Eating Well: Mexico - #114

BURT WOLF: Mexico, where European explorers got their first taste of tomatoes, chile and chocolate. We'll take a look at an ancient culture that believed its major responsibility was to cook great food. We'll find out what these people can teach us about good food for good health, plus some great-tasting Mexican recipes that are easily prepared in any home kitchen. We'll see where chocolate comes from and we'll talk food with Mexico's superstar of television and film, Ofelia Medina. Join me, Burt Wolf, Eating Well in Mexico.

The story of Mexico began with the native Indian cultures that have been here for tens of thousands of years and culminated in the magnificent societies of the Mayans and the Aztecs. These are extraordinary groups of people with a great deal of sophistication. Next came the colonial period. It started when the Spanish explorer Cortez arrived in the early 1500's and lasted for about 400 years. Strong Spanish, French and Austrian influences were infused into every aspect of life in what became known as New Spain. By the beginning of the 20th Century, European ideas and techniques had been blended together with the native Indian beliefs and skills to a point where a completely new culture had been formed. Mexico had its own and distinct personality. The most recent part of this country's history began with the revolution of 1910, which brought about the independent country of Mexico. 

Time is the most powerful ingredient in cooking. In Mexico, hundreds of years have blended the native Indian and European cooking into a cuisine that has immense variety and a truly unique quality. It's a cuisine that has much to teach us in terms of food and good health. The staple ingredients are standards of good eating. Frijoles, small black beans, which are standard in Mexican cooking, is a precious gem of cooking. Dried beans with no cholesterol and very little fat--they offer the highest form of vegetable protein--and they're rich in folacin, potassium, phosphorus and the B-vitamins. 

Indian cultures seemed to have a great understanding of healthful foods. Their meals were high in fiber from an extraordinary amount of fruits and vegetables. These were a basic part of almost every meal, lots of nuts and seeds, too. Even their bread, the tortilla, when it's baked instead of fried, has a fabulous nutritional balance. Almost all of their recipes manage to combine small amounts of meat, fish or poultry with lots of grains, peas and beans. The result is a very high concentration of valuable nutrients in a low-fat, high-fiber system. The Indians contributed an enormous amount of valuable information and left a fascinating archeological history.

Mexico's earliest settlers, which included the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, were incredibly sophisticated cultures evidenced by the magnificent ruins that remain today. The Mayans believed that the gods had created them for the express purpose of producing great foods for the deities to dine on. The Mayans were convinced that they had been made from corn -- thus the meaning of their name -- the men of corn. Their sacred texts also told them that if they did not produce the appropriate foods, the universe would come to an end. Talk about feeling pressured to cook! The recipe fails and so does the planet? This pressure to be great farmers led them to develop reliable calendars. In fact, it was the Mayans who first calculated the solar year to be 365 days. The Mayans became skilled astronomers, mathematicians, builders.

The Aztec central market was so gigantic that it regularly held over 60,000 people. Now that's a supermarket! And it stocked an astounding variety of foods, foods that were, at the time, unknown to the rest of the world -- corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, avocados, chilis, vanilla and chocolate. All gifts from the ancient Mayan or Aztec societies.

The Indian cultures also gave us guacamole, probably the most famous Mexican dish. Legend has it that the first person to eat an avocado was a Mayan princess around 291 B.C. The ancient Aztecs believed that avocados had mystical and romantic powers. 

More? Well, here's classic guacamole recipe from chef Josephina Howard.


BURT WOLF: (CONTINUES) Onions and salt are rubbed together, chopped serrano or jalapeno chilis go in, avocado cut into bite-size pieces and a chopped tomato. Avocados are rich in potassium and vitamin A. They're low in sodium and the fat that they contain is mono-unsaturated, which is pretty good for you. But bear in mind that there are 200 calories in a half-cut of avocado. Moderation!

Here's another of Josephina's favorites. It's a recipe for a chicken in a spicy sauce that is definitely in the bag. A paste is made from chopped chilis, garlic, cumin, and cloves. It's painted onto chicken parts that have the bones in and the skin on. The piece of chicken is then placed onto the center of a piece of parchment paper, which is drawn up around the chicken, sealed off with a string and trimmed. Originally this dish was made with leaves, but these days, for ecological reasons, it's made with parchment paper. The bags of chicken and sauce go into a steamer where they cook for twenty-five minutes.

It's important to remove the skin from a poultry dish in order to reduce the cholesterol and fat content, but scientists couldn't figure out whether they wanted us to remove the skin before or after the cooking to have its greatest effect. A recent research project, however, indicates that it doesn't make any difference. You can cook it with the skin on or cook it with the skin off. Just don't eat the skin. When they come out, the pouch is placed onto the serving dish and opened. 

One of the ingredients that gives this dish its distinctive taste is the clove. The spice we call a clove is actually the unopened flower bud of the clove tree. And the buds must be picked by hand just before they open. That means that each tree is picked over and over and over again for weeks at a time until they get all the buds. After that, a couple of dozen other hand operations that are labor-intensive, like drying them in the sun in small batches and turning them by hand, and you'll see why cloves are one of our more pricey spices. And they've been that way for thousands of years. 

Cloves are native to a group of small islands near Australia. But Portuguese traders of the 1500's knew about these islands and were making great fortunes by bringing spices from them to Europe. They were so protective about the location of the island, that they actually made maps of the area that were incorrect and would lead the sailors of other nations into the rocks. The Dutch eventually took control of the area, which came to be known as the Dutch West Indies and the islands came to be know, quite descriptively, as the Spice Islands. 

The best clove flavor always comes from the whole clove bud. Stick them into something before they go in the pot, so you can remove them from the dish before you serve. They're not fun to chew on. Like bay leaves, you want their flavor and then you want them out of the dish. 

The Aztecs believed that at some point in time a great savior would arrive from across the sea. So when a group of Spanish explorers led by Hernando Cortez showed up in the early 1500's, Hernando looked like he had just stepped out of a legend. Within a short time, and without much difficulty, Cortez took control of the land and the history of new Spain began. On August 13th, 1521, Empire of the Sun was eclipsed. The capital city of the Aztecs was captured by the conquistadors and a new society was born, a society that contained the richness and complexity of both parents; not Indian, not Spanish and yet clearly the child of the two. 

You can see this mixture in the architecture of the period. The buildings are designed by Spanish missionary builders who remembered the architecture of their homeland. All the work of construction was done by Indian artisans with their ancient values and talents. The colonial period had lasted almost four centuries. It was a time of European rule, with Spanish, French, and Austrian influences. 

Of course, the influencing in the blending continued in the kitchen. Along with the architecture, religion, and language, the conquistadors brought rice, wheat, cinnamon, olives, cloves, beef, butter, cheese and European cooking techniques. 

You can see the marriage of the Old and the New Worlds in the cooking of Patricia Quintana. An accomplished chef for twenty-five years, Patricia Quintana is also a best-selling cookbook author, who believes that the essence of Mexican cooking is as rich and provocative as the Mexican culture itself. She was kind enough to share her recipe for fish inVera Cruz sauce. A little oil goes into a saute pan and three cloves of garlic are heated in that oil to give it a garlicy flavor. And then the whole garlic cloves come out and some chopped garlic goes in. A chopped onion, three ripe tomatoes that have also been chopped, a chili that's been sliced, but not so far as to make it break open. You want the seeds to remain inside. Some bay leaves, marjorium, thyme. All that cooks down for about forty minutes until it's almost a puree. About ten minutes before it's ready to serve, add in a tablespoon of capers and ten whole olives. While the sauce is finishing off, take a few fillets of red snapper and saute them until they're cooked through. A little of the sauce goes onto the plate, a slice of the cooked fish, a little more sauce and a garnish of herbs. Patricia puts on final decoration with some colored oils. The green oil was colored by letting it sit in spinach for a couple of weeks, but you can make any color by letting the oil sit with any intensely colored fruit or vegetable. The tomatoes and the chili in that recipe came directly from the Indian cultures. Hard to think of life in the kitchen without those ingredients. 

It's also hard to think about cooking without poultry. Patricia Quintana uses chicken to cook up a second traditional recipe called salbute. Start by making a marinade. Blend together a little garlic, orange juice, grapefruit juice, a little vegetable oil, two peppercorns and some red vinegar. This marinade is poured over six skinless, boneless chicken breasts and that sits together for about two hours in the refrigerator. Then onto a grill until they're cooked through. A little more of the marinade goes on while they're cooking. 

Both standard and blue-corn tortillas are cut into three inch rounds and pan-fried in a little vegetable oil until they're crispy, about three minutes. Then they're removed from the pan to drain. The red onion is sliced, a little salt and pepper goes on, a little orange juice, a little grapefruit juice, a little oil, three cloves of crushed garlic. Mix that together and let it rest. When you're ready to serve, cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and place them on the tortillas. Top that with the marinated onions and you're ready to go.

Mexico's leading lady, Ofelia Medina is an actress of extraordinary range and talent. A student of the legendary Lee Strasberg, Ofelia's work has been internationally recognized with numerous awards for excellence, including the coveted Ariel Silver Goddess Award, which is the Mexican Oscar. A current stage show, "Mexican Senorita," premiering in New York City is a favorite of mine for a very specific reason.

The opening of your show, there's a wonderful song, which is made up of the names of Mexican dishes. Sing that for me.

OFELIA MODINA: It', it's says “Son sus tacos y tortilla, guacamole, quesadilla, chiles verdes y frijoles en sus sopas de escamoles, panuchos, panochas, papayitas, la melcocha con tequila y su sangrita o su chela heladita, su memela con salsita, pico-pico-pico-pico-pico-pico-pico-- picosita!”

BURT WOLF: What does that mean in English?

OFELIA: A taco is a tortilla with something inside. Guacamole is avocados mashed with onion and, and... and tomato... and cilantro and... (LAUGHS) Quesadillas is, is cheese with, with tortilla and sopas is a kind of tortilla that you fry and put beans and sauce on top. And picoso, it’s hot.

BURT WOLF: I read a quote of yours that said that to be a star in American movies you had to make too many sacrifices to fantasy. What did you mean?

OFELIA: I mean that what is fundamental for me as an artist is to create and not think about becoming a star or... because that kills your creativity. I don't want to become anything. I want to create all the time. I want not to worry about being famous or becoming something. So you kill your fantasies in order to... eh? No, I, it's...I want to enjoy life and enjoy the stage.

BURT WOLF: When you travel and you're away from Mexico, are there foods that you miss?

OFELIA: Mmm. The Huevos Rancheros in the morning. And, and I, I miss complicated breakfasts because... normally when you're out, you eat breakfast like very simple, just coffee and something continental breakfast or to me, that’s a pain. I like to, to have...big breakfast with huevos rancheros and guacamole and everything. When I was a child, my family lived in a very traditional way and I remember in the kitchen of my house, it's a, an enormous table. Very raw, very simple, and ten women making chocolate, mixing cocoa and cacao and sugar and these ingredients and there was one day a week in which they make chocolate. And it was very special because in the morning, early, very early, you'd wake up with this smell of...of...toasting of...cocoa and, mmm, during the whole day it was like passing through these, mmm, until it was finally done.

BURT WOLF: I truly share Ofelia's love of chocolate and since the rest of the world learned about chocolate from Mexico, I think it's only fitting that we take a short and sweet look at its history. 

The Mayans believed that after the demise of a good person, his spirit would dwell in the gentle shade of the cacao tree and chocolate would be available to drink forever. Cortez was the first European to taste chocolate and he quickly sent it back to Spain where it became a drink of major importance. The Spanish loved it so much and valued it so highly that they kept chocolate a secret for over a hundred years.


(CONTINUES) The cacao trees thrive in the hot, moist climate of the jungle. The beans develop inside a pod that hangs from the bark of the tree. The ideal spot is at the edge of the tropical rain forest. You've got the heat; you've got the humidity. Boy, have you got the heat and humidity! You also have got the rich soil necessary for the cacao tree. The tree grows pretty high, twenty or thirty feet, but it's a very delicate tree.

The pod is harvested, opened and the beans removed. The ferment for a while in the heat of the jungle, then they're dried and shipped off to a chocolate factory. The beans are roasted, cracked into small nibs and pureed into a liquid. The liquid is put under an enormous amount of pressure -- 6,000 pounds per square inch. And that separates the liquid cocoa butter from the solids, which are now called cocoa. Mix the cocoa powder together with lots of cocoa butter and some sugar and you've got a chocolate paste. Smooth that chocolate out with rollers, mix it together to a nice consistency in the conching process and you're ready to make a chocolate bar.

The Mayans and the Aztecs believed that chocolate was given to them as a gift from their gods. And who am I to argue? And am I ever willing to pay homage with an enticing recipe for chocolate truffles. Take four ounces of melted semisweet chocolate and whisk in four ounces of heavy cream that's been heated to just under the boiling point. Keep whisking until the mixture is smooth. Let the chocolate cool for an hour and then soften up the cold mixture with a whisk. Put the mixture into a pastry bag and pipe little one inch balls of the chocolate onto a sheet of parchment paper. If you don't have a pastry bag, just spoon out the mixture. Put the tray into the refrigerator for an hour to harden up the chocolate. Melt two ounces of semi-sweet chocolate and when it's cool enough to handle, dip each of the balls into the chocolate. Give them a complete coating and then roll them through ground nuts, confectioners’ sugar or unsweetened cocoa. 

In our earliest contact with chocolate, we have thought of it as a food or drink that fortifies the gastronomic soul. But from time to time, it has gotten an unfair rap. For many years, skin specialists thought that there might be some sort of relationship between skin problems like acne and chocolate. Not so, say researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. Good news for teenagers. There's also a lot of talk these days about caffeine and some people point out that chocolate contains caffeine and suggest that you avoid it. Well, let me give you the word on caffeine and chocolate. Most people would need to eat between 80 and 160 standard milk chocolate bars at one time before they would get a stimulant effect from the caffeine and chocolate. And as far as chocolate and tooth decay is concerned, the most recent studies show that cocoa may actually have an inhibital effect on dental cavities. Chocolate in moderation? No problem.

And to test our ability to be moderate in all things, master chef, Kevin Graham, is preparing a dessert called Chocolate Breathless, which is the state you will end up in after you make it or after you eat it. Either way, it's a piece of work.

Kevin has baked a series of long strips of chocolate meringue, which is now crushed into little pieces of chocolate. He also has a batch of chocolate-meringue discs, which he coats with a thick layer of chocolate mousse and makes into a three-decker chocolate sandwich. The sandwich is rolled through and covered with the broken strips of chocolate meringue. And that lovely little chocolate bundle is presented on top of a white sauce, varnished with curls of white chocolate and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar.

(CONTINUES) Mexico has over 6,000 miles of spectacular beaches. And the towns that sit on them are world famous as vacation destinations -- Ixtapa, Baja, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta. Bathed by the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Mexico is still the land of the sun worshipper and when the sun goes down, the beat comes up: salsa and sizzle! All this travel and fun in the sun makes me hungry. Well, let's dive into something good to eat. 

One of the hottest Mexican recipes is Zarela’s savory salsa. Mix together four large ripe tomatoes that have peeled, but not seeded, and coarsely chopped. A half-cup of finely chopped green onions, a medium clove of garlic, finely minced, a quarter cup of chopped cilantro, three or four jalapeno chilis trimmed, but not seeded and finely chopped, a teaspoon of dried oregano and the juice of half a lime. Mix that all together and you have a classic salsa fresca. Alright, let's have a look at the nutrition here. First of all, be sure to use fresh ingredients. Not only will the food taste better, but it will be nutritionally richer. Whenever fresh vegetables are a part of the recipes, keep them fresh. Store them in airtight containers in the refrigerator to preserve the folic acid content. Important! Both the fresh tomatoes and scallions provide small amounts of folic acid and the tomatoes also contribute a welcome quantity of vitamin C. The fresh chilis have beta carotene which your body converts to vitamin A.

For the past twenty years, Mexican food has been growing and growing in popularity. In restaurants, in supermarkets, even in cookbooks, Mexican food has become an important part of American cuisine. But for many people who are concerned about the risks of a high-fat diet, Mexican food is in the danger zone. Things like enchiladas, tacos, tortillas -- these dishes can be packed with saturated fat, especially the way they are prepared and served in many Mexican restaurants. Fortunately, however, most of the fat is found not in the main part of the recipe, but in ingredients that are part of an add-on copy or a dip. These fat-filled calories are easy to avoid and the techniques are quite simple. Keep a tight limit on all the deep-fried foods like flautas or those that are topped with cheese like nachos. Skip the tortilla chips; they're fried in fat. The same is true for most flour tortillas. Go for the corn tortillas. Corn usually has 75% less flat. And keep the sour cream topping on the side and only use a small portion. It's a simple approach and it leaves you lots of good food to enjoy. Mexican soups like gazpacho are traditionally light; beans and rice are an ideal nutritional combination. Steamed corn tortillas are excellent and the chicken and vegetable dishes usually have a fine nutritional balance.

One of the finest Mexican restaurants in the United States is called Guaymas. It has a fantastic location at the edge of the Tiberon ferry pier facing Angel Island and San Francisco across the bay. For years it has worked hard to serve authentic, regional Mexican dishes. Today their special is fish with a tomato and grape sauce. Not traditional, but nevertheless tremendous. 

The chef is Jose Hernandez and he starts by taking a boneless, skinless of white, firm, fleshed fish and seasoning it with a little salt and pepper. Then it's sliced into small pieces and placed into a pan that has a light coating of vegetable oil that's already been heated. The fish cooks for a few minutes and Jose adds a little flavored butter, which he made by just mixing together some butter, chopped cilantro leaves, tomato paste and black pepper. In spite of what we hear, for almost all of us, our world will not come to end if we cook with a little butter. Just remember that it is a highly saturated fat and you want to use it in moderation. 

The fish cooks for about three minutes more and in goes a little tomato juice mixed with some chopped onion and a chopped tomato, a little more chopped onion and a cup of seedless table grapes that give a great flavor and texture to the recipe. A bunch of grapes go onto a serving dish, a piece of lemon and the fish with its sauce.

The Bible tells us that when the great flood was over and Noah was able to settle down, grape vines were the first things he planted. We have scientific evidence that dates grape growing in Switzerland at 4,000 B.C. And there are ancient Egyptian tomb paintings that show grapes being cultivated. So we've been eating table grapes for a long time. And the reason for their popularity has remained pretty much the same. They're a good source of natural sugar; that's why they taste sweet. And they're very convenient to eat, Mother Nature's snack food, individually packaged for easy use. 97% of our table grapes are grown right here in California. 

The people who study how Americans eat tell us that we are more and more interested in foods that are healthful for us, but we also want good taste and convenience. We appear to have selected the table grape as the proper answer to our needs. It's very encouraging to find out that a recent study showed that children picked table grapes as one of their three favorite snack foods, tied with ice cream. Imagine kids choosing a snack food that's high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and only 100 calories in a cup! I tell you, you live long enough, you see everything. 

So what's the message from Mexico's 3,000 year-old kitchen? Well, the treasures are still there. All you got to do is get 'em up on your table. Dried beans and peas, nutritional gems. Go after them like Cortez went after the gold. Choose recipes that combine lots of vegetables with small amounts of lean meat, fish or poultry. Use fresh chilis to flavor recipes and you can reduce the salt content of many dishes without losing the taste. And best news of all, chocolate in moderation is no problem. So the next time you're enjoying the taste of chocolate, vanilla, chili, corn, beans, potatoes, or tomatoes, you can thank the ancient societies of Mexico. What's Mayan is yours!

That's Eating Well In Mexico. Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for foods that taste good and make it easier to eat well. I'm Burt Wolf.