Mexican Cooking 101: Chef’s Guide for Delicious, Plant-Based Authentic Flavor

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Mexican Cooking 101

May 5th is “Cinco de Mayo”, the day in 1862 when the Mexican army overcame France for a symbolic victory that eventually led to Mexico’s Independence.  While it has remained a relatively minor celebration south of the border, in the US, Cinco de Mayo has become a day to celebrate Mexican heritage, with everything from mariachi serenades to colorful parades.

No Mexican party would be complete without a celebration of Mexican cuisine.  However, many of our perceptions of Mexican food (mine included) have been skewed by the influence of fast food business selling Doritos Gorditas  and deep fried ice cream.  True Mexican cuisine can more closely be likened to our understanding of Italian food — a cuisine celebrating fresh, local ingredients, with regional diversity spanning from the coast to the mountains.

Essential colors of Mexican Food Red Tomatoes, Green Lime, Jalapeno, and Cilantro, and Red Onion

Here is my Chef’s Guide to Mexican Cooking:

  • Is Mexican Food Healthy?
  • 5 Essential Mexican Cooking Fundamentals

Is Mexican Food Healthy?

Absolutely!  Authentic Mexican food focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients.  Contrary to what a “Mexican” fast food might suggest, Mexican cooking has long been centered on beans, rice, corn, and fresh vegetables.

4 Healthy Reasons to Eat More Mexican

1) Naturally Plant-Based:

Cheese or dairy might be used as a garnish, but the deep-fried nachos supreme, smothered in sour cream, is an American Tex-Mex creation.

2) Gluten-Free:

Because Mexican food uses mostly corn, rice, and beans as its main starches, most of the dishes are naturally gluten-free.  Wheat is used to make flour tortillas, but those can easily be swapped out for traditional corn or even fancier brown rice tortillas.

3) Fresh and Simple:

Because Mexican food focuses on fresh ingredients, with simple preparations, means there’s no need for processed foods, heavy oil, or fattening cream sauces.

  • Chef Katie’s Tip:  If you’re supplementing your Mexican fiesta with store-bought jarred salsa, pre-made spice blends, or other foods, check the label.  Look for ingredients that you can recognize, and avoid any oils, refined sweeteners, and stabilizers like “guar gum” and “carrageenan”.  These ingredients can have off-putting textures, with a fake flavor that detracts from the fresh, healthy flavors you want.

4) Budget-Friendly:

Mexican Food is even healthy for your wallet!  Beans and rice are often called “peasant food” because they are so affordable, yet so nutritious and satisfying.  A pound of dried beans might cost $2.  Cook them with some onion, garlic, and dried pepper, and you’ll have a hearty pot of Chipotle Black Bean Soup that will feed you all week.


What are 5 Basic Mexican Ingredients?

Think about these Mexican staples:


1)   Beans, Corn, and Rice

Naturally gluten-free foods, beans, corns, and rice are the starchy base for most Mexican dishes.  These healthy complex carbs are also a great source of vegetarian protein and filling fiber.  They serve as filling for tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.  The create creamy, satisfying soups.  And nothing beats a big ‘ole pot of beans and rice.

 Satisfying Rice and Beans - Delicious, healthy Mexican comfort food
Satisfying Rice and Beans – Delicious, healthy Mexican comfort food

 Black Turtle Beans


2) Salsa and Peppers

Mexican sauces or “salsas” are often centered around the vast array of chili peppers available in the country.   A salsa can be as simple as pureed roasted red peppers, or as complex as a 15-ingredient, day-long mole.  For somewhere in the middle, I suggest my Pasilla Pepper Sauce.  You can use it as a base for experimenting with any dried peppers, like guajillo, ancho, and Santa Fe.

For something more advanced, try an authentic Ancho chili salsa Roja, and use it for Red Quinoa Enchiladas Rojas

 Dried Ancho and Fresh Poblano Peppers - Essential flavors for Mexican cooking
Dried Ancho and Fresh Poblano Peppers – Essential flavors for Mexican cooking

How Spicy Is it?

Two of my Chef’s Tips to tell how spicy that pepper might be:

1. Small is Mighty Spicy
Smaller chili peppers usually pack spicier flavor.  Little ghost peppers, bird chilies, and habaneros are spicier than larger Ancho and jalapeno peppers. Big bell peppers are the mildest of the pepper family.

2. Stripes mean Spice
For fresh peppers, like jalapenos, stripes mean the pepper was on the vine longer and riper before picking.  This means it had more time to really develop its spicy flavor

 A Quick Yellow Tomato Salsa can easily be pureed in the blender for a fresh, healthy, gluten-free, oil-free Mexican snack
A Quick Yellow Tomato Salsa can easily be pureed in the blender for a fresh, healthy, gluten-free, oil-free Mexican snack

3) The “Trinity”: Tomato, Cilantro, Onion

Think of the colors of the Mexican flag: red, white, and green.  These are also the colors of the tomatoes, onion, and cilantro that are the key flavors for Mexican cuisine.  Any authentic Mexican taco is going to be topped with this trinity. Sometimes that’s all that’s in the tortilla!

The combination of fresh flavor from the juicy tomatoes, spicy onion, and herbaceous cilantro help brighten any dish. Add these three to rice, beans, or roasted corn to easily impart fresh Mexican flavor.  Make a quick 5 Minute Pico de Gallo for a healthy, fresh topping on baked potatoes, Quinoa fiesta bowl, or Lentil Tacos.

 The Mexican "Trinity": Tomato, cilantro and lime - Essential Mexican flavor and the building block for delicious Pico de Gallo
The Mexican “Trinity”: Tomato, cilantro and onion – Essential Mexican flavor and the building block for delicious Pico de Gallo

 Pico de Gallo - Healthy, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Easy, Spicy, Vegan, Plant-Based Mexican Salsa Sauce Recipe
Pico de Gallo – Healthy, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Easy, Spicy, Vegan, Plant-Based Mexican Salsa Sauce Recipe

 Pineapple Salsa - Trade out the Tomatoes for some Pineapple in this Healthy, Gluten-Free, Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Easy, Spicy Vegan Mexican Condiment Recipe
Pineapple Salsa – Trade out the Tomatoes for some Pineapple in this Healthy, Gluten-Free, Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Easy, Spicy Vegan Mexican Condiment Recipe

4) Avocado

A healthy source of plant-based fat, avocado is an easy go-to for add cool creaminess to any dish.  Avocado is typical for Mexican dishes.  Diced avocado is served over Tortilla Soup, it serves as the base for Guacamole, and is added to beans salads like Guaca-Jica-Bean Salad.
Avocados get even more love from plant-based eaters as its rich flavor make it an easy substitute for traditional dairy.  Use it as a replacement for sour cream, mayo, or cheese on Quinoa Fiesta Bowls or Oaxacan Baked Tostadas.  Or just spread it on hearty, whole grain bread for a quick Avocado Toast.

 Healthy Avocado

 Jicama, Corn, and Black Bean Avocado Salad - Healthy, Easy, Vegan, Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Gluten-Free Guacamole Recipe
Jicama, Corn, and Black Bean Avocado Salad – Healthy, Easy, Vegan, Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Gluten-Free Guacamole Recipe

 Guacamole - Healthy, Easy, Oil-Free, Plant-Based, Vegan Mexican Avocado Dip Recipe
Guacamole – Healthy, Easy, Oil-Free, Plant-Based, Vegan Mexican Avocado Dip Recipe

5) Tortillas

The “bun” for most handheld Mexican foods, tortillas are traditionally made with masa harina (cornmeal flour) and water.  Tortillas are essential for Mushroom Tacos, Spicy Tortilla Soup, and Quinoa Enchiladas.

The masa harina used in tortillas comes from ground corn, which is treated with an acidic lime solution, giving it a distinct taste.  The masa harina is mixed with water and a bit of salt then pressed into tortillas.  The tortillas are often cooked on a hot griddle or Comal.

Besides tacos, you can use tortillas as a gluten-free substitute in lasagna, swapping out the layers of wheat pasta for corn tortillas.  My favorite go-to summer snack: Toasted Tortilla with Almond Butter, Sliced Peaches, and Nutmeg.  Okay, it may not be an authentic Mexican dish, but it hits all the right spots: crunchy, creamy, sweet, and delicious.

Tortillas Cooking on authentic comal in Guatemala Market

 Charred Mushroom Poblano Tacos - Healthy, Plant-Based, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Grilled, Vegan Mexican Entree Recipe
Charred Mushroom Poblano Tacos – Healthy, Plant-Based, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Grilled, Vegan Mexican Entree Recipe
 Tortilla with Almond Butter, Peaches, Nutmeg - Quick, Easy, Healthy Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Gluten-Free Vegan Snack
Tortilla with Almond Butter, Peaches, Nutmeg – Quick, Easy, Healthy Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Gluten-Free Vegan Snack

Chef Katie’s Tortilla Tip:   These days, the rainbow of tortilla selection is pretty impressive — corn, flour, whole wheat, brown rice, spinach, sprouted grains, and even blue corn.  You can find good tortillas at almost any grocery these days.  Just check the label.  If there’s more than 5 ingredients, the authenticity factor (and the flavor quality) goes down.  My favorites are always El Milagro’s corn tortillas.

Hungry Yet?

Try some of these:

15 Ultimate Mexican Recipes

Healthy, Plant-Based Oil-Free, Gluten-Free Recipes
For Cinco de Mayo or any Vegetarian Fiesta

More Resources and Learning:

A Guide To The Regional Cuisines Of Mexico: Food Republic

Rick Bayless: Mexico One Plate at a Time cooking show

Saveur interview with Mexican cooking legend, Diane Kennedy

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