Blast From the Past: A Mexican Meal

Before we left Salem, Oregon for Arkansas, I did some food writing for the local paper. Unfortunately, those features are no longer available on the websites, so I’m going to pull up the drafts and put them on here. The only difference between what you see and what was published will be from the pre-recipe verbiage — all of the recipes are as published. -s


It is said that the quote “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” originated with Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was discussing Russian politics at the time, but he could just as easily have been discussing his most recent attempt at creating a satisfying home cooked Mexican meal.

Mexican cuisine is an interesting challenge for the home cook. It is as varied and complex as European cuisines, yet its highest hurdles are generally those of ingredient availability and patience, not cooking

But the efforts of many a home cook may result in a less than satisfying experience, and the weakest link may not be obvious. However, one simple change in the meal will bring it to heights heretofore unknown.

Fresh tortillas.

The difference in taste between fresh and packaged tortillas is apparent long before the first morsel enters your mouth. Good fresh tortillas entice you with their aroma and their texture and pliability suggest a longing to encase your kitchen’s finest creations rather than a run to the border.

And the taste? Like an artisanal bread, fresh flour tortillas have a depth of flavor unmatched by their packaged rivals. Fresh corn tortillas actually taste like corn and do not require the extremes of effort needed to bring life to corn tortillas from a bag.

You can make fresh tortillas at home, but it isn’t necessary. Salem is extremely lucky to have a number of restaurants that make fantastic fresh tortillas and sell them piping hot on a to-go basis. Purchase them the same day as your meal, and if necessary they can be warmed by cooking on an ungreased pan over medium-high heat for 20 to 30 seconds. Keep them warm by wrapping them in a clean cloth towel and placing in a tortilla container.

Excellent fresh tortillas can be purchased at the following restaurants:

La Hacienda Real, 3690 Commercial St. SE (503) 540-5537, 5024 River Rd.
North (503) 390-0923
Los Arcos, 4120 Commercial St. SE (503) 581-2740

Most of the ingredients in the following recipes are widely available in
Salem. Stores that normally have all of the ingredients listed are:

El Torito Meat Market, 2158 Lancaster Dr. NE (503) 371-5979

Wal-Mart Supercenter, 3025 Lancaster Dr. NE (503) 589-5516

Fred Meyer, 3450 Commercial St. SE (503) 585-3533

Ropa Vieja

  • 3 lb. roast cut of beef, such as tri-tip or bottom round, or can also use flank steak
  • 6 cups beef stock
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 10 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup onions, diced
  • 4 fresh Anaheim chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • Salt
  • Flour tortillas for serving

Put meat, stock, carrot, and garlic in a crock pot. Cook for 6 hours on high. Leave the meat to cool in the liquid. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the liquid and shred using your fingers or a fork. In general, the shreds should not be longer than 2 inches. Reserve 1/2 cup of cooking liquid.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and chiles and cook until lightly colored. Add the shredded meat to the pan and mix. Add the reserved cooking liquid to the pan and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Serve with flour tortillas, lime wedges, chopped cilantro garnish, and salsas.

Simple Pinto Beans

  • 1 lb. dry pinto beans
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme

Place the beans in a large pot or bowl and sort to remove stones or grit. Cover with 8 to 10 cups of water. Soak overnight.

Remove any floating objects and discard the soaking water.

Place the soaked beans into a crockpot with 6 cups of water. Add salt, oregano, and thyme. Cook on low 6 hours for a firmer texture and 7 hours for a creamier texture.

Mexican Rice

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
  • 1 cup white or jasmine rice
  • 1 10oz. can tomatoes with green chiles, such as Rotel
  • 2 tsp. granulated chicken and tomato bouillon, such as Maggi
  • Water

Remove the lid from the can of tomatoes with green chiles. Over a measuring cup no smaller than 2 cups capacity, press the lid into the can, squeezing the liquid into the measuring cup. Add water to the cup until it measures 2 cups of liquid. Add bouillon and whisk until dissolved.

Heat the oil in a medium or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add corn and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add rice and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. The rice should look chalky. Add the can of tomatoes with green chiles and stir until mixed.

Add the liquid and bring to a boil. Cover and turn heat to low. Cook for 15 or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Cooking time may vary due to type of rice used.

Ninfa’s Green Sauce
Adapted from “The Tex-Mex Cookbook” by Robb Walsh

  • 12 tomatillos, peeled
  • 0 to 3 serrano chiles, depending on desired amount of heat
  • 4 avocados
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 cup to 2 cups sour cream, depending on desired thickness

Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the tomatillos and chiles. Reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are soft. Remove from heat and drain.

Peel, pit, and slice the avocados.

Combine the tomatillos, chiles, and avocados in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.

Pour into large bowl and add the salt and cilantro. Stir in the sour cream to achieve desired thickness. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Griddled Salsa Roja
From “New Tastes from Texas” by Stephan Pyles

  • 6 medium-sized tomatoes, halved
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup sliced onions
  • 1 to 6 jalapenos, depending on desired amount of heat
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 chipotle in adobo
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 tsp. salt

Heat a large skillet on high for 3 minutes or until smoking. Place the tomatoes cut side down in the hot skillet and cook until charred and somewhat soft. Flip the tomatoes over and continue cooking 2 more minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium and let the skillet stand for 2 minutes.

Add the olive oil, onion, jalapenos, and garlic to the skillet. Cook for 3 minutes or until the vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally.

Place the onion mixture, charred tomatoes, and chipotle in a food processor and blend well. Transfer to a serving bowl. Stir in the cilantro, lime juice, and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Tomato Arbol Salsa
Adapted from “La Parilla” by Reed Hearon

  • 1/4 cup corn oil
  • 12 arbol chiles, with seeds
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, pan-roasted until blistered, deeply browned, and soft
  • 6 garlic cloves, pan-roasted until brown and soft, then peeled
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp. dried Mexican oregano, toasted
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. toasted and ground cumin

Heat the corn oil in a medium-sized skillet until hot but not smoking. Fry the chiles, 1 or 2 at a time, until puffed and brown, about 10 seconds. Do not burn or they will taste bitter.

Shake off excess oil from chiles and place in a blender. Add 2 tablespoons chile cooking oil, tomatoes, garlic, and water to the blender. Blend until smooth. Add the oregano, salt, and cumin and blend again.

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