Top News

SaltWire Dinner Party: A night in Mexico

Chocolate, spices, nuts and pumpkin seeds all contribute to the deep flavours of chicken mole served with a Mexican-inspired rice. MARK DeWOLF PHOTO
Chocolate, spices, nuts and pumpkin seeds all contribute to the deep flavours of chicken mole served with a Mexican-inspired rice. - Mark DeWolf

There's much more to Mexican food than you realize

To be honest, most Canadian, or at least my own, perceptions, of Mexican cuisine is rooted in Tex Mex, a subsection of Southwestern cuisine originating in Texas.

Over the last century it has spread throughout continental North America. The roots of Tex Mex are more than a century in the making, and largely a result of working-class native Mexicans migrating to small communities in Texas. The original Tex Mex shares a lot of the same flavour profile and ingredients as Mexico, but the cuisine also reflects its Texas roots. Chili con carne, enchiladas, fajitas and eventually nachos all spawned from these original Tex Mex origins.

Over the last half century, as Tex Mex cuisine migrated north, often via chain restaurants, the original ingredients began to be substituted with more readily available commercial products. Yes, shredded orange cheese is not a classic Mexican ingredient, or Tex Mex for that matter. Tortillas should be made of treated corn flour (dried and ground corn, treated with water and lime) - not wheat-based flour.

Upon embarking on this journey, I quickly realized even the simple corn tortilla is not so simple, and not that easy to source or make perfectly.

As a Canadian, I can never suggest having a deep-rooted understanding of authentic Mexican cuisine. Indeed, with the constant influx of Instagram and TV food shows, the lines between what is authentic and what is not can easily get confused, even for the most passionate of foodies, such as myself. Even the term Mexican cuisine is a little too overarching. Certainly, as a Canadian I would never suggest there is a Canadian cuisine, dismissing the fact that our traditional Nova Scotia fare is completely different than Quebecois cuisine. The same is true about Mexico. It would be dismissive of me to suggest there is a singular Mexican cuisine. Beef-rich Northern Mexican cuisine is different than the food of the Yucatan where more tropical influences play a key role in the diet. Baja, with its fish tacos, is different than Oaxaca and its famous moles and, of course, there is the gulf coast, rich in seafood.

With that in mind, I’ve created a dinner party menu that embraces a number of regional dishes, but ultimately with the intent to showcase the depth of richness of Mexican flavours presented in a uniquely Canadian way. While most dishes are intended to be representative of Mexican cuisine, I’ve adapted some things such as the pumpkin pie to be blend of Canadian and Mexican cultures.

Esquites is an off-the-cob variation of Mexican Elote, a popular street food. - Mark DeWolf
Esquites is an off-the-cob variation of Mexican Elote, a popular street food. - Mark DeWolf

The menu

The drinks: margaritas & amber lagers

Pre-dinner snacks: esquites, chips and salsa

Main meal: chicken mole, Mexican-inspired rice

Dessert: pumpkin pie with dulce de leche


The drinks

While the origins of the Margarita cocktail are murky at best, it has become the standard Mexican cocktail. The classic, regardless of origin, relies on freshly squeezed lime juice and blanco tequila, although I have come to love the smoky character afforded by mezcal. While I wish I could suggest serving a Mexican wine with your dinner, none are available for purchase in Atlantic Canada. It may come as a surprise to many, but Mexico has a small but thriving wine industry with about 4,000 hectares of vineyards (about half as much as Ontario and 10 times as much as Nova Scotia). Key grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Petite Sirah.

For a country with well more than 100 million residents, the volume of Mexican wine consumed is Mexico is small. Mexicans are, after all, beer, tequila and mezcal drinkers. Mexico boasts a half millennia long history of beer making but came to dominance in the late 19th century with an influx of German brewers. Not surprisingly, Mexico’s beer industry has a Germanic influence with lagers dominating. While the vapid flavours of Corona dominate international markets, Vienna-style lagers and Munich-style dark beers remain in demand. While anyone can buy a case of Corona, I suggest seeking out local and Canadian brews that fit this model.

  • Creemore Springs Premium Lager (NSLC, 473 ml, $4.09, NLC, 6 x 341 ml, $17.98)
  • Lunns Mills Lager (Bishop’s Cellar, Select NSLC, 473 ml, $4.49)
  • Bogside Muskoka Munch to My Ears (NLC, 473 ml, $4.57)
  • Dos Equis Lager (PEILCC, 6 pack, $16.49)
  • Casamigos Blanco tequila combined with fresh cactus pear juice makes for a unique variation on the classic margarita recipe. - Mark DeWolf
    Casamigos Blanco tequila combined with fresh cactus pear juice makes for a unique variation on the classic margarita recipe. - Mark DeWolf

Smoky mezcal margarita

1 ½ oz Sombra Joven Mezcal

2 oz fresh lime juice

1/2 oz orange liqueur

1/4 oz agave syrup

Pinch salt

Directions: Place all ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake hard. Pour into an ice-filled rocks glass.

Optional: I prefer to season my Margarita with a little salt but alternatively omit the salt from the recipe and rim the glass with salt. A good tip is to only rim half the glass with salt. This allows your guest to enjoy their cocktail with or without salt.

Cactus Pear Margarita

1 1/2 oz Casamigos Blanco Tequila

3-4 oz cactus pear and lime juice*

1/2 oz orange liqueur

1/4 oz agave syrup

Lime, for garnish

Directions: Place tequila, juice and gave syrup in an ice-filled glass. Shake hard. Strain into an ice-filled, salt-rimmed rocks glass.

*Place 3 peeled and chopped cactus/prickly pears in a blender along with one ounce of fresh lime juice. Puree until smooth. Fine strain, pressing hard on the solids to extract as much juice.

Note: I found cactus pears at Tomavo in Halifax. If unable to find cactus pear, substitute make a traditional margarita instead.

Directions: Place all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Shake hard for 10 seconds. Pour into ice-filled rocks glass.


The appetizers: esquites, chips and salsas

Mexican dips and salsas are so much more than pico de gallo.  Classic guacamole, a green tomatillo salsa, and a fiery chile infused salsa add flavour and colour to a Mexican dinner party. - Mark DeWolf
Mexican dips and salsas are so much more than pico de gallo. Classic guacamole, a green tomatillo salsa, and a fiery chile infused salsa add flavour and colour to a Mexican dinner party. - Mark DeWolf

Esquites

Serves 6 to 8

4 ears corn, steamed, kernels removed

2 tbsp mayonnaise

1 lime juice

1 clove garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, seeds removed, finely diced

1/4 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

2-3 tbsp Cotija cheese*, crumbled

1 ½ tsp Tajin powder**

Tortilla chips, to serve

*Substitute with ricotta salata or feta.

**Substitute with a mixture of 1 tsp chili powder, 1/4 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp cumin, zest of half lemon.

Tomatillo salsa

Serves 6 to 8

6 tomatillos

1/4 bunch cilantro

2 cloves garlic

2 jalapeno, seeds removed, roughly, chopped

Tortilla chips, to serve

Directions: Place all ingredients in a blender. Puree until desired consistency is reached.

Charred tomato salsa

Serves 6 to 8

4 plum tomatoes

4 cloves garlic

2-3 dried ancho peppers*

Tortilla chips, to serve

Directions: Set a cast iron past over medium-high heat. When hot, add the tomatoes and garlic. Blacken on all sides. Transfer to a blender. Add the peppers and toast until fragrant, about 30-45 seconds. Add peppers to blender. Blend until smooth.

*Dried ancho peppers can be found in speciality food stores and many grocery stores. They can also be purchased online.

Guacamole

Serves 6 to 8

4 avocados, peeled, pitted

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 jalapeno peppers, seeds removed, diced

1/4 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

3 tbsp lime juice, freshly squeezed

1 tsp salt

Tortilla chips, to serve

Directions: Mash avocados until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Serve with tortilla chips.

Tip: When choosing an avocado for making guacamole pick the ripest (soft) avocados you can find. Firmer avocados are great for salads, but for great guacamole the flesh of the avocado should be soft and creamy.


Main meal: chicken mole, rice with tomatoes and peas

Rice with tomatoes and peas

Serves 6 to 8

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 small onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tbsp cumin

1/2 tbsp oregano

1 ½ cups long grain rice, rinsed

1 small can diced tomatoes

1 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced

Directions: Set a pot over medium-low heat. Add the oil and onions. Saute until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cumin and saute until fragrant, about thirty seconds. Add the rice and toast slightly. Add tomatoes and vegetable stock. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer until rice is cooked and liquid fully absorbed, about fifteen to seventeen minutes. Finish with cilantro.

Chicken mole

Serves 6 to 8

4 tbsp vegetable oil

4 chicken legs (thigh and drumstick)

Pinch salt

Pinch pepper

3 cups orange juice

3 cups chicken stock

1 large Spanish onion, finely sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup almond slices

1 cup pumpkin seeds*

1 tbsp each cumin, coriander seeds, oregano

2 dried ancho chiles, roughly chopped

2 cans diced tomatoes

1 cup raisins

4 oz dark chocolate, chopped

Directions: Set a large pot over medium heat. Add two tablespoons of vegetable oil. Generously season chicken legs with salt and pepper. Add chicken legs, in batches if necessary, to the pot. Sear until brown on both sides. Remove from pot and set aside. Repeat until all the legs are browned. Return chicken along with the orange juice and the stock to the pot. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove chicken from the pot, let cool and lightly shred or chop. Once cool remove meat from the bones. Keep the braising liquid. Place a second pot over medium-low heat. Add remaining vegetable oil and onion. Sauté until onion slices are soft and translucent. Add the garlic, spices, chile, almond slices and pumpkin seeds and sauté until the spices are fragrant and the nuts lightly toasted. Add the shredded chicken and reserved braising liquid, along with the diced tomatoes, raisins and chocolate to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Simmer uncovered for up to two hours. Season to taste. Serve with rice and garnish with fresh cilantro.

*See our tip on making your own pumpkin seeds in our featured Mexican Pumpkin Pie recipe.

Tip: This is personal interpretation of mole and slightly rustic in presentation.

Mexico, like Canada, has a rich tradition of pumpkin-based desserts. This hybrid pumpkin pie made with Mexican spices is accompanied by dulce de leche. -Mark DeWolf
Mexico, like Canada, has a rich tradition of pumpkin-based desserts. This hybrid pumpkin pie made with Mexican spices is accompanied by dulce de leche. -Mark DeWolf

Mexican-style pumpkin pie with dulce de leche

1 can sweetened condensed milk

2 cups pumpkin, boiled, mashed*

2 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 can evaporated milk

1/2 tsp each ground cinnamon, chili powder, cloves salt

Prepared pie crust

Directions: Start by making the dulce de leche. Place a can of condensed milk (label removed) in pot. Cover with water, ensuring the water is at least a couple inches above the can. Bring to a boil and the reduce to a simmer. If the water level goes below the top of the can, add more hot water. After 2 hours gently remove the can from the water using tongs. Set aside to cool. Preheat oven to 400 F. Place pumpkin, brown sugar, evaporated milk, and spices in bowl of a stand mixer. Beat until well incorporated. Pour into a prepared crust. Bake for 40 minutes. Test by inserting a toothpick into the filling. If it comes out clean. It is done. Serve slices of pumpkin pie and for a little fun, place the can of condensed milk in the middle of the table. Open it up at the table to reveal the sweet dulce de leche inside. Let guests top with their pie with their desired amount of dulce de leche.

*If working with a whole pumpkin, set the seeds aside. Set an oven to 300 F. Toss the seeds in a couple tablespoons of butter and a generous pinch of salt. Bake on for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. The seeds can be used in our mole recipe.

Want more Mexican-style recipes? IN A JIFFY: Add a little Mexican flair to your food

Mark DeWolf is a connoisseur of all things food and drink. He's a creative director with SaltWire and local fare is his specialty. You can subscribe to his Follow a Foodie newsletter here.

Watch Mark whip up seasonal plates in his video series, In a Jiffy, and go deeper with food trends and kitchen challenges weekly 

RELATED:

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories