My love of Mexican food began with my first bite as a kid. I sampled it initially in San Diego, then on trips to Baja California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and later in Texas, where I attended college and graduate school. By the time I finished my education, our southern neighbor's cuisine had become a significant part of my culture.
I had not cooked much Mexican food because my favorite dishes were readily available in restaurants where I lived. In 1970, I moved to Hawaii and discovered that, at the time, the fiftieth state had no decent Mexican restaurants. Fortunately, my wife shared my passion, and we spent vacations during the next few years in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, collecting recipes and then experimenting in our kitchen. That process accelerated after we moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, and resulted in my first book (see the bibliography).
My interest in Mexican food increased in tandem with my understanding of the subject and its history, and I wrote three more cookbooks. I also gained an appreciation for the benefits of a healthy diet. Fortunately, I discovered that there were so many delicious Mexican recipes with wholesome nutrition profiles that there was no reason to make substitutions that altered what made them appealing in the first place. By contrast, while they are certainly good for you, many of the recipes advocated by diet books and nutritionists fall well short of what appeals to people who take delight in good food. For these people, each meal should be a celebration of life, and there are an abundance of nutritious Mexican dishes that achieve that goal. If that objective is not met, most food lovers will quickly revert to their favorite comfort foods.
There can be much more to diet than just dropping a few pounds. For some people it is a matter of life and death. Mexicans and Mexican Americans suffer inordinately from diabetes, especially Type 2 diabetes, which can sometimes be controlled by diet. Putting that together with the fact that, after a lifetime of study, I have learned a fair amount about Mexican food, I decided to work on a cookbook for diabetics. I was surprised to learn that what diabetics are supposed to eat is almost identical to what everyone should eat: a well-balanced diet that is reasonably low in calories and fat. The primary difference is that diabetics must be able to precisely control their intake of carbohydrates. With that knowledge, I decided to broaden the project from a focus on diabetes to what you will find in this book: a collection of delicious and healthy recipes from all aspects of Mexican cooking that are made with natural ingredients and authentic recipes.
Diet and Healthy Eating
The purpose of this book is to provide tasty recipes with good nutrition profiles for lovers of Mexican food. As summarized in the preface and expanded below, that goal is the result of the most important lesson I have learned during a lifetime of trying diets designed for everything from losing weight to lowering cholesterol. The secret to any such regimen is to enjoy the process so much that you do not think of it as a diet but as a part of your lifestyle that gives you pleasure. Because many, if not most of us, unconsciously use food as a reward for dealing with the stress and other unpleasant things that occur daily, diets often fail because so many "diet" foods do not supply that necessary reward, and people refuse to eat them.
So how do healthy foods become a bona fide daily reward? Some Hollywood stars have private chefs who specialize in "spa" food. They prepare dishes that have the proper nutrition profile and are so tasty that even the most demanding gourmets look forward to them. Others have their food sent to them by diet services that have learned to prepare low-calorie dishes that people enjoy. Most of us, however, do not have the money for a full-time chef or the time to prepare complicated dishes ourselves, nor is it realistic for most people to have their meals delivered to them for the rest of their lives.
The solution is to identify dishes you really enjoy that are low in calories, fat, carbohydrates, and any other personal considerations. They should also be affordable, nutritious, and reasonably easy to prepare. You don't have to crave them with the same passion as your most beloved comfort foods, but they must be good enough so that instead of feeling deprived between splurges, you look forward to each meal and are content with the reward it provides. The recipes in this book are designed to help you do just that. Food should make you happy, you should look forward to each meal, and you should enjoy eating the kinds and amounts of it that allow you to meet your goals.
It's the Calories!
Even though the science of nutrition is constantly changing, with once-forbidden foods such as eggs and coconut oil recently being given the seal of approval, virtually all nutrition experts agree that we should eat a well-balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, poultry, and fish. That diet will work every time for most people—as long as it contains the proper amount of calories and, for diabetics, the right balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
Regarding the issue of calories, carbohydrates, and fat in diet, a study published in the February 26, 2009, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (Sacks et al. 2009) followed people whose diets involved different amounts of those items. The only constant was that they all reduced their calorie intake by 750 per day. After six months, each group averaged nearly the same weight loss: thirteen pounds. After two years, each group had kept off an average of nine pounds. The conclusion was that it was the number of calories—regardless of where they came from—that was the key to weight loss.
How much we eat can be even more important than what we eat. So in addition to reducing the frequency with which they eat high-calorie foods, many people must also reduce their portion sizes. Just as they will change what they eat if they enjoy it enough, people will also reduce their portions if their meals are well prepared, made from quality ingredients, and otherwise satisfying. How important this can be and how it works is made plain by an examination of what has been called the French paradox. Research indicates that the French have just over one-third the deaths from heart disease that we do in the United States, second only to Japan. Where the paradox arises is that studies indicate that the French consume more saturated fat than Americans, and while the French have about the same rates of high blood pressure and HDL (good) cholesterol as we do, their total levels of serum cholesterol are higher and their heart disease and cancer rates are much lower (Fraser 2000).
Nutrition experts believe that smaller portions and several other factors contribute to the lower disease and obesity rates in France, in spite of the fact that the French consume more saturated fat and have higher cholesterol readings.-the very things that we have been told are killing us. Some of those healthy practices include the following:
- The French eat much smaller portions than Americans—from 30 percent to 70 percent less. This means that even if they are eating fatty or other high-calorie foods, total calories consumed may be considerably lower than in this country.
- The French consume an average of 60 percent of their daily calories by 2:00 pm versus only 40 percent in the United States. That means they get their calories when they need them, for energy during the workday, rather than just before they go to sleep.
- The French eat more slowly than Americans. Studies show that from the time we begin to eat, it takes fifteen to twenty minutes before the brain sends a signal to reduce our appetite. While many Americans complete a large meal in less than that, the French may just be finishing an appetizer, soup, or salad.
- Because of their love of fine food, the French avoid processed foods. Instead, they use the very finest ingredients they can afford to prepare their meals from scratch, which makes their smaller portions better and therefore more satisfying.
- The French do not obsess about calories, carbs, sugar, salt, and fat the way Americans do. They simply eat delicious foods made with high-quality ingredients in relatively small portions and regard their meals as an important and enjoyable part of their life and culture.
Diet Is a Numbers Game!
One vital item to remember is that eating well is a numbers game, one that can easily work to your benefit. For example, if you eat three times each day and substitute just one healthy meal for one that is less good for you each week, you will have bettered your diet by nearly 5 percent. If you do that for two full days of meals a week, you will have improved your diet by nearly 30 percent. Another example comes from a recent study. In an April 2009 article in JAMA Pediatrics, the authors concluded that reducing added sugar in the amount of one soda per day or increasing fiber intake by the equivalent of one cup of beans per day produced improvement in risk factors for Type 2 diabetes (Ventura el al. 2009). Constantly bear in mind just how important even a small change can be to your lifetime average.
Diabetes and Diet
Most people diet either to lose weight or to become healthier and more energetic. Unfortunately, increasing numbers are forced to change their eating habits because they have diabetes.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that converts sugar into energy. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas produces no insulin or not enough of it. Therefore, Type 1 diabetics have to take insulin injections. To keep their blood sugar levels as normal as possible, they must also balance their food intake with their insulin intake and expenditure of energy.
Type 2 diabetes used to develop later in life but is now affecting people at younger and younger ages. It accounts for about 90 percent of all cases. It occurs when a person becomes resistant to the effects of insulin or when the body stops producing enough of it. Many Type 2 diabetics are obese, and that is thought to be a principal cause of insulin resistance, so weight loss is a primary goal. A combination of a healthy diet and exercise allows some patients to avoid taking medication.
There is no special diet for diabetics other than the same healthy regimen that is recommended for everyone—a variety of nutritious foods. However, while the diet may be the same in terms of the type of foods consumed, the meal plan for diabetics can be quite different. "Meal Plan" refers to the amounts of specific foods, such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, that are eaten at each meal and on a daily basis. Since each person is different, there is no one meal plan that works for everyone. For example, the needs of an overweight individual are different from those of someone who is underweight. Therefore, diabetics should work closely with their physician and a registered dietitian to create the best plan for themselves.
One thing that is increasingly thought to be important for diabetics and everyone else is the type of carbohydrates they consume. Those that cause the body's blood sugar to rise most slowly are preferred. That rate of absorption is listed in what is called the glycemic index. The lower a food is on the index, the more slowly it will raise blood sugar. I had hoped to include the glycemic index for the recipes but found that there is still not enough data in the calculation program. However, lists of ingredients with their glycemic indexes are widely available, and it is a simple matter to avoid high index items in favor of lower ones.
Mexican Cooking and Nutrition
Before the Spanish conquest, Mexico's Indian tribes had what by today's standards would be considered a nutritionally excellent diet. Their staples were corn, beans, and squash, invigorated by the addition of chiles. They also consumed many other vegetables and a large number of fruits. Their animal protein came mostly from seafood and lean game animals. While they ate the right kinds of food, their main challenge was to get enough of it.
The Spanish brought cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats to Mexico. Those meats and their by-products, such as milk, cheese, eggs, and lard, added a great deal of fat to the Mexican diet. And to protect Spain's domestic growers, the Spanish government made cultivation of olive trees in Mexico illegal, causing people to use lard instead of better-for-you monounsaturated olive oil, as they did in Spain.
The Spanish also brought their recipes with them, and the two foodways merged to form a brand-new cuisine. For the most part, the Mexican ingredients and recipes prevailed as Spanish ingredients were incorporated into the Indian recipes for tacos, tamales, stews, and entrées. Corn, beans, other vegetables, and fruits remained atop the resulting food pyramid.
While a few of the new dishes were indeed laced with fat, most of them were well balanced in terms of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Just as important, most Mexican cooking was developed in rural areas, using high-quality ingredients with no chemical additives and little or no processing. That was true even in some of the cities, such as Puebla, Oaxaca, and Mexico City.
Some of Mexico's most famous dishes, including the moles, were developed in urban convents by Spanish nuns working with their Indian servants, using produce grown lovingly in their own orchards and gardens. To this day, Mexican home cooks and chefs take great pride in the quality and nutritional goodness of their ingredients. In fact, much of our organic produce now comes from farms in Baja California originally developed to support the area's burgeoning restaurant industry.
The Mystery of Corn
Because of its success as an easy-to-grow staple in Mexico, corn was exported to the far corners of the world—from the United States to Europe to Africa. But a serious problem arose: everywhere outside of Mesoamerica that people adopted corn as their staple, they became ill with a sometimes-fatal disease called pellagra. It was not until 1974 that scientists solved the mystery of why corn was unable to serve as the primary food elsewhere: when the kernels are eaten with their skins intact, the human body is unable to assimilate and process some of the essential nutrients it needs to remain healthy.
What was—and is—different in Mexico is that Mexicans consume corn primarily in the form of tortillas, tamales, and atoles (corn-based gruels). Before those items are prepared, the corn is first made into a masa (dough) called nixtamal through a process called nixtamalization. That procedure involves cooking the dried corn in an acidic solution of slaked lime (or sometimes ashes or seashells) to soften the corn so that the skins can be removed from the kernels. With the skins gone, humans are able to assimilate the essential nutrients.
Previously, scientists thought that the reason for eliminating the skins was purely culinary—in order to produce a smooth dough. Perhaps the skins were originally removed solely for that reason, and the fact that the process allowed humans to use it as a staple was nothing more than a coincidence. If so, it was one of monumental significance.
While Americans are far more knowledgeable and sophisticated about food than they were even a few years ago, some misconceptions nevertheless die hard. Among them is the notion that Mexican food is fattening or not good for you. The main reason for that has to do with our narrow exposure to our southern neighbor's cuisine.
The first large wave of Mexican immigrants to the United States came to escape the devastation of the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century. The majority arrived with little or no money and just in time to experience our Great Depression, so large numbers of them were forced to live in poverty. To feed their families, they adapted their recipes to our least expensive ingredients, and necessity often forced them to use large amounts of energy-giving lard. What was missing in the immigrants' diet were the traditional soups, entrées, seafood, fresh vegetables, and fruits that are the mainstay of interior Mexican cooking.
When those Mexican Americans opened restaurants, Anglos found their offerings to be addictively delicious. The downside was that many of the menu items relied on large quantities of cheese, fatty meats, and fried foods. And they often used partially hydrogenated lard instead of the pure lard of Mexico. That is not to say that all Mexican American recipes are unhealthy. Far from it! This book includes many highly nutritious, low-calorie dishes from the various schools of Mexican American cooking in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Nevertheless, those early views continue to be perceived as reality, doing Mexican cooking an enormous disservice.
In pre-Hispanic Mexico there was no sugar, and one of the only sweeteners came from the agave plant, in the same family from which tequila and mezcal come. The native population tapped the plant in much the same way we tap maple trees to get maple syrup. The resulting sweet liquid was called aguamiel (honey water). After it is fermented it becomes pulque, a slightly alcoholic beverage. When the aguamiel is heated, the carbohydrates convert to sugars. The reason the product is popular among health enthusiasts and diabetics is because it is much lower on the glycemic index than sugar—under 30 as opposed to over 60. (The higher an item is on the index, the faster it enters the bloodstream and the less desirable it is for diabetics.) Nevertheless, like any natural sweetener (and most other good things), it should be taken in moderation. In fact, many characterize agave nectar as being over-processed (some is and some is not) and containing as much or more fructose as high-fructose corn syrup. It is generally used in this book in very small amounts in place of sugar, honey, or other syrups.
Annato Seeds and Achiote
The deep reddish seeds of the achiote tree have been used for centuries as colorings and in makeup. Some historians believe they are the original reason for referring to Indians as redskins. More recently, they have provided the coloring for margarine and yellow cheeses. Cooks in Yucatán state use the seeds as a principal ingredient in their most popular seasoning paste, achiote. Both the seeds and the paste are readily available in Hispanic groceries, although making your own paste with the seeds is usually preferred.
Banana leaves are used to wrap foods, such as fish and tamales, before they are steamed, baked, or broiled. They impart a unique flavor, and when the steaming packets are opened at the table, they make an effective presentation. Some Hispanic markets carry the leaves fresh, but mostly they come frozen. They must be softened to make them flexible enough to wrap food without splitting. The best way to do this is to run the leaves back and forth over an open flame for a few seconds. To keep from burning yourself, I recommend using a pair of kitchen tongs or the high-temperature professional mitts used to pick up very hot items while grilling. The leaves can also be softened by steaming. They have a shiny and a dull side, and the shiny side should be the one next to the food.
I enjoy butter as much as the next person, but because it is so high in saturated fat, I try to limit its use to splurges. Fortunately, there are a number of butter substitutes that are quite tasty and much lower in calories and saturated fat than butter. Many of them also contain beneficial items, such as omega-3 fatty acids. My favorite butter substitutes to date, based on calories and taste, are the Smart Balance Buttery Spreads. To replace unsalted butter I like the low-sodium one, and instead of salted butter I use the one made with extra-virgin olive oil. Both have only 60 percent of the calories and about 28 percent of the saturated fat in butter.
Cheese was brought to Mexico by the Spanish, and like so many other foods, as soon as it arrived Mexicans began to create their own distinctive versions. A visit to any modern Mexican marketplace will confirm that the result is a dizzying number of Mexican cheeses, especially when they are multiplied by their regional variations. Fortunately for cooks in the United States, there are just a very few types needed to prepare the most popular Mexican dishes, and either they or decent substitutes are readily available in most parts of the country. The following is a short description of each one. A special note to the lactose intolerant: in almost every case you can substitute Spanish Manchego cheese for mozzarella or other melting cheeses, and Pecorino Romano will work to replace queso cotija. Although the taste is different, if you like it, goat cheese can be used in place of queso fresco.
Fresh Soft Cheeses
These cheeses are difficult to melt and are usually—but not always—used as garnishes for items like tostadas.
Queso fresco. Queso fresco is a fresh cheese that is used to garnish everything from antojitos mexicanos (literally, little Mexican whims) to soups, but it does not melt well. Probably the best substitutes are Muenster or the soaked feta mentioned below under queso panela. Because neither of those is a great stand-in, we are lucky that queso fresco is now available in most supermarkets.
Queso panela. This fresh, fairly soft cheese has a distinctive texture that the great Mexican chef Ricardo Muñoz describes as porous and spongy. It is used to garnish antojitos and is essential to the famous Tacos Potosinos. Fortunately, good versions are often available in U.S. supermarkets. Feta, which has a similar texture, is often suggested as a substitute, but I find its flavor is usually so much stronger than panela that it doesn't work. However, if you start with a very mild feta, break it into small pieces, and soak them in several changes of ice water over about 30 minutes, it will serve in a pinch.
Requesón. Requesón is fresh cheese that is similar to ricotta, a mild version of which makes a decent substitute. It is used very much like queso fresco to garnish everything from gorditas to enchiladas, but is also used in salads and to stuff peppers.
These are the melting cheeses used to make quesadillas, as a topping for enchiladas, and for dishes like chile con queso and queso fundido.
Queso asadero. This cheese is especially popular in northern Mexico. It is made partially with milk that has been allowed to become slightly sour, giving it a wonderful tart flavor. It is otherwise similar to queso Oaxaca. I have never found a good version in the United States, but queso Oaxaca or mozzarella make decent substitutes.
Queso Oaxaca or quesillo. This delicious cheese is very similar to whole-milk mozzarella and string cheese, which are excellent substitutes. It is perfect for everything from quesadillas to enchiladas.
These cheeses have a texture similar to Parmesan and are usually grated and used to garnish anything from hot tortilla chips and tacos to soups, pasta, and egg dishes.
Queso cotija and queso añejo. For all practical purposes, these cheeses are identical, although queso cotija, whose name comes from the town of Cotija de la Paz in the state of Michoacán, is the most common version in the United States. They are hard like Parmesan and slightly salty. They are sold in small blocks and finely grated, which I think is the best way to buy it. The grated version may not last as long, but what you don't need at the moment can be kept in the freezer. Although some people suggest Parmesan as a substitute, I think its flavor is too distinctive. Fortunately, cotija cheese is widely available in the Southwest and frequently in other parts of the country.
I use either homemade chicken broth or a very good packaged one that is low in sodium—70 milligrams per cup. If you use one with more sodium, be sure to decrease the recipe's salt content accordingly.
Since pre-Hispanic times, Mexico's most basic food staples—corn, beans, squash, and chiles—have been grown together in small garden plots called milpas. Besides the positive nutritional aspects of chiles, which include vitamins C and A, their main purpose is to provide spice to an otherwise bland diet. Following are brief descriptions of the chiles used in this book, all of which are reasonably easy to find.
First, I want to correct one of the greatest misconceptions in the culinary world, one that is often repeated by people who should know better—that a major part of a chile's heat is in its seeds. That misunderstanding arises from the fact that the majority of the heat is actually in the placenta, or veins, of the chile, found next to the seeds.
Many Mexican chiles come both fresh and dried, and often each version has a different name, which can lead to confusion—until you know them well, when the different names actually make the ingredients more readily identifiable.
Poblano. Probably named for the state of Puebla, poblano chiles are the large triangle-shaped ones used for stuffing and to make rajas, and wherever a mild chile with lots of flavor is desired. Because of their thick skin, they are almost always roasted and peeled before using. Poblanos are often mistakenly referred to as pasilla chiles in California.
Jalapeño. Probably the most common chile found in the United States, jalapeños are named after the city of Jalapa in Veracruz state. They are used widely in salsas and are also often pickled and stuffed. They are very similar in both heat and taste to serrano chiles.
Serrano. About the same length but much thinner than jalapeños, serrano chiles have a similar level of heat and taste, although I prefer them for the hint of citrus in their flavor.
Habanero. Only about 1 1/2 inches in length, these lantern-shaped chiles are usually a beautiful light orange when ripe. They are also the hottest of the traditional Mexican chiles and are most often used in the cooking of Yucatán state.
Anaheim. Sometimes called California chiles, anaheims are similar in appearance to green New Mexico chiles but are usually milder. Like poblanos, they are often roasted and peeled and used for stuffing and to make rajas, especially in California.
Green New Mexico. Although similar in appearance to California's Anaheim, these chiles vary in heat from fairly mild to very hot, depending on the variety. Each of them also has its own sophisticated flavor profile, which, like fine wine, depends on the soil and microclimate where it is grown. The chiles grown around Hatch, New Mexico, are generally considered the best.
Specifying the amount of dried chiles for a recipe can be difficult. The larger ones, such as the anchos, New Mexico, guajillo, and pasilla varieties, come in different sizes. We could use weight, but it also varies depending on how dry the chiles are. The best dried chiles still have enough moisture to be quite flexible but, especially in stores with little turnover, they can become brittle, and the difference in weight can be considerable. The recipes are designed for chiles of average size, something that will be quickly learned with a little experience.
Ancho. Ancho chiles are dried poblanos and may be the most popular dried chile on either side of the border. Mild and fruity, they are an important component of most moles, are used in many sauces, and are even served stuffed. While not a perfect substitute, in many situations, 1 tablespoon ancho chile powder can be used per chile. As with poblanos, ancho chiles are often called pasillas in California.
Pasilla. The pasilla chile is the dried chile chilaca. They are long, thin, and nearly black. Sometimes referred to as pasilla negra, they, like the ancho, are quite mild and, with their chocolaty flavor, are another staple of mole recipes. They are also used in many sauces and salsas.
Chipotle. Chipotle refers to a smoked and dried jalapeño. The drying process shrinks the chile enough so that the heat is concentrated in a much smaller area, making the Chipotle much hotter than a jalapeño. They are sold in two forms: dried and canned. In the latter case, they are rehydrated in a catsup-like adobo sauce. For most purposes, the canned version makes an excellent, easy-to-use substitute for the dried ones.
Guajillo. Guajillo chiles resemble dried New Mexico chiles but are smaller. Next to the ancho, they are probably the most popular dried chile in Mexico. They are fairly mild and used in many different sauces and salsas.
New Mexico dried red chiles. These are the dried version of green New Mexico chiles. They have the same sophisticated, earthy flavor and the same range of heat, from mild to very hot. There is no substitute for them in the cooking of New Mexico except that, in many cases, a high-quality pure New Mexico chile powder works well.
California dried red chiles. These are dried anaheim chiles, which are often used in California and parts of Arizona in the same way that ancho and New Mexico chiles are used in other places.
Chile de árbol. Usually about 1 1/2–3 inches in length and quite slender, these fiery chiles are used primarily to add heat to salsas and sauces.
Chile pequín. These tiny football-shaped chiles are extremely hot and are used in much the same way as the chile de árbol.
Most commercial chile powders contain other spices, such as cumin and oregano, as well as salt—sometimes a lot of it. They also almost always include ground-up seeds, which make the powder more bitter than necessary. Whenever recipes call for chile powder, that means pure chile powder, usually made from Ancho, New Mexico, or Pasilla peppers. I usually buy my Ancho chile powder from Penzey's Spices and the New Mexico powder from the Santa Fe School of Cooking. My favorite is their Authentic New Mexico Red Chile Powder with medium heat, formerly called Chimayo-style Chile Powder.
There are two types of cinnamon, and they are quite different. The most common one found in the United States is made from the bark of the cassia tree. It is dark brown and has a strong, spicy-sweet taste. The cinnamon used most often in Mexico, canela, is the true, or Ceylon, cinnamon. It is beige to light reddish brown in color, and while it is considered more aromatic than cassia bark cinnamon, its flavor is less spicy and, I believe, more subtle and sophisticated. It is definitely more appropriate for Mexican recipes.
Corn tortillas and tamales are traditionally made with nixtamal, which is prepared by boiling and soaking dried field corn with a little slaked lime to rehydrate the kernels and loosen the skins so they can be removed. Once that is done, the corn is ground into a wet dough. To make nixtamal more accessible, producers began redrying the processed kernels and grinding them into flour. The main brands are Maseca and Masa Harina. The former makes a fine grind for tortillas and general-purpose use and a coarser grind for tamales. All you need to do is add water and knead the dough. Tortillas made with the old-style nixtamal are considered superior because their texture is slightly more elastic. Some cooks at least partially solve this problem by adding about 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour per cup of corn flour.
Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides, formerly Chenopodium ambrosioides) is an herb that is found wild in most parts of the country, but many people are unaware of it. Although its flavor is difficult to describe because it does not really resemble anything else, it is strong and somewhat gaseous in a way that mysteriously enhances the equally distinctive flavors of items like huitlacoche, mushrooms, and black beans. It is used in Mexico with those foods, especially in quesadillas and tamales. If possible, use it fresh, as the dried leaves are bland and tend to fall apart.
Hoja Santa, saint's or holy leaf (Piper auritum), is used all over southern Mexico and especially in Oaxaca to flavor everything from stews to soups to tamales. It is sometimes called the root beer plant because of its flavor, which resembles licorice or anise. It is easy to grow from cuttings and makes a lovely addition to any garden or landscape. It dies off during very cold weather but comes back in the spring.
In Mexico, stews made with hominy are referred to as pozole, often spelled posole in this country, especially in New Mexico. The most popular type of hominy is cacahuacintle, a starchy corn that produces large, tender, round kernels. Pozole is almost always made by cooking the dried corn until it is tender, the same as cooking beans.
In this country most of the hominy comes already cooked in cans, and that is a problem for two reasons. First, canned hominy does not have nearly the same fine taste or al dente texture as the cooked dried hominy. Fortunately, dried hominy is readily available on the Internet, and I get mine from the Santa Fe School of Cooking (listed on the site as "posole" in the Specialty Foods section). As a lesson regarding food industry economics, bear in mind that it takes only about \1/3 cup of dried corn to make the approximately 1 1/2 cups you get in a 15 1/2-ounce can of hominy.
The other problem with canned hominy is that it contains a lot of salt, usually over 1,500 milligrams in one can. When I make it from dried hominy, I put just 1/4 teaspoon salt in the cooking water, in addition to some chopped onion, jalapeño, garlic, and oregano. It takes a good 3 hours to cook or about 5 hours in a slow cooker, and much of the added salt is discarded. You can tell when it is nearly done, as the kernels will appear about to burst, and their texture will become pleasantly al dente. For the above reasons, all nutrition calculations for hominy are based on our home-cooked recipe, Pozole Side Dish.
Sometimes spelled cuitlacoche, huitlacoche is a black mushroom-like fungus that grows on corn, often taking the place of some of the kernels, and it is considered a delicacy in Mexico. Although it is difficult to find fresh huitlacoche in this country, the Latin food company Goya, which serves nearly all Hispanic groceries and a majority of regular supermarkets, sells a canned version that is very tasty. Just ask your market to order it from them.
Jamaica is the dried flowers of the hibiscus plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa) or the drink made from them. The flowers are a deep magenta in color, and that is transferred to the tea they are made into. They are readily available in supermarkets in the Southwest and in Hispanic groceries and some health food stores in other places.
Traditionally, lard has been the most important fat in Mexican cooking, ever since the Spanish Crown banned the planting of olive trees to protect domestic growers. It is essential for an authentic taste in things like tamales and gorditas. What few people realize is that lard actually has less saturated fat than butter. That does not mean it is good to consume lard in large quantities, but for those who see no danger in the occasional pat of butter on pancakes, a few tamales should pose no problems. The main difficulty is that most of our lard is at least partially hydrogenated.
If you are unable to find fresh unhydrogenated lard at a Mexican grocery, you can easily make your own. For small quantities, cut about 1/2 cup pork fat into very small pieces, place it in a microwave-safe dish, and cover it with good-quality plastic wrap. Microwave it on High, a minute at a time, until most of the fat has rendered and what is left is beginning to turn golden, 2–3 minutes. For large quantities, put the cut.up fat in a 300˚ oven and pour off the rendered fat about every 5–10 minutes. Virgin coconut oil makes a good substitute for lard in tamales.
Mayonnaise and Miracle Whip
Mayonnaise has about 100 calories per tablespoon, while Miracle Whip comes in at only 40. And Miracle Whip has only one-third the saturated fat of mayo. While you may not like Miracle Whip as well as mayo, when they are mixed together to prepare something like Thousand Island dressing, which has a number of other spicy ingredients, using at least some Miracle Whip works well for both taste and to create a better nutrition profile. Of course, you could use the low-fat versions of both mayonnaise and Miracle Whip if you like them. To me they eliminate more taste than calories.
For reasons of both health and taste, this book often calls for olive oil. Wherever it is specified, please use extra-virgin olive oil.
In Mexican cooking, pepitas nearly always refers to the green pumpkinseeds that remain after the white hulls have been removed. They are used in stews, sauces, salsas, and as snacks. Their healthy omega-3 fatty acid content is among the highest of any vegetable source, although there is debate as to just how useful it is compared to the omega-3 from sources like salmon and tuna. For snacks and before being incorporated into other dishes, pepitas are usually toasted until they pop like popcorn, but not as violently, making them crispy, light, and more flavorful.
Piloncillo is unrefined cane sugar that comes in very hard cones. It must be grated or chopped and melted, a task that is neither easy nor fun. Instead of using piloncillo, I substitute melao, which is cane syrup that tastes as close to melted piloncillo as it needs to and is available at most Hispanic groceries.
Culinarily speaking, the word nopal refers to the paddle of the nopal cactus, genus Opuntia, often referred to as prickly pear. The word nopalitos is the diminutive form of nopal and describes the paddles after they have been sliced or chopped into little pieces. In Mexico the plant, which contains antioxidants and pectin, a soluble fiber, has been used both as food and in indigenous curing for centuries. It is thought to slow the body's absorption of carbohydrates and to lower blood glucose, and for that reason it is considered an ideal food for diabetics. In Mexico it is used to treat Type 2 diabetes. There is growing scientific evidence to support these claims and nopal's ability to lower cholesterol.
The plant can be prepared in many ways, including as a refreshing smoothie; as part of an entrée stew with seafood, poultry, or other items; as a vegetable accompaniment; and as an ingredient in salads and soup. That prickly pears are so nutritious and potentially healing is only half the story. They are also delicious when properly prepared. For those reasons and because so few people know much about them, especially regarding their preparation, this book contains several recipes.
Cooked nopalitos are available in jars or cans in most parts of the country. From the standpoint of taste, they are all right for use in salads but, like canned hominy, they have massive amounts of sodium. The one with the least salt I have found lists 1,460 milligrams of sodium for one 3/4-cup serving. To put that into perspective, the Mayo clinic reports that the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium to fewer than 2,300 milligrams a day, or 1,500 milligrams for those who are over fifty-one years old or who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.
Fresh cactus paddles, either whole or sliced, are often available in southwestern supermarkets and in Hispanic markets in other parts of the country, and some varieties have been developed that have almost no thorns. If you find one in a market, take it home and stick the base a couple of inches into a pot filled with a combination of soil and coarse sand and don't water it for two or three weeks. It should soon start sprouting new paddles, and before long you will have an impressive-looking, nutritious plant. Just keep it warm in the winter. If you do grow your own, there is a tip I was given many years ago that appears to work: pick the paddles you plan to use before they have gotten much sun and there will be less of the mucilaginous liquid.
But be aware that not all nopales are tender enough to be palatable. If you live in a part of the country where they grow wild, do take the time to study those sold for consumption before picking your own. You will find that the best ones, bred for eating, have paddles that are usually no more than 8 inches long and 4 inches wide. More important, the best ones will be less than 1/4-inch thick.
Whether you use cactus from your garden or from a store, you must first slice off the tough outer perimeter, about 1/8 inch around the entire circumference. This is fairly easy if there are no spines. If there are, you must use a combination of kitchen tongs and gloves to keep from being punctured. You must then remove the spines and nodes they grow from with the end of a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Do leave the rest of the green outer skin intact. In many parts of the country you will be able to buy the cactus already processed to this point, either whole or chopped into nopalitos, and they are certainly worth the small extra cost.
Like okra, cactus paddles contain an unpleasant viscous liquid. Water absorbed by the cactus is converted to this substance because it retards evaporation and helps the plant live in desert conditions. While some people do not find this substance offensive, most do. Fortunately, if cooked properly, nearly all of it can be eliminated. The best way I have found to cook nopalitos for use in stews and side dishes is the one advocated by both Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless. The nopalitos are fried, often with some onions in a little oil in a covered pot for about five minutes. When the lid is removed you will see that they have released much of the unpleasant substance. To get rid of it, turn the heat to medium-high and continue cooking, uncovered and stirring frequently, until the liquid has evaporated.
To prepare nopalitos for salads, most people simmer them in water for 10 minutes or so and then drain, rinse, and chill them. This removes most, but not all, of the mucus-like liquid. I also did that until I spoke at a Culinary Institute of America workshop, where another presenter, Enrique Olvera, chef and owner of Mexico City's Pujol Restaurant, described a much better and simpler solution. You toss the chopped cactus with salt, leave it in a strainer to drain for about 15 minutes, rinse off the salt, and chill it in ice water. No cooking! I find that the process does leave some of the liquid in the cactus, but the taste is so much fresher that it doesn't matter, at least to me.
There is a similar solution for whole charbroiled nopales, a staple with barbacoa and grilled foods in Mexico. You first slice the paddle lengthwise, about every inch, from the rounded top to within about 2 inches of the base. You then have two choices: you can brush the paddles with oil and grill them until tender, or you can salt them for 15 minutes, rinse off the salt, and then oil and grill them. The former leaves a fair amount of the viscous liquid, while the later removes nearly all of it and produces a delicious result.
When you use nopalitos in smoothies you do not need to do anything but thoroughly rinse the pieces before adding them to the blender.
Sour cream is used in many recipes, sometimes as a substitute for high-calorie crema mexicana, Mexico's answer to crème fraîche. Tofutti is a great substitute for the lactose intolerant.
A few of the alta cocina (upscale cooking) recipes are flavored with a small amount of truffle oil. Truffles are hideously expensive, but, fortunately, a reasonable facsimile of their flavor is available in the form of white truffle oil. Good-quality oil can be found in 3.5-ounce bottles for $18–$30. That may still seem expensive, but a teaspoon or two goes a very long way. After opening the bottle, keep it refrigerated to extend its life.
Most of the recipes call for rice vinegar because it better mimics the milder vinegars often found in Mexico.
There are some techniques that are particular to Mexican cooking and are used often. Examples include rehydrating dried chiles, roasting and peeling fresh ones, and softening corn tortillas in a little oil so they can be used to make things like enchiladas without cracking or becoming soggy. Rather than repeating the instructions in each recipe, they are included below.
Toasting Dried Chiles
Dried chiles are toasted to boost their flavor. The simple process also temporarily softens dried chiles, making them easier to work with.
Heat a skillet over medium heat, place a chile in it, and lightly press the chile into the pan's surface with a spatula. The chile is properly toasted when it just begins to darken and gives off a pleasant roasted aroma, about 15–30 seconds on each side. Thin-skinned chiles such as Guajillos require less time than those with thicker skins, like Anchos. It is important not to scorch the chiles, so it is better to err on the side of undertoasting.
Rehydrating Fresh Chiles
To use dried chiles in sauces and salsas they must first be rehydrated, which is done after toasting them. Remove the stems and seeds, tear the chiles into small pieces, and place them in a bowl. A blender jar also works well, especially if you intend to blend the chiles after rehydrating them. Cover the chiles with hot tap water and leave them for 20–30 minutes.
Roasting and Peeling Fresh Chiles
Some thick-skinned fresh chiles, such as Poblanos and Anaheims, need to have their skins removed to prevent them from ruining a dish's texture. This is especially important when making things like chiles rellenos, rajas, and soups.
The skins must first be blistered. My favorite way is to place them on the grill over a newly lighted mesquite wood fire, which, besides charring the skins, gives them a terrific smoked flavor. You can also place the chiles directly on a lighted gas burner and turn them periodically until the entire exterior is blackened. To make them easier to balance, put a very small barbecue grill directly onto the burner. If you do not have a gas stove you can use a butane torch for small quantities. Simply place the chiles on an outdoor barbecue grill and singe them with the torch until they are blackened. Both these methods will yield chiles that are not so overcooked that they lose their firmness.
If firmness and texture are not important you can put the chiles in a toaster oven and char them with the toast function, turning them as they blister until they are done. It will take longer, and the chiles will be much less firm. This method works well for rajas and soups, where firmness is not important.
Although not technically roasting, the chiles can also be placed in a deep fryer at about 350˚F and fried until the skins are opaque.
Whatever method you choose, once the skins are blistered, place the chiles in a plastic bag for about 20 minutes to sweat, which will make the skins much easier to remove.
"Softening" Corn Tortillas
For Soft Tacos and the Like
Unless they are freshly made, corn tortillas, especially the ones sold in most U.S. supermarkets, become a bit hard and will crack if you try to fold or roll them. In order to make soft tacos or to get flautas ready to fry, the tortillas must first be made pliable. This is done by heating them on a griddle or skillet or wrapping them in a kitchen towel and microwaving them until they are soft and flexible. If you want a toasty texture, use the former. If your tortillas are quite dry, dampen a paper towel with cold water and squeeze as much moisture as possible out of it. Wrap the paper towel around the tortillas to be softened and then either wrap a kitchen towel around the paper towel or put the paper towel–wrapped tortillas in a microwave-safe tortilla warmer. Microwave on High until the tortillas are very flexible and slightly rehydrated, 25–40 seconds.
When making enchiladas, the tortillas must not only be softened, they must also be moisture resistant to keep them from becoming soggy. Traditionally, tortillas are immersed in very hot oil for a few seconds then drained on paper towels. The much easier and lower-calorie way to do this is to spray both sides of each tortilla with a little oil, wrap a stack of them in a towel or put them in a microwave-safe tortilla warmer, and heat them in a microwave until they are flexible, 25–40 seconds.
In Mexican cooking, tomatoes are often roasted, which cooks them and creates a very special flavor. This is traditionally done on iron comales or in skillets, which involves cooking the tomatoes over medium heat and turning them frequently until they are cooked through and blackened on the outside. I have found it much easier to put the tomatoes in a baking dish or cast iron skillet and place it as close under a broiler as possible. Starting with a cold oven, the process usually takes 15–25 minutes, and you do not have to turn them.
Besides the items that any well-equipped kitchen should have, , there are several items that pertain to either Mexican food or diet that you will find useful.
There are many items that do not lend themselves to volume measurement, such as sliced onions, meat, fish, and whole potatoes, and errors can adversely affect both recipes and diet. For example, even lean beef will have about 40 calories per ounce, so an error of just 2 ounces can mean 80 calories. Make that kind of error just once a day and in a year you are off 29,200 calories, enough to gain or lose about seven pounds. With a measuring cup, a lot of guesswork is required, but with an electric food scale there is none at all. Fortunately, there are now many models on the market that perform well, priced from $30 to $60.
Serious cooks find these devices invaluable. All you do is point them at a dark surface like that of a skillet, with or without oil, or at something like melting chocolate, and the temperature is immediately visible in the viewfinder. I find them especially useful for making sure my skillet is the right temperature for making tortillas and to judge the exact time to begin frying things like flautas in small amounts of oil. The best ones display temperatures from well below 0˚F up to 900˚F and can be purchased for $80 to $100.
Just about every kitchen has a blender. The reason I mention it here is that most cooks use ordinary household models. One of the most important tasks in Mexican cooking is puréeing chiles and other foods, such as nuts. Ordinary blenders often leave bits of chile skin, stray seeds, and other items not completely puréed, even after 2–3 minutes. That means you have to put the sauce through a strainer to eliminate them, which is both tedious and messy. And in my experience, most ordinary blenders last but a few years. On the other hand, a commercial-grade blender, such as a Vitamix, will do the job perfectly in less than a minute. They are pricey, but if you shop around (the big box stores often stock and feature them) you can find a good one for under $400. They are so well made that you may never have to buy another one, and they pay you back every time they make your cooking better and easier.
The price of food processors has come so far down that every kitchen should have one. Nothing beats them for grating large amounts of cheese, cutting vegetables in ways that do not demand precision, mixing dough to make flour tortillas and breads, blending salsas where you want some texture, and shredding cooked meat for Mexican fillings, which is easily done with the dough blade.
Before the blender and food processor, this ancient stone implement was used to make salsas and to grind spices in Mexico. They are still used, even in Mexican restaurant kitchens, when chefs want their salsas to have just the right texture. Made of volcanic rock, new ones need to be smoothed and cleaned. The best way to do that is to grind several handfuls of rice, washing and rinsing the Molcajete between grindings. A Japanese mortar and pestle with a rough surface is a decent substitute.
If you do not choose to buy a commercial-grade blender, you will probably need either a strainer or a food mill. The latter implement, which comes with several blades with different-sized perforations, is perfect for straining out the last bits of seeds and chile skins from blended sauces and is easier to use than a strainer.
Spice or Coffee Grinder
These are relatively cheap and essential for things like powdering annatto seeds to make achiote and grinding spices such as whole cumin.
Ridged Grill Pan
Most people, especially in areas with cold winters, cannot just step outside and fire up a grill whenever they want to. A good substitute, albeit one that does not impart quite as much smoky flavor as even a gas grill, is an iron skillet with ridges on the bottom. Do not get a lightweight one or one with a nonstick surface, as they do not last at the 500˚–600˚F heat that you need to mimic the real thing.
Recipes such as the Imperial Valley Carne Asada (page 000) call for physically tenderizing meat. That can be done by repeatedly stabbing the meat with a fork. A much better option is one of the spring-loaded devices that plunge rows of narrow, razor-sharp blades into the meat. Jaccard makes at least two models.
Introduction to the Recipes
This book includes the recipes I have collected and used over many years for weight control, health, and—just as important—enjoyment. They come from all branches of Mexican cooking—from the simplest antojitos mexicanos (corn and tortilla-based items, such as tacos, enchiladas, and tamales, that in Mexico are often viewed as appetizers or snack foods, but in the United States are often equated with Mexican food itself), to the traditional stews, moles, and entrées. And there are dishes from Mexico's exciting new brand of upscale cooking alta cocina mexicana. The latter combines Mexican ingredients and techniques in new ways to create exciting tastes with great eye appeal while retaining the soul-nourishing comfort for which Mexican food is famous.
Although all the recipes are comparatively low in calories, taste and nutritional benefits are equally important priorities. My core assumption is that most people will not make a healthy diet a lifelong endeavor unless they truly enjoy it, and that there are enough naturally good-for-you and delicious Mexican recipes to eliminate the necessity of using any that are not.
As noted in the section on diet and healthy eating, studies have shown that Americans eat portions that are far larger than those eaten by people in other economically advanced countries, such as France and Japan, and that portion size is a major cause of our high levels of obesity. Research also indicates that when we eat delicious food made from quality ingredients with minimal processing, we are satisfied with much smaller portions. For those reasons, my recipe portions are on the moderate side.
You will see that with each recipe we have included the type of nutrition analysis you now find on packaged foods. The analysis is for one serving. The values are reasonably accurate for most purposes. However, for several reasons, it is difficult to be precise. For example, part of the salt in a can of beans is in the liquid. If you discard the liquid, how much sodium is left in the beans? Several manufacturers reported that they do not have that information.
A similar situation involves marinades. Much of the fat, salt, and other ingredients in a marinade are discarded, but just as obviously, some remain on the meat. Whenever possible I measured the amount of marinade when it was made then measured the amount discarded and assumed the difference remained in the dish. I believe this has produced a reasonable estimate, but one that is not precise. Thus, for those of you for whom the content of one ingredient or another is of critical importance, the calculations in some instances may not be accurate enough for your purposes. In that case, you need to make your own determinations.
Fat, Sodium, and Calorie Content
You will find that many of the recipes have more than the 30 percent fat from calories often used as a guideline. There are two reasons for that. First, fat is very important in terms of taste and mouth-feel, which together create much of the pleasure related to eating. This, in turn, means that we will be more inclined to make the dish a permanent part of our diets. Second, recent studies indicate that overeating carbohydrates may cause more cardiac problems than eating too much fat, even saturated fat.
Like nearly everything else, the key words are "overeating" and "too much," for it is becoming clear that moderate portions of well-balanced meals are far more healthful than large portions of some low-fat items. And you will discover that in most cases where fat exceeds 30 percent of calories, it comes from healthy extra-virgin olive oil. In any case, if fat is a serious consideration, an alternative to not trying a particular recipe is to minimize your fat intake at other meals or, of course, to use less than is specified.
The following table compares the nutritional content of 1 tablespoon of various fats. It is interesting that lard, which is often thought to be the worst of the bunch, actually has less saturated fat and cholesterol than butter. (Note: The Smart Balance numbers are for Smart Balance made with extra-virgin olive oil.)
It is the same for salt. My use of salt in recipes tends to be on the moderate side, but there are some foods that, for most people, just need more salt than others, such as salsas. In those situations I either limit the portions or make up for the excessive sodium by minimizing it elsewhere in my diet. Of course, you can simply use less salt than specified.
Most of the recipes have under 450 calories. I included the few that have more than that because they are especially delicious or their ingredients are particularly healthy. Since there are many very low-calorie items, it is easy to combine them with the few that are higher to get a satisfactory average.
Authenticity and Source
Some may ask if these recipes are authentic. In previous books my goal was to chronicle recipes from various aspects of Mexican cooking. In doing so, I tried to prepare them in the original manner with the original ingredients whenever possible. In this book, the objective is to provide delicious Mexican recipes to help people live healthier lives. My experience is that many people either do not like to cook as much as I do or they lack the time. Therefore, to make the book useful to the widest possible audience, in some recipes I use shortcuts. At the same time, I have been careful to advocate nothing that would materially alter the authentic flavor of a recipe.
Readers often wonder where the recipes come from. I have sampled virtually all of them in restaurants, food stalls, or private homes during the last forty years. When I decide to work on a recipe, I first find as many versions of it as I can in my library of over 300 Spanish-language Mexican cookbooks, paying special attention to the descriptions, ingredients, and preparation instructions. I then make the dish, guided by both my memory and the reference material. Once I get it to the point that it has the right taste and nutrition profile, I prepare a final draft. Whenever feasible, I list the primary sources used to adapt the recipe. A very few recipes were created entirely by me, usually for restaurant clients.
Suggestions on Using the Recipes
Here are some of the ways I have learned to use the recipes in this book to produce meals that are both easy and healthy.
As mentioned in the introduction to antojitos mexicanos, to have anything from snacks to entire meals available in just minutes, all you need to do is make one or more of the fillings and salsas. Have some tortillas and, ideally, some ripe avocados and, possibly, some rice and beans on hand. Careful use of a microwave will enable you to produce anything from a taco to several entrées within 5 minutes.
Many of the recipes, including the soups and stews, and even some of the broiled meats and poultry, can be prepared in advance and reheated later. Since most of the recipes are designed to serve four, if you are serving two, one recipe will yield two extra meals. And since most of the recipes can be doubled if you have a large enough pot, you can make enough to refrigerate or freeze for future meals. Think how much better you will eat in terms of both taste and nutrition than if you bought frozen dinners.
One of the best ways to entertain is a parillada, which is a mixed-grill cookout party that is especially popular in northern Mexico. Prepare at least two salsas and heat some tortillas, beans, and/or rice. Just before your guests arrive, make some guacamole and have some items such as beef, pork, chicken, and shrimp ready to grill. You can also have a vegetarian parillada, where you grill things like portobello mushrooms, eggplant, squash, onions, and corn. Grill the foods you choose and serve them piled on a large platter for your guests to help themselves, accompanied by the tortillas, salsas, guacamole, beans, and rice. Grilled mangoes make a particularly delicious and festive dessert.