Cooking Like a Mexican

 Cooking Like a Mexican

Día de Muertos is just around the corner and we all have to get ready for the feast! It’s such an important date in our country, and I know it makes all of you gringos very curious to participate! So, we will start with one of the most iconic ingredients around this season. Pumpkins, dear reader, are not just ordinary vegetables in Mexico, and they are not just for decoration or carving. They are vibrant, versatile, and deeply woven into the colorful tapestry of Mexican culture. They belong to the cucurbitaceae family, boasting seeds, a tough exterior, and a vibrant, succulent, orange heart. Oh, and let’s not forget about those irresistible “pepitas”, pumpkin seeds, which come in hues of green or orange, adorned with whimsical patterns and varying in size and shape like the stars in the Mexican night sky.

Now, imagine stepping back in time, to the era of the mighty Aztecs and their ancient Mesoamerican domain. Here, the Castilla pumpkins were known as “tamalayota,” a name that whispers of tamale feasts and pumpkin-pure hearts. You see, the luscious pulp of these pumpkins bore a striking resemblance to the very masa of the revered tamales — a true culinary marvel.

Fast forward to the age of exploration when these pumpkin treasures crossed the seas, landing on European shores. Their flavor bewitched a certain royal highness – a Queen enchanted enough to adopt these pumpkins and grace them with her noble name. Behold! “Calabaza de Castilla” was born, a regal moniker for a humble, yet extraordinary vegetable.

Now, my friend, let’s journey into one of Mexico’s most cherished traditions, the Day of the Dead, a time when memories dance like marigold petals in the breeze. Here, pumpkins take on a sweet and delectable form known as “calabaza en tacha,” a symphony of candied pumpkin, piloncillo, and creamy milk. They also find their way onto ofrendas, the beautiful altars that welcome the souls of the departed.

But these pumpkins are more than just a feast for the senses. They are a real treasure trove of health. Rich in proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc, they are a gift to the body. Their orange hue, like a sunbeam in every bite, comes from beta-carotene, a phytonutrient that morphs into vitamin A, guarding the heart, fighting cancer, and fortifying the immune system.

Now, if you have a sweet tooth, you’re in for a treat. The pumpkin’s caramel-like charm shines brightly in desserts like “calabaza en tacha,” cakes, and pies. Yet, don’t let that fool you; it’s just as at home in savory dishes like velvety soups and hearty stews. And don’t even get me started on those edible seeds. They’re brimming with magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids, and they pack a fiber punch, championing heart health by taming high blood pressure.

Oh, and let’s not forget the antioxidant magic. Pumpkins wield alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin, the guardians against free radicals that roam the body. They shield your cells, safeguard your skin from the sun’s fiery embrace, and stand as fortresses against the tides of cancer, eye ailments, and other lingering foes.

And here’s a little secret. A cup of cooked pumpkin pulp can gift you a staggering 245% of your daily vitamin A dose, as per the World Health Organization. That makes it a bona fide superstar for your skin, ensuring it glows like a Mexican sunset. Vitamin C, another of its treasures, rallies white blood cells, bolsters the immune system, and nudges wounds to heal faster. As if that weren’t enough, vitamin E, iron, and folic acid join the immune system’s party, making sure it runs like a well-oiled machine.

You might be surprised to learn that despite all of its nutrient riches, pumpkin pulp is a watery fellow, containing nearly 94% water. This makes it a low-calorie hero that packs a nutrient wallop, a reminder that true beauty often comes in unassuming packages.

And if you’ve ever wondered when to catch these wonders in action, they are ready to be harvested come mid-October. If numbers speak to you, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development reveals a national production of 18,063 tons, with Michoacán leading the charge at a staggering 7,725 tons annually.

So, dear reader, the next time you see a pumpkin, don’t just think of Halloween. Think of centuries of history, tradition, and a vibrant culture that celebrates these humble fruits in ways that are as diverse as Mexico itself. Whether on your plate or on your altar, these pumpkins bring to life the rich tapestry of Mexican culture and cuisine.

Ingredients:

1 medium pumpkin, approximately 4-5 pounds

2 small cones of piloncillo, approximately 500 grams

3 sticks of Mexican cinnamon, whole or cut in half

1 orange, sliced (optional)

4 cups of water

Procedure:

1. Cut the pumpkin into 3″ sections, each piece. If you prefer to use the seeds separately, remove the seeds and strings, or you can also cook them with the syrup. Place the piloncillo cones, cinnamon sticks, and orange slices in a large, heavy pot.

2. Add four cups of water and turn the heat to medium-high until it starts to boil. The piloncillo cones will begin to dissolve; stir occasionally. Once the piloncillo has dissolved, place some pieces of pumpkin with the skin side down and then the rest of the pumpkin with the skin side up. If you see that the pieces are not covered with the piloncillo liquid, don’t worry; the pumpkin will release some of its own juices, and the steam will also help with the cooking.

3. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer. Cook for about 20-30 minutes; it will be ready when the pumpkin is tender and has absorbed some of the syrup.

4. Once the pumpkin is cooked, remove it from the pot with a large slotted spoon and transfer it to a tray, covering it with aluminum foil to keep it warm while the syrup continues to cook and reduce.

5. Return the syrup to a boil, turning the heat to medium-high. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until it thickens. Return the pieces of pumpkin to the pot and add spoonfuls of syrup all over the pumpkin.

6. Serve the pumpkin hot or at room temperature with a drizzle of syrup or on a warm plate with milk. The pumpkin flavors will be even better the next day, so save some for later.

Enjoy a very Mexican dessert and find me at ale.borbolla@dev.gringogazette.com I’m always happy to hear from you and receive your pictures, questions and Mexican food experiences.