A culinary salute to Cinco de Mayo
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
I love Mexican food; it's right up there with Italian for me. Whenever the Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May) holiday comes along, it reminds me to celebrate the Mexican culture and cuisine. Each Cinco de Mayo, I try to learn something new about Mexico and make a Mexican dish that I've never made before.
Below, I'll share some recipes for homemade versions of two basic Mexican dishes, salsa and flour tortillas. But first, some fun facts about Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world:
- Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the Mexicans over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. (It's not the same as Mexican Independence Day; that holiday is celebrated Sept. 16).
- Mexico's capital, Mexico City (one of the world's largest cities) is sinking -- some of its buildings by as much as 4 to 12 inches a year. The city was once an Aztec capital on an island surrounded by a shallow lake. When the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes captured the city, he drained the lake. So Mexico City rests on soft land that continues to sink.
- Among the many ancient pyramids in Mexico is the nine-story "El Castillo," with a three-room temple on top and a stairway climbing each of the four sides. An amazing thing happens there every year on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes: On the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow shaped like a serpent. With the sun's movement, this shadow slithers down the side of the pyramid. To accomplish this feat, the Mayan architects and astronomers must have used calculations of incredible precision.
Mexican cuisine tells a story about this nation's history. The ancestors of Mexico's Mayan civilization are thought to have crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia more than 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Maize (corn) and beans formed the basis of the ancient Mayan diet. Even now, these ingredients are still a big part of the Mexican diet.
In Mexico, the biggest meal of the day comes around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Soup, beans and rice, and a meat dish are often served. In general, people eat very lightly at night. They might have cereal or sweet bread with milk or hot chocolate.
We have Mexico to thank for many of the world's favorite foods:
- The Maya in Central Mexico were the first people known to harvest and use the peanut.
- Pineapple and papayas grew wild in Mexico, and were introduced to the rest of the world by Spanish explorers.
- The vanilla bean comes from an orchid plant discovered by Mexican Indians (they used it to add flavor to their cocoa and corn drinks.) The world's largest crop of vanilla beans still comes from Mexico.
- In 1519, Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors were invited to a breakfast with the Aztec leader Montezuma, where Cortes drank a bitter drink made from ground cacao beans, boiled in water, flavored with vanilla and other spices, and chilled with bits of snow from nearby mountain tops. Cacao beans were so prized by the Aztec people that they were often used as money. These beans were the beginning of the chocolate we all know and love. (Once introduced to this new drink, the Spanish improved the taste by adding sugar and the English improved it even more by adding milk).
- Around the 1860s, three American travelers began exporting resin from the Zapote Blanco tree in Mexico after they noticed that it hardened when exposed to air. The men found a way to turn it into a waxy substance, added flavors and sweeteners, and sold it in small balls for a penny apiece -- calling it Adam's Chewing Gum from New York. Today, Americans chew seven times more gum than the rest of the world.
Tortillas are eaten every day in Mexico. In northern Mexico, the flour tortilla is more popular, while in southern Mexico, the corn tortilla is more common. Below, you'll find a recipe for a part whole-wheat flour tortilla that you can eat as bread or use to wrap all sorts of flavorful fillings.
In some areas, salsa (a mixture of chopped tomato, onion, and spices) is to Mexican people what catsup is to Americans -- it's added to just about everything. Here's how you can whip up a homemade batch that tops anything you get from a jar.
Use this quick recipe to flavor all sorts of dishes, from meats (try baking chicken breasts in it) to multi-ingredient Mexican entrees (like tacos, taco salad, enchiladas, and quesadillas).
2 large, ripe tomatoes
1/4 cup mild or sweet onion
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons canned, diced green chilies
2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, pressed or minced (or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder)
Freshly ground pepper
- Dice the tomatoes, onion, and cilantro into chunks using a knife. Put them in a blender or small food processor.
- Add the chilies, vinegar, salt, garlic or garlic powder, and pepper to the blender, and pulse briefly to blend. Pour into a serving bowl. Cover and keep in refrigerator until needed.
NOTE: If you don't have a blender or food processor, dice all the ingredients into the smallest pieces possible, place in medium bowl, and stir to blend well.
Makes 10 servings, 1/4 cup each (2 1/2 cups of salsa).
Serving suggestion: Serve with 8 cups reduced-fat tortilla chips.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 15 calories, 0.6 g protein, 3.5 g carbohydrate, 0.2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 g fiber, 0 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 8%.
Making homemade flour tortillas is easier than you'd think. Why, it's kids' play! You'll love working the dough with your bare hands, then rolling the little balls of dough into thin circles with a rolling pin.
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup "no trans-fat" margarine with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon (such as Take Control*)
1/2 cup warm water
canola cooking spray
- In the mixing bowl, combine the flours and salt. With a pastry blender, blend in the margarine (it should be broken up into small pea-sized pieces).
- With a wooden spoon, mix in the water to form a dough. Divide the dough into 8 balls. Cover them with a dish towel and set aside for 20 minutes.
- Lightly flour a cutting board. With the rolling pin, roll each ball into a 6- or 7-inch circle.
- Begin heating a nonstick, 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the skillet with canola cooking spray. Cook the tortillas, one at a time, until blisters appear and the tortillas are lightly browned (1 to 2 minutes on each side). While the second side is cooking, you can sprinkle grated cheese over the top to make a quesadilla, if desired.
*If you use Take Control margarine, keep it in the freezer and add it to this recipe directly from the freezer.
Makes 8 tortillas.
Per tortilla: 105 calories, 2.3 g protein, 14.3 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat, 2.2 g monounsaturated fat, 1.1 g polyunsaturated fat), 1.5 g fiber, 0 mg cholesterol, 176 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 34%.