El Restaurante Mexicano September/October 2011 : Page 15

special report: Mexico Pumpkin and squash shine on restaurant menus in Mexico BY KAREN HURSH GRABER, writing from Mexico La Calabaza: C alabaza, referring to pumpkin and to squash in general, has been an essential part of the Mexican diet since at least 7000 BC. First cultivated in the Tehuacan and Oaxaca valleys, it was revered as one of the “Three Sisters,” the nutritional triumvirate of squash, corn and beans that comprised the basic Mesoamerican diet. Members of the native Mexican cucurbita family, pumpkins, along with related types of squash, were used as both food and ritual offering. The Aztecs associated pumpkins with the Fall festivals that were precursors of Day of the Dead, and the pumpkin is still an important element of this celebration, which nearly always includes calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin. The pumpkin was valued for its seeds and blossoms as well as pulp, and Mexican chefs utilize every part of the plant, including the vines, in a wide variety of menu items. In the Yucatan, the seeds are used by chefs much as they were by their Mayan forebears. The calabacita, or little squash (called zucchini or courgette outside Mexico) is eaten all over the country, and the chilacayote, or bottle gourd, is especially prized in Oaxacan cuisine. Soups and salads One of the most popular uses for pumpkins and other squash is in soup. The pumpkin soup at Maya Beach Garden on the Costa Maya is made with the green skinned Yucatan pumpkins and garnished with sour cream and roasted pumpkin seeds. Restaurante Tirol, in Tlaxcala, The pumpkin was valued for its seeds and blossoms as well as pulp, and Mexican chefs utilize every part of the plant, including the vines, in a wide variety of menu items.

La Calabaza

Karen Hursh Graber

Pumpkin and squash shine on restaurant menus in Mexico<br /> <br /> Calabaza, referring to pumpkin and to squash in general, has been an essential part of the Mexican diet since at least 7000 BC. First cultivated in the Tehuacan and Oaxaca valleys, it was revered as one of the “Three Sisters,” the nutritional triumvirate of squash, corn and beans that comprised the basic Mesoamerican diet. Members of the native Mexican cucurbita family, pumpkins, along with related types of squash, were used as both food and ritual offering. The Aztecs associated pumpkins with the Fall festivals that were precursors of Day of the Dead, and the pumpkin is still an important element of this celebration, which nearly always includes calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin.<br /> <br /> The pumpkin was valued for its seeds and blossoms as well as pulp, and Mexican chefs utilize every part of the plant, including the vines, in a wide variety of menu items. In the Yucatan, the seeds are used by chefs much as they were by their Mayan forebears. The calabacita, or little squash (called zucchini or courgette outside Mexico) is eaten all over the country, and the chilacayote, or bottle gourd, is especially prized in Oaxacan cuisine.<br /> <br /> Soups and salads<br /> <br /> One of the most popular uses for pumpkins and other squash is in soup. The pumpkin soup at Maya Beach Garden on the Costa Maya is made with the green skinned Yucatan pumpkins and garnished with sour cream and roasted pumpkin seeds. Restaurante Tirol, in Tlaxcala, Combines both calabaza and calabacita (pumpkin and zucchini) with corn, cheese and poblano chile strips to make sopa tizatlan. At Las Mañanitas in Cuernavaca, the sopa de flor de calabaza is a cream soup made with squash blossoms, and at La Casa de la Abuela in Oaxaca, the regional specialty called sopa de guias uses the squash itself, along with the blossoms and the vine, cooked in chicken broth and served with chochoyones, or corn masa dumplings.<br /> <br /> Pumpkin is also combined with seafood in soups, including the crab and pumpkin bisque at Casa Naranjo in Puerto Vallarta and the cream of pumpkin with shrimp dumplings at Hacienda El Coyote in Cabo San Lucas. In Mexico City, Restaurante Mercaderes offers sopa de medulla, or bone marrow soup, with squash blossoms and nopales in tomato and epazote broth.<br /> <br /> Calabacitas, either thinly shaved or lightly steamed, are frequently used in salads, such as the calabacita and panela cheese salad with herb dressing at Casa Hidalgo in Cuernavaca. At Pujol in Mexico City, calabacita crudités are served with bean dip and queso fresco, and chilacayote cured in lime and salt is served as an appetizer. Restaurant Gaia, in Cuernavaca, serves squash blossoms as a first course, stuffed with requeson and Oaxaca cheese, battered and fried.<br /> <br /> Main course options<br /> <br /> Pumpkin, along with zucchini and its blossoms, also makes appearances in main courses, especially as sauces. Mercaderes serves beef filet in puff pastry with squash blossom sauce, and uses the sauce as a base for salmon with curry And coconut cream. Squash blossom sauce is also served on pasta, such as the fettucine al zucchini at La Habichuela in Cancun and the fettucine a la mexicana, with squash blossoms, calabaza and poblano chile at Mexico City’s El Mayor.<br /> <br /> Pumpkin flowers are used to fill ravioli at Villa Maria in Merida, and chefs at Casa Hidalgo present squash blossom sauce with the pechuga tlaxcalteca, a chicken breast stuffed with cheese and poblano chile strips. They also use the blossoms, along with spinach, parmesan, and manchego cheese, as a filling in the pechuga parmesana.<br /> <br /> Mercaderes serves squash blossoms and panela cheese in the omelette huasteco, topped with bean sauce. At Merida’s Restaurante Amaro, the squash itself becomes a vegetarian main course, filled with cheese and served with the creamy white sauce called ko-ol. Chilam Balam Restaurant at Hacienda Chichen in Chichen Itza offers calabacita rellena, baby acorn squash filled with a picadillo of pork, almonds and raisins. At Tirol, fish filet is baked in a pumpkin seed crust and garnished with cilantro vinaigrette. And at Ekos in Puebla, roasted salmon with a pumpkin seed crust is served with hibiscus flower sauce.<br /> <br /> Green pipian, a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds, is a traditional Pueblan specialty found in restaurants all over Mexico. Usually eaten with chicken, it is served with pork at Hacienda El Coyote in Cabo San Lucas and with rabbit at La Lunita in Cholula. At Meson Sacristia de La Compania in Puebla, chefs prepare a vegetarian version upon request, with squash, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables in place of meat.<br /> <br /> Pumpkin and squash are used extensively in the cuisine of the Yucatan. Papadzules, a regional dish served at Restaurante Amaro and at Hacienda Teya, also in Merida, is bathed in a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds and flavored with epazote. Another local specialty, brazo de reina, incorporates the ground seeds into the corn masa that forms a large tamal. At Chilam Balam Restaurant, Chef Josue Cime prepares brazo de chaya, which includes chaya leaves along with the pumpkin seeds in the masa.<br /> <br /> In Veracruz, with its Afro-Caribbean culinary influence, meat stews often incorporate the local West Indian pumpkin.<br /> <br /> In Oaxaca, the squash known as chilacayote is made into a cold drink called agua de chilacayote. A specialty of the market at Ocotlan, the beverage is flavored with brown sugar and cinnamon.<br /> <br /> This versatile squash is also candied and sold at regional sweet stands, and is the vegetable of choice to be served in a pork stew with ancho chiles, a local version of red pipian.<br /> <br /> Year-round versatility<br /> <br /> The tremendous versatility of squash means that it can be used in several different ways on menus throughout the year. Types of both summer and winter squash are easily substituted for one another: crookneck squash for calabacita (zucchini) and several kinds of winter squash, such as acorn, butternut and Hubbard, for calabaza (pumpkin.) Both summer and winter squash are good vessels for stuffing, and nearly any type of filling, whether cheese, meat or vegetarian, can be created from what is Available in the kitchen.<br /> <br /> Squash also makes a good side dish, grilled and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. It has a particular affinity for corn, beans, cheese, nopales and poblano chiles. A skewer of grilled vegetables, with squash, nopales and poblanos, makes an attractive presentation and, as a side dish, is more than an afterthought.<br /> <br /> The blossoms, besides being used in soups and sauces, are often used as quesadilla filling at restaurants throughout Mexico. If blossoms are less than abundant, they can be used as garnishes for soups, salads and main dishes. Topping a salad with one or two blossoms lends a visual appeal that brings it out of the ordinary.<br /> <br /> The seeds, too, can be incorporated in many ways and, unlike the blossoms, Have a long shelf life and year round availability. Buy them without the shells and toast them as needed by placing them over medium heat in an ungreased skillet, moving it to avoid burning the seeds, until they pop and inflate.<br /> <br /> Hulled, toasted pumpkin seeds, called pepitas, can be sprinkled on salads for additional texture and flavor. Try adding them to guacamole or offering salted pepitas as a bar snack or at the table with cocktails. Palanquetas de pepitas, a brittle-like candy sold as a street snack or in regional sweet shops, can be crushed and sprinkled over ice cream, or simply served in a small slab as a dessert garnish. Squash is a quintessentially Mexican ingredient that can be incorporated into virtually every course.

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