Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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Mexico's History of Flavours

Make your next feast a real fiesta

Mexican cuisine, dating back to the second century AD, is one of the oldest in the world. Early Mexicans ate venison, maize, chilies and a wide variety of tropical fruits. As a beverage, they drank hot chocolate or pulque, the fermented sap from the maguey plant.

When Spain's Cortés and his men arrived in the New World in the 16th century, they marvelled at the sumptuous feasts that were prepared daily for Montezuma and his court. The Spaniards adopted the great culinary traditions passed down by the ancient civilizations and, in return, brought a rich heritage from the Mediterranean world.

With the Spaniards came sugar, almonds, onions, garlic, rice and wheat, as well as cattle that provided beef, milk, butter and cheese -- all favourite ingredients in Mexican dishes today. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Indians had no knowledge of fats or oils and, thus, no knowledge of frying. The conquistadores brought pigs to provide lard, and olives to make oil, thereby introducing a whole new culinary technique.

In North America, stereotypical Mexican cooking consists almost exclusively of tortilla-based fare such as tacos and enchiladas. In Mexico these foods are served mainly as appetizers and snacks and are called antojitos or "little whims."

The fieriness of Mexican food is due to chilies. More than 140 varieties grow in Mexico. Fresh chilies come in shades of green, red and yellow, while dried chilies vary from deep mahogany to brick red to black. They can vary in size from less than half a centimetre to nearly a quarter metre long. Flavours range from sweet and nutty and rich and aromatic to burning hot.

The most commonly used dried chilies are anchos, pasillas and mulatos. Commercial chili powder can't be substituted since it's an inconsistent mixture of chilies and spices like cumin, coriander, cloves and garlic powder. It won't give the proper flavour to Mexican foods.

The only food that exceeds the importance of chilies in the Mexican diet is corn. Corn has been cultivated in Mexico for nearly 4000 years. Aztecs believed that the great god Quetzalcoatl gave them the plant as a strength-giving food. In fact, the original word for corn, tonacayo, meant "our meat."

Today, corn is still the basis of the Mexican diet. Some varieties are soaked, peeled and boiled to make hominy soups called pozole. Corn is soaked in lime water to soften it and ground to make a dough called masa.

Masa is diluted with water, flavoured with fruit, nuts or chocolate and boiled to make a drink called atole. It's also mixed with lard, stuffed with a filling and steamed in corn husks to make tamales. Street stands sell steaming elotes, ears of corn, spread with cream cheese or dripping with lime juice and sprinkled with powdered chilies.

The tortilla is very versatile. Just as food placed between two pieces of bread is called a sandwich, any food stuffed or rolled into a corn tortilla is called a taco. In Mexico, tacos are usually soft, not crisp and fried like they are here. A flour tortilla stuffed with any filling is called a burrito, or "little burro." Deep-fried burritos are called chimichangas. Tostadas are open-faced tortilla sandwiches, while gorditas, or "little fat ones," are thick tortillas with their edges pinched up to hold the filling inside.

Tortillas appear again in enchiladas, which are lightly sautéed and wrapped around a filling, then dipped into a sauce and baked. When they're cut into wedges and fried until crisp, they make tostaditas and totopos, which can then be used as edible spoons to scoop up dips or stews such as guisados.

In addition to corn, Mexicans eat beans with almost every meal, including breakfast. Beans are served boiled, mashed or well fried, and as a side dish, a filling for tortillas or mixed with chilies as a dip. And they come in a palette of colours. The most popular are the black bean, frijol negro; the speckled bean, frijol pinto and the kidney and pink beans, both called frijol rojo.

Another common food used in Mexican cooking is the avocado. The black, pebble-skinned variety from California has a better flavour and texture than the smooth green-skinned variety from Florida. In Mexico, avocado leaves, both fresh and dried, are used for flavouring. The pulp is most frequently used to prepare guacamole, a dish that was served in Montezuma's court. Guacamole can be eaten as a salad, side dish or filling for tortillas.

The word chocolate is derived from two Nahuatl words, meaning "bitter," and atl meaning "water." Chocolate was forbidden to Aztec women, while among the men, it was reserved for royalty and the higher ranks of the clergy and military. Chocolate was so highly valued that it was once used as money. When the Spaniards arrived, they became so addicted to it that, at one time, the Church forbade worshippers from bringing their cups of chocolate to Sunday Mass.

Fresh fruits, rather than baked goods, were eaten for dessert in Montezuma's court. When the Spanish arrived, they brought wheat flour, sugar, cream and several spices unknown in the New World. The Spanish nuns vied among themselves to make special treats to be sold at fiestas and religious functions and to be given as gifts to visiting dignitaries. They must be given the credit for the great variety of sweets available in Mexico today.

Today, delectable puddings and custards -- flavoured with fruit, nuts, chocolate or cinnamon -- are very popular. Flan, an egg custard with caramel sauce, is the national dessert, but there are more than 300 different pastries and sweet breads, including deep-fried puffs and spirals -- bunuelos and churros -- that are similar to doughnuts.

The following recipes have been modified to use readily available North American ingredients. They'll give you a real taste of Mexico.

Pork is very good in Mexico and Mexicans eat it frequently. In the countryside, most families keep a couple of pigs in the backyard as an investment. There are as many versions of this recipe as there are cooks in Mexico.

5 lb. (2.25 kilograms) pork loin
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 tsp. salt
2 tsp. oregano
15 peppercorns
5 oranges

Pierce the meat all over with a fork. Crush the garlic with the salt, peppercorns and oregano. Add the juice and grated rind from one orange. Rub this mixture into the pork and set aside to season for one hour. Place the pork in a large casserole. Add the juice of three oranges. Cover and bake in a preheated 350°F (175°C) oven for two hours.

Drain off all but three tablespoons of the pan juices and reserve for the sauce. Turn the meat over and bake uncovered for one more hour. Baste frequently. Drain off the pan juices again and reserve. Turn oven up to 400oF (200°C) and brown both sides of the meat. Skim fat from pan juices. Add the juice of another orange and boil mixture in a saucepan, over medium heat, until reduced. To serve, slice the meat, garnish with orange slices and fresh or sautÄed spring onions. Pass the sauce separately. Serves six to eight.

GUACAMOLEThe word mole means "concoction." Ideally, it should be made and served in a molcajete, the traditional volcanic-rock mortar. The secret to good guacamole is fresh coriander, also called cilantro or Chinese parsley. If you can't find it, leave it out, since nothing can duplicate its flavour.

2 very ripe avocados
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 small onion, grated
2 tbsp. fresh coriander, chopped
1 jalapeno chili, finely chopped (or substitute cayenne powder, to taste)
2 tsp. lime juice
salt to taste

Mash avocados with a fork. Add remaining ingredients and stir until mixed. The texture shouldn't be too smooth. Make just prior to serving. If this isn't possible, put the avocado pit into the dip and seal the dish with plastic to prevent darkening. Serve with crisp, fried totopos or packaged tortilla chips.

The name "refried beans" shouldn't be taken literally. Mexicans use the prefix "re" to mean "very" or "thoroughly." Cholesterol-conscious Canadians may shudder at the use of lard in this recipe, but its use is necessary to give the beans the proper flavour. Mexicans don't soak their beans overnight because it robs them of their minerals. They also don't salt them until after cooking, otherwise, the skins become tough. Use a pressure cooker to shorten the cooking time.

2 cups dried black or pinto beans, cleaned
8 cups of hot water
1 bay leaf
4 tbsp. lard
2 large onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno chili, washed and cut into strips
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tsp. oregano
salt to taste

Place beans, hot water, bay leaf, one chopped onion, one chopped garlic clove, jalapeño chili and one tablespoon lard in a large pot and cook over medium heat for about two and one-half hours or until tender. Add salt to taste, then cook for a half hour longer. Remove bay leaf and drain beans. Fry remaining onion and garlic in two tablespoons lard until onion is translucent. Add chopped tomato and oregano and cook for two more minutes. Remove from heat. Add one cup of the cooked beans and mash with a potato masher. Repeat until all of the beans are mashed.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of lard in a heavy fry pan and fry the bean purée until it starts to come away from the surface of the pan. Add more lard, if necessary, to prevent sticking. Tip the pan from side to side so that the purée will form itself into a loose roll. This will take about 20 minutes. Tip the roll onto a serving plate and garnish with crumbled cheese, totopos, radish roses and shredded romaine lettuce.

In Mexico, sopas or "soups" are served as the first course of the meal. They're frequently followed by a sopa seca or "dry soup," such as rice or pasta that has absorbed the liquid in which it was cooked. This recipe, for the most typical sopa seca, is invariably served as frequently as the frijoles refritos.

2 cups rice
1/4 cup oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tomato, peeled, seeded, chopped (=1/2 cup)
1 sprig of coriander or 1 bay leaf
4 cups salted chicken broth, heated to boiling
1/2 cup green peas, frozen

Sauté the rice in hot oil in a fry pan until golden. Add the onion, garlic and tomatoes and cook for two or three more minutes. Transfer to a saucepan, add the coriander or bay leaf and the hot broth, cover and cook on low heat until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed. Add the peas and cook one minute longer. Serves six to eight.

Since Mexicans eat their main meal, or comida, in the early afternoon, they frequently have one more light meal, later in the day. Called a merienda, it usually consists of a beverage such as hot chocolate or café con leche (the Mexican equivalent of the French café au lait) plus pan dulce or sweet bread.

Mexican chocolate is sold in cakes or tablets already sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon and ground almonds. Mexicans like their chocolate frothy. They use a carved wooden beater called a molinillo that they twirl between their palms. A blender will produce the same results but without the fun or authenticity.

4 oz. Mexican chocolate or 4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate plus 4 tbsp. sugar
4 cups milk
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla

Combine all ingredients, except vanilla, in a saucepan and heat at a low setting, stirring constantly until the chocolate has melted. Remove from heat. Add vanilla and beat until frothy. Serves four.

Also called Mexican Shortbread. These rich cookies are thickly dusted with icing sugar.

1 cup butter (don't substitute)
1/2 cup icing sugar
2 1/4 cups flour, sifted
1 egg yolk
1 cup finely grated almonds
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter. Add sugar, flour, egg yolk, almonds, salt and vanilla, making a stiff dough. Chill overnight in a refrigerator. Shape into small balls or half-moons or roll out to one and a quarter centimetres thick and cut with a round cookie cutter. Bake on a buttered cookie sheet at 400°F (200°C) for 15 minutes or until they just begin to turn golden at the edges. Remove from oven and roll in icing sugar. Cool, then roll in icing sugar again. Makes five dozen.


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