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Mexican food: How do I love thee? ...

As Mexico prepares to celebrate its 200th year of independence from Spain, The Oklahoman's food editor Dave Cathey shares 200 of his favorite things about Mexican food. Here are reasons 1 through 100.
by Dave Cathey Modified: September 15, 2010 at 11:28 am •  Published: September 8, 2010
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photo - ARTS FESTIVAL / FOOD: A black bean  and spinach burrito is a tempting treat at the Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City Thursday, April 23, 2009.  The festival ends Sunday.  Photo by JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN ORG XMIT: KOD
ARTS FESTIVAL / FOOD: A black bean and spinach burrito is a tempting treat at the Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City Thursday, April 23, 2009. The festival ends Sunday. Photo by JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN ORG XMIT: KOD

Next week, Mexico celebrates two centuries of independence from Spain. This week, the Food Dude gives you part one of the 200 reasons why he loves Mexican food.

As has been pointed out in this space more than once, Cinco de Mayo is a minor holiday in Mexico. The big one s a little more than a week away, Diez y Seis de Septiembre — or the less sexy Sept. 16.

Mexican food is the reason I love food. I was born near Tijuana in San Diego County, Calif., and raised in Austin, Texas. Mexican cuisine has been ubiquitous in my life — save for two years in Nebraska where corn is plentiful, but tortillas inexplicably are not.

Here is part one of my 200 reasons to love Mexican food:

1. Chiles. Whether dried or fresh, hot, sweet or mild, this is the foundation of Mexican cuisine.

2. Jalapeno. The most popular chile, it's plenty spicy when fresh but even more popular pickled.

3. Knob onions. The broad-based green onions are great on the grill or after a good rinse.

4. Tomatoes. Almost as ubiquitous as chiles, they're a staple in Mexican cuisine, whether fresh or roasted, whole, sliced or diced.

5. Cactus fruit. Clean well before candying or using to infuse oils or spirits.

6. Tomatillo. While it looks like a green tomato, it's actually a member of the berry family. Its extreme tart flavor is ideal for salsas.

7. Anaheim chiles. These mild chiles are usually roasted and skinned. They can be used in sauce or for stuffing.

8. Black beans. Winter is near, meaning black bean and chorizo soup is close behind.

9. Serrano chiles. My personal favorite, though my initiation was at the hands of a neighbor intent on revenge. He got it, but it sparked a lifelong love affair.

10. Avocado. Aguacate in Spanish, it's the best choice for balancing hot salsas while adding creaminess.

Lime. If it's made in Mexico, lime makes it better: beer, salsa, tacos, steak, chicken — you get the idea.

Tortilla chips. Don't mistake my tortilla chip belly for a beer belly. I've worked too long for there to be any confusion.

Poblano chiles. Roasted and skinned, they're optimal for chile rellenos. Dried, they become the apple of Bobby Flay's eye, the ancho. They also make a nice, mild green sauce.

Tacos. This is where my life in food began.

Gorditas. When I think of these masa-based treats, I can only think of those the Little Flower Catholic Church sold at the Oklahoma State Fair.

Frijoles. The Spanish word for beans rhymes with "holy" for a reason.

Rice. Rinsed, lightly fried and partnered with broth and a few vegetables, this is my best chance of getting the kiddos to eat peas and carrots.

Relish. Carrots, red onion and jalapeno pickled in the same brine. "Can we get some more," is the response at our table.

Tortillas. Corn or flour, it's hard to imagine eating any kind of Mexican food without them.

20. Tamales. They filled the void when Santa quit coming to town.

Burritos. If I had a nickel for every one I ate while operating a vehicle, I could afford a limo and driver. But where would the adventure be?

Enchiladas. Winter is for braised beef (short ribs?) and chile rojo. Spring and early summer is for crab with avocado sauce. Late summer and early fall is for pork with green chile. Early winter is chicken and goat cheese/cream sauce.

Salsa. Traditional tacos are simple: homemade tortilla, simply prepared filling and great salsa.

Guacamole. Question: Is there anything better than perfectly ripe avocados mixed with fresh lime juice? Answer: Only if you add a little garlic, salt and chile to the mix.

Carne Guisada. Mexican-style beef tips should be tender, salty and bristling with garlic and toasted cumin flavors. If homemade flour tortillas are available, neither forks nor spoons need apply.

Mole. It comes in green, red, yellow and black. I'm a slave to all of it.

Rick Bayless. The pride of Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City started working at the family barbecue joint and is now one of the world's most accomplished chefs. And he probably wouldn't be if not for his passion for Mexican cuisine.

Cumin. Toast cumin seeds in a hot cast-iron skillet then pulverize them. When the aroma hits your nose, you'll never buy ground cumin again.

Corn. Without corn, there is no masa. Without masa, there are no tortillas. Without tortillas, the world is a little sadder place.

30. Elote. Roasted corn slathered in cheesy, creamy, spicy goodness. Other than that, I can't really vouch for it.

Flautas. When I go to San Marcos, Texas, this is what I order: one beef, one chicken.

Tapatio sauce. The happy vaquero in the large sombrero on the bottle always makes me smile, but not quite as much as the spicy red nectar within.

Bufalo sauce. The first sauce imported from Mexico I ever tried; traffic into my mouth hasn't slowed much since that initial foray.

Valentina sauce. This works great if you're looking to tweak your wing sauce recipe.

Coral Snake Salsa from Iguana Lounge. When the Iguana Mexican Grill revived the concept in 2008, this was the first thing I looked for on the new menu. Thankfully, I found it.

Salsa Verde from the former Las Palomas. Restaurants come and go, but man I wish Las Palomas hadn't. And if it had to close, why couldn't they leave me their salsa verde recipe?

Tacos Calvillo. When Abel's took over the old El Rodeo space on NW 50 near MacArthur, they kept this dish: five steak tacos with cilantro and onions. A genius move. When El Rodeo reopened on NW 39 Expressway, they put the dish on the new menu, though with only four. Hmmm.

Taco salad. Love that tortilla bowl. The vegetarian version at Abel's makes my wife happier than a new pair of shoes. Wait, maybe a gently used pair of shoes. Regardless, it makes her smile, so that makes me smile.

Warm salsa from El Parian. The Edmond eatery has a lot of great stuff, but not much is greater than the warm salsa they put on the table before you order.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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