Making Mexican food at home is an easy, healthier way to enjoy some of your favorite dishes without all the sodium, fat and calories. For one thing, if a basket of chips isn’t put before you the minute you sit down at the table, you avoid that temptation.
Also, at home you can control the portion size and limit crazy amounts of cheese.
If you can’t control your craving for nachos, you can prepare a plate instead of a platter, prepping them individually on a baking sheet one by one instead of heaping chips and smothering the mountain with handfuls of Monterey Jack and sour cream.
More good news: Almost all salsa and pico de gallo recipes are light and diet-friendly. And while storebought versions of guacamole can be loaded with sodium, homemade recipes usually are healthful. The problem is the dipper. One solution is to bake tortilla chips instead of frying them.
By cutting corn tortillas yourself, you create chips with bit more heft and chew, so you’re likely to eat fewer. Also, you can cut the fat and sodium. They are less expensive, too, points out New Orleans’ own Budget Bytes blogger.
Budget Bytes’ Beth Moncel’s recipe calls for a set amount of oil, 1/2 tablespoon for six corn tortillas. Most other recipes of this type call for brushing oil on the tortillas before baking them. (I’ve had some success with spraying with olive oil spray.)
I prefer corn tortillas to wheat ones, but flour tortillas, which are available in low-carb and whole wheat versions, can be baked into chips as well.
(Another tortilla tip: You don’t have to fry tortillas to make enchiladas. All you really need to do is loosen up the tortilla a bit to make it roll around the filling. Dip it into a little simmering chicken broth, or run it through a shallow pan of the sauce you are using for the dish.)
As each oven’s temperature varies, Moncel said, watch closely for the color change.
Baked Tortilla Chips
6 corn tortillas
1/2 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stack tortillas on top of one another. Cut into six equal wedges. Place wedges in large bowl and drizzle with oil. Gently toss pieces until all are lightly coated.
Cover baking sheet with parchment, then spread tortilla pieces over surface in a single layer, overlapping as little as possible. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
Bake 10 minutes, then gently stir and flip chips. Return chips to oven and bake until golden brown, 3-5 minutes more. Season again very lightly with salt.
Cool before serving. Chips will crisp further as they cool.
Street-style tacos are health-friendly and perfect for simple weeknight dinners. All you need to do is chop a few vegetables, flavor and cook a protein element and heat some corn tortillas. Heat them wrapped in foil in the toaster oven, or in wax paper in the microwave. Or steam them for 30 seconds or so on top of the stove.
This healthy taco, adapted from Jaroflemons.com, includes my favorite offbeat taco ingredient: chopped cabbage. Note the modest amount of feta. Adapt this easily to use cooked rotisserie chicken.
Sriracha Shredded Chicken Tacos
2 thinly sliced chicken breasts
2 tablespoons sriracha
6 corn tortillas
1 cup chopped red cabbage
1/2 cup chopped bell peppers
1/4 cup crumbled cotija or feta cheese
Juice of 1 lime, or more if desired
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put chicken on baking sheet and spread sriracha over pieces. Bake 30 minutes or until fully cooked. While baking, heat tortillas.
Top each tortilla with cabbage and peppers. Shred baked chicken onto tortillas. Top with cheese and a drizzle of lime.
New Orleanians are used to red beans, of course, and we cook white beans, too. News flash! It’s just as simple to cook dry pinto beans and black beans. (Have an instapot? It’s a cinch. Check your manufacturer’s directions.)
Beans freeze like a dream, so you can cook a pound, use some for a meal and portion the remainder for future soups, bowls, side dishes, tostadas or burritos. The cost is pennies per serving.
Here’s one of my favorite ways to cook black beans, with the chipotle’s smoky flavor adding the perfect bit of picante. If you don’t have dried chipotle, use canned, or substitute another dried or fresh chile. Throw in a whole jalapeno and fish it out after cooking for a subtle, spicy pop.
Black Beans with Chipotle
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1 pound dry black beans
1 clove garlic, halved
1 dried chipotle chile
1 large yellow onion, minced
Salt and pepper
3 or 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Wash and pick over beans, then soak overnight and discard soaking water. Or, cover washed and sorted beans with water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Let boil 3 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit 1 hour. Discard soaking water. Cover with fresh water, return to heat, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until beans are tender, 1 to 2 hours.
Drain. Add garlic, chipotle, onion, salt, pepper and enough broth just to cover the beans. Return to heat and simmer until beans are tender enough to fall apart, about 1 hour. Discard peppers and garlic before serving.
TO SERVE: Serve in bowls with lime wedges, chopped cilantro, salsa, a tablespoon of crumbled feta or cotija cheese and diced avocado.
VARIATION: Cook pinto beans the same way, with or without the chipotle. Omit the chicken broth and cook in 2 quarts water until beans are tender, about 2 hours.
Make tostados: Heat corn tortillas and layer with warm, well-drained, lightly mashed pinto or black beans, chopped tomatoes, minced red onion, diced avocado and a sprinkle of cotija cheese.
Make refried beans: Refried beans are made smooth and luscious by frying them with lard or oil. A similar texture can be achieved with broth or water. Mash some or all of the beans with a potato masher (easier to do if they are warm), or pulse in a food processor. Heat a small amount of broth in a skillet and add the beans. Cook, stirring, until beans are heated thoroughly, adding more liquid if needed to achieve the desired consistency. To stay on the healthier side, serve these with a lively salsa instead of cheese, or sprinkle with cilantro and/or green onion.
Baked Black Bean Dip
Makes 3 cups
1-1/2 cups cooked black or pinto beans
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon salsa
1/2 cup lime juice
(Optional: 1/4 cup Monterey Jack or queso blanco cheese, shredded or crumbled)
2 green onions, chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a blender or food processor, combine beans with yogurt, salsa and lime juice and process until smooth. Pour into an 8-by-8-inch pan coated with nonstick spray.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbling around the edges. Sprinkle with chopped green onions.
Mexico is justly renowned for its complicated mole sauces, made with dozens of ingredients. Many little sauces can be quickly made with a few ingredients. Another favorite of mine is this green one thickened with almonds. Bake pork medallions or chicken breasts in it.
Green Almond Sauce for Pork or Chicken
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1/2 pound fresh tomatillos, husked, cleaned and halved (or one 1-pound can)
1 or 2 jalapenos, seeded
1/2 white onion, quartered
3/4 cup almonds (can be chopped, whole, slivered, sliced)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Cook fresh tomatillos in covered microwaveable dish for 2 minutes, or
drain and rinse canned ones. Combine all ingredients in blender or food processor and process on high until all ingredients are chopped the same size.
Pour ingredients into medium saucepan.
Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Or, pour sauce into large, covered microwaveable dish and microwave on high for 15 minutes.
Sauce will be thin. If not used right away, refrigerate, covered.
To use: Brown chicken or lean pork pieces in a nonstick pan until lightly browned on both sides. Drain well if necessary. Add sauce. Cook 10 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro, if desired.
This ranchero sauce can be used for other dishes as well as this breakfast or quick dinner favorite. Lean refried beans, as above, are wonderful on the side.
15-Minute Huevos Rancheros
Makes 4 servings
2-1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or 1 can (15-ounces) low-sodium diced or whole tomatoes or Italian or Mexican-flavored tomatoes
1 small onion, quartered
1/4 cup cilantro
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon oregano
Hot pepper sauce to taste
Black pepper to taste
4 corn tortillas
Put tomatoes, onion and cilantro in food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Pour into small saucepan and add cumin, oregano, hot pepper sauce and black pepper. Simmer 10 minutes.
Heat tortillas and keep warm. Coat nonstick skillet with nonstick spray. Break eggs into skillet and cook just until yolks are desired firmness. Top each tortilla with an egg, then spoon the hot sauce over each. Serve hot.
Unless otherwise noted, these recipes are from my 1995 cookbook, published by Northland Press, “Simple Southwestern Cooking.”
For information about columnist Judy Walker’s new E-cookbook of favorite Louisiana recipes from her “In Judy’s Kitchen” features and videos, send an email to her: JudyWalkerCooks@gmail.com.