It’s Cinco de Mayo time again—the day that is more festive in the United States than in Mexico. The holiday represents the Battle of Puebla when the Mexican army overcame the French who only occupied Mexico for two years in the 19th Century from 1861-1863. In contrast the Spanish had occupied Mexico since the 16th Century in 1519 when Cortez and the Spanish Conquistadors overthrew the most powerful Empire on the continent, the Aztecs, which many of us learned about from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Over 300 years later, the Spanish were engaged in a war of independence launched by the Catholic priest Miguel HIdelgo y Costilla with his Cry of Dolores or “El Grito de Dolores”- ending Spanish rule. This cry of independence was first exclaimed in Mexico on September 16 when the Spanish were defeated in 1810.
I learned my Mexican history from TV, i must admit, from the stories many of us watched like Zorro which have been re-written as movies in the last few years. I took a particular shine to Zorro in part because of my own name being similar or at least it seemed like it to a 5 year old.
But all kidding aside, it is valuable to know that much that we call Mexican cuisine in this country is Spanish and is not authentically Mexican. However, this is changing since neither the Spanish nor the French were able to impose their cuisine on Mexicans which was in fact vegetarian in large measure before Cortez arrived . The Spanish brought beasts of burden to farm and to raise for consumption. Cows, pigs, goats. sheep and chickens were all brought to the new world and in many respects imposed on Mexicans. But many indigenous people held on to their own cuisine within the regions where they lived. It came to be called Meso-American cooking with European, especially Spanish influences.
Basic Mexican cooking has become more popular of late, and some of it can even be labeled haute cuisine today as we rediscover Mexican history through holidays like Cinco de Mayo and the foods Mexicans and other Latin people continue to introduce to us. Foods like corn, beans and chile peppers have brought us culinary specialties many people love. Corn souffle or red beans and rice come to mind. The region of Qaxaca in south central Mexico specializes in moles, the unique sauces that often include Mexican chocolate and nuts. The regions of Veracruz, Yucatan, and Chiapas bring us seafood recipes that make our mouths water.
Rick Bayless the Chicago Chef who runs two different Mexican restaurants in Chicago and a new one to open in Los Angeles called The Red O contributes to this new Mexican food. He has opened our eyes and our tastes to authentic Mexican cuisine such as Pork Tinga with Potatoes, Avocado, and Fresh Cheese; and, Spicy Grilled Chicken with Creamy Pumpkin Mole Sauce published in Bon Appétit.
And this movement towards recognizing and appreciating Mexican cuisine in no small measure is influenced by the growth of the Mexican population in the United States. For example, it was startling to learn when i visited my home town, Des Moines Iowa, this past Summer that the population of the City has grown to over 200,000 with 30,000 Mexican Americans. Nationwide Mexicans now consist of 17% or 53 Million of the nation’s population, and is expected to grow to over 30% by 2060.
Is there any question why Latins in general are having a more important impact on our everyday lives, our politics and our culinary tastes and preferences. Salsa is fast approaching the most popular condiment next to ketchup. And as i have illustrated below, “comida Mexicana” / Mexican food, can be healthy for us as well.
Mexican Style Lasagna Serves 8-10
2 Lbs. large corn tortillas cut into three inch strips
Bechamel, 3 cups
Monterey Jack cheese, 2 1/2 cups
tomato sauce, with fresh basil, 2 cups
1 bunch red chard, ribs removed and leaves cut into thirds
6 large carrots cut vertically into slices
2 poblanos, roasted, peeled, deveined removing stem, and thinly sliced and diced. Poblanos are not that spicy (only 4 on a scale of 1- 10 ) but only add one diced chile if you prefer muting the spiciness.
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, toasted
4-5 ounces of unsalted butter
6 tablespoons unbleached flour
2 cups regular milk
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon diced onion
1 teaspoon crushed cloves
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Béchamel consists of butter, milk and flour. It’s one of the classic French Mother Sauces. It is usually seasoned with onions or shallots, nutmeg, cloves and a pinch of salt.
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, but don't let it brown — about 2 minutes. Add the hot milk, a bit at a time, continuing to stir or whisk as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a boil. Add nutmeg and cloves, cumin, salt and pepper to taste, lower the heat, and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove from the heat. To cool this sauce for later use, cover it with wax paper or pour a small amount of milk over it to prevent a skin from forming.
2. Make the tomato sauce by adding a 15 ounce can of tomato puree with 1/2 cup chopped basil and 2 teaspoon of sea salt. Mix at medium heat for 20 minutes while simmering. Taste and set aside off the burner.
3. Roast the poblanos at 425 F on both sides for 30-40 minutes until the chilies begin to lightly blacken in color. Remove from oven and place a towel over them to steam for about 10 minutes. Then peel under faucet removing stems, seeds, and veins. Slice the chilies into 1/2 inch strips and then medium dice.
4. Toast the breadcrumbs at 400 F for 1-2 minutes and set aside. Careful not to overcook. Or you can toast in a medium size skillet until light brown.
5. Peel and thinly cut the carrots vertically and steam or poach for 2-3 minutes.
6. Remove the chard ribs and cut the leaves into thirds. Rinse well and leaving the leaves moist place in a medium skillet. Cover the leaves and heat at high temperature for 2-3 minutes until wilted. Remove and set aside.
7. Cut the large corn tortillas into 3 inch wide slices
8. Begin to assemble the lasagna by layering the ingredients. Pour the béchamel, the cheese and the tomato sauce, which has cooled off, into one mixing bowl and gently mix for a minute. Pour one cup of sauce on the bottom. Next add the tortillas strips. Follow by adding about 1/3 cup of chard next, followed by 1/3 cup of carrots, followed by 1/3 of the diced poblamos.
9. Repeat the layers two more times if room— other wise, only make 2 layers. Add sauce; noodles; chard leaves; carrots; and poblanos. Finishing on top with all the breadcrumbs.
10. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 1 hour at 375 F. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes more at 400 F. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
This classic Mexican style lasagna can vary by your tastes. You might enjoy adding red or yellow Italian peppers. Springtime provides a wealth of asparagus to also consider. Contact Chef Zox with questions or comments at: [email protected] And visit our new website at www.zoxkitchen.com where you will find all of my articles, blogs, cooking classes and catering options.