Welcome to My Pantry

The 5 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.”

April 23, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

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

Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“All great recommendations! I also have some convenience items in our pantry - Abuelita chocolate syrup con canela (cinnamon), Knorr caldo de pollo con tomate, canned refried beans that I doctor up, tiny pasta shapes like letras or estrellas for sopita, and a wide variety of hot sauces. I don't use these ingredients often (except the hot sauce - that goes on everything!), but they're perfect for adding an easy "comfort food" flavor to the meals I serve my mestizo kids. Of course, we also have maseca, uncooked tortillas, dried hibiscus, dried beans and dried chiles on hand for when I have the time and inclination to cook from scratch - or the kids decide they need a fresh tortilla with butter off the comal!”
— Lorena
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Esteban Castillo

Written by: Esteban Castillo

Chicano Eats: Recipes from my Mexican-American Kitchen

9 Comments

Lorena May 2, 2021
All great recommendations! I also have some convenience items in our pantry - Abuelita chocolate syrup con canela (cinnamon), Knorr caldo de pollo con tomate, canned refried beans that I doctor up, tiny pasta shapes like letras or estrellas for sopita, and a wide variety of hot sauces. I don't use these ingredients often (except the hot sauce - that goes on everything!), but they're perfect for adding an easy "comfort food" flavor to the meals I serve my mestizo kids. Of course, we also have maseca, uncooked tortillas, dried hibiscus, dried beans and dried chiles on hand for when I have the time and inclination to cook from scratch - or the kids decide they need a fresh tortilla with butter off the comal!
 
tia April 25, 2021
Oh my god. I've had "Chicano Poutine" though they didn't call it that, and I am heartbroken that it's not everywhere, because it's amazing. Weirdly, I had it in Louisville, KY. I keep wanting to try my hand at mole, because it's delicious, but with all of those ingredients it feels so intimidating!
 
M April 23, 2021
I'd be curious what else would be in your actual pantry, as 3/5 choices are perishable items that must be used relatively quickly.
 
Author Comment
Esteban C. April 23, 2021
Aside from these, I regularly keep dried chiles (guajillos, anchos, chiles de arbol), dried hibiscus flowers, Mexican oregano, Mexican cinnamon (ceylon), long-grain white rice, Mexican chocolate, tamarind, and lots of Vesuvio pasta (my husband is obsessed) on hand! My pantry now looks no different than what my mom’s looked like growing up, now there’s just a lot more pasta in there! Haha!
 
Smaug April 23, 2021
You can get crema canned- don't know how it measures up, though.
 
Smaug April 23, 2021
Odd that you don't mention dried chilis- too obvious, maybe. I can get Masa Harina (Maseca Brand) locally, but only the white corn variety, which makes an inferior tortilla. Their yellow corn version can be had online, but it's horribly expensive. Bob's Red Mill also sells a yellow corn masa harina- also very expensive, but I've found it too coarse for tortillas.
 
Author Comment
Esteban C. April 23, 2021
Dried chiles would have been in my #6 spot. I can’t live without guajillos, chiles de arbol or ancho chiles! I also filmed a video talking about these items and I mentioned that my favorite place to source Masa Harina from is “Masienda”, check out their website! They have masa harina made from single source heirloom white/blue corn and is so much better than Maseca.
 
Smaug April 23, 2021
Hm- interesting web site (it's masienda.com, by the way) but too pricey for us poor folk. Their cheapest masa harina is $3.64/lb.- $1.45/lb. for 50 lbs., but I can't use that much. They have a lot of other products too, which I wish I could afford, including varietal corn, masa mills, and dried beans.
 
Jul April 23, 2021
Great info, thanks! Masa harina suggestion especially helpful. Really difficult to source Mexican ingreds in suburban Boston especially crema and chorizo but great we can order fantastic beans and masa harina online now. I hope you will do some recipe demos. Making homemade tortillas would be cool. Thanks!