Sure, no problem! These are known as ‘molidos’, or to put it simply, prepared mole mixes. As you may know, Mexican moles like you’ll find in either Oaxaca or Puebla contain an abundance of ingredients, sometimes numbering over 20 in all. The mixes I sell here are a “prepared” spice that incorporates all the ingredients that one would put together in making a mole. I have several different kinds that range in flavors and colors. I’ll give you a brief rundown on what those are. Well, to start we have the ‘Mole Don Pancho’ brand which is one of the most popular ones I sell here. It’s a mole powder from San Pedro Actopan which is southwest of here near Cuernavaca. This particular mole happens to be my favorite because it’s not loaded with spices and it’s easy on the digestion.
I also sell ‘pepita’, which is used to make mole verde (green mole) and ‘pipian’, which is made up of toasted chile seeds ground up to a fine powder. Oh, I almost forgot I also have one called ‘mole almendrado especial’ (almond based) which people ask for a lot as well.
Thanks Lourdes, now I have to ask you how easy is it to make a dish out these types? Since they are ‘prepared mixes’, is the process simple?
Somewhat, yes! Though there still is some work to do, the procedure is simpler because all the ingredients have been incorporated into the mix already. Let me first tell you, and you may know this already, but all moles are traditionally made with chicken. Some people do use pork meat however in their moles. It just comes down to personal preference at that point.
Okay. So, let’s say we’re going to use chicken to make our mole, how would we go about preparing the meal?
Well, let’s assume we’re using my favorite, the ‘Don Pancho’ brand. We start by browning some chicken pieces with garlic and onions in a saucepan. We continue to cook this until the chicken is pretty much done. After we’ve completed this step, we take the broth that’s been produced and, in a separate pan with hot oil, we mix in the mole powder and stir. We do this for a few minutes or until both are fully incorporated and steaming hot. This mixture is then poured over the chicken and that completes the dish. Pretty simple, huh?
Absolutely! Very simple and thanks again for the detailed explanation. Now, I think we’ve covered just about all the things you sell here. Is there anything we’ve overlooked or that you would like to add?
Oh yes, one last thing that I sell a lot of are ‘Miguelitos’ which are these different, flavored powders which are used as toppings for fruits and vegetables. They come in flavors like ‘mora azul’ (blueberry), ‘tamarindo’, ‘fresa’ (strawberry) and lime. The name comes from the brand and has been around since we were kids.
Thank you so much Lourdes for sharing about your business, its products and their varied uses, including some quick recipes. Now, I end all my interviews with a question about traveling in Mexico. Is there some place in Mexico you have not been to but would like to someday? Where is it and why?
That’s easy! Cozumel, because I’ve only seen it on TV and dream about seeing it in person some day!
My sincere thanks goes out to Lourdes for being so kind with her time during our interview. If you find yourself in Mercado La Merced, pay her a visit and tell her you read about her place here.
Mercado La Merced, Nave Mayor
Puerta 30 Acceso 2 Pasillo 4
Col Merced Balbuena, Mexico City, D.F
**Note** Interview originally conducted in Spanish and later translated into English