The Secret to Cooking Mexican Food

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PHOTO: JOHN PARRISH/FOOD STYLING BY TRISH DAHL
Jill Jenkins, of Dallas, tries her hand at the batch of Anne's enchiladas.

Learn the secret to cooking Mexican food, including Mexican recipes for chicken enchiladas, refried beans, red rice, jicama salad and Mexican coffee.

Before I moved to an area in Illinois with a great local
market, I thought that Mexican food was a
meat-bean-tortilla thing that I occasionally ate at the
nearby shopping mall. And salsa? It was that meek and mild
tomatoey bottled stuff used for chip dunking. Fortunately,
I left my small Michigan town to discover that ignorance
isn’t bliss when it comes to Mexican food. Since my
arrival, I’ve eaten from taco stands in neighborhoods where
no one spoke English, tortillas were pressed by hand, and
delicious salsas were made from ingredients that I couldn’t
pronounce. I searched cook books and attempted to duplicate
this wonderful cuisine, but without much success. So I
asked Hispanic friends or co-workers for advice. In my
preschool classroom, I asked parents to give Mexican
cooking demonstrations. I found the secret to cooking Mexican food when someone’s grandma taught me the
secret to making chiles rellenos, another where to buy the
freshest tomatillos. The secret to any culture’s cuisine
lies not only in the ingredients, but in in the method.
It’s what’s been passed down from generation to generation.
So I continue to ask questions, and once in a while, I
manage to cook something fabulous.

Since Mexican food is regional, ingredients and flavors can
vary, and some recipes can be time-consuming. Most of us
just want to duplicate what we’ve eaten at our favorite
Mexican restaurant without slaving over a hot mole sauce.
Here’s Mexican Cooking 101–the recipes are basic, and
you’ll be dipping into the salsa in no time.

Chicken Enchiladas with Salsa Verde Recipe

1
whole chicken fryer, about 4 pounds
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
4 large cloves garlic, smashed
5 whole allspice
5 peppercorns

Place the washed chicken in a soup pot,
and add just enough water to cover the chicken. Add the
rest of the ingredients. Cover and simmer for about one
hour, until the chicken is no longer pink (check the thigh
meat next to the bone). Remove the chicken from the pot and
put on a plate to cool. Strain the chicken broth, and store
or freeze in plastic containers. Pick the chicken off the
bones, discarding the skin and bones. Place the meat in a
container and chill until needed (within 3 days), or freeze
with a little of the broth.

Salsa Verde Recipe (Green Sauce)

1 1/2 pounds tomatillos* (about 12-14)
1 teaspoon oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
1/2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped (wear rubber gloves)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Pinch of ground coriander
1 cup cilantro leaves (use more if you like cilantro)

Remove the husks from the tomatillos
and place in a saucepan, covering them with water. Bring to
a boil, reduce to simmer, and cook 10 minutes. The
tomatillos will be soft but not mushy. Drain; save a cup of
the water, and let cool. In a small skillet, heat the oil
and saute the onions, garlic, and jalapeno until they start
to brown. Put in a blender with the salt, pepper, and
coriander. When the tomatillos are cooled, cut out the core
as you would a tomato. Place in the blender with the
cilantro, and blend until almost smooth. Taste to see if
it’s spicy enough. If not, saute and add the other half of
the jalapeno pepper. Check the thickness of the sauce and
add the reserved tomatillos water as needed. (The sauce
will thicken a bit in the refrigerator.) Pour into a
plastic container and chill. Use within 4–5 days.

*See “Must Have Mexican Ingredients for Your Pantry” in this issue.

Warmed, cooked chicken
1/2 pound Mexican crumbling cheese, such as queso añejo*
1 package corn tortillas
Lite sour cream
Avocado slices

Shred, not cut, the chicken into small
pieces. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrap the tortillas in a
damp, non-terry-cloth dish towel. Lightly oil the bottom of
a casserole dish or baking pan (I use a Pyrex rectangular
pan). Pour the salsa into a pie plate or shallow dish.
Crumble or grate the cheese into a bowl. Heat the tortillas
in the microwave for about 60 seconds, or just until
they’re warm and pliable. (If you’d rather heat them in the
oven, wrap the dish towel in foil first.) Dip a tortilla in
the salsa, lay in the pan, and fill with about 1/4 cup of
chicken. Roll up and place the open side down. Do the same
with the other tortillas, laying them side by side. Spoon a
little more salsa across the middle of the enchiladas and
cover the pan with foil. Bake about 10 minutes, just until
warm, or the tortillas will start to fall apart. Using a
pancake turner, remove to the serving plates. Top each
enchilada with a tablespoon or so of cheese, a dollop of
sour cream, and an avocado slice.

*If not available, grate or shred some chilled Muenster cheese in a food processor.

Refried Beans Recipe

Why open a can of refried
beans when you can open a can of pintos beans and make your
own delicious recipe instead? You can also use homemade
beans, but the canned are much faster and easier to mash.

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 large onion, finely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 medium poblano peppers,* seeded and finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 29-ounce cans of pinto beans, undrained (I use Preferida brand)
Salt to taste (if beans aren’t canned)

Heat the oil in
a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion,
garlic, and peppers. Saute until soft, stirring frequently.
Add cumin and saute for another minute while stirring. Pour
in the beans with the bean liquid. Start mashing the beans
with a potato masher or large wooden spoon. (It will
probably take about 5 minutes to mash most of the beans.)
Leave some beans whole so texture is chunky. (You can use a
food processor, but I find that it tends to puree the
beans.) Continue to cook beans for about 15 minutes; stir
and scrape the bottom occasionally so they don’t burn. You
may have to reduce the heat a bit; it’s okay if beans
bubble up while cooking. Beans are done when liquid has
cooked down; cook until the consistency suits your taste.
Beans will thicken as they sit.

*If poblano peppers aren’t available, use a green pepper and about 1/8 teaspoon
cayenne pepper.

Red Rice Recipe

This is the
classic rice that you’ll find in your favorite Mexican
restaurant. It’s best made ahead and reheated in the oven.

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 small carrot, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 cup long-grain white rice, uncooked
3/4 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup frozen peas

Simmer the broth in a saucepan while
you prepare the rest. In a large, nonstick skillet, heat
the oil on medium heat and add the onion, garlic, carrot,
and rice. Stir for about three minutes until the rice
starts to get toasty. Stir in the tomatoes and spices,
continuing to stir for about another minute. Stir in the
hot broth, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20
minutes until liquid has been absorbed. Rice will be
sticky; check to see if it is sticking to the bottom of the
pan. (Rice will be less sticky after it’s reheated.) Stir
and continue cooking if necessary. When the rice is ready,
stir in peas. Oil a square baking pan and transfer the rice
from the skillet. Let cool, cover with foil, and
refrigerate or set aside until needed. Reheat in a
325 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 15 minutes.

Jicama and Orange Salad Recipe

This refreshing, no-fat salad complements
your Mexican dinner. If jicama is not available in your
neck of the woods, try white daikon radish or kohlrabi.

4 navel oranges (very sweet)
1 medium jicama (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped

1/3 cup lime juice (from 2 limes)
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
2 teaspoons sugar
Dash of salt and cayenne pepper
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, finely chopped

Cut the
oranges into quarters by cutting through the navel, then
peel and section them. Chop the orange sections into 1/4 inch
slices. Cut the jicama into 1/4 inch slices. Peel off the skin
and cut into 1/4 inch dice. Whisk the sugar, salt, and cayenne
into the freshly squeezed lime juice. Pour over the salad
and toss with the cilantro. Refrigerate for at least an
hour before serving.

Mexican Coffee Recipe

This deliciously sweet
coffee is dessert all by itself. Make sure you use a good
quality coffee, not the stuff in a can.

4 cups cold water

4 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup finely ground decaf or regular
Coffee (mild-tasting coffee is best)

In a large
saucepan, combine the water, sticks, and sugar. Heat to
almost a boil, and then simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from
heat. Add the coffee, cover, and let steep 5 minutes.
Remove the cinnamon sticks. Place a filter in your drip
coffee-maker with the pot underneath. Pour the coffee
mixture into the filter and let it drain into the pot.
Serve immediately or keep warm on the coffee burner. (If
coffee is too strong, add some hot water.)