Grains & Beans

Peanuts or Cacahuates

When you don’t care much about something in Mexico, it is very popular to say “me importa un cacahuate” or “me vale un cacahuate.” This translates to something like “I don’t care enough” or “I couldn’t care less,” the word cacahuate being used for that “less or not enough.” That may be in regards to the tiny size of an individual peeled peanut, but ironically, cacahuates or peanuts mean a lot to Mexico and Mexicans.

Peanuts have been in Mexico’s culinary repertoire since Pre-Hispanic times. Though its origins can be traced to Southern Latin America, specifically Peru, and it is said to have been domesticated in Bolivia or Paraguay, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico they found it for sale in the street markets where it was a staple.

Used to snack on, be it raw, roasted, toasted, steamed, salted or spiced up and combined with other ingredients like in Pico de Gallos; as a thickener for Mole sauces or salsas, soups and stews; it’s oil extracted and used in and out of the kitchen; in “palanqueta” or bark form, entirely covered and hardened in some kind of a sweet and thick syrup and other sweets and even drinks! As times have moved on, the peanut not only remains central to our eating but also to our celebrating.

See me in the blue dress in the photo below?

Pati as a little girl eating peanuts

Me and my sister (on the right with the white sweater) are proudly carrying a bag of treasures gathered from a broken down piñata! Traditionally, piñatas have been filled with oranges to eat, fresh sugar cane pieces to suck, and peanuts to munch on. So, of course, kids run like crazy once the piñata breaks not to be hit hard and then run back like crazy once everything hits the floor. It is in more recent times that candy and toys have been added.

So, smart to include peanuts for sure: healthy and entertaining to an extreme, as kids can spend hours cracking and peeling those peanuts. What’s more, they are incredibly nutritious. Rich in niacin, Vitamin E, fiber, proteins and many other nutrients, it is full of antioxidants and it is free, naturally of trans-fats and sodium.

Another irony is that peanuts, one of the most popular “nut” in the world, are actually not from the “nut” family. The peanut is a legume from a small flowering plant, and it grows in a really strange way: once the flower is pollinated, it gets heavier  and leans toward the ground where it pushes its heavy, woody seed underground and grows into a legume pod with beans inside, in this case, peanuts.

peanuts

The odd way peanuts grow is said to have confused the Spaniards who couldn’t figure out how the flower and legume could be in different places. In fact, the Náhuatl word given to it by the Aztecs was “cacahuatl,” meaning cocoa bean from the earth.

The Spanish and Portuguese took the peanuts to other parts of the world, including Africa, and it was by means of the slave trade that they came into the United States. No wonder some people think that peanuts come from Africa. Ingredients find a funny and fascinating way to move around the globe…

Although the peanuts were used thoroughly in Mexican kitchens before the Spanish arrived, it was the Spanish nuns that gave the peanuts a sweeter use in the convent kitchens, creating all sorts of marzipans, pastes and cookies. Peanuts were a replacement for almonds, which they had been accustomed to using in Spain.

Peanuts are a key ingredient in modern Mexican cooking, used in more and more ways as time goes by.

There is just something a little more sweet or fresh about peanuts cooked from their raw state, especially if you have monsters you need to keep busy and you need to peel a few dozens. You can look for un-shelled, raw, skinless peanuts in your local natural foods store or mainstream stores too. However, sometimes they are tricky to find raw. You can use roasted instead. You can also use roasted or raw already shelled  unsalted peanuts.

It’s best to store peanuts in an airtight container. They will keep in your pantry for up to a month or in your freezer for six months.  Do watch out though, if left unattended or not properly sealed, their delicious fresh and almost sweet taste can turn bitter, old and unpleasant.

Aside from being careful with not letting them age or get bitter if bought on the shell, you may want to start stuffing them in your own piñatas…

Pumpkin Seeds or Pepitas

Pumpkin seeds, Pepitas in Spanish, are one of the things I used to stuff in my suitcase when visiting Mexico. That’s because they have a mellow, somewhat nutty, almost sweet, barely chewy and nutritious nature. They are also one of the most nutritious seeds (they are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants).

Pepitas are the seeds of different kinds of pumpkins! They can be seen all over Mexico from stands on the street to bags in the stores. They have been a part of Mexican cooking as long as…well…Mexican cooking and just as well as pumpkins, have been used in a myriad of ways over thousands of years.

Pumpkin seeds were prized by both the Aztecs and Mayans and it is said that the Mayans were the ones who began grinding them to make bases for sauces. In fact, the Yucatan Peninsula, home of the Mayas, has amongst its basic seasoning pastes (one being the famous achiote paste ) a lightly colored pumpkin seed paste that can already be bought in the markets.

Pumpkin seeds in Mexico are eaten unhulled or hulled, raw, toasted, salted, fried and spiced up as snacks. They are also used to make salsas, moles, soups and drinks. They are delightful sprinkled as a topping on many dishes as they add a subtle flavor and an extra healthy crunch.

Happily, I see them appear more and more in grocery stores here in the US.

Hominy, Maí­z Cacahuacintle, Mote or Giant Corn

Known in the US as hominy in the US, maí­z cacahuacintle is one of the favorite types of corn in Mexico. It has giant kernels that are whiter, softer, thicker, with rounder tops, than the regular white or yellow corn. It also has a deep, mealy bite.

Its traditional name, cacahuacintle comes from the combination of two náhuatl words, cacáhuatl and centli, meaning corn and cacao, because of its size, mostly. Though this giant corn is most used to make pozole, it is also used to make other dishes like tamales, sweets, drinks, and is eaten in street style crazy corn.

When you buy dried hominy in the stores, it has already been peeled and what we call, beheaded, or descabezado. That means that it has been already lightly cooked in order for the tough part that connects the kernels to the cobs -known as cap- to be removed.

Cooking it is simple, just throw it in the pot, cover it with water, and wait for it to bloom… for about 3 hours. Literally to open up. That’s how you know it is ready. And just like beans, you don’t add the salt until the end, or it will toughen the kernels as they cook.

If you don’t fell like cooking it, you can already buy it fully cooked in cans or in bags in the refrigerated sections of some Latino stores.

Chia Seeds

With a metallic dark color and mottled skin, Chia seeds are delightfully crunchy. Once you rehydrate them in water, as  the popular Lime based Agua Fresca, they become covered in an irresistible gelatinous layer. No wonder the word chia comes from the náhuatl name chian, which means oily.

Scientifically, Salvia Hispanica, they come from a flowering plant from the mint family. Some new wave health oriented groups, call it “the Miracle seed”. They are indeed miraculous for good digestion and some say weight loss.

In Mexico they have been used for centuries. In Aztec times, aside from eating, they were one of the main means of exchange and also used for religious rituals.

Take a peek, they are quite lovely.

They are also a great source of protein and fiber.  When ground, Chia can be used to make baked goods like breads, cakes and cookies.  You can also eat the sprouts, as they are very similar to alfalfa sprouts, and are delicious in salads.

I know what you may say, as many American friends have told me when I hand a glass of Limonada with Chia seeds… are these the same as the Chia Pets?

Well, yes they are, you can have them as pets too!

Beans: Black Beans

Beans are a crucial part of any Mexican meal, where the black bean is the most common bean used generally speaking. However, speaking regionally, it is favored in the Southern states and also in Veracruz.  In the northern areas of Mexico, the lighter colored beans such as the Pinto are more common, and in the center areas, both kinds are eaten as well as Peruvian beans.

Continue reading “Beans: Black Beans”

Beans: Fava Beans

Fava beans have been around for quite a long time. Ancient Egyptians prized them so much that they were buried with them inside of their tombs! Originally native to Africa and southwest Asia, today Favas are cultivated all over the world. Thanks to the Spaniards, Mexicans have been enjoying them since the XVI century, in may different ways.

Filled with nutrients and Vitamins, they are also filled with a deep strong flavor. In Central Mexico, they are  commonly found fresh at markets in the spring time where they range in size from the mini to the large and in colors from the pale green to the deep purple.  When fresh, they come with a shell and a leathery skin underneath it, both of which needs to be removed before eating. Which can be quite laborious. Then they are eaten in soups, stews and salads mostly.

They are also found in the stores and markets dried year round, in two variations. And they are used to make dishes, year round too…

First, you can find them hulled, but not peeled. In which case they need to be soaked before cooking, then simmered for hours until soft and peeled. They look pretty, but it is quite laborious too.

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That’s why its just easier to get them in the second variation, as below. Already hulled and peeled. In this case, Fava beans just need to be cooked until soft, and then they can be the base of tasty soups, stews and even salads. They are also famously used to make a Fava bean paste that is used in many Mexican antojitos like gorditas and tlacoyos.

Another popular and delicious way to eat this wholesome ingredient, is by toasting or frying them and covering them with chily powder, lime juice and salt. They are called habas tostadas, a favourite snack for movie goers.

Beans: Pinto Beans

My personal favorite bean, they are lighter in color, creamier in texture and softer than black beans.  In Northern states, the pinto is the most popular bean.

In Sinaloa they cook them with onion, garlic, tomato and the serrano chile, those four ingredients that are the basis for many Mexican dishes. There is also a twist on Sinaloa beans called frijoles puercos or piggy style beans which is rather heavy, and served with bacon, chorizo, and cheese.  It is delicious!

Known for its mottled skin, it is also the most common bean in the US.