Mexican food is arguably the most popular cuisine in Los Angeles, especially at this time of year when so many families celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
But a great number of Angelenos have eliminated the celebrated cuisine from their list of acceptable foods because of its high saturated fat and cholesterol content.
Consider the typical restaurant combination dinner. A standard Mexican meal includes a cheese enchilada, beef taco, refried beans, rice and the obligatory basket of chips and salsa. If guacamole is added, the calories for this meal can easily add up to more than 1,500--more than the amount of a total day's intake usually assigned to a dieting woman. This approximation doesn't even include the fruited margarita often served as the accompanying beverage.
But in The Times' Test Kitchen, we developed some lower-fat and calorie versions of Mexican-style dishes that preserved traditional Mexican flavor. And the tasters all agreed. The Times Food Staff and two natives of Mexico were consulted. Each thought the taste of the dishes was authentic. The cheese, lard and other high-fat items were hardly missed, they said.
By experimenting with the wide assortment of chiles available in Mexican supermarkets and ingredients such as low-fat cheese, egg substitute, evaporated skim milk and skinless poultry, it is possible to adhere to the 30% fat recommendation and still have food that tastes good. Using low-fat preparation methods also streamlines the calories.
Here are some guidelines:
--Offer Spicy Cheese and Pimiento Appetizer or a tomato-based salsa in place of guacamole, which contains about 35 grams of fat and 370 calories per one-cup serving. Serve Spicy Cheese and Pimiento Appetizer with raw vegetables for dipping instead of fried tortilla chips and save another seven grams of fat for every ounce of chips omitted. The appetizer recipe given here takes advantage of part-skim ricotta and Neufchatel cheeses (a lower-fat version of cream cheese), for its taste and texture. Baking tortilla chips is also an option.
--Instead of beef-and-bean burritos, which typically include cheese, sour cream and avocado, try Burrito Cups, which feature baked tortillas, ground turkey and vegetarian refried beans. Reduced fat Cheddar cheese is substituted for regular.
--Salmon Tacos, served on tiny tortillas that are steamed in the microwave instead of fried, feature canned salmon in place of the ground or shredded beef usually called for. It's topped with a flavorful cucumber-tomato-radish salsa.
--To retain the traditional texture of refried beans, fry the cooked pinto beans in a small amount of vegetable oil and their cooking liquid instead of the lard most recipes require. Top with a small amount of Mexican cheese, such as cotija, instead of Cheddar for more authentic flavor.
--Reduce the amount of oil necessary for frying rice in Mexican-style rice recipes and saute in a non-stick pan over medium-low heat.
--Use evaporated skim milk and egg substitute in Light Leche Flan instead of egg yolks and whole milk. To further spare calories, experiment with the amount of sugar called for in the custard, which we have already reduced by about one-quarter.
--Replace cheese and beef in enchiladas with chicken breast seasoned with chiles, onion and garlic. Top with a creamy white sauce made from nonfat milk, chicken broth and a small amount of reduced-fat cheese and serve with a spicy salsa for Enchiladas Suiza.
SPICY CHEESE AND
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup finely diced onion or shallots
1 pound part-skim ricotta cheese
8 ounces Neufchatel cheese
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt, optional
1 (4-ounce) jar sliced pimientos, drained and pureed
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped canned jalapeno chiles
Raw vegetables or baked corn tortilla chips
Heat oil in skillet and saute onion until tender but not brown. Beat together ricotta and Neufchatel cheeses, garlic powder and salt in medium bowl until just blended. Stir in onions. Divide mixture evenly into 3 small bowls. Into first bowl, stir pureed pimientos and cumin. Into second bowl, stir pine nuts. Into third bowl, stir cilantro and jalapeno chiles.
Smoothly line straight-sided plain mold, 6-inch clay flowerpot, 5 to 6 cup loaf pan, terrine or Charlotte mold with 2 layers moistened cheesecloth or plastic. Using rubber spatula, carefully place cilantro mixture into mold, spreading evenly to sides. Top with pine-nut mixture, then with pimiento mixture. Fold ends of cheesecloth over filling and press down lightly to compact. Chill overnight.
Just before serving, invert mold onto platter and gently remove cheesecloth. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and toasted pine nuts. Serve with raw vegetables or baked corn tortilla chips. Makes 2 pounds.
4 (7- or 8-inch) flour tortillas
2 tablespoons oil
3 teaspoons chili powder