Preserving the Fall harvest: Mexican pickles and vinaigrettes

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

In many places, including much of North America, fall marks the end of the growing season for several crops, including various fresh fruits and vegetables. Cooks often choose to can, freeze or otherwise preserve summer’s bounty at this time of year.

Here in Mexico, there are several foods that are traditionally preserved by pickling, including various kinds of chiles. The verb to pickle is translated as escabechar or encurtir, and pickled foods are referred to as being en escabeche or en salmuera, which refers to the pickling solution itself. Although the English word “pickling” may include preserving in salt, the Spanish terms refer to pickling in vinegar.

Both the English word vinegar and the Spanish vinagre derive from the French vin, meaning wine, and aigre, meaning sour. The first vinegars were simply wine that had gone sour due to airborne bacteria that turned it into acetic acid, creating the taste that is associated with vinegar. An alcohol content over 5% but under 18% is usually needed to make vinegar. The taste of vinegar varies depending upon the type of alcohol used to produce it.

In Mexico, the most commonly used vinegars are fermented fruit vinegars, including apple vinegar and pineapple vinegar. Distilled vinegar may also be used, but is not as common, especially in regional cooking. In many parts of Mexico, homemade vinegars are used to preserve chiles, vegetables and fruit.

Anyone who has ever eaten in a Mexican restaurant or walked through the Mexican food aisle in a supermarket is familiar with jalapeños en escabeche, the pickled green chiles served as a condiment or used to replace fresh ones in recipes, and chipotles adobados, the seasoned smoked chiles used nowadays to flavor everything from mayonnaise to barbeque sauce. These are easy to make at home and are often much tastier than the canned versions. In addition, recipes can be adjusted to individual taste preferences for more or less garlic and spices.

After chiles, the most popular foods to pickle include carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, onions, squash, green beans, lima beans and nopales. In Oaxaca, even fruits, especially mangos and quince, are pickled in a hot and sour brine for a street food called piedrazos. And in Zapotitlán Salinas, in southern Puebla, tetechas en vinagre, cactus in vinegar, is a well-known local specialty.

There appears to be no evidence produced by culinary historians that the pre-Hispanic people used vinegar to preserve food, because vinegar is a by-product of wine or cider, which did not exist in pre-Hispanic Mexico. The indigenous beverage octili poliqhui, which the Spaniards shortened to “pulque,” has a very short shelf life and although it is fermented, the alcohol content is not generally high enough to produce vinegar. In addition, according to Dr. Timothy Knab, professor of Nahuatl in the anthropology department of the Universidad de las Americas, Nahuatl vocabulary does not contain a word for vinegar, nor for pickling.

Today’s escabeches, encurtidos, and vinaigretas are descendants of those prepared during the era when the Spaniards colonized Mexico, and have their origins in the days when Spain was part of the Roman Empire. Romans were liberal in their use of vinegar as a seasoning, using it on everything from salads to poultry. (The recipe for pullum frontonianum, found in Apicius’ Art of Cookery, dating from late fourth century Rome, bears a distinct resemblance to pollo en escabeche, a specialty of the Yucatan that bears the culinary imprint of Spain.)

This use of vinegar as a flavoring as well as a preservative is reflected in many Mexican regional cuisines. In Oaxaca, the locally made pineapple vinegar flavors marinades, salsas and several kinds of pickles, including mangos, potatoes, cabbage and chiles. (A recipe for chileajo, the Oaxacan marinated mixed vegetable salad, was given in the June 2006 issue of Mexico Connect.) In Puebla, pickled vegetables are popular, though a wide variety of other foods, from quail eggs to pigs’ feet, are prepared in vinaigrettes. The Yucatan may have the widest variety of pickled foods in the country, and no Yucatecan meal is served without a dish of pickled onions on the table.

The following recipes are simple to prepare and will add a flavor boost to many meals, including grilled meat and poultry. Make one or two of them to keep on hand and serve as the Mexicans do, as a table condiment, or add them to salads, bean and rice dishes, soups and stews. Many of them, especially the chiles, are great on tortas or sandwiches. Try serving a few of them with refried beans, cheese and other toppings for do-it-yourself tostadas. They are also perfect for appetizer trays and buffet tables. If you do not wish to make your own fruit vinegar, commercial apple cider vinegar or other fruit vinegar is fine.

When preparing any kind of food in vinegar, be sure to use non-reactive containers and utensils. Copper, brass, iron or galvanized utensils should not be used. If planning to store in the pantry, rather than the refrigerator, use canning jars and prepare the jars and lids according to manufacturers’ instructions. The online USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning has a section just on pickling, as do canning jar manufacturers such as Ball and Kerr. If planning to store pickled chiles or vegetables in the refrigerator, pressure canning is not necessary; simply ladle them into sterilized jars and refrigerate. Most pickled chiles and vegetables will keep for several months in the refrigerator, though they will probably disappear much faster.

Published or Updated on: October 1, 2006 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2006
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