Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Around the World...Mexico

While Cinco de Mayo sounds like a big Mexican holiday, it is actually a more popular celebration in the United States. The day commemorates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. While still meaningful in Puebla, Mexico, in the US it has become a date on which Mexican heritage is celebrated. It is actually an American Civil War holiday – created by Mexicans and Latinos living in California who supported the fragile cause of defending freedom and democracy during the first years of that bloody war between the states.

History aside, it’s an excuse to drink a margarita and enjoy some Mexican food. We should never pass up on an opportunity to do that.

My family has loved Mexican food for as long as I can remember. Our kitchen was a virtual “United Nations” where we paid homage to all sorts of ethnic cultures. Mexican food was among them. An iconic Los Angeles restaurant dating back to 1927, El Cholo is, and still remains today, a family favorite. When my family was all together again this April, we made it a point to celebrate my birthday there. More recently, “Taco Tuesday” is becoming a regular thing for me and my husband at a place in Irvine that we like to visit on the way home from work. For a couple of bucks, we can fill up on tacos and call it dinner.

This Cinco de Mayo we will be making our own at home. With taco shells and some ground meat we’ll season with spices, and veggies and salsa, we’ll be all set. Though most people think of Mexican food as heavy (and it is!) because you usually think of lots of cheese (fat) and carbohydrates, it can be a healthy cuisine if you keep those to a minimum. Beans are an excellent source of fiber and meatless protein and make an idea based from which to start. Tacos, burritos, and of course, tostadas can be healthy, provided you stock up on the vegetable component and buy some decent tortillas made without lard and preservatives. See if you don’t have a tortilleria in your area where you can buy them fresh. If not, get them at your local health food store or Trader Joe’s where they carry brands you can trust.

Forget the taco seasoning packets which usually contain artificial ingredients and chemicals) and simply blend your own. You most likely have some of these in your cabinet anyway. If not, get them, if you plan to make Mexican food regularly. Dried oregano, cilantro, cumin and red pepper (chili) are the basics. I recently bought “Chili con Limon” (chili with lemon) which is fantastic on all sorts of things like vegetables, in salad dressings, and to flavor rice.

Bottled hot sauces belong in every kitchen, because you can find one that suits your particular level of hotness and add great flavor to your meals. Personally, I don’t like anything too spicy – I want to taste the food, not scorch my esophagus. I love Cholula (a red chili sauce) and any of the green jalapeno sauces which add a nice citrusy note to many Mexican dishes.

Salsa are also easily made at home with a few simple ingredients. Many store brands contain artificial ingredients and preservatives we can do without. All you need are tomatoes, red onion and /or green onion, garlic, jalapenos, fresh cilantro, and lime juice. You can easily control the level of spice by adding more, or less, jalapeno to your liking. And there’s nothing like fresh pico de gallo, just the way I like it: chunky.

Mexican food can be part of anyone’s diet as long as you keep it fresh and healthy. Grilled chicken and meats with Mexican seasonings, big veggie salads with cilantro pepita dressing, fresh seafood with fruit salsas (such as mango, papaya, pineapple) are all good. A great cookbook I once saw at a bookstore in New Mexico that I had to have is called “The Healthy Southwest Table” (see my reading list at right). Though many of the recipes have long lists of ingredients, the dishes I’ve made from it have been really wonderful: healthy, fresh and full of flavor.
Happy Cinco de Mayo!

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