Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Essential Mexican Ingredients

I opened my refrigerator the other day. How different things look since I came to San Miguel. I never imagined that lard would ever be a staple in my pantry but it is now.

The ingredients in my cupboards are a combination of smoky, spicy and sweet which pretty much sums up Mexican cooking. And when I cook them…it’s a fiesta of the senses - especially when I am doing a trial and error with chilies.

Actually, maybe you want to come for dinner when the testing is over as some of the dishes I’ve been cranking out lately have been overwhelmingly hot even for me.

One thing I know for sure. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to sit down to a celebrated meal with friends. It’s my sole reason to cook.

I will admit that it was like Cooking 101 all over again when I came to San Miguel. Every day was a struggle to find or even substitute ingredients. After 3 months, I’ve evolved into a somewhat respectable Mexican cook… who still needs to learn to make mole.

Good news is that I’m going to finally be trained on how to make REAL mole from scratch from an abuela that can in all likelihood make it with her eyes closed. I wonder how many generations it took to get to her version of the recipe?

I’m told that I will have to shop for 30 plus ingredients and it will be a long process.Yes, you can cook Mexican but can you make mole? It will be the lesson that sets me apart going forward.

Being in the kitchen is therapy and whenever I’m feeling a little off or anxious or indifferent, cooking centers me. Good thing I also have the Virgin of Purísima in my kitchen to give me a little extra kick when I need it. That has been more often than not lately.

I page through thousands of great Mexican recipes in Diana Kennedy, Patricia Quintana, Fany Gerson, Hugo Ortega and Rick Bayless cookbooks and they all tell their own story. Every time I make them, the story is transformed. A cook put’s their own interpretation and passion into the process changing the recipe for the next generation to improve upon once again.

I just took an inventory and here is a list of the basics I have in my Mexican kitchen. They are the staples that define the dishes I cook… and authentically try to perfect every day.

Buen Apetito!

Mexican Cheese
I go to the markets in town and see beautiful, homemade Mexican cheese every day.

From Cotija to Oaxacan, cheese is the one ingredient I cannot live without and Mexico makes some of the best.

Anchos, Guajillos, Mulatos, Jalapenos, Serranos, Chipotles, Moritas, Pasillas, Habaneros, Poblanos. The list goes on and on.

There are over 100 species of chili peppers grown in Mexico and before I leave, I intend to try and cook with them all.

 This is the first thing I have in my pantry no matter where I am at.

I try to put the wonderful variety of Mexican chocolates in every dish I can.

Looks at this stuff. It looks bad but lard is the secret ingredient to the rich flavor of carnitas and it's what makes Mexican pastry taste so delicious.

Now I know why Mexican grandmothers use lard in their tortillas.

For a girl who LOVES tequila, I did say Mescal. Amazed? Me too. I’ve become a huge fan especially the artisanal brands that utilize wild agave.

Mescal fits into the growing demand for small batch and hand-crafted because it’s made on farms not in factories.

Mexican vanilla beans are thicker and darker and have a smooth, strong, rich fragrance and flavor. Some people say they are the best in the world.

I also make my own by soaking sliced vanilla beans in vodka for at least 6 months.

Mexicans put cinnamon on just about everything. Today it was on a dark and white chocolate mousse.

I am slowly getting use to the taste although I must admit I’ve never had too much love for it.

I’ve always loved avocados not just for guacamole but to slice on top of sandwiches or put in omelets. It’s a healthy ingredient that I just can’t seem to get enough of.

The Hass avocado is my favorite and accounts for an impressive 80% of cultivated avocados in the world.

I eat these fresh with most of my meals. They are good hot with butter and jam and a bilillo is the main ingredient for a torta.

By the way, a torta made with a just-out-of-the-oven Bilillo was my first meal in Mexico. I’ll never forget the taste.

I’ve yet to try making Chorizo from scratch but I’m going to get my butcher to teach me. The flavor is so intense and I like it best with scrambled eggs for breakfast and occasionally in Queso Fundido.

The meat is usually ground rather than chopped, and many seasonings are added to characterize its strong flavor.

Mexican Oregano
This herb shares the flavor of Mediterranean oregano but it is stronger and also carries notes of both citrus and licorice.

It pairs well with hot chili peppers or cumin – both staples in Mexican cooking.

At Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago, there is an item on the menu called Jicama Street Snack that has Jicama, cucumber, pineapple, fresh lime and a crushed guajillo chile.

This is the place I became addicted to Jicama and have searched for creative ways to use it since. I love the crunch.

This Jicama taco is my addiction here in San Miguel.

I was lucky to first have these pads on the BBQ. That is about the only way I can eat them now that I’ve tried them at least a half dozen other ways.

No love or hate here but it does have a fascinating texture.

Squash Blossoms 
I saw Squash Blossoms at Green City Market in Chicago and never bought them until I came to Mexico. Now, I bake them or deep fry them and eat them like candy.

I’ve come to love the delicate texture and flavor and especially the rich squash blossom soup we made in my cooking class back in June.

Because I’m a huge fan of Salsa Verde – it’s the salsa I love the most - tomatillos have always been one of my favorite Mexican ingredients. In fact, this is the one thing I smother on everything including breakfast.

When selecting, chose small tomatillos as they are sweeter than the larger ones. Also, do not buy if the husk is shriveled or dried as it is an indication of the freshness of the fruit.