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22 April 2013
I hope the title didn't mislead you; I don't have recipes for the above foods. What I do have is a neighbor, Laura, from Mexico who barely speaks any English and who cooks to order from her home. Her food is quite inexpensive so I've been experimenting almost weekly with vegetarian requests from her (and learning Spanish food words). This post will report on some vegetarian possibilities for Mexican-style home cooking in the States, and you can use the post to create your own recipes.
The Goofy Family has the double limitation that we are eating gluten-free this month for medical reasons. We aren't concerned about the minute level of gluten contamination that causes problems for people with celiac disease, which is why we can eat gluten-free from my neighbor. Otherwise, with my language abilities that would be out of the question.
Spinach is espinacas in Spanish and the Mexican people in my neighborhood exhibit a lot of familiarity with it, even though my Mexican-American neighbor pretty much never cooks with it or with any dark leafy green. I brought Laura an enormous bag of fresh adult spinach still attached to the crown and asked her for a batch (hornadas) of enchiladas, which turned out to be a dozen medium-sized enchiladas. I think she sautéed the spinach with generous amounts of garlic and onion, then rolled the spinach mixture tightly into warmed-until-soft corn tortillas. She piled the enchiladas up in two layers on a platter, poured a mild sauce over them, sprinkled on grated queso fresco (a mild white fresh Mexican cheese), and topped everything with a beautiful chopped salad of lettuce, tomato, radishes and avocados. They looked spectacular. She gave me a side of a very spicy salsa verde (tomatillo-based). Everyone loved the combination of sauce-soaked corn tortillas, crunchy vegetables, chewy succulent spinach, and spicy fruity salsa. The key is to stuff a lot of spinach into each tortilla so that it makes a satisfying bite. Also, you need to add the sauce last-minute so that the enchiladas don't fall apart.
Bean-and-Cheese or Poblano-Cheese Tamales
Katharina asked me if tamales are a very fancy food. I laughed and told her that tamales are the equivalent of peasant food. But it's true that tamales look quite appealing in their fragrant banana leaf packages. I asked Laura for a dozen cheese tamales, half with beans (frijoles) and half with strips of roasted poblano peppers (rajas). The tamales innards (the part that you eat), is soft masa, or corn meal, mixed with your specified ingredients. Laura packed the innards into fresh banana leaves and then steamed the tamales until the masa cooked. For the frijoles tamales, she made runny refried beans that mixed in an appealingly gooey way with the queso fresco. The rajas tamales lacked the kid-friendly texture of the frijoles tamales but George and I appreciated the deep complexity of the roasted poblano. Because the tamales had such a mild flavor, Sally though they needed some salsa or hot sauce. George and I enjoyed them without.
Kale or Spinach Empanadas
l had on my hands an enormous bag of baby kale, which I washed and brought over to Laura. She didn't know the Spanish name for kale but she easily recognized it and knew how to cook it. I asked for a batch (a dozen) of kale-and-garlic (ajo) empanadas, and Laura nodded and mentioned tomatoes, onions, and a bunch of other Spanish-language flavorings (which I didn't understand) that she would add as a matter of course. In my cookbooks I had read a few recipes for empanadas and was concerned that she would put wheat flour (harina) in but she shook her head and said she only makes empanadas with masa. Laura called empanadas "The Mexican quesadilla," which I found hilarious. Empanadas are stuffed crescents of dough; they have the shape of a paper plate or a pie crust folded in half. Laura deep-fried the empanadas in a large fry-pan and gave them to me very hot and fresh. The kale empanadas—pairing succulent chewy savory greens with bright corn flavor—were delicious, but they didn't contain very much filling. I wondered if the empanadas were more difficult to maneuver around cooked greens without the flexibility of wheat flour in the dough. At any rate, they tasted wonderful both hot and cold but we all found the oiliness a little overwhelming. I know that there are baked version of empanadas which I would experiment with next time.
We ordered this classic dish a few days before the gluten-free diet began, and the chile rellenos came in a fried batter, which contained wheat flour. Laura stuffed full poblano chiles with big blocks of queso fresco which somehow did not even get warm, let alone melt. Then she dipped the peppers in a batter and deep-fried them in a large fry pan. She poured a delicious thin sauce over the peppers that made what might have been a somewhat unsatisfying recipe into a pretty captivating meal. The good thing about making your own chile rellenos is that it is always, in my experience, extremely easy to peel off the fried batter. So if you're gluten-free (not celiac, obviously) or dieting, you can deep-fry your peppers, pull off the oily exterior, pour a warm delicious sauce over the whole thing, and dig right in.
I hope this post inspires you to try a little Mexican vegetarian cooking at home!