Trying Enchilada Into One Roll

One of America’s most popular ethnic cuisines is unquestionably Mexican. How far we have come from those hard, crisp tacos and lard-laden refried beans. Dating back to the Mayan culture circa 1500 BC, corn and beans have formed the foundation of original Mexican foods and still comprise a major portion of their foods. They were plentiful and easily stored. Gradually, a variety of fresh ingredients have been added over the years, along with chicken, beef, pork and seafood, to delight the palates of most everyone, from fast food to haute cuisine, and everything in between. But the basics which we adore the most still top our hit parade. So let’s check out the whole enchilada:

As early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. the tamale (or “tamal”) is corn masa, individually wrapped in a corn husk and was the perfect portable food. Kind of your early fast convenience food, they were often carried by warriors, hunters and travelers as a sort of meal on the go. Early tamales were often filled with turkey,frog, flamingo, axolotl (salamander), gopher or rabbit (would I make that up?). Homemade tamales are still a tradition at Christmas in Mexican homes, and their preparation is labor-intensive and time-consuming, usually steamed in their husk but an important part of the holiday meal.

Enchiladas date back to Mayan times, perhaps earlier, when the practice of rolling corn tortillas around other foods made for easy meals. In the lake region of the Valley of Mexico, the people traditionally ate corn tortillas folded or rolled around small fish. As we know them now, enchiladas are still corn tortillas rolled around a filling, including various meats, cheese, beans, potatoes, vegetables or a combination and covered with a chili pepper sauce, topped with cheese.

In a class by itself, Enchiladas suizas (Swiss-style) are topped with a cream-based white sauce, such as béchamel, which was derived from Swiss immigrants in Mexico who produced cream and cheese.

Burritos are also rolled tortillas but made from wheat, stuffed with rice, beans and/or meat, called ‘coçito’ in the Yucatán and ‘taco’ in Mexico City. Burritos may have been created in times of war, easily transported and eaten on the run, primarily during the Mexican/American strife of the early 1900s. Because they are enclosed and easily eaten standing up, they make great street food.

Quesadillas are a flat circle of cooked corn tortilla, warmed to soften it enough to be folded in half, and then typically filled with Oaxaca cheese (queso Oaxaca), a stringy Mexican cheese. They originated in central and southern regions of Mexico and can also contain chicken or shrimp.

Arriving late at the party, chimichangas made their appearance in 1946 thanks to Woody Johnson, founder of Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen, who claims he invented them when he put some burritos into a deep fryer as an experiment at his original Phoenix restaurant Woody’s El Nido. The name means “trinket” loosely translated.

For those cooks who want to re-create their favorite dishes at home, you might want to include these basics on your shopping list:

Rice – brown, spicy or plain, a great accompaniment
Beans – both refried pinto beans and black beans
Salsa – dozens of combinations, both cooked and fresh
Avocados – either sliced or mashed with tomatoes and spices for a tantalizing and delicious guacamole

Red or verde (green) sauces to squirt on top or drown your favorite dish
Corn, white or wheat flour tortillas
Assorted peppers and chiles, both spicy and mild
Cheese (queso) usually crumbled or shredded blends, the most popular is cotija and anejo, even (drumroll) Velveeta now offers Mexican and pepper-flavored cheese blends
Tortilla chips for dipping

Although most towns and cities host the popular fast food and chain restaurants, like Taco Bell, Del Taco, Chipotle, El Torito and Acapulco’s, frequently the best Mexican foods can be found in small, family owned shops, or in an area often called “Old Town” which can be a delightful mix of restaurants and street vendors, all serving up our favorites. Buen apetito.

 

Tips To Spill the Beans

We are clearly full of beans. In the U.S. alone, we consume about 8 pounds of beans annually, per capita, and the current popularity of Mexican cuisine plays no small part. The U.S. plants about 1.6 million acres a year. Worldwide production of dry beans was over 18 million metric tons in 2016, the leading producers are Myanmar (Burma), India and Brazil.

China loves their soybeans (edamame) and mung beans, the Middle East grinds garbanzos for hummus and tahini, Mexico serves up refried pinto and black beans, Italy makes their trademark minestrone with cannellini and red kidney beans, and the U.S. favors them baked, or cajun red beans and rice. While once considered an inferior food, beans are held in high favor globally. Nothing beats a hot bowl of navy bean soup, a tasty hummus spread on pita bread, a side of baked beans with barbecue or hot dogs, a dish of buttered limas with ham, or a big spicy bowl of chili.

Domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave, an archaeological site in Peru, dating back to around the second millennium BC. For centuries, they were a staple. They could be dried and carried on ships, they lasted through a long cold winter, they could be soaked or boiled easily and they filled empty stomachs. Beans are one of the earliest cultivated plants, providing an important source of protein and nutrients throughout Old and New World history.

Fava beans were a major source of food for the ancient Israelites and are still eaten primarily in Mediterranean countries. Old Testament civilizations such as Jericho and Babylon consumed them daily. The Aztecs and Incas grew and ate beans as a major part of their diet. Other South American countries thrived on them from the seventh century BC. They were also used as counting tools and money, and appeared symbolically at weddings. Asia has eaten them for centuries, and Egyptians included them in tombs to insure voyage to the afterlife.

Italian Renaissance gourmet Bartholomew Scappi described dishes of beans, eggs, cinnamon, walnuts, sugar, onions and butter in his cookbooks. Catherine d’ Medici of Florence was supposedly so fond of Italy’s cannellini beans, she smuggled some to France when she married Henry, Duke of Orleans, later to become King Henry II of France. (You know those French chefs–beans were considered beneath them.) If this story is accurate, we can thank Queen Catherine for cassoulet, a French delicacy made with goose fat, duck or lamb and white beans. (When the Queen wanted beans, her French chefs jumped.)

During the 9th century, Charlemagne (King Charles I) restored productivity to European lands which had been ravaged by war, ordering chickpeas to become a major crop which helped prevent starvation in his vast kingdom,

Early American colonists cultivated multiple varieties. They were used in soups and stews and could be dried to help feed large families throughout the winter, when food was scarce. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed many different types of beans from his abundant garden, experimenting with different varieties and creating new recipes for his dinner guests. (Well, okay, our foodie president didn’t actually cook, but he supervised his French-trained chef.)

In the early 1900s, a man named Henry J Heinz put canned baked beans on the map, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Today, Heinz baked beans is one of the most recognizable and popular canned foods on the grocery shelves. Surprisingly, the top bean eaters in the world are the U.K. countries. Worldwide, a whopping 2 million people consume baked beans daily.

What’s more American than franks and beans? Or chili? Or navy bean soup? So cook some up and enjoy.