Hot, piquant sauces dominate the main entrée, and leftover tortillas get a new lease when rolled around a tasty filling to make enchiladas. Mole -- the sauce with a whisper of chocolate -- cloaks chicken, fish, vegetables, even fruit.
Chiles, which give the heat and flavor to Mexican dishes, are rated by Scoville units. Wilbur Scoville developed a heat index for chiles that has become the standard for measuring a pepper's heat to the palette. Example: Green bell peppers have 0 Scoville units, whereas habañeros -- one of the hottest -- are rated as between 200,000 and 300,000 units.
Mexican cooking has evolved over centuries; traders and conquerors, Spain, India, Europe and even China have all left their mark. But authentic Mexican food is thought to go back to the Mayan Indians, who lived in the Yucatan area. They lived on corn, hunted wild game and fished.
But there were, to us, more exotic dishes with ingredients ranging from iguana to rattlesnake, and even some kinds of insects, all easily available in that area. When the Spanish conquistadores ("conquerors") arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (Mexico City was built on those ruins), items like beef, chicken, wine, garlic and onions were added to the mainly corn-based dishes, food they had brought from Spain.
Mexican food varies by region because of climate, location and ethnic differences. North Mexico is famous for its beef and meat dishes; in the Southwest, spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes remain the norm. Veracruz-style dishes hail from the coastal areas, and are based on seafood like fish and shrimp. Mexico has also been influenced by the southwest United States. The combination of flavors are now labeled Tex-Mex cuisine.
Throughout the country, tortillas and chiles are staples. Tortillas -- made from maize -- are pounded into thin patties and cooked on a flat grill. Good-quality tortillas are available in every market. Peppers such as jalapeño and habañero add color, and pack the zest and punch that Mexican dishes are famous for. A word of caution: When seeding and chopping chiles, be sure to use gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Do not touch your eyes!
Meat and cheeses are popular combinations in Mexican cuisine. The recipes below have been adapted for the kosher kitchen, using soy cheeses where applicable. A nondairy cheese substitute made from rice is also available in health-food stores.
Spiced Walnuts and Pumpkin Seeds
This flavorful combination is guaranteed to work up a thirst -- and you can't stop at just one handful. If you can't find Mexican oregano, substitute the more common variety.
3 Tbsps. corn oil
11/2 Tbsps. chopped garlic
2 cups walnut halves
11/2 cups pumpkin seeds
1/4 tsp. (scant) cayenne or to taste
sea salt to taste
1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
Preheat oven to 275 degrees.
Heat the oil in a heavy, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Reduce to low.
Add the garlic. Sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.
Stir in the walnut halves and pumpkin seeds, turning to coat with the oil mixture.
Add enough cayenne and salt to taste. Careful with the cayenne. It's very hot!
Spread mixture on a baking sheet. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Bake until the nuts are lightly toasted.
Sprinkle with oregano and more seasoning, if desired. Stir to mix.
Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 31/2 cups.
Approximate nutrients per one-quarter cup: calories, 199; protein, 6 g; carbohydrates, 5 g; fat, 19 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 3 mg.
The name comes from two Aztec Nahuati words meaning avocado sauce. Make sure to use ripe avocados. There should be a little give when pressed gently. To avoid discoloration when made ahead, cover surface with plastic wrap. Serrano peppers are long, thin and green, ripening to red or orange-yellow.
2 ripe avocados, halved and pitted
2 Tbsps. finely chopped red onion
1 serrano chile, seeds removed and minced
2 Tbsps. cilantro, finely chopped
11/2 Tbsps. fresh lime juice
1 medium tomato, chopped finely
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
tortilla chips or jicama to dip
Scoop avocado from its shell into a bowl. Mash with a fork.
Stir in the onion, chile, cilantro, lime juice and tomato.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with tortilla chips and/or jicama sticks.
Makes about 11/2 cups.
Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 28; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 2 g; fat, 2 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 1 mg.
Green Chile and Corn Soup
Tomatillos are small, green, tart tomatoes encased in a husk that must be removed before using.
2 canned green chiles
2 Tbsps. corn oil
2-3 tomatillos, husks removed and diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 package (16 oz.) frozen corn kernels
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
large pinch of dried, crushed red chile
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch cubes
2 oz. soy cheese, cut in 1/4-inch cubes
Cut the green chiles into one-quarter-inch strips. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and tomatillos. Cook until soft and onions are golden. Do not brown.
Pour in the broth. Bring to simmer.
Add the corn, oregano, dried chile and green chiles. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until corn is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.
To Serve: Divide the avocado and soy cheese between 4 to 6 soup bowls. Ladle the soup over top, and garnish with tortilla chips.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 263; protein, 7 g; carbohydrates, 29 g; fat, 16 g; cholesterol, 4 mg; sodium, 194 mg.
1 medium onion, cut up
1 Tbsp. prepared chopped garlic
2 Tbsps. chile powder
1/2 tsp. dried oregano, crumbled
1/2 tsp. dried red-pepper flakes
2-3 Tbsps. red-wine vinegar
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in 1/2-inch wide strips
1/4 cup corn oil
salt to taste
4-6 warm corn tortillas
Sweet-and-Sour Onions (recipe below)
In the food processor, process the onion, garlic, chile powder, oregano, red-pepper flakes and enough vinegar to make a paste.
Place the chicken in a glass bowl and spread the paste over all sides. Cover and refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours, or overnight.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and marinade. Sauté to cook chicken all the way through. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
To Serve: Spoon the chicken onto the warm tortillas. Top with salsa, shredded lettuce, and/or sweet and sour onions. Roll up.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 182; protein, 18 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 8 g; cholesterol, 44 mg; sodium, 77 mg.
1 large sweet onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup cider vinegar
3 Tbsps. sugar
pinch white pepper
In a glass or nonreactive bowl, toss the onion with the vinegar, sugar and pepper.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, stirring often. Use as above.
Makes about 3 cups.
Approximate nutrients per one-half cup: calories, 27; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 7 g; fat, 0 mg; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 44 mg.
2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
21/2 lbs. chicken drumsticks
1 cup frozen chopped onion
1 tsp. minced garlic
3/4 cup thick, chunky salsa, medium
2 Tbsps. creamy peanut butter
1 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
11/2 tsps. chili powder or to taste
freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large, deep nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chicken.
Cook, turning often, until browned on all sides, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.
Add the onion and garlic, and cook until onion is soft.
Add the salsa, one-third cup water, peanut butter, cocoa and chili powder to taste. Mix well, and bring to a full boil, stirring often. Reduce heat to low.
Add the chicken. Spoon sauce over top.
Simmer, partially covered for 30 minutes, or until chicken is no longer pink when pierced with a sharp knife near the bone. Spoon sauce over occasionally.
Remove the lid about 5 minutes before end of cooking.
Serve hot with rice.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 330; protein, 36 g; carbohydrates, 6 g; fat, 18 g; cholesterol, 141 mg; sodium, 469 mg.
Radish Salad With Cilantro Dressing
15 large radishes, trimmed
1 cup diced unpeeled cucumber
1/4 cup prepared vinaigrette salad dressing
3 Tbsps. lime juice
1 Tbsp. mayonnaise
2 Tbsps. finely snipped cilantro
Cut radishes into one-quarter-inch thick slices. Place in a bowl with the cucumber. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the salad dressing, lime juice, mayonnaise and cilantro. Pour over the radish mixture.
Toss gently. Serve chilled.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 62; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 2 mg; sodium, 90 mg.
From Taste America, Cooking Club of America. This is typical of the cakes baked by nuns on feast days for Mexican monks and priests.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dark-brown sugar, packed
1 Tbsp. grated orange peel
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup snipped pitted dates or dark mission figs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 tsps. Mexican vanilla or vanilla extract
1/3 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease an 8x4-inch loaf pan or spray with nonstick baking spray with flour.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, orange peel and baking soda. Stir in dates, oil, orange juice, egg and vanilla. Mix to blend.
Fold in the pecans, if using. Transfer to prepared pan.
Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Tent with foil for the last 15 minutes of baking.
Cool 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves 8 to 10.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 303; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 50 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 133 mg.
Papayas and mangoes grow in the hot and humid Veracruz area.
1/2 cup light kosher white wine, such as Gewurtztraminer
1/3 cup honey, warmed
2 Tbsps. fresh orange juice
2 Tbsps. lime juice
2-3 grinds black pepper
3 large ripe mangoes, peeled and diced
2 small ripe papayas, peeled, seeded and diced
3 Tbsps. chopped fresh mint (optional)
In a medium serving bowl, combine the wine, honey, orange juice, lime juice and pepper.
Add the mangoes and papayas. Stir gently to mix.
Garnish with fresh mint (optional).
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 160; protein, 1 g; carbohydrate, 39 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 5 mg.
Sangria, a red-wine punch, has been popular in Europe for centuries, but it was the Spanish who brought it to Mexico, probably as a cooling drink to beat the heat. White wine may be used as in the recipe below.
1 bottle kosher white wine (Chablis, Chardonnay)
1 orange, unpeeled and cut in wedges
lemon, unpeeled and cut in wedges
1 shot brandy
2 Tbsps. sugar or to taste
2 cups watermelon cubes (about 1-inch)
1 bottle ginger ale or club soda
Pour the white wine into a large pitcher.
Stir in the brandy, orange and lemon wedges and sugar to taste. Chill for several hours.
Just before serving, stir in the watermelon. Add the ginger ale or club soda.
Stir and pour over ice cubes.
Serves 8 to 10.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 80; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 5 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 4 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.