How to eat like a true Mexican

Fried quesadillas and potato quesadillas. Picture: Alicia Taylor
Fried quesadillas and potato quesadillas. Picture: Alicia Taylor

Mexican food might seem easy to imitate. But a taco with soul? Now that's a different story. Many have wrestled with this ancient cuisine and its punch-in-the-face flavours. Most have failed.

Thankfully, Comida Mexicana is the real deal. Rosa Cienfuegos travels the length and breadth of her homeland to bring you Mexico's most beloved snacks, tacos, tortas and tamales. From the vibrant streets of Mexico City, to tucked-away villages and tranquil coastal towns, each region and every family has their favourite dish and a story to tell.

  • Recipes extracted from Comida Mexicana by Rosa Cienfuegos, published by Smith Street Books, $45. Pictures: Alicia Taylor. Food stylist: Deborah Kaloper
Comida Mexicana by Rosa Cienfuegos, Smith Street Books, $45.

Comida Mexicana by Rosa Cienfuegos, Smith Street Books, $45.

Fried quesadillas

(Quesadillas fritas)

Fresh, greasy and filled with Oaxaca cheese or your favourite filling, quesadillas fritas are off-the-scale delicious, yet are surprisingly easy to make. I love eating these delicious morsels as much as I love making them. It reminds me of being back in kindergarten getting my hands messy with playdough. I recommend using white or yellow masa flour as the hot oil brings out the rich flavor of the masa, giving you a heavenly aftertaste with every quesadilla.

Ingredients

egetable oil for deep-frying

10 freshly made 11cm corn tortillas

500g Oaxaca cheese or firm mozzarella, grated

To serve:

shredded iceberg lettuce

cotija or fresco cheese, crumbled

salsa verde

coriander leaves

lime wedges

Method

1. Heat enough vegetable oil for deep-frying in a large heavy-based saucepan or deep-fryer to 180C on a kitchen thermometer.

2. Working with one tortilla at a time, scatter 50g of the cheese over the tortilla, then fold the tortilla in half to seal.

3. Carefully lower the quesadilla into the hot oil and cook, flipping frequently, for two minutes or until light golden. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and cheese to make 10 quesadillas.

4. Top the quesadillas with shredded lettuce, a sprinkling of crumbled cheese, a spoon of salsa verde and a few coriander leaves. Serve with lime wedges.

Makes 10.

Tortillas

There is no doubt that handmade tortillas are far superior to store-bought versions, plus they are fun to make. They also enable you to use yellow, white or blue masa flour. Even though nixtamal (the process of soaking and cooking corn in limewater) is the traditional and most authentic way to make masa, it's very labour-intensive. Store-bought masa is absolutely fine to use and the results are pretty much the same. You will need a tortilla press to make tortillas. You can easily pick one up at your local Latin American supermarket or online.

Ingredients

500g masa flour

600ml warm water

pinch table salt

50ml vegetable oil

vegetable oil spray for cooking

Method

1. Combine the masa, warm water, salt and oil in a bowl until you have a soft and non-sticky dough.

2. Lightly spray a comal or heavy-based frying pan with oil spray and place over medium-high heat.

3. Place a square of plastic wrap over the bottom half of a tortilla press. To make 16cm tortillas, roll 50g of the dough into a ball and place it in the middle of the tortilla press. Cover with another square of plastic wrap (this stops the dough sticking to the press), then close the tortilla press and gently press to flatten the dough into a 3mm thick tortilla. If you are making 11 cm tortillas, reduce the quantity of dough to 35g for each tortilla.

4. Open the tortilla press, remove the top layer of plastic wrap and flip the tortilla onto your hand.

5. Remove the bottom layer of plastic wrap and place the tortilla in the pan. Cook for about two minutes, then flip over and cook for another two minutes.

6. Transfer the tortilla to a tortilla warmer or folded tea towel and repeat with the remaining dough, using more oil spray as needed.

Makes about 20 corn tortillas.

Salsa verde

Salsas are one of the most important accompaniments in Mexican cuisine, and salsa verde is probably the most popular, with its tangy flavour of green tomatillos mixed with fresh chilli. It's also my favourite salsa. Fresh tomatillos are one of the ingredients Mexican expats miss most, but tinned tomatillos are readily available and are nearly as good. You will find them at Latin American supermarkets or online.

Ingredients

300g fresh or tinned tomatillos

10 green chillies, such as jalapeno, serrano or long, roughly chopped

1/2 white onion, roughly chopped

1/2 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tsp table salt

100g coriander leaves, finely chopped

Method

1. If you are lucky enough to find fresh tomatillos, remove the husks and thoroughly wash the fruit. If using tinned tomatillos, drain and rinse them. Roughly chop the tomatillos.

2. Heat a comal or heavy-based frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the tomatillos, chilli and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until charred on all sides.

3. Place the charred tomatillos, onion and chilli in a mortar or blender and add the garlic, salt and 250ml water. Pound with a pestle or blend the ingredients to a chunky salsa. Stir through the coriander and transfer to a serving bowl.

Makes 1 cup.

Potato quesadillas

(Papadillas)

Papadillas can be found throughout Mexico, although the name may vary from state to state. Deep-fried and topped with lettuce and salsa, papadillas are a delicious vegetarian garnacha that will leave you licking your fingers after every bite.

Ingredients

200g small all-purpose potatoes

2 tsp table salt

vegetable oil for cooking

1/2 white onion, diced

1 large garlic clove, minced

5 fresh jalapeno, serrano or cayenne chillies, chopped

10 freshly made 11 cm corn tortillas, warmed

To serve:

shredded iceberg lettuce

salsa verde

guacamole

cotija or fresco cheese, crumbled

coriander leaves

Method

1. Place the whole potatoes in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through.

2. Drain the potatoes and transfer to a large bowl, then mash them with the salt. You can peel them if you like, but I don't bother.

3. Heat one tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic and chilli and cook, stirring frequently, for five minutes or until softened.

4. Add the onion mixture to the mashed potato and gently combine.

5. Make a papadilla by adding 50g of the potato mixture to the base of a warm tortilla and folding it in half. Use a toothpick to secure the quesadilla if it keeps opening up.

6. Heat 1cm of oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and add the papadilla. Cook for one to two minutes or until the base is crisp, then gently flip and cook the other side until crisp.

7. Drain the papadilla on a plate lined with paper towel and repeat with the remaining ingredients to make 10 papadillas.

8. Serve the papadillas with shredded lettuce, salsa verde, guacamole, crumbled cheese and a few coriander leaves and don't forget to remove the tooth picks!

Makes 10.

Guacamole

When I was a child, I remember my dad loved to eat guacamole and chicharron rolled up in a taco. Now, of course, guacamole is everywhere, most commonly eaten as a dip with tortilla chips. It's actually extremely easy to make; it just depends on the avocados you use. In Mexico, we are lucky enough to have a huge variety of avocados at our disposal, but outside of the country there is less choice. I recommend using hass or fuerte avocados, as they are large, creamy and easy to peel.

Ingredients

5 ripe avocados (the bigger the better)

15g table salt

3 green chillies, such as jalapeno, serrano or cayenne, finely chopped

100g coriander leaves, finely chopped

3 limes, juiced

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Method

1. Gently mash the avocado in a bowl and stir through the remaining ingredients. Your guacamole is ready!

2. Guacamole is best eaten on the day it is made, as the avocado will start to discolour once peeled, but if you do have leftovers it will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for one to two days.

Makes 500g.

Three milk cake. Picture: Alicia Taylor

Three milk cake. Picture: Alicia Taylor

Three milk cake

(Pastel de tres leches)

This milky cake reminds me of all the "quinceaera" parties I attended when I was a teenager. Fifteenth birthday parties are lavishly celebrated in Mexico and pastel de tres leches always makes an appearance. With vanilla whipped cream and delicious fresh fruit, it is the perfect celebration cake. Feel free to decorate it with your favourite toppings. Go wild!

Ingredients

185g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

1 tsp baking powder

pinch table salt

5 free-range eggs

230g caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla essence

125g unsalted butter, melted then cooled, plus extra for greasing

Milk topping:

395ml condensed milk

375ml evaporated milk

30ml brandy

250ml reduced-fat cream

1 tsp vanilla essence

To decorate:

200g canned whipped cream

200g strawberries, hulled and halved

50g peaches in syrup, drained and sliced

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.

2. Grease a 23cm round cake tin and dust it with flour.

3. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. One by one add the eggs to the bowl, incorporating each egg before adding the next, then mix using electric beaters on low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium and slowly add the sugar and vanilla, beating for two minutes or until you have a fluffy, yellow batter. Add the cold melted butter, then reduce the speed to low and beat for a further five minutes.

4. Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and use a spatula to spread it into an even layer.

5. Gently tap the tin on your work surface to remove any air bubbles, then transfer to the oven and bake for 35 minutes or until the cake has a light golden crust and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Set aside to cool completely.

6. To make the milk topping, combine the ingredients in a bowl and stir until the mixture is smooth without any lumps.

7. Using a spatula, gently loosen the cake, then invert it onto a deep tray or serving plate. Use a fork to poke small holes all over the surface of the cake, then slowly pour over the milk topping, allowing the cake to absorb some of the topping before adding more.

8. Cover the cake with a thick layer of whipped cream and use a spatula to smooth the surface. Decorate the top with the strawberry and peach slices, then cut into slices and serve.

Serves 10.

Tuna empanadas. Picture: Alicia Taylor

Tuna empanadas. Picture: Alicia Taylor

Tuna empanadas

(Empanadas de atun)

In Mexico, freshly made empanadas are sold at "panaderias" (bakeries) morning, noon and night. Perfect for feeding a crowd and with a range of fillings, they are a popular, cheap and tasty snack that everyone loves. This recipe comes from my mum, so, of course, I think it's the best. It also makes a great taco filling. Tuna empanadas are traditionally eaten at Easter but I personally like to enjoy them all year round!

Ingredients

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 white onion, diced

1 tsp minced garlic

500g tinned tuna, drained

350ml salsa de chipotle (recipe below)

pinch dried oregano

5 sheets frozen puff pastry, just thawed

2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten

guacamole, to serve

Method

1. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Throw in the onion and garlic and cook for three minutes.

2. Add the tuna and stir for one minute. Add the salsa de chipotle and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for five minutes or until heated through. Stir through the oregano, then remove the pan from the heat, cover and set aside for one hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 200C. Line a large baking tray with baking paper.

4. Drain the tuna mixture to remove the excess liquid (we need it to be as dry as possible).

5. Cut each pastry sheet into four 12cm circles, then divide the tuna mixture evenly among the pastry circles.

6. Fold the pastry in half over the filling, brushing the edges with the beaten egg to help them stick. Use a fork to crimp and secure the pastry edges, then brush the tops with beaten egg.

7. Transfer the empanadas to the prepared baking tray and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until golden and crisp.

Makes 20.

Chipotle salsa

Chipotle chillies have long been loved in Mexico, but today they are hugely popular the world over. Chipotle chillies are dried jalapenos and their fragrant aroma and smoky taste make a wonderful addition to any number of dishes. It's definitely my favourite chilli and a must-have in my pantry. This salsa recipe is very simple to make and goes well with tacos, as a marinade for meats or as a base for more complex dishes.

Ingredients

200g dried chipotle chillies

4 tomatoes, roughly chopped

1/2 white onion, roughly chopped

1 garlic clove

1 tsp table salt

2 tbsp vegetable oil

Method

1. Place the chipotle chillies and 500ml water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Boil for five minutes or until soft, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool a little.

2. Place the chipotle chillies and their cooking water in a blender with the tomato, onion, garlic and salt. Blend until you have a smooth, runny salsa.

3. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add the salsa and cook, stirring, for five minutes. Transfer the salsa to a bowl and set aside to cool.

4. Store the salsa in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days.

Makes about 750ml.

This story How to eat like a true Mexican first appeared on The Canberra Times.