Ingredients : Herbs & Spices
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Mexican chocolate is quite different from regular bittersweet chocolate sold throughout the world.
It is sweeter, yet with contrasting layers of flavor that seem to sweep your tongue in waves as you take a bite. It is also grainy, practically gritty. It is traditionally made from a mixture of toasted cacao beans, ground almonds, regular sugar and cinnamon.
Native from Mexico, in pre-hispanic times cacao beans were transformed into a chocolate paste. In that form, chocolate was combined with water and drank every day, by the liters, by Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. It was served for him, in hand carved precious mugs and spiced up with ground chiles and sometimes honey. Only the high tier of the Aztec hierarchy had access to it, on special occasions. It was only after the Spaniards arrived that it turned into a sweeter ingredient by adding the sugar, cinnamon and almonds.
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Nutmeg is an ingredient that tends to be overlooked in the kitchen. With a fascinating taste that is mildly sweet, somewhat woody, and a bit peppery, it is used mostly for desserts or drinks.
A native ingredient from Indonesia, nutmeg comes from an evergreen tree, now planted in more countries, that found its way to Mexico in the years of the Spanish Colony with its vast and intensive trade routes to the East.
Cute little seeds, they appear to be unpeeled nuts or large pebbles from the outside. They are very hard and solid and cannot be chopped. The best way to use them is freshly ground with a grater. They are also best used judiciously, as a little goes a long way. Once you grate them, you can see their lovely marbled interior.
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Piloncillo is the rawest form of sugar cane. The same thing as cane juice but in a solid form. It typically comes in a block, with the shape of a cone, square or round.
It can be substituted for brown sugar. However, the flavor of piloncillo is more rustic. Reminds me of foods eaten in small villages or pueblos, it is homey. It adds that extra “something”, be it depth, color, aroma, that is hard to define but amazing to taste.
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Purslane or verdolagas, one of those ingredients that Mexicans hanker for when outside of Mexico, is likely to be growing in your backyard. In Mexico, it is considered one of the quelites or edible herbs. It is nutritious and succulent, yet it has long been considered a weed in the United States. Indeed, once it grows roots, it spreads and grows fast.
It is essential to the cuisine of Central Mexico, where it is most commonly added to Puerco con Verdolagas: my favorite way of eating them. There, slowly braised pork is finished off in a seasoned salsa verde and verdolagas are dropped in almost when it’s done.
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Saffron native to Asia, was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards, who in turn learned how to use it from the Arabs. Once in Mexico, it took strong roots especially in the Yucatan Peninsula and the South East regions.
However, since it is very expensive, there are seasonings that have been developed trying to approximate its flavor. Also, achiote seeds have been used instead, given how cheap they are, and how similar to saffron their strong taste and deep infusing color is.
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Yep, Vanilla comes from Mexico!
Many people think that the vanilla bean originally came from Madagascar, but even though vanilla beans are grown there, they originated and were first cultivated in the lush state of Veracruz, which physically hugs the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, vanilla grown outside of Mexico has to be pollinated by hand, since the only insect that will pollinate it is the stingless Melipona bee, which only lives, and can only survive, in Mexico.
Vanilla, the fruit of the world’s only orchid with an edible pod, has been used since pre-Hispanic times by the Totonacs, first, then by other indigenous tribes throughout Mexico. The Totonacs were so incredibly resourceful they were able to develop the growing, harvesting and curing and drying methods that make vanilla edible. It was so revered it was used for sacred rituals, as well as for currency. And it is in Totonac lands, mainly in Papantla, where the finest vanilla thrives today.
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