Hot tips: a Mexican cooking primer

Mexican food has become so popular in the United States that most people have probably become acquainted with some of the terms -- if only in fast-food restaurants. For those who want to try their hand at Mexican cuisine, here are some cooking tips and an explanation of a few of the basic dishes from A'ida Gabilondo. Dairy products. In many recipes, Mrs. Gabilondo recommends using evaporated milk. Canned milk became widely used in remote Mexican sites lacking refrigeration. Even today in urban Mexico, dairy products are often in short supply, making it necessary to shop by 11:00 a.m. for fresh cream or milk. And evaporated milk, in dishes using zucchini, does not curdle the way fresh milk products would.

Tacos. Used in an evening meal, maybe once a week in Mexico, with leftover roast or chicken -- and never with hamburger. Corn tortillas are deep-fried and folded to form a shell.

Quesadillas. This style of tortilla, which literally means ``filled with cheese and fried,'' is traditionally served with a filling of zucchini blossoms, onion, and tomato. The term is now used for everything folded and filled.

In Mexico, the quesadilla is chiefly a garnish, part of a dish that would include a small steak served with sour cream, guacamole, and a salsa. Gabilondo uses a roux-based sauce, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, chopped green chiles, and epazote leaves or dill weed as an herb for flavoring.

Enchiladas. Enchiladas are corn tortillas, deep-fried briefly, filled with shredded mozzarella cheese and chopped green onions, then topped with a red chile sauce and baked in a baking dish. They would be served at a luncheon -- two enchiladas, with Mexican rice, beans, and salad as a garnish, with one or two fried eggs on top of the enchiladas for a hearty eater.

Tortillas. Tortillas, the pancakes cooked on a griddle, can be used any time one would use biscuits, Gabilondo says.

Flour tortillas can be used for everything but fish (though she uses them for a special crabmeat-spread dish, which is Dick's favorite). Corn (pressed) and wheat flour (rolled) tortillas become tostadas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos, and quesadillas as they are fried, stuffed, folded, broken, and sliced.

While these variations become the basis for the combination plates in Mexican-American restaurants, they have a more modest place in Mexican dining.

Juices. Every hired Mexican cook demands two blenders, one for chiles, garlic, and other savory ingredients, the other for juices, before she will work in a household.

Juices of all types, from carrots to mangos, became a big hit in Mexico after World War II after a manufacturer blitzed the country with 50 salesmen.

``Everyone's on a health kick now in Mexico,'' Gabilondo says. And with alcohol seldom used in Mexican cooking, fruit juices have become common, particularly as first courses. Lemonade or orangeade or pineapple juice is often set out in a pitcher for the family to use.

In cooking, use fresh lime juice -- fresh lemon as a second choice -- but never bottled citric juices.

Chicken. Mexicans serve a great deal of poached chicken, as a filling or under sauces. The poaching was usually done in the morning, shortly after the bird was butchered, in a highly spiced broth with garlic and bayleaf. With an absence of big ice boxes, the poaching kept the meat from spoiling as well as rendering it flavorful and moist.

Hyphenated Mex. Mexican family cooking is different from the hypenated varities -- Tex-Mex, Arizona-Mex, California-Mex -- which Gabilondo calls ``border cooking.'' The border Mexes go heavy on the cumin; they never use pork lard, and always overcook heavy sauces and stews. Gabilondo happens to love these dishes, however. A plate of Texas chili beans is among her first treats when she crosses the Rio Grande. Border Mex was a style of cooking that originated years ago, before there was a border, and cowboys routinely grazed the cattle on both sides of what now provides the hyphen in the regional cuisine.

Border cooking shows the Spanish influence on northern Mexican cooking. Cumin, brought to Mexico by the Spanish, survived among the chuck wagon herbs, while the use of oregano and other Iberian seasonings lapsed.

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