When I think of Mexican food, tacos and burritos automatically come to mind.
These foods are kid friendly and quick to prepare. But, there is much more to Mexican cuisine than tacos and burritos.
Mexican food is known for its colorful presentation and its variety of spices and ingredients, many of which are native to the country.
In Mexico, the cuisine varies by region; this is due to local climate, geography and ethnic differences. The coastal regions lean heavily on seafood, cattle prevail in the northern areas while pork and chicken are favorites countrywide. The tropical flavors of papaya and mango along with habanero peppers and yucca rule in some regions while sauces and salsas reign throughout Mexico.
As for dessert, meals are finished with various puddings, candies and the well-known dish, flan. Flan has been modernized with tropical fruits such as guava, along with spiced-up cinnamon and chocolate versions.
Corn, known in Mexico as “the Gift of the Gods,” is the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. It appears in almost everything; tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, tacos, soups and stews. Treated hulled corn becomes hominy, which is a key ingredient in posole (a one-pot soup made of pork, hominy and chilies). Masa harina is the traditional corn flour used to make corn tortillas, tamales and other Mexican dishes.
Rice is the most common grain used in Mexican cooking. This popular side dish is simply steamed or cooked with spices and served nestled against beans. Rice is a great addition to other recipes and can be sweetened and made into dessert as well.
Beans are another main staple. The preferred preparation of traditional Mexican beans (brown pinto) is twice cooked; first, the beans are boiled, mashed and then cooked again in hot oil. We know the mashed, fried beans as “refried beans.”
The following are some of the most frequently used spices in Mexican cuisine:
Chilies: They are perhaps Mexican cooking’s most indispensable seasoning. Well known for their spicy hotness, chilies are available in a great range of varieties, sizes and levels of heat. Fresh over dried? Not so, for the chili — dried and fresh chilies alike hold their own in Mexican cuisine.
Chili powder: This is a mixture of ground, dried red chiles blended with other spices and herbs. Chile powder often includes cumin, oregano, paprika, coriander and salt. It is most often used in, you guessed it, chili, but it is also great for stews, meats and poultry.
Cumin: This it the spice that gives packaged taco seasoning its distinctive flavor. It has a toasty yet somewhat bitter taste and gives Mexican dishes a certain flavor that can’t be replaced.
Chipotle peppers: Chipotle are smoked, dried jalapeños with a very wrinkled appearance. They can be purchased loose (dry) or canned in adobo sauce.
Cilantro: This herb is actually a member of the carrot family and a relative to parsley. You may also have heard it called Coriander. Fresh cilantro is a popular ingredient in salsa, Pico De Gallo, salads and Mexican sauces.
Garlic and onion: These common ingredients go hand-in-hand in Mexican cooking. When added together, they give a boost of flavor to any recipe.
Mexican oregano: This seasoning gives food a rich, earthy flavor. It is bit stronger than its cousin, Mediterranean oregano or Greek oregano. Mexican oregano tastes good in enchilada sauces, tortilla soup, chicken dishes, and egg and cheese dishes. It pairs well with other seasonings and spices, such as chipotle, chile powder and garlic.
Other ingredients that are useful in Mexican cooking and handy to have in your pantry are chicken broth, tomato sauce, canned green chilies, green, and black olives and pickled jalapeños. Fresh items include limes, avocados, sour cream, cheese, tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers (jalapeno, poblano and red/green bell). Cinnamon, cloves, anise, cocoa and peanut butter are additional flavors used in authentic Mexican cooking.
With a good selection of Mexican spices and some standard pantry staples — grains, fruits, vegetables, tortillas and beans — you can whip up a Mexican dish any time you like.
Here are some popular Mexican dishes and their descriptions:
Burrito: a flour tortilla filled with meat, eggs or beans and sauce then folded like an envelope around the filling.
Chalupa: fried corn tortillas topped with meat, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, olives, onions and sour cream.
Enchiladas: corn tortillas spread with bits of meat, cheese and/or vegetables, rolled into a tube then covered with a red or green sauce. Sometimes they are served in stacks like pancakes.
Fajita: a flour tortilla filled with slices of steak and various condiments.
Flan: a dessert made with eggs, milk, sugar and flavoring.
Flautas: corn tortillas filled with meat, tightly rolled into flutes or tubes and fried crisp.
Huevos rancheros: eggs served on corn tortillas topped with red or green sauce, cheese and onions.
Quesadilla: a tortilla spread with cheese, onions, meat or vegetables, topped with a second tortilla or folded in half and baked.
Taco: a tortilla, crisp or soft, that is folded in half around a filling of meat then topped with sauce, lettuce and cheese.
Tamales: are individual wrapped corn husk packets filled with savory mixtures. Filled tamales are rolled, tied and steamed.
Sopapillas: A delectable kind of bread that is rolled and fried. The dough forms a hollow pillow that is punctured and filled with honey or sprinkled with powdered or granulated sugar.
6 jumbo jalapeños or 12 regular, cut in half lengthwise, seeds removed (protect your hands when cleaning and removing the seeds)
One 8-ounce softened cream cheese
2 cups shredded Mexican-style cheese
8 slices bacon, cooked, crumbled or 8 tablespoons Oscar Meyer packaged real bacon bits
4 tablespoons finely chopped onion
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 cloves garlic, minced
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Set the halved jalapeños on a large baking sheet and place them in the oven. Bake them for about 10 minutes (jumbo) or about 5 minutes (regular) or until they just start to soften.
Mix the remaining ingredients until well blended.
Remove the jalapeños from the oven and let them cool slightly.
Spoon the filling into the peppers, place them back on the baking sheet, filled side up.
Bake them approximately 10 min. or until the cheese is melted. Keep the baking sheet on the middle rack; turn the temperature to broil and lightly brown the tops.
Note: Substitute poblano or red, yellow or green bell peppers for the jalapeno pepper halves. Omit the bacon for your vegetarian friends.
Source: Kraft Foods