How to Make Anything Taste Mexican
Romulo YanesMexico City-native Roberto Santibañez grew up staring into his grandmother's mole pot, but it took an education in French cooking at Paris's Le Cordon Bleu to change the way he saw the food of his home country. Just as his French mentors taught him that the battery of French sauce-making was united by a few "mother sauces," he suddenly saw that Mexico's amazing array of salsas, adobos and moles were united by certain simple techniques that make them taste, well, Mexican.
Rather than view Mexican cuisine through its incredible diversity - from the Afro-Caribbean seafood of Veracruz to the complicated moles of Oaxaca to from the Spanish- and Dutch-inflected Mayan cuisine of the Yucatan - Santibañez aims to show readers how much the seemingly disparate food of Mexico's many regions actually has in common.
His home cook-encouraging revelation is the core of his new cookbook, Truly Mexican, which teaches fundamental Mexican flavors and techniques. And once you've learned how to roast, say, tomatoes and garlic-without oil-and toast dried chiles, you're just an easy step or two away from so many dishes that you thought you'd have to travel well south of the border to find.
Check out Santibañez's collection of recipes that each exemplify a lesson that'll guide you toward future dinners full of vivid Mexican flavors. We've also got a list of four flavor-packed pantry staples that bring Mexican flavor to whatever they touch.
Scroll down the page to see the recipes!
The Spice Rack
Dried chiles: In contrast to the lip-tingling heat of fresh chiles, these lend a complex dried-fruit flavor-that's exactly what they are, after all- and pulpy texture to sauces. Toast them briefly in a hot pan to bring out their flavor, then soak them in cold water until they're soft and blend them into the cooking liquid for your next stew or chili.
Canela (Mexican cinnamon): This is real cinnamon, not the harsh stuff that passes for cinnamon in the U.S. (and is actually cassia). Also called Ceylon cinnamon, it's subtle, sweet and very aromatic. You can find it at Mexican and some Asian markets. Substitute it for regular cinnamon in any dessert or sauce and revel in the difference.
Mexican oregano: More floral, subtle and complex than regular oregano, it provides the right flavor for Mexican salsas and sauces. But because it's so tasty, you can use it in place of regular oregano, whatever you're cooking. You'll find it at most gourmet grocery stores and Mexican markets.
Mexican chocolate: Dark unsweetened chocolate mixed with crunchy grains of sugar and Mexican cinnamon makes for an intriguing substitute for regular chocolate in any recipe. Just about every supermarket stocks the Ibarra or Abuelita brands, but it's worth looking for artisanal products like the kind made by the Taza brand.
THE KEY TO DOING IT RIGHT: Roast tomatillos in a dry pan until their tops and bottoms have blackened and they deflate like little balloons. This process turns the mild-mannered fruit's flavor into something intense, complex and syrupy with a pleasant bitterness from the char.
THE LESSON: Tomatillos and tomatoes, onions and garlic, jalapenos and habeneros all benefit from dry-roasting. So many salsas are some combination of dry-roasted ingredients chopped and mixed or blended together. So making this salsa leads you down the path of many others.
- Traditionally, tomatillos are dry-roasted on the flat pan known as a "comal," but you can achieve an equally amazing result in your oven broiler or even your toaster oven.
- Tomatillos are covered with papery husks. To prepare them for roasting, simply peel off the husk and rinse the fruit under running water, rubbing them with your hands to remove the skin's slight stickiness.
- You can make this salsa up to five days in advance. Store it covered in the refrigerator, and be sure to bring it to room temperature before serving.
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THE KEY TO DOING IT RIGHT: Too often, this ubiquitous salsa tastes like nothing more than tomatoes tossed with onions. The key is to understand the purpose of a salsa-to provide a jolt of flavor with just a tablespoon's worth. You must season it aggressively with salt, lime juice and chile, so it's almost too intense to eat by itself but just right for spooning onto a taco, sandwich or grilled steak.
- For this salsa, look for lovely, ripe tomatoes that are slightly firm. Save the softer, juicier ones for roasting.
- You can make this salsa up to a day in advance. Store it covered in the refrigerator, bring it to room temperature before serving, and spoon off any excess liquid that has accumulated.
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THE KEY TO DOING IT RIGHT: The secret to this simple but spectacular sauce is properly toasting the pumpkin seeds. In a small skillet with raised sides set over medium heat until it's hot, add the seeds and toast them, stirring and tossing them almost constantly, until they've slightly browned and some have puffed up. Once you've done this, you're just a whiz of the blender and a little simmering away from dinner.
THE LESSON: There are many pumpkin seed-based sauces in the Mexican culinary arsenal. Whether they're made with dried or fresh chiles, familiar herbs like cilantro or otherworldly herbs like epazote, many of them begin with this simple technique.
- The pumpkin seeds that Mexican cooks use are hulled and raw. They're small and pastel green, and you'll find them at many health-food and grocery stores.
- Serve this dish with warm tortillas. Making your own is fun and the result can be wonderful, but if you can't make them, see if a local restaurant will agree to sell you their homemade tortillas. If all else fails, commercial corn tortillas are just fine, especially if you heat each one for at least 30 seconds on each side in a hot pan. Keep warm tortillas in a kitchen towel-lined tortilla basket or a bowl covered with a plate.
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THE KEY TO DOING IT RIGHT: The seasonings are familiar, and the time you'll spend cooking is brief. But the simpler the dish, the more the little details matter. So be sure to massage the meat all over with the flavorful liquid, to keep a close eye on the steak to achieve the doneness you want, and to let the cooked meat rest for five minutes before you slice it.
THE LESSON: Making Mexican food is not all about obscure ingredients and hours spent toasting and roasting. You can often introduce the exciting flavors into your kitchen with just a squeeze of lime juice and a few chiles.
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THE KEY TO DOING IT RIGHT: Homemade chipotle powder turns canned beans into something special. To unlock the smoky, spicy magic of chipotles, you toast them in a dry pan without oil until they're fragrant and lightly blistered. The heat transforms their flavor and aroma from straightforward and pleasant to complex and beguiling.
THE LESSON: This method of toasting applies to the many dried chiles used by Mexican cooks-from anchos and pasillas to guajillos and mulatos. So many dishes rely on their flavor that mastering toasting prepares you to cook so many salsas, sauces and stews.
- Look for low-sodium canned beans, which give you more control over the salt level in the finished dish.
- There's nothing like toasting and grinding the chipotles yourself, but if you must use store-bought stuff, you'll still be plenty happy.
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