The five pantry essentials in my Mexican-American kitchen

"When I was first learning how to cook, I made sure to follow my mom’s advice: I perfected a pot of beans"

Published May 5, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)

 (James Ransom / Food52)
(James Ransom / Food52)

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Welcome to Esteban Castillo's pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring five staples stocking Esteban's Mexican-American kitchen.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received came from my mom, when she told me, "Aprende a cocinar una buena olla de frijoles y nunca tendrás hambre," or, learn how to make a good pot of stovetop beans, and you'll never be hungry. After she told me this, I realized frijoles de la olla, with pinto beans swimming in a broth with aromatics like onion, cilantro, and garlic, regularly kept me and my siblings fed when our parents couldn't afford to put anything else on the table. So when I was first learning how to cook, I made sure to follow my mom's advice: I perfected a pot of beans.

Of course, I learned to cook lots more, too. I've found my place in the kitchen, and realized that I enjoy creating dishes that reflect my childhood, existing in the space between two different countries. I not only like to showcase traditional Mexican dishes like birria, pozole, and mole; I also enjoy taking traditional Mexican ingredients and combining them with ingredients I grew up with in Southern California. I create fusion dishes, like cilantro pesto, or dress fries with a spicy mole and tons of shredded Oaxacan cheese for a "Chicano poutine." My mom has been a huge inspiration for me, because when she first came to this country, she had to learn to adapt the dishes she loved with the ingredients she was able to find in the U.S. Now, whenever I'm making a dish that showcases both traditional and nontraditional ingredients, I ask myself, how would my mom approach this?

Today, my Mexican-American pantry looks very much like my mom's, and there are five staple items that I always have on hand.

My 5 Mexican-American Pantry Essentials

1. Dried Beans

Of course, I'll start with beans. Beans, when paired with other ingredients, like corn and chiles, form the foundation of Mexican cuisine. I like to buy dried black and pinto beans in bulk and store them in the pantry—I tend to cook a large pot of beans at the beginning of the week and keep it in the refrigerator to use over the next several days. Beans are such a versatile ingredient, especially in Mexican cuisine, and I'm able to transform stovetop beans with different preparations: frijoles refritos, or creamy refried beans; frijoles charros, also known as cowboy beans, or pintos stewed with aromatics and pork; frjioles puercos, the refried beans cooked with spicy chorizo, sweet carrots, and onions; and obviously, a simple pot of frijoles de la olla.

2. Masa Harina

Essentially a corn flour made from nixtamalized corn, masa harina is another pantry staple. For those of us who love Mexican cuisine, but don't have a fresh-tortilla hookup, nor access to fresh corn masa, masa harina is an important ingredient to have around. With a little water and salt (plus additional flavorings like puréed greens or chiles, if desired), masa harina forms the base for homemade corn tortillas. With that same dough, I'll make sopes, or fried masa disks with toppings; thick tortillas stuffed with different fillings, like diced potatoes with chorizo, known as gorditas; huaraches, oblong masa cakes stuffed with refried beans with toppings like shredded lettuce, carne asada, and queso cotija; and crispy meat-filled empanadas.

3. Crema Mexicana

A few of my "pantry" staples can actually be found in the fridge. Crema mexicana, or table cream, is one of my favorite items to keep in the kitchen. Rich and buttery, crema is less tangy and looser than sour cream. Crema mexicana is one of my go-to ingredients to thicken and enrich stews, or drizzle over tacos dorados, sopes, or potato-and-chorizo-filled tortas.

4. Queso Cotija

In my fridge you'll find plenty of cheese, but my favorite is queso cotija. Queso cotija is a hard, creamy, and salted white cheese that is typically crumbled. It gives dishes from frijoles de la olla to flautas a little extra zing of flavor and richness.

5. Fresh Mexican Chorizo

Last but not least, one of the ingredients that I like to always have on hand in my refrigerator is chorizo. Mexican chorizo is a fresh pork sausage seasoned with an adobo that typically includes vinegar, a mixture of guajillo and ancho peppers, and spices like cinnamon, paprika, and clove. Chorizo is great when removed from its casing, broken up into pieces, and fried. I'll toss it in scrambled eggs for breakfast tacos or burritos, nestle it in a skillet with diced potatoes for pambazos (telera rolls dipped in a guajillo sauce and filled with potatoes and chorizo); use it crumbled and fried as a topping for huaraches or sopes; or simply grill it in its casing to eat as a side. If you're not able to find fresh chorizo locally, Mexican longaniza is a great substitute; it has the same flavor profile as chorizo, but is a mince, rather than ground pork sausage.

By Esteban Castillo

Esteban Castillo is the author of "Chicano Eats: Recipes From My Mexican-American Kitchen."

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Beans Chorizo Cooking Esteban Castillo Food Food52 Mexican-american Food Mexico Pantry Staples