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- January 27, 2009 at 4:57 pm #269988
the mexican pantry
many of the foods we find in the mexican pantry carry ancient pedigrees. beans, tomatoes, corn, and chile peppers–staples of aztecs and mayans–rank among the world’s first cultivated foods. later, spanish conquerors introduced wheat, herbs, spices and dairy foods to the pantry.
over the centuries, mexican cuisine has emerged out of this mingling of ingredients and techniques.
corn: maize or nixtamal (corn), “the gift of the gods,” is the cornerstone of mexican cuisine. it appears in almost everything: tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, tacos, soups, and stews, even dessert (sopapillas) and atole, a thick drink made with ground corn. when the hull is removed and corn is treated with an alkali, it becomes hominy, a key ingredient in posole.
masa harina, the “dough flour” in tamales and corn tortillas, is made from ground dried hominy kernels.
rice (arroz): the spanish brought the first rice to mexico around 1522. Along with corn, rice is among the most important of Mexico’s grains. Red rice (or “Mexican rice”) is made with blanched rice cooked in hot oil with tomatoes and broth.
Green rice incorporates parsley and chiles. Arroz con pollo is a rice-based chicken casserole. Rice flour mixed with sugar and cinnamon makes a popular drink called horchata.
dried beans: another mexican staple dating back to pre-columbian times, beans are a common comestible on mexican dinner plates. they’re often prepared simply by simmering them in water, perhaps with fresh herbs like epazote, a native wild herb. the term “refried beans” is actually based on a mistranslation of the word refrito, which means well-fried, not fried again.
tortillas: for centuries, corn has been ground, turned into dough (masa) and then shaped into small, very thin cakes called tortillas. after the spanish introduced wheat into mexico in the 16th century, flour tortillas became known, mostly in the north. Whether corn- or flour-based, tortillas are stuffed with meats, stews, beans and rice, and eaten like tacos; or filled, rolled and baked as enchiladas or deep-fried as chimichangas.
chile peppers: there are some 60 varieties of chile peppers, from mild Anaheims to fiery hot habañeros, and they all have their uses in Mexican cuisine. Jalapeños–from Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz–are the most recognizable. Dried and smoked jalapeños are known as chipotle chiles, which provide the primary flavor in adobo sauce.
A favorite Mexican main course, Chiles Rellenos, features large poblano chiles stuffed with cheese or spicy meat.
avocado: another native of meso-america (along with corn, chiles, and tomatoes), the avocado has been cultivated in mexico for at least 5,000 years. Mashed, avocadoes are the main ingredient in guacamole. Sliced avocados are often added to soups.
The leaves of the avocado plant often flavor stews or are ground and added to moles and other sauces. Note: Unripened avocados will not ripen in the refrigerator; they’re best left in a paper bag at room temperature until soft.
tomatoes: tomatoes were first domesticated by ancient mayans and aztecs. from there, they were carried to the rest of the world. mexican cooks use tomatoes in fresh and cooked salsas, in rice dishes, and stews.
keep tomatoes at room temperature–the cold of refrigeration destroys both flavor and texture.
salsa: ancient mayans and aztecs were making salsas centuries before european contact. the word simply means “sauce,” and can refer to both cooked sauces and those made from raw ingredients. the version most familiar to americans–salsa fresca–is made with fresh tomatoes, chiles, onions and fresh cilantro.
simmered, it becomes salsa ranchero. but there are many other types of salsas, including those calling for exotic ingredients like huitlacoche, a corn fungus.
tomatillo: these are sometimes called “mexican green tomatoes” or “husk tomatoes,” although they are not botanically related. fresh tomatillos are covered in thin husks. their taste is tart, and they are often roasted or boiled and used in cooked or fresh salsas or with pork–as in chile verde–or fish preparations.
jicama: this root vegetable looks like a giant turnip and has the same crisp texture of a raw potato with a mild, slightly sweet flavor. jicama is eaten raw (often in salads) or fried, steamed, baked, or boiled.
nopales: after they’re peeled and safe to handle, prickly pear (nopal) cactus leaves are eaten fresh, canned, pickled and candied.
pumpkin seeds (pepitas): pumpkin seeds were used in pre-columbian cooking. they are an important ingredient in moles, pipián (pumpkin seed sauce) and other mexican dishes. they are often sold roasted and salted.
with the white hull removed, pepitas are green and mild flavored.
cilantro: introduced by the spanish, the herb cilantro is the green leaves of the coriander plant. fresh cilantro is featured in many mexican dishes and is a must in salsas. cooked, it begins to lose its anise-like flavor, which is why it’s typically added to dishes just before serving.
do not substitute dried cilantro for fresh.
chayote squash: also called a “vegetable pear,” chayote are mild-flavored, pale green squash with a thin skin that can be smooth or prickly, depending on the variety. chayote can be eaten raw, stuffed, pickled or fried. smooth-skinned chayote don’t require peeling.
garlic: a member of the lily family (along with leeks, chives, onions and shallots) garlic is the strongest-flavored, most assertive member of the group. spanish conquistadores brought garlic to mexico; today, garlic adds bold flavor to rubs, marinades, soups and sauces.
citrus: the spanish introduced citrus into mexico. the bright flavors of lemons, limes, and bitter seville orange are integral to many mexican dishes, from salsas to tortilla soups to ceviches. if seville oranges are unavailable, you can approximate their distinctive, tart flavor by combining a little grapefruit, lime, and orange juice in equal amounts.
small mexican limes enliven meats, corn dishes, and add refreshment when squeezed into a bottle of cold mexican lager.
cotija cheese: dairy foods entered the mexican diet after the arrival of the spanish, who brought cattle and goats. cojito cheese is dry and crumbly with a salty taste somewhat like feta (an adequate though not equivalent substitute). cojito, as well as queso fresco and queso blanco, can be used to top tacos, beans, enchiladas–the works.
these cheeses don’t melt well, so they’re typically added at the end of cooking or as a garnish.
pork: introduced by the spanish, pork is a primary meat in stews and as fillings for tortillas in tacos and enchiladas. fresh ground pork is also used in mexican chorizo sausage (spanish chorizo is made from smoked pork).
lard: lard is a shelf-stable cooking fat that is used throughout mexico for frying, as well as in tamales, beans, flour tortillas, and in baking. lard is rendered from the layer of fat around pork kidneys.
mexican oregano: milder than mediterranean versions, mexican oregano is found in chili powders, chili con carne and other mexican dishes. if you substitute mediterranean oregano, cut back just a bit to account for mexican oregano’s more subtle flavor.
cumin: cumin is characterized by a strong musty, earthy flavor which also contains some green/grassy notes. cumin is a critical ingredient of chili powder, achiote blends and adobo sauce.
annatto (achiote): these are the bright red seeds that come from a tropical bush that grows in mexico. ground into seasoning pastes, annatto seeds add deep red color and pungent flavor to mexican dishes. achiote is used to give cheddar cheese its orange color.
chili powder: in other cuisines, the term “chili powder” refers to a single ground red chile, such as cayenne. mexican chili powder is a particular spice blend made from different dried chiles, mexican oregano, cumin, coriander, and sometimes garlic, cloves and salt.
vanilla: made from the bean of an edible orchid, vanilla has been enjoyed in mexico since ancient times. real mexican vanilla extract is deeply fragrant and flavorful.
chocolate: the world’s love affair with chocolate began in mexico, where for centuries pounded cocoa beans were frothed into a foamy drink that was usually bitter, not sweet. when cortes arrived in the new world, he was welcomed with this beverage. a little bit of mexican chocolate adds depth to mole sauces.
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