Cinco de Mayo in Mexico City

It’s May – time for the holiday that most of us associate with Mexico – Cinco de Mayo (the “5th of May”). This holiday commemorates the victory of the Mexican Army over the French Army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It is not, as many Americans believe, Mexican Independence Day. That honor goes to the 16th of September (1810), when a Catholic priest named Hidalgo cried “Mexicanos, Viva Mexico!” and unintentionally unleashed a very bloody war by the lower classes (native Indians and Mexican-born Spaniards) against the Spanish-born upper classes for independence from Spain. For more information on this and other fascinating facts of Mexican history, not to mention tourist info, check out http://www.mexonline.com .

David and I just spent a week in Mexico City. We were fortunate to have family staying there for a few months, so we took advantage of free accommodations and flew down. It was a really terrific experience, even if the traffic and the air pollution seemed just a little too much like home!

I have to admit that I was a little wary of the food situation in Mexico City. I know that here in the U.S. it can be difficult to eat vegan at any of the authentic Mexican taquerias. Most of them stick to the old ways and fry everything in lard (manteca). A popular option at one of the places in our old ‘hood was tripe tacos. Seeing those on the menu was an early indicator to me that the veggie pickings were likely to be slim. Even if you can find an authentic Mexican place that doesn’t fry everything in lard, the vegan options are basically non-existent. I used to joke that at most Mexican restaurants, if you order from the vegetarian section of the menu, the waiter typically asks if you want cheese with your cheese.

I was pleasantly surprised to find, then, that there are several vegetarian places in Mexico City, including a chain called “Super Soya”, and that veganism isn’t unheard of. Fruit juice and salad shops abound. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask the right questions of the street vendors, but some of the snack food on the street looked like it might be vegan as well. We had kitchen facilities, so after long days of sight-seeing (and big lunches), we prepared simple suppers of corn tortillas, refried beans, avocado, tomato salsa, and some luscious ripe tropical fruit and were very, very happy.

After coming home, I’ve spent some time trying to replicate some of the more unusual dishes we enjoyed in Mexico, and exploring other items I didn’t get a chance to try while there, like cactus leaves (nopales) and vegan tamales. Several of the recipes that follow are based on items in Nancy Zaslavsky’s Mexican Meatless Home Cooking (1997, St. Martin’s Press) — an invaluable resource. I have made several other dishes from this book and they have all been delicious. Choosing which ones to share with you was difficult. For more authentic vegan Mexican recipes, check out http://mexicanfood.about.com/ and look under “Vegetarian” recipes on the left sidebar. That’s where I found the chili tamale recipe. There are several vegan recipes listed there and, so far, I haven’t been disappointed.

Here are some fun Mexican food facts. Those things we call “tacos” – the ones with the hard, fried shells – don’t exist in Mexico. They are a Tex-Mex invention. “Tacos” in Mexico are made with soft corn tortillas. Don’t order a “burrito” in Mexico City unless you have need of a small donkey. The “burritos” that we eat originated in the northern Mexican border states. The limes we usually see in the United States are Persian limes. The smaller limes from Mexico are botanically the same as Key limes. They are sweeter than Persian limes, with a lovely perfume.

Not all of these ingredients will be available at Sevananda. I don’t know if there is a reliable source for organic cactus paddles, for example. We have such a vibrant Mexican community here in Atlanta, however, that I don’t think you’ll have trouble finding any of these ingredients at your local supermarket. If you do, check out one of our numerous Mexican markets.

Hot Tortilla Chips with Lime and Salt

Recipe by Nancy Zaslavsky, Meatless Mexican Home Cooking
Serving Size: 4
Preparation Time: 20 minutes

2 cups vegetable oil for frying
12 corn tortillas (preferably day-old)
1 Persian lime or 2 Key or Mexican limes
2 tablespoons kosher salt or coarse sea salt

1. Heat the oil to 375 F. Meanwhile, cut the tortillas by stacking 6 at a time and cutting through the pile into sixths or eighths, depending on the size of the tortillas.

2. Separate the piles and fry a handful at a time until crisp. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on a double layer of paper towels.

3. Squirt with fresh lime juice and sprinkle with salt while hot. Continue with the remaining tortilla pieces, adding more lime and salt. Serve as hot as possible.
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Lisa’s notes – this took about 3 minutes per batch in my fryer, but keep an eye on the chips. They should be golden, but not brown. Brown chips will be bitter. If not fried long enough, however, they will end up chewy.

Don’t try to fry too many of the chips at once or you will cool the oil down and cause the chips to end up soggy and greasy instead of light and crisp.

Be sure to separate the tortillas before cutting them or the chips will stick together and not fry up properly.

Peanut oil is the best oil for frying (it has a very high smoking point), but you can use soy, safflower, or canola.

The recipe recommends day-old tortillas because they absorb less oil.

Guacamole

Recipe by Nancy Zaslavsky, Meatless Mexican Home Cooking
Serving Size: 6
Preparation Time: 5 minutes

2 Hass (Haas) avocados, ripe and soft
2 Key or Mexican limes or 1 Persian lime
salt, optional

1. Cut the avocados in half, remove the pits, and scoop flesh into a bowl.

2. With a fork, mash the avocado so it’s a bit lumpy — not a puree. Add the lime juice and mix lightly. Salt is unnecessary because corn chips have plenty. If you’re dipping with vegetables, add salt to taste.
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Lisa’s notes: I used to add lots of stuff to my guac, but now that I just add a little lime and salt, I think it’s much better!

Per serving: 111 Calories; 10g Fat (75% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 6g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 7mg Sodium
Food Exchanges: 1/2 Vegetable; 2 Fat
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Peanut Salsa

Recipe by Lisa Bennett, adapted from Nancy Zaslavsky
Serving Size: 8
Preparation Time: 35 minutes

1 cup salsa of your choice
1/3 cup roasted peanuts (unsalted)

1. Choose a high-quality salsa, preferably one made with fire-roasted tomatoes and plenty of garlic. Use your favorite peanuts, either dry- or oil-roasted. (If the only peanuts you have are salted, that’s OK. Salt is optional, but there will be plenty in the salsa and on the chips, so don’t over-do it.)

2. Grind the salsa and peanuts together until they form a coarse puree.

3. Let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature to allow flavors to mingle before serving.
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Per serving: 43 Calories; 3g Fat (60% calories from fat); 2g Protein; 3g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 133mg Sodium
Food Exchanges: 1/2 Vegetable; 1/2 Fat

Lentil Soup with Plantains (Sopa de Lentejas)

Recipe by Nancy Zaslavsky, Meatless Mexican Home Cooking
Serving Size: 8
Preparation Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large white onions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice (or 3 grinds whole allspice)
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste – omit/reduce if veg broth is salty)
black pepper to taste (generous)
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 cups brown lentils
2 quarts vegetable broth
2 ripe plantains (black skins), peeled and sliced on the diagonal
2 limes, preferably Key or Mexican

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pot. Saute the chopped onion until transparent, then add the garlic, cumin, and allspice and cook until the mixture is golden brown. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, and half the cilantro. Cook together for 3 minutes.
2. Add the lentils and broth. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 1 hour. Taste for seasoning.
3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet and brown the plantain slices on both sides.
4. Ladle the soup into bowls, and top each with plantain slices. Sprinkle with the remaining cilantro. Serve with fresh lime wedges.
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Lisa’s notes: According to Nancy Zaslavsky, this soup is popular during Lent. The fried slices of plantains add an intriguing flavor and texture to a lovely change-of-pace lentil soup.

This is the same soup that we had at a restaurant in Mexico City called El Comedor Vegetariano. Founded in 1935, they are open from 1-6 daily, and serve lovely 5-course vegetarian lunches for 35 pesos, or about $3.25 USD.

Per serving: 433 Calories; 12g Fat (23% calories from fat); 18g Protein; 69g Carbohydrate; 2mg Cholesterol; 1905mg Sodium
Food Exchanges: 3 Starch/Bread; 1 Lean Meat; 1/2 Vegetable; 1 Fruit; 2 1/2 Fat

Cactus Paddles with Onions, Tomatoes and Chiles (Nopales )
Cactus are grown as a food crop all around Mexico City. We saw ones as much as 10-feet tall in kitchen gardens.
Recipe by Nancy Zaslavsky, Meatless Mexican Home Cooking
Serving Size: 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

1 pound nopales paddles, cleaned and trimmed
1/2 white onions
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium white onions, chopped
2 jalapenos, stemmed, seeded
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons cilantro or epazote, chopped

1. Cut the paddles into 2-inch strips at 1/4-inch width. Boil in 3 quarts boiling, salted water with the piece of onion for 5 minutes and drain. Run cold water over the nopales to eliminate their slimy texture. Bring another 3 quarts of water to a boil and return the nopales to the boiling water for 10 minutes, until tender. Drain. If not serving immediately, run cold water over them to stop the cooking process. Set aside.
2. 10 minutes before serving: Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the chopped onion and saute until transparent. Add the garlic and chiles, cooking and stirring until golden. Add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes. Add the cooked nopales and cilantro and heat through.
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Notes: Fresh nopales and prickly pears are sold with their biggest needles scraped off. Scrape off any straggling needles. Cut off the tough base end, then trim the outer edge around the circumference. With a heavy knife, scrape off the bumps where the needles grew out of the paddles — on both sides — but do not remove the entire skin.

Nopales are slimy, but boiling and rinsing them will take care of the slime.

You can substitute green beans for the nopales as they are used interchangeably in Mexico.

Per serving (excluding unknown items): 107 Calories; 7g Fat (57% calories from fat); 2g Protein; 10g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 12mg Sodium
Food Exchanges: 2 Vegetable; 1 1/2 Fat
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Chili Tamales

Recipe adapted from Geraldine Duncann, http://www.mexicanfood.about.com
Serving Size: 12
Preparation Time: 1 hr 30 minutes

1 package dry corn husks
12 Anaheim chili peppers, roasted
3 cups masa harina (cornmeal for making tortillas)
1/2 cup olive oil
hot water
the kernels from 2 ears of corn (or 1 cup frozen corn kernels)
10 cloves garlic, roasted
2 green onions, chopped fine
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
chili powder, dry chili flakes, salt, and pepper to taste

1. Separate dried corn husks and soak in hot water for at least an hour to soften. Squeeze out as much water as possible, clean away the silks and sort by size. Wrap in plastic bag to keep moist and pliable.

2. Roast the chilies and gently remove the seeds trying not to split them. Put the masa harina into a large bowl and add the oil. Add enough hot, not boiling water to form into a pliable dough. Mix thoroughly and then knead until it is malleable Add the remaining ingredients and mix gently yet thoroughly. Very gently use this mixture to stuff the chilies. This part is quite tedious because the chilies are determined to split. If they do, don’t worry too much.

3. When all the chilies are stuffed, wrap them in the largest of the softened corn husks. Using string or thin strips of corn husk, tie shut. Place your little bundles of masa stuffed chilies in a steamer and steam for about one hour. These are excellent served hot or cold. Serve with salsa of choice.

Geraldine Duncann notes: I have never seen these outside the kitchen of my friend in Oaxaca.

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Lisa’s notes: I make these even easier by using prepared canned whole green chilies and raw garlic. The filling steams long enough to mellow the garlic, and the canned chilies make this a reasonable option for weeknight suppers.

You can also add shredded “Follow Your Heart” brand vegan cheese to the filling, either the Nacho or Monterrey Jack flavor (or a bit of both). It melts and adds a nice “gooey” quality.

If you have leftover filling, wrap it in the husks without the chilies for plain tamales.

Line your steamer basket with the smaller pieces of corn husk that you didn’t use for making the tamales. They will keep the tamales from sticking.

Per serving (excluding unknown items): 240 Calories; 11g Fat (37% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 35g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 14mg Sodium
Food Exchanges: 2 Starch/Bread; 1 1/2 Vegetable; 2 Fat
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