the appetizer

Mexican cuisine combines the traditional indigenous foods of the Aztecs and Mayas, like chocolate, corn, tomato, avocado, beans and chile peppers, with the meats, rice and garlic brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores.

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Mexican Food  


What to Eat

Reed Hearon examines the spices, herbs, leaves and other indigenous foods that make up the typical Mexican diet. Not just for cooks looking to recreate the authentic flavors, it is also a good guide for travelers as they eat their way from region to region...


Grilling The Mexican Way: Ingredients

By Reed Hearon

Achiote Paste

This moist, brick-colored seasoning paste is available in most Mexican and Latin American food markets. It is blend of the iodiney seeds of the annatto tree, citrus juices, vinegar plus other spices. The flavor will vary with brand and freshness, so be sure to taste it before using. It keeps almost indefinitely, tightly covered, at room temperature.

Ancho Chile Powder

Made from ground ancho chiles, the powder can be found in most good Mexican groceries. To make your own, fry ancho chiles in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium-high heat until puffed and browned, 5 to 10 seconds. Drain well on paper towels. Grind into a powder in a blender or food processor.

Annatto Seeds

These are the hard red seeds of the annatto tree, native to the tropics. They are softened by soaking in hot water for 2 hours before grinding for use . Annatto seeds tint foods a bright yellow and are familiar to you as the dye used to color Cheddar cheese orange and butter yellow.

Avocado Leaves

The heady anise aroma that characterizes much of Oaxacan cookery comes from the avocado leaf. At Cafe Marimba, we use the particularly pungent variety grown in Southern Mexico. The dried leaves can be purchased in Mexico or through my restaurant, Cafe Marimba (see Sources). The leaves often have galls on the undersides; these have a concentrated flavor and are edible. To prepare the leaves, toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat (or, using tongs, hold them over an open flame) until browned and fragrant, about 10 seconds. Then grind, if the recipe calls for grinding. Toast only as many leaves as you will use at one time.

Banana Leaves

One of the first cooking vessels available to man was the leaf. Foods wrapped and cooked in banana leaves pick up the oily, anise-like aroma characteristic of bananas. Toasting them briefly over an open flame releases their fragrance. The leaves are about 16 inches wide and 4 to 5 feet long. They are available, packed in plastic pouches, in the frozen-food sections of some Asian, Latin American, and Mexican markets.


More than thirty different varieties of chiles have been identified, with literally hundreds of subtypes. Chiles, like wine grapes, reflect the soil, climate, and growing conditions where they were cultivated. Connoisseurs will pay high prices for chiles grown in certain regions or dried under special conditions. As you familiarize yourself with chiles, you will come to understand why. Each chile brings much more than heat to a dish. Smoky, sweet, sharp, astringent-every variety has a unique flavor. The most important things to know are whether the chile is fresh or dried and how hot it is. When using the recipes in this book, avoid trying to modulate heat by varying the quantity of a particular chile. Heat is merely one of many flavor components. Varying the amount of a given chile in a dish may throw it out of balance. If you don't like hot food, don't use less of a chile; instead make a dish that uses a different chile. Below, I have described briefly the chiles I believe most essential. Later on, I have listed some mail-order suppliers.


Fresh Chiles

Anaheim This long, green chile is the most widely grown mild chile. Pale green and 5 to 7 inches long, it can be a bit anemic in flavor, but is much improved by roasting, particularly over a wood fire.

Habanero This small, round chile is purported to be the hottest in the world. It is a different species than all other chiles commonly eaten in this country. Aside from its remarkable heat, it has an elusive floral-citrusy flavor that makes it highly prized as a component to many salsas. This chile is still rare in the United States. If you see it, buy some and see what all the fuss is about. It is available in green, yellow, and orange, reflecting different degrees of ripeness.

jalapeño This is probably the most familiar and popular hot chile. Ranging from two to three inches in length, with a fat shape and dark, shiny green skin, the fresh jalapeño can be eaten raw or roasted. It is also widely available pickled (look for the brands packed in Mexico). A variety of jalapeño, the chipotle, is dried by slowly smoking it over peat. It adds a wonderful smoky savor to soups and salsas. When using jalapeños, check to see whether the recipe calls for seeds. The seeds themselves have a distinct, sharp flavor that is vital to some dishes.

New Mexico The king of the U.S. canning industry, this long, green chile can vary from insipid to intensely flavored and fire-hot, depending on where it is grown. The best come from around Chimayo, but are unavailable outside of the immediate area. If you see these chiles fresh in the store, buy some, roast them over a mesquite fire, and enjoy a taste of New Mexico.

Poblano This is the preferred chile of chiles rellenos-big (about 5 inches long) and heart-shaped, dark green, meaty, and mildly spicy. Poblanos are wonderful roasted and, if you are careful and do not overly blacken the skin, you do not have to peel them. Just pull off the stem, and with it will come the seed core. Milder Anaheims are the best substitute. The poblano, especially in California, is often incorrectly labeled a pasilla chile. Ancho chiles are dried poblanos.

Serrano This small, light-green chile is skinny and pointed, about 2 inches long. It has a bright, clean heat and flavor, and can be significantly hotter than the jalapeño. Always use the seeds. They are vital to the serrano's flavor.


Dried Chiles

Ancho The ancho is the dried version of the red, ripe poblano, and is perhaps the most widely used dried chile in Mexico. About 5 inches long, reddish-brown, and very wrinkled, it has a mildly spicy, sweet, plummy, raisiny flavor that is delicious in a wide range of salsas, recados, and moles. Look for soft, flexible chiles that smell fresh, not musty.

Arbol Usually the dried version of the ripe serrano, the skinny, reddish-brown chile de arbol varies from 1 to 3 inches long. It is hot but also has a pleasant nutty, rich flavor when toasted. Often toasted and used whole in soups or stews, when crushed or ground these chiles can pack a real wallop. These are widely available and often sold whole as "red chiles."

Chipotle This is the dried, ripe version of a particular type of jalapeño and one of my favorite chiles. It is slowly cured over peat fires, giving it a smoky, rich flavor. Ranging from 3 to 4 inches long and dusty brown, chipotles are perhaps better known in the canned condiment, chipotle en adobo (chiles simmered in adobo sauce).This is very hot! Those who can stand the heat will appreciate the wonderful rich flavor. Seek out the dried chipotle in Mexican and Latin American markets or through mail order.

Guajillo This is the dried version of the Mexican (unhybridized) version of the New Mexico-type red chile. It is about inches long, reddish-brown, and smooth-skinned. Its medium heat and nutty flavor make it a versatile chile for salsas a moles. Use it in conjunction with chipotles or moritas for a complex layering of flavor and heat.

Morita This chile is like the smaller brother of the chipotle. It, too, is a smoked, dried chile made from a small jalapeño grown in the state of Michoacan. It is very hot, but not as hot as the chipotle and, also like the chipotle, is often sold canned as chipotle en adobo. It is a small chile, about 1-1/2 inches long and reddish. It is widely used in Veracruz.

Pasilla This is a blackish chile, 5 to 8 inches long with a deep cocoalike flavor. Unfortunately, the name pasilla is used in parts of the United States to refer not to a dried chile but instead to the fresh poblano.


Dried Mexican Oregano

Mexican oregano has a flavor distinct from Greek oregano. Greek oregano tastes like pizza, while Mexican oregano tastes like Mexican food. Do not substitute one for the other. It is easily found in Mexican and Latin American markets. Mexican oregano develops its full flavor when toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant.


On its own, epazote, a deep green herb with serrated leaves, has a strange medicinal smell, almost like kerosene. It is essential in a wide range of dishes, including a large number of Veracruz specialties, as well as black beans. The herb should always be used fresh. The flavor of the dried version bears no resemblance to the fresh. Epazote is becoming more widely available, especially in Southern California and Texas. See Sources for mail-order plant suppliers.

Hierba santa/Hoja santa

Hierba means "herb" and hoja means "leaf." This large, heart-shaped leaf adds an incomparable exotic aroma hinting of anise, camphor, or even sassafras to Oaxacan and Veracruzano dishes. It is becoming more widely available in the United States but is still difficult to find. It is best when fresh, but the dried herb makes a good substitute. Refresh the dried herb before using by soaking in warm water a few minutes. Squeeze out excess water before proceeding with the recipe. See Sources for mail-order suppliers.


The flat, dark-green "leaf" or paddle of the nopal cactus, also known as the prickly pear cactus, is widely eaten in Mexico. It has a pleasant, sappy, almost green-bean flavor. The only problem is that the nopal comes with small needles that will stick in your hands as you clean the leaves. In Mexico, seemingly every market sells neat little bags of already cleaned, whole nopal paddles. Unfortunately, here you must usually clean them yourself. But don't fear. Put on an old pair of gardening gloves take a small paring knife, and cut off each of the little bumps that contain the needles. Fresh, whole nopales are fairly widely available in supermarkets throughout the Southwest.

Olive Oil

When I call for olive oil in Mexican cooking, I am not thinking of the finely flavored extra-virgin olive oils of Italy or France, but of the lighter-tasting, more neutral pure oils. Their more delicate flavor harmonizes better with Mexican fare.

Pineapple Vinegar

Mexico grows incredible amounts of pineapple, so it is readily available for making vinegar stock. Pineapple vinegar is used frequently in Mexican cooking, but, to my knowledge, it is not available in the United States. A good substitute is apple cider vinegar. You might experiment with making your own pineapple vinegar by combining 1 cup fresh pineapple purée, a pinch of ground allspice, 1 tablespoon brown sugar or Mexican sugar (unrefined dark brown sugar sold in cone-shaped molds), and 6 cups white wine vinegar (6 percent acidity) in a large nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer, turn off the heat, and let steep overnight . Strain into a clean glass jar with a nonmetallic lid and store at room temperature. This makes about 6 cups.

Pork Lard

The best pork lard has a browned pork flavor. The lard that is commercially available in supermarkets is so refined it has little flavor left. Seek out freshly rendered pork lard in Mexican and Chinese markets. Or flavor packaged pork lard by adding a few tablespoons bacon drippings. You can also substitute olive oil, but you will lose the authentic flavor.

Queso Fresco

Queso fresco is about as simple as cheese can get: the strained, salted curds of cow's milk. It is a fresh cheese with a bit of a tang. I find it is similar to feta, although good-quality fetas, being made from sheep's milk, have a different flavor. Finding a proper substitute depends on its use in the recipe. Look for queso fresco in Mexican groceries.


The citric, sweet-sour flavor of tamarind goes well with chiles. Tamarind, a seedpod native to Asia but widely grown in Mexico, is used most often in beverages. It is one of the flavorings in cola drinks, as well as in Worcestershire sauce. Only the pulp that clings to the seeds under the brittle pod is commonly used. Pods and prepared pulp are easily found in Latin American and Asian groceries. When you make the pulp yourself, it tastes much fresher than the prepared kind. To make fresh tamarind pulp, put 2-1/2 cups shelled tamarind pods in a small saucepan and add just enough water to cover. Cover with a lid bring to a boil over medium heat, and simmer gently until the pulp loosens and falls off the seeds, about 30 minutes. Stir frequently to speed the process. Add more water if the mixture becomes too thick. Strain through a medium sieve, pushing hard with the back of a spoon to extract as much paste as possible. You should have about 1-1/2 cups. If not, add a little more water bring back to a boil, and strain again to remove more pulp.

La Parilla: The Mexican Grill
By Reed Hearon
Photographs by Laurie Smith
Chronicle Books, 1996
Price: $19.95, paper
ISBN: 0-8118-1034-8
Reprinted by permission


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This page modified January 2007