Bright piñatas hang over mounds of watermelons, pineapples, limes and mangos in open bins as we walk through the front doors of La Superior SuperMercados in Woodland. The 12-year-old Sacramento-based chain of Mexican grocery stores, with seven locations in the Sacramento area, is owned by Uriel Barajas. It caters to Spanish-speaking people for the most part, who are shopping for large amounts of fresh food for home cooking.
There are no small hand baskets here, only large carts, which is important with all the choices confronting a customer. Fresh chiles occupy 15 feet of linear space on the produce display. The butcher counter space devoted to pork alone is about 16 feet. Like everyone else here, we’ve come to shop.
Latin music plays in the background, low and slow. It has a relaxing effect. The scent of bulk, dried chiles, cinnamon sticks and panela fills the air. The array of product, the smells and the sounds are reminiscent of markets and meals we’ve each enjoyed in Mexico, Central and South America.
Ann hadn’t seen the panela, a sweet, brown product made from sugar cane, sold in round small blocks, since her visits to Cali, Colombia. There it’s used to make agua de panela, or panela water, or used as a base for hot chocolate with cheese.
Georgeanne wanted to make a summer cactus salad, and we were certain we could find nopales here. Sure enough, the paddles, as the large cactus leaves are called that are skinned and cut up to make the cactus salad, or ensalada de nopales, were there. The cost was 59 cents a pound, but we couldn’t resist the paddles that were already skinned and cut up for us, ready to go.
The produce section had summer favorites such as pickling cucumbers, melons, tree fruit, tomatillos and tomatoes for salsa. Produce is labeled with point of origin, whether or not organic, and whether it can be purchased with a WIC coupon (the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).
We pushed our rather large carts past bulk bins filled with dark red, orange and brown chiles, tamarinds, and blond cornhusks, those sturdy wrappers for tamales. Facing those bins was 15 feet of shelf space devoted to different brands of cans of cooked hominy, or dried maize kernels, used in pozole, the Mexican stew of hominy and pork or chicken. Yum.
We passed by fresh tortillas ranging in size from 3 to 14 inches for super-sized burritos. The choices in flours used to make the tortillas were also vast, including blue, yellow and white organic corn, as well as whole wheat and refined wheat flour.
The enormity of offerings was staggeringly impressive. Rice occupies about 20 feet of aisle space, and lard — including 25-pound tubs of it — occupies quite a lot as well. The lard is also available freshly rendered by the market.
From the tail to the snout, the hoof to the neck, the carniceria, or butcher, offered it all. There was the inside of the animal (edible offal) and the outside, such as rolled pork skin. There were oxtails, pre-seasoned cuts of meat ready to go on the summer backyard grill — adobado (marinaded meat, typically pork), chorizo (sausage) made with chicken and beef tripe.
Georgeanne, who learned to cook tripe in France, was pleased to see tripe from the three chambers of the cow’s stomach — blanket or smooth tripe, honeycomb and pocket tripe, and book tripe.
We were getting hungry, and decided it was time for lunch at the taqueria inside the store. We stopped by the deli counter, which offers bulk queso fresco, or fresh cheese, including the type Colombians routinely put in their hot chocolate — hard to find! Also available in bulk at the deli were caramel, mole, arroz con leche (rice pudding), salsa, tamales and quince paste, so good with Spanish hard, dry cheese such as manchega.
We couldn’t resist buying an appetizer, so we tried three kinds of shrimp cocktail — one with a spicy green sauce; one classic tomato cocktail style with large shrimp, cucumbers and red onion; and one that was a little on the sweet side with chiles and a smaller shrimp. Delicious.
Our lunch was a very large and succulent plate of chopped-to-order carnitas from the taqueria. Comfortable chairs and tables are provided for customers. The carnitas was served with rice and refried beans (made with lard — the real deal like the rest of the store) and two freshly made corn tortillas heated on the hot grill while we waited.
Between our broken Spanish and English we got along just fine. We managed to make it past the panaderia, or bakery, without putting anything more in our carts. Last stop was the checkout line, where we were tempted by the paletas (frozen fresh fruit bars.) The store seems to have a quality and breadth of foods that disappeared from Main Street supermarket shelves long ago, if they ever had them.
Cactus Salad with Radishes (Ensalada de Nopales)
This is a popular salad in Hispanic communities, and is easy to make. We developed this recipe for the Farm to School Yolo (www.harvesthubyolo.org) where it, along with other recipes that feature California specialty crops, is featured in the section on School Food Service Resources.
The paddle cactus fruit, now orange and red, are visible throughout rural Yolo County, as well as in many neighborhoods in Yolo County towns such as Davis, Esparto, Woodland and Winters.
3 cups diced nopales, preferably fresh, or canned
½ cup white onion, minced
½ cup diced radishes
1 teaspoon fresh oregano or ½ teaspoon dried
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
½ cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
1 serrano chile, minced, with seeds
Juice of one lime
½ cup crumbled queso fresco (fresh Mexican cheese)
Putting it together:
If using fresh nopales, see below for preparation method. If using canned nopales, drain and rinse well prior to using. Place nopales in a bowl. Add the onion, radishes, oregano, olive oil, salt, cilantro, chile and lime juice. Mix well and top with the queso fresco. Serve as a side dish with beef, pork, or chicken, or with rice and beans.
If using fresh nopales cactus oval stems (called paddles), first clean the cactus paddles. Using a knife, scrape off the spines. Cut off the edges of the cactus paddles, then cut them into 1/3-inch wide strips, about 3 inches long. Place the strips in a saucepan of boiling water with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 clove peeled garlic. Reduce heat to low and simmer until tender and dark green, about 15 minutes. Drain the strips in a colander, then rinse with cold water to remove any mucilaginous substance and pat dry. Serves 4 to 6.
If you go
What: La Superior SuperMercardos
Where: 34 W. Court St., Woodland
— Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans and Brennan, LLC. Their national blog “Who’s Cooking School Lunch?” features personal stories of front-line men and women cooking school lunch. Read the blog at www.whoscookingschoolunch.com and reach Ann and Georgeanne at email@example.com.