Thursday, April 26, 2012

Flavor of the Month: Mexico

One of the world’s cuisines that is steeped with some of the oldest culinary traditions and diverse culture is that of Mexico.  Ancient inhabitants subsisted on a diet of maiz, or corn, and beans, enhanced with ingredients that were indigenous to the New World, such as chilies, tomatoes, squashes and even chocolate.  The diverse geography of Mexico that includes mountainous terrain as well as jungles and coastlines has resulted in a woven tapestry of vast culinary heritage.  With the arrival of the Spanish, provisions such as rice, citrus fruits, nuts and spices were introduced to the Mexican kitchen.  Today the festive hues and flavorful seasonings of Mexican fare are as warm as sunny Mexico itself.

Basic ingredients that are integral in Mexican cooking consist of avacados, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, beans, tortillas, and limes.  Today’s American supermarkets now offer additional authentic Mexican produce, such as jicama, tomatatillos and various chili peppers including jalapenos, chipotles and poblanos.  Seasonings consist of such spices as different chili powders, cumin, and cayenne pepper.

In the northern border of Mexico where cattle are predominant, a meal that consists of grilled beef, cheese, beans and flour tortillas is typical.  Along the coastal regions, diners take advantage of the abundance of fish and shellfish as part of their diet.  Many of the more elaborate Mexican dishes that we enjoy today, such as chicken mole poblano, originated in central Mexico around what is now Mexico City, where trade routes once introduced the New World inhabitants to Old World ingredients. 

Next week hails Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May.  This is a day of celebration throughout the United States and in some areas of Mexico, honoring the Mexican army’s victory in defeating the French occupation in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla.  Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with Mexican fare, mariachi bands and dancing.  Let me clarify the point: it’s a welcome excuse to party and to cook some delicious dishes!

Appetizers of Mexican cooking include tortilla chips served with spicy salsas and cooling guacamole for dipping.  Nachos and quesadillas are also great starters, all enjoyed further when accompanied by that prized tequila and lime cocktail known as the margarita.  First courses on a Mexican menu include black bean soup, tortilla soup, nopale cactus salad and ceviche, a salad in which raw shrimp “cooks” in a citrus-based dressing. Some entrees are delved into family style, such as fajitas, in which the deconstructed delicacy’s components of tortillas, grilled meats, peppers, onions, cheese and sour cream are presented at the table and each diner creates their own fajitas to their liking.  Many entrees center around the stuffed tortilla; examples of this include burritos, enchiladas, tacos and chimichangas.  One of my favorite Mexican dishes is one of Brian’s successes and it is one that I have requested repeatedly over the years, the chicken flautas.  Entrees made without tortillas range from steaks and pork chops with adobo sauce to shrimp with chipotle sauce and rice with seafood to chicken mole.  Many Mexican entrees are served with simple sides of rice and beans.  Flans, fried ice cream and desserts made with Mexican chocolate, which is laced with cinnamon and sometimes almond, all provide happy endings to the Mexican feast.

Here is a recipe I came up with last year for a flavorful entrée.  It is actually two recipes in one, as you will be required to make a guacamole for this dish.  The guacamole recipe may also be made independently to enjoy with tortilla chips for a simple dip.

Pork Tenderloin with Ancho Espresso Rub and Guacamole

pork tenderloin (3 pounds)
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Combine the chili powders, salt, espresso powder, garlic powder, oregano and cayenne in a small bowl.  Thoroughly rub the mixture on all sides of the tenderloin.  Place tenderloin in a roasting pan and cover with aluminum foil.  Place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes.  Remove foil and continue to roast for another 5-10 minutes.

While the tenderloin roasts, prepare the guacamole:
4 ripe avocados, peeled, pits removed
1 tomato, coarsely chopped
½ onion, coarsely chopped
2 can diced green chilies
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lime juice

Cut two of the avocados into chunks and place into a food processor with the tomato, onion, chilies, salt and lime juice.  Process until well combined.  Transfer to a medium bowl.  Dice the remaining two avocados and then fold them into the processed mixture.

Transfer the tenderloin to a serving platter.  Slice the meat crosswise into half-inch slices, taking care not to cut all the way down to the platter.  Pull the slices apart to fan them out slightly.  Spoon the guacamole over the tenderloin.  Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.  Serves 4.

* Alternately, the pork can be grilled on the barbecue instead of roasted in the oven.

There are several quick and easy options for side dishes to round out this meal.  For a starchy accompaniment, warm some drained and rinsed canned black beans and stir in some cumin, olive oil and chopped scallions.  Alternately, if you opt to cook the pork outdoors, add some corn on the cob to the grill and season the corn with a mixture of butter, finely grated lime zest, salt and chipotle chili powder.  A nice colorful vegetable accompaniment would be a stir fry of as many different colored bell peppers as you can find, along with red onions, seasoned simply with a little chili powder.  Another sautéed combination that I like to make with Mexican food is that of yellow bell peppers and zucchini, also seasoned with chili powder.  Whatever sides you choose, embrace the excuse of Cinco de Mayo to raise your margarita glass in a toast to savor and celebrate the wonderful flavors that Mexico has brought us. Ole!

1 comment:

  1. If I could add a "bookish" comment here. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann provides a fascinating history of how many of these plants and vegetables were developed centuries ago in Mesoamerica.