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When you think of Mexican food, images of tacos and enchiladas come to mind, generously garnished with shredded cheese, lettuce, sour cream, salsa, and cilantro. But if you delve into the heart of the cuisine, you’ll find sumptuous appetizers, hearty soups, complex meat and seafood entrees, and rich desserts, all easier to prepare than ever in home kitchens as Mexican ingredients become more widely available in mainstream supermarkets.
Mexican hors d’oeuvres and appetizers are a great way to start a lunch or dinner feast while you enjoy a cold Mexican beer with a lime wedge or a frosty Margarita. Many traditional Mexican entrees come in miniature versions, so you can enjoy tiny tostadas, tacos, or chimichangas for openers and save the more complicated dishes for the main course. For lovers of hot and spicy food, bake or fry up a batch of jalapeño poppers, fresh jalapenos filled with cheese and heated until the filling is hot and melted. It’s easy to fill up on Mexican appetizers, so if you tend to overindulge and ruin your appetite for the upcoming courses, stick with tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole for openers. If you want a heartier starter to follow up with just soup or salad, opt for nachos or quesadillas, both of which can be made with chicken, beef, pork or seafood. An easy upscale hors d’oeuvres that will satisfy without being too filling is ceviche, a marinated fish dish that is delectable made with simple fish such as tilapia as well as halibut, sea bass, red snapper, or shrimp. Make a Mexican version of sliders with seasoned chicken, pork, or beef topped with a teaspoon of guacamole or chunky salsa.
Soups and Stews
One of the most satisfying and economical Mexican soups is tortilla soup, a rich chicken broth seasoned with simple vegetables and thickened with corn tortillas. Stirring in shredded roasted chicken right before serving with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of cilantro on top transforms the soup into a main dish. Slowly cook black beans until tender and season with cumin, Mexican oregano, garlic, and onions for a traditional black bean soup that can be transformed into a more traditional chili with ground beef or poultry. Tinga is a rich, traditional Mexican stew flavored with poblano chiles or chipotle chiles packed in adobe sauce made with chicken or pork and served alone or over rice. Menudo, a Mexican staple made with tripe, is a satisfying lunch or dinner entrée frequently served with warm corn or flour tortillas on the side.
Chicken (pollo in Mexican) is prominent in many Mexican dishes as it melds well with a variety of spices and provides a nice texture for enchilada, burrito, and taco fillings. To make a spicy whole chicken that yields preseasoned chicken for fillings or served as a main dish, gently lift the skin all over the chicken and fill the space with a bunch of freshly chopped cilantro mixed with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil. Pour a cup of salsa inside the cavity, 1/2 cup of salsa over the top, and add a can of beer to the bottom of the pot so the salsa remains on the exterior of the chicken. Cover and roast at 350F degrees for an hour and let cool until you can safely remove the flesh from the carcass. To add a Mexican kick to fried chicken, add a little cumin and cayenne to the breading flour.
Carne is the Mexican word for meat and can refer to beef, pork, or veal. Carne asada is usually made with beef steak seasoned with lime and garlic, quickly barbecued or sautéed, and used as a filling for fajitas, burritos, tacos, or enchiladas. For a tasty dish that benefits from simple sides such as Mexican rice and refried beans, prepare Chile Colorado, chuck roast simmered into tender submission and finished in a complexly flavored sauce made from several varieties of dried chiles, garlic, and spices. Leftover Chili Colorado is an excellent burrito filling. Carnitas, which translates to “little meats” in English, is made from pork butt or shoulder cut into cubes, and gently boiled in lard flavored with orange slices until the inside is buttery soft and the outside is barely crispy. Serve carnitas as a main dish or as a filling for corn or flour tortillas. Mole poblano, an unusual sauce made from a myriad of spices, chiles, garlic, raisins, and Mexican chocolate, transforms simple meats and chicken into a complex main dish full of exotic flavors.
Pescado and Mariscos
The cold waters off the extended shoreline of Mexico produce a plethora of delicious fish (pescado) and shellfish (mariscos) that are conventionally prepared with simple spices and flavorings that let their natural flavors shine through. Marinate lightly flavored fish such as red snapper, cod, or tilapia in orange juice and grill or broil just until the flesh flakes. Make a sauce of onions, garlic, tomatoes, canned jalapenos and pimento-stuffed green olives and gently steam fish fillet on top for a Vera Cruz-style fish dish. Skewer halibut and shrimp and lightly marinate in cilantro and lime juice before grilling or broiling for a Mexican-style kebab.
The inherent spiciness of many Mexican dishes begs for a sweet finish to meals. A fresh fruit platter of assorted melons, mango, papaya, pineapple, fresh coconut, and jicama lightly seasoned with lime juice, salt, and ground chiles is a satisfying final course. For a fancier fruit dessert, bake bananas or plantains dipped in melted butter and covered with orange slices and a mixture of sugar, rum, lemon juice, and water until tender. To end the meal with a classic Mexican dessert, serve flan, dense vanilla custard topped with a creamy caramel sauce.