• Molly

What Mexican cuisine has taught me about cooking generally

pozole verde and ingredients

I love cooking different world cuisines for many reasons. In addition to just being endlessly fascinated by food culture, there is just so much to learn from all the different approaches to cooking around the world. While I've been in Mexico, I've been taking advantage of the abundance of local ingredients and have attempted to cook traditional Mexican dishes. From both cooking these dishes and observing the way Mexican food is served and eaten locally, I've learned a thing or two.

The first thing I've learned is the importance of salsa and that we don't give salsa nearly enough credit in the US. Chips and salsa is a delicious snack, and might even be more popular in the US than in Mexico (I think at any minute of the day there's an American college student eating chips and salsa). However, in Mexico, salsa isn't limited to a condiment for your taco and totopos (Spanish for chips!). In Mexico, salsa is a condiment that goes both into food during the cooking process, as well along side a finished.

It's often true that the best solution to a problem is the simplest one. The problem with soup is that it's a water based food, and water is inherently void of flavor. Many soup recipes will have you simmering expensive animal proteins, spices and vegetables for hours, only to throw them all away once they've "given all they have to give to the broth." The challenge is to add enough super flavorful food to extraction material for the broth, so that when it's flavor is diluted by 5x it's volume of water, you have something that's interesting to eat. If you're a novice cook or uninterested in throwing away stock vegetables, you might supplement your soup with bullion cubes or boxed stocks. But Mexico has an answer to this: salsa. It really couldn't be simpler. You want your soup to be super flavorful? Well how about instead of spending hours extracting flavor from a celery stock, you blend up that celery (and whatever other ingredient that strikes your fancy) and add it in the form of a liquefied salsa that is packed with flavor? Yes, you wont have a clear broth, but you will have a really tasty soup in a short amount of time, and you don't have to throw vegetables away.

This is what you will learn when you make posole or birria. In both recipes, you cook a salted protein in water until it is cooked, then blend a specific combination of herbs, spices, chilies, aromatics and vegetables into a smooth liquid, and then pour that super flavorful liquid directly to your pot! Bam-boom-flavor!

This is what I love about borrowing from the intelligence of different cuisines. You don't have to stick to pozole and birria to use these techniques. You can take this technique and apply it to your favorite chicken soup recipe, for example. Of course, you have to be OK with your soup no longer sporting a clear broth. But once you're over that, the possibilities are endless. Let's take chicken soup as an example. If I were to apply this technique to chicken soup, I'd first think about what I'm looking for in a chicken soup... In a chicken soup I want it to be filling, comforting and umami forward. So what might I do then...? I'd start by putting my chicken in a put, adding water, salt and bringing it to a boil, then reducing to a simmer. Then I might add some white beans to the mix to bulk up the texture of the broth and make it a bit more filling. After that I could saute onions, garlic, thyme and chili flakes in butter and olive oil until they are lightly caramelized. I could then take a bit of broth, a few spoons of beans and blend them with the sauteed aromatics into a liquid to make my "salsa." Then that salsa is added directly my pot of simmering chicken soup. The starch from the beans will bond with the blended onion and you will have creamy rich broth in a snap. Throw in some kale and lovely sea salt and you've got a really comforting dish.

The next thing I've come to appreciate as a eater of Mexican food is to balance with raw vegetables. This is something that we're not always the best at in mainstream American cuisine. Look no further than Thanksgiving. It's a starchy fatty meal that, without your spot of cranberry sauce, would be entirely beige and one-note! It's lacking balance. It needs a fresh element, it needs crunch and herbaceousness! It needs a salad!

So what does Mexico have to do with this? Well, when I first got to Mexico and started eating tacos on a regular basis, I never paid much attention to the little plates of radishes and cucumbers that were dropped off with my beverage. I might eat a few before my taco arrived, but generally I ignored them. Finally my dinning companion and Mexican food spirit guide said to me: "So take a bite of your taco and then a bite of a radish, and you keep going back and forth like that. Adobado is rich- you need the freshness!" It felt awkward at first because I had been ignoring them for weeks, but now I NEED that little plate of raw vegetable goodness when I have tacos, and I feel very foolish for my errors of the past. The radish and cucumber take my taco experience to the next level. They balance the fatty meat with their crisp vegetal qualities - they work alongside the acidity of the salsa to lighten the overall meal and round out the flavor profile.

baja fish tacos with fresh raw radish and cabbage

This is also something I can bring into my home cooking. Just as a little reminder for when I'm building a meal. It doesn't have to be cucumber and radish specifically. But if I'm preparing something that is really oily and rich, finding a crisp seasonal fresh vegetable to accompany the meal is at the front of my mind.

I realize adding a fresh raw vegetable to accompany a meal isn't unique to Mexico. It's very common is Persian cuisine to serve a plate of beautiful fresh leafy herbs and yes... slices of cucumber and radishes for the exact same reasons it's happening in Mexico. Furthermore, when you buy freshly grilled sausage or meat on the street in Thailand, you will likely get a chunk of sticky rice and a few slices of cabbage and cucumber as a compliment to the rich protein. I'm sure it can be found in many other world cuisines as well - it's just smart meal planning! And it's something I enjoy keeping an eye out for at street food stalls when I'm traveling.