Herbs & Spices

Nutmeg or Nuez Moscada

Nutmeg is an ingredient that tends to be overlooked in the kitchen. With a fascinating taste that is mildly sweet, somewhat woody, and a bit peppery, it is used mostly for desserts or drinks.

A native ingredient from Indonesia, nutmeg comes from an evergreen tree, now planted in more countries, that found its way to Mexico in the years of the Spanish Colony with its vast and intensive trade routes to the East.

Cute little seeds, they appear to be unpeeled nuts or large pebbles from the outside. They are very hard and solid and cannot be chopped. The best way to use them is freshly ground with a grater. They are also best used judiciously, as a little goes a long way. Once you grate them, you can see their lovely marbled interior.
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Vanilla

Yep, Vanilla comes from Mexico!

Many people think that the vanilla bean originally came from Madagascar, but even though vanilla beans are grown there, they originated and were first cultivated in the lush state of Veracruz, which physically hugs the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, vanilla grown outside of Mexico has to be pollinated by hand, since the only insect that will pollinate it is the stingless Melipona bee, which only lives, and can only survive, in Mexico.

Vanilla, the fruit of the world’s only orchid with an edible pod, has been used since pre-Hispanic times by the Totonacs, first, then by other indigenous tribes throughout Mexico. The Totonacs were so incredibly resourceful they were able to develop the growing, harvesting and curing and drying methods that make vanilla edible. It was so revered it was used for sacred rituals, as well as for currency. And it is in Totonac lands, mainly in Papantla, where the finest vanilla thrives today.

Vanilla: the legend lives on

Not only does vanilla have a matchless flavor and one of the most sensual fragrances, it also has a deeply romantic tone — just like the legend behind it. Here’s how it goes.

According to Totonac mythology, the flower was born when Princess Xanath, in charge of caring for the Temple of the Goddess of Harvest along with eleven maidens, fell in love with Zkatan-Oxga. A doomed romance from the start, as Xanath’s father would never accept him as a son in law. They eloped and were captured and killed without having the chance to even kiss. In the place they were killed, were their blood spilled,  a climbing vanilla orchid grew in an eternal embrace, as only true lovers would.

Harvesting vanilla is an art

Legend or not, the very delicate vanilla plant is actually a temperamental species of orchid that has to be treated like a capricious bride to be in order for it to bloom, be pollinated, harvested, and cured and dried in such a way that either vanilla beans or vanilla extract can exist.

The flowers open up for one day only. One single day. After the flowers open, there are only 12 hours in which they have to be hand pollinated, if not pollinated by the Melipona bee. Then the pods take six months until they are ready to be harvested by hand, while still green, so they won’t dry out, crack open, or touch the ground and therefore lose the essential oils that give vanilla its unique flavor and aroma. During all those months, the caretakers have to make sure there is enough shade, enough air, just enough of everything, really.

Once hand picked, the vanilla beans are put in hot water or in a hot oven to stop them from maturing further. After that, they bask in the sun during the day and are placed in drawers at night to sweat. The process is repeated every day for 20 to 28 days. It is known in Mexico as “beneficio,” a process for which the world has to be grateful: for the earthy, almost other-worldly smell that makes me practically swoon and the flavor that makes any ingredient sing.

It even makes men fly!

It is said that it is because of vanilla that the Voladores or Papantla fly. According to myth, over 400 years ago the gods stopped the rains because the people weren’t paying enough attention to them. The acrobatic dance ceremony was created to appease the gods and bring back the rains, so the vanilla beans could grow and thrive. The Voladores de Papantla continue to dance, and vanilla in Mexico continues to thrive. The best part is that wherever you may live in the world, you can get your hands on vanilla grown, harvested and cured in Papantla. Once you smell it and use it, you will be as I am, bewitched.

Corn Husks

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.

Corn husks not only help keep the food in place, they also keep it moist, seal in the flavor, and impart their own essence, fragrance and taste. The flavor and aroma vary depending on whether the corn husks are fresh and tender, fresh and mature or dried.

To assemble, fresh corn husks are carefully taken from ears of corn, washed and used to wrap some types of tamales, usually those made from fresh corn like the famous Michoacán uchepos. However, most tamales that use corn husks use them dried, as they can be stored for a long time – as long as they are not stored in a sunny or moist area – and are available year round.

To use dried corn husks, they need to be soaked for about 10 minutes in warm water to make them pliable, thus preventing tears or breaks and making them more flexible for folding around the masa. I usually start soaking them as I begin to make my tamales, and they are ready by the time I am ready to form my tamales. Nothing happens if you soak them for hours on end. The husks are also used to line the tamaleras or steamers to keep the water away and steady the tamales.

Corn husks are most commonly sold dried, stacked together in plastic packaging. In Mexico, you will see them in abundance hanging from market stands. They are becoming more available in the U.S., as well. Look for them in the Latin aisles of your supermarket, at your local Hispanic or international market, or online. If you happen to get more than you need, you can give some to your kids, for them to fashion puppets or dolls…

Purslane or Verdolagas

Purslane or verdolagas, one of those ingredients that Mexicans hanker for when outside of Mexico, is likely to be growing in your backyard. In Mexico, it is considered one of the quelites or edible herbs. It is nutritious and succulent, yet it has long been considered a weed in the United States. Indeed, once it grows roots, it spreads and grows fast.

It is essential to the cuisine of Central Mexico, where it is most commonly added to Puerco con Verdolagas: my favorite way of eating them. There, slowly braised pork is finished off in a seasoned salsa verde and verdolagas are dropped in almost when it’s done.

Purslane Verdolagas 1

From purslane, almost all is eaten. Only the very lower part of the stems and the roots are removed. The further you go down the chubby stems, the lighter the green color becomes and it can sometimes fluctuate to violet or red.

The leaves are thick and crisp and the stems are crunchy. Both leaves and stems are very juicy and meaty. With a light bitter flavor, a bit lemony and a bit peppery, altogether, punchy and refreshing.

Just like tomatillos, purslane’s tartness pairs well with other ingredients typical in Mexican cooking such as tomatoes and chiles. It is a great complement to salsas and taco fillings. Not native to Mexico, but as you can see, it is an ingredient that over ceturies has grown deep roots.

Though my favorite way to eat them is cooked in that famous pork stew and in vegetable soups, verdolagas are also wonderful in hearty salads. Think watercress, but thicker, crisper, yet more defined and “vegetable” like. They can be prepared just like you would spinach or watercress too. So the options go from soups, casseroles and stews, to salads which can be simply coated with a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice, olive oil and sea salt. You can tuck them into a sandwich and feel like the most interesting sandwich-eating person on your block.

Because studies have shown it to be the richest in omega-3 fatty acids of any leafy green, purslane is increasingly being cultivated in the United States and is often available at farmers’ markets. You may find it under one of its popular nicknames pursley, pigweed or little hogweed. Or look closely, they may be closer to home. If you find them in your yard: cook them up!

Mexican Chocolate

Mexican chocolate is quite different from regular bittersweet chocolate sold throughout the world.

It is sweeter, yet with contrasting layers of flavor that seem to sweep your tongue in waves as you take a bite. It is also grainy, practically gritty.  It is traditionally made from a mixture of toasted cacao beans, ground almonds, regular sugar and cinnamon.

Native from Mexico, in pre-hispanic times cacao beans were transformed into a chocolate paste. In that form, chocolate was combined with water and drank every day, by the liters, by Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. It was served for him, in hand carved precious mugs and spiced up with ground chiles and sometimes honey. Only the high tier of the Aztec hierarchy had access to it, on special occasions. It was only after the Spaniards arrived that it turned into a sweeter ingredient by adding the sugar, cinnamon and almonds.

From the many stories told about chocolate, one of the most amusing, is the one about a rebellious group of women in the state of Chiapas during Colonial times: The bishop gave them a warning to stop drinking hot chocolate during mass. The women claimed they needed it for sustenance through the long sermons. The bishop found the practice a nuisance and banned it. The bishop died poisoned, after drinking hot chocolate.

Books have been written about how chocolate was taken to the Old World and conquered the Spanish palates first and then the French. The process of producing the chocolate bars as are sold in the general market, originated in the Old World as well.

Yet there is something so charming about chocolate tablets made the traditional Mexican way. You have to take a bite into one, to be mesmerized.

In Mexico there are special mills, where people and small companies bring their own ingredients and secret recipes, to be ground and turned into tablets. The aroma as one walks in the streets were these mills are located, is addicting. You do not want to go anywhere for a while… Tablets usually have the shape of balls or disks. As a little girl, and still today, I used to love to sit on the sidewalk, and carve one of these tablets slowly, with my teeth. It takes a – lovely – while to finish one.

The most common way to use Mexican style chocolate is to make hot chocolate. Sometimes made with water and sometimes made with milk. Cooks that make it the traditional way, use a clay pot and use a Molinillo that is placed between the palms of both hands and quickly made to spin, as if rubbing your hands when it is really cold outside. This back and forth spinning of the molinillo, produces a thick layer of foam on the chocolate, which is most prized and enjoyed by people, as it is drank in individual mugs.

There are many brands available in the US these days, that sell versions of Mexican style chocolate tablets, such as Chocolate Abuelita and Ibarra. There are even less commercial and artisanal brands like El Mayordomo and others, which come directly from Oaxaca, famous for making the tastiest Mexican chocolate.

Hoja Santa or Hierba Santa

The name Hoja Santa translates to “sacred leaf.” The leaves of the hoja santa plant are heart-shaped with a thick velvety texture. These leaves can grow up to a foot and sometimes more. I find them to be truly beautiful. Though hoja santa is found throughout Mexico, it is mostly used in the south.

Mexican cooks use hoja santa judiciously not only because of it’s strong, unique, unexpected taste, but also because too much of it is not good for you, just like epazote.

Hoja Santa 1

Hoja Santa is used fresh and dried in many different ways in Mexican cooking, from tamales to pozoles to moles to soups. It is also wrapped around meat, seafood and around tamales as an edible wrapper, keeping what’s inside moist but also infusing the filling with its peculiar flavor.

Getting back to it’s flavor: it’s really hard to describe…aromatic, fragrant with a hint of eucalyptus and a whisper of mint. Some people find it similar in taste to anise. I also find a slight echo of black peppercorn and allspice. The only way for you to find out is to give it a try.