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A street-food serenade to Mexico City's fresh flavors

PARIS -- A couple of months ago, I was in Mexico City for culinary school, and as part of our education about the country's cuisine, we were shuttled around the capital -- in somewhat sketchy taxis -- to some of the city's top restaurants.

At Pujol in the upscale Polanco district, I sucked chicharrones, avocado and tomato out of a glass straw, served with a shooter of liquid quesadilla with avocado foam. Later that week at Ricardo Munoz's restaurant, Azul, I tasted a rich and creamy squash blossom soup with a delicate Frenchy pastry crust.

But my favorite food in Mexico City, hands down, was from the street vendors -- near my hotel in the trendy Condesa district where I found crispy, fried quesadillas stuffed with picadillo, or in the San Juan mercado downtown, where I crunched on footlong, cigar-thin chicken flautas, covered with shredded cabbage, salsa verde and a generous squirt of crema.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd skip restaurants altogether and spend my days and nights grazing from stall to stall, street to street, and sample it all -- the blue corn bean-stuffed tlacoyos; the sandal-shaped huaraches, and shawarma-style tacos al pastor -- all served with the simplest of garnishes -- chopped onion, jalapeño, and cilantro, and a choice of freshly made salsas, red or green.

"Mexican cuisine has a reputation for being heavy, but it's not," said Pujol chef/owner Enrique Olvera. "It's very straightforward and balanced."

There's nothing fussy about it. Clean flavors and lotsa heat makes Mexican cuisine -- especially street food -- the world's latest flavor-of-the-month. Chicago's own Top Chef, Rick Bayless, just opened the newest sibling to his Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants, Xoco, which focuses primarily on street food. On a larger scale, Chipotle recently announced plans to expand into the U.K. and Europe, too. (Come on! Hurry up!)

It's also super-easy food to make at home, especially for a casual weekend party -- just lay it out, and let folks build their own tacos, or tortas, while you pour yourself another margarita.

Here's a do-ahead menu that you can make Friday for a Saturday-night party. Tortas carnitas -- Mexican-style barbecue pork sandwiches -- are a great anchor and cook up in the slow cooker while you're at work. Use precooked, peeled shrimp for the spicy Mexican shrimp cocktails and it takes less than 10 minutes to assemble.

Warm cups of corn with lime, chipotle sour cream and cilantro are my take on what you'll find everywhere in Mexico, usually served in a plastic-foam cup, but taken up a notch -- with sour cream instead of mayo, and a smoky chipotle bite. All you do is warm up the corn on the stove, and put it together. With a hand blender, and a couple of whirs, you've got jalapeño-black bean dip -- a more modern take on the old school canned dip that we used to eat with big, fat Fritos (remember those?).

Simple and quick, this little Mexican street food menu is almost as fun to put together as the party itself. If you want to sing La Cucaracha while you're in the kitchen, we won't mind at all.

Tortas carnitas with pickled red onions

The beauty of this recipe (besides its deliciousness) is that you can make this in the slow cooker a day or two ahead of your party, and then cook the pork to perfect carnita crispness the day of. I serve this on a thick piece of bread, like a baguette, which can soak up lots of the juices, along with the traditional side, pickled red onions.

Serves 8

1 recipe carnitas, recipe follows

4 baguettes

1 recipe pickled red onions, recipe follows

4 medium avocados, halved and sliced

1. Slice the baguettes lengthwise, as you would for sandwiches. Warm up the carnitas in a 350-degree oven for 10-15 minutes, or until crispy, and heap the pork onto the bread.

2. Add avocado slices and red onions, and slice to your preferred sandwich size -- this should make 2 good-size sandwiches per baguette, or 4 smaller ones.

Serve with a side of the yummy pork juice; it'll make the bread all soggy, but who cares?

Nutritional analysis per serving: 726 calories, 32 grams fat, 76 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams protein, 62 milligrams cholesterol, 698 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber, 40 percent of calories from fat.

Carnitas

This is one of my favorite recipes -- it elevates pork shoulder into something completely divine. The meat can be used in tacos, in a torta or as I also sometimes like to do, as a pizza topping (seriously!).

Serves 8

2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 3-inch chunks

1 medium white onion, chopped into big pieces

4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

1 stick cinnamon

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon Spanish paprika (see note) or chipotle powder

Sea salt

Black pepper

Water

1. Place all of the ingredients in a slow cooker, including a generous (around 2 tablespoons) bit of salt and the pepper. Stir everything together, and add water, just to cover the pork by two-thirds. Cook on low 5-6 hours. Let cool and refrigerate until ready to eat, or:

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put pork and just a tiny bit of the juice in a casserole dish, and cook for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until the pork gets crispy. Yum! (This really cooks down. I'd guess that this makes enough for 8 sandwiches, or 10-12 tacos.)

Note: You can find Spanish paprika (Santo Domingo is my absolute favorite for its unique smokiness) at www.cybercucina.com.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 266 calories, 18 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, 62 milligrams cholesterol, 79 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 61 percent of calories from fat.

Pickled red onions

Although these onions are a staple in Mexican cuisine and work well on tortas and tacos, they add great color and flavor to any sandwich -- burgers, grilled cheese, you name it -- or salad.

Makes about 2 cups

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

20 whole peppercorns

1 large red onion, sliced

1/2 cup sugar

Juice of 1 lime

Sea salt

1. Toast cumin and peppercorns on a comal or in a cast-iron skillet. Set aside. When cool, crush peppercorns with back of a knife and rough chop the cumin, too.

2. Put kettle on to boil. Pour about 2 cups of boiling water over sliced onions and sugar in a medium bowl. Let sit for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

3. Now add lime juice, cumin, peppercorns and salt, and toss. Refrigerate for at least an hour before you eat these. The onions will keep in the fridge for a week or more.

Nutritional analysis per 1/4 cup serving: 65 calories, trace fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 2 percent of calories from fat.

Mexican shrimp cocktail

When I'm in Dallas, I always order the shrimp cocktail at La Calle Doce, my neighborhood Tex-Mex place, served in a tall parfait glass and with saltine crackers on the side. Here's my take on its cocktail, spiced up with chipotle and with chunks of avocado, for added color and flavor.

Makes 4 servings

11/2 cups tomato puree

1 chipotle chile (in adobo)

2 tablespoons red onion, minced

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped

Juice of 1 lime, plus slices for garnish

Sea salt

Pepper

8 ounces cooked, shelled shrimp

1 large avocado, 1/2-inch dice

1 Roma tomato, 1/2-inch dice

1. In a medium bowl, put in everything but the shrimp, avocado, and tomato. Stir to combine. Now, gently fold in the shrimp, avocado and tomato, and refrigerate for an hour before serving.

2. Serve in small glasses with a bit of cilantro on top, along with lime slices and tortilla chips.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 195 calories, 9 grams fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams protein, 86 milligrams cholesterol, 490 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 39 percent of calories from fat.

Mexican corn

I first tasted this street food staple in Patzcuaro, during a Day of the Dead celebration. This is traditionally served with mayonnaise and a sprinkle of chili powder, but I thought that it would be fun to make this with sour cream and chipotle. Cilantro and a squeeze of lime makes this even brighter. Would be great using grilled corn.

Makes 4 servings

14 ounces corn (canned or frozen)

2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

1 recipe chipotle crème fraîche, recipe follows

Limes (for serving)

1. If using canned corn, first, drain the corn. Then, in a medium saucepan, heat the corn all the way through about 10-15 minutes.

2. In a medium bowl, mix the corn with the cilantro. Now, layer the corn halfway in the serving glasses, add a spoonful of the chipotle sour cream. Add more corn, and top with chipotle sour cream, and a sprinkle of cilantro.

3. Serve with limes. Can also be served cold or at room temperature.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 409 calories, 34 grams fat, 25 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 104 milligrams cholesterol, 101 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 70 percent of calories from fat.

Chipotle crème fraîche

Makes 2 cups

16 ounces crème fraîche or sour cream

2-3 chipotle chiles

Put chipotles in food processor and pulse a few times to chop them up. Add crème fraîche and blend.

Nutritional analysis per 2-tablespoon serving: 82 calories, 8 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 24 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 91 percent of calories from fat.

Jalapeño-black bean dip

For those who remember the cans of bean dip from the '70s, here's an updated version that you're gonna just love.

Makes 4-6 cups

4-6 cups cooked black beans

6-8 jalapeños (pickled)

1/2 teaspoon cumin

Corn oil

2 cloves garlic

Queso fresco or feta (for garnish)

Cilantro (for garnish)

1. Drain black beans in a colander. Once the liquid is gone, pour beans into a bowl, and add jalapeños and cumin and blend with a hand blender. Don't over-blend -- you want this to be a bit chunky.

2. Drizzle a bit of corn oil or lard in a skillet and add the garlic. Turn on medium-high heat. Let the garlic cook a bit, then add the beans and cook for about 3-5 minutes.

3. Serve warm with a bit of queso fresco and cilantro and a big bowl of tortilla chips.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving, based on 4-cup yield: 17 calories, trace fat, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 4 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 15 percent of calories from fat.

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