Global Pantry Series: Mexican Cooking Essentials

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Mexican cuisine has become a huge part of American food culture ever since Tex Mex, the melting pot of American and Mexican foodways that originated in Texas over a century ago spread to the rest of the country in the 1980s. We even have a day each week dedicated to it – Taco Tuesdays! While we can’t resist a tasty quesadilla or messy plate of nachos, there’s so much more to explore. From a rich mole sauce to a million different kinds of salsa (literally), Mexican food has stolen our hearts, which is evidenced by it being the second most loved ethnic cuisine in America next to Chinese. Thanks to a large Mexican-American population eager to replicate traditional foods here in the states, we’ve moved beyond our taste for Tex Mex and can now dine at restaurants that focus on regional fare, and sometimes even a specific dish. Mexican cooking isn’t complex, (with the exception of mole), and the ingredients that make up the base of most dishes are simple and easy to find, thanks to the proliferation of bodegas in many cities, and expanding International food aisles in most grocery stores. The secret is in the technique – and having a well-stocked pantry is the first step to mastering this beloved cuisine at home. Mexicans put love into their food with patience and attention. It’s the best way to let the few ingredients really shine. Buen Provecho!

 

Chiles

Every Mexican cook has a proud collection of dried chiles. Dried chiles can be reconstituted in liquid for use in cooking a multitude of dishes. They’re also ground into a powder to use as in spice form or blended into recipes like salsas, sauces, and dressing to add smoky heat and depth of flavor. A few dried chiles to keep on hand include chile de Arbol, chile guajillo and chile ancho.

Another staple for a Mexican pantry is canned chiles, specifically green chiles, pickled jalapeños (or jalapeños in vinegar), and chipotles in adobo. Chipotles in adobo are dried and smoked jalapeños in a spiced tomato sauce. The flavors are super concentrated and spicy, making a little go a long way! If you find yourself with a lot leftover, here are a few ideas to finish off what’s left.

Chile powders are also an important ingredient. General chile powder is a staple that can be used in most recipes that call for any type for chile. Ancho Chile Powder is much milder in heat but lends a smokiness that is unmistakable and adds an interesting flavor. Chipotle is also common, especially in recipes that call for adobo.

 

Dried and Canned Beans

Legumes are an essential component of Mexican cuisine. These include beans of all kinds, like black, pinto as well as lentils. Legumes are high in protein making them an affordable staple in most Mexican homes. Lentils are most commonly used in soups as a hearty addition for winter meals. Canned and dried beans are also customary for a Mexican pantry. Beans cooked in their own juices are a common addition to rice and meat dishes. Refried beans are also popular, whether eaten by themselves or used as a filling for tacos and enchiladas.

 

Rice

No Mexican pantry is without rice! Otherwise known as the pasta of Mexican cuisine, rice is the base of many different meals. The most common type of rice used is long-grain, easily found in most grocery stores. Rice is a cornerstone of Mexican cuisine used in both sweet and savory dishes. One of the most common cooking methods is to cook it Pilaf-style, browned then simmered in broth. Browning the rice gives it a rich toastiness and the broth lends even more depth to what can be an otherwise bland dish. Common desserts featuring the grain include Horchata, pudding, and cakes.

 

Tortillas

You can’t have tacos without tortillas! The classic tortilla in Mexican culture uses masa, or corn. Flour tortillas came from Spanish influence during the time Mexico spent under their rule. Tortillas are necessary for tacos, burritos, tostadas, chips, quesadillas, enchiladas, and more. Many recipes that call for bread, can be adapted to use a tortilla instead. Tortillas are simple to make, and the best Mexican home cooks make their own. Corn tortillas consist of masa harina, hot water, and salt. The dough is prepared, allowed to rest then rolled into small balls before being squashed into a round disc and cooked on a hot griddle.

 

Dried Spices

Like any other culture, Mexican cuisine has several staple dried spices that belong in every pantry. Dried Mexican Oregano is different from traditional Mediterranean Oregano. The herb itself grows different and the flavors aren’t as strong. It’s used in a lot of tomato-based dishes but lends a more subtle flavor. Bay Leaves are necessary for recipes that spend time simmering like sauces and stews. Cumin has an earthy flavor and is used in a lot of meat dishes, especially taco and burrito fillings. Garlic Powder is essential for every kitchen, not just a Mexican one. However, garlic is a flavor found throughout most Mexican dishes. You’ll see this ingredient listed in many recipes and it can be used anytime you run out of a fresh bulb. Finally, Mexican cinnamon is quite the gem. The bark is much larger and tougher than the cinnamon Americans are used to. The flavors are warmer and not as distinct (what we would say is “cinnamony”). The strong “cinnamon” flavor is much more subtle but makes a lovely addition to anything from sauces to coffee grounds.

 

Piloncillo

We saved the sweetest for last! Piloncillo is pure cane sugar, also known as Mexican brown sugar. Because the sugar hasn’t been processed, it has a rich, molasses-like flavor. It comes in a solid form that must be grated or chopped before use, but can then be used the same as any other sweetener. Some popular traditional uses are cafe con leche, Mexican bread pudding, cookies, and more. It’s a staple for baking and often used in cooking as well. 

Fresh Must-Haves

While technically not pantry items, no Mexican chef can go without these fresh staples: avocados, cilantro, jalapeños, limes, onion, radishes, serrano peppers, and tomatoes. Each staple is useful in a variety of fresh and prepared recipes from guacamole to carnitas. Cilantro is used in Mexican cuisine like parsley is used in Italian. Limes are commonly used to finish dishes to inbue them with brightness and acidity. They’re also a must-have for guacamole lovers,  as lime juice keeps it from browning – and balances out avocado’s richness. Onion and peppers are enjoyed raw as a garnish or in salsa, or used in a sofrito, which makes up the base of many Latin American dishes.