Monday, August 30, 2010

In the (Mango) Zone

I am pleased to announce that I officially joined a sort of club tonight. It's not so elite as having climbed Kilimanjaro but, for me, it was a fairly giant step into a culinary landscape I never planned to boldly tread. Simply put, I entered the Mango Zone.

Chef Sandra Gutierrez
It happened at my neighborhood Fresh Market, an upscale, mostly organic grocery store whose produce department  --  if you squint or just skip glasses altogether  --  typically displays a Monet-ish palatte of robustly splattered color. I had the idea while driving home that I would try making Sandra Gutierrez's Green Mango Salad and felt sure this was the one place on my route where I could count on finding a truly green, truly hard mango.

They had a nice display of blushingly tender mangos, but Sandra made it clear that was entirely wrong for this crisp, lime-drenched delight. I asked an employee if she would check in the back for green ones, ideally with little or no give. She looked at me like I was insane and patiently explained in a loud, clear voice -- did I look deaf, too? -- why the ones on the shelf were clearly superior.

A nice fellow who resembled a manager must have sensed a vibe of slight irritation -- not allowed at customer-friendly Fresh Market -- and instantly appeared with an offer to check again. Returning empty-handed and chagrined, he set about inspecting each available mango for minimal ripeness, a task I could tell worked against his every instinct. He offered the one least likely to appeal to anyone else.

I put it in my basket happily, grateful not only for his effort, but also the realization that I was one of them: cooks who seek out seemingly odd ingredients that really prove worth the hunt.

This particular quest was a big deal for me because, until I took Sandra's wonderful Latin Street Foods class last week, I would have placed mango in the same dreaded category as fennel -- a concept that stunned several tablemates last May at our inn in Mexico City when I bypassed the slippery slices on the fruit tray and eyed my morning juice glass with suspicion.

While the mango I bought was not ideal -- a tad too ripe, it lacked the pale color and did not slice as cleanly as the ones she used in class -- the result was indeed worth making a fuss. I even rewarded myself with seconds.

Since Sandra's first cookbook is due in Fall 2011, I think it unfair to quote her recipe. I tweaked it a bit to suit my pantry, but I suppose the basic ingredients speak for themselves. Williams-Sonoma at Southpoint, which presented her well-attended class, pledged to have her back when the book is published by UNC Press. Until then, you can follow her blog at or on Twitter, @sandralatinista.

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