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Fresh Tuna! The cactus, not the fish

IN SEASON NOW!  June- November
It’s an adjustment for most English speakers to use the word “Tuna” when referring to a fruit, but that’s the name used in Mexico for the prickly pear. There are many varieties, all from Opuntia species of cactus. You’ll see green, yellow, orange, splotchy pink with white, and bright pink. Each has a distinct flavor and these can almost be matched with melons of the same colors…
Green– light fresh mineral -like taste of cucumber with sweetness of honeydew (Casaba, Persian) melon
Orange– a bit sweeter than the green variety, and more like canteloupe in flavor
Pink – sweeter, like watermelon and strawberry
All the fruits are full of tiny hard seeds… these are absolutely fine to eat and give your intestines and colon a good cleaning as they pass through! They can be removed by giving the fruits a spin in a belnder or food processor and then passing the pulp through a sieve. You’ll get a nice clear juice this way, but you lose some of the valuable fibre!
If you buy unpeeled tuna, even though they will have been cleaned, it’s still likely there will be small sharp spines, tiny as hairs, attached – especially around the top. So handle them very carefully, or best, let the vendor bag them for you.
The Opuntia is the most utilized cactus in Mexico – the Nopal… providing also a vegetable to those who brave the spines to harvest it. It’s one of many examples of how the Mexican diet makes the most of what’s available.
You’ll learn more about how to use the tuna and nopal in my upcoming eBook,
‘Frutas y Verduras’ – Your Guide to Mexico’s Fruits and Vegetables

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Shucking Frijol ‘Espelón’

In the mercado Lucas Galvez in Mérida, these beans were bundled, piled in stacks and, at some stalls, industrious women sat shucking. This particular bean, I came to understand, is not cooked to be served as a side dish as other frijoles tend to be, but is more often added to masa in traditional Yucatecan dishes. The fresh beans are not mashed, but left whole. One such dish is Brazo de Reina which is a large tamal– the espelon are mixed in with the masa which is folded around whole or chopped boiled eggs, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed

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A lucky find: Zapote Blanco

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tsa-POH-tay BLAHN-ko

As I wander through the markets, I’m always (well, almost) on the alert for unfamiliar shapes and colors. Most important to pay attention to are the ladies that set up their tables in the annex area, just outside the main central market here in San Miguel de Allende. They bring in the most seasonal and least common of the locally grown fruits and vegetables.

I almost missed these because they were set in tidy groups of five, a pale lime green similar in shape and size to the lima next to them. But there was just enough of a difference in the way the light caught the dimple at the end of the lima, which this fruit lacked. I did a double take.

‘Como se llamen, esta fruta?’ I asked the vendor. (Speakers of Spanish may note my grammatical errors– point is, never let fear of making mistakes stop you from expressing yourself)

‘Son zapote blanco.’

!!!!!!!! (was my reply). White Sapote! Of course, it’s May! I had been told back in February that these had a short season but to look for them in April or May and apparently, I  had fallen asleep on the job… the vendor went on to tell me that one more week and they would be gone.


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So I bought a few. She told me to eat them like apples, but I found didn’t like the feel of the skin– it seemed too thick. So, I cut one in half and scooped out some of the white flesh with a spoon. There are large pits– in the first one I cut, there were 3; larger than almonds in a fruit about the size of a small peach. The flavor, I’ll describe as a mild pear, but the consistency is less juicy, more smooth and creamy, somewhat like a soft avocado. The pits are bitter– even when I just scraped my spoon against one, I got some bitterness in that mouthful of fruit.

From what I read, the fruit of the White Sapote is rich in Vitamins C and A, and indicated for prevention of colds and flu. The bark and leaves of the tree area also used medicinally.

It’s about an hour since I ate about half a fruit and have found myself to feel very sleepy. So now, I am not surprised to read that eating the fruit has long been known to produce drowsiness, as noted byFrancisco Hernández de Toledo in the 16th century. In fact ,the Nahuatl name of the plant cochitzapotl (sleep sapote) indicates that the native people knew the plant induced drowsiness

Zapotin is a natural chemical compound, classified as a flavone, isolated from White sapote (Casimiroa edulis).[1]

Several recent in vitro studies have shown that zapotin has potential anti-carcinogenic effects against isolated colon cancer cells

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REFERENCES

http://www.cucba.udg.mx/anterior/sitiosinteres/coaxican/zapo_usos.htm

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Plátano Manzano

PLA-tan-o mahn-ZAHN-o
(I have heard/ seen this both as ‘manzana’ and ‘manzano’)
Platano manzano is the sweet, creamy ‘apple banana’ . These were harvested in Jalisco Mexico. These chubby, short
bananas are a fruit for eating uncooked; their flavour has a light apple perfume and the texture is more smooth and custardy than the standard Cavendish banana that you buy in supermarkets. Choose them as shown here – dark spots mean they are ripe and ready to eat.
Bananas are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin B-6, and potassium. They are low in fat and sodium, are cholesterol-free and a source of soluble fiber.
If you want a fruit to calm your nerves, this is the one– bananas contain  tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin – known to make you relax, improve your mood and generally make you feel happier.
Bananas can also help people trying to give up smoking, as the high levels of Vitamin C, A1, B6, B12 they contain, as well as the potassium and magnesium found in them, help the body recover from the effects of nicotine withdrawal.
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La Vista Hoy – cooking Flor de Maguey

Flor de maguey is an indigenous food, the unopened buds of the maguey plant, which flowers only once in its approximately 30 year lifespan. It’s a dramatic show– within days, a trunk-like stem shoots up to a height of nearly 30 feet. This contains the aguamiel, which either goes into the flowers, if the buds are allowed to open, or it is cut back and the aguamiel, a sweet sap, flows back into the piña – the core of the maguey– where it is then available for production of pulque or mezcal. Here, I prepared the buds with  onions, tomato, oregano and epazote for a taco filling.
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Flor de Maguey – the Bud of Mezcal.

the maguey flower is not typical fare in the market stalls
the maguey flower is not typical fare in the market stalls

florr day muh-GAY.

I was recently in DF (Distrito Federale) on a search and discover mission to see what seasonal goodness I might find in the markets. I had some idea of what was in season, but was ready to be surprised. I’d read about the Sullivan Tianguis (this is a Nahuatl word, used to refer to a weekly traveling market) on Culinary Backstreets,  and not only was it was a quick bus ride away from my AirBnB room, it promised not to be a huge rambling affair, which on that particular day I was not in the mood for.

It’s easy to be distracted and pulled in by any of the vendors plying you with tastes of the fresh pick of the day. I did take a few handouts of mamey… more on that in another post– let’s just say for now, I was converted! But already familiar with mamey, I was here to find something new.

Then, a lovely pile of maguey flowers  stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew  these were edible, but had expected that if I wanted to get my hands on any, I’d likely have to get someone to harvest some for me. The vendor pointed to the long stamens sticking out of some of the buds and explained in Spanish that I should remove these. I bought a few bunches and wrapped them carefully for the long journey  home. They are in no way fragile like flor de calabaza (squash blossoms)and, in fact, are more like daylily buds – firm and slightly rubbery.

Maguey flowers are definitely special because this plant–a cousin to Agave tequilana from which tequila is made– blooms only once in its 30+ year lifespan. As it reaches the end of its life, it sends up a single central stalk, rapidly shooting up a foot or more a day to a height of up to 40ft. If that stalk is cut before the flowers bloom (the stage these buds were at),  a sweet liquid sap called aguamiel collects in the central core of the plant. It is from this aguamiel that mezcal is made.

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I had an idea to pickle them in escabeche – treating them kind of like okra. I made a simple spiced vinegar solution with onion, garlic chiles and oregano, then blanched some of the buds whole before letting them do their thing in the pickling brine. Later, I viewed a few YouTube links describing traditional preparation and learned that not only were you supposed to remove the stamens, the stem also was to be discarded, leaving only the petals. So much waste! While there was a slight bitterness from the stem and stamen(?) I didn’t find it at all unpleasant and thought the bright yellow whole buds were lovely, intact.

Supposing that I should follow a recipe for a change, I invited my friend Pueblito over to prepare the remaining buds as described in several similar recipes I’d seen. This is a pre-Columbian food and not in the culinary lexicon of the average Mexican householder, so she was delighted to have the opportunity to cook and eat this plant. Basically, after tearing the petals off, they were to be cooked with the usual suspects: onion, garlic, oregano, tomato and chiles. According to a few of the videos they had a “sabor como pollo”. Tastes like chicken? We’ll see…

We proceeded to take apart the blossoms…

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And we were not left with much…

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 I followed the recipe: onion, garlic, chiles, tomato and oregano, and added a sprig of epazote…

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Of course we served them in tortillas with a crumble of queso fresco.


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In the end, I guess what they mean when they say it tastes like chicken is that the petals have a mild flavor… and it’s the seasonings that make the dish. The pickled buds were more tasty,  Pueblito and her husband Antonio agreed, with a little crunch and squeak. Next time, I’ll see if I can remove just the stamen keeping the bud as whole as possible and definitely keeping the stem… unless I find evidence that these are toxic ( I monitored my gastrointestinal response after eating several whole pickled buds and felt perfectly fine). But if anyone knows, I’d be eager to hear about it.

 

 

RESOURCES:

Sullivan Tianguis: in Mexico City every Saturday and Sunday. Location is convenient to la Alameda, Museo del Chopo and lots of other points of interest. At Reforma Metrobus stop– it runs alongside James Sullivan Park just off Insurgentes.

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