Making Kosher Mexican Food at Home

Tacos from Miami’s kosher restaurant Mexico Bravo are similar to the author’s recipe below. Photograph courtesy of Mexico Bravo.

When Katsuji Tanabe, the acclaimed chef/owner of MexiKosher in Los Angeles, became a contestant in this season’s “Top Chef” competition on Bravo, kosher Mexican cuisine soared in popularity. Unfortunately, with only a handful of kosher authentic Mexican restaurants in the U.S. — Tanabe’s in L.A. and Mexico Bravo in Miami being the most prominent — the unusual flavor combination of onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, chili and lime is hard to come by for those who keep kosher.

Unless you grew up with a mother from Mexico City, that is.

I was one of the privileged few for whom authentic Mexican cuisine was the norm. Leftover roast chicken was reheated in tortillas; quesadillas made with homemade salsa were a typical after-school snack; and rice was served at every meal.

At my sister’s recent engagement party at my parent’s home, the happy couple commanded all the attention — until guests spotted the buffet. Instead of typical party fare, the boldly-decorated dining room table featured my mother’s authentic Mexican cuisine, which the mainly-kosher crowd had never before tasted. To everyone’s delight, trays of chile reyellnos, enchiladas, skewered chicken in mole, warm tortillas, guacamole and a trio of salsas, chicken tortilla soup and traditional rice and beans graced the table.

Lucky for me, I don’t have to travel far to get kosher Mexican food. When my mother is not cooking I can drive twenty minutes from my home in South Florida to Mexico Bravo, the country’s oldest kosher Mexican restaurant, which has been around for over 15 years. A staple for Miami’s kosher tourists, Mexico Bravo offers cuisine made by Mexican chefs who prepare everything from scratch.

I sat down with Josh Nodel, the restaurant’s manager and soon-to-be-new owner, to talk about Mexican food and how kosher diners can recreate the flavors at home.

What is authentic Mexican food?

People have a misconception that Mexican food is spicy and fried. Yes, some items are fried, but that’s just a small percentage. Most things are grilled, sautéed or roasted. In terms of being spicy, authentic Mexican food is not spicy when it’s prepared. Salsa is served on the side so people can add heat if they want too. Mexican food is flavorful and strong, but not specifically spicy.

What is the secret to making great Mexican food?

Great Mexican food is all about starting from scratch. It takes time but it’s worth it.

Since we are a kosher restaurant, we don’t have an option to use premade Mexican condiments or sauces. We can’t buy kosher mole or ranchero salsa, so we make everything from scratch, even dough for empanadas. Our chef spends two days making mole the traditional way.

Which takes me to the next question, what is mole?

Mole is a Mexican sauce, which was originally made for royalty and is known as a “sauce for kings.” Mole is an ancient Spanish word for mix and refers to a sauce made with a mixture of a lot of ingredients. Mole poblano can be made with 20 different ingredients and almond mole from 25 ingredients. No matter what kind of mole you make, all of them begin with at least one type of chili pepper. The ingredients are roasted and then ground into a powder. This is mixed with water or broth and simmered for a long time until it is very thick.

Mexican food is often served with cheese or sour cream. What should kosher consumers use instead?

A good non-dairy version. When I joined Mexico Bravo in 2012, we stopped using soy cheese. Soy cheese has a bad taste and doesn’t melt. I recommend using a brand of vegan cheese called “Dayia,” which you can get at Whole Foods. It tastes like mozzarella and melts beautifully. We use it in quesadillas and as a finishing touch for nachos.

Mexican dishes often call for skirt steak, which can be quite salty. How do your recommend preparing it?

The trick is to wash the skirt steak thoroughly so there is no salt left in it and to marinate it so it gets a great depth of flavor. Afterwards, we grill it and put it in another marinade. We serve our grilled skirt steak, with a ranchero sauce and a house sauce made with poblano peppers.

What tip can you give a cook who is trying to make Mexican food at home?

Make sure you marinate and season your meat and chicken. No matter what Mexican-style of marinade or spice blend you make or use, this step creates the great flavor in tacos, burritos and enchiladas. We always marinate or spice our meat and chicken before cooking. It’s the seasoning that makes the food taste great.

What makes Mexican rice different from other types of rice?

There are so many different kinds of rice in the world, Persian rice, Indian rice. Each one is different. We make a specific type of Mexican rice that has a slightly brownish-orange color from tomato sauce and is flavored with onions, garlic and cilantro. In general, Mexicans sauté rice until golden brown, then add water or broth, and in our case, tomato sauce, along with aromatics ,which get boiled with the rice.

What is the easiest Mexican dish a kosher cook can make at home? How should they make it?

There are so many answers to that question but I’ll go with tacos. We make our own crispy taco shells by frying tortillas, but you can buy premade ones at the store. Spice your ground beef. The secret to great tacos is all about seasoning the meat. When you cook the beef, sauté until the meat is cooked through but not dry. Don’t cook it over too high heat for too long or it will dry out. Then, put the meat in a tortilla, top with with lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo, which is a simple salsa you can make by combining chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, a little jalapeño and lime.

Chana’s Mexican Beef Tacos

Makes 8 tacos

The flavorful beef filling is delicious in soft or crispy taco shells. If you prefer soft tacos, skip the first step. Instead of crisping the tortillas in the oven, fill soft, warmed tortillas with the beef filling and toppings.

8 corn tortillas
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons oregano
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
1½ pounds ground beef
¾ cup tomato sauce
¼ cup water or broth
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Garnishes: chopped onions and tomatoes, shredded lettuce guacamole, non-dairy sour cream, lime wedges

To make the crispy taco shells:

1) Pre-heat oven to 375˚ F. Wrap the tortillas in a couple of moist paper towels. Soften the corn tortillas by heating them in the oven for 2-3 minutes, or in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Remove and unwrap the tortillas.

2) Brush the sides of each tortilla with olive oil or spray with cooking spray. Drape each tortilla over two bars of your oven rack, so the tortilla is hanging down and making an upside-down “u” shape.” Bake for 7-10 minutes or until crispy. Remove from oven and cool.

To make the taco filling:

1) Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and spices. Cook until fragrant, about one minute. Stir in the ground beef. Use a large spoon or spatula to break up the beef until it is until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, broth and vinegar.

2) Simmer until the meat is thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste.

3) Divide the filling evenly among the crispy or soft taco shells and serve, passing any desired accompaniments separately.

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