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Explore Mexico's authentic, regional cuisine with these 10 dishes

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The cuisine of Mexico is wildly diverse, although you wouldn’t always know that if you haven’t visited there. Fast food and “Americanized” Mexican restaurants are unfortunately what we often see in the states.

“The land mass itself, as it has been arbitrarily contained and divided by modern governments, is only one-third the size of our United States,” writes Rick Bayless, a Chicago chef who specializes in Mexican cuisine. “Yet it rises and falls with more variety of plant life and human life, more formations of colors and textures and smells and tastes, than any country on Earth.”

Distinct regional flavors abound. Mexico City is the great melting pot. Oaxaca continues the traditions and flavors established by indigenous Indians. The Yucatan, given its Mayan and Caribbean influences with seafood of all kinds, is touched with an unexpected delicacy of seasonings. The west coast still echoes its Inca roots.

We have many to thank who opened our understanding of the regional cuisines of Mexico. Among them are Bayless and British cookbook author Diana Kennedy along with Southwest chefs Mark Miller, Dean Fearing, Robert Del Grande and Stephan Pyles.

Among those of Latin American backgrounds, culinary luminaries include Mexico City natives Jesús Gonzáles and Roberto Santibañez, New York City-based Zarela Martinez and Austin-based Iliana de la Vega, to name just a few.

In Mexico today there is an army of young Mexican chefs who are honoring traditional ingredients while pushing the envelope. Javier Placensia from Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe wine region of Baja is often mentioned. The ambassador of Mexican cuisine has revitalized that city’s food scene, and the city itself, with his “Baja Mediterranean” flavors.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes, reflecting the many flavors of the many regions of Mexico. It’s my favorite cuisine.

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This is a typical drink found all over Mexico. It’s pronounced “hah-MY-cah” and is one of the most popular hot weather drinks. It is sold by street vendors but is simple to make. Aguas frescas means literally, “fresh waters.” The Jamaica flowers have a tart flavor and a beautiful deep red color. They are readily available both in packages and in bulk in Mexican markets. Lots of flavor variations are possible, including adding a cinnamon stick or some fresh ginger when you boil the flowers.

Jamaica Agua Fresca

Makes 1 quart

1 cup dried Jamaica flowers

5 cups water

3 large allspice berries

3/4 cup sugar, or to taste

1 small lime, thinly sliced (optional garnish)

Bring the Jamaica flowers, water and allspice berries to a boil in a deep saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer partially covered for 5 minutes or so to extract as much flavor and color as possible. Stir in the sugar to dissolve and set aside for at least an hour.

Strain the liquid through a fine strainer into a pitcher, discard solids and chill very well. Serve with slices of lime, if desired.

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Literally a Mexican “fondue, ” this can be made in a single, large oven-proof dish or cast-iron skillet and served family style or in individual dishes, as the directions indicate. At its simplest, it’s usually cheese melted and topped with some kind of salsa. I’ve done a little more than that here but feel free to experiment, like adding a topping of cooked chorizo

Fundido con Queso (Mexican Melted Cheese with Tomatillo Salsa)

Makes 4 servings

1 large poblano pepper

1 small red onion, peeled and quartered

1-2 serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded

2 medium size ripe roma tomatoes, halved and seeded

— Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

12 ounces Asadero, Oaxaca, Jack or other melting cheese, coarsely grated

¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves

— Tomatillo and avocado salsa (recipe follows)

— Cilantro sprigs for garnish

— Corn tortilla chips

Char the pepper over a gas flame or under a hot broiler and then scrape off the blackened skin (do not wash). Remove and discard the seeds and stems and cut into large dice and set aside. Grill, broil or dry pan roast the onion, chile and tomatoes until lightly colored. Chop all, add to the pepper and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Arrange half the cheese in the bottom of four, flat 8- to 10-ounce individual earthenware dishes and scatter all the vegetables over the top. Sprinkle half the cilantro over this. Distribute remaining cheese over all and top with remaining cilantro. This can all be done in an hour or two ahead until ready to serve.

To serve: Place the filled dishes in a hot (425 degree) oven for 6 to 8 minutes or until cheese is nicely melted and just beginning to color. Note: You can also melt the cheese easily in a microwave oven. Heat at full power for 2 or 3 minutes depending wattage of oven. Top with a tablespoon or two of the salsa and cilantro. Serve immediately with crisp tortilla chips.

Tomatillo and Avocado Salsa

Makes about 1 cup

⅓ cup fresh tomatillos, husk removed, washed and coarsely chopped

½ teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon seeded and chopped fresh serrano chile, or to taste

1 tablespoon chopped scallion

1 small ripe avocado, peeled and pitted

— Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

— Drops of fresh lime juice to taste

By hand or in a food processor, add the tomatillos, garlic, chile and scallion and pulse a couple of times to chop. Coarsely chop the avocado and gently stir into the tomatillo mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper and lime juice.

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This is one of the classic dishes of the Yucatan.

Sopa de Lima (Mexican Chicken Soup with Lime)

Makes 8 servings

— Coconut or other vegetable oil for frying

3 6-inch yellow or white corn tortillas, cut into thin strips

1 whole chicken (about 3 pounds)

2 medium white onions, peeled, halved and sliced lengthwise

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 large poblano pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons oregano, preferably Mexican

1 teaspoon fennel seed

2 teaspoons pure chile powder such as ancho or ½ teaspoon chile flakes

3 cups or so quartered tomatillos

2 cups cooked long-grain white rice, optional

— Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

5 large limes, 4 juiced and one cut into wedges for garnish

— Additional garnishes: Sliced jalapeños, cilantro sprigs, avocado slices, crumbled cotija cheese, reserved tortilla strips

Line a plate with a paper towel. Add an inch of oil to a deep saucepan and over moderately high heat, fry the tortilla strips until crisp and golden brown, about 2 minutes. Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer the tortilla strips to the towel-lined plate and let them cool.

Nestle the chicken in a large stock pot and pour enough water into the pot to cover the chicken by 2 inches. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and then immediately reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and very gently simmer until the chicken is cooked through and the meat shreds easily with a fork, about 1½ hours.

Remove the chicken from the pot and place on a plate to rest until it’s cool enough to handle. Remove and discard the skin. Pull the meat from the bone and shred it with a fork and set aside.

Strain the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding the solids and set aside. Wipe out the pot, add 2 tablespoons of oil and over moderate heat, sauté the onions, garlic, poblano, cumin, oregano, fennel seed and chile until vegetables are softened, about 6 minutes. Add 6 cups or so of the stock, tomatillos, reserved chicken and simmer for 10 minutes more. Taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper, more chile powder and lime juice (at least 3 tablespoons) as needed.

Add a scoop of rice, if using, to warm bowls and ladle soup over. Pass garnishes, including fried tortilla strips, separately and allow each guest to add to their bowl as desired.

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Esquites is the off-the-cob version of elotes, the ubiquitous grilled and charred Mexican street corn slathered with Crema or sour cream, mayonnaise, Cotija cheese, chile powder and a squeeze of lime. In this recipe I’m doing the charring on the stovetop, but you could certainly use the grill. This is a delicious potluck dish.

Esquites (Mexican Street Corn Salad)

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 ears fresh corn, shucked, kernels removed (about 4 cups fresh corn kernels)

— Kosher salt

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 ounces finely crumbled cotija, feta or ricotta salata cheese

⅓ cup finely sliced scallions, green parts only

½ cup lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon serrano or jalapeño pepper, stemmed and finely chopped or to your taste

1 medium clove garlic, pressed or minced on a Microplane grater

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice or to taste

— Ancho or guajillo chili powder to taste

— Lime wedges for garnish

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet or wok over high heat until shimmering. Add corn kernels, season to taste with salt, toss once or twice, and cook without moving until charred on one side, about 2 minutes. Toss corn, stir, and repeat until charred on second side, about 2 minutes longer. Continue tossing and charring until corn is nicely charred all over, about 10 minutes total. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add mayonnaise, cheese, scallions, cilantro, serrano or jalapeño, garlic, lime juice and chili powder and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning to your taste.

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Oysters on the half shell are one of my favorite things. Oysters in Mexico are available on the eastern Gulf as well as in the west off Baja. Mexico is counted as the sixth-largest producers of oysters after China, South Korea, Japan, the United States and France.

Ostiones con Jalapeño Salsa (Fresh Oysters with Jalapeño Salsa)

Makes 12 servings 4 as a starter

12 very fresh half shell oysters

— Coarse salt

— Jalapeño salsa (recipe follows)

Shuck the oysters, leaving meat and liquor on the half shell. Place on a bed of salt to prevent the oysters from tipping. Top oysters with a teaspoon or so of the salsa.

Jalapeños can vary in their heat. I suggest putting in half of what’s called for in the recipe and taste after it has rested for at least one hour. Add more to your taste.

Jalapeño Salsa

Makes about 1 cup

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon agave syrup

1 tablespoon stemmed and seeded jalapeño pepper, finely diced or sliced

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

⅓ cup finely diced sweet red onion

½ cup diced fresh mango

2 teaspoons chopped cilantro leaves

— Sea salt to taste

Whisk olive oil, lime juice and agave together. Stir in remaining ingredients, adjusting flavors to your own taste. Allow to sit for an hour or so for flavors to develop. Can be made and stored in refrigerator for up to 3 days.

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Slow, long cooking is the key to making this dish meltingly tender. To serve, shred or chop the meat with its juices and then roll up in warm tortillas along with shredded cabbage, chopped avocados, tomatoes, sweet white onion, some cilantro leaves and lime wedges to squeeze juice over all. If you own a crock-pot, this is a great recipe for this useful appliance. You can also serve with rice and/or black beans.

Paleta de Cerdo (Slow Cooked Mexican-style Pork Shoulder)

Makes 8 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil

5 pounds or so bone in pork shoulder

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 large onions chopped (about 3 cups)

8 large cloves garlic peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped chipotle chile in adobo, or to taste

2 cups diced canned or fresh tomatoes

1 tablespoon crushed cumin seeds

2 teaspoons whole fennel seed

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

3 cups hearty red wine

1½ cups orange juice

2 tablespoons brown sugar

— Accompaniments: Tortillas, shredded cabbage, lime wedges, chopped tomatoes, chopped avocados, cilantro leaves, sliced radishes, cooked beans and whatever else you like

In a deep pot or Dutch oven with a cover, add the olive oil and heat over moderately high heat. Season the pork liberally with salt and freshly ground pepper and sear on all sides until nicely browned, about 10 minutes. Remove pork and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat.

Add the onions and garlic to pot and sauté over moderate heat until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer, stirring to combine. Add pork back to pot, cover and place in a preheated 325-degree oven for 3 hours or until meat is very tender and falls easily off the bone.

Remove meat, discarding bone, to a serving bowl and cover with foil to keep warm. Allow braising liquid to sit at room temperature to facilitate removal of fat and remove and discard as much as you can from the surface. Strain defatted juices if desired, pushing down on solids and discarding them. You can also skip this step if you like yours a little more “rustic.” Return juices to pan and bring to a simmer and then pour over meat. Serve with accompaniments.

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These fried, fluted fritters are a classic dessert in Mexico. They must be served hot, right out of the fat. Traditionally no sauce is used, but I’ve included a very simple chocolate sauce in this recipe to dip the warm churros in. Sort of gilding the lily! For these you’ll need a cookie press or a good pastry bag with a 3/8-inch star tip.

Churros (Mexican Doughnuts with Chocolate Dipping Sauce)

Makes 8 or so depending on the tip size

1 cup water

1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar, plus 2/3 cup more for rolling

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 whole eggs, at room temperature

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

— Canola or other vegetable oil for frying

— Mexican chocolate sauce (recipe follows)

Heat water, butter, salt and sugar together in a saucepan until it boils. Add flour all at once and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until smooth (about 2 minutes). Off heat, beat in eggs one at a time to make a smooth, shiny pastry. Cover pan and let mixture cool about 10 minutes.

Mix the 2/3 cup sugar and cinnamon together and spread over the bottom of a baking sheet.

Heat a heavy pan with 1 inch of vegetable oil to 375 degrees. Scoop the cooled dough into the cookie press or pastry bag and press out a 6-inch length of dough into the hot oil, cutting it off with a small knife. Cook until golden brown, turning occasionally, about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and let it cool a minute. Cut the first one open to check for doneness. Center should be soft but not doughy. Adjust oil temperature if necessary. Drain on paper towels and then roll in the cinnamon sugar. Serve immediately with warm Mexican chocolate sauce for dipping, if desired. If necessary, you can hold for a few minutes in a preheated 300-degree oven before serving.

Ibarra brand Mexican chocolate is available in Hispanic markets and many supermarkets. It’s traditionally used to make a hot chocolate drink.

Mexican Chocolate Sauce for dipping

Makes about 1 cup

2 three-ounce discs of Ibarra Mexican chocolate

1/3 cup half and half

1 tablespoon dark rum

¼ teaspoon Ancho or Chimayo Chile powder

Add all ingredients to a small stainless bowl and set over (but not on) a pan of simmering water to melt. Whisk to combine.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour,” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com

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