Mexican Cooking Deconstructed
Americans love Mexican food. That much is obvious by the rapid increase in the number of Mexican restaurants that dot the country from the smallest rural burgs to bustling cities like Chicago and Atlanta.
When it comes to cooking Mexican meals, though, most Americans do little more than season and fry a pound of ground chuck, which they plop onto store-bought flour tortillas. That’s why so many Mexican restaurants are thriving with authentic Mexican dishes. Most folks simply don’t understand how to cook it or simply don’t bother to take the time.
Although most gringo
cooks might never match their favorite restaurants’ enchiladas, it takes just a
little time to learn to how make some traditional Mexican favorites, and the
great part is that there’s money to be saved, too.
With a few key lessons in Mexican cuisine, almost any dish is possible, from true authentic Mexican to American dishes turned into the talk of the office’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. So strap on your sombreros and ride along for a crash course in some savory dishes from down Mexico way.
It’s All About The Chiles
Authentic Mexican food has many nuances, but one of the most important is the use of chiles. Not to be confused with the American chili, the Super Bowl party food of choice, Mexican chiles add flavor and, many times, a great deal of heat to a host of dishes, many of them well-known as Mexican trademarks.
Chiles are featured in Mexican mole, the rich, chocolate-based sauces that cover enchiladas and in the packets of store-bought powder most folks use to season their taco meat. Chiles are also used heavily in salsas and are the main component in chile relleno, a dish featuring breaded, stuffed poblano chiles.
Essentially, almost every Mexican dish you find will have some component of the chile. If it doesn’t, it probably should. Leel free to experiment. But be careful. It pays to know your chiles. Some dish out a big dose of heat and can render an otherwise delicious meal almost inedible.
Chiles come in a variety of forms, from the fresh to the dried to the canned. Some are ground into spices. Each has its place in Mexican cuisine. As a general rule, the heat of a chile is determined by its size. Larger chiles, such as the poblano and Anaheim, have a milder flavor. The habanero, one of the smallest chiles available, packs a potency that can send a person running for the swimming pool.
The jalapeno is spicy, too, but it’s mild in comparison to the habanero. A smoked jalapeno, called a chipotle chile, packs a wallop, especially when it’s packed in a spicy sauced called adobo. Cans of chipotles in adobo sauce, available in most grocery stores, can make fire shoot out a person’s ears.
Chile seeds tend to pack a serious punch, too. Most chefs remove the seeds before cooking. Of course, one can’t remove every seed. Just do as well as possible without it becoming a hassle.
Experiment with chiles in different recipes. Start with a little and add more if necessary to reach the desired flavor and heat levels. Buy a jalapeno at the store and try it in your eggs. Throw some dried chiles into your next batch of chili. Dice some Anaheims and skewer them with chicken and onions for the grill.
Mole Isn’t A Rodent
It’s called mole, and it’s the Mexican equivalent of gravy. The sauce is used on a variety of Mexican dishes, and, like gravy, it varies as much as anything in Mexican cuisine. Generally, a good mole starts with a mixture of many spices and ground or diced chiles. Mole Poblano is the most common form of mole served at restaurants in the United States.
Along with chiles, mole features Mexican chocolate, which is a grainy variety of chocolate made from cocao, raw sugar and nuts. Seeds such as cumin seed and sesame seed are commonly used, as are ground nuts, typically almonds. Aromatics such as onion and garlic are other key ingredients. Moles are well-known for their rich, savory flavor and pleasant aroma. There are many twists on mole, with families passing down their own recipes from generation to generation.
Salsa is by far the most Americanized of Mexican cuisines. It’s used as a topping on dishes and, most commonly, as a dip for tortilla chips. Mexican salsa, though, packs much more flavor than what most folks find in the little glass jars sold at the store. Generally, there can be as many types of salsa as the human mind can conceive. Most salsas, though, come in one of two varieties.
There is a tomato-based salsa and green salsa, or salsa verde. Tomato-based salsa is by far the most commonly used in the United States. It features cooked tomatoes mixed with fresh chiles, cilantro, garlic and other spices and vegetables. Some folks add corn. Others add black beans. Some even add diced fruit.
The other salsa, salsa verde, uses tomatillos, a more bitter, more rigid relative of the tomato. Tomatillos are green, and they generally must be cooked in much the same way that onions are cooked to soften them. Green chiles, onions, garlic and cilantro are used with other spices to finish off the salsa.