Nutcracker Nosh

Among the trinkets and Christmas gewgaws crowding the Astrohall during the Houston Ballet Guild's Nutcracker Market this week, shoppers will find a rarefied Texas smorgasbord of holiday foodstuffs -- including a number of items guaranteed to wow your guests or make you a welcome sight on anybody's doorstep.

Where else but the very social Nutcracker shopfest, now in its 14th year, can you find tortilla chips with a pedigree -- and a price to match? Sturdy, layery, well-browned triangles with a perfect salt factor and an awesome crunch, these celebrity chips -- dubbed "totopos" -- are the brainchildren of prominent River Oaks jewelry designer Mariquita Masterson. For 15 bucks, you can become the proud owner of a golden, two-pound tin of Dona Mariquita's little darlings, fried up to her specifications by Houston's La Espiga de Oro tortilleria. Feed them to your friends with her very own cream-cheese-and-chile dip -- the recipe for which insanely addictive substance is included for free. Hey, it's just like being invited to one of Masterson's legendary Tex-Mex dinner parties! Well, almost.

At Dona Mariquita's elbow, Ballet Guild member Inel Klein will dispense her time-honored Louisiana lemon cakes -- dense, satisfying specimens of the teacake genre brushed with a fresh-lemon glaze. Yes, they're $20 each, but they exude a handmade aura and keep for weeks without refrigeration, which makes them ideal to haul out at a moment's notice.

Some of the regional cottage industries represented among the market's 240 vendors turn out better food than others, of course. Among the highlights: one Mrs. Powell's Houston-made brandied pecans, as devastatingly subtle as they are pricey, and irresistible slabs of pecan toffee from a Midland boutique candy maker called Susie's South Forty. (Hoisting a toffee hunk the size of a paving stone, a candy fiend of my acquaintance swore he hadn't had anything so good since some Pentecostal Peanut Brittle made by church ladies in Oakdale, Louisiana.)

Among the lowlights: a way-too-sweet pumpkin cheesecake turned out by Houston's Genevieve's Sugarless Shop, which makes a case against "alternative sweeteners," and the disappointing, high-priced wares of Leibman's, the Memorial-area gourmet shop. (Okay, so I did like their cheese straws. But $3.50 for three ounces? Give me a break.)

One local gem available solely at the Nutcracker Market is the wildly frisky marinara sauce bottled every year by a small cadre of Houston's Italian-American women who operate under the title "Donne di Domani" ("Women of Tomorrow"). The proceeds of their festively packaged, $8.50-a-quart endeavors are donated to such charities as the Cloistered Carmelite Nuns.

While you're at it, take care of any deprived Yankees on your gift list by signing them up for one of the Texas Tamale Company's care packages, cleverly shipped in customized igloos and styrofoam coolers. Tamale report card: B+ for the chicken or beef versions; D for the bean; A+ for the surprisingly effective spinach-and-cheese effort, a spanakopita tamale so good it doesn't even need sauce. Speaking of which, this Houston outfit's galvanic, carrot-based Hot Tamale Sauce runs rings around their salty cilantro sauce and mild-mannered chipotle.

Don't leave without checking out the Kay's Hot Stuff booth, source of some killer jalapeno-marinated mushroom caps (they won a prize at a big New York trade show) and surprising sweet-hot jalapenos that are the chile-head's answer to bread-and-butter pickles. With any luck, Kay -- an ex-schoolteacher from Rockport -- will be on hand in what her press clips refer to as "her now-familiar Carmen Miranda garb."

Texas, our Texas.

-- Alison Cook

The Nutcracker Market at the Astrohall, November 17 through November 20. $6 admission. 523-6300.

Nutcracker Market:
Dona Mariquita's totopos, $15;
Donne di Domani marinara, $8.50.


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