A little taste of Mexico from a Los Angeles native

By Adria Kelly-Sullenger

Flickr/Alan
Flickr/Alan

When someone says “Mexican food,” what is the first dish that comes to mind? Most people might default to Chipotle burritos, but the popular Mexican-style chain restaurant is not exactly authentic. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by all manner of Mexican cuisine. And that doesn’t mean tacos and nachos; I’m talking about authentic, non-Americanized Mexican food. Some of my favorite dishes from this country are tomatillo enchiladas and chicken mole, but there is a variety of savory foods and flavors that make up traditional Mexican food.

Enchiladas

There are many variations to the classic enchilada recipe, but commonly the base is a corn tortilla stuffed with chicken, cheese and chopped onions. Before stuffing the tortillas, they are coated in a luscious sauce using tomatillos, jalapenos and cilantro. Traditionally, the rolled-up enchiladas are pan-fried until the cheese is melted and oozing out of the tortilla. When I make these at home, I eat them straight out of the pan, because the hotter they are, the better they taste. A more commonly-seen version is baked enchiladas, which uses the same ingredients but calls for the stuffed tortillas to be cooked in an oven rather than a pan. Sometimes spinach is added to the stuffing for the added health benefit, but if you’re trying to keep your calorie count low, this is probably not the dish for you because it falls heavily on the hearty side, as do many Mexican dishes.

Mole

Another mouthwatering dish is mole, a spicy chocolate sauce that has a place in many traditional Mexican recipes. The simplest recipe for mole uses onion, tomatillo, nuts, spices, a thickener, four different types of chiles and of course, Mexican chocolate, which is tasty enough to eat by itself. Sometimes referred to as the “fantastic four” of mole, the chiles used are ancho (for the bittersweet and fruity notes), mulato (which have chocolaty tones), pasilla (known for strong bitterness) and chipotle (for a rich smoky and spicy flavor). All the ingredients are added together in a pot and simmered down. After the onions are translucent and the tomatillos are soft, the mix is ground in a molcajete (or food mill). This makes a flavorful sauce that can be poured on enchiladas, empanadas (stuffed and fried pastries) and nopales (grilled cactus). In a more customary style, mole can be served over boiled chicken or turkey.

Mexican wedding cookies

Even though mole sauce is widely known for being sweet and chocolate-y, there are other Mexican treats that are equally palatable. A personal favorite of mine to make, mostly because of the simplicity of the recipe but also for their melt-in-your-mouth quality, are Mexican wedding cookies. Using a basic cookie dough recipe (typically just flour, butter and vanilla), these small sweets are messy and delicious. Ground-up almonds or pecans are mixed into the dough to form a crumbly texture. The mixture is rolled into balls and baked for about 10 minutes. After cooling, the cookies are covered in confectioner’s sugar. The recipe is wildly simple, but surprisingly delicious.

Horchata

A great drink to serve with Mexican wedding cookies is another classic sweet, horchata. This creamy and refreshing drink, contrary to popular belief, contains no dairy. In its most straightforward form, the drink just contains water, rice and cinnamon. For a creative twist on the flavor, almonds or lime zest can be added before soaking. There are a lot of horchata recipes out there – like chocolate chip cookies, everyone and their grandma thinks they have the best version – but my personal preference is to mix it up without any additions, just a simple rice and cinnamon drink to cool off my palate. This pick-me-up is great to pair with spicy dishes because oftentimes it can counterbalance the spiciness in food and make for a better-rounded flavor experience.

These recipes are just a small glimpse into the varied and uniquely flavorful cuisine of Mexico. If your mouth was watering as you read this, don’t be afraid to branch out and try some ethnic dishes you haven’t heard of before. Your taste buds will surely thank you.

Adria Kelly-Sullenger can be reached at [email protected]