Even if you don’t live in Los Angeles, San Diego, or Austin, you don’t have to travel far to get an authentic street taco these days. Excellent Mexican food is everywhere, from Rick Bayless’ empire in Chicago to ballpark food like Floyd Cardoz’ El Verano Taqueria in the Northeast.
At once comfortingly familiar and enticingly exotic, Mexico City culinary staples like esquites and elote or carnitas are now happily standard fare across America.
And as much as I’d love to travel to Mexico City and sample from market stall to stall, eating mole and sipping aguas frescas at countertop restaurant stands, I can recreate the flavors at home with Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets & Fondas by Lesley Téllez.
Lesley, a friend and fellow food writer who runs a Mexico City food tour company of the same name as the book, takes us on a virtual trip through the city’s markets, fondas, and surrounding countryside in the pages of Eat Mexico.
Her stories and recipes, based on her explorations of Mexico City’s food scene, make us immediate intimates and experts at her side.
Though Lesley cautions us that “there are very few shortcuts in Mexican cooking,” there are still a number of recipes in Eat Mexico that will satisfy without spending an afternoon at the stove.
Sure, there are traditional preparations like slow-cooked pork shoulder and step-by-step instructions for making your own stack of fresh corn tortillas (as well as making fresh nixtamal and grinding it into masa, if you’re so inclined!).
But whether you’re looking to expand your cooking roster or find something comforting and familiar, you’ll find enough to explore without feeling like you’re embarking upon a full day’s cooking quest.
Like tender, savory albondigas al chipotle simmered in spicy red sauce (above), for example. They’re no more time-consuming or difficult than the more immediately familiar Italian version.
Draped with cheese and nestled in a hard roll, they make one hell of a sandwich that gives your run-of-the-mill meatball sub a serious run for its money. (Seriously, I think these may be the meatballs my husband requests exclusively from now on.)
Or bean and cheese tlacoyos, crispy masa patties that enclose a simple homemade bean-and-cheese filling.
Even if you’ve never worked with masa before, you’ll find the process of mixing and shaping masa dough a wonderfully non-stressful experience—and you’ll find masa harina at pretty much any supermarket these days. (Bob’s Red Mill sells it as well!)
Top the tlacoyos “con todo” (with everything), as Lesley recommends, or try your hand at making homemade crema or one of the rainbow roster of salsas in the book as accompaniment.
Among the new-to-me recipes throughout the book, one of Lesley’s discoveries from Mexico City’s market stands—peneques, or puffy corn tortilla pockets—seems 100 percent tailor-made for this season summer eating.
Stuffed with green beans and squash rounds, dunked in a light and crispy egg batter, and quickly pan-fried, peneques are one of those dishes that works from brunch to dinner.
They could be little omelets or alternatives to huevos rancheros; handheld snacks that replace a lunchtime sandwich; or a full meal with beans and rice on the side. And peneques are surprisingly easy to pull together once you get your assembly line going.
If you’ve ever dipped and fried your own tempura at home, you’ll find the process of cooking the peneques to be no big thing, and even if you’ve never batter-fried a single thing, the near-magic of watching the fluffy egg batter puff and sizzle is a must-do at least once in your life.
Although after you’ve done it once and eaten the results—especially with fresh, spicy ranchera sauce—you’ll definitely want to do it again.
- 2 pounds plum tomatoes
- 2 medium serrano chiles
- 1/4 medium white onion
- 1 large garlic clove, peeled but left whole
- 1 tablespoon lard or canola oil
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup canola oil or vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons chopped white onion
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- about 1/3 pound (6 ounces) fresh green beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
- about 1/2 pound (8 ounces) squash, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick half-moons
- 5 large eggs, separated
- 1 teaspoon flour + 1/3-1/2 cup flour for dredging
- 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
- 6 large corn tortillas or 12 small corn tortillas
Make the ranchera sauce:
- Place the tomatoes, chiles, onion, and garlic in a 4- to 5-quart Dutch oven or stockpot and cover with cold water. (The tomatoes will float.)
- Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
- Uncover and cook, simmering gently, until the tomato flesh softens and the skins start to split, about 8 minutes.
- Pluck the tomatoes out of the water as they soften and transfer to a bowl or cutting board.
- The chile and onion may take a few minutes longer than the tomatoes—the chile is done when the skin darkens and becomes slightly matte, and the onion should be translucent. When all vegetables are cooked, move them to the cutting board to cool.
- Reserve 1/4 cup cooking water and ditch the rest.
- Stem the chiles and chop roughly. Place them in a blender with the onion and garlic.
- Slip off and discard the tomato skins, add the tomatoes to the blender and blend until smooth. (You may need to do this in batches, depending on the power of your blender).
- If the sauce seems very thick, add the reserved cooking water and blend again until smooth.
- Heat the lard or oil in a large skillet or high-sided saucepan over medium heat. When it melts or shimmers, pour in the sauce. (Be careful—it might splatter.)
- Season with salt, adding more to taste. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently until the flavors meld, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.
- Keep warm if using immediately.
Make the peneques:
- Heat 2 teaspoons canola oil in a large skillet or high-sided saucepan over medium heat.
- Add the onion and garlic and cook until translucent and aromatic, stirring often, 2 minutes.
- Add the green beans and a few pinches of salt. Stir well to coat in the onion-garlic mixture, then add 2 tablespoons water.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the green beans are just tender.
- Add the squash and another pinch of salt, and stir well. Raise the heat back to medium and cook uncovered, stirring often, until the squash is tender and translucent.
- Transfer the filling to a bowl. Taste and add more salt if necessary. (You want the filling slightly saltier than you might think, in order for it to stand out inside the tortilla pocket.)
- Whisk the egg yolks together with 1 teaspoon flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl.
- Whisk the egg whites with a stand mixer or electric mixer until stiff peaks form.
- Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the yolks into the whites. The egg whites should be fluffy and frothy, and the yolks completely integrated.
- Create an assembly line next to the stove with the filling, cheese, flour for dredging, batter, and a plate or cutting board for filing the tortillas.
- Place a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet in a warm oven (about 200 degrees F).
- Warm the tortillas in the oven or in a clean skillet, a few at a time, until they are pliant enough to fold.
- Warm 1/2 cup canola oil in a large frying pan over medium-high to high heat. To test when it's ready for frying, add a small dab of the egg batter to the pan. If it bubbles and turns golden brown at the edges within 5 to 10 seconds, it's ready. If the batter immediately turns dark brown, the oil is too hot.
- Once the oil is almost ready, grab a warmed tortilla and fill it with about 1-2 tablespoons each of vegetables and shredded cheese. Fold the tortilla closed—the filling should not spill out; if it does, you have too much.
- Dredge the tortilla lightly in the flour or gently sprinkle and brush the flour across each side of the tortilla to very lightly coat it.
- Give the egg batter one more stir. Then, using both thumbs to pinch the tortilla closed, scoop a peneque deeply through the egg batter and place in the hot oil. It should sizzle and puff up into a cloud.
- Place a dollop of egg batter on the bare space where your thumbs were. Using a spoon, bathe the peneque in the hot oil—this "seals" the batter onto the tortilla, making it easier to flip.
- Cook for 20 to 30 seconds, then flip with a spatula (or two!), taking care not to slosh around the hot oil.
- Cook for another 30 more seconds, bathing any uncooked sides of the peneque in oil, until golden brown. Transfer to the wire rack in the oven to drain. (The egg may deflate a little upon serving, but that's okay.)
- Repeat with the remaining peneques.
- Spoon ranchera sauce over the peneques before serving.
adapted from Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City's Streets, Markets & Fondas by Lesley Telléz