A Mouthful of Mexico

Cooking School Week 4


This week’s cuisine was all south of the border. I’m not a huge fan of Mexican food, but as I found out, much of what I think of as Mexican is really Americanized or Tex-Mex. For instance, re-fried beans aren’t the average side dish that we see on our plates, they’re often made for children to have for lunch.

A major point that Carol made was that recipes are passed down through generations. The ingredients may change as you go through the regions of Mexico, but the techniques are time-tested and haven’t changed for eons.

One of the ingredients that is basic in all Mexican cooking is the chili. It’s indigenous to the land. There are hundreds of types of chilies and they’re all affected by where they grow. They’re eaten both dried and fresh.
Chilies are dried either in the sun or using heat. All green chilies are red when dried. They should be pliable and leather-like. The larger the chili, the milder the taste when fresh. When these large beauties are dried, not only do they change color, but their flavors become sweet and raisin-like. You only use the skin and get rid of the seed and stem. The seeds of dried chilies taste bitter. To toast them, tear the peppers in pieces, heat a pan, put the chili in the pan and as soon as you start smelling it, take it out. That’s it! Then you can put in whatever you’re making. Even better, if you sauté onions, you can toast the chilies in that pan afterwards to get the onion flavor.

Carol explained that there are no hard and fast rules when cooking with chilies, or with most of Mexican cuisine. She showed us an example of that when she made an enchilada sauce right next to a cooked salsa. Here’s another fact about Mexican food I didn’t know: we consider salsa to be a condiment, yet down south, it’s a sauce. 99 percent of the time, Mexican dishes start with white onions.

Carol’s enchilada sauce started with sautéed onions, softened in neutral oil. She added the chilies, some broth and then some tomatoes, which she said were optional. The more tomatoes you use, the less heat the sauce will have. Some people put a little sugar in it, too. Then, she put stock in to cover and cooked until the ingredients were as soft as mushrooms. How do you know the sauce done? Not by time, but by taste. That’s the intuitive part. Puree and serve.

The salsa was almost the same thing, except she used water instead of stock, chopped the onions smaller and left the tomatoes in chunks.

Many people grow fresh chilies in their back yards, even here in the U.S. If you grow a hot chili, like a habanero, next to a mild one, like an Anaheim, the hot one will affect the mild one and your Anaheim will grow hotter than usual. It’s important to separate them when planting a garden.  

Want to tone down the heat on a hot chili? Roast it. You can do so right on the flames until you see the skin begin to blister. Then, just turn it until the whole pepper is toasted.

Oregano is the most popular herb in Mexico. It’s very strong, stronger than Italian oregano, so you want to use it sparingly. Carol also suggested not to mix the two up, as Italian and Mexican oregano have different flavors.

The most popular grains are rice and corn. Tortillas are eaten every single day and bought fresh, just like the French buy bread. The corn that is made into polenta is different from the corn made into tortillas. There’s green corn, which is what we know as fresh corn, then there are the larger kernel corn. These come in white and yellow and are used for the tortillas.

Beans are the third staple of the Mexican “triangle” (rice, corn and beans). Pinto beans are more popular in the north, while those in the south and the Yucatan Peninsula prefer black beans. When cooking beans, the beans are soaked and then cooked until they fall apart. These are called ‘pot beans.’ They’re fairly plain, with perhaps a little onion thrown in. When eaten, condiments are added to make them tastier.  

I love plantains, I have them when I go for Brazilian food, so it was nice to see that they are part of Mexican cuisine, as well. They are a very starchy fruit and you can’t eat them raw. Most often, the plantains are fried and mashed or used as dough.

This week, I made dish from the southern part of Mexico using plantains as a dough. They’re delicious because when cooked, plantains get a banana-like sweetness to them. I don’t usually fry food, but these are wonderful little treats, great for appetizers.



3 large yellow-ripe plantains, about 2 pounds
1 cup flour, plus more for forming
¾ tsp salt
1 ½ cups crumbled queso fresco or pressed, salted farmer’s cheese
Vegetable oil to a depth of 1”, for frying
1 Cup salsa for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the ends off the unpeeled plantains. Make a shallow incision down their length and then cut them crosswise in half. Bake the plantains on a baking sheet until very soft, about 40 minutes. Use two forks to peel back the skins and allow the steam to escape as they cool completely.

Scrape the plantains into a food processor and puree. Add the flour and salt and pulse until the flour is incorporated.

Divide the cheese into 12 equal portions. Press each portion into a flat oval and set aside. Divide the dough into 12 portions and roll into balls between floured palms. Roll the balls lightly in four. Use the tortilla press to flatten a ball of dough into a 4-5 inch disc about 1/8” thick. Place one portion of the cheese on one side, then fold the unfilled side over the cheese. Seal the edges. Lay the turnover on a clean towel sprinkled with flour. Repeat until you’ve made 12 empanadas.

Turn the oven on low and line a plate with paper towels or use a drain. Fry the empanadas two or three at a time in hot oil until dark golden brown, about 3 minutes total. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and keep warm in the oven until all are fried. Serve with salsa.

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