In celebration of Mexican Independence Day Diez y Seis de Septiembre I am putting to good use the Mexican antojitos (appetizers) recipes I learned in a San Antonio Culinary Institute of America mini-boot camp recently.

Turns out the recipes all were developed by Iliana de la Vega, co-chef and owner of Austin's El Naranjo restaurant and a Latin cuisine specialist at the institute.

From more than a dozen recipes we covered in the class, I picked a subset to make a delicious and authentic antojito spread anchored by Baja Style Fish Tacos and Refried Bean-filled Sopes.

Rounding out the menu are Guacamole, Mexican Lime and Chia Seed Water, Fresh Tomatillo & Avocado Salsa, Stone Ground Red Salsa, Pickled Yucatecan Red Onions, and Raja Poblanas. With a "build-your-own" flair, the menu is particularly handy for pleasing different palates or accommodating special food needs while remaining true to authentic Mexican flavors.

Outfitted in white paper chef's toques and aprons emblazoned with the culinary institute's logo, my fellow boot campers and I started the day with some interesting historical culinary tidbits and an overview of the game plan from chef-instructor Brian West. Although my group was in a mini-boot camp, the usual course is two days and is geared toward home cooks.

To understand antojitos is to understand the root of the word — the verb antojarse. A hard verb to translate, it might best be described as to crave, fancy or feel like.

Antojitos are small bites or nibbles, originally Mexican street food. In early 16th-century writings, the Spaniards described antojitos they encountered in open-air Aztec markets. Street foods were not part of European custom at the time. Many of the same antojitos still are prepared today.

Walking into the culinary institute's kitchens was a bit of a thrill. After all, these are the same kitchens and professional equipment used by the students enrolled in the prestigious cooking school. After a quick but important lesson on hand-washing, we broke into groups of two or three to get to work. West mingled from group to group offering helpful tips.

To keep avocado slices from oxidizing, submerge in water or orange juice until needed.

Dry-toast spices first to add layers of flavor.

Use two spoons when tasting in the kitchen. With the first spoon, take a spoonful to sample. Pour into the second spoon used for tasting — thereby avoiding a pile of dirty spoons.

Traditional Mexican salsa is prepared in a molcajete, a large stone mortar and pestle. Stone-grinding brings out complex, earthier tones, reduces biting flavors in pungent ingredients such as garlic and adds a certain "terrior" from the stone itself. Alas, this is one tool that has not yet made it into my kitchen. A close approximation is a blender incorporating a few key techniques.

Dry-roast chiles, garlic, onion, tomatoes and tomatillos to emulate the earthy flavor. To dry-roast, heat a cast-iron frying pan or comal over medium-high heat. Place ingredients on the pan, turning until charred on all sides. For dried chiles, dry-roast first and then reconstitute in warm water. Use a blender with a "pulse" setting to prevent over-blending. Always add avocado or cilantro last and pulse sparingly. If a mixture is too thick, add water sparingly by the teaspoon to achieve desired consistency.

Chia seed is a key ingredient in the lime agua fresca. We all know chia seeds from the once-popular Chia Pets ("ch-ch-ch-chia"), but I had yet to use them in a recipe. The plant is in the mint family, originating in Mexico and Guatemala.

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, chia — whose name is derived from Nahuatl — was used in pre-Hispanic times to keep runners and travelers hydrated because the seed retains moisture, de la Vega said. Now the seeds mostly are used in drinks and ground for flour, she added.

Some of the meal components should be made ahead of time. The salsa flavors meld over time, and the pickled onions must be made at least 12 hours ahead to allow them to marinate and pick up their tell-tale pink color. I love the flavors, textures, and colors of this easy-to-make menu and can't wait to prepare it for friends and family to honor Mexico's holiday and rich, culinary traditions.

Tacos de Pescado Estilo Baja California

Baja Style Fish Tacos

1 lb. shark (dogfish) fillet or mahi mahi cut into 1-by-3-inch slices

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp. dried Mexican oregano

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

8 oz. beer

3/4 cup canola oil

16 white corn tortillas

2 cups green cabbage, finely shredded

1/2 cup Mexican crema or chipotle mayonnaise

Salsa Roja de Molcajete or Salsa Verde Cruda (recipes follow)

3 limes cut into wedges

In a large bowl combine flour, mustard, oregano, pepper and salt by hand until well incorporated. Set the bowl on a kitchen towel and slowly whisk in the beer to ensure a smooth clump-less batter. (If batter is too thick, add water by the teaspoon until desired thickness.)

Pat dry fish with paper towels. Dip fish in the beer batter.

Heat oil in a skillet set over medium heat. Fry each piece of fish until batter is golden brown on all sides. Drain on a wire grate lined with paper towels.

Have the tortillas warm and ready to assemble. Layer two tacos and place one of the fish fillets on top; add a spoonful of the crema or chipotle mayo and a spoonful of cabbage.

Serve the tacos immediately with the salsa of your choice and the lime wedges. Yield: 8 portions.

Sopes Estilo D.F.

Mexico City Style Masa Boats

1 1/2 lbs. fresh masa dough (see note)

1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 cup refried beans (see recipe)

1/2 white onion, diced

1/2 cup queso fresco, crumbled

Salsa Roja de Molcajete or Salsa Verde Cruda (see recipes)

In a medium size bowl, mix the masa with a little water if needed to make a soft – not crumbly – dough. Season with salt.

Divide the dough into 24 balls and cover with plastic wrap.

Preheat a comal or cast iron skillet over medium heat.

Make small thick tortillas in a tortilla press covered with two plastic rounds or with a rolling pin.

Start cooking the tortillas in the comal — two to three at a time. Once the first side is slightly cooked, turn it over and cook the other side slightly. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, then use your fingertips to pinch the edge to form a rim. Return the sope to the comal to cook for another couple of minutes.

Warm the refried beans.

Heat oil in a medium skillet or a wok and fry the sopes. Remove when golden brown and drain on paper towels. Spread a dollop of refried beans, add salsa of your choice, garnish with onion and cheese.

Other optional garnishes: Cebollas Encurtidas and Guacamole. Yield: 24 2-inch sopes.

Note: Fresh masa can be found at Fiesta Supermarkets or local tortillerias such as El Milagro or El Lago. Make sure it is not mixed with lard.

Frijoles Refritos

Refried Beans

1/2 cup lard or vegetable oil

4 cups cooked black beans (with some cooking liquid)

1/4 cups queso fresco, finely grated

Salt, to taste

Totopos (tortillas chips)

Heat the lard or vegetable oil in a heavy 10-to-12-inch skillet over medium-low heat.

Gradually add the beans and broth to the hot oil. Mash with a bean or potato masher and reduce the heat if necessary. Let the beans dry out slightly and continue stirring with a spatula or flat wooden spoon, scraping the sides of the skillet. Add salt, to taste.

When beans have cooked down to a paste, flip the beans to form an even log in the middle of the pan. The beans should be moist and shiny, not dry. Add more lard or vegetable oil if needed.

Slide the bean lot onto a platter and garnish with queso fresco and totopos. Yield: 3 cups.

Cebollas Encurtidas

Pickled Yucatecan Red Onions

1 lb. red onions quartered, thinly sliced lengthwise

1 1/4 cups Seville (sour) orange juice

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 habanero chile, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Salt to taste

Rinse the onion in hot water. Place the onions in a non-reactive glass jar and add the remaining ingredients.

Press the onions down to cover with the juice. Make sure onion is covered by the juice mixture.

Marinate for at least 12 hours.

Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Yield: 1 1/2 cups.

Note: As a substitute to Seville (sour) orange juice, combine 1 cup orange juice with 1/2 cup lime juice.

Salsa Roja de Molcajete

Stone Ground Red Salsa

2 jalapeño chiles

1 garlic clove, unpeeled

6 roma tomatoes

1 tsp. salt

Dry roast the chiles, garlic and tomatoes on a comal or fry pan over medium-high heat.

Remove the garlic when the papery skin begins to brown. Peel and discard skin. Keep turning the vegetables until soft and blackened on all sides. Remove from pan.

For the chiles, remove and discard stem, peel the skin and slice in half.

Remove the skin and eyes from the tomatoes.

Place the chiles and garlic in a molcajete. Add salt. Grind to make a paste with the volcanic pestle referred to as a "tejolote." Add tomatoes, one at a time, and make a smooth salsa.

Season with salt to taste.

Alternately, follow instructions for making salsa in a blender. Yield: 1 1/2 cups.

Note: Salsa will keep three days in refrigerator.

Salsa Verde Cruda Con Aguacate

Fresh Tomatillo and Avocado Salsa

2 jalapeno chiles, stems removed, sliced in half lengthwise

10 tomatillos, husks removed, washed and quartered

1 garlic clove, peeled

1/4 of a small white onion

Salt, to taste

1/2 bunch cilantro sprigs

1 small avocado

Place chiles, tomatillos, garlic and onion in a blender. Process until smooth.

Season with salt, add the cilantro and avocado and briefly blend until smooth. Yield: 1 cup.

Note: The salsa can be made up to six hours before serving. To prevent oxidation, cover the salsa with plastic wrap and press the plastic into the surface of the salsa.

Rajas Poblanas

Roasted Poblano Chile Strips

6 Poblano chiles, roasted or fried, skin removed, seeds and veins removed

2 white onions, halved and then sliced into 1/4-inch strips

1 Tbsp. canola oil

1 cup Mexican crema

1/2 cup Panela cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes

Salt, to taste

Corn tortillas

Slice the poblano chiles lengthwise into strips 1/2-inch thick.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute onion until just soft. Do not brown.

Add the chile strips (rajas) and the Mexican crema. Cook the chile mixture until heated through, about 5 minutes.

Add panela cheese cubes and season with salt.

Serve immediately with warm corn tortillas. Yield: 8 portions.

Agua Fresca de Limon con Chia

Mexican Lime and Chia Seed Water

4 Tbsp. Chia seed

4 quarts filtered water

1 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed

1 cup simple syrup (see note)

Soak the chia seed in two quarts of warm water for 30 minutes.

Add the remaining water, lime juice, and simple syrup to the soaked chia water.

Serve cold and stir vigorously before serving. Yield: 4 quarts.

Note: To make simple syrup, in a medium saucepan combine 1 cup white sugar and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Allow to cool. One cup light agave nectar can be substituted for the simple syrup.