Sunday, January 15, 2012

January: A Mexican Menu

I'm kicking off 2012 with the flavors of Mexico.  Chili powder, cumin, garlic, oregano, coriander, cilantro, citrus, tomatoes, corn, rice, pinto and black beans, and flour and corn tortillas are staples of the Mexican pantry.  If you keep these staples in your pantry, you'll never be far from a tasty south-of-the-border meal.

On the menu is Puerco Pibil with Pickled Onions, Sopapillas, Slow-Cooked Pinto Beans, Savory Rice, Red Chili Sauce, and for dessert, Pumpkin Empanadas.

Let's get started!

Puerco Pibil

Puerco Pibil, or Pork cooked in a pit, is an example of the classic low heat braising method used in many cultures around the world.  Since most of us don't want to dig a deep hole in the yard to accommodate this method, this recipe can be prepared in a clay baker or Dutch oven, or you can use a crock pot.  Either method will produce a very moist and flavorful meat ready to serve right from the cooking pot, or you can shred the meat and use it as a filling.  Yum!

Ingredients for the marinade:

4 Tbs. achiote paste (This is a key ingredient and can be found at Mexican grocers or well-stocked  regular grocery stores.  You can also make your own using this recipe:
2/3 cup fresh orange juice
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
4 large cloves garlic, pressed
2 large jalapeno peppers, chopped (or you can use habanero peppers for extra heat)
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. pepper
3 tsp. salt

5 lbs. pork butt, cut into 4" cubes

Put all the marinade ingredients into a blender.  Blend until smooth.  Put the pork into a large zip-top bag and sprinkle with a couple teaspoons salt. Pour the marinade into the bag with the pork.  Work the marinade all around the pork cubes and set the bag in the fridge at least overnight, but up to 24 hours.

To cook the pork, preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Place the pork into a clay baker with a tight fitting lid or a Dutch oven.  Cover the pork with aluminum foil before putting the lid on.  Bake the pork for 4-5 hours until the meat is so tender that it pulls easily into shreds.  (If you're really feeling like you want an authentic experience, you can line your cooking vessel with soaked banana leaves and wrap the leaves around the pork before putting the lid on the pot.)

Alternatively, you can cook the pork in a crock pot set on low for 6-8 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.  You won't get exactly the same result as you would cooking it in the oven, but it will be wonderful none the less.  Serve with Pickled Onions.

Pickled Onions

1 large red onion, sliced very thinly into rings (I use a mandoline to get very thin-1/8" thick-slices)
2 1/2 tsp. salt
6 cups water

1/2 cup white vinegar
3 whole allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. salt

In a 3-qt pot, stir together onions, water and salt.  Bring the mixture to a boil and boil for 1 minute.  Remove the onion mixture from the heat.

In a large bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients.  Strain the onions from the hot water using a pasta spoon and place the onions into the vinegar mixture.  Add enough of the hot water from the pot to cover the onions.  Set the onions aside to cool.  Once the onions have cooled, put the onions and brine into a quart jar with a lid and set aside for at least 24 hours.  Serve with the pork.


These soft, puffy little pillows of fried bread make a wonderful pocket for meat fillings, or serve them with honey or agave nectar for an end-of-meal treat.  While not truly Mexican (they're really a Native American tradition), sopapillas are eaten widely throughout Latin America so I've included them here.

1/4 cup hot water
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 cups very hot milk
2 Tbs. lard
2 Tbs. shortening
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. sugar
4-5 cups bread flour
Oil for frying


Mix together the water, yeast, and sugar in a 2-cup measuring cup.  Set aside to proof the yeast.

Pour the hot milk into a large mixing bowl.  Add the lard and shortening and stir  until the fats are melted.  Add the salt and sugar and stir.  Add half of the flour and mix with a long-handled wooden spoon or use one of my favorite tools, a Danish dough hook (available here:  Add the yeast mixture and stir.  Add the remaining flour and mix as much as you can with the spoon or dough hook.  Using your hands, knead the dough right in the bowl (it saves counter clean-up) until it is smooth and soft.  Coat the dough with cooking spray and cover with a lid or plastic wrap.  Set in a warm spot to rise until doubled.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface or use a pastry mat.  Divide the dough in half and return half to the mixing bowl.  Roll out the remaining dough into a large rectangle that is a scant 1/4" thick. (If the dough is too thick, you may have difficulty getting it to puff when you fry it).  Cut into 3" squares.  Don't worry if you end up with odd shapes around the edges.  These will fry up just as well, just not square.

Heat a heavy-bottomed deep skillet over medium high heat.  Add oil (I like to use sunflower or peanut oil for frying) to a depth of about 2".  Check the heat of your oil by dropping in one of the small odd-shaped pieces of dough.  If the dough starts to bubble and float to the top of the oil after about 15 seconds, the oil is just about right for cooking.  If the dough browns immediately, turn down the heat a bit.  If the dough just sinks to the bottom of the pan and sits there with no bubble action, the oil is not hot enough.

Cook the dough in batches, turning the dough as needed to cook both sides.  The dough should puff up into big pillows, but some may not.  That's okay.  They taste good anyway.  Carefully remove the sopapillas to paper towels to absorb excess oil.  Serve immediately, or keep warm in the oven. 

Red Chili Sauce (Enchilada Sauce)

This sauce can be used for many different dishes.  The most familiar use is for enchiladas, but I use it as a general sauce to make Mexican rice bowls or to serve over nachos.

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 Tbs. good quality chili powder (I use Penzey's Chili 3000)
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. salt (you may have to add more)
8 oz. tomato sauce
6 cups water


Heat a large heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium-high heat.  Add flour to pan and stir with a whisk until the flour starts to brown and smells nutty.  Watch the flour carefully.  As soon as the flour starts to turn brown, it can go from a beautiful golden brown to a dark burnt brown very quickly.  If your flour burns, simply start over with fresh flour.

Remove pan from the heat and continue to stir the flour.  Add the chili powder, cumin and salt.  Stir to combine.  Remove the flour mixture from the pan and set aside.

Pour the water and tomato sauce into the empty pan.  Return to heat and stir in the flour mixture with a whisk.  Heat to a rolling boil and then turn the heat down to low and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce thickens a bit.  Taste the sauce and add salt, if necessary.  Your sauce is ready to use in your favorite recipe, or it can be stored in the fridge for about a week.  The sauce also freezes well if you put the sauce into quart freezer bags, let them cool to room temperature, and then place flat in the freezer until frozen solid.  Label and freeze for up to three months.

Savory Rice

Rice seems like such a basic food that you may wonder why I include a "recipe" for making it.  I grew up in a rice averse house.  I asked my mom why she rarely made rice and she told me it was because she couldn't get rice to taste good.  It was usually bland and pasty tasting.  You may have the same relationship with rice, but you'll change your mind after you make this recipe.  This rice is what I call a base rice.  I think it tastes wonderful on its own, but it makes anything you eat with it taste that much better.


3 Tbs. oil (I use annatto oil made by heating a tablespoon of annatto seeds in 2 cups of oil and then straining the oil.  Annatto seeds are available at Penzey's.  Annatto oil adds an orangey color to the rice.  But plain oil is fine.)
2 large cloves garlic, pressed
1 1/2-2 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups basmati or long-grain rice
3 cups water


In a 3-qt saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and rice and stir to coat the rice with the oil.  It will be shiny.  Add the salt and water and stir.

Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and bring to a boil.  As soon as the lid begins to spurt water, turn down the heat to low.  Don't lift the lid because you need all the steam to stay in the pan.  Cook rice until all the water is absorbed, about 10 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat and let it steam for a few minutes.

Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork.  Serve the rice as the base for Puerco Pibil, as the base for a Mexican rice bowl, or add some peas and carrots and serve as a simple side dish.

Slow-cooked Pinto Beans

Just about every culture has a standard bean dish, and "refried" pinto beans seems to be the classic Mexican bean dish served with most combination platters at your local Mexican restaurant.  Beans add bulk and nutrition to budget-wise meals.  These slow-cooked beans can be served straight from the pot, or they can be mashed and reheated in a little oil to make classic refried beans.


3 cups dried pinto beans (Look for light colored, firm beans)
1 large onion, chopped
2 large jalapeno chilis, coarsely chopped
1 Tbs. ground cumin
5 tsp. salt
9 cups water

Wash pinto beans in cold water and remove any floating debris or tiny rocks that may be in with the beans.  Drain and put the beans into a crock pot.  Add the remaining ingredients and turn the crock pot on high and cover.  Cook on HIGH setting for 5-6 hours or until the beans are tender.

Serve the beans from the pot as is, or remove some beans (about 3 cups) with some of the cooking liquid and mash with a potato masher.  (The mashed bean mixture should not be too thick.  Add more cooking liquid if necessary to make the desired consistency.)  Heat 3 Tbs. oil in a skillet over medium high heat and add the mashed beans.  Cook without stirring for a few minutes, then using a flexible spatula, gently stir the beans to heat through. Serve.

Pumpkin Empanadas

Flan and fried ice cream are the usual dessert offerings of Mexican restaurants, but empanandas, or mini folded pastries filled with sweet or savory fillings, are classic Mexican bakery items and worth a try.  This recipe is for pumpkin filled pastries, but you can use apple, cherry or any other favorite filling instead.

For the dough

8 oz. soft unsalted butter
4 oz. soft cream cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs. sugar

For the filling:
2 cups canned pumpkin
1 Tbs. pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp. cinnamon (optional, but I add it for a bit more punch)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar

Cream or half-n-half


In a mixing bowl, stir together the butter and cream cheese.  Add the flour, salt and sugar and stir.  Use your hands to squeeze the dough together and work into a ball.  Cover the dough with plastic wrap and set aside.

For the filling, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.

To make the empanadas, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it's about 1/8" thick.  Cut out 3"-4" circles using a cutting ring or other circular object about that size.  Remove excess dough and return to the mixing bowl to roll again.

Using a spoon, put about a tablespoon of filling on one side of each dough circle, keeping it away from the edge.  Fold the dough over the filling and press the edges together.  Using the tines of a fork, press the edges of the dough to seal.

Continue to cut and fill the dough until you run out of dough or filling.  Place the filled pastry pockets on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.  Brush each empanada with a little cream or half-n-half.  Using the tines of a fork, gently poke a row of holes on the top of each empanada. Bake in a 375 degree oven until lightly browned, about 15-18 minutes.  Remove the empanadas from the baking sheet to a cooling rack and sprinkle tops with powdered sugar.  Once the empanadas are cooled completely, sprinkle again with powdered sugar.

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