Chili peppers, tortillas, and fresh vegetables are hallmarks of this colorful, vibrant cuisine.

By Sara Gauchat
August 17, 2014
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Lisa Hubbard

Stop by your local Mexican restaurant and you’ll probably find sky-high piles of nachos smothered in cheese and colossal fishbowl margaritas. But true Mexican food couldn’t be more different.

The good news is that those omnipresent stand-bys, like burritos and chimichangas, have opened countless minds and palates to experiencing real Mexican cuisine. “People think Mexican food is heavy and all about the yellow cheese. They associate it with fast-food items. But it’s definitely not,” says Marcela Valladolid, the host of Mexican Made Easy on the Food Network (and the author of a book by the same name, $28, and the curator of Kahlua’s Delicioso Brunch Club. “It’s actually so beautiful, so fresh, so colorful and full of bright flavors.”

Mexican flavors run the gamut, from the highly complicated to the purely simple. “A mole sauce that’s properly made can have 30-plus ingredients and be just as complex as any French sauce. Or something can be as simple as a roasted chicken tostada—not complex at all,” says Valladolid. “Mexican cooking truly covers two ends of the spectrum.”

Whether it’s cochinita pibil (a slow-roasted pork dish), from the Yucatan Peninsula; mole negro (a classic chili-and-chocolate-based sauce), from Oaxaca; or ceviche (raw seafood marinated in citrus juice), from Puerto Vallarta, Mexican cuisine offers something for just about every palate. No matter where a traditional dish originated—or where it’s being prepared today—the odds are good that it incorporates some of the key ingredients that have shaped Mexican cooking since the beginning.

The chili pepper is ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine. “No matter what kind they are, you need chilies,” says Julian Medina, the chef and owner of Toloache, Yerba Buena, Toloache Taqueria, and Coppelia in New York City. Jalapeños, serranos, habaneros, poblanos, and chipotles, to name just a few, all get their moment to shine in different dishes, with heat levels ranging from mild to mouth-on-fire. Not sure how to tell if your taste buds can handle a particular pepper? Valladolid’s trick is to touch the tip of your tongue to the chili to get an idea of the heat level. If it burns the tip, think of what it will do if you bite into it.

Once you’re properly stocked with chili peppers, you’ll be armed to tackle homemade salsa. “It’s so easy to make your own, and it tastes better and fresher,” says Medina. For a basic salsa, simply combine tomato, onion, garlic, chipotle or jalapeño, salt, and vinegar or lime juice and give it a whirl in the food processor. “It takes five minutes to make, which is a lot less time than making marinara for pasta,” says Medina.

The other staple in Mexican cooking is the almighty tortilla. “There isn’t a recipe that dates back longer than the tortilla,” says Valladolid. And it’s a simple recipe at that—basically flour or masa (a special corn flour), water, and not a whole lot else. Flour tortillas are the softer, more pliable option, often used when serving grilled meats or when making that constant crowd-pleaser, the quesadilla. Corn tortillas, which are traditionally used to make tacos, are sweeter and a bit more durable. Despite the differences, both kinds have one big thing in common: They should be warmed over a gas burner until dark spots of char appear. “Don’t ever put a tortilla in the microwave,” says Valladolid. “It changes the composition and makes it taste like rubber.” And all the spicy salsa in the world can’t fix that.

Vegetarians will find a plethora of options in authentic Mexican cooking—loads of mushrooms, zucchini, squash, pumpkins, greens, and other vegetables that are as tasty as they are healthy. “It doesn’t have to be all rice and beans,” says Medina. “Imagine a taco filled with great vegetables.”

Happily, you can re-create the south-of-the-border dining experience in your own kitchen anytime.  “Start by getting some wonderful ingredients, and begin with what you feel comfortable with,” says Valladolid. Perhaps begin with enchiladas or chilaquiles (an egg, salsa, and tortilla brunch favorite)—both easy dishes that use ingredients found in countless Mexican recipes. “It’s all about serving fresh food and enjoying it with the family,” says Valladolid.