Chef's Blog

November 7, 2018

Mexican Food Branches Out

from Chef George Sideras

Americans are beginning to discover what Mexican cooks have always known: that regional Mexican cuisine is exciting, sophisticated, and incredibly diverse, from the conchinita pibil (pit-roasted suckling pig) of the Yucatan to the machaca (sun-dried beef) of Sonora on the border.

In the past, it has not been easy to get this type of food in the United States. In fact, when I talk to my Mexican-restaurant customers and they offer to feed me lunch, I usually ask for whatever they eat in the back, for family meal.

Now, though, there is an explosion of taco trucks where you can find more authentic street tacos, as well as a number of higher-end and chef-driven restaurants where you can sample regional Mexican specialties, as well as more interpretive modern Mexican food.

Chefs like Rick Bayless and Zarela Martinez were early to the party. Bayless first introduced Chicagoans to contemporary regional Mexican cuisine more than 30 years ago with Frontera Grill, the same year that Martinez opened Zarela in New York City, with an evolving menu of regional Mexican specialties. Both of these restaurants, as well as other upscale restaurants like El Agave in San Diego and Nixta in St. Louis, are helping to familiarize diners with Mexican culinary classics like mole, tamales, chile rellenos, and ceviche.

Now more people are catching on. According to the research firm Technomic, regional Mexican signifiers like Oaxaca, Veracruz and Yucatan are showing up on menus more frequently, along with items such as mole, taquitos (“little tacos” rolled tightly around a filling, then fried until crispy), tortas (Mexican-style sandwiches), and pozole (a hearty soup made with hominy).

With seven major regions encompassing 31 states, Mexico has a wealth of culinary tradition to explore.

Oaxacan cuisine was the first to achieve UNESCO culinary heritage status, and it’s rich yet subtle, deeply flavored and bursting with fresh ingredients. Oaxaca is known as the Land of the Seven Moles, which have helped lead to its fame. These complex, long-simmered sauces are served in a variety of ways, on top of chicken, meat or enchiladas, as well as tucked inside empanadas and tamales. The most famous is Mole Negro (black mole), which takes its name in part from the chocolate that distinguishes, but there are also lesser-known moles made from herbs and greens, as well as pumpkin seeds (Mole Verde) and guajillo and ancho chiles (Mole Amarillo).

Other Oaxacan ingredients that are finding a wider audience include Huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn), epazote (an earthy-tasting herb), and quesilla (a string white cheese).

Thanks to its location along the Gulf of Mexico, Veracruz is known for its seafood; in fact, its most well-known export may be Red Snapper Veracruz Style, where the flaky white fish is blanketed in a tasty blend of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, olives and capers. If the recipe sounds Spanish in origin, that’s a reflection of the arrival of the Spaniards around 500 years. They introduced many new Spanish and Afro-Caribbean foods, including herbs and spices such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel, cilantro, saffron, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper. They also brought wheat, rice, almonds, olives and olive oil, garlic and capers.

Arroz a la tumbada (rice baked with a variety of seafood), and caldo de mariscos (seafood soup) are popular in the region. Plantains and tropical fruit are also favored.

The influence of the ancient Maya culture is most prevalent in the Yucatan. Despite its large coast, the main proteins in Yucatecan cuisine are chicken, turkey and pork. Achiote (a sweet, slightly peppery spiced made from the seed of the tropical annatto plant) and sour orange (brought by the Spanish) figure prominently in such specialties as pibil (marinated meat wrapped in banana leaves, then cooked in a barbecue pit), which was first developed as a way of preserving meat. The habanero is the region’s most ubiquitous chile, and chicharrones (deep fried pork rind) are a popular recipe ingredient.

Botanas or small street snacks include salbutes (tortillas served with turkey or chicken, avocado, lettuce and tomato) and panuchos (fried tortillas filled with black beans, and topped with shredded chicken, avocado, tomato and pickled red onions). But the new wave of Mexican food doesn’t have to be authentic to be popular. In border-town bodegas and c-stores and food stalls, “Dorilocos ” are everywhere. Taco Bell may have popularized them with its Doritos Locos menu item, but the street food version is a crazy mishmash consisting of a bag of Dorito chips topped with everything from cheese and garbanzos to jicama and even gummy candies—the more outlandish the better. This walking version of Frito pie on steroids would be great in a college food court or as a build-your-own fast casual concept.

Try This Minor’s Latin Flavor Concentrates make quick and consistent work of the labor-intensive process of sourcing and preparing chiles and other ingredients for authentic Mexican food.

• Use versatile Red Chile Adobo Flavor Concentrate as a glaze or marinade for proteins or even vegetables. For example, too cauliflower in olive oil and adobo, then roast until tender and caramelized. Deglaze the pan with red wine vinegar and add a garnish of yogurt flavored with Fire Roasted Poblano Flavor Concentrate.
• For an exciting take on tamale pie, infuse masa dough with Fire Roasted Jalapeno or Poblano Flavor Concentrate and top with carnitas.
• Add a flavor concentrate such as Ancho or Roasted Garlic to sour cream for flavor enhancement in any Mexican recipe.

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