Mexican Cooking 101
May 5th is "Cinco de Mayo", the day in 1862 when the Mexican army overcame France for a symbolic victory that eventually led to Mexico's Independence. While it has remained a relatively minor celebration south of the border, in the US, Cinco de Mayo has become a day to celebrate Mexican heritage, with everything from mariachi serenades to colorful parades.
No Mexican party would be complete without a celebration of Mexican cuisine. However, many of our perceptions of Mexican food (mine included) have been skewed by the influence of fast food business selling Doritos Gorditas and deep fried ice cream. True Mexican cuisine can more closely be likened to our understanding of Italian food -- a cuisine celebrating fresh, local ingredients, with regional diversity spanning from the coast to the mountains.
Here is my Chef's Guide to Mexican Cooking:
- Is Mexican Food Healthy?
- 5 Essential Mexican Cooking Fundamentals
- 15 Recipes for the Ultimate Mexican Fiesta - All plant-based, oil-free, gluten-free, vegan recipes
Is Mexican Food Healthy?
Absolutely! Authentic Mexican food focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Contrary to what a "Mexican" fast food might suggest, Mexican cooking has long been centered on beans, rice, corn, and fresh vegetables.
4 Healthy Reasons to Eat More Mexican
1) Naturally Plant-Based:
Cheese or dairy might be used as a garnish, but the deep-fried nachos supreme, smothered in sour cream, is an American Tex-Mex creation.
Because Mexican food uses mostly corn, rice, and beans as its main starches, most of the dishes are naturally gluten-free. Wheat is used to make flour tortillas, but those can easily be swapped out for traditional corn or even fancier brown rice tortillas.
3) Fresh and Simple:
Because Mexican food focuses on fresh ingredients, with simple preparations, means there's no need for processed foods, heavy oil, or fattening cream sauces.
Chef's Tip: If you're supplementing your Mexican fiesta with store-bought jarred salsa, pre-made spice blends, or other foods, check the label. Look for ingredients that you can recognize, and avoid any oils, refined sweeteners, and stabilizers like "guar gum" and "carrageenan". These ingredients can have off-putting textures, with a fake flavor that detracts from the fresh, healthy flavors you want.
Mexican Food is even healthy for your wallet! Beans and rice are often called "peasant food" because they are so affordable, yet so nutritious and satisfying. A pound of dried beans might cost $2. Cook them with some onion, garlic, and dried pepper, and you'll have a hearty pot of Chipotle Black Bean Soup that will feed you all week.
What are 5 Basic Mexican Ingredients?
Think about these Mexican staples:
Naturally gluten-free foods, beans, corns, and rice are the starchy base for most Mexican dishes. These healthy complex carbs are also a great source of vegetarian protein and filling fiber. They serve as filling for tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. The create creamy, satisfying soups. And nothing beats a big 'ole pot of beans and rice.
2) Salsa and Peppers
Mexican sauces or "salsas" are often centered around the vast array of chili peppers available in the country. A salsa can be as simple as pureed roasted red peppers, or as complex as a 15-ingredient, day-long mole. For somewhere in the middle, I suggest my Pasilla Pepper Sauce. You can use it as a base for experimenting with any dried peppers, like guajillo, ancho, and Santa Fe.
How Spicy Is it?
Two of my Chef's Tips to tell how spicy that pepper might be:
1. Small is Mighty Spicy
Smaller chili peppers usually pack more spicy flavor. Little ghost peppers, bird chilies, and habaneros are spicier than larger Ancho and jalapeno peppers
2. Stripes mean Spice
For fresh peppers, like jalapenos, stripes mean the pepper was on the vine longer and riper before picking. This means it had more time to really develop its spicy flavor
3) The "Trinity": Tomato, Cilantro, Lime
Think of the colors of the Mexican flag: red, white, and green. These are also the colors of the red tomatoes, white lime juice, and green cilantro that are the key flavors for Mexican cuisine. Add these three to rice, beans, or roasted corn to easily impart fresh Mexican flavor. Make a quick Pico de Gallo for a healthy, fresh topping on baked potatoes, Quinoa fiesta bowl, or Tacos.
A healthy source of plant-based fat, avocado is an easy go-to for add cool creaminess to any dish. My favorite avocado recipe is for Guaca-Jica-Bean Salad. Creamy avocado, crunchy jicama, rich black beans, and sweet corn come together in a healthy, satisfying salad. If you want something simpler, though, just dice up an avocado and serve over Tortilla Soup, make a quick Guacamole for Portobello Tacos, or spread on Rye Toast for savory snack. While some vegetarian recipes will use Queso Fresco as a cheese topping, avocado is a great dairy-free substitute.
The "bun" for most handheld Mexican foods, tortillas are traditionally made with just masa (cornmeal flour) and water. Tortillas are essential for Grilled Mushroom Tacos, Spicy Tortilla Soup, and Quinoa Enchiladas. You can use them as a gluten-free substitute in lasagna, swapping out the layers of wheat pasta for corn tortillas. My favorite go-to summer snack: Toasted Tortilla with Almond Butter, Sliced Peaches, and Nutmeg. Okay, it may not be an authentic Mexican dish, but it hits all the right spots: crunchy, creamy, sweet, and delicious.
Chef's Tip: These days, the rainbow of tortilla selection is pretty impressive -- corn, flour, whole wheat, brown rice, spinach, sprouted grains, and even blue corn. You can find good tortillas at almost any grocery these days. Just check the label. If there's more than 5 ingredients, the authenticity factor (and the flavor quality) goes down. My favorites are always El Milagro's corn tortillas.
15 Ultimate Mexican Recipes
Healthy, Plant-Based Oil-Free, Gluten-Free Recipes
For Cinco de Mayo or any Vegetarian Fiesta
More Reading and Resources for
Mexican Cooking and Cinco de Mayo Celebrations
"Ask History: Cinco de Mayo" from the History Channel: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/cinco-de-mayo
About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel, with her most recent travel involving 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile.