When I was growing up in the Midwest, "Mexican food" meant neon-hued nacho cheese sauce, cheese-packed enchiladas, and crunchy tacos. It wasn't until college that my horizons were broadened beyond the world of Tex-Mex. Since then, I've worked hard to play catch-up, eating more than my fair share of much more traditional Mexican food.
It's impossible to condense all of the country's food into one list, but these 22 Mexican recipes are a good start. Keep reading for Mexican favorites like pozole verde, Mexican-style shrimp cocktail, and tender cochinita pibil.
Huevos rancheros is a simple breakfast of tortillas topped with fried eggs and salsa. With a good-quality jarred salsa, it could be made in just minutes, but even if you opt to make your own salsa, you can put the whole dish together in less than half an hour. The smoky, wickedly spicy salsa gets its flavor from dried chilies and canned crushed tomatoes. If you want to go all out, serve with homemade refried beans.
"Chilaquiles" sounds a lot more appetizing than "soggy breakfast nachos," but that's basically what this dish is. All you have to do to make it is fold together tortilla chips and salsa verde in a pan; top with Mexican crema, crumbled cheese, sliced onions, and chopped cilantro; and finish with a fried egg. Crunchy homemade tortilla chips retain their texture better than store-bought, and the quick salsa verde you'll make to go with them will be better than anything that comes out of a jar.
This colorful take on chilaquiles also combines home-fried chips and salsa verde, but adds spicy Mexican chorizo along with the fried eggs. We save a portion of the freshly fried chips to add at the end of cooking, ensuring a nice bit of crunch in every bite. A garnish of quick-pickled red onion and thinly sliced radishes provides sharp, vibrant contrast with the rest of the dish.
This chile verde tastes like it took hours to make, but with the help of a pressure cooker, you'll need only 15 minutes of active time and a little bit of sitting-around time. Essentially, all you have to do is dump cubed pork shoulder and roughly chopped vegetables into the pot, then let the pressure do all the work—you don't even need stock, because the veggies will release plenty of their own liquid. This recipe works well with chicken for a chicken chile verde, too.
Traditional pozole verde is sometimes made over the course of days, but thanks to a few shortcuts, ours can be prepared on a weeknight. We cook everything in batches and sear the soup after blending, which gives it a remarkably complex flavor in no time at all. Canned hominy is another key to cutting down on prep time here—while purists may scoff, we like its toothsome bite.
Making a truly traditional sopa de lima requires Yucatecan lima ágria, a very sour lime that's basically impossible to find in the States. Our recipe mimics the fruit's acidity and bitterness by using a mixture of lime and grapefruit juices. Turkey is the most authentic protein here, but if you don't mind one more nontraditional twist, feel free to use chicken in its place.
I love Mexican shrimp cocktail—poached shrimp in a sauce made with ketchup, onion, cilantro, and citrus juice—but I find some versions to be a little too sweet. Replacing some of the ketchup with tomato purée, as we do here, gives the sauce a more balanced flavor. Dry-brining the shrimp, starting them in cold water, and not heating them past 170°F (77°C)—as we recommend in our tips for making better shrimp—ensures they'll come out plump and juicy.
Aguachile is a Sinaloan dish made with raw shrimp, lime juice, chilies, cucumber, and onion. That ingredient list might make it sound just like ceviche, and it is in fact similar—the difference is that aguachile is served immediately after the shrimp is added to the marinade, before the acid has a chance to "cook" the fish. Once you've tried this classic version, check out our aguachile variations made with scallops and arctic char.
Making tacos al pastor the traditional way requires some serious gear—it involves skewering a huge stack of marinated pork shoulder slices vertically on a rotisserie, then cooking it for hours. But not all of us are lucky enough to have access to that kind of time or equipment. This recipe trades out a large rotisserie for individual skewers, transforming the typical al pastor into handheld portions of marinated pork and juicy pineapple. We grill the skewers over hot coals until the meat is tender and charred and the pineapple's sugars have concentrated.
Even if you're making al pastor for tacos, as is more traditional, you don't need a trompo in your backyard to get great results—you can nail the flavor by slow-roasting the pork in a loaf pan, slicing it, and crisping it up in a skillet. The pork will release plenty of fat as it cooks, some of which we brush onto the roasted pineapple to infuse it with extra flavor.
Chicken tinga is most often made with fresh Mexican chorizo, which can be a little tough to find in the States (though, as you'll learn below, you can also make it yourself!). This easy version captures most of the same flavors by using browned tomatoes, tomatillos, and garlic; chipotles in adobo; and dried Mexican oregano. The resulting saucy, smoky, and spicy chicken is just begging to be folded into homemade corn tortillas for tacos.
Remember how I said fresh Mexican chorizo is hard to find? That just means that if you want it, you'll need to take matters into your own hands. To make chorizo at home, we grind up pork shoulder with an assortment of spices, including Mexican oregano, cumin, and cloves. The toughest spice to find here is the ground achiote—because it's there mainly for color, you can feel free to leave it out.
Making carnitas the old-fashioned way isn't necessarily difficult, but it does require a bucket of lard, which you may not tend to keep on hand at all times. Our oven-based method cuts down on the waste, but using a sous vide circulator makes it even easier: Sealed in vacuum bags and held at a stable, precise temperature for between eight and 36 hours, the pork will tenderize in its own juices and turn especially moist. Once it's cooked, simply shred and crisp it up in a pan on the stovetop or under the broiler.
Order cochinita pibil in a Mexican-American restaurant, and you'll likely be confronted with bland, dry roast pork. The real deal, though, is incredibly tender, with a uniquely sweet, earthy aroma imparted by bitter Seville oranges, achiote, and charred garlic. Luckily, you don't need a traditional pib to get a comparable dish. Like lima ágria, Seville oranges are pretty hard to find in the States—a combination of lime, navel orange, and grapefruit juices works as a substitute.
There are a million ways to make carne asada; this one, admittedly, teeters on the edge of Tex-Mex, but it's absolutely delicious just the same. Our secret is adding a bit of soy sauce and fish sauce to the marinade, which doesn't make the skirt steak taste like fish but does give it a little umami boost. Using whole dried chilies and canned chipotles in adobo for the marinade provides much better flavor than ground chili powder.
Most traditional Mexican tacos don't contain any cheese, but every rule has exceptions. At Wayan'e, a bustling taco stand in the Yucatecan city of Mérida, cooks sprinkle cheese onto meat while it's still on the flattop so that it melts and crisps. You could apply this technique to any meat filling; here, we use a Yucatecan slow-cooked pork belly preparation called castacán.
Pita bread in Mexico? No, this isn't some forced attempt at fusion—Arab immigrants brought lamb shawarma with them to Mexico from the Middle East, and thus tacos árabes were born. The lamb gave way to pork, but flavors like cumin, oregano, and onions remained, perfectly in sync with both the tacos' Middle Eastern origins and its new Mexican home. Since the pork filling is wrapped in soft pita bread, tacos árabes are a particularly good choice if you live in a place where good tortillas are hard to find (i.e., most of the US).
Most tacos are served and eaten à la minute—immediately after assembly. Tacos de canasta, on the other hand, are layered in a basket to steam first; because they're made in advance by definition, and get better as they sit, they're ideal for a taco party. Technically, you can use whatever fillings you want, but anything high-moisture will make the tortillas too soggy. Stick with drier choices, like refried beans, potatoes, or braised meats that have been drained of excess liquid.
The best tamale dough is made by whipping lard, salt, and baking powder together, then mixing in chicken stock and fresh masa. It's easy to find fresh masa in my neighborhood, but many of you might find it harder to come by—luckily, masa harina is widely available and works fine for this purpose. Here, we fill the dough with chicken thigh meat and red chili sauce, but try our variations with Poblano peppers and Oaxacan cheese or green chili and pork, too.
A typical order of chiles rellenos at a Tex-Mex restaurant consists of a canned pepper stuffed with cheese, smothered in sauce, and blanketed with even more cheese. This more traditional version of the dish is made with roasted fresh Poblanos, which we stuff with homemade chorizo and cheese, fry, and serve with homemade salsa that gets seared for extra flavor.
Unlike a Roosevelt Avenue–style cemita, which is stuffed with all the same fixings you'd find at a Mexican-American taco cart, a Pueblan-style cemita is a more restrained affair, featuring fried cutlets, avocado, onion, queso oaxaca, and canned hot peppers. For the true Pueblo experience, you'll need to seek out papalo, a Mexican herb with a floral, cilantro-like flavor—look for it in a well-stocked Mexican grocery.
Okay, this particular quesadilla recipe isn't all that traditional, but quesadillas are a part of Mexican cuisine, and the technique for making a great one doesn't really change all that much based on the combination of fillings. We've found that mixing the cheese with the other fillings, instead of layering them, distributes them more evenly, while cooking the quesadilla in plenty of oil over medium heat, moving and swirling it often, leaves it delightfully golden brown and puffy. For more variations, try our quesadillas with spicy chicken or corn and zucchini.
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