More Than a Hill of Beans
It’s that dreaded phrase: “Let’s go out for Mexican.” Visions of Taco Bell alternate with visions of greasy chimichangas, nachos, tacos and refried beans. A nightmarishly oversized lime-and-tequila Sno-Cone excuse for a marguerita flashes through my brain. Mariachi music plays in the background. In a cold sweat, I suggest we order pizza.
It is unfortunate that we folk up here in the U.S. of A. have managed to convert the rich and varied cuisine of the U.S. of M. into a hill of mashed beans – with jalapeños on top and corn chips below. With 29 states, two territories and a federal district, settlement by Spaniards, Portuguese, Frenchmen, Germans, Danes, Lebanese and Chinese, and native cooking that includes Aztec, Yaqui, Mayan, and Olmec, Mexican cuisine is far more interesting than that. It is mestizo, “of mixed blood,” a core ancestral fusion, not only of food, but of the entire Mexican culture.
Okay, yes, Mexicans do eat tacos. A lot of them. And enchiladas, burritos, tostadas, and frijoles refritos. They also eat fish and seafood, turkey and chicken, and an incredible array of vegetables and fruits, from the familiar, like celery, tomatoes and squash, to the unusual – jicama, tomatillos, nopal cacti and cactus pears, and sour oranges. Seasonings – Mexican cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla, and oregano – taste elusively different from their counterparts we know in the U.S., and others, achiote, epazote, and hoja santa, are nearly unknown outside Mexican and Central American cuisine.
Corn is the staple grain of the Mexican diet, generally softened and cooked with lime (the alkali, not the fruit), and used whole in pozole or ground to produce masa, or dough, for tortillas and tamales. If corn is the heart of Mexican cuisine, chilies are its soul. There are dozens if not hundreds of varieties, from mild poblanos to smoky chipotles to hot jalapeños and serranos to the scorching habaneros.
We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous salsa and chips, but salsas and other sauces go far beyond chopped tomatoes, onions and chilies. There are recados, dry herb and spice mixtures, adobos, with chilies and vinegar, pepianes, thick, rich sauces thickened with ground seeds or nuts, and moles, spiced and thickened with ground chilies.
Let’s take a look at two simple dishes that can add some zip to your next dinner party. The first is a basic green salsa, which uses tomatillos, or “husk tomatoes,” instead of the usual red tomatoes. If you can’t find them fresh in your area, it is possible to use canned ones, though I don’t recommend them. You could also try fresh green tomatoes, which will make a different, but tasty variation.
1½ pounds fresh tomatillos
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 fresh serrano or jalapeño chilies, seeded and minced
1 cup fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper
Remove husks from tomatillos and place them in a pot of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and then simmer for about five minutes. Drain and chop coarsely, saving the juices. Sauté the onions and garlic in oil over low heat until just softened, but not browned. Add the chilies and continue cooking for one to two minutes to bring out the chili’s flavor. Combine tomatillos, cilantro, sugar, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with chips or as a sauce over grilled fish. Makes four cups.
The second dish makes use of my favorite chili, the chipotle, which is dried and smoked jalapeño. Chipotles come in loose, dry form and also packed in a tomato sauce called adobo. This dish uses the dry form.
Cerdo con Crema Chipotle
1 pound pork tenderloin
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 chipotle chili
1 pint heavy cream
Trim and cut the pork into one-inch cubes. Remove the seeds from the chipotle. Sauté the onion, garlic and chipotle in the oil over low heat until the onions are soft but not browned. Add the pork and continue cooking until golden brown. Remove the chipotle and purée in a blender with the cream. Pour the chipotle cream back over the pork and bring to a simmer over low heat. Let simmer for ten minutes to allow the pork to absorb the flavors and the sauce to thicken. Serve over pasta or rice. Serves two.
Genre is a gay “lifestyle” and travel magazine. It was launched in 1992 by three entrepreneurs, two of whom shortly thereafter left to found QSF magazine. I went with them…