Chili Mecca: a stand in Mexico City's Mercado Lazaro Cardenas.
I grew up in the northern reaches of the original Mexican territory (now known as Texas). This accident of geography exposed me at a tender age to chili peppers. I've never recovered, and my chili obsession only deepened when I lived in Mexico City for two years in the late 1990s.
After years of immersion in other culinary traditions—Italian, French, etc.—I'm now capable of not lashing everything with tear-jerking quantities of chilis. And in fact, in actual Mexican food, people use chilis with great subtlety—there are condiments that are wickedly hot, but in most dishes, chilis offer a low-key, back-of-the-mouth burn, not a punch in the mouth.
I still love chilis, and use them pretty much every chance I get. They are a magical ingredient—bright-flavored and fiery when fresh; deep, rich, and often smoky (while retaining the fire) in dried form. Mexico City's neighborhood markets are each a kind of dried-chili Mecca, featuring several stalls that specialize in a variety of these dark-colored treasures.
A vendor sells me celery for the brothOn a recent trip to that wondrous city (hectic, scary, glorious all at once), some friends and I met at Mercado Lazaro Cardenas in the city's Del Valle neighborhood to shop for dinner and have a coffee at a fantastic small-batch roaster called Café Passmar that randomly resides in the middle of the market. Except for the fancy coffee, Mercado Lazaro Cardenas is really just another neighborhood market in a city that's still teeming with them, despite the advent of corporate supermarkets. That is to say, it's a pretty spectacular place, packed with stalls featuring all manner of fruit and vegetables and meat. We picked up a bunch of chilis, some tortillas—and stuff for way more side dishes than usually go into a Tom's Kitchen column (fresh fava beans, huitlacoche (corn fungus), little red potatoes, wild mushrooms, and chard).
For pork, I confess that I forsook the mercado for one of those supermarkets. I did so because Mexico's pork production has dramaticaly industrialized over the past decade and a half—as chronicled in this excellent Nation article by David Bacon on the topic—and I no longer can be sure that even independent meat purveyors aren't hawking Smithfield dreck. So We took a detour on the way home to a fancy supermarket called City Market—in English, no less—and got pork ribs labeled "natural." Whether that label actually means anything will require more investigation.
Fortified with some terrific mescal, we did the following to the pork. Warning: Cocina de Tom is a bit more involved than Tom's Kitchen; but it's easy!