This actually started out as a review of Roberto Santibañez’ new cookbook, Truly Mexican (with JJ Goode and Shelley Wiseman, released this year by Wiley & Sons). In the promotional video for the book on Amazon.com, in which this super chef demos how to make salsa roja using a molcajete, Santibañez says that this is “good time for Mexican food in the United States” and states in the book’s intro that he is “sure this book will change the way you think about cooking Mexican”. We would have to agree, on both counts. Truly Mexican breaks down cooking techniques and ingredients logically and simply, so that once you master a technique, you have opened the door to make any of a multitude of recipes that follow in the sections on Salsas, Guacamoles, Adobos and Moles & Pipianes. The opening chapter, Basics, explains the various chiles and herbs, complete with useful and really beautiful photos, which will help you shop and use the ingredients. Really, a stellar additional to anyone’s cooking library.
But what struck me more, when I was paging through, was the fact that, although Sanitbañez does a great job of suggesting substitute ingredients and/or on-line sources for some of the more difficult-to-find produce, herbs and other ingredients; we have all of this at our fingertips, right here in San Francisco. What lucky Mexican cooks we are!
As far as herbs go, at Casa Luca or Chico’s Produce, both on 24th street, you will have no trouble finding:
- Cilantro: goes in most salsas, guacamole (Santibañez shows the correct way to coarse-chop it)
- Epazote: add to your beans and quesadillas (see Secrets of Mexican cooking, add … espazote….)
- Avocado leaves
- Mexican “Oregano”
As for fresh chiles, olvîdalo (forget it)! There are over a dozen varieties in the same grocers at any given time. In fact, the assortment and availability of chiles is on the rise all acorss the country. With U.S. Census figures showing Hispanics as the most populous minority in the U.S., specialty pepper sales are growing as well, according to pepper marketing agents.
“I think the demographics in all states are changing with a Hispanic-based culture and you have channels like the Food Network that give the everyday Americans an idea of how to use these products, so it’s the media and changing demographics that’s kind of allowed us to push chilis to an audience that might not ordinarily buy them,” says Javier Gonzalez, category manager for Edinburg, Texas-based grower-shipper Frontera Produce LLC, which markets jalapeños, anaheims and other specialty varieties. (There also seems to be a downside, as growers look to “dumb-down” chiles for what they perceive to be a less sophisticated American palate, readers of this column excluded- see Wimpier chiles detract from authentic flavor of salsas)
- Fresh chiles: serranos and/or jalapeños for salsas, guacamole, to add to scrambled eggs, or just to add a little “spice” to anything that lacks it.
- Dried chiles: de albor remain bright red even after drying and are fairly hot, not to be confused the dried version with the same name.
- Canned chiles: chipotles (see Chipotles: what they are and how to use them)
- Mexican limes (limon): add to beer, instead of vinegar on cucumbers, some add a squeeze to their guacamole, not to mention making margaritas
- Tomatillos: “are small fruits (used as a vegetable) enclosed in a husk. The fruit resembles a small unripe tomato and is usually green or yellow. The yellow color indicates ripeness, but tomatillos are most often used when they are still green. Green tomatillos are firmer and easier to slice. The husk that holds the fruit is paper-like and is light brown. The flesh is slightly acidic with a hint of lemon. Tomatillos belong to the same family as tomatoes. Used in salsa verde, they also make an unusual salad diced and tossed with Spanish white onion, with a chipotle lime vinaigrette and topped with queso cotija or the milder queso fresco
- Avocados: for guacamole (see How to make a great guacamole) also requisite on Mexican sandwiches called tortas
- Mexican (white) zucchini: this pale-green zucchini found in Mexican markets in a size (and shape) somewhere between a tennis and golf ball have a firm texture and sweet flavor. For just a very short period the squash blossom, which is the true culinary treasure of the zucchini plant, is available at farmers markets in San Francisco (usually in late April-May). Make amazing quesadillas using these (remove stamens with tweezers, dredge in seasoned flour mixture, then well-beaten egg batter with extra white and deep-fry- much like preparing chiles rellenos and stuff them inside of waiting hot, deep fried tortillas.
Not to mention:
- Queso Fresco: just generally a good guarnichon to any Mexican entree, used to top enchilidas, sopes, black beans, not to mention flan (see Mexican cooking secrets flan)
- Beans: black and pinto, dried and ready to use any time.
- Masa- to make tortillas, sopes, gorditas (see Maiz Part 2: masa to mesa)
- Mexican chocolate: has a unique taste. It’s texture is quite different from any baking or cooking chocolate found in a typical American pantry; the sugar is more grainy and the chocolate is quite sweet. It is a blend of cacoa paste, Mexican brown sugar (see below), hence the coarser texture, and cinnamon which results in the signature Mexican chocolate flavor.
- Piloncillo : this smoky, caramely and earthy sugar is produced; it has far more flavor than brown sugar, which is generally just white sugar with a small amount of molasses added back to it. Unrefined, it is commonly used in Mexico, where it has been around for at least 500 years. Made from crushed sugar cane, the juice is collected, boiled and poured into molds, where it hardens into blocks. To use it, pound with a meat hammer while its still in its plastic baggie. Sold in the aforementioned markets by the pound (about $1/lb). It can be used in moles and other sauces, as well as to simply sweeten coffee.
So buy the book, grab your bolsa de compras and head to 24th street!