The Heart of Mexico

By: Shannon Smith | Category: Restaurants | Issue: May 2021

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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About Author Shannon Smith

I’m Chef Shannon Smith, creator of, a website where I share my travel adventures, cooking experiences, jewelry creations, life stories, world travels, recipes, cooking classes, and jewelry art. In the past ten years, I’ve traveled to 52 countries, and I hope to add at least that many more over the next ten years. In every country, I am blessed to meet interesting people, learn new cultures, and try all kinds of delicious food. I take cooking classes, join food tours, meet with chefs, and often dine with people in their homes or restaurant kitchens. I’ve lived in Tulsa for over 30 years, and I love teaching people how to cook, especially dishes learned while traveling around the world. Some of my favorite cuisines are Indian, Moroccan, Turkish, Israeli, and Italian, although Indian is the cuisine that makes me the happiest. I’ve collected numerous recipes and methods for making delicious food, and I share those recipes on I teach classes several times a month when my travels allow. Those classes are advertised on the website but are almost always filled within hours after posting, so I also occasionally teach cooking classes to private groups. My readers and viewers get to learn about my cooking adventures, utensils and appliances. At last count, I have eight grills, two tagines, 22 knives, and ninety-four thousand serving dishes - at least according to my husband. My refrigerators are filled with nuts, cheese, and dried fruits I’ve brought from other countries. And my spice cabinets contain a menagerie of exotic and odiferous seeds, pods, and dried herbs that I use so many ways. Jewelry art is my other favorite activity. I create jewelry from beads and trinkets collected on my travels, including amber from Russia and Estonia, glass from Murano, Italy, paper beads from Rwanda, and old Yemen prayer capsules from Israel. I have an Indian friend who has some of the most beautiful semi-precious stones that he cuts into beautiful shapes. Several times a year, I attend national bead and jewelry shows where I search for unusual items to complete my creations. Many more adventures are planned for the future, and I’m excited to share them with you in my monthly column in Values Magazine, including recipes, cooking tips, interviews with my favorite Tulsa area chefs, cookbook recommendations, travel stories, my favorite local food trucks, and ways we can give our time and talents to our fantastic community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Connect with me on Facebook and Instagram at Chef Shannon.

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