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Mexican Cuisine

 

The Culinary Regions of Mexico

Tamales

Lime vs. Mexican Limes

Mexican Cheese Guide

Taco Dictionary

Recipes

 

 

Tamales

Tamales appeared more than 5,000 years ago as food for Aztec and Mayan warriors. Monks who accompanied the Spanish conquistadores in the 1550s reported that the Aztecs served them tamales made of beans, meats, and chiles. Other early fillings included turkey, fish, mushrooms, potatoes, and nuts. Banana and avocado leaves, as well as the now traditional cornhusks were used to wrap the filling. They are considered a holiday fare in the hispanic community, but recently tamales have found their place in the elite culinary community. Tamales are simply a cylindar of ground corn bound with lard, stuffed with sweet or savory filling, rolled in a corn husk or banana leaf and then steamed. Tamales are very versatile because you can fill them with almost anything and they even freeze well. Try one of the tamale recipes below.

Recipe for Basic Masa Harina Dough

Chipotle Beef Tamales

Goat Cheese Tamales with Olives

Green Chile and Cheese Tamales

Pork Tamales

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Lime vs. Mexican Lime

The Mexican Lime ranges in size between a ping-pong ball and a golf ball leaving it much smaller than the regular or Persian Lime. The peel and flesh of a Mexican Lime is greenish-yellow when ripe. It is said to be juicier and higher in acid than the Persian lime. The Mexican Lime has a very distinct flavor which makes it very useful in the culinary world.

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Queso Guide

Fresh Cheeses are crumbly when cold or room temperature, but become soft and creamy when heated but do not melt or lose their shape.

Queso Fresco (KAY-so FRES-ko): meaning "fresh cheese" it is soft, spongy, and crumbly, and has a slightly grainy texture. It has a sweet, mild, slightly salty flavor. Crumble over beans, enchiladas, tostados, salads, or soups.

Panela (pah-NEL-ah): Smoother in texture than queso fresco, it tastes slightly salty and tangy. Because it does not melt, it can be sliced, fried, and served warm over salad greens. Cube it and serve it with fruit, or dice it and stir it into casseroles.

Queso Blanco (KAY-so BLAHN-ko): This skim milk cheese resembles a cross between cottage cheese and fresh mozzarella. It has a crumbly texture and a mild tang. It is best served with fresh tropical fruits.

Hoja Santa Goat Cheese (HO-ya SAHN-ta): This fresh goat cheese is wrapped in the heart-shape leaves of hoja santa, a plant native to the southwest United States and Mexico. The cheese is creamy and light. The leaves give the cheese a licorice-mint flavor. Serve it on crackers.

Queso Enchilado (KAY-so en-chee-LAH-do): A firm, crumbly, semisoft cheese coated in paprika and mild chili powder. Its interior tastes mild, the exterior, savory but not spicy. Crumble it over enchiladas, tacos, nachos, beans, and salads.

Melting Cheeses are mild and smooth textured, Mexican-style melting cheeses do not separate into oil and solids when melted so they retain a creamier, less greasy texture than most American melting cheeses.

Queso Quesadilla (KAY-so kay-sah-DEE-ah): Pale yellow in color with a smooth, buttery texture and is mild and rich in flavor. It is excellent for melting which makes it the perfect cheese for quesadillas, chiles rellonesk or quieso fundido.

Asadero (ah-sah-DEH-roh): Creamy white in color with a smooth texture. It tastes a little stronger than queso quesadilla making it an excellent cheese for casseroles and queso fundido.

Queso Oaxaca (KAY-so wah-HAH-ca): Known as the Mexican string cheese, queso Oaxaca is hand-stretched, kneaded and braided into a ball, or bolita. It has a buttery texture with a light and delicate flavor. It melts easily.

Queso Chihuahua (KAY-so chee-WAH-wah): The pale yellow, semisoft cheese varies from very mild to almost cheddarlike in its sharpness. It is often made with jalapenos and it great for casseroles or sprinkled on a burger.

Hard Cheeses are aged and made for grating. They have strong, robust, piquant flavors and crumbly, sometimes grainy textures.

Cotija (coh-TEE-ha): Often referred to as the Parmesan of Mexican cheeses although its texture is closer to a dry feta. It is the primary grating cheese. It is quite crumbly and rather salty with a pleasantly sharp flavor. It can be grated or crumbled. It is great on an ear of corn.

Montasio Festivo (mon-tah-SEE-oh fes-TEE-voh): This goat cheese, aged from six months to one year, is rubbed with a chile and oil paste, which turns the rind dark red and gives it a spicy smell. The cheese has a firm texture and a tangy, nutty, slightly smoky flavor. It is great on a cheese plate with slices of apples.

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Taco Dictionary

Tacos al pastor: with thinly sliced marinated spit-roasted pork

Tacos al carbon: a Northern Mexican specialty, stuffed with charbroiled meats

Tacos al vapor: enclose steamed meats

Tacos de barbacoa: with pit roasted barbeque meats

Tacos de carnitas: with braised pork

Tacos de cazuela: resembles stew in a wrapper

Tacos a la plancha: hold meats that have been sauteed on a comal or griddle

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The Culinary Regions of Mexico

Northern Mexico

El Norte includes the large states of Sonora and Chihuahua. The region encompasses mostly desert and high plains, just the right geography for cattle ranching, and indeed, the region contains a dusty patchwork quilt of cattle farms. The food that springs from the region reflects its ranching culture in the frontier flavors of meats and vegetables cooked over smoky mesquite fires and wrapped in warm flour tortillas. Only in Northern Mexico do wheat-flour tortillas trump corn tortillas. Because the United States shares a 2,000 mile border with Northern Mexico it is the region whose food Americans know best: tacos, burritos, beans, rice, and chorizo.

Central Mexico

Geographically, this region contains the most plateaus. It is home to the state of Puebla, where three centuries ago nuns prepared the first mole poblano in the Santa Rosa Convent in the city of Puebla de los Angeles. The region also includes the capital, Mexico City. In Central Mexico, the influence of the Spanish conquistadores who invaded the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the ruins of which lie under the foundations of Mexico City, is most keenly felt. Regional specialties include salad made of nopales, prickly pear pads, and soups and stews made with mushrooms, pork, and a kind of wild spinach called quelites. In Puebla, the European penchant for sweets is apparent in the number of pastry or candy shops.

West Central Mexico

The largest and perhaps most influential state in West Central Mexico is Jalisco. Its most famous city is Guadalajara. Jalisco is home to mariachi music and the small town of Tequila where the agave plant was first distilled to make tequila. Food fare of the region includes posole, a pork and hominy stew; red-chile enchiladas; fried tacos; crispy pork carnitas; pork belly and ribs cooked in fat at high temperatures and then drizzled with chile. West Central Mexico sits on the Pacific coastline and encompasses the cruise-ship haven of Puerto Vallarta. The coastal town of Manzanillo is known for its swordfish and a regional soup of fish, shrimp, prawn, crab, and octopus.

Southern Mexico

Particularly in the state of Oaxaca, Southern Mexico retains Indian influence in its food and culture more than any other Mexican region. Oaxaca is a beautiful coastal state on the Southern Pacific side of Mexico. Cooks use an incredible variety of dried peppers, as well as sweet spices such as cloves and cinnamon, in a myriad os stews and sauces. Oaxaca is the home of Oaxacan cheese, which is similar to string cheese in texture. Oaxaca is known as The Land of the Seven Moles. Unlike the rest of Mexico, where the pinto bean holds court, the black bean is the legume of choice in Southern Mexico. Oaxacans eat them with rice, while residents of the neighboring state of Chiapas eat them in tamales juacanes which are fried with black beans, dried shrimp, and pumpkin seeds. Southern Mexico is also famous for its sweets, particularly chocolate and coffee. See a recipe for Oaxacan rice and beans.

Gulf Coastal Mexico

The states that border the Gulf of Mexico feature tropical climates near the warm waters that brim with fish and shellfish. As you travel inland, the land rises up into high, cool mountains known for growing good coffee. Fresh and simple, well-seasoned food including herbs, olives, crab soup, and a variety of tropical fruits including banana, tomato, mango, coconut, and butter-fried plantains predominate the region. The abundant fish and seafood dishes include the famous Snapper Veracruz, fish with tomatoes, olives, and fresh chiles. From the Caribbean, Spaniards brought pineapples and sugar cane to the Mexican Gulf Coast and introduced a distinctly Afro-Cuban influence on the region's food, culture and music.

Yucatan Peninsula

This arm of land jutting out of the Mexican mainland into both the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea waters departs from the rest of Mexico not only geographically, but its ancient inhabitants were Mayan as opposed to Aztec. Before modern times, its mountainous terrain isolated the peninsula to the point that there was more contact with port cities such as New Orleans and Cuba than the rest of Mexico. The influence of these places shows in Yucatan culture and food. The delicately seasoned cuisine contains few red chiles but many fruit sauces. One of Yucatan's most famous dishes is pollo pibil, chicken marinated in achiote paste (made from brick red seed) and baked in banana leaves. Another regional specialty is papadzules, tortillas in pumpkin seed sauce rolled around hard-cooked eggs and then smothered in tomato sauce. A personal favorite of the Yucatan is sopa de lima, a soup made with shredded chicken, fried tortillas slices, and limes.

 

Recipes

Oaxacan Rice and Beans

Recipe for Basic Masa Harina Dough

Chicken Quesadillas

Chipotle Beef Tamales

Goat Cheese Tamales with Olives

Green Chile and Cheese Tamales

Pork Tamales

Sopa de Lima

 

Oaxacan Rice and Beans (makes 6 side size servings)

1/2 cup finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped carrot

1 fresh poblano pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 fresh serrano or jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon cooking oil

1 cup long grain white rice

2 1/4 cups chicken broth

1 cup frozen cut green beans, thawed

15 oz. can black beans

In a large skillet, cook carrot, onion, poblano pepper, serrano pepper, and garlic in hot oil for 3 minutes. Stir in the uncooked rice. Cook and stir constantly over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until rice is lightly browned. Stir in broth and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to boiling, reduce heat. Simmer, covered for 15 minutes. Add green beans; cover and cook about 5 minutes more or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Stir in black beans; heat through.

 

Sopa de Lima

8 corn tortillas

1/2 cup vegetable oil

salt

1 medium onion, chopped

1 celery rib, thinly sliced

1 carrot, thinly sliced

1 jalapeno or serrano pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled

1 large tomato, peeled and chopped

8 cups chicken stock

1 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 green onions, finely chopped

6 limes, juiced (about 2/3 cup)

2 limes, sliced

1 large avocado, peeled, pitted and coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves chopped

Cut tortillas into 1/4 inch strips and fry in skillet in oil over medium heat until golden and crisp (30 seconds to 1 minute). Transfer to paper towel lined plate to drain. Season with salt, to taste. Set tortilla strips aside and reserve vegetable oil. Transfer 1 tablespoon of the reserved cooking oil to a large saucepan. Add chopped onion, celery, carrot, and jalapeno. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring until vegetables have softened (about 4 minutes). Add the garlic, bay leaf, and Mexican oregano and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add tomato, salt and cook, stirring until tomato is softened and has released its liquid (4 to 5 minutes). Add chicken stock and chicken breasts and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a slow simmer and cook until the chicken is just cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove chicken from the soup and set aside until cool enough to handle. Allow soup to continue simmering. Shred chicken into bite size pieces and return to the pot along with the green onions and lime juice. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the chicken is heated through. Season with salt to taste and ladle the soup into wide soup bowls. Add tortilla strips and garnish with avocado, cilantro, and lime slices. Serve immediately.

The best Sopa de lima can be found in Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

*This recipe is by Emeril Lagasse with some minor changes.