Mexican food! What delightful aromas come from the kitchen when it is being prepared. And who, of those who are fond of it, can think of sitting down to a table laden with enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, chili rellenos, turkey mole, refritos, guacamole salad, or other foods of this country without a feeling of adventure. It is like going back in time, for Mexican cooking has its origin in a very old culture.
It existed when Cortez and his soldiers sat down to the table of Montezuma in 1520 and were introduced for the first time to potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, cocoa, peanuts, chili, maize, vanilla, and other foods that later found their way to Europe from the New World. It is a matter of record that Montezuma served upwards of three hundred types of food at his table.
After the conquest, however, this abundance was greatly diminished—at least on the tables of the conquered. The conquerors considered that the land belonged to the crown of Spain and all of the inhabitants were rightfully their slaves. As a reward for their services, Cortez and his soldiers, as well as other Spanish nobles, were awarded great grants of land, in some instances whole fertile valleys. At the same time they were given enough natives to work the land—as many as thirty thousand to one land owner. These unfortunate natives, stripped of their possessions, were forced to work for the equivalent of twelve cents a day or less.
The day of plenty was gone! The natives turned to the one crop that never failed in Mexico —Indian corn. It would grow in almost any locality up to an altitude of nine thousand feet. When there was no rain, it was nourished by the underground moisture, and when there was no underground moisture, it would thrive on the daily mist, or dew. It was available and cheap. Thus necessity established it as the basic ingredient of Mexican food.
Until recently, almost every family ground its own corn. One large flat stone was placed on the ground and a smaller one was used to crush the dried corn, washboard fashion, into flour. This flour, moistened with water, was called massa. From this massa many common Mexican foods are made, the two most common being the tamale and the tortilla.
The tamale is made by putting a small portion of massa in a corn husk, placing over it some well-seasoned meat, and topping it with another portion of massa. The corn husk is folded tightly around the massa and meat. The tamale is then steamed for at least four hours. An American variety is made with yellow cornmeal.
The tortilla is made by slapping a small portion of massa from one hand to the other until it is paper thin and perfectly round, at which time it is baked on an ungreased griddle. It can be eaten as it comes from the griddle; rolled up and used to spoon food into the mouth; or folded over some refried beans or meat seasoned with hot sauce. Other well-known variations are the enchilada, the “hard” taco, and the tostada. Tortillas are a hand-me-down from the Aztec civilization, and it is recorded that Montezuma served them at his sumptuous feasts. Today they can be purchased at most grocery markets.
A common sight in a Mexican kitchen is a pot of soup simmering on the stove. Some of these soups are exotic and complicated, others very simple. They are classified into two categories—wet soups and dry soups, both of which may be served at the beginning of the same meal. One of the common wet soups is made with well-seasoned broth and vermicelli. The vermicelli is browned in a small amount of lard and then combined with broth and allowed to simmer until it is tender. Dry soup usually has rice as its basic ingredient and is often referred to as Spanish rice. It is made in much the same way as wet soup, except the broth is measured so that it will be entirely absorbed by the rice.
This brief survey of Mexican food would not be complete without a glance at the 3-F’s—fruitas, flan (Mexican custard), and frijoles (beans). These three foods may be classed in another general category—that of desserts.
While frijoles are hardly desserts, they are often served at the end of the meal. In the preparation of frijoles, the Mexican people will tell you that the secret of cooking beans is to keep the bean pot boiling. When more water is needed, it should be brought to a boil before adding it to the beans. When the beans are tender and almost dry, they are mashed and fried in lard (one cup of lard to two cups of dry beans). Refritos, or refried beans, are made by warming the leftover beans in fat and adding grated cheese, onions, or tomato sauce, or all three.
Flan, the traditional Mexican dessert, is prepared in much the same way as any other custard, except for the dash of cinnamon that is so characteristic of Mexican cooking. The baking cups are prepared for the custard by putting a tablespoon of brown sugar in each cup and melting the sugar in a hot oven. When the sugar is melted, the cups are turned from side to side until the inside of each is entirely coated. The custard mixture is then poured into the baking cups, which are placed in a pan of water and baked in a 300-degree oven. This process is called “El baño de Maria” (Mary’s bath).
Fruits are abundant in Mexico and are usually served at every meal. These are prepared for beauty as well as taste, and they reflect the artistic and imaginative nature of the Mexican people.
Recipes vary widely in different sections of the country. The recipes given here reflect an American influence, for canned goods are substituted for some of the traditional ingredients prepared by the Mexican people.
2 10 1/2-ounce cans undiluted consommé
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons chili powder
1/2 ounce baking chocolate
1 teaspoon peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 cup lard or corn oil
18 tortillas (homemade or purchased)
1 1/2 cups grated cheese
1/2 cup grated onion
Combine consommé, tomato sauce, sugar, chili powder, chocolate, peanut butter, and cumin; allow sauce to simmer while tortillas are being prepared. Heat 1 cup lard or corn oil. Sauté each tortilla separately in the hot fat; do not allow tortillas to become crisp. Drain on absorbent paper. Dip each into the sauce; add one tablespoon grated cheese and 1/2 teaspoon onion. Roll the tortilla around the filling and place in a baking dish. Cover the enchiladas with more sauce and bake in a warm oven (300° F.) until thoroughly heated. Serve with shredded lettuce. Place remaining sauce on the table for those who desire it.
1 1/3 cup lard or oil
1 onion, minced
2 cups rice
3 cups meat broth
2 cups tomato juice
Heat the fat. Add the onion, and cook slightly. Add the rice and stir until each grain is coated with oil and slightly browned. Add the broth and tomato juice, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer until liquid is absorbed.
1 medium can tomatoes
1 can chili
2 cloves minced garlic
Salt to taste
Mash chilies and tomatoes. (In Mexico a pestle-like grinder is used, called a metata. This is often available at Mexican specialty stores.) Add garlic and salt and store in the refrigerator.
2 medium-sized ripe avocados
1 small onion, minced
1/2 cup salsa
Mash avocados and combine with onion and salsa. Salt to taste. Stir into a paste. This may be served as a salad, as a filling for tacos, or as a dip.