Mexican cooking is the artful melding of Old World Hispanic cooking using pork, fish, rice, almonds, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, oranges, limes, and cilantro with New World cooking using corn, chiles, mild peppers, avocados, tomatoes, squash and cocoa. It is full of big, bold flavors and bright colors. It has a naturally healthy balance. I marvel at is how great it is at its best, and how good it is at its worst.
What Americans first think of as Mexican is sometimes called Tex Mex. The central ingredient is the tortilla, a dense unleavened pancake made either of wheat flour and lard or corn flour (masa) and water. The vast pantheon of Tex-Mex dishes starts by stuffing a tortilla with other food. Some combination of cooked pork, beef, chicken, beans, chiles, and cheese are commonly used. Vegetarian preparations might include spinach and mushrooms or kale, onion and tofu. If the tortilla has been precooked, then vegetable ingredients such as lettuce, tomato, salsa , pico de gallo or guacamole are added to round out the flavor. Otherwise, these vegetables are added at the end.
The bad thing about Tex-Mex food is that it can be shamelessly heavy. One could eat a week's worth of fat in a single meal. The tortillas have lard, the refried beans have lard, the carne swims in pork fat and is garnished with heavy cheese and the guacamole is 80% fat. Nobody loves culinary fat more than I, yet even I find that the fat quotient of the richest TexMex meal borders on the obscene.
This does not have to be. Any good Mexican restaurant serves corn tortillas, made with water instead of lard. Any self-respecting Mexican restaurant will serve borrachos - beans cooked in beer - again, avoiding the lard. Chicken dishes will typically not have lard, though many will have cheese. And most salsas are completely fat free. So if you choose a good restaurant or cookbook, you have complete control over the richness of the dishes.
When in a good Mexican restaurant I usually order the stuffed poblano peppers, since this is a food almost completely unavailable outside real Mexican Cooking zones. Yet I am always amazed by the enchilada; it is relatively simple, yet it has a kind of transcendent perfection.
Here is a sketch to whet your appetite: Start with chopped chicken white and dark meat that has been poached in water with cloves, thyme, black peppercorns and bay leaves. Add spinach and mushrooms sauteed in butter; wrap mix in corn tortillas warmed in a microwave to prevent splitting. Top with your choice of : a meat gravy redolent of cumin, shredded cheese, a sauce made from pulverized dried ancho chiles, or a mole sauce. Bake 50 min at 325 F, covered with foil. Serve with spanish rice, beans, salsa, and guacamole. Or include roasted squash. In old town Albuquerque I had summer squash baked to perfection with a little butter, and it was a side dish to die for, the squash lightly browned in the oven.
Salsas are made from tomatoes or tomatillos - a green fruit much like a tomato, sweet peppers, lime juice or vinegar, serrano or jalepeno peppers, garlic, salt, cilantro, and other stuff. They are sweet, sour, and hot, and provide an absolutely essential foil to many heavy dishes.
Pico de gallo is made from diced onion, sweet pepper, and serrano chiles with a bit of lime juice, salt, and cilantro. It's piquancy, bite, and crunch enliven any dish. Guacamole is made from perfectly ripened avocado, lime juice, and salt. When you've had a perfect guacamole you will find it difficult to make it through a week without more.
Pico de gallo is a little more painstaking to make because each bit is chopped to precise size, but salsas can be whipped up in a food processor. Pico de gallo will always taste of fresh vegetables, but salsas frequently employ fire-roasted ones.
Several years ago I attended a convention in Houston. At the hotel was a restaurant that was chiefly good at being pretentious. But fortunately they served chicken quesadillas with competently prepared salsa, pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream. I hate to admit this, but I supped on chicken quesadillas for four days straight: In New Jersey just getting decent cilantro or avocado is all but impossible.
In my thirties I learned that all the Mexican food I'd eaten was officially 'Tex-Mex' and ate 'real' Mexican food at a serious Mexican restaurant. I started with ceviche, a preparation of finely dice onion and tomato with fish 'cooked' by marinating in lime juice. My entree was chicken thighs cooked in a mole sauce.
Mole is an exquisite, fragrant sauce that contains roasted dried ancho chile peppers, cocoa, raw sugar, tomato paste, sesame paste, spicy hot chile paste, cumin, cinnamon, garlic, and cloves. It is, by some measure, a cocoa-flavored curry.
Because a mole is a mixture of many disparate things, each with a contentious culinary personality, great art is required to reach the perfect balance of flavor. Fail, and the result will be vile. A quarter teaspoon full will spoil a whole dish of food. Succeed, however, and the mole will transport you to culinary lands you could never have imagined.
The flavors and aromas of Mexican cooking are a diverse mix of old and new world cooking, offering the best of both worlds. These cookbooks will start you on a discovery of one of the world's most flavorful and versatile cuisines.
Rick Bayless is a prominent Chicago restaurant owner whose passion for Mexican flavors shines through in all his carefully wrought recipes. He has a large number of Mexican cookbooks, and is probably America's most read Mexican cooking expert.
Diana Kennedy is the Julia Child of Mexican cooking. She has spent much of her life exploring Mexico and its local cuisine. Her storytelling is quite interesting, and her books have been loved by cooks for thirty some years.
It is a rare person who can internalize exactly what makes the food of a culture work when that person has not grown up in that culture. So most of the rest of the books offered here are by cooks who have Mexican cooking as a cultural heritage.
Perhaps the most prominent of these is Zarela Martinez' books. Martinez operates a New York City restaurant and has appeared on Julia Child's PBS series of cooking shows. We trust that Martinez knows how Mexican food should taste and how to get it to taste that way.
Mexican cooking offers the best from old and new world flavors and aromas. It can be very healthy, nutritious, and delicious.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.