There's a lighter side to Mexican fare


There's more to Mexican food than cheesy, greasy enchiladas, burritos and chips.

Mexican-restaurant fare took a beating from the Center for Science in the Public Interest this summer. The consumer group grabbed headlines with its report that Mexican food is loaded with fat. But there's a lighter side to Mexican food, and it's as authentic and traditional as Old Mexico.

"There's a big difference between the Mexican food that people eat in the United States and what they eat in Mexico," says Rick Bayless, author of "Authentic Mexican" (William Morrow and Co., $24.95) and owner of the Frontera Grill in Chicago.

The CSPI report doesn't touch on the universe of traditional Mexican regional cuisine that Mr. Bayless has mastered and popularized through his cookbook, restaurant and public television series. His recipes are heavy on chicken, rice and beans and vegetable-based sauces. The recipes given here all come in below the 30 percent calories from fat recommended by most health groups.

Mexican Rice

Makes about 4 servings

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup long- or medium-grain rice

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, peeled and finely diced

1 ripe, medium-small tomato, roasted or boiled, cored and peeled, or half of a (15-ounce) can tomatoes, drained

1 1/2 cups broth (preferably chicken) or water

salt, about 1/2 teaspoon if using unsalted broth or water

1 cup fresh or defrosted frozen peas (optional)

1 large carrot, peeled and chopped into 1/4 -inch dice (optional)

several sprigs of fresh cilantro for garnish

About 40 minutes before serving, measure the oil into a 1 1/2 - or 2-quart saucepan set over medium heat. Add the rice and onion and cook, stirring regularly, until both are lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Mix in the garlic and cook a minute longer.

While the rice is frying, prepare the tomato. Seed it, if you like, by cutting it in half widthwise and squeezing out the seeds. Puree it in a blender or food processor. Set aside.

Pour the broth or water into a small pan, add the salt and bring just to a simmer.

Add the pureed tomato to the browned rice and cook for a minute, stirring several times. Add the simmering broth, stir the rice, scrape down the sides of the pot, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the rice stand 5 to 10 minutes, covered, until the grains are tender but not splayed.

While the rice is cooking, simmer the fresh peas until tender (4 to 20 minutes, depending on their size and freshness), then drain and set aside; frozen peas need only be defrosted. Separately, simmer the carrot 5 to 7 minutes, drain and add to the fresh or defrosted peas.

When the rice is tender, add the optional vegetables and fluff with a fork to separate the grains and stop the cooking. Scoop the rice into a warm serving dish and decorate with fresh cilantro.

Per serving: 232 calories; 4 grams fat; no cholesterol; 563 milligrams sodium. Percent of calories from fat: 17 percent.

Brothy Pinto Beans

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 cups (about 13 ounces total) dry pinto beans

2 tablespoons lard, bacon drippings or fat rendered from chorizo sausage

1 small onion, diced

salt, about 1 teaspoon

Measure the beans into a colander, pick out any tiny dirt clods or pebbles, rinse and place in a 4-quart pan.

Add 6 cups water, remove any beans that float, and let soak 4 to 8 hours, until you see no dry core when you break one open. Or quick-soak the beans by boiling them for up to 2 minutes, then letting them stand off the fire for 1 hour. Drain the beans completely.

Cover the beans with 6 cups fresh water, add the lard or other fat and onion. Bring slowly to a simmer. Partially cover and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until they are fully tender, 1 to 2 hours. If you see the beans peeking up through the liquid, add hot water to cover them by 1/2 inch; without enough water, the beans may cook unevenly and tend to stick on the bottom.

Season with salt.

Per serving: 229 calories; 4 grams fat; 3 milligrams cholesterol; 310 milligrams sodium. Percent calories from fat: 17 percent.

Green Chicken Enchiladas

Makes 6 servings

Quick-Cooked Tomatillo Sauce (recipe follows)

1 large whole chicken breast, cooked, skinned, boned and shredded (see note)

1/4 cup nonfat sour cream

1 tablespoon finely chopped onion

salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

12 corn tortillas (do not use stale tortillas)

1/3 cup (about 1 1/4 ounces) Mexican queso anejo or other cheese such as feta or mild Parmesan

2 slices onion, broken into rings, for garnish

several radish slices or roses, for garnish

Heat the tomatillo sauce in a small, covered pan over low heat. Warm the chicken in a separate pan over low heat. Sprinkle chicken with a little water so it won't dry out. Stir in the sour cream, onion and salt; set aside off heat, covered.

About 20 minutes before servings, heat oven to 350 degrees. Pour 1 cup of the warm sauce into a plate. Lay a tortilla in the sauce, turn it over, lay a scant 2 tablespoons of the filling across the center and roll it up.

Transfer to a baking dish, then continue filling and rolling the rest of the tortillas. Pour the remaining sauce over the enchiladas, being careful to cover the ends.

Immediately cover the dish with foil and bake just long enough to heat through, about 10 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle the enchiladas with the crumbled cheese, decorate with onion rings and radishes and serve right away.

Per serving: 329 calories; 9 grams fat; 58 milligrams cholesterol; 867 milligrams sodium. Percent calories from fat: 25 percent.

Quick-Cooked Tomatillo Sauce

1 pound (11 medium) fresh tomatillos

chopped fresh green chilies to taste (roughly 3 serranos or 2 jalapenos)

5 or 6 sprigs fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 cups chicken or beef broth


Wash and husk fresh tomatillos. Boil tomatillos in salted water to cover, along with green chilies, for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain.

(Or, use 2 cans [13 ounces each] tomatillos, drained. Skip boiling step.)

Place the tomatillos and chilies in a blender or food processor, along with cilantro, onion, and garlic. Process until smooth but still retaining a little texture.

Heat vegetable oil in a medium-large skillet set over medium-high heat. When hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle sharply, pour it in all at once and stir constantly for 4 or 5 minutes, until darker and thicker.

Add 2 cups chicken or beef broth, return to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until thick enough to coat a spoon, about 10 minutes. Season with salt.

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