One of my first jobs was as a waitress at an El Torito Restaurant. To this day, I can tally its seven flavors of margaritas at breakneck speed. I used to think that made me an expert on Mexican food. In reality, I only knew about heavy trays laden with cheesy burritos, overstuffed chimichangas, and obscene portions of nachos.
Is Mexican food healthy? Apparently not. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s highly publicized report on Mexican food told us that it’s loaded with fat and sodium. But exactly what “Mexican food” was the CSPI discussing? The report focused on popular American restaurant chains such as Chi-Chi’s and my old friend El Torito, and not on the food of Mexico, which is an exquisite and varied cuisine full of high-fiber complex carbohydrates, vegetables, and pungent fresh flavors. Indeed, it’s a well-rounded cuisine with all the makings of a healthy diet.
So it seems that there are two “Mexican foods”: the traditional cuisine that’s low in fat and rich in nutrients, and the Americanized version. Believe it or not, the latter can easily be made lighter and more nutritious. On the following pages, I’ll introduce you to both types of cuisine, and show you how the elegant flavors of Mexican cooking make up for all the fat we take away.
Spanish and Mexican Roots
When the conquistadors arrived in Mexico looking for black pepper and gold, they found the native Indians. They also found beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, avocado, peanuts, potatoes, and turkey — none of which Europe had ever seen. These ingredients made up the traditional diet of the Aztecs, which was very low in cholesterol and high in nutrients.
Mexican food has changed significantly since the sixteenth century, of course. With the Spanish came wheat, pork, beef, chicken, and the first dairy products. They also brought the technique of rendering fat, which yielded lard and the concept of frying. The Mexicans enthusiastically incorporated frying into their cuisine and used the lard to make their tamales much lighter in texture — and much higher in cholesterol.
The specialties predominant in American-style Mexican restaurants, such as burritos, deep-fried tacos, and flautas, are what is known throughout Mexico as “northern cuisine.” It is the northernmost region of Mexico bordering the United States in which flour tortillas, beef, cheese, and other less refined flavors took their strongest hold. But this is just a tiny aspect of Mexican food and its exciting array of ingredients.
Flavor, Not Fat
It’s not the cheese but the flavor that makes Mexican food so popular. Americans love the spicy tomato sauces and salsas that are supplied at their favorite chains. But the combination of tomatoes, jalapeños, and onions is just a fraction of the brilliant array of Mexican ingredients.
The flavors in Mexican dishes do not range simply from mild to spicy. They are far more sophisticated, incorporating the smoky earthiness of rich moles and the bright freshness of citrusy marinades. Tangy flavors of lime, tamarind, and vinegar; spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and cumin; and herbs such as epazote, oregano, and fresh coriander (cilantro) give Mexican food its varied and seductive flavor.
Chiles, the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine, exist in hundreds of varieties, from the gentlest Anaheim peppers to the boldest habanero. They are green, red, or brown; fresh, dried, or pickled; mild, biting, or fiery. And they abound in almost every dish.
As I always say, an abundance of flavor is the best instrument for a healthy cook. With so much satisfying flavor, no one misses the fat.
How Healthy Is It?
Dishes based on fresh ingredients such as vegetables, fish, and fruit, are naturally healthy. The ingredients that make up the Mexican cook’s palate are some of the richest in antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, and in cholesterol-free protein.
The cuisine includes a variety of beans, which are rich in protein and fiber. Corn, when combined with beans or prepared as masa for tortillas, becomes an excellent source of protein and other nutrients. Tomatoes are a superb source of vitamins C and A. Varieties of squash, such as pumpkin, provide abundant vitamin A or beta carotene. Avocados and the seeds and nuts that make up the traditional moles are the best sources of vitamin E. And there’s more to the chile than heat: Chiles are some of the best sources of vitamins A and C.
Salsa is all vegetables and flavor, and nothing could be better. Feel free to dip your chips in any tomato salsa, commercial or homemade. Who says Mexican food isn’t healthy?
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, native Mexicans were eating flat cakes of cornmeal, which the Spanish named “tortillas” (“little cakes” in translation). With the introduction of frying came enchiladas, traditionally made by frying the tortilla before adding the filling, and tostadas, the precursor to our crisp tortilla chips.
Most true Mexican tortilla preparation involves steaming or grilling until the tortillas are soft and pliable. I prefer this lower-fat technique to frying. To make tortillas warm and soft (to use for soft tacos, enchiladas, or burritos), wrap 5 or 6 of them in aluminum foil and warm in a 325 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes until just soft. Be careful not to over-steam them.
For tortilla chips or tostadas, crisp corn tortillas instead of deep-frying by brushing them with a little oil and sprinkling them with salt and spices and placing them in a 350 degree oven, turning until crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes. While they’re not quite like fried tortillas, they have a nice crunch and are perfect for dipping and snacking. Or try some of the fat-free tortilla chips that are available in the supermarket — some of them are great.
While I encourage you to try some of the healthy options I’ve just described, I don’t expect you to eliminate burritos and enchiladas from your life. Thankfully, there’s no reason that you should, since they can be made healthy by using the techniques I refer to again and again — reducing the amount of meat and cheese, increasing the amount of vegetables, and replacing fat with flavor.
Mexican recipes is very popular and almost all will like this recipes. Check out Chicken and Veggie Enchiladas, and be sure to compare them to a traditional enchilada recipe. The classic has almost 200 more calories per serving and about three times the fat! I’ve also developed a wonderful Gnocchi recipe, full of flavor — and a lot less fat than you might expect. And to give you an example of an authentic Mexican fish dish that’s traditionally healthy, here it offers a delicious recipe for Ceviche.
Another popular dish is the chimichanga — that fried, overstuffed egg roll monstrosity that seems to be loosely based on a much more delicate Mexican preparation. The chimichanga is really nothing more than a deep-fried burrito. To make it healthy I would simply take out the frying step, add as much vegetable as possible, and use lean meat. If it’s crunch you’re craving, add some crispy lettuce or jícama to the filling.
Remember: When it comes to Mexican food, break free from the chains and enjoy the new flavor.
I LOVE MEXICAN FOOD TAMALE CASSEROLE
One Jar of Your Favorite Salsa (Or whatever salsa was on sale) One Medium Package of Corn Tortillas Cottage Cheese 1-2 Cups Shredded Cheddar and/or Jack Cheese One Can of Beans (Whole or Re-fried) 1-2 cups Vegetables and/or Meat, mixed or Separate Seasonings to Taste Cooking Spray
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Spray the bottom and sides of your casserole dish (or rectangular glass pan) with cooking spray.
Spread about 1/3 of the salsa in the bottom of the pan. Tear the tortillas into halves or thirds or whatever size seems to suit your dish best. Use about 1/3 of these tortilla pieces to cover the bottom of the pan. Spread the beans over the tortillas. If you are using whole beans, you might want to drain them a bit first. Sprinkle the beans with seasonings and about 1/3 of the cheese. Top that off with another tortilla layer. On top of that, spread cottage cheese and your meat/vegetable fillings and seasonings. Add your final layer of tortillas. Pour the rest of the salsa over that and then heap on the rest of the cheese. Heft your now heavy (heavy with goodness!) pan into the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until browned, bubby, and irresistible-smelling.
I like to serve it topped with globs of sour cream and with plenty of tortilla chips on the side.
FILLING SUGGESTIONS: Every single kind of leftover chicken that I have ever thrown into this dish ends up tasting heavenly. I have tried the following: poached chicken breasts seasoned myriad ways, fried chicken pieces (bones removed, of course), roasted chicken in gravy, Chicken “fingers”, shredded chicken, barbecued chicken, citrus-marinated grilled chicken, and ground chicken. I have never tried leftover Chinese food chicken, because leftover Chinese food is so delicious on its own. Let me know your results if you give this one a try.
I have no reason to believe that any kind of turkey wouldn’t be almost as delicious as the chicken.
Honestly, I have never used any kind of beef in this dish besides ground beef, but I bet you could use roast beef, barbecued beef, or any kind of leftover steak you might have around.
Leftover pork roast or chops add a really nice “authentic” tamale flavor to this dish that I find almost too tasty. The few times I have made it with pork I have ended up absolutely gorging myself like…. Well, like a pig!
My hands-down favorite vegetable to use in this dish is zucchini. If you put it in raw, it ends up kind of crisp-tender and subtly flavored. Leftover zucchini works also, but not as well. It tends to get a little mushy.
My “very special friend” is a huge supporter of corn, so we tend to use it a lot. I almost always just toss in a couple of handfuls of frozen corn right from the bag. Also, although I usually shy away from canned vegetables, Trader Joe’s canned corn works well, too.
If you want to get fancy and/or impress a vegetarian, try this: First, make sure that they are okay with dairy products. Next, instead of meat, use grilled or broiled portobello mushrooms and sautéed onions and garlic. Add a light-tasting vegetable as well, such as those I’ve listed above. Mmm-mmm good!
As far as seasonings go, I mostly use just a bit of oregano. You can use chili powder too, but make sure you take into account the strength of your salsa, so as not to overpower. You probably do not need to add any salt to this dish. In fact, unless you are one salty dog, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Serving Suggestion: Serve in a loosely cube-like lump right smack dab in the middle of the plate. Plop a glob of sour cream on the top of the heap and watch it melt down over the sides. Shovel off one big forkful and balance it on top of a tortilla chip. Hoist the chip into your mouth.
Guacamole – A Mexican recipe
Don’t be afraid of the fat in guacamole. It’s rich in vitamin E and the good, cholesterol-reducing fat. This version uses more vegetables than the classic, extending it to get less fat per bite and at least as much flavor.
Prep time: 15 min
Cook time: 15 min
Ready in: 30 min
1 ripe avocado, , peeled and diced
1 large , tomato (1 1/2 cups), diced
1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
3/4 cup red onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 jalapeño or serrano peppers,, seeded and minced
1 clove garlic,, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl, combine avocado, tomato, bell pepper, onion, lime juice, jalapeño, garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper. Stir well.
Serve with chips or fresh vegetables.
Serving size: 6
Calories from Fat 45
% Daily Value *
Fat 5 g 8%
Carbohydrates 8 g 3%
Protein 2 g 4%
Cholesterol 0 mg
Sodium 9 mg
* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.