When I mention the words “Mexican Food”, what comes to mind? Nachos perhaps, covered with melted cheese, guacamole, and sour cream? Crunchy tacos filled with mince and lettuce, topped with cheese and a salsa? Maybe Fajita’s (pronounced fa-hee-tahs), with sizzling strips of beef or chicken served on a warm flour tortilla with grilled onions and capsicums?
Sadly, wrong on three counts.
Mexican food is one of the most loved foods in Australia at the moment, yet in truth, we’re actually eating Tex/Mex food…not original Mexican fare at all, and I think it’s time we all learnt a little bit more about true Mexican cooking (and perhaps a little about some of the pronunciation).
The fact is, Mexican cooking is something we can and should all adopt. Authentic Mexican food is not born from modern kitchens and closely guarded recipes or techniques. It traditionally makes the most of the cheap cuts of meat from old animals that served duty as egg layers or beasts of burden, so Mexican food makes delicious use of cheap ingredients using simple techniques and very little kitchen trickery. Its a food that is ideal for the household on a budget, and these days, who isn’t?
Mexican food is more corn than flour…ground maize (or masa) that is formed into a dough (for tortillas; pronounced tort-ee-yah) or a cake (for tamales) and used to carry tid bits of slow cooked cheap cuts of meat, or to soak up the flavours of a punchy mole (pronounced mol-ay) or sauce.
Mexican food uses foods that are readily available, and therefore cheap to find. Small amounts of slow cooked shredded beef, pork, and chicken (meat and offal) is what you’ll find on taco’s and inside burritos, not minced meat and not choice steak, and you’ll almost always find it served with a hunger buster like beans or rice.
Seafood is used more often that you think, with much of Mexico’s population living along coastlines. Fish and shellfish are as likely to be in a stew or taco as shredded chicken.
And of course there’s chillies.
So Mexico is famous for hot food, no doubt, but not all chillies are hot…and many Mexican dishes rely on the flavour of the chilli itself, rather than the heat it may bring, so there are many dishes that use varieties of chillies (or peppers) that have little or no heat at all. On the mild side are Capsicums and, if you can find them, Pobano’s and Anaheims…also called “Bull Horn Chilli’s” in Australia. Hot Chillies are usually used sparingly, to add a zing to normally delicate dishes, while the milder chillies are used whole, as an ingredient or vegetable/fruit in it’s own right.
Which brings me to my most favourite of all Mexican dishes. It’s a dish of stuffed chilli’s, usually stuffed with a mild melting cheese (traditionally queso, a Mexican cheese, fried in an egg batter and served with a smooth salsa or a Mole. It’s as easy to cook as it is sublime to eat.
Chile Rellenos (pronounced re-yen-nyohs)
- Look for chillies that are longer and narrow, rather than ball shaped. Larger is easier, smaller works too. Try Bullhorns for mild…Jalapeno’s (pronounced Ha-leh-pen-yohs)if you’re more adventurous.
- Make a slit in them and extract the seeds. Try to keep the slit as small as possible, but large enough to do the job.
- Blister the peppers in a scorching oven, or over a gas flame, and place them in a plastic zip bag to steam a little. You really want to blacken the skins here, it makes a big difference.
- Remove when cool, and gently scrape the skin off. It should peel off quite easily.
- While they’re cooling, think about a stuffing. It’s a great use of leftover rice, or you can simply use some mild cheese. The key is not to overpower the flavour of the chilli. It’s a delicate dish. Gently stuff your chilli’s with your stuffing, and set aside.
- Separate a few eggs, about 1 for every two small to medium chillies, and beat the yolks with a generous pinch of salt until light. You can add some corn flour or rice flour to the yolks too, it will help with the final batter, but just a tablespoon or two. Now beat the whites, with a splash of white vinegar, until peaks form. Stir in half the whites into the yolk mixture to combine. Gently fold the yolk mixture back into the remaining whites. You want to maintain as much volume as you can.
- Put a frying pan on the stove, medium heat, with about a 1cm layer of neutral oil.
- Dollop some of the batter into the pan into a shape and size that matches your chilli. Now put your chilli to bed on this batter. The batter will keep it off of the bottom of the pan. Cover with another dollop of the batter and shape (or add more) until the chilli is completely covered.
- Cook until the bottom is browned, and turn over, cooking until the flip side is brown.
Some other tips for authentic Mexican?
- Slow cook your meat for your tacos and burritos, and try chicken (pollo) or pork (carnitas). I cannot say this enough. Ditch the mince!
- Look for Corn Tortilla’s, not flour. Maize is Mexican…wheat not so much (it’s also gluten free folks).
- Play with chilli’s…even mild ones have amazing flavour.
- Use shredded cabbage on your taco’s, not lettuce.
- Try fish or prawns on your Taco’s…in fact, prawn tacos (or tacos de camarones) are by far the best tacos you can eat.
- Make your own salsa! Don’t buy the stuff in jars…it’s just rubbish Use google for some ideas if you need, the results are amazing.
Remember, you don’t have to eat expensive to eat well. Enjoy a Mexican feast today, and maybe even throw a Mexican themed party and try some authentic South of the Border cuisine.