Found a Good Website for Mexican Food Specialty Items & Need Advice in Making Up a Shopping List
By way of a very interesting article in the NY Times last week about Mexican home cooking I found a nice website that offers a lot of the products that are necessary for preparing the sauces and moles mentioned in that article. The website is: MEXGROCER.COM. It's a fun site to explore and the prices seem fair (offering a wide selection of merchandise featuring the Virgin of Guadaloupe, including a large purse, which I'm thinking about purchasing).
But, what I'm really after are ingredients that will make my Mexican cooking, especially moles and sauces, easier and more authentic. It's just that I wish I knew more about what it was I really needed to buy, and what are the best brands versus the not so good brands. I think that NYT article mentioned Dona Maria was a really good brand. I'm very interested in learning to make simplified moles and sauces, such as mole poblano and adobo sauce (not strictly Mex. but in the ballpark). I have Diana Kennedy's "Art of Mexican Cooking."
So, if any chowhounds with experience in navigating the necessary ingredients/brands for taking an Anglo one step beyond in the Mexican cooking universe could check out the MEXGROCER.COM site and organize a shopping list for me, I'd be very grateful.
If you know of other good websites featuring similar products I'd be grateful if you could share them with me. I do know about TIENDA.COM another wonderful source for Latino ingredients.
The most important ingredient that elevated my attempts at cooking Mexican food to another level was dried chiles. Of course, it depends upon the recipe, but dried guajillo, ancho and chiles de arbol are a good start.
I also LOVE Herdez's salsa casera. It's the best prepared salsa I've ever had, whether canned or "fresh" (i.e. the kind that comes in a plastic container at the supermarket, etc.), other than those served in a restaurant or homemade.
Another item to get, if you don't already have them available locally, are chipotles in adobo. I don't have a preferred brand, but they definitely provide a taste of authenticity.
The key to good Mexican cooking, I've found, is the fresh ingredients: garlic, onion, tomato, peppers, cilantro, and, above all, lard as the fat base for beans, etc.
I know Dommy! (who posts on the Los Angeles board) has recommended Dona Maria moles before. Here's a link to her thread on mole enchiladas:
Edited to add: I don't know if they sell cheese on mexgrocer, but another thing that helps with that "authentic" taste in Mexican cooking is the right dairy ingredients: queso anejo, cotija, requeson and panela are a good start, as is Mexican "crema" (similar to sour cream or creme fraiche). Another good thing to get would be Mexican chocolate tablets, used to make hot chocolate. Oh, and if you really want to go all-out, buy a bag of dried hibiscus flowers, and make jamaica (a really pretty--it comes out a deep magenta color--and tasty agua fresca (a cold tea-like beverage)).
I use Dona Maria. I have made my own moles and it is one of those things you do once or twice and then go to Dona Maria unless it is something like Manchmateles. Otherwise it is a thankless task and Dona Maria is very good and handy to have in the pantry
re: Alexandra Eisler
I second that Ranco Gordo will really have specialty items for Mexican cooking as will Tierra Vegetables.
Unless you really need the option of online shopping, most of what MexGrocer sells can be found at the local Mexican markets and not even that. The Mexican aisle in most local supermarkets like Safeway and Albertsons will have a good many of these items.
If you can, get down to the Farmers Market at Ferry Plaza and talk to Rancho Gordo directly. He will help you with the items to buy ... not just his own ... and the best markets in the area to shop at. As for Mi Tierra they have the fresest dried peppers and fresh peppers. In terms of fresh peppers, I'd check out the local mex-markts for fresh peppers not to duplicate what Tierra sells since the mex-markets are less expensive.
As to moles, lots of Mexican markets have thier own mole sauces on top of the meat counters. Many have tastes so you can get a feel for the flavor. English usually isn't that great at Mexican markets but some places it is very good and you might get some advice on products.
However, if your situation doesn't allow getting over to the markets then mexgrocer seems fine in terms of price. There's just that shipping cost to deal with. I'd stay away from the Mexican candy though. Too much of it has lead in it.
Zarela Martinez, the author and Zarela owner, always add a list of that sort in her books. In her first one, Food of my heart, by example, she lists a dozen places were you can find everything and order by mail.
And guys, if someone is planning to visit Mexico City, Ill be glad to give you some good tips!
Hi Nikki... here are mis dos centavos:
> Moles & Adobos... make or buy?
The canned versions have gotten a lot better over time (15 years ago... I thought they were plain disgusting)... but the current generation of Mexicans & Mexican Americans is a dual income, long hours working bunch... who don't really see cooking as what they want to do with their free time (home cooking is associated with traditions of economic & social unempowerment)... so the demand is growing for convenience products & this has led to competition & improvements.
(BTW, in a way this is a good trend in Mexico... because this has led to a tremendous quality restaurant boom in Mexico & we are starting to see a trickle down effect on the large Mexican centers of the U.S... such as E.L.A. & surrounding areas... which are starting to put up some impressive Gourmet & Regional Specialty restaurants).
Back to sauces... I would recommend them... specially the first time you are making the dish. Most Mexican cuisine is very laborious, with multiple steps... as such lots of things can go wrong... but if you have a pre-made sauce then you can focus on the main ingredient.
With that said... once you are comfortable with a procedure... I do recommend that you try making the sauce from scratch (often you can make a big batch that will keep well). I started making my own sauces in 2002... and I have not gone back (although I will buy high quality stuff made by restaurants and/or bakeries... I will address that later). The difference between a good commercial sauce & homemade... is akin to purchasing pre packed Fondue.
With that said... here are the commercial sauces I find useable:
> Canned Salsa - Herdez or La Costena (specially if you will cook with them)
> Mole, Adobos & others - Knorr single strength sauces in "Chicken Broth" cartons... these are imported from Mexico & superior (IMHO) to local brands like Dona Maria.
However, the Super Mole Poblano is at another level, I would personally use it... over homemade in most preparations.
Also, Trader Joe's has very, very decent Red Moles (particularly the refrigerated one)... which I have gotten very good use of. As a quick lunch... I roast sliced mushrooms in the oven at 450 degrees (brush a little bit of olive oil & salt)... after 10 minutes I paint them with some heated, slightly diluted Red Mole & roast another 5 minutes. Then I serve them in Whole Wheat tortillas with melted Poblano cheese & garnished with fresh Cilantro leaves & Fresco cheese)
An even better idea... is to find a Mexican Market or Bakery that makes its own sauces... I am sure there are plenty in Frisco... here in Sonoma County we have Lola's & Karina's as well as others.
> Enchilada Sauce... I am partial to Las Palmas Green Enchilada Sauce... it makes a very delicious sauce.
> MexiChef Pastes... I haven't tried them but they certainly seem promising.
> Bottled Table Sauces....
Buffalo is a great addition for Pastas, Noodles & Soups.
Tapatio is pretty good on Potato Chips, Oranges, Cucumbers, Jicama & Mango
Cholula is a little more refined than Buffalo or Tapatio & can go into a wide range of savory dishes.
> Other Great Ingredients
Coconut Cream (Great addition to Guajillo / Arbol sauces for a more Tropical Mexican flavor)
La Costena beans are decidedly superior to Rosarita
La Costena Nopales are okay... if you drain them very well & marinade in Lime Juice & Onions for a day before using.
Mexican Brands of Whole Spices are a steal... particularly Cinammon, Real Mexican Vanilla, Autlan Sea Salt (under Ingredients)
Dry Beans.... Pinto Beans aren't used very much in Mexico, I encourage you to try Mayocoba, Flor de Mayo, Black Beans, Peruvian White
Coronado Cajeta will be one of the best bottled sweet pastes you will buy... even better than Nutella
Canned Chipotles are an essential... all brands are decent.
A long, steel comal will revolutionize your cooking (great searing use)
Now one of the best offerings by MexGrocer are the cookbooks..
Essential Books in English:
Frida's Fiestas (Guadalupe Rivera)
My Mexico (Dianne Kennedy)
Oaxaca (Zarela Martinez)
Taste of Mexico (Patricia Quintana)
Mexican Kitchen (Rick Bayless)
If you have a working knowledge of Spanish:
Cocina Jarocha (Zamudio)
Cocina Yucateca Tradicional (Luz & Lara)
Any book by Quintana or Martha Chapa... as well as the "Y La Comida Se Hizo" series.
I have tried the MexiChef chile pastes with mixed success. They are extremely conveinent and easy to use. We liked the paste made out of chile de arbol but were less satisfied with the one from guajillos. The guajillo paste was fairly bitter and took a reasonable amount of doctoring to get right. Our problem may have been that we were using very large quantities of the paste as it was the primary ingredient. Used in smaller increments the bitterness may not be so apparent.
Use care when cooking from Patricia Quintana's Taste of Mexico, when it was first published numerous errors were found in many of the recipes that caused them not to work. It wasn't her fault, the errors were made in the editing process. I would assume the problems were corrected in subsequent editions, but early editions will still contain the errors.
Honestly, there's not really any such thing as "simplified mole" -- some of the brands, like Dona Maria, out of the bottle are pretty darn good these days.
You live in the Bay Area -- in Hayward, San Leandro and northern Fremont you'll find a lot of Mexican markets. I'd go there before ordering from MexGrocer.com -- it'll be so much cheaper, and you won't believe the prices on produce.
re: Robert Lauriston
I guess I need to thank all you local SF hounds who know quite well that I do live among the best Mexican food suppliers anywhere. Yes, I know I should be going around to all the bodegas and inquiring in my fractured spanish about comparable issues regarding the best brands for preparing various moles. So far Dona Maria sounds like the winner. I often like to use mail order catalogs as a resource for finding their high priced items at bargain basement prices elsewhere - like at Costco or the bodegas. I don't drive so my husband navigates the wheels and I compose the shopping list. But lately, even that has been curtailed. My recent plans for a crab feed in Pleasanton and even my apple crisp aspirations, for the Thanksgiving pot luck to which we were invited, crashed and burned when I had to spend 5 days in the hospital. I won't bore you with the details. But I'm home now and though I can't get out to shop for a while, at least I can still order from catalogs and conduct dangerous mole experiments in my kitchen when I feel up to it. Do they award a Nobel Peace Prize for mole?
re: niki rothman
I hope you are feeling better. I live in Los Angeles, so I don't have a good point of reference in NorCal, but down here almost all of the Mexican markets deliver, and do it cheaply (or just for tips). The English hasn't been a problem for us (though both I and Mrs Ubergeek speak fluent Spanish), though we have massive supermarkets such as Vallarta and Superior -- your little bodegas might be different, but just talk in English and they'll give up if need be and go get the "designated English hitter".
Tell them exactly what you're looking for, or just say "I want to make a mole negro, what do I need, can you deliver it to me?"
I'll look over the catalog later, though... don't want to deprive a homebound Chowhound of her cooking escape!!