The Heart of Mexico

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Categories: Food & Dining

Last month I made my third visit to Mexico this year, in my attempt to learn all I could about the Mexican food culture, and the ingredients that make Mexican cuisine so unique. I never dreamed I would meet so many interesting people who were eager to share their recipes and stories! Last month I traveled to Mexico City where I met my chef friend Alondra, who had lived in Mexico City for 12 years, and was excited to show me her city. Along the way, she introduced me to other chefs and friends who were happy to join us in our quest for the best experience in Mexico City, and we managed to fill six days with more food and adventures than most people can do in two weeks!

Like nearly every other country in the world, the cuisine is dependent on the region where the food is grown, the traditions of the area, and the recipes of the people who live there. The Mexican food most Americans are accustomed to is just a very small taste of all the varieties Mexico has to offer. Mexico City has so many restaurants that offer food from chefs who cook from all over the country, using recipes passed down from generations. Alondra and her friends took me to the village of San Pedro Actopan where we cooked and ate in the home of a grandmother who had prepared 3 different mole sauces that were traditional from her childhood. We went to a barbacoa, where lamb had been cooking in a fire pit underground all night. When we arrived, they were removing the covering of agave leaves that kept the heat inside, and soon we were eating smoky lamb stuffed in corn tortillas with salsas in every color. One cannot visit Mexico City without eating street tacos made from soft corn tortillas with local cheese and chiles.

After exploring Mexico City I traveled south to the southernmost state of Mexico, Oaxaca. It was there that I learned all about mezcal, the distilled spirit made from the agave plants. I took cooking lessons on how to make mole sauces and visited the market where there were tables piled with dried chiles I had never seen before. Oaxaca is also known for the use of dried insects, including grasshoppers and ants in their cuisine. At first, one might hesitate to try a crispy grasshopper in guacamole, but once you’ve tasted it, you’ll likely be eager to eat them like the locals, in paper bags just like we eat popcorn! Although Oaxaca has a very dry climate, they grow an abundance of food, including tomatoes, mushrooms, greens and chiles. There is no end to the number of mole sauces that are made, some with as many as 25 ingredients, and others with as few as 5. Every chef and home cook has their own recipes, and I was fortunate that several shared them with me.

Now is a great time to visit Mexico, where the people are eager to show you their country and cook for you. The restaurants are open, and the artisans are showing their wares on the streets with music playing and smiles on their faces. I’m working on compiling my recipes from Mexico, which will soon appear on my website, Meanwhile, try my Grilled Mushroom and Cheese Quesadillas, and if you can get Oaxaca cheese in the market, you’ll be in for a treat.

Grilled Mushroom and Cheese Quesadillas

Makes 3 quesadillas - So much can be cooked on the grill besides steaks and hotdogs! For these grilled quesadillas I sauté mushrooms and onions in a cast iron pan directly over the coals on my grill. The tortillas are filled with the mushrooms and cheese, then folded as they crisp up over the fire, absorbing the wonderful smoky flavors. I love to serve them with Mexican crema mixed with salt and chile powder for the perfect snack! 

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 1/2 small red onion, finely diced

  • 2 cloves garlic, finely diced

  • 1 1/2 pounds assorted mushrooms, such as cremini, shiitake, and portobello, chopped

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder

  • 2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

  • 3 large flour tortillas

  • Preheat grill with charcoal pushed to one side of grill. If using gas grill, heat only one side. When coals are hot, place a large skillet on hot side of grill and add 4 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the onions and cook until soft.  Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Stir in mushrooms, salt, pepper, and chili powder.  Cook until mushrooms are softened, and all liquid has evaporated, 8-10 minutes. Remove skillet from grill and set aside.

    Brush the 3 tortillas on one side with olive oil and place them on hot side of grill, oiled side down. On half of each tortilla, top with mushrooms mixture and shredded Monterey Jack cheese. Fold the tortilla in half, pressing down with back of a spatula.

    When bottoms of quesadillas are lightly browned flip to cook other side. When browned, slide quesadillas to the cool side of grill and close the lid to let cheese melt inside (unless cheese has already melted). After five minutes, remove quesadillas from grill to a cutting board. Slice into quarters and serve.

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