Ingredients : Herbs & Spices
Achiote or Annatto seeds is a spice that grows heavily in the Yucatán area and is unique and native to this area. The seeds come from the Annatto tree, which grows beautiful pink flowers that produce a prickly pod which has dozens and dozens of these seeds inside.
The seeds have a beautiful brown, brick, reddish warm and appealing color. The Mayas used the seeds since Pre-Hispanic times to color their skin, garments, art and they also mixed them with their chocolate drink as a symbol of blood, given the color, in their rites. The seeds provide a strong, pungent and sort of permanent flavor to the dishes they are used in.
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The achiote paste or recado rojo, is one of the main seasonings of the Yucatecan cuisine. Although it is mainly known for its use as the base of a marinade in the Pibil style dishes, it is used in many other ways.
This paste is made of achiote seeds, charred garlic, toasted herbs and spices such as oregano, cloves, cumin, black peppercorns, allspice, coriander seeds, salt and bitter orange or its substitute, which is a mix of citrus juices and/or vinegar.
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Acitrón is one of the few ingredients used for Mexican cooking that is still very hard to find outside of Mexico. Acitrón is made with the pad or paddle -leaf- of a cactus plant called biznaga, which is similar to the prickly pear but rounder in shape and it also grows in dry land. To make acitrón, the leaves are peeled off the outer skin along with the little thorns, sometimes soaked in a lime solution, dried in the sun and finally simmered in a syrup made with water and sugar or honey, then left to dry again.
In Mexico it is sold in stores and markets in square or rectangular small blocks along with other candied fruits or vegetables, of which my favorite is the candied sweet potato or camote.
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Funny, it wasn’t until recently that allspice became incorporated into Mexican local cuisine. Allspice has been grown in Mexico since the 1600’s but was seen as an exotic and expensive spice for export.
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Incredibly long leaves from the banana tree, the banana leaves have a beautiful deep green color and a strong fragrant smell. They are often used in Mexican cooking to wrap and cook many kinds of foods including tamales, meats, fish and poultry. They are both malleable and strong. Cooking in them not only concentrates the flavors of the wrapped ingredients but it also infuses them with a grassy, intensely aromatic and fresh feel.
Banana leaves used to be hard to find in the US when I moved here more than a dozen years ago.
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Cilantro is also known by many names like culantro, coriander and even Chinese parsley. Although it didn’t originate in Mexico, it has grown such strong roots in its cuisine, to the point that its hard to think about Mexican cooking without it.
It has delicate, paper thin leaves and tender stems. Its deep green color tends to be shinny too.
It is used for countless foods including being a key ingredients of many salsas, guacamoles and pico de gallo. It is used to flavor beans, rice, salads, stews amongst some dishes. It is even placed frequently on the table in a bowl, just as an optional garnish for tacos, antojos and soups. In the last couple decades it has even become quite popular for smoothies and juices.
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The cinnamon mostly used in Mexican cuisine is called Ceylon, or Canela in Spanish, and it is also known as true cinnamon. It is quite different from Cassia, which is mostly found in US stores. However, as time moves on, one can find true cinnamon in an increasing number of stores here.
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The epazote herb is one deeply Mexican ingredient that has no substitute that I know off. It has a very unique, clear and deep flavor that adds a lot of character to a dish. Hard to describe, it has that I don’t know what, that somehow makes a distinct difference.
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Originally from Africa or India, hibiscus flowers arrived in Mexico in colonial times and have become deeply integrated into Mexican cuisine. Often used to prepare agua de jamaica, or freshly flavored water, fruit popsicles or Jell-O, the dried flowers infuse the liquid with a deep, vivid red color.
They are not just any Hibiscus flower though. These are “Hibiscus Sabdariffa” also known as Roselle. In Mexico known as Jamaica, it is well known in Mexico that the flowers contain helpful diuretic and digestive properties, as well as high levels of vitamin C and other minerals. These days it is easy to get them in many stores in the US or online. They can be incorporated into many other dishes to add a peculiarly tangy taste, similar to cranberries.
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