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Friday, November 27 Living

‘Mercados’ cookbook explores the wonders of Mexico’s markets and brings home the recipes

The 560 thick, glossy pages of “Mercados: Recipes from the Markets of Mexico” are such a riot of color and photography, the first time I picked up the book, I didn’t pause to read a word of it.

It took a second pass through David Sterling’s gorgeous travelogue to absorb that it is equally rich in information — not so much a cookbook as a treatise on the food and culture of Mexico as told through its vibrant markets.

Sterling, an Oklahoma City native and New York City graphic designer, left New York after 9/11 to live in the Yucatan, where he ran a cooking school praised by the likes of Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless. With Kennedy’s encouragement, he wrote his first book: an exhaustive and beautiful culinary history of his new home called Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition. It went on to win the James Beard Foundation’s cookbook of the year award in 2015 and the prestigious Art of Eating Prize.

It comes as a sad surprise to learn at the start of “Mercados” that Sterling was working on the final draft when he died in 2016. His sous chef, Mario Canul, finished the book, though Canul had been contributing to it from the start, accompanying Sterling on his travels and taking many of the evocative photos.

“Mercados” begins in the Yucatan and, chapter by chapter, works its way west through every region of Mexico, each market a microcosm of a specific culture and its flavors.

There are endless discoveries. In the chapter on the Southern Highlands, the terrain ranges from “tropical coastlines to soaring peaks dotted with high valley towns blanketed in mist.” Here, in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, the land is so remarkably fertile, it has been recognized as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Sterling and Canul bring the small markets to life by exploring the local varieties of beans (more than 25, most of them wild), chocolate, coffee and much more.

There are the bins piled high with dried shrimp, used to make empanadas and fritters called tortitas. The subtly sweet, local version of molé that turns out to be thickened not only with bread but with animal crackers. The pequin chile, the world’s oldest variety of hot pepper, and flor de bótil, the brilliant red flower of the scarlet runner bean, which is eaten in the summer with a little lime, chile and salt. The array of tamales could warrant a book of its own. It’s like diving into the market with a historian, chef and botanist at your side.

And then there are the recipes, more than 100 meticulous, authoritative and frustrating recipes, because, although Sterling gives substitutions for ingredients that are impossible to find outside of a tiny area, knowing as much as you now know only makes you crave a taste of the real thing. Be it a bowl of chilpachole de jaiba, blue crab and chile stew, that you might eat standing at stall in Veracruz, or tamales dorados, crispy fried breakfast tamales served with a squirt of crema at the market in Guanajuato.

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As casual as the food may be, the preparations are almost always complex. Weekend projects instead of weeknight dinners. Still, there are a few exceptions to be found, recipes that reflect their regions, that call for ingredients that have largely made their way north onto American supermarket shelves, and that will take just a little time to make, while you dream of your next trip to Mexico.


From Veracruz

1/2 cup Spanish olive oil

10 medium cloves garlic

5 guajillo chiles, stems, seeds and veins removed and cut into thin rounds

1 1/2 pounds large or jumbo whole shrimp

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

For serving: White rice, a simple salad of shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, onion, and avocado, lime wedges, warm corn tortillas

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil until it is shimmering. Add the garlic and chiles and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is translucent. Add the shrimp and stir to coat with olive oil. Cook 3 to 5 minutes, until the shrimp are pink and opaque.

Remove shrimp to a platter, sprinkle with salt, and spoon some of the garlic-chile oil over the top. Serve rice, salad, lime wedges and tortillas.

Serves 6


From Oaxaca

2 cups whipping cream

1 cup whole milk

1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon finely grated orange rind

1/2 teaspoon sal de gusano (or 1/8 teaspoon each sea salt and cayenne)

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons mezcal (ideally one that is not too smoky)

Combine all of the ingredients except the mezcal in a saucepan. Heat over high heat until the mixture reaches a boil; cool to room temperature then chill at least 2 hours or overnight.

Immediately before freezing, stir in 1/4 cup mezcal. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. At the end of freezing, fold in the remaining mezcal. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze at least four hours before serving.

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts.


From Jalisco

1/4 cup Spanish olive oil

4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin (or skirt steak or flank steak)

4 tablespoons achiote paste

2 tablespoons Maggi Seasoning Sauce

3/4 cup freshly squeeze lime juice

1/4 cup tequila reposado or anejo

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

For serving: Shredded cabbage, julienned radishes, chopped red onion and cilantro lightly dressed with lime juice; white rice; refried beans; guacamole; bottled chile sauce; warm tortillas; lime wedges

Place the olive oil and garlic in a blender and process until the garlic is liquefied.

Slice the beef across the grain into 6 equal rounds. Place each steak between two pieces of waxed paper and using a wooden mallet or rolling pin, pound the steaks to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Places the steaks in a large baking dish and brush both sides with the olive oil mixture. Set aside.

Place the achiote paste, Maggi sauce and lime juice in the blender and process until liquefied. Pour the marinade over the steaks, making sure each piece is well covered. Refrigerate at least 1 hour and no more than 2 hours.

Bring the beef to room temperature. Heat the tequila to warm and set aside. Heat the oil in a large skillet until shimmering. Remove the meat from the marinade and shake off any excess. Saute the meat over medium-high heat, turning once, about 2 to 3 minutes per side, until it is cooked medium-rare. Immediately pour the tequila into the pan and carefully ignite it. Wait 5 seconds, then shake the skillet gently until the flames die out.

Transfer meat to a warm platter and pour any liquid in the pan over it.

Place steaks on individual dishes, garnish with the cabbage, radishes, onion and cilantro, and white rice if you wish. Diners will cut slices of the beef to roll into the warm tortillas adding chile sauce and lime to taste.

Serves 6.

Michalene Busico writes for the Dallas Morning News, which provided this article to The Associated Press.