Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
At-Home Mexican Restaurant
part of "The Basics at Home" Series
With "The Basics at Home" series we offer pages of simple recipes within a theme. Also included is food for thought about how to use the basics as a jumping off point to create your own versions and links to other applicable recipes within the aPinchOf website.
On this page: Quesadilla with Zucchini-Epazote Filling, Refried Beans, Restaurant Nachos, Taco Meat Filling, Breakfast Fajitas, Taco Salad Buffet, Chunky Guacamole
Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.
Everyone loves guacamole. It is a gift to the cook. A snap to prepare, you can serve it as an appetizer or sauce, a salad or condiment. Guacamole is adaptable too. Spice it up with fresh chiles or roasted garlic, toss in a mixture of garden-fresh herbs and, poof, you have created a signature dish.
The recipe below is merely a jumping off point. You may find it familiar. This basic salad mixture is the type that is often served in restaurants. It's good as a chip dip, served on a bed of lettuce it makes a savory first course salad or you might use it as a garnish for tacos and nachos.
Vary the recipe by adding or subtracting ingredients. Garlic is a tasty addition; cilantro is popular too. Change the white onion to a zippy red or mellow sliced green onions. Put the whole thing in the food processor for a smooth version. To this you could also mix in sour cream for a fabulous salad dressing.
The best guacamole is prepared with avocados that are quite soft. Occasionally you may "miss" and end up cutting into an avocado that is too hard to mash effectively. You will know it right away but don't worry, make a relish. This just means you chop the avocado into chunks rather than smash it to a puree. Mixed with the rest of the traditional ingredients, it will still taste delicious.
As it is exposed to air, guacamole will turn a brownish color so it is best served freshly made. In the recipe below we add the lemon juice before mashing the avocados not only to add flavor but also as an agent to delay this discoloration. For short-term storage, push plastic wrap against the surface. Just so you know, this condition doesn't make the guacamole inedible, just unsightly. You can give it a stir to freshen up the look.
1 ripe avocado
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup diced tomato
2 Tablespoons minced onion
2 Tablespoons prepared salsa
Salt and pepper, to taste
Quarter the avocado, remove the pit, peel back the skin and place the flesh into a shallow bowl. Sprinkle the avocado with the lemon juice. Use a fork to smash the avocado into a chunky puree. Mix in the tomato, onion and salsa along with salt and pepper to taste. Check for seasonings; adjust if necessary.
Serve right away or press plastic wrap to the surface and hold in the refrigerator for only a day or two.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Arranging a buffet is always a great way to feed a crowd but preparing a wide assortment of foods for that table tends to be a lot of work. What you need is a theme. Enter the Taco Salad Buffet.
Part salad bar, part tapas table, this buffet offers something for everyone. Light eaters may opt for a simple tossed salad or indulge in chips and salsa while the hungriest of guests can make a mountain of the Tex-Mex ingredients.
Consider taking the theme even further with the addition of the ingredients for tacos and burritos. Warm flour tortillas and oven crisped taco shells along with a batch of refried beans increase the options while keeping the workload to a minimum.
As with all buffets, take care to follow proper food handling procedures: keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Accomplish this with a warming plate or chafing dish for the meat (and beans) or keep a pot simmering on the stove, replenishing the buffet often. Keep the dishes of cold items on the small side, again replenishing as needed with fresh ingredients or nestle them on a bed of ice.
Taco Salad Buffet
For the salad:
2 cups each torn head lettuce, Romaine lettuce and red leaf lettuce
1/2 cup halved and sliced peeled cucumber
1/4 cup shredded carrots
1/4 cup sliced green onion
1/4 cup sliced celery
For the buffet:
1 recipe Taco Meat, warmed (see recipe this page)
1 bag (10 ounces) corn tortilla chips
1 can (15 ounces) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 large tomato, chopped
2 cups shredded cheese, half cheddar, half Monterrey Jack
3/4 cup sliced black olives
1/4 cup sliced pickled jalapenos
1 cup sour cream
2 cups guacamole
1 1/2 cups salsa
1 recipe Taco Salad dressing (recipe follows)
Additional salad dressings, if desired
Toss together the ingredients for the salad and chill while preparing the buffet.
To set the buffet, arrange serving plates at one end of the table. Place the tortilla chips before the salad mix, encouraging guests to build their salads on a bed of corn chips. Arrange the other buffet items attractively down the table, ending with the sour cream, guacamole and salad dressings.
Taco Salad Dressing: Mix together 1/2 cup each salsa and sour cream with a dash of ground cumin until well blended.
Makes a buffet for 6.
Here's a fun take on a traditional Mexican dinner item. The eggs are cut into strips to imitate the beef or chicken of fajitas then wrapped into flour tortillas along with a sautéed onion/bell pepper combo.
Naturally, you could cook the eggs as a scramble or with runny yolks but fried hard like this is the way I like them and it makes them easier to work into the recipe.
Think of these morning fajitas anytime of day when you have the leftovers from a Mexican feast or begin from scratch--you will find it worth the effort.
2 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced onion
1/2 cup thinly sliced bell pepper (both red and green are more attractive)
Salt and pepper, as desired
4 six-inch flour tortillas, warmed
1/2 cup cooked brown rice, warm
sour cream, salsa and/or guacamole, for serving
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper; cook, stirring frequently, until softened and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from skillet, set aside and keep warm.
Into the same skillet, crack each of the eggs, as if to fry, and then break each yolk. Cook for about 90 seconds, carefully flip, season with salt and pepper, if desired, and continue cooking until set.
Working quickly, transfer the cooked eggs to a cutting board and slice into strips. To assemble the fajitas, arrange 2 Tablespoons of the cooked rice down the center of each tortilla. Top each with an equal portion of the reserved onion/bell pepper mixture and the egg strips. Fold each tortilla in half, serve right away passing the sour cream, salsa and guacamole at the table.
Makes 2 servings.
Everybody loves Mexican food. For the cook the love affair is especially sweet. Many basic (Americanized) Mexican dishes are easy to prepare. They provide ample portions and can be adapted to suit just about any taste. Savory ground beef flavored with Mexican seasonings is a superstar at providing variety to your menus. Chileheads may see a need to turn up the heat but the recipe that follows has been known to make children quite happy.
This is more than taco meat. It is a burrito or enchilada filling. Transform mixed greens into the ever-popular taco salad with the addition of taco meat, shredded cheese and a dressing of sour cream and salsa stirred together. Refried beans, taco meat and cheese melted over tortilla chips become hearty nachos. A little taco meat added to your favorite cheese dip makes for the ultimate chili con queso. Add salsa to heated taco meat, serve it on a burger bun and call it a Sloppy Jose.
Even the variety of tacos you can make are endless. Your standard crispy corn tortilla shell is always a favorite but don’t forget flour tortillas for soft tacos. Can’t decide? Try spreading flour tortillas with refried beans and then pressing it around a taco shell before filling with the regular taco fixin’s. Soft corn tortillas are just as good, and more traditional, as flour tortillas for making tacos too. The flat tostada shell is yet another vehicle for your taco fillings.
If you don't like the idea of ground beef, try ground turkey, chicken or pork for excellent, exciting results. Eliminate the initial browning stage by adding the onion and bell pepper with the raw meat to avoid overcooking these less fatty meats. Drain off any fat, if necessary, before adding the tomato and water.
As you can see, there are so many ways to use taco meat you might want to make a double batch.
Taco Meat Filling
1 pound ground beef
1 cup minced onion
1/2 cup minced green bell pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 small tomato, cored and diced
1/2 cup water
2 Tablespoons cornmeal
Brown the hamburger in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, breaking up large clumps as it cooks; drain off fat. Return the cooked meat to the skillet; stir in the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, for 5 more minutes. Add the tomato with the water; continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes. Stir in the cornmeal to absorb liquids. Use as desired.
Makes about 3 cups.
Refried beans are more than just filler on the plate at your favorite Mexican restaurant. They serve well as a stand-in for meats in main dishes or can be transformed into tasty snacks. Plus, refried beans are easier to make than you think.
Starting from scratch, the beans should be soaked overnight in plenty of water. But first, sort through the dry beans, looking for small stones or clods of dirt. This is easily accomplished by checking a handful at a time before dropping them into the saucepan you will use to cook them. After soaking they are boiled for a couple of hours. Don't add salt until the end as it sometimes hampers the cooking process. Once cooked, they become your canvas. If you are not inclined to go through this process, just grab a can of beans from your grocer’s shelf.
Refried beans need not be limited to pinto beans anymore. Black beans are popular but you might also be surprised by the flavors of refried white beans or even black-eyed peas. Check into Anasazi beans for the Cadillac of pinto beans!
Refries have a bad reputation for being full of fat and calories but when you make them yourself, you can control all that. Admittedly, the tastiest beans in my book begin with sautéing minced bacon but I save that for occasional use.
Menu applications for refried beans are endless. They can replace beef or chicken in just about every Mexican recipe with good results but they accent these flavors, too, when used in combination. Stir in some shredded cheese and salsa for a chip dip. Roll up flour tortillas filled with beans and cheese, place in a baking dish and bake, covered with foil, next time you want a vegetarian entree. Pour warmed, chunky salsa over the top just before serving.
Tostadas, rather like a Mexican open-faced sandwich, can be as simple as a layer of beans topped with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Look for tostada shells alongside taco shells at your favorite supermarket. You will probably have them on hand anyway if you choose to prepare the recipe for Restaurant Nachos shown below.
1 pound dry pinto beans
2 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon ground New Mexican chile
To cook the beans, soak them overnight in plenty of water. Next day, drain off the soaking water and replace with enough fresh water to cover the beans. Over high heat, bring the beans and water to a boil; reduce heat and boil gently, adding more water as necessary to keep the beans submerged. After about an hour, season the beans with 1 teaspoon of the salt and add the bay leaves. Continue cooking another hour or until the beans are very soft. Drain; reserving liquid. Discard the bay leaves.
To fry the beans, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cumin and ground chile, cooking and stirring for another minute. Add the drained beans and mash with a potato masher or fork, leaving some beans whole, if desired. Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt along with 1 cup of the reserved bean-cooking liquid. Add more of this liquid if the beans are too dry. Reduce heat and fry for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent scorching. Taste; adjust seasonings, if necessary.
Makes about 4 cups.
3 tostada shells
3/4 cup refried beans
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
12 slices pickled jalapeno
1/2 cup shredded lettuce
1/4 cup prepared guacamole
1/4 cup sour cream
Spread each of the tostada shells with 1/4 cup of the refried beans and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the beans. Arrange four jalapeno slices, at 12, 3, 6 and 9 as if on a clock, on each of the prepared tostada shells. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and allow the cheese to melt and become bubbly. Watch carefully, this will only take 3-4 minutes. Remove from broiler and cut into quarters using a large knife or pizza cutter.
To serve, pile the lettuce in the center of a serving platter and top with a mound of the guacamole and sour cream. Arrange the nacho quarters in a ring around the garnishes. Serve immediately.
Makes 12 nachos.
Say Grilled Cheese
The quesadilla as most of us know it is the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. Crisped flour tortillas filled with spicy ingredients and silky melted cheese right off the grill, what more could a guy want? Purists will tell you this version is strictly an American invention with little resemblance to the actual Mexican quesadilla. And they are right. But this version is a basic, quick snack or meal that everyone should know how to prepare and then teach their children how to make.
In the recipe below you will see how to build the basic quesadilla: One tortilla goes onto the hot surface of a griddle, or most any skillet really, layer on half of the cheese, a tasty filling, the remaining cheese and a second tortilla. You don't need any oil or butter to crisp the tortillas. Adding the cheese in two parts serves as the "glue" that holds it all together.
As far as fillings go, just use your imagination and whatever you have in the refrigerator. You don't want to use anything too juicy, like salsa or something in a cream sauce for example. As the cheese melts you already get a bit of oozing so keep that in mind when you decide on a combination. That's why the zucchini is cooked first in the following recipe--this allows the liquid of the vegetable to evaporate.
Other variations emerge with different cheeses and tortillas. For quesadillas, look for melting cheeses. Add harder cheeses, like Parmesan or Asiago, and softer cheeses such as Gorgonzola in combination with others that melt well.
Corn tortillas result in a toothsome quesadilla while whole wheat flour tortillas introduce a somewhat nutty bite. With the latest craze for wrap sandwiches, all sorts of flavored tortillas are available. Consider these as a backdrop to inspire ideas for new quesadilla filling combinations.
Quesadilla with Zucchini-Epazote Filling
If you can't get epazote, use Mexican oregano or marjoram. Nearly any sort of cheese will work but the smoked type lends a more savory note. The recipe is written to make one quesadilla (six pieces) so just multiply it out for however many you need.
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 small zucchini, shredded (about 1 cup)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small jalapeno, minced (seeded, if desired)
1/2 teaspoon dried epazote
Salt and black pepper, to taste
2 8-inch flour tortillas
1/2 cup shredded smoked melting cheese such as Gouda, Cheddar or Mozzarella
Salsa, for serving, if desired
Sour cream, for serving, if desired
Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini, garlic, jalapeno and epazote. The zucchini will release juices, so cook and stir until the mixture becomes dry, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. NOTE: Do not salt until after cooking or the zucchini will release more liquid and become soggy.
Heat a griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Place one tortilla on the griddle. Spread half the cheese over it followed by the zucchini mixture and the remaining cheese. Top with the second tortilla and press down. Cook the quesadilla until browned and toasty, 2-4 minutes; use a wide spatula to carefully flip it to the other side and brown.
Remove from skillet and cut into sixths with a pizza wheel or large knife. (A knife works better--if any of the filling squishes out, just tuck it back in at the edges.) Serve right away with salsa and sour cream, if using. Makes 6 pieces.
Other filling ideas: shrimp, roasted red peppers and Monterey Jack; leftover taco meat, green chiles and cheddar; shredded chicken moistened with a little salsa, black olives and mozzarella; two or three different cheeses.
More pages in the Basics at Home series:
Need a vegetarian taco filling? Check out Skillet Steamed Swiss Chard.
More great bean dishes: My Best Chili, Corn and Black Bean Salad with Tortilla strip Croutons, Sofrito Black Beans, White Bean Puree with Fresh Oregano
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