THE MEXICAN FARMERS MARKET AND “NOT SO” SPICY SWEET POTATO SOUP

This week my friend Tracy and I headed over to Canino Produce, often referred to as “the Mexican farmers market,” located at 2520 Airline Drive.

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Canino’s has been around since 1958.  Unlike the local farmers markets around town offering local — often organic — produce and locally-produced products, Canino’s carries a wide variety of produce and other items not only from Texas, but “all over the United States and the world.”  In the fall, shoppers are greeted by mountains of fresh “new crop” pecans, most of which come from the Austin area, which their 15 nut-cracking machines will crack for you for 35 cents per pound.

Walking around the market, it is quite possible to briefly forget you’re in Houston.  And in August, that’s a good thing.  Because if you’re going to be walking around with rivers of sweat running down your face, you may as well pretend you’re somewhere more exotic.

Inside, Canino’s has neatly arranged tables displaying the fresh produce, as well as beans, rice, stone-ground flour and cornmeal, and dried fruit.

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You’ll probably want to grab a bottle of Mexican vanilla while you’re there:

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If you’re one of those folks who believes that size matters (thanks, Tracy), these baseball bat-sized cucuzza squashes might interest you:

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But the real fun of the Mexican farmers market is the open-air market located behind Canino’s.  There are several rows of stalls, where the rainbow of produce is buffed to a shine and decoratively arranged.  There’s always a thing or two I’ve never seen before.  To make shopping in this section easier, bring a wallet full of small bills, because most of the baskets of produce are $2.

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 Prettiest produce around

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 Can you say “salsa”?

In addition to produce, you can also find cooking utensils, spices, strings of dried chiles, and bins of herb blends.

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Look close — there’s an herb blend for pretty much anything that ails you.  Got cramps? Got asthma?  There’s a blend for that!

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A popular snack sold at the open air market is fruit — slices of papaya, mango, coconut, melon — sprinkled with a chile/lime mixture.  At the market, the spice mix is sometimes referred to as “chile for fruit,” but Fiesta sells a mix called “Pico de Gallo con Limon”:

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Fiesta brand Pico de Gallo con Limon

Several of the vendors had these clever peeled mangos, cut to look like flowers, and sprinkled with the chile mixture:

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We left, hot and happy, loaded down with several sacks of goodies each.

But wait — there’s more!

Just a few blocks down the street, at 2201 Airline, is the Houston Dairymaids’ warehouse, which is open to the public every day except Monday for cheese sampling and retail purchases.  Seeing as it wasn’t Monday, we popped in.

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The Houston Dairymaids was started by owner Lindsey Schechter in 2006.  Every article I’ve found describes Lindsey as a “seasoned cheese professional,” which makes her a pretty cheesy person, I guess.  I used to buy cheese from the Houston Dairymaids at the local farmers market, but their wholesale operation became so successful that they stopped selling there.  If you have ever had a cheese plate at a Houston restaurant, chances are good the cheese came from the Houston Dairymaids.

They carry approximately 150 handmade cheeses — unpasteurized when possible — from around the United States (with an occasional imported cheese), with seven currently coming from Texas.  Every day they offer a sampling of 5 or 6 selected cheeses, progressing from mild to more pungent.

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Owner Lindsey Schechter and a cheese sampling tray

In addition to cheese, the retail storefront also has a small but interesting selection of wines, breads from Slow Dough Bread Company, outrageously good cookies from Wackym’s Kitchen, olives, crackers, and other cheese accompaniments.   It was really hard (almost impossible, actually) to narrow down our cheese choices, but we finally settled on two each to bring home, along with some bread and cookies.

There’s also a Mexican bakery, El Bolillo, at 2517 Airline, and a spice market, Lone Star Culinary, at 2520 Airline, but we were too pooped from the heat to party any longer, so those will have to wait for a future visit.

Back home, I noticed on Canino’s website that there was a link to recipes.  The recipe for “Not So” Spicy Sweet Potato Soup intrigued me with its peanut butter and lime juice.  Coincidentally, I had just purchased two large sweet potatoes at Canino’s, so I just HAD to make the soup.  I adapted it slightly, using almond butter instead of peanut butter, and half the amount of ginger called for.   It only takes about 30 minutes to make, and is very good and quite satisfying.

“NOT SO” SPICY SWEET POTATO SOUP
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Recipe type: Soup
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 large sweet onion (such as Vidalia, 1015), peeled and chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • ¼ cup almond butter or peanut butter
  • Juice of 1 small lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Sour cream for optional garnish
  • Cilantro for optional garnish
Instructions
  1. Melt butter in a large stockpot over medium high heat. Add onions and garlic, and saute until soft and onions are translucent. Add sweet potatoes, chicken stock, cumin, red pepper, and ginger. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered until sweet potatoes are tender, approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Remove soup from heat, and puree in 3 batches using a blender or food processor (being careful not to overfill blender with hot liquid so as to prevent top from blowing off). Return soup to stockpot over medium heat and whisk in almond butter and lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (If soup is too thick, thin with additional chicken stock to desired consistency). Serve hot, garnished with sour cream and cilantro, if using.

015 Simmer until sweet potatoes are soft

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Spicy enough for me!

SPICY GAZPACHO

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I found these vintage seed labels at simplyfrenchvintage several years ago.  I bought some, thinking I might use them for . . .  I have no idea.  Craft fail.

You won’t find many of these vegetables at our local farmers markets this time of year. Last week’s “seasonal selections” at the farmers market were eggplant, peas, cucumbers, peppers, basil, okra, melons, and onions.  Even Justin Yu, of the nationally-renowned Oxheart, conceded that it can be quite a challenge to create a seasonal menu with local produce this time of year in Houston.

This week it’s been over 100 degrees here.  It’s hot.  We haven’t had much rain, but Houston has a faint yellow haze these days from a sand storm in the Sahara Desert.  It’s definitely too hot to cook.  Maybe even too hot to chew.

It’s days like this when a cold spicy gazpacho is splendid.  What’s more, with the exception of the tomatoes, the key  ingredients can still be found at the farmers market:

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 Tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, red bell peppers

Inspired by the pretty vintage labels and the dog days of summer, I hunted around for a long time for a gazpacho recipe.  I don’t care for the ones that rely on tomato juice as a base.  The liquid in this recipe, adapted from one by Lynette Hawkins of Giacomo’s that appeared in the Houston Chronicle a few years ago, uses the liquid that comes from macerating the vegetables.  It is worth it to hunt down sherry vinegar, and it really adds to the flavor of the soup.  It’s icy cold and spicy and smooth and so good on a hot summer evening.  If you can’t stand the heat . . . make gazpacho!

SPICY GAZPACHO
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Ingredients
  • 3 pounds ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and coarsely chopped
  • 1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into small pieces
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
Instructions
  1. Place the tomatoes, cucumbers, red bell peppers, onion, garlic, and serrano chile in a 4-quart container. Add 2-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and toss to combine. Add the bread pieces and toss again. Allow ingredients to macerate at least 30 minutes.
  2. Puree the tomato mixture in a blender in two batches. For each batch, blend for 30 seconds, then drizzle in ¼ cup olive oil with motor running. Blend until completely smooth, then transfer each batch to a 4-quart container. Stir in vinegar, black pepper, and ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Taste and add additional salt and pepper, if necessary, to taste. Chill completely in refrigerator, and serve cold.
 
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Tomatoes and cucumbers and onions, oh my!
004Sherry vinegar adds great flavor
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Keeping cool with icy cold gazpacho