By Karen Hursh Graber
Late summer and early fall in Mexico bring an abundance of seasonal fruit, including apples and pears. While not usually associated with Mexican food north-of-the-border, they play flavorful roles in much of the country's regional cooking, including favorites like the iconic chiles en nogada, which includes several varieties of fruit harvested in time for Septembe's patriotic festivals and special dishes.
Brought by the Spaniards, along with several other kinds of fruit now common in Mexico's orchards, apples and pears grow well in several states, including Chihuahua, the country's largest producer of apples, and Puebla, where they are celebrated in an annual festival in the town named for the fruit, Zacatln de las Manzanas. Their long shelf life and nutritional properties make them a favorite of home cooks, and their regular availability makes it easy for chefs to include them on menus throughout the year.
In addition to jellies, jams and fruit liqueurs, apples are used to make the popular, mildly alcoholic sparkling cider called sidra, and in mole de xico, a regional favorite from Veracruz. Both pears and apples are found in manchamanteles, or "tablecloth stainer," a rich, deep red mole claimed by both Puebla and Oaxaca. And in Morelos, apples are braised with chicken in a poultry and fruit combination typical of the area.
Chefs in Mexico incorporate apples and pears, either together or separately, into a variety of salads, and both fruits take well to a wide range of creative dressings. At Los Mercaderes in Mexico City, the ensalada paradiso includes apples with jicama, celery and strawberries, served on a bed of mixed lettuce and dressed with a tamarind and honey vinaigrette. The capital's Reforma 500 serves an apple, pear and walnut salad with walnut vinaigrette, and several restaurant salads in Mexico feature apples and pears with cheese.
Guanajuato's El Abue serves a pear salad with goat cheese and an apple salad with roquefort and toasted pecans, both plated over mixed greens. At River Cafe in Puerto Vallarta, the ensalada de manzana asada consists of grilled apple, lightly fried camembert cheese and raspberry dressing over lettuce. Other apple, pear and cheese salads served in Puerto Vallarta are the pecan and blueberry garnished apple and roquefort salad at Blanca Blue, the pear and gorgonzola salad at Frascati, and the pear and goat cheese salad at Arrecifes.
Apples and pears also appear on menus in several poultry dishes. At Susanna's in Rosarito, chicken is poached in apple cider before being grilled. La Habichuela in Cancun offers duck roasted in pear sauce and flamed with kirsch, and at Los Mercaderes, duck is prepared with a pear and chipotle glaze and plated with a grilled apple.
The classic pairing of apples and pork is on the menu at Le Kliff in Puerto Vallarta, where the herb crusted pork roast is served with apple puree. At Monterrey's Pangea, smoked apple puree accompanies the rack of lamb, and an entree of roasted lobster is served with a pear salad at Puerto Vallarta's La Palapa.
The natural sweetness of apples and pears makes them ideal for desserts, frequently flavored with cinnamon or ginger. An apple and cinnamon compote tops the cheese crepes at La Palapa and an apple and cinnamon bread pudding is served at Susanna's. Sauted cinnamon apples are presented on a pastry round and bathed in kiwi sauce at River Cafe, and apple salad accompanies the ginger creme brulee at Blanc Bleu. Poached pears with ginger sabayon are on the menu at Puerto Vallarta's Taste Restaurant, and La Palapa features a chocolate and ginger truffle tart with pear and caramel sauce.
Although desserts and salads are the obvious places to include apples and pears on a menu, think about their possibilities in salsas and savory items. Both of them go well with the smoky flavor of chipotles and the bright, tart taste of tomatillos. And now that non-traditional ingredients such as chopped walnuts, pomegranate seeds, and mango commonly appear in guacamole, try diced pears, which lend a pleasing textural contrast and might be included in a "guacamole of the month" rotation, where seasonal ingredients lend a timely touch to the old standby.
The Pick of the Crop
Both apples and pears should have smooth skin and be free of wrinkles, bruises, and other marks and scratches. Avoid soft or mushy fruit or undersize fruit, which usually indicates immaturity. Apples have a long shelf life, and ideal cold storage for them is between 31° and 33° F, with 90 percent humidity. Alternatively, they can be stored in a refrigerator, using a plastic bag to seal in some moisture, since the moisture level in refrigerators is considerably lower than in commercial cold storage. Apples can last between three and six months. Hard winter apples, such as Granny Smith, last longer than summer apples like Delicious.
With regard to pears, the most characteristic flavor is found in the Bartlett variety, with its classic pear shape and intense aroma. It is picked green, and can be bought and used green for a crunchy, tart taste and texture, or allowed to ripen at room temperature, turning yellow as it becomes sweeter. Once ripe, pears should be refrigerated in plastic bags. Ripe pears will keep in the refrigerator for three to five days, and unripe pears for a week or more. However, unripe pears must be removed from the refrigerator to ripen properly at room temperature.
Apples and pears appeal to today's health conscious diners, who will appreciate their inclusion on menu items and may be pleasantly surprised to find that they play a part in Mexican cuisine.