Location: North America, between the USA and Central America
Population: 124 million
Capital: Mexico City
Geography: A mix of mountains, fertile valleys, desert, and coastal plains
Signature flavours: Chillies, tomato, beans, corn, avocado, rice, chicken, beef, chocolate
Mexico was my most difficult assignment so far. Because this is a cuisine with a massive history and huge repertoire, there was no shortage of recipes. It was important to me, however, to make sure my sources were as authentic as possible. As Mexican food is enjoyed and prepared around the world, websites abound. Caitlyn has a Mexican food website. Lucas has one too. So does Siobhan, Hans, and Nikolai. Their sites may be wonderful, well-researched, and perfectly cited, but in order to ensure my menu was as true to the Mexican culinary experience as possible, I did my research in Spanish. This added a layer of challenge to the recipe-finding process. I understand enough Spanish to read an ingredient list, but not enough to follow a full recipe, so Google Translate was my best friend.
Huaraches: A corn and refried bean patty topped with red salsa, cheese, and sautéed mushrooms.
Prep and cooking time: 40 min
Enchiladas Rojas: A corn tortilla coated in spicy pepper puree, fried, then filled with chicken, cheese, and salsa.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min
Nopales con Papas en Salsa Verde: Cactus and potato mixed with a spicy tomatillo salsa.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min
Pastel de Tres Leches: A white cake soaked in condensed and evaporated milks, then iced with whipped cream and topped with sliced fruit.
Prep and cooking time: 12 hours (including refrigeration time)
Churros: Deep fried dough coated in a mixture of cinnamon and white sugar.
Prep and cooking time: 25 min
Chocolate Caliente Mexicano: Hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon.
Prep and cooking time: 10 min
The Shopping List
Perola Latin American Market in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood was my first destination when it came to finding everything on my ingredient list. There, I found queso fresco (a soft white Mexican cheese), nopales (cactus), refried pinto beans, tomatillos, jalepeño peppers, and Mexican hot chocolate tablets. Condensed coconut milk and evaporated coconut milk for the cake came from Bulk Barn. Everything else I needed came from Freshco.
After two hours of chopping, frying, kneading, food processing, and rubbing my eyes with chilli pepper hands, I felt like I had barely gotten started. The scale of this meal was quite a bit greater than most other assignments I’ve done so far. One thing that made this the case was that every savoury dish I made required a different salsa. The nopales and potatoes needed a spicy green salsa, the enchiladas needed a pepper-based sauce, and the huaraches needed a classic red salsa. I made each one from scratch, and this took a fair amount of time. I made the tres leches cake the day before, with help from Eric. I wasn’t going to make it at all — I wanted to make churros much more — but Eric really wanted it and I agreed as long as we made it together beforehand. It was really fun baking together, and we should do it more often. Eric tries to avoid lactose, so a “three milk” cake is like triple poison for him. We found lactose-free heavy cream and coconut-based evaporated and condensed milk, so the whole thing was lactose-free! It was an involved baking project, with a lot of ingredients and many steps. I finished it off a few moments before dinner by icing it with whipped cream and arranging sliced fruit on top (the recipe said to leave that until last).
Even with the cake mostly prepared ahead of time, I was panicking when I thought of the last hour of prep. I knew I had to pan fry the tortillas for the enchiladas, and fry the huaraches, and I wanted those to both be still warm. I also wanted the churros to be freshly deep-fried and the hot chocolate to be hot. It was a scramble to get everything on the table at once, but by ignoring the enormous pile of dishes and by having a pair of tongs in each hand, I managed it okay.
The nopales con papas was the spiciest dish on the table, thanks to a salsa verde with two types of hot peppers. Cactus has a very pleasant texture, kind of like asparagus, but without the fibrousness. It takes on the flavour of its environment, and in this case, I used canned nopales, pickled in oil with hot peppers and onion.
The enchiladas were a bit frustrating to make. My first couple tortillas fell apart during the frying process. After that, I tried to be very gentle. I guess soaking them in sauce made them extra delicate. I chose to use bell peppers as well as jalapeños in the sauce, because I knew my two other savoury dishes were turning out very spicy. The sauce as a result was a lighter red than the recipe showed, and tasted rather sweet. It went well with the soy chicken and queso fresco filling, and I did add a dash of Valentina hot sauce on top to give it a bit of a kick.
I loved the huaraches. Eric has eaten plenty of Mexican food, having lived in Texas during college, and he had never heard of this dish. The corn and refried bean patties were delicious, and the spicy red salsa, with mushrooms and more queso, went down really well. The process of making dough balls, poking a hole in them, filling them with a scoop of refried beans, and flattening them out to make a patty was very enjoyable.
I bought a pastry bag and attachment just for the churros. I love that sugary fried snack and couldn’t wait to try making them. They were easy to make, and looked just as they should when I set them on the table. Eric lit up when he saw them, and proclaimed them to have “that real churro taste.” We dipped them in the cinnamon-infused Mexican hot chocolate.
And finally, after more than a day, we got to dig into the tres leches cake. It was moist, sticky, and sweet. The whipped cream and fruit topping was amazing. I can’t wait until tomorrow so I can have another slice.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.