This is the first of many posts covering a cultural theme and how to adapt the flavors to your own taste and favorite recipes. Most countries and regions have their own cuisine that evolved over many decades or even centuries. The basis of most of these cuisines is local ingredients that were readily available and often inexpensive. With advances in transportation it’s now easy to get ingredients native to all parts of the world right in our own local markets.
Mexico has rich tradition of cooking that was based on local ingredients and ingredients brought by the Spanish several hundred years ago. Popular ingredients include corn, beans, tomatillos, cactus, chiles, avocado and chocolate. Common herbs are cilantro and epazote.
Besides finding tasty Mexican recipes online, of which there are many, you can also borrow from Mexican techniques and ingredients to come up with recipes that are uniquely your own. Combine these with flavors and ingredients you know your family likes and you’ll end up with something that they ask for over and over again. Below are some easy to find ingredients to try in your recipes:
- Masa (corn flour) is used to make tortillas, tamales and thicken hot chocolate. This is NOT the same as cornmeal. You can’t make bread with it, but works as a thickener and binder in place of flour.
- Beans are great with some simple seasoning or refried.
- Tomatillos look like little green tomatoes with papery husks. Try using these like tomatoes.
- Dried Chiles come in all shapes, sizes, heat levels and have very distinct flavors. Dry chiles should be toasted in a dry pan and ground or soaked and pureed. Try ground chile instead of paprika.
- Fresh chiles like jalapenos, serrano, and pasilla can be chopped and sauteed. Canned chipotles can be chopped and added directly to just about anything.
- Avocados are available year round and can be sliced or mashed into guacamole.
- Cilantro is used in the cuisine of many cultures. Add this at the end for a wonderful fresh taste.
- Epazote is credited with keeping beans from causing gas. Eating beans regularly will also do this. This usually comes dried and is not always easy to find.
- Oregano comes in a Mexican variety that has a more pronounced flavor than the European oregano.
- Cumin is also used in India and is a main ingredient in American Chili.
- Limes can be squeezed on many dishes to add a nice flavor.
There are many other ingredients but these are some of the more common ones. You’ll find more from browsing through Mexican recipes online. Now here are some common recipes that you can also draw ideas from. Don’t worry if you’re still not sure what to do. I’m going to give you some examples next.
- Enchiladas usually have something rolled in corn tortillas and then covered in sauce and baked.
- Tamales are masa dough with a filling wrapped in corn husks and then steamed.
- Chile colorado or verde is meat stewed in a flavorful sauce and served with rice, beans and tortillas.
- Guacamole is mashed avocado with onions, cilanto, tomato and lime.
- Tacos come in many different shapes and sizes but usually involve meat and tortillas.
- Tortas are a Mexican sandwich with similar ingredients to a taco
- Salsa simply means sauce in Spanish. Common salsas have tomatoes, onions, cilantro, chiles and lime.
Now let’s use these ideas in your own recipes. Let’s say your familiy has a favorite casserole made with ham, cheese, potatoes and broccoli but you make it all the time and are getting a little tired of it. If you want to leave it recognizable, try swapping out a main ingredient and then adding in some new flavors. Swap the ham for some cubed pork loin and add in some cumin and oregano instead of the spices in your recipe. If the broccoli doesn’t seem to go you could try swapping it for some cauliflower. Leave the potatoes and cheese alone to keep some familiar ingredients. Garnish it with cilantro and serve with guacamole on the site. Now you have a Mexican pork and potato casserole that has a totally new taste but still with familiar ingredients.
If you think your family might not like Mexican flavors, you can also go the other way and use flavors they like but prepared in a Mexican style. Let’s say your family loves pot roast but you make it all the time. Turn the same ingredients into American-style enchiladas. Cook your usual pot roast but then separate the meat, vegetables and sauce. Coat the bottom of a baking dish with some sauce. Shred the meat and roll in flour or corn tortillas and line up in the baking dish. Cover with the rest of the sauce and bake until bubbly. Serve it like enchiladas with the vegetables on the side. You could also mash peas into an American-style hot “guacamole” to serve on the side.
I hope this gives you ideas for incorporating these flavors and methods into your own cooking. After a little experimenting you’ll see how many different variations are possible. If you come up with a great recipe, post it in a comment here!
Coming up in future posts: Moroccan, Italian, French, Peruvian, Hawaiian, Chinese, African and many more styles.