Mexican spring produce: fresh ideas for warm weather dining
The change of seasons in Mexico brings a shift in the kinds of produce available in the markets. The young greens, stone fruit, and baby new vegetables that appear in mercados in springtime are ideal ingredients for lighter fare in warmer weather. For unlike its north-of-the-border neighbors, Mexico experiences its hottest time of the year in spring, rather than summer.
The time between Easter and the start of the rainy season, which brings cooling relief, finds those who can manage vacations headed for the beach, and others seeking shade in parks. Both settings call for picnic food, the kind of portable meal sometimes called itacate, after the bundled mid-day meal that workers used to bring to the fields.
And the country’s famous aguas, or fruit coolers, are never more appreciated. Pineapple and cantaloupe, both in season now, are favorites for making thirst-quenching beverages, and mango is king, whether in fruit drinks, ice cream, desserts, flan, salsas or cocktails.
Mamey, figs and strawberries are seasonal now, as are several stone fruits, including apricots, plums and peaches. Haas avocados are also plentiful, and used in everything from salsas and smoothies to salads and cold soups.
Fruit salads for picnics are best with just a squeeze of lime, since a bit of citric acid brings out the sweet fruit flavor. In Mexico, chile powder is nearly always added to sliced or cut up fresh fruit, and is a lively addition without being too picante.
Piquin, or chiltepin, depending upon the region, are the most commonly used, but other cried chile powders can be substituted. Some salt added to the mix intensifies the flavor profile. Mango, cantaloupe and pineapple are especially good with the chile-lime flavor, as are cucumbers.
Fruit is far from the only produce that shines at this time of year. Vegetables, including thin, delicate spring onions, baby new potatoes as small as marbles, and tiny, tasty peas all contribute to spring menus. Watercress, fava and snap beans, asparagus, celery and several types of greens, including spinach and lettuce, make refreshing salads and side dishes.
Create dishes that can be served cold or at room temperature using calabacitas (zucchini) and chayote, both at their best now. Add color to greens by using radishes, carrots and tomatoes, all at peak season.
And don’t forget artichokes, one of the joys of springtime in Mexico. We recently accompanied Dr. Tim Knab, chef and anthropologist, on his annual foray to an artichoke farm on the Paseo de Cortez, returning with several kilos of freshly cut artichokes. Slice them in half lengthwise, scoop out the choke, brush with oil and put them on the grill for a great addition to any al fresco meal.
Vegetable salads are also ideal for outdoor dining, and vibrant greens are best with light dressings, rather than being buried in mayonnaise. Oil and vinegar dressings will hold up better in warm weather. Olive oil, along with lime juice or vinegar, works with nearly all vegetable salads. Try sautéing strips of dried chile, such as ancho, in the oil, to make a flavored oil. Just remember to cool the oil before making the dressing, or you will have a wilted salad.
The portable pockets of flavor called empanadas are perfect for outdoor dining, and can be filled with whatever is in season. Fruit, such as pineapple, make sweet empanadas, while cooked and seasoned greens make savory ones. Spinach takes well to many Mexican seasonings, including chiles and spices. The combinations of vegetables that can be used are almost endless, and fresh herbs are great flavor boosters.
Wraps, the popular roll-ups based on the taco principle, i.e. “anything can be rolled in a tortilla,” are also great outdoor fare. Try a black bean and corn filling, or, if you’re grilling, a mix of grilled vegetables.
In Mexico, spring onions and nopales are favorite grilling vegetables, but try zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise, with trimmed asparagus spears, baby greens and sliced tomato for a vegetarian wrap. Using a whole grain tortilla, and spreading it with refried or mashed beans, will add protein into the mix.
So forget the tired sandwiches, mayo-laden salads, and unhealthy soft drinks, and enjoy an outdoor spring meal made with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Ensalada de Papas con Poblanos: Baby New Potato Salad with Roasted Poblanos