Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mariscos España and Comercial Mexicana: Adventures in Rosarito, Parte Dos

As usual, my recent visit to Rosarito was all about eating and shopping. I always stop at The Convent on Juarez Blvd. to pick pieces of Talavera, the vibrantly painted pottery I collect. Since my counter-surfing Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, Ketzel, had managed to smash a treasured fruit plate this summer and I wanted to replace it, The Convent was at the top of my list. But, we also had other stops. My friend Tamara had some tchotchkes she was looking for, and I love to see what my friend Armando has in his art gallery at the Rosarito Hotel.

But, this trip, we added a new stop. My friend Paula wanted to show us Rosarito’s hot new (okay, two years old) market Comercial Mexicana. At more than three times the size of Rosarito's other Comercial Mexicana, which sits at the back of the La Quinta Plaza Shopping Center, the newer version is quite the hit among locals. Yes, it is Mexico’s version of Ralph’s or Albertsons or Vons. Sort of. Or maybe it’s like a Super Wal-Mart. After all, it is enormous, filled not just with groceries, but clothing, appliances, housewares, toys and more. The bottom line? It’s just the type of place that were it in San Diego, I’d probably be encouraging people to snub in favor of farmers markets and mom and pop stores. But, it’s in Mexico and I was a visitor and I was intrigued.

It was no surprise that from the moment I set foot in Comercial Mexicana, it reminded me of Northgate Gonzalez Market and Foodland. Walk into both of these, as with Comercial Mexicana, and the first section that catches the eye, not to mention the nose, is the bakery.

The long loaves of pan and the football-shaped bolillos must have been just pulled out of the oven because their sweet, yeasty scent was in the air, pulling me over like a lasso. They were still warm with a crisp crust. What sandwiches they’d make. I turned and saw beautiful concha blancas with their powdery topping.

Paula and Tamara called me to them where they were hovering over a table piled high with sugar skulls for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, at the end of this month.

Individually wrapped in plastic, the sugar skulls are about three inches and cute as can be—for skulls. Their eyes are like sequins in green and blue and red. They have a horizontal patch of color—gold foil or blue, predominantly—which is covered by white icing swirls. According to Paula, you can get your name iced on them also.

As I walked off toward the refrigerated section, I passed by some of the prettiest cakes I’ve ever seen, including several with a whipped cream icing topped by glazed fruit.

It was late afternoon and time was short (I had to get back across the border and home to above-mentioned knucklehead puppy and her older sister), so I couldn’t linger. Instead I rushed past a large liquor section to where Tamara was eying bags of frozen maiz (corn) for pozole, a Mexican soup made with these traditional large white kernels of corn called maiz blanco or cacahuazintle.

The corn is slaked, or soaked, in a solution of cal (lime) to soften it in preparation for making the soup. The prepared corn is called Nixtamal or Nixtamalado and is then ready to go into the soup. explains the process and offers a basic pozole recipe.

The rest of the frozen food section looks very much like what you’d find in an American store, with only some products, like packages of frozen sopes dough, placing us firmly in Mexico.

Along the back of the store is where the food treasures really are. The fish counter is gorgeous, with rows of fresh rock cod, like what we saw at Elvira’s place at lunch, plus tuna, halibut, snapper and others you’d expect.

We were struck by the plump pink pulpos (octopus), nestled between piles of shrimp. Then we turned around to find the cheese counter, with its extraordinary bee-hive shaped panelas, the queso fresco and Oaxaca cheeses. The meat counter would be the envy of an American butcher, with its large cuts of beef and pork, and fresh-looking poultry.

Paula led me past visions of tripe my friend Angela’s mom would love to use to make her menudo to a table with row of trays filled with earthy brown and green concentrated moles, so thick and rich they look like pudding instead of sauces.

Now most people associate mole solely with the traditional mole poblano, which is prepared with dried chile peppers, ground nuts or seeds and Mexican chocolate. But mole is the generic name for a variety of sauces found in Mexican cuisine (think guacamole…). Mole verde is made with tomatillos. Mole pepián is made with pumpkin seeds (and, just to be confusing, its color also lends it to being called mole verde). Dark brown mole adobo is infused with cumin and oranges. (Paula and Armando use it as a marinade for turkey.) Mole cacahuate has a peanut base.

Now, are these concentrates, or the Doña Chonita packaged moles I picked up on Aisle 6 (pepián, adobo, green mole and “mole”), cheating?

Well, sure if you’re a purist. But if you’ve ever made a traditional mole or seen a recipe for one, you know that it can take hours to make and requires not just a wealth of ingredients, but several processes. If you want to have some fun, check out Bob Nemo’s “The Mole Page” and its recipes. You’ll see what I mean. This is definitely something worth making from scratch when you have the time. But, if you don’t, these prepared moles, including the seductive concentrates at Comercial Mexicana (dilute with chicken consommé), will do in a pinch and are great if you’re having company. Place pieces of chicken or turkey or pork in a heavy pan heated with oil, brown on both sides, lower the heat and add the mole. Cover and simmer until the meat is cooked through. Serve with rice and tortillas.

Right by the moles was a table spread with fruta cubierta, or crystallized fruit. Sitting in a basket at the back was the most fascinating—lime skins stuffed with coconut.

But, there were also white yams, pineapple, green watermelon, regular yams, pears and figs. You’ll find these everywhere in Mexican markets, ready to slice and eat for dessert.

Comercial Mexicana, of course, has an in-house tortilleria. Unfortunately, at this store, it’s alongside the produce department, which has displays so beautiful that my focus zeroed in on them and I just breezed by the tortillas. The peppers, for instance, were simply stunning.

They also had fresh herbs like chamomile along with squashes, tomatoes, tomatillos and the usual fare.

I came this close to filling a bag with blue corn kernels before realizing I couldn’t cross the border with them.

What I did leave with were the containers of prepared moles, as well as some cans of Herdez “chilpotle” and “5 chiles” salsas that Paula swears by.

Use them as “toppers” on eggs, sandwiches, guacamole or, of course, as dips or on fish or chicken. So far, I’ve tried the chilpotle and it’s delicious—very thick and spicy. The small cans are perfect for one or two people and should be a pantry staple.

Comercial Mexicana is located in the north central part of downtown Rosarito, right at the second Rosarito exit from the toll road.

Have some thoughts about Comercial Mexicana or other markets in Baja? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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