Ingredients : Vegetables
It’s hard to think of Mexico without images of cactus plants. From landscapes to murals, to paintings, photos, plays, songs… and namely to the Mexican flag! Mexico’s coat of arms has an eagle eating a snake triumphantly standing on a cactus plant. As legend goes, that sign led the Aztecs to their promised land, Tenochtitlán.
But you know what is even harder? To think of a Mexican table without cactus, or nopales, on our plates. They’ve been a crucial ingredient since pre-Hispanic times.
Though there are hundreds of varieties, the most common is the Prickly Pear cactus. It has fleshy leaves or paddles, that are used as a vegetable in salads, stews, soups, eggs, stews, all sorts of appetizers and even smoothies and juices -a really popular one combines nopales with orange juice and my mom is fond of adding fresh spinach to the mix. They are used as a base to mount other ingredients onto, as a wrapper instead of thick tortillas and as a filler or topper for tamales, quesadillas, tostadas… They are found from breakfast to dinner options and anywhere in between (continue for more information and photos).
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I think the most commonly used zucchini in Mexican cooking is either what in Mexico is called the calabacita italiana, or Itailian zucchini, or the calabacita bola or round squash, which is similar to the Italian but rounder and smaller and used a lot in French cooking. Italian zucchini is different from the regular green zucchini found in most US stores, in that the later is large, thick and has a uniform dark green color. The Italian zucchini is smaller, a bit rounder with a chubbier appearance, and has a lighter green color that is randomly speckled with a cream color and is milder and sweeter in flavor.
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Chayote, also called chayote squash (it is from the squash family), choko, vegetable pear, mirliton and christophene, is a beautiful pear like shaped vegetable. Ironically, it has a texture similar to a pear that isn’t ripe, but less grainy. Yet the chayotes isn’t wholly sweet, it just has a sweet hint, barely a whisper, really. Its flavor is more neutral, like a cross between a pear and a cucumber… and zucchini. Well, you just have to give them a try.
Crispy, watery, very low-fat, with a clean and wholesome feel, chayote can be used many ways. Most typically in soups, as a warm vegetable side, a cold salad or very popularly stuffed either with a sweet or savory spin. They are most times cooked and best al dente, unless eaten stuffed.
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Corn has been a central part of the Mexican diet and culture since ancient times. Not only is it eaten fresh in its many varieties, its dried kernels are used for an infinity of things, including masa to make everything from tortillas to tamales. It’s husks are also treasured as an ingredient to wrap and cook food in. Tamales, of course, have remained the wrapped and cooked food par excellence in Mexico. Methods have varied from steaming, to cooking over comales or the open fire, to cooking in underground pits.
Now, the use of fresh or dried leaves for wrapping and cooking foods is not exclusive to Mexico. Grape leaves were used since ancient Greece and banana leaves in the Philippines, to name some. In Mexico, there has been a large variety of ingredients for this use like banana leaves, avocado leaves, chaya, hoja santa leaves, large spinach leaves and even some exotic flower leaves. Still corn husks, fresh or dried, have been and remain a crucial one.
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Huauzontles, also called Huazontles or Cuazontles, are a native plant to Mexico. Their scientific name is Chenopodium nuttalliae. Huauzontles gave a very thick main stem, oval leaves -that aren’t eaten- and thinner stems filled with edible green flowers that resemble broccoli or rapini, but are much more smaller and delicate.
They have a strong smell when you get close. Similarly as the Epazote, Huauzontles have a deep, clean and almost astringent smell. Some people say they taste similar to spinach or watercress. It seems to me, they have a welcoming and original, light bitter taste.
Though they have been commonly eaten during Lent for centuries, but they are also eaten throughout the year. Since they have become increasingly popular in the US -where they used to be considered a weed- they are now being imported and also grown. They are now available in many Latino and International stores.
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Whenever it starts pouring down rain in late Spring, I hanker for huitlacoche.
A true Mexican delicacy, also called cuitlacoche, it is a form of fungus, similar to some mushrooms, that grows on fresh corn. In the Mexican rainy season, which starts in April (some say March…) and ends sometime in September (some say October…), you can find huitlacoche at its peak.
It doesn’t look that pretty. It grows in an oversize and disproportionate manner on ears of corn, producing huge kernels that are black inside and covered with a somewhat silvery-white, sparkly and velvet textured skin.
Its flavor is intense and unmatchable: mushroomy, earthy, woody, a bit inky… reminds me of calamari ink.
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Jícamas are one of the many Mexican ingredients that luckily, have become readily available outside of the country. Also known as Mexican yams or turnips, they are also a root vegetable. But they are far from the latter in flavor, texture or cooking uses.
They are mostly (and as far as I know also successfully) eaten raw. No need to try to cook them, for many of the qualities they are loved for would be lost. They have a similar taste and crunch as the water chestnuts, but in my view, jícamas are more refreshing, crispy, sweet and watery.
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Squash blossoms are considered a true delicacy in Mexican cuisine. Available in rainy months, they fly out of the markets as soon as they are set on the floor mats and stands.
No wonder they are such a hot selling ingredient: They are gorgeous looking, with orange and green Fall colors, a velvety texture, a meaty and crunchy bite and a delicate and exuberant flavor.
Since they are also commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine, aside from finding them in the US in Latin markets, one can find them at Italian grocery stores. But one can also find them during the summer season in some grocery stores and Farmer’s markets.
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Although they are widely available in the US, I don’t think I have met more than a couple people here who use fresh tomatillos in their cooking. It may be partly because people are not familiar with them or how to cook them, but…. they are not an appealing ingredient as far as looks go with the first impression! But let me tell you why you should definitely give them a try.
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