When it comes to dining out, Mexican food is one of the top picks among Americans. With its lively flavors of cumin, chilies and oregano, the cuisine of Mexico appeals also to many aficionados of Middle Eastern cooking. I witnessed its increasing popularity in Israel when I came across Mexican tacos at my niece’s elegant wedding celebration, where they were featured as festive fare. These meat-filled flat bread wraps, which you could describe as mini Mexican laffas, are most familiar to Americans as filling, fast food.
For health-conscious eaters, and especially vegetarians, commonly available Mexican restaurant food in the US poses a problem. “Why don’t you have any vegetable dishes?” I asked at a popular café inside a Mexican supermarket, after perusing their meat-heavy menu. All they could suggest was rice with refried beans. At some Americanized Mexican eateries, practically every dish comes blanketed in gooey melted cheese.
Yet with its abundant use of tomatoes, beans, onions and citrus juices, Mexican cuisine offers plenty of wholesome options. The place to find them is in home kitchens. Kathi Long, author of Mexican Light Cooking, comments, “The spirited flavor of Mexican cooking makes it perfect for slimming down.” Instead of the deep-fried cheese-stuffed chilies (hot peppers) that are a staple in Mexican restaurants, she fills these peppers with corn kernels, zucchini, sauteed onions and a touch of shredded low-fat cheese, then bakes them in spicy tomato sauce.
Rather than offering the ubiquitous refried beans, which can be laden with saturated fat, Anne Lindsay Greer, author of The Ultimate Low-Fat Mexican Cookbook
, makes confetti beans – three kinds of beans cooked with onion, garlic and sweet and hot peppers and finished with diced tomatoes and thyme.
For a meatless option to serve inside tortillas, Marge Poore, author of 1,000 Mexican Recipes
, prepares a zesty medley of roasted hot pepper strips, sauteed onions and mushrooms. Poore heats white beans with cooked carrots, cumin, green onions and olive oil, and cooks chickpeas with chard leaves, tomatoes, sauteed onions and garlic.
The following supper menu is not only healthful and satisfying, but easy to prepare too. Begin with a green salad moistened with a tangy lemon dressing and topped with slices of tomato and ripe avocado. Continue with a spicy bean main course accented with sweet and hot peppers and sauteed onions and seasoned with cumin and garlic.
Serve the beans with a vegetable-studded version of traditional Mexican rice. Be sure to have a fresh salsa on the table, like the easy fresh coriander salsa below; or simply dice some tomatoes and mix in Yemenite s’hug (hot pepper paste) to taste.
With this hearty menu, follow the Mexican custom and serve fruit for dessert. Pineapple rings or wedges of fresh mango or papaya make a light finale to a meal; if you like, dice the fruit and sprinkle it lightly with sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice or a drizzle of rum.GREEN SALAD, MEXICAN STYLE
Red onion slices add a lively note, and avocado or a touch of crumbled cheese provide enrichment for this healthful salad. Mexican queso fresco or fresh cheese has a somewhat crumbly texture like feta but is less salty.
1⁄2 red onion
4 to 5 cups bite-size pieces romaine lettuce
1 very fresh zucchini or cucumber, halved and cut in thin slices
2 tsp. strained fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
1 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
pinch of dried oregano
salt and freshly ground pepper
cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
1 large tomato, cut in thin wedges
1 small Haas avocado or 2 Tbsp. crumbled feta cheese
Cut onion crosswise in thin half-moons and separate them in slivers. In a salad bowl mix onion with lettuce, lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and cayenne. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Just before serving, top salad with tomato wedges. Halve avocado, remove pit, and peel. Cut in slices. Serve salad topped with avocado or cheese.
Makes 4 servings.SPICY BLACK BEANS
Beans are a good source of protein, have a meaty texture and flavor and are extremely low in fat. You can also make this dish with canned or cooked chickpeas, red beans or white beans.
If you prefer an entree with meat, heat the beans with 2 cups of diced cooked chicken or turkey.
Serve the beans with and Mexican rice (see next recipe); or, for a faster option, serve them on hot tortillas or inside warm, fresh pita. Fresh salsa (see Note 2 below) is a good accompaniment.
1 or 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
2 green bell peppers or 1 red and 1 green,
cut in 1-cm.-wide strips
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp. ground cumin
3 cups cooked black beans or other beans
(see Note 1 below), or two 400-gr. cans beans, drained
1⁄3 cup bean cooking liquid or broth
salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄2 tsp. hot pepper flakes, or more to taste
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander (optional)
Heat oil in a medium saute pan. Add onion and peppers and saute over medium heat 5 minutes.
Add garlic and cumin and stir over low heat 1 minute. Add beans, 1⁄3 cup bean cooking liquid or broth, salt, pepper, and pepper flakes. Stir and bring to boil. Cover and simmer 5 to 7 minutes or until peppers are tender. Add cilantro if desired. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Notes: 1: To cook beans or chickpeas: Put 2 to 21⁄4 cups beans in a large pot and add 7 cups water or enough to generously cover beans. Bring to a boil. Partially cover and simmer over low heat until tender, about 11⁄2 to 2 hours, adding hot water occasionally to keep beans covered with water; add salt to taste. Makes 5 or 6 cups cooked beans.
2: Fresh Coriander Salsa: Remove seeds and ribs from 2 small fresh hot green peppers and cut peppers in pieces. Mince in food processor with 2 large peeled garlic cloves. Add 11⁄2 cups fresh coriander and process until chopped coarsely. Transfer to a bowl and add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon strained fresh lemon juice, 2 or 3 tablespoons water, salt to taste and, if you like, 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin. Serve cold or at room temperature.LIGHT MEXICAN RICE WITH SQUASH, PEAS AND TOMATOES
Studded with colorful vegetables, this healthy version of the Mexican classic is a perfect accompaniment for beans or grilled chicken. Adding fast-cooking vegetables to a pan of rice so they cook together is an easy way to include vegetables in a meal. Instead of the squash, you can add 115 grams diced mushrooms.
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1⁄2 onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1⁄4 cups long-grain rice
2 1⁄2 cups hot water
250 gr. yellow squash, zucchini or white squash
), cut in 1-cm. dice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1⁄2 cup frozen peas or corn, or 1⁄4 cup of each, thawed
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 small diced tomatoes
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Heat oil in a large saute pan. Add onion and saute over medium-low heat
for 3 minutes to soften Add garlic and saute for 15 seconds. Add rice
and saute, stirring, 1 minute.
Pour hot water over rice and stir once. Add salt and pepper. Bring to
boil over high heat. Add squash and return to boil. Reduce heat to low,
cover tightly and simmer, without stirring, for 10 minutes. Add peas
and oregano; cover and cook for 8 minutes or until rice is tender and
liquid is absorbed. Add tomatoes and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.
Add parsley and fluff rice gently with a fork. Taste and adjust
Makes 4 servings.Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning
Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.