Mexicans have a saying about food: “Como le servile?” – what does the food do for you? Even if you don’t generally think of ‘Mexican’ and ‘healthy’ together, consider that Mexican cuisine, with its reliance on fresh salsas and whole grains, fruit and chiles, beans and herbs, is naturally one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet –and one of the most delicious. The traditional Mexican diet is unusually rich in so-called ‘super-foods’ –foods that are especially nutrient dense. The Mexican food culture places a great deal of emphasis on what you eat contributing directly to your health and well-being. This is a terrific bonus, because Mexican is everybody’s favorite food.
Authentic Mexican comida is, above all, fresh –made of tasty little nibbles and antojitos (snacks,) colorful and crunchy; warm corn tortillas filled with savory grilled meats and fish, topped with fresh salsas made from ripe tomatoes, fruit, citrus and chiles; light soups full of vegetables, and satisfying, delicious platillos (big plates) based on beans and vegetables, with small amounts of dairy and meat, or none at all, if you choose. Cocina la Vida really means enjoying life – and the pleasures of the table.
An Ancient Heritage
With few exceptions, the meals eaten by early Mesoamerican peoples would look perfectly familiar on our modern table. Their primary food was corn, dried and ground to make masa (treated with lime to unlock the nutrients, an important detail that Europeans did not figure out for centuries.) This masa was patted into tortillas and cooked on a flat disk or comal to form the basis of every meal. Beans were the other great staple. With these two basics, early Mexicans ate a variety of what we would recognize as salsas, made from tiny tomatoes or the ground cherries we call tomatillos, seasoned with chiles and wild herbs. Dried chiles were widely used, made into spice pastes (adobos,) thick salsas and moles. There might be a little lean meat, such as native turkey, slow- roasted with a spice paste or simmered in its own broth with dry chiles and foraged wild greens. They ate birds and game, coastal seafood and shellfish, insects such as grasshoppers and grubs, and probably lizards, snakes and rodents, as well as cactus fruit and spiny paddles, all kinds of tree fruit and seeds, and avocados mashed into guacamole. They made many types of low-grade alcohol ‘beers’ from native plants, including agave. Chocolate originated in Mexico, but the valuable beans
were used as currency and the drink xocolatl was for priests and kings only. Most people drank atoles, water thickened with corn and chiles. Honey was the only sweetener. This lean, Spartan diet fostered a number of advanced civilizations and powerful warrior tribes. Even when the Spanish arrived, the basic diet did not change much, though pork, chicken, olives, wheat, and the many new vegetables and fruits were enthusiastically co-opted by the native peoples and added to the rich indigenous cuisine in ways uniquely Mexican.
Even today, home-style Mexican cooking leans more on the old diet than new influences. Every meal starts with corn tortillas and beans. (For poor families, this is the meal.) Mexican home cooks have a light touch with fats, unlike their restaurant counterparts. Pork is ubiquitous, but it is very lean, and most of the fat is simmered out of it. Chicken and seafood are widely eaten; dairy such as cheese and crema agria are used minimally, as accents. (A properly made chile relleno is mostly chile and tomato, with little cheese.) Many foods are eaten fresh and raw. Fresh fruit and fresh fruit drinks are enormously popular, as arebeverages made from rice and corn. Rich- tasting moles and enchilada sauces are 100% vegetables, made with dry chiles, nuts and seeds – all good, and good for you. The most popular street snacks are roasted corn, freshly made tacos with tiny bits of meat, cups of fresh fruit sprinkled with fresh lime and chiles, and fresh seafood cocktels in broth with pico de gallo. Even treats like palletas (frozen pops) and nieves (ice creams) have more fresh fruit in them than anything else.
No one wants to suffer for doing the right thing. I’ve endured more awful ‘healthy food’ meals than I care to recall, and maybe that’s why I feel so strongly that taste comes first! Fortunately, the high standards that make food delicious also make it healthy. Making good food choices and getting great taste in the same bite is both desirable and possible.
Mexican food is uniquely flexible and adaptable because it is assembled from components, so it’s easy to choose wisely among traditional recipes and ingredients. In Cocina la Vida you’ll learn to change your cooking by adding, not removing, ingredients. For example, adding fresh tomatoes and roasted poblano chiles to rice is a simple way to add rich flavor and a potent nutritional punch. Cooking techniques such as simmering, grilling, or braising are preferable to frying; they taste better, and are more traditional. Rich avocados, dairy and meat are used as garnishes instead of being the focus of the meal, allowing you to appreciate their texture and flavor, while consuming less. A little goes a long way.
Good eating is about making good choices. I learned from Deborah Szekely, founder of Rancho La Puerta, that focusing on calories, carbs or fat grams takes the emphasis away from where it should be: health and pleasure in equal measure. I encourage you to rediscover the pleasure of eating and cooking, while lightening up painlessly, and packing more of what’s good for you into every delicious bite.