Mexico is three times the size of Texas with four times as many people, and its history, geography and cultural traditions have created food traditions as complex and multifaceted as nearly any other in the world. Luckily for those of us who share its border, many of the country's hallmark dishes have crept into our culinary consciousness. Here are a handful of traditional dishes that are easy enough to make at home, and in Thursday's Austin360, restaurant writer Mike Sutter will highlight six quintessential Mexican dishes being served in Austin restaurants.
You can't talk about Mexican food without starting with tortillas. Although tortillas made with wheat flour are more popular north of the border, corn tortillas made from masa (dough) are used in nearly every corner of Mexico. (Corn masa is also the base for dozens of other dishes including tostadas, sopes, totopos, gorditas, tlacoyos, tamales and even desserts like the gorditas de piloncillo on page D3.)
Unlike many parts of the U.S., you can buy above-average corn and flour tortillas in many grocery stores and markets in Austin, but, like bread, it's worth making your own for special occasions or if you're entertaining guests who will appreciate a freshly made tortilla. Some stores, such as Fiesta, sell prepared masa for tamales, but El Milagro, the tortilla factory at 910 E. Sixth St., sells some of the best masa ground specifically for tortillas for 55 cents a pound from 5:30 to 11 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. You can also prepare your own masa by using store-bought masa harina (one popular brand is called Maseca).
For flour tortillas, you can start with a special flour mix for tortillas that is available in many Austin grocery stores or from the recipe below. The technique for pressing and cooking both corn and flour tortillas is roughly the same.
2 cups flour (bread flour will result in a better texture)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup lard or shortening
1 cup hot water
Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Cut in the lard or shortening with a pastry cutter, a fork or your fingers until the mixture is crumbly. Slowly pour in hot water, stirring to combine. Lightly knead dough for 30 to 45 seconds, until the dough isn't as sticky, but don't let it get tough. Cover with a towel and let rest for about 30 minutes.
For both flour and corn tortillas, roll dough into golf-ball sized spheres and cover with a towel. While the balls of dough are resting, heat a comal or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. In a tortilla press or with your hands or a rolling pin, flatten one of the balls of dough until it is less than 1/8-inch thick but not so thin that you can't pick it up with your fingers. Place on the hot pan and cook on each side for 30-40 seconds. Remove when tortilla is still soft and dotted with brown spots but not smoking. Start a pile and cover with a towel to keep warm.
— Addie Broyles
Americans are fairly familiar with enchiladas, but before you crack open another can of generic "red" or "green" enchilada sauce and pour it over rolled-up tortillas lined up in a baking dish, here's a quick lesson in what makes an enchilada an enchilada.
Enchilada comes from the Spanish word enchilar, which means to surround in chiles. To chilify, if you will, a tortilla, Mexican cooks dip each tortilla in a chile sauce before filling with an innumerable array of combinations of meat, cheese and vegetables. The "tortilla enchilada" is then served right away with more sauce poured on top. Don't pull out the 9-inch-by-13-inch Pyrex baking dish unless you're serving more than two or three people and you want the enchiladas to all be hot and ready to serve at the same time.
What kind of sauce and filling is most traditional in Mexico? Ask 100 Mexican cooks and you'll get 100 different answers. Shredded chicken with a jalapeño tomatillo sauce with crema is popular, but tortillas coated in a simple guajillo chile-based red sauce and filled with queso fresco or cotija are just as well-loved.
Don't get too caught up in the filling. Use what you're in the mood for and what you have on hand: spinach and mushrooms, cheese and raw onions, shredded beef, roasted vegetables, etc. Enchiladas are meant to show off the the sauce and the tortillas as much as what's rolled up inside them.
To ensure that your tortillas don't get soggy from all that delicious sauce, fry them briefly in hot oil before coating in sauce and filling with ingredients.
1 lb. tomatillos, husks removed
3 or more serrano or jalapeño chiles
1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Tbsp. white onion, chopped
salt to taste
2 cups shredded chicken
2 roasted poblanos, cut into strips (you can also sauté raw poblanos cut into strips)
vegetable oil, for frying
12 corn tortillas
2/3 cup sour cream, thinned with a little milk
11/2 cups shredded lettuce
1/2 cup queso añejo, cotija or crumbled queso fresco
1/2 cup white onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro (optional)
In a small saucepan, place tomatoes and peppers and just enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook for about five minutes until the tomatillos have softened. Drain, but reserve cooking water.
In a blender, place the cilantro, garlic, onions, salt and about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Blend until well combined. Continue blending ingredients by adding a few tomatillos, peppers and a small amount of cooking liquid at a time. Salt to taste.
Once all the ingredients have been combined, pour the sauce in a large skillet and cook over medium-low heat until the sauce has reduced to about the consistency of tomato sauce for pasta.
To assemble the enchiladas, have filling (shredded chicken and roasted or sautéed poblano strips) and sauce already warmed and ready for use. In a small skillet over medium-hot heat, warm 1 Tbsp. of oil. Using tongs, quickly fry one tortilla for about 45 seconds. (You don't want the tortilla to become brittle, but frying lightly before dipping in sauce will prevent tortilla from getting soggy.) Remove the tortilla from the oil and dip into tomatillo sauce, coating generously. Place tortilla on a plate and fill with a small amount of chicken and poblano. Roll and either serve right away with a little sour cream, lettuce, cotija cheese, onions and cilantro, if using, or place in a baking dish. If serving all the enchiladas at once, heat oven to 300 degrees and continue assembling tortillas and filling the dish. Pour remaining sauce over tortillas and place in oven for 10 minutes to reheat. Top with garnishes and serve. Serves 6.
— Addie Broyles, adapted from 'From My Mexican Kitchen' by Diana Kennedy
Red or green isn't just a question for salsa or enchiladas. Depending on what part of Mexico you're in, the hominy-based soup called pozole can be made green, red or clear, but it always contains hominy, dried corn treated with lime that is also known as nixtamal or mote.
Traditionally, home cooks remove the pointed end or germ from each puffed-up kernel, which allows the corn to unfold like a flower when cooked into the stew. You can use canned hominy, but try to find dried hominy at a Mexican market. You'll have to soak the kernels overnight before cooking them like beans, but the kernels are much more tender and plump than what comes out of a can.
Stock and shredded meat from two whole chickens is an easy alternative to pork, and you can even use the green tomatillo sauce from the enchiladas instead of the ancho arbol purée. Only have dried chipotles, pasilla or guajillo peppers? Feel free to swap them for the anchos or arboles. You can use store-bought stock or bouillon, but the result won't be as hearty.
AMexican soup like pozole just isn't the same without a variety of garnishes added right at the very end. They add a burst of crunch and flavor to each bite, so don't think of serving pozole without them.
Red Pozole with Pork
11/2 cups dried hominy or 2 29-oz. cans hominy (about 5-6 cups)
3 lb. pork shanks or ham hocks, cut into 11/2 inch thick pieces
11/2 lb. pigs' feet
11/2 pounds bone-in pork shoulder, cut into 3 or 4 pieces
3 Tbsp. salt, divided
2 large white onions, chopped and divided
8 (about 4 oz.) dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
4 dried chiles de arbol, seeded
1 medium head garlic, cloves broken apart, peeled and chopped
3 Tbsp. dried Mexican oregano
3/4 cup cilantro, chopped
3 limes, cut into wedges
4 cups shredded cabbage
10 radishes, thinly sliced
8 corn tortillas, cut into strips and fried lightly (you could also use store-bought tostados)
If using dried hominy, soak the kernels in water overnight and boil for 2-3 hours until tender.
Place the meat in a 10-quart pot and cover with about 4 quarts water. Add 2 Tbsp. salt and half the onions and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that rises to the top, reduce heat to simmer, partially cover and boil for about two hours. Remove the meat from the broth and let cool, or, if you have time, let the stock and meat cool together for a richer flavor.
While the stock boils, rehydrate the chiles by placing them in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and let simmer for about 15-20 minutes until soft. Remove pan from stove and let cool for 30 minutes. In a food processor or blender, purée garlic with the chiles and rehydrating liquid. Reserve.
Once the meat has cooled and been removed from the stock, separate the meat from the bones and shred or chop the meat. (You should have about 2 quarts broth and about 5 cups meat.) Skim the broth to remove any unwanted ligaments or fat, add the meat back to the pot and bring to a boil. (You can roast the bones and feet to make more stock for another dish or you can just throw the excess skin, bones and feet away.)
Add the corn, chile garlic puree, remaining Tbsp. salt and oregano and simmer soup for at least 30 minutes. (Strain the purée if there are visible pieces of chile skin still present.) While the pozole is simmering, place the garnish ingredients (remaining onions, cilantro, limes, cabbage, radishes, tostada pieces) in small bowls. Serve soup in bowls and top with desired garnishes. Serves 12.
— Addie Broyles, adapted from a recipe in 'Mexico One Plate At A Time' by Rick Bayless
When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Mexico in the 1500s, they brought with them cows, cinnamon, sugar cane and a traditional egg custard that is now as beloved in Mexico as it is in Europe. Flan can be flavored with vanilla, coconut, cinnamon, mint, rum, chocolate or even coffee, and many home cooks use evaporated or condensed milk to shorten the cooking process and reduce the number of egg yolks required to thicken it.
This recipe from Diana Kennedy creates a not-so-sweet, eggy flan, so if you prefer a sweeter version, increase the sugar added to the milk by at least 1/4 cup. For a super sweet shortcut flan from Ahora Sí editor Josefina Villicaña Casati that uses sweetened condensed milk and only four eggs, go to austin360.com/relishaustin.
A few flan-making tips, no matter which recipe you use: When making the caramel, remove the melted sugar from the stove just after it has melted and has turned an amber color. Quickly coat the bottom of the pan or ramekins, because the caramel will start to harden within seconds. To test whether the flan is done, insert a knife into the custard, but not all the way through or else you'll ruin the appearance of the dish. Making the flan a day ahead and dipping the pan in warm water will make it easier to flip onto the serving dish.
Flan a la Antigua
1 cup granulated or raw sugar, divided
1 quart milk
1 vanilla bean or a 2-inch stick of cinnamon
Pinch of salt
4 whole eggs
6 egg yolks
In a small, heavy bottom saucepan, heat a half-cup sugar over medium heat and stir until the sugar has melted and starts to turn amber. Pour the caramel into small ramekins, a square baking dish or even a bread pan and turn the mold to coat the bottom and halfway up the sides. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the milk and add the remaining sugar, vanilla bean or cinnamon and salt and let it simmer briskly for about 15 minutes. The milk should be reduced by about a half-cup. Set it aside to cool. Beat the eggs and egg yolks together well. Add them to the cooled milk and stir well. Pour the mixture through a strainer into the coated mold or pan. Set the mold or pan in a water bath on the lowest shelf in the oven. Cook the flan for two hours and insert a knife to see if it is done. When flan has set, let cool completely before serving or store in the fridge overnight. Serve at room temperature. Serves 8.
— Adapted from a recipe by Diana Kennedy in 'The Cuisines of Mexico' (Harper and Row, 1972)