Mexican food isn't something I cook too often, even though Significant Eater and I really like to eat it. It's certainly not easy to find great Mexican food in a restaurant here in NYC. Sure, there's Rosa Mexicano and Zarela's, but they've been around forever in restaurant years, and the food has seen better days. They don't offer much, to my taste, for the price/value experience.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are some very good taquerias where you can grab a taco al pastor or a fish taco for $3 or $4; for instance, Pinche Taqueria on Mott St. (with a 2nd location on Lafayette) does a nice job. There are taco trucks and the Red Hook Ball Fields, where the aroma of grilled corn and freshly made tortillas fills the air; there are señoras strolling about the streets (in midtown!) with carts filled with homemade tamales for $1, as well as tiny counters tucked into the backs of bodegas on Avenue B and 10th Avenue as well. (Don't tell the DOH, please). These are where you're getting the best bite for the buck, imo.
And then there's cooking at home. I mean, that's what I do, isn't it? And I do it a lot...just not a lot of Mexican - though maybe it's time for a change. First, I went out and bought "us" a tortilla press for about $20. I figure if I can bake some decent breads, why shouldn't our tortillas be home made too? And since it's a basic staple of the cuisine, why not start there? So now I'm making tortillas, and even the first tortillas I made at home were light years beyond the ones in the plastic packages sold in the dairy section of my supermarket. Once the dough is mixed, it's baked on a griddle - it takes all of about 2 minutes and they look like this:
If you notice they're puffing up, that's all good, 'cause when they're made right, that's what they do. And the griddle that's being used comes in handy for roasting tomatoes and garlic and chiles and onions too...
Of course, no one can exist on tortillas and salsa, can they? And, since we were having a little dinner party with a few neighbors, I figured as long as I was playing with Mexican, I might as well stick my neck out and go for it - so two of the dishes I tried were mole coloradito (red Oaxacan mole) and pork carnitas. Coloradito is one of the Seven Moles of Oaxaca; Oaxaca, interestingly enough, is known as the Land of the Seven Moles. Let me say this about moles: they have a lot of ingredients. Coloradito, the simplest of the moles, has about 15 ingredients, including 2 types of chiles (ancho and guajillo), sesame seeds, roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, onions, day-old bread, plantain, cloves, cinnamon, oregano, allspice, Mexican chocolate, chicken stock, etc. Yikes.
I started off by poaching a dozen chicken thighs, along with various other chicken parts. When the thighs were almost cooked through, they were removed and the remaining parts were left to simmer for hours to make a tasty stock. As that was going on, the mole was prepared - starting with the roasting of the dried chiles on that griddle above, and causing Significant Eater, the cat and me to cough and sneeze as the apartment filled with the smoke from the roasting chiles. The mole is best started a day or two before using - that allows the flavors to mellow and get to know each other; it's finished by simmering the thighs in the sauce thinned with some stock. We all thought the brick-red mole was delicious, and check out the color:
I also wanted to try carnitas; the recipes I culled from various sources were all pretty easy. 4 pounds or so of pork shoulder, cut into cubes and braised in water seasoned with oregano, onions, garlic, orange rind, and a few other tasties.
When the pork was tender, I shredded it a bit with two forks and let it and let the braising liquid reduce; then the pork is left to fry in its own fat till nice and brown and crispy...and it's delicious served on the warm corn tortillas.
Along with the tortillas, mole and carnitas, I made guacamole, roasted tomato salsa, salsa verde cruda (raw green tomatillo sauce) and a creamy avocado salsa. Neighbors brought shrimp tamales, a multi-layered bean dip, roasted poblano crema, and lots and lots of beer and we made micheladas too. Micheladas are wonderfully refreshing and a great way to drink that beer. Recipes are here...they're great in the summer and you really ought to try them.
So who needs mediocre Mexican restaurants when food this good can be prepared at home?