The October CHEF’S BOX is inspired by memories of Mexican street food. It is curated by two Canadian food makers – Eugenio Salas from Slow Cooking Sauces and Rossana Ascencio from Original Mexican Gourmet. We had a chance to catch up with Eugenio to learn about his favourite authentic Mexican recipes and best tips for Mexican cooking.
My passion for cooking developed when I was a kid. I remember coming home from school and hanging out in the kitchen with my grandma Ana María and Carmela, a woman who would help her with the cooking. I would have a snack with them and try all the dishes they had made for lunch (Mexican lunch is the heaviest meal of the day and is usually served in the late afternoon). Growing up in my grandparents’ house, there were always lots of people coming and going, and food was the element that held us together. There was a longstanding tradition of trading foods among relatives or friends. The recipients return the dishes with new meals and the circle never ends. The golden rule is: you never return an empty plate – unless you want to end the relationship! So there is always a element of surprise on the dinner table and memories of people are attached to their dishes.
The first thing I remember cooking is tortillas. Carmela would make fresh tortillas and salsas from scratch every day. She would make me a “frog” (ranita in Spanish), which is a steaming hot tortilla sprinkled with coarse salt and squeezed by hand until it forms a dumpling. So good! I also remember the great pleasure of making chilaquiles verdes on Saturday mornings with my mom. Peeling and roasting tomatillos, cutting and frying tortillas, and then topping it off with cheese and egg. I owe my love of making sauces and knowledge of seasoning to my mom. From the time that I was little she taught me how to build flavour with heat, acidity, sweetness, and herbs.
My favourite Mexican dish to eat is goat stew (birria de borrego in Spanish). Birria is traditionally slow-cooked and buried in the ground for 8 hours, so it is usually served for special occasions only. Luckily, you can take a shortcut by using a slow cooker (please don’t mention this to your Mexican friends!).
If I could pick one classic Mexican recipe that everyone should try, it would be Micheladas, which are the most popular beer drink in Mexico and can easily be customized to your own taste in terms of spice, sourness, and heat. My favourite ‘forgotten’ Mexican recipe is Steamed cactus with melted Oaxaca cheese.
Dry chilies are the one ingredient that I would bring home in my suitcase from Mexico (I hope Canada Customs doesn’t read this!). There so many different kinds for use in specific recipes, and some are not available in Canada.
My top tips for cooking Mexican dishes are:
- Peeling Poblano Peppers: Char your chilies on an open flame or BBQ. Once blackened, place them in a bowl covered with Saran Wrap and let them rest for 5 minutes. The condensation will make it easier to peel the skin off.
- Storing Cilantro: Once the cilantro is washed and chopped, layer small quantities between sheets of paper towel and place in a plastic container or bag. Your cilantro will keep fresh longer and be ready to eat one layer at a time.
I think that the most interesting places to eat right now are in the ‘burbs. I love a restaurant in Mississauga called Guru Lukshmi that serves South Indian food. Their specialty is dosas – crispy and delicious Indian pancakes made with fermented batter. They have a wide array of options, some more traditional, and others more inventive and fun (like adding dried fruits and candies to the batter). Despite the high volume, the quality is consistent and service is fast and flexible. Customers can even choose the level of heat and oil in their food. Pretty amazing. The place is busy all the time – even late in the evening you will see entire families with small children munching on dosas and having a great time, which is something that brings me back to the experience of eating out in Mexico.