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Spice Rub : Home Ground

October 06, 1994|ZARELA MARTINEZ

For years, I'd been buying and throwing out Mexican spice pastes. I'm talking about the kind that are sold in little nondescript boxes at the spice counters in Mexican supermarkets. The packaging is not exactly bright and attractive--they're plain four-ounce boxes labeled something like Recado de Adobo Blanco , Recado Para Escabeche , Recado Rojo or Recado Para Bistec . The instructions on the boxes, such as they are, go something like: "For use with fish, chicken, turkey, in stews and when roasting or grilling."

So why did I buy them? I had visions of marathon cooking sessions where I would create this or that wonderful dish with these recados (their flavors are all quite complex and strong), but I must confess that somehow, I never use them. And after a few years, they turn hard and I have to throw them out.

Then I went to Quintana Roo, in the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, and met and cooked with Yara Moreno Heredia, a chef and restaurateur in the capital city of Chetumal, and everything changed. Well, not exactly everything. I did those marathon cooking sessions with spice pastes, true, but I never used those little boxes, because I learned to make my own recados.

The cooking of Yucatan is characterized by the use of these spice pastes, but recados are only one part of the Mexican spice story. In most Mexican towns there are market stalls that sell only spice mixtures--mounds of red, green, yellow, brown and black, heaped up like paint on an artist's palette. All will go either into marinades or richly sauced dishes reflecting Mexico's post-Conquest heritage of native and Spanish approaches.

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The main categories of spice mixtures are moles , pepianes , adobos and recados . Don't expect to learn precise definitions of these words--their meanings tend to shade into each other, and the fact that there are terms such as recado en adobo doesn't help matters. But roughly speaking, recados are ground herb and spice mixtures, ranging from the incredibly simple (at the ranch where I grew up in Chihuahua, we used a mixture of garlic and oregano for puerco con pasta de oregano ) to rather elaborate combinations of seasonings, much like the garam masala mixtures used in India.

Adobos , which include dried chiles and (sometimes) vinegar with the spices, are used for marinating meat, fish or poultry before roasting or grilling, or by themselves as a dressing or sauce on vegetables, as in chileajo. Pepianes and moles are rich, multi-flavored sauces that have usually been thickened with ground seeds or nuts; they are a book in themselves.

Most spices and many of the herbs we now associate with Mexican food were introduced by the Spaniards. The only native spices were chiles (of course), vanilla, achiote (annatto) and allspice, which grows wild in Yucatan. In her book "America's First Cuisines" (University of Texas Press: 1994), Sophie Coe wrote that the importation of flavorings began soon after Columbus' second voyage: "By pack train over the mountains . . . came ginger, cumin, caraway and sesame seeds, as well as saffron, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper. The last four were sold separately, or as a mixture of equal parts by weight."

Other spice mixtures were popular, and some continue to be. The combination of cumin, canela and cloves is one of the "trinities" of Mexican food and appears in all sorts of recipes. It did not take long before these Spanish spice combinations blended with the Mexican spice, chile, to produce new and versatile spice pastes.

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Many of the ingredients in recados and adobos are the same, but they are used in different proportions in each recipe, so that one flavor predominates. Thus the recado para escabeche will be very peppery, and the recado de adobo colorado will taste of achiote . In chile spice pastes, the flavor of one particular chile variety will stand out above the other spices.

The ingredients for all kinds of adobos , recados and sauces used to be ground by hand in a stone mortar (the Mexican word for which, molcajete , comes from the same Aztec root as the sauce mole ). Today, every home with electricity uses a blender. But people still make the sauces by hand when they want to show special honor to a guest. The food processor is satisfactory for some, but not all, of these mixtures. It does not grind everything as smoothly as a blender, so I suggest that if you're going to use a food processor, first grind the spices separately. Where you want a very smooth texture, as in a mole , pepian or salsa, I recommend a blender.

Recados and adobos keep well and are simple ways to add lots of flavor and very few calories to whatever you may be cooking. Let your imagination be your guide, and you'll never have to throw any of them out!

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