Chilis and Cumin: Tasting Mexican Cuisine

Our columns so far have featured food and adventures from the Middle East and the Caucasus. To mix things up a little, this week’s recipes come from Mexico. Mexican food is a staple of Jasper’s diet when he’s home in California, and he has visited the country a total of twenty times.

Across the Border for Lunch

The majority of my visits to Mexico were family trips to see my grandparents in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. My late Swiss grandfather Al, who was known around town as “El Gordo,” and my grandma Connie began living in Puerto Vallarta in the 1970s, when it was a tiny fishing village. Before I was born, my grandparents would ask my parents to bring cooking supplies like olive oil because there were so few stores in the town.

We were always greeted in Puerto Vallarta with my grandfather’s inimitable guacamole. I could write a book on his cooking, which he refined as a chef in the Swiss army, and he was second only to my mom in inspiring my interest in food. However, the story for this column comes from Northern Mexico and a trip with a different grandparent.

A couple of years ago I was visiting Nannu (Sicilian for “grandfather”) in San Diego, California for a few days and we were debating what to do for lunch. We felt like going some place new as neither of us felt like cooking. Nannu suggested that we try the restaurant scene south of the border. Why not? It was only an hour or so away.

Soon enough we had reached the border, and we began walking through the border crossing. I say “began” because the walkway seemed to zigzag in every possible direction, stretching on interminably before reaching Mexico. The walls were plastered with wanted posters for murderers, smugglers and other unsavory characters. At the other end, a couple of customs agents welcomed us to Tijuana and we soon found a taxi.

The taxi driver suggested a restaurant that turned out to be delicious. I had fajitas, but unfortunately I was too young to try a taste of the giant vat of cerveza that had a rattlesnake floating in it. After lunch, we returned to the United States. This trip went far more smoothly than my other excursion to Tijuana.

The second time I visited this border town was to show my friend Enrique Garcia, who was visiting from Spain, a little bit of Mexico. Our plan was to head a little ways south of Tijuana, but unfortunately we got a late start because Enrique lost his passport while using it as a bookmark in his Harry Potter book. This was a couple years later, and the situation in Tijuana had become far more serious. There were fewer tourists, and the Mexican police cars never traveled in groups of fewer than four.

One such police convoy felt that we looked a bit suspicious, and pulled us over for questioning. We were split up, and I soon found myself relying on my high school Spanish to talk with Señor Garcia. He was a nice guy though, and I quickly cut the tension with a joke about my Spanish abilities. I promised him that I didn’t use drugs and was baptized, and soon enough we were heading north to the border. An American customs agent, Officer Garcia, questioned us for much longer and searched the car, but soon enough my friend Mr. Garcia and I were back in California. Enrique was so relieved after our police encounters that he kissed his miniature American flag the moment we reached 65 mph on Interstate 5.

Fajitas in Exile

Meanwhile, back at Swarthmore, our usual cooking routine was disrupted when a certain stovetop caught fire in our beloved Willets. Despite the valiant efforts of five fire trucks, the stove had sautéed its last, so it was off to Wharton and its admittedly more upscale kitchen facilities.

Our fajita recipe is heavy on the vegetables and makes for a delicious, spicy, one-dish meal, which seems to be a theme in our column so far. One tip: don’t skip the dried peppers. The guajillo and chipotle varieties we used lent a warm, smoky flavor to the dish that really distinguished it from the usual Sharples fare.

The guacamole received more mixed reviews. We foolishly waited till the last minute to buy our avocados, and found only green, unripe ones at the Co-op. We made the best of it by chopping instead of mashing them, but be advised that most store-bought avocados need to be ripened for a few days to make this dip properly. In the end, though, it was still guacamole, and its fresh tangy flavor perfectly complemented the spicy beef and vegetables.

Beef Fajitas

Feeds: 4
Co-op cost: $21.04
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

Ingredients:
3 bell peppers, chopped
2 mid-sized chipotle or other dried peppers
1 red onion, chopped
¾ lbs. beef
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for frying the tortillas
1 lime, squeezed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. chili pepper
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
½ tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
1 package corn tortillas
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Salsa and sour cream to serve with the dish

1. In a saucepan, simmer the dried peppers in 1 cup water to rehydrate them. When they are soft, either puree them in a food processor with some of the water, or use a knife to remove the flesh and reserve some of the water in the pan.
2. Meanwhile, slice the beef and marinate with half of the lime juice, salt, and pepper.
3. In the same pan, add the olive oil, peppers, garlic, the rest of the lime juice, and spices. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the onions.
4. After a few more minutes, add the beef and stir frequently to ensure it cooks evenly. Remove from heat when the meat is cooked through and the peppers and onions are soft.
5. Clean out the pan and add another splash of olive oil. Prepare the fajitas by sprinkling cheese on one tortilla and spreading on a thin layer of the filling, followed by another sprinkling of cheese. Add second tortilla on top and press down with a spatula.
6. Once cooked on both sides, slice into sections and serve with a garnish of cilantro and lime wedges.

Guacamole

Feeds: 4
Co-op cost: $11.54
Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients
2 ripe avocados — the avocados should be very dark green and soft when squeezed
¼ cup white onion, finely chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 small jalapeño or serrano pepper, chopped
2 limes
1-2 teaspoons salt
1 bag of tortilla chips

1. Peel and mash the avocados. To do this, use a knife to cut the avocado in two halves. Pry out the pit. Spoon the avocado out of its peel.
2. Mix together the avocado, onion, cilantro, tomatoes and jalapeno pepper in a bowl.
3. Squeeze the limes into the bowl and salt to taste.

We’ll continue the New World theme in our next article with Dominican mofongo!

The ingredients for fajitas and guacamole.
Hydrating the chipotle and guajillo peppers.
Clara prepares the peppers.
It’s all in the wrist.
Tossing in the bell peppers.
The fajita filling, finished and ready to be fried up.
The first fajita: a joint effort.
The finished project.
A satisfied customer.


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