the on-line diary of
ralph robert moore


the official website for the writings of
ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Robert Moore.

Print in HTML format.

Return to lately 2011.

south of the border
june 1, 2011

Mary and I love Mexican food.

Love the complexity of the sauces, the abundant use of fresh ingredients, the subtle heat of the spices.

I grew up in Connecticut. Back in the Sixties, when I started going to restaurants without my parents, a teenager with my own car, I sought out every type of cuisine I could find. There was only one Mexican restaurant back then, but it wasn't any good. I doubt there were any Mexicans in the kitchen (there certainly weren't any in the front of the house.) I never returned.

When I moved to California I tried Mexican food again, and was stunned by how delicious it is. While I was living in Santa Barbara I used to eat all the time at Casa Blanca on State Street, along with a crowd of other people who didn't have a lot of coin in their pocket. You could get a terrific meal for only a few bucks, plus a cold can of Tecate beer, with a yellow lemon wedge placed atop the punched-down triangle.

(I just googled Casa Blanca, and apparently it has recently closed. It appears a lot of other people really liked the place, as well.)

When Mary and I moved to Maine, we instantly missed no longer being able to eat Mexican food. I remember we went one night to a restaurant a Maine critic had described as having great, authentic Mexican dishes, but newly-arrived from California, we could immediately tell, by the smell as we entered the joint, that there was no real Mexican food being served there. (Maine back then-and perhaps still today-- has absolutely horrible restaurants. Seriously. Pack some sandwiches before you visit.)

I remember while living in Maine we'd occasionally see, on a national TV broadcast, a commercial for Taco Bell that would start, showing the logo, then instantly be cut off by a local ad. There were no Taco Bells in Maine. Even though Taco Bell is certainly not a good example of true Mexican food, it is at least an approximation of it. One time when we flew out from Portland to Milwaukee to visit Mary's folks, the first thing we did was drive by a Taco Bell and load up on their food. Plastic bag after plastic bag passing from the drive-through window to our driver's window. Joe and Joan were highly amused by how we lovingly ate through the fast food treasures in those plastic bags, and brought that evening up each time we met subsequently, but I noticed they seemed to enjoy the food themselves. Once everything was plated in their Milwaukee home, there was a half hour silence while all of us simply ate, ignoring the news on TV.

There is an extraordinarily wide variety of Mexican meals you can prepare, and cookbooks by Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless show the range of recipes, but for the purposes of this article I'm going to concentrate on the most popular dishes, and so we'll be talking about a typical Mexican plate that has several enchiladas, with different meats and different sauces, a taco, a pile of Mexican rice, and a scoop of guacamole. Some plates substitute a stew for one of the other ingredients, or a Chili Relleno, so I'll provide recipes for those as well.

Mary and I have tweaked and honed these recipes over the years. Each is absolutely perfect. Each calls for the dishes to be made from scratch. Try one recipe, and I guarantee you'll prepare the others as well.

(Another popular component of Mexican dinners is refried beans, and we do have a great recipe for that as well, but due to space considerations, I'm not including that in this Lately.)

Here are the dishes we'll cover:

Beef Enchiladas
Chicken Enchiladas
Cheese Enchiladas
Mexican Pork Stew
Chili Rellenos
Soft Taco Chicken
Mexican Rice
A few words on Mexican Cheeses

The recipes in this article produce dishes that have a mild heat. Certainly nothing that would make the average diner uncomfortable, even if you don't normally eat spicy food, unless you're really spice-phobic. Most recipes include tips on how to increase the heat of a dish.


The final few years Mary's dad, Joe, flew down here to visit with us over the holidays, we'd include our beef enchiladas on the menu. He told us once it was his second favorite meal that we'd cook, behind Mary's Sea Scallops in Cream and Basil Sauce.

The Beef Enchilada filling is also great used with tortilla chips to make nachos.

Beef Enchilada Filling

1 pound ground beef
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 TBs vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 ¼ tsp ground cumin
3 TBs dried oregano
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp salt

In a large frying pan, heat oil over medium heat, add onion and sauté 3 to 4 minutes.

Add ground beef and salt. Once beef is almost cooked, add minced garlic. Cook an additional 3 minutes.

Add cumin and tomato sauce. Cook 3 minutes.

Add oregano. Cook for 10 minutes, or until sauce is reduced.

Enchilada Sauce

2 cups chicken broth
4 TBs Gebhardt Chili Powder, or other chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
2 heaping tsp garlic powder
¾ tsp salt
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1/3 tsp sugar
5 TBs cold water
5 TBs flour

Add all ingredients except water and flour to a saucepan.

Turn on heat, whisk until ingredients come to a boil.

Reduce heat to low boil, cook 3 minutes.

Put 5 TBs water in a small bowl.

Add flour 1 TB at a time to bowl. Whisk so that there are no lumps.

Turn sauce mixture up to high.

Very slowly add water and flour mixture, whisking constantly so there are no lumps.

After all the flour mixture is added, turn sauce to low boil, let thicken, continue to whisk for 1 minute.

You can increase the heat by adding more chili powder during the first step (as opposed to adding it after the sauce has thickened.)

To Assemble

12 ounces cheese (see MEXICAN CHEESES, below, or just use medium Cheddar cheese)
Corn tortillas
Vegetable oil
¼ cup finely chopped yellow onion
Enchilada sauce (see above)

Heat a ¼ inch coating of oil in a fry pan. Using tongs, dip tortillas in hot oil on both sides, briefly, so the tortillas are pliable, but not stiff. Dip each heated tortilla in a plate of warm enchilada sauce on both sides, to coat.

Add a scoop of the Beef Enchilada Filling in a line across the center of each sauce-covered tortilla. Roll up each tortilla enchilada-style, place seam side down in a baking dish.

Cover the rolled enchiladas with enchilada sauce (see above.) Sprinkle grated cheese and chopped onion across the top.

Heat in a 400 degree oven until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling.


For the Chicken Filling

1 boneless skinless chicken breast
1 medium onion, divided use (half sliced, half diced)
2 cloves garlic, divided use (one whole, one minced)
1¾ tsp salt, divided use
2 TB butter
1 medium tomato, chopped
½ green bell pepper, seeds removed, chopped
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp dried marjoram
2 sprigs fresh cilantro
¾ tsp cumin
1 TB tomato sauce

Place in a saucepan, with enough water to just cover, the raw chicken breast; half an onion, sliced; a whole clove of garlic; and 1 tsp salt.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer 30 minutes.

Remove the breast from the saucepan. Let cool. Reserve the broth.

In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the diced half onion, the green bell pepper, tomato, black pepper, dried marjoram, fresh cilantro, cumin.

Fry until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.

Shred the chicken breast, and add to the skillet. Heat 3 minutes, to warm.

Add tomato sauce, ½ cup of the reserved broth, and ¾ tsp salt.

Stir to incorporate.

Let cool.

For the Spinach-Poblano Sauce

2 fresh poblano chilies
½ cup lightly packed fresh spinach leaves
1 cup milk
1 cup chicken broth
3 TB butter
2 garlic cloves
¼ cup flour
1 tsp salt

Char the poblanos. Place on a cookie sheet below a broiler. When the top side of each poblano turns from green to brown and black, and blistery, turn over onto the other side. The whole process should take 10 minutes. Using tongs, either drop the two poblanos into a plastic bag and seal the top, or put in the sink and cover with wet paper towels. Once cooled, peel off the skins, remove the seeds, behead the stem. Cut up the poblanos into large pieces and put in a blender.

Thoroughly wash the spinach to remove any grit. Add to the poblanos in the blender.

In a medium saucepan, add the chicken broth and milk. Heat until the mixture is warm (but not boiling).

In a larger saucepan, melt the butter. Add the garlic until the smell of garlic releases (about 15 - 30 seconds.) Add the flour. Stir constantly for two minutes over medium heat. Increase the heat to medium-high. Pour in the heated chicken broth and milk mixture. Whisk constantly to incorporate the flour mixture into the chicken broth and milk mixture. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. The sauce should thicken. Remove from the heat.

Pour half the sauce into the blender with the poblanos and spinach. Blend until smooth. Pour the blender sauce back into the saucepan with the other half of the sauce. Stir to incorporate. Add 1 tsp salt, stir.

NOTE: You have to be careful about adding hot liquid to a blender, and then blending, as it may cause the contents of the blender to erupt up out of the top of the blender. If you're using something smaller than a standard size blender, only pour a third of the sauce into the blender, don't put the lid on, and instead drape a kitchen towel over the open top of the blender.

To Assemble

6 corn tortillas
Vegetable oil
1 cup shredded cheese (see MEXICAN CHEESES, below, or use medium Cheddar)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees

Spread ½ cup of the sauce across the bottom of a 9x9 or 8x8 baking pan.

Heat the oil in a skillet. Using tongs, dip a corn tortilla in the hot oil, on both sides, about 5 seconds on each side. You want to heat the tortilla, but not stiffen it.

Place the oil-heated corn tortilla on a dinner plate. Place one-sixth of the chicken filling in the center of the tortilla, spread out in a line, then roll the tortilla up enchilada style, and place seam side down in the baking pan.

Repeat with the remaining 5 tortillas.

Once all 6 enchiladas are in the baking pan, spread the remaining sauce across the tops of the tortillas. Sprinkle the cheese across the sauced tops.

Bake in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, until the enchiladas are heated through, and the cheese is completely melted, and slightly browned.

You can increase the heat of the sauce by increasing the number of poblanos you use, but I would start with two.


For each enchilada:

1 corn tortilla
½ cup grated cheese (see MEXICAN CHEESES, below, or use medium Cheddar cheese)
2 TBs finely chopped onion
Extra grated cheese for topping(see MEXICAN CHEESES, below, or use medium Cheddar cheese)
Enchilada sauce (see Enchilada Sauce, above, under BEEF ENCHILADAS)

Heat a ¼ inch coating of oil in a fry pan. Using tongs, dip tortillas in hot oil on both sides, briefly, so the tortillas are pliable, but not stiff. Dip each heated tortilla in a plate of warm enchilada sauce on both sides, to coat.

Add ½ cup grated cheese in a line across the center of the sauce-covered tortilla. Sprinkle the raw onion across the grated cheese. Roll up each tortilla enchilada-style, place seam side down in a baking dish.

Cover the rolled enchiladas with enchilada sauce. Sprinkle grated cheese across the top.

Heat in a 400 degree oven a few minutes, until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling.


2 ½ pounds pork shoulder, cut into one-inch cubes
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper, for dredging
1 TB vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 Anaheim chilies, roasted, skins and seeds removed, stem beheaded, coarsely chopped
3 TBs chili powder
1 TB cumin
1 bay leaf
½ TB basil
½ TB thyme
½ TB oregano
3 ½ cups chicken broth (divided use)
28 ounce can plum tomatoes, drained, squeezed, chopped
1 can refried beans

Heat oil in a Dutch oven. Dredge pork cubes in seasoned flour, brown on all sides. Set aside.

NOTE: "Brown" means "brown." Don't remove the pork cubes when they're merely gray (the biggest mistake home cooks make when they're browning meat for a stew.) The pork cubes should be browned to where they look like they could be eaten as is.

Add onion, garlic, and Anaheims. Cook until onion softens, about 3-4 minutes.

Add seasonings and bay leaf. Cook 1 minute.

Deglaze with ½ cup chicken broth. Return the pork to the Dutch oven. Add the remaining chicken broth, chopped tomatoes, and refried beans.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat, simmer with lid off for two hours.

Can be served on the plate as a stew, with heated flour tortillas to sop up all the goodness, or can be used to make burritos. Just add an appropriate amount of stew in a line across the center of a heated flour tortilla, sprinkle on top of the stew some shredded iceberg lettuce and chopped fresh tomatoes, and place at either end of the line sour cream and guacamole.

To increase the heat, add more Anaheims. To increase it further, add more chili powder (but try increasing the heat first by adding more Anaheims.)


3 chilies, preferably Poblanos, or Anaheims in a pinch
¼ pound cheese, shredded (see MEXICAN CHEESES, below, or use Monterey Jack)
¼ cup and ½ TB flour, divided use
¼ tsp salt
3 eggs, separated
Oil for frying
1 cup BEEF ENCHILADA filling (see above)

Char chilies under broiler until skins are brown and black. Place in plastic bag to steam. Once the chilies are cool, peel off the skin like a bad sun burn.

Slice each chile on one side most of its length, making a small "T" at the top, near the stem. Carefully remove the seeds and membrane inside.

Shape shredded cheese into torpedoes. Place one torpedo inside each chile. Fold the sides of each chile around the cheese filling. Using toothpicks, seal the sides.

Refrigerate one hour.

Whip egg whites at high speed until stiff peaks form.

Heat oil in a skillet to medium.

Beat egg yolks with ½ TB flour, and salt. Fold egg yolk mixture into egg whites until you have a thick paste.

Roll chilies in ¼ cup flour, then dip in egg batter until thoroughly coated. Fry in oil on both sides, starting seam side down, until golden.

Drain on paper towels.

Remove the toothpicks, plate, and cover with BEEF ENCHILADA filling (see above.)


Dry Rub For Chicken

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 TB cornstarch
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp sugar
¾ tsp crushed chicken bouillon cube
½ tsp onion powder
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp cayenne
¼ tsp cumin

Rub the dry mix over the chicken breast. Let sit overnight in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.


2 Roma/plum tomatoes
¼ cup diced red onion
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
¼ cup green bell pepper
1 TB chopped cilantro
1 TB lime juice
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator.

Guacamole Dressing

3 parts mashed avocado
1 part Hidden Valley Dressing, prepared according to package directions

Using a fork, stir ingredients together.

To Assemble

3 taco-sized flour tortillas

Fry chicken breast. Cut into cubes

Place cubes in a line across the center of the 3 flour tortillas

Add salsa and guacamole dressing on top of the cubed chicken breast.

Fold the small flour tortilla over, taco style.

NOTE: Salsa, which is absolutely delicious and extraordinarily fresh, can be made using a wide variety of ingredients, as a condiment for a large number of Mexican dishes. In addition to the ingredients listed here (which is for a salsa fresca recipe- i.e., a raw salsa recipe, specifically for Soft Chicken Tacos), consider adding to the salsa fresca recipe given here, for other Mexican dishes, fresh cubed avocado, pineapple, cantaloupe melon, and/or papaya. There is also a cooked salsa, for which I don't provide a recipe because of space considerations, which is the salsa you usually get served when you first sit down in a Mexican restaurant, served with tortilla chips as a pre-appetizer.


1 cup long grain white rice
1 TB vegetable oil
1 ½ cups chicken broth
½ onion, finely chopped
½ green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 jalapeno, seeds removed, finely chopped
1 tomato, seeds and pulp removed, chopped
1 cube chicken bouillon, crumbled
½ tsp ground cumin
½ cup cilantro, chopped
1 clove garlic, halved
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium sauce pan, cook rice in oil over medium heat until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.

Pour in chicken broth, bring to a boil.

Stir in remaining ingredients.

Bring to a boil.

Cover, reduce heat to low. Cook for 20 minutes, or until rice is done.


Variation 1: Simple Guacamole

Mash avocados with the back of a fork. Mix with fresh lime juice, to taste.

Variation 2: Restaurant/Classic Guacamole

2 avocados
½ cup red onion, minced
2 jalapeños, seeds removed, minced
2 TBs cilantro, finely chopped
1 TB fresh lime juice
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp freshly-ground black pepper
½ tomato, seeds and pulp removed, chopped

Mash avocados with the back of a fork. Add the other ingredients. Using a fork, stir ingredients together.

Variation 3: Guacamole Dressing

3 parts mashed avocado
1 part Hidden Valley Dressing, prepared according to package directions

Using a fork, stir ingredients together

NOTE: Avocados oxidize (turn brown) quickly, like apples. Lime juice is used to slow the oxidation process. Generally speaking, prepare guacamole at the last minute, just before you're going to serve it. If you're buying avocados for use that evening, buy black-skinned fruit that's yielding to the touch, but not pulpy. If you're buying avocados to use in a week or two, buy green-skinned fruit that's hard to the touch. Refrigerate them. Take them out three or four days before they'll be used, and leave them on the counter wrapped in a paper or plastic bag, so the gases they exude will ripen the fruit in time for use. Ripe avocados can also be split in half, the large center seed removed, and the resulting pit left by the seed filled with homemade blue cheese dressing.


Although many Mexican dishes in America are made with Cheddar cheese and/or Monterey Jack, there are a huge number of Mexican cheeses you can use instead, or use to supplement. Panela is a fresh, ricotta-like cheese often used for Chile Rellenos in Mexico, and for enchilada toppings I would certainly consider time-honored Mexican cheeses like Oaxaca, Chihuahua, and Brick. If your supermarket doesn't carry Mexican cheeses, ask for the manager and politely request they add them. I love a great Gorgonzola Dolce, but there's a lot to be said for the complexity of Mexican cheeses.

Bit and pieces:

The website Necessary Fiction has a different Writer in Residence each month. For the month of May, that writer was Kevin Fanning, who I've known for years, and whose fiction I've always admired. Kevin decided that during his month he'd feature interviews with different writers on the experience of publishing on the Internet. One of the writers he chose to interview was me. To read Kevin's interview of me, please go here.

My short story Tiny Doorways has been sold to the Sam's Dot magazine Cover of Darkness, and is scheduled to be published this Fall. It's a story of mine I particularly like.

I mentioned last month we have someone come out every other week now to mow our lawn. It really is great not having to pull on old clothes and walk behind a mower under the sun. Every other Tuesday, all we have to do is leave a check under our front door welcome mat, like leaving a saucer of milk for the Easter bunny.