On a recent trip through Casa Lucas Market, in San Francisco, Laurie Mackenzie, the program manager of La Cocina Community Kitchen (lacocinasf.org), a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that helps lower-income women start food businesses, walked Real Simple through the following fundamental ingredients in Mexican cuisine.
If you can't find these items at a farmers' market or an international grocery store in your area, try these mail-order shops (recommended by Diana Kennedy, the author of The Essential Cuisines of Mexico): Kitchen Market (kitchenmarket.com) or Amazon.com's gourmet-food shop (amazon.com/gourmetfood).
The paddle of the nopal plant, or the prickly-pear cactus, is a green oval vegetable about four inches wide and six to eight inches long that can be purchased whole or already cleaned and cubed. "If you buy them whole," says Mackenzie, "place a plastic bag over your hand like a glove when picking them up, to avoid being pricked by the tiny hairlike spines on the nodes of the paddle." Shave the spikes off the surface, give the paddles a rinse, and they're ready for cooking. Mackenzie suggests brushing the paddles with oil and salt and grilling them until limp, or roasting cubed nopal in the oven for about 20 minutes and then adding it to scrambled eggs or salads.
These egg-shaped fruits of the prickly-pear cactus come in colors ranging from unripe yellow green to ripe ruby red. "Look for deep red or purple ones that yield slightly to the touch," Mackenzie notes, but be careful to avoid the tiny spines. "Keep them loosely wrapped in the refrigerator. Then to eat them, cut off both ends, and make a slit down the length of the rind and peel it off. The flesh of a cold tuna can be very refreshing on a hot, dusty day of exploring pre-Columbian ruins."
Look for the smooth-skinned version of this pear-shaped summer squash, which can be eaten with or without the skin and with or without the pit. "Chayote can be sautéed or steamed in wedges, or cubed and roasted like potatoes," says Mackenzie. In Nicaragua, she adds, "they make a casserole, mixing cubes of steamed chayote with a béchamel sauce, then putting it in a gratin dish, topping it with bread crumbs and cheese, and baking it."
The clean, pungent taste of this herb is "an essential flavor in the cooking of central and southern Mexico," says Mackenzie. "It's a sturdy leaf that is generally cooked in a dish, rather than sprinkled on raw." Epazote leaves, while commonly used when boiling black beans, can also be chopped and sautéed with summer squash and corn, or placed whole inside a cheese quesadilla.
"This is the chili to make chiles rellenos," Mackenzie says of the medium-heat poblano chili, which is deep green and four to five inches long. If you're not up for rellenos (basically baked or fried chilies stuffed with a cheese mixture), you can also roast and peel the poblanos, cut them into strips, and sautée them with onions, or add them to tacos, quesadillas, and casseroles.
Also known as key limes, Mexican limes, or West Indian limes, these little yellow-green fruits are juicy and aromatic. Mackenzie notes that the thin rind is prone to brown spots, so avoid buying limónes that are banged up or shriveled. "They are delicious in beverages, sorbets, and jams," she says. "And they are excellent in marinades for fish or meats and chicken." One recipe she suggests is for agua fresca: Mix the juice and the zest of one or two pounds of limónes with sugar and water (or sparkling water) to taste. Then add ice and enjoy.
These are the little yellow tomato-like fruits that come wrapped in their own papery husk. "They have a fruity, citrusy taste," Mackenzie says. "In Mexico, they are usually cooked before using in salsa verde and moles." She recommends buying smaller, yellow varieties for the best flavor or the purplish ones sometimes available at farmers' markets. Then peel off the paper, rinse, and roast or boil to use in sauces or salsas.
Sweet but acidic, guava fruits come in many shapes and sizes and are often used in Mexican desserts. One sweet treat is a fruit paste called ate. "It is compressed into a loaf, then sliced," Mackenzie explains, "and can be served as a dessert with a smooth cheese and crackers."