If your experience with Mexican cooking does not extend beyond the narrow taste boundaries of enchiladas and burritos, you’re missing one of the world’s great culinary traditions. The range of ingredients, flavor profiles, imaginative cooking techniques and diversity of dishes from region to region is so extensive that a complete experience would require many lifetimes! Alas, the typical Mexican restaurant menu in the United States reflects none of the vitality of their great culinary tradition.

Mexican cooking is a peasant cuisine—meaning labor intensive, dependent on many hands with plenty of hours to complete the laborious preparation and cooking stages. It is no wonder that the electric blender revolutionized Mexican cuisine when introduced in the 1950s by drastically reducing preparation time. It is the reason why the electric blender is found in nearly every Mexican home.

If you are new to Mexican cooking, avoid undertaking the “Mexican Dinner Party Syndrome” where you race through hours of preparation, before racing from table to kitchen and back, thus turning your dinner into a kind of Mexican kung-fu event! Incorporate one Mexican dish, such as an appetizer or entrée, into a menu where the other dishes are more American/European. In this way the unique Mexican flavors are highlighted and you’ll be stress free.

The following five recipes are taken from a Mexican cookbook proposal that I’m writing. Some of these rely on salsas and guacamole, and these foundation recipes are just the beginning. You’ll find no mention of specific side dishes such as the ubiquitous Mexican rice and beans. So choose something simple such as steamed rice, rice pilaf or couscous, or else char tortillas so the entrée can be eaten as a wrap.

Please let me know how you like these recipes!

Mexican Dry-Rub

This dry-rub is great on any meat that will be grilled or oven-roasted. Just rub it into the surface of the meat, then rub the meat with extra virgin olive oil, and grill or roast. As a variation, after rubbing the meat with the dry-rub, we like to rub the meat with Chinese mushroom soy sauce or Chinese dark soy. This is not authentic Mexican, but it is delicious! Remember, when adding a rub to meat, the rub has to be rubbed with vigor into the meat fiber. Then when you brush the meat with a marinade or olive oil, the rub will not dislodge from the meat.

1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon chile flakes (crushed red chile)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 inch cinnamon stick

Place all ingredients in an electric spice grinder. Grind into a powder. Transfer to a small container. Will keep its flavor for a year, stored with your spices.

Another Dry Rub

1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper (red chile flakes)
1 tablespoon Rainbow peppercorn mix
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon Expresso Powder

Place all ingredients in an electric coffee grinder. Grind into a powder. Transfer to an empty glass spice jar, label and place in your spice rack.

Guacamole

Everything depends on the quality of the avocado and, in particular, its oil content. The higher the oil, the more buttery tasting the avocado. Avocados grown in hot, humid environments (Florida) develop no oil, and avocados shipped from another hemisphere (Chile) never ripen. Always buy avocados from California and Mexico, such as the wonderful Haas, Bacon and Fuerte avocados. Avocados are extremely sensitive to frost and thus are grown in a very narrow climate band around the world. There are dozens of varieties of avocado grown in Mexico, ranging from softball size to just slightly larger than your thumb. If you are unsure of the quality of the avocado, buy a couple of extra in case the flesh is streaked with grey or brown. Pick avocado that has a slight “give” when gently pressed with your fingers. If not used that day, then store avocados in the refrigerator, using these within a few days. As a boy, I was always told that placing the avocado seed on top of the guacamole prevents discoloration. This is a myth. To prevent discoloration, always stir in lime juice, and press plastic wrap across the exposed surface. Refrigerated, guacamole will keep its bright color for several days. Great guacamole should have a little texture, so avoid the food processor. Just mash the avocado with the tongs of a fork. And please don’t turn guacamole into a sort of “garbage” dish by adding all sorts of extras such as chopped tomato, celery or oddities such as sliced grapes! It’s the buttery avocado taste and texture that should dominate. Lastly, great guacamole depends on having the perfect level of salt. I always enlist dinner guests to help me taste-test. There is never a shortage of volunteers!

3 avocados, ripe
2 whole green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 serrano chiles, minced including the seeds
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, optional
juice from 2-3 limes
1/2 teaspoon salt

Cut avocados in half. Remove the seed. With a spoon, scoop out the flesh. Then mash the avocados with the tongs of a fork. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Stir. Taste. Adjust the seasonings for salt, limes and chiles.

If making this more than 1 hour in advance, press plastic wrap across the guacamole and refrigerate. The guacamole will stay perfectly green for 2 days.

Variation: Garnish with crumbled goat cheese, queso fresco or Crema Mexicana.

Salsa Mexicana

Only make this when vine-ripe tomatoes are available. The tomato is chopped by hand and includes the skin and seeds. For variation, replace the tomatoes with the same amount of chopped ripe mango or slightly firm papaya or firm banana. Be sure to use under-ripe papaya since perfectly ripe papaya has a mushy texture when chopped. The banana variation may strike you as odd, but it makes an excellent salsa, especially when served as a side to barbecued meats. I combine everything well in advance, and then to prevent discoloration stir in the banana within 1 hour of serving. Or replace the tomatoes in part or in whole with ripe avocado. Or add avocado to the papaya, mango or banana salsa. Experiment!

4 cups chopped vine-ripe tomatoes, including skins and seeds
1/2 cup coarse chopped cilantro sprigs, including the stems
2 whole green onions, minced
2 serrano chiles, minced including the seeds
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt

Chop the tomatoes with a knife and do not use a food processor, which will mash the tomatoes. CHOP!

Combine all ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasonings, especially for salt and Serrano chile flavor.

This is best tasting if not refrigerated.

Option: When vine-ripe tomatoes are unavailable, we use hot house tomatoes, add 1 tablespoon tomato paste (from a tube, not canned) and 2 tablespoons Chinese oyster sauce.

Tomatillo Salsa

The tomatillo—pale green and very firm—is one of the basic building blocks of Mexican cuisine. Slightly sour with hints of apple, it is used in many green salsas and sauces. It belongs to the nightshade family, as does the tomato, and is related to the Cape Gooseberry. About the size and shape of a lime, look for tomatillos whose papery husk is tightly clinging. The tomatillos should be very firm, and their surface will feel slightly sticky. Often a part of the tomatillo exterior will have a purplish coloration. This is fine. But do not buy any tomatillo that is even the slightest soft. Prior to use always remove the paper husk. For most recipes the tomatillos are given a browning on a very hot, unoiled, frying pan. Cook until there are a few brown spots here-and-there and the tomatillo is heated through, about 2 minutes. (You are not trying to blacken the exterior like charring a pepper.) Extra tomatillos, not charred, can be stored in a paper bag and refrigerated for up to a month.

Poblano chiles, when dried, are called Ancho chiles. Incidently, poblano chiles are confusingly called “pasilla” in California. Never eaten raw, they are usually given a preliminary blackening. This is the chile favored for Chiles Rellenos and other stuffed chile dishes.

1 poblano chile – green – not red
8 small green tomatillos, husks removed
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 to 2 serrano chiles
1/2 cup cilantro sprigs including the stems, packed
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a heavy frying pan over medium high heat, lightly char the poblano chile and tomatillos. (It’s impossible to brown the tomatillos on all sides. Just brown them on the tops and bottoms and on a few places on their sides.)

Using paper towels, rub the charred skin off the poblano, then discard the seeds and stem. Cut the tomatillos into quarters. Lightly brown the garlic and chiles. Cut the garlic and chiles a few times so they are in slightly smaller pieces.

In an electric blender, place the poblano chile, tomatillos, garlic, chiles (including their seeds), cilantro and salt. Blend until smooth.

Taste and adjust the seasonings for salt.

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups. Can be stored for 3 days, refrigerated.

Barbecued Fish with Spicy Cucumber-Tomato Salsa

Serves 4

It’s more time consuming, but the salsa will have a better texture if chopped by hand rather than done in the food processor. This recipe uses a terrific barbecue technique by grilling the fish on orange slices. The fish never sticks to the grill, and once the fish is cooked, the oranges slices, with the fish on top, are transferred to dinner plates. This makes a great visual presentation.

2 pounds firm fish filets, very fresh, skin and pin bones removed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
Extra virgin olive oil
8 slices large navel oranges, cut in ¼ inch thick pieces

Salsa

2 cups chopped vine-ripe tomatoes, including the skin and seeds
1 cup chopped hot house cucumber, including the skin and seeds
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped imported black olives (not from a can)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro sprigs, including the stems
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
2 serrano chiles, minced including the seeds
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoon grated lime skin
2 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/2 teaspoon salt

Sprinkle fish with salt, black pepper and cumin, rubbing this into the surface. Then rub fish with olive oil. Refrigerate if not cooking immediately.

Combine all ingredients for the salsa, chopped by hand if time allows, and best tasting if made the day of serving and not refrigerated. Makes 3 cups.

Cooking: Preheat the barbecue to medium-high. Over direct heat, lay 2 oranges on the grill and slide them together so their edges touch. Place a piece of fish flat side down on the orange slices. Repeat with remaining orange slices and fish.

Cover the barbecue. Cook 6 minutes if the fish is 1/2 inch thick, and 8-12 minutes if the fish is 1 inch thick—never lifting the lid. When the fish just begins to flake when prodded with a knife, slide an offset spatula under the oranges, and transfer the oranges (with the fish resting on top) onto 4 heated dinner plates. Spoon the room temperature salsa across the fish. Serve at once.

BBQ Steak Cascabel

Serves 6

The dried chile “cascabel” means “rattle.” About the size of a large grape, these are thick fleshed, medium hot, and slightly smoky in flavor. Guajillo are one of the most commonly used chiles in Mexico. They are about 6 inches long and 1 1/2 inches across. If not available, then use New Mexico or Ancho chiles. This Cascabel Sauce is also great served with chilled shrimp, with barbecued shrimp or chicken hot off the grill.
Your choice of steak (tenderloin, rib eye, New York, flat iron steaks)

Mexican Dry Rub (see recipe above)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 dried Cascabel chiles
2 dried Guajillo chiles
2 cups orange juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 whole nutmeg
1/4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

Sprinkle Mexican Dry Rub on both sides of the steaks, rubbing this vigorously into the surface of the steaks. Rub the steaks on both sides with half the olive oil. Combine the garlic with the remaining olive oil.

Bring 1 quart water to a boil. Using scissors cut open the dried chiles and shake out the seeds. Discard the stem area. Place a frying pan over high heat. When hot, add the chiles. Toast the chiles about 10 seconds on each side (the chiles should just begin to smell). Transfer the chiles to a bowl. Pour boiling water over chiles. Put a small plate on top of the chiles so they are completely submerged.

After 30 minutes, transfer the chiles to an electric blender. Add the orange juice, sugar, vinegar and salt. Blend until completely liquefied.

Place a 10-inch frying pan over high heat. Add the garlic and olive oil. When the garlic begins to brown, add the chile-orange juice mixture. Bring to a rapid boil. Boil until only 1 1/4 cup remains. If done ahead, transfer to a small saucepan and refrigerate. Can be done 24 hours in advance.

To cook: Barbecue the steaks, cooking them to personal preference. Bring the sauce to a low boil. Taste and adjust seasonings. If you are serving flat iron steaks, cut the steak into 1-inch wide strips. Place the chile-orange sauce on the plate, and add the steak. If serving the steaks uncut, transfer the steaks to dinner plates and top with the chile-orange sauce. Using a microplane, grate a little nutmeg over the steak and sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve at once.

BBQ Chicken Breasts with Coriander, Cinnamon and Garlic

Serves 4

Without the protective layer of bone, chicken breasts quickly overcook on the barbecue. The solution is to, first, lightly brown the chicken by cooking it directly over a medium-hot charcoal or gas grill, and then, second, to finish the cooking by moving the chicken away from direct heat, covering the grill, and cooking the chicken indirectly in a 300-degree environment. Done in this manner, the chicken will be a marvel of tenderness with a texture resembling crème brulée. For large boned chicken breasts, indirect cooking takes approximately 20 minutes. In order to maintain the 300-degree environment, we use a combination instant-read meat-and-oven probe that has a cord attached to a little temperature monitor positioned next to the barbecue. If you want more flavor, just before closing the barbecue lid, sprinkle about 1 cup of hardwood chips (not soaked!) over one of the lighted burners or over the charcoal fire. The wood will immediately begin to smoke heavily.

6 chicken breast halves, boned but skin on
4 cloves minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, including the stems
3 tablespoons minced chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1/4 cup honey or brown sugar
1/4 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
Your choice of a salsa or guacamole

Preparation: In a food processor, mince the garlic, then add and mince the cilantro. Add and minced the chipotle chiles. Add the honey, lime juice, coriander, cinnamon, and salt. Process into a thick marinade.
Rub the marinade on both sides of the chicken breasts. Marinate at least 15 minutes but ideally for 8 hours, refrigerated.

Cooking: Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium high. When hot, add the chicken. Sear the chicken on both sides until lightly browned.

Turn the heat off under the chicken, and if using gas turn all burners off except one that is set on low. If using charcoal, move the coals away from the chicken, place the cover on the BBQ and close the bottom and top vents 80%.

Cook the chicken until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees on an instant-read meat thermometer, about 20 minutes.

Serve at once with salsa or guacamole.

Barbecued Chicken with Mexican Walnut Sauce

Serves 8

This recipe is an adaption of a famous central Mexico dish, Chiles en Nogada. Poblano chiles are stuffed with cooked, chopped meat and fruit, and then served at room temperature with a sauce that has the colors of the Mexican flag: green (chopped cilantro), red (pomegranate seeds) and white (the cream sauce). It’s an example of a classic Mexican dish: multi-layers of flavor, vibrant color contrasts and labor intensive. This recipe yanks the sauce away from the stuffed chiles, and uses it as a finishing glaze on grilled chicken or other meats. It’s a wonderful entrée to serve at a dinner party.

8 small chicken breasts, rubbed with salt, pepper and olive oil
2 cups walnut halves
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup Crema or sour cream
1/2 cup chicken broth, low sodium
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds or chopped red pepper
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 serrano chiles, minced including the seeds
8 lime wedges

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drop walnuts into boiling water and cook 2 minutes. Then drain in a sieve, spread the nuts on a baking pan, and roast for about 20 minutes, until golden. Set aside 1/2 cup for the garnish.

In an electric blender, place 1 1/2 cups walnuts, cream, Crema, chicken broth, garlic cloves that have been cut into thirds, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and salt. Liquify. Refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Cooking: Prepare the garnishes. Heat the walnut sauce to a simmer. Taste and adjust the seasonings. If you want a thinner sauce, stir in chicken broth or freshly squeezed orange juice.

Barbecue or roast the chicken until internal temperature reaches 155 degrees on an instant-read meat thermometer. Transfer the chicken to dinner plates.

Spoon the sauce over the meat. Garnish with chopped walnuts, pomegranate seeds or chopped red pepper, and serrano chiles. Serve at once accompanied by lime wedges.

Roasted Shrimp with Mexican Jade Sauce

Serves 4

This is a spicy, complex tasting, bright green “jade” sauce. It is great spooned across any fish that has been barbecued, or on roasted racks of lamb, or placed in martini glasses each holding three large chilled shrimp. The following recipe introduces a wonderful way to cook shrimp—so effortless. The shrimp is simply seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then tossed in a little olive oil and roasted in the oven. It is a perfect match with this Mexican Jade Sauce.

2 pounds large raw shrimp shelled
Salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil
Pomegranate seeds
Crèma Mexicana
2 poblano chiles
2 tomatillos, leafy skins removed
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 serrano chile
1 cup baby spinach, packed
1 cup parsley sprigs
1 cup cilantro, packed, including stems
2 green tops from a green onion
1/4 cup mint leaves, packed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon grated orange skin
1/2 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed

Shell shrimp and, if you wish, cut along the top ridge of the shrimp to butterfly.

Roast poblano chiles until charred. Place in a bag, seal, and steam for 5 minutes. Using paper towels, rub off charred skin. Seed and stem chiles. In a hot frying pan (with no oil), toast the tomatillos, garlic, and Serrano chile until there are a few browned spots. Cut tomatillos into quarters.

In an electric blender, place all the ingredients (poblano through orange juice). Liquify. If the sauce seems too thick, thin with more orange juice. Makes 3 cups.

To use: Use the Mexican Jade Sauce at room temperature (it will brown if heated). Can be made 1 day in advance with plastic wrap pressed across the surface to prevent oxidizing.

For shrimp: Rub the shrimp with salt, pepper and olive oil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking pan with foil. Add shrimp in a single layer. Roast until cooked, about 12 minutes. Place shrimp on warm dinner plates. Spoon the Mexican Jade Sauce across the shrimp. Garnish with pomegranate seeds or chopped red pepper, and a zigzag of Crèma Mexicana. Serve at once.