Marked differences are found in the regional cooking of Mexico—in Northern Mexico the flour tortilla is common, and beef is the mainstay in this cattle ranching region. Fish is used in very few dishes of the region.
Despite regional variations, all Mexican and Mexican-American cooking commonly use tortillas, chiles, a few basic spices and simple cookware.
- Chiles – Peppers of all varieties, from the chile verde (bell pepper) to commercial chili powder, constitute a principal ingredient in a variety of dishes. Chiles commonly used include:
Chile ancho is a dried poblano pepper with a mild taste. Before using, soak them in boiling water (removed from heat) to rehydrate, remove stems and seeds, chop pulp or grind in molcajete as recipe requires.
Jalapeño or chile serrano are hot green peppers, 2-4 inches in length, often used interchangeably. To tell them apart, notice that the chile serrano is slightly curved and a bit hotter. To reduce the heat in these peppers, remove the seeds and membrane.
Chile pequin/petin is a chile the size of a pea eaten either green or red, which a friend calls those “little dynamite” peppers. Four or five of these chiles cooked with a pound of ground beef is enough heat to send even chile lovers through the roof. The very daring snack on them while drinking beer.
Chile poblano is a long green pepper with a tangy taste, used mainly for stuffing. Substitute: cubanelle or Marconi peppers with a few dashes of hot sauce added.
- Cilantro – fresh leaves are commonly used, and the dried seeds are occasionally used as well.
- Comal – A cast iron (preferred) or earthenware griddle.
- Comino (cumin) – Our recipes list amounts of whole seeds (commercial ground cumin loses flavor rapidly). Whole seeds should be ground in molcajete for each dish.
- Garlic – Garlic cloves used in Mexican cooking are usually minced and then ground in a molcajete unless otherwise indicated.
- Manteca – Used often due to its relatively inexpensive price. Wherever shortening is used, lard, vegetable shortening, bacon grease or oil can be used interchangeably unless indicated otherwise.
- Metate – A flat stone slab made of volcanic rock used with a roller for grinding corn.
- Molcajete and Mano (mortar and pestle) – My former husband calls this the “Mexican blender.” Made from volcanic rock, this 3-legged mortar must be seasoned by grinding the surface smooth with uncooked rice.
- Tortillas de maiz (corn) and tortillas de harina (flour) are common throughout the U.S. and Mexico.
Store-bought corn tortillas can be steam heated. If you want to try your hand at making them, either use commercial masa mixes (masa harina for corn or masa trigo for flour) where all you add is water, or use these recipes:
Tortillas de Maiz
Unslaked lime (from the hardware store)
Remove corn from cob and sun dry. Boil in water to soften and then soak in a mixture of 1 cup unslaked lime to 1 gallon water for 24 hours. Drain and rinse. Soak in cold water for 2 hours; drain. Grind with metate or in a blender into masa.
Shape the tortillas by placing golf-ball-sized masa balls between two sheets of plastic wrap and press to 1/8-in. thick using a tortilla press. Peel off wrap and cook on hot, lightly oiled comal. Without a press, the masa ball may be hand slapped in a circulation motion. Or, the masa ball in plastic wrap may be flattened with the bottom of a dinner plate which has a well-defined rim.
After cooking wrap tortillas in foil or a dishtowel to keep warm and moist, or use a tortilla keeper.
Tortillas de Harina
2½ c. flour
½ t. salt
1 t. baking powder
4-6 T. shortening (do not use oil or bacon grease)
2/3 – 1 c. water
Place dry ingredients in large mixing bowl; cut in shortening. Add ½ c. water, and remaining water only if needed to make a masa which is moist but not sticky.
Roll golf-ball-sized masa balls flat with a wooden rolling pin to 1/8-in. thick. Avoid flouring rolling pin or surface if at all possible. Roundness will improve with practice. Cook on comal; do not turn until slightly browned on bottom. If turned too soon, do not flip back over as this will toughen the tortillas. Flour tortillas may be reheated directly over low flame gas burner.
Handmade tortillas almost never turn out as thin as commercially made ones.