Three party-perfect Mexican recipes for feeding a (small) crowd

Tacos al pastor are served in double tortillas with finely chopped onion and coriander, freshly squeezed lime juice and ...
Tacos al pastor are served in double tortillas with finely chopped onion and coriander, freshly squeezed lime juice and spicy salsa. Photo: Alicia Taylor/Smith Street Books

When Rosa Cienfuegos made the leap from Mexico City to Sydney to live closer to her father, she loved the lifestyle and diversity of her new hometown. But there was one thing missing: her beloved Mexican food. 

"At the time, Sydney was not known for its Mexican cuisine and Mexican ingredients were virtually impossible to find," she says in her new collection of recipes, Comida Mexicana.

Fortunately, her father worked as a chef and was able to share his skills and knowledge as she set out to cook the flavours and dishes of her homeland. After months of experimenting and cooking at home with family and friends, the pair opened their own Mexican restaurant, El Cuervo Cantina. 

Rosa Cienfuegos' new cookbook.
Rosa Cienfuegos' new cookbook. Photo: Supplied

The venue didn't last but it did open a door to catering opportunities and a pop-up food stall at a neighbourhood market. 

Cienfuegos quickly gained a cult following, earning the nickname of Sydney's "tamale queen" and leading to the launch of Sydney's first tamaleria in the city's inner west, where she serves Mexican street food inspired by her upbringing.

Below, Cienfuegos shares three dishes from her new cookbook that anyone can make at home, plus how to make your own tortillas, classic guacamole and three incredible salsas. 

Most ingredients can be found at your local supermarket; Latin American ingredients can be sourced from specialty grocers and online suppliers.

Tacos al pastor (Shepherds' tacos)

Like many capital cities, Mexico City is a place where cultures and people collide, and nowhere is this collision more clearly seen than in the city's food. Tacos al pastor were the result of immigrants arriving from the Middle East in the 1960s, bringing with them lamb shawarma and gyros and, of course, the vertical grill. Once settled, the lamb was swapped for pork and beef, and Mexican spices and chillies, such as achiote and guajillo, were added. Pita breads became corn tortillas and a pineapple was added to the spit so the sweet juice could run down into the meat as it cooked. Tacos al pastor are always served in double tortillas with finely chopped onion and coriander, freshly squeezed lime juice and spicy salsa.

INGREDIENTS

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  • 10g achiote paste (see note)
  • 3½ tablespoons dried guajillo chilli powder 
  • 2 teaspoons table salt
  • 50ml white vinegar
  • 1kg boneless pork leg, cut into 5mm thick slices
  • 500g beef cheeks, cut into 5mm thick slices
  • 2 white onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 x quantities tortilla dough (recipe below or 40 small store-bought corn tortillas)
  • ¼ pineapple, peeled, cored, thinly sliced
  • lime wedges to serve

Toppings

  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 25g chopped coriander leaves
  • 300ml salsa taquera (recipe below)

METHOD

  1. Place the achiote, chilli powder, salt and vinegar in the small bowl of a food processor and process to make a thick marinade.
  2. Place the pork and beef cheek in a large bowl and rub the achiote marinade into the meat. Set aside in the fridge to marinate for at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180C fan-forced (200C conventional). Place the marinated pork and beef in a roasting tin in a single layer and add the onion in between the slices of meat. Cover the tin with foil, then place in the oven and roast for 1 hour.
  4. Meanwhile, make your tortillas! Follow the instructions below to make 40 x 11cm tortillas.
  5. Remove the roasting tin from the oven and discard the foil. Place the pineapple over the pork and beef and return the tin, uncovered, to the oven and roast for a further 30 minutes.
  6. Once the pastor is ready, slice the meat as thinly as you can (like shaved kebab meat) and divide it among 20 double-thickness tortillas.
  7. Top the tacos with the onion, coriander, roasted pineapple and salsa taquera. Serve with lime wedges on the side.

Note Achiote – Sold in small blocks from specialty shops or online, this paste made from annatto seeds is often used to give a radiant colour and sour flavour to food. It is one of the signature ingredients of Yucatan cuisine.

Makes 20

This is an edited extract from Comida Mexicana by Rosa Cienfuegos, published by Smith Street Books, RRP$45. Photography: Alicia Taylor. Food stylist: Deborah Kaloper. Buy now
Single use print & online

Off-the-scale delicious yet surprisingly easy to make. Photo: Alicia Taylor

Quesadillas fritas (Fried quesadillas)

Fresh, greasy and filled with Oaxaca cheese or your favourite filling, quesadillas fritas are off-the-scale delicious, yet are surprisingly easy to make. I love eating these delicious morsels as much as I love making them. It reminds me of being back in kindergarten getting my hands messy with playdough.

I recommend using white or yellow masa flour as the hot oil brings out the rich flavour of the masa, giving you a heavenly aftertaste with every quesadilla.

INGREDIENTS

  • vegetable oil for deep-frying
  • 10 freshly made 11cm corn tortillas (recipe below or store-bought)
  • 500g oaxaca cheese or firm mozzarella, grated

To serve

  • shredded iceberg lettuce
  • cotija or fresco cheese, crumbled
  • salsa verde (recipe below)
  • coriander leaves
  • lime wedges

METHOD

  1. Heat enough vegetable oil for deep-frying in a large heavy-based saucepan or deep-fryer to 180C fan-forced (200C conventional) on a kitchen thermometer.
  2. Working with one tortilla at a time, scatter 50g of the cheese over the tortilla, then fold the tortilla in half to seal.
  3. Carefully lower the quesadilla into the hot oil and cook, flipping frequently, for 2 minutes or until light golden. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and cheese to make 10 quesadillas.
  4. Top the quesadillas with shredded lettuce, a sprinkling of crumbled cheese, a spoon of salsa verde and a few coriander leaves. Serve with lime wedges.

Makes 10

This is an edited extract from Comida Mexicana by Rosa Cienfuegos, published by Smith Street Books, RRP$45. Photography: Alicia Taylor. Food stylist: Deborah Kaloper. Buy now
Single use print & online

Perfect for feeding a crowd. Photo: Alicia Taylor

Empanadas de atun (Tuna empanadas)

In Mexico, freshly made empanadas are sold at panaderias' (bakeries) morning, noon and night. Perfect for feeding a crowd and with a range of fillings, they are a popular, cheap and tasty snack that everyone loves. This recipe comes from my mum, so, of course, I think it's the best. It also makes a great taco filling. Tuna empanadas are traditionally eaten at Easter but I personally like to enjoy them all year round!

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 500g tinned tuna, drained
  • 350ml salsa de chipotle (recipe below)
  • pinch dried oregano
  • 5 sheets frozen puff pastry, just thawed
  • 2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
  • guacamole (recipe below), to serve

METHOD

  1. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Throw in the onion and garlic and cook for 3 minutes.
  2. Add the tuna and stir for 1 minute. Add the salsa de chipotle and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or until heated through. Stir through the oregano, then remove the pan from the heat, cover and set aside for 1 hour.
  3. Preheat the oven to 200C fan-forced (220 conventional). Line a large baking tray with baking paper.
  4. Drain the tuna mixture to remove the excess liquid (we need it to be as dry as possible).
  5. Cut each pastry sheet into four 12cm circles, then divide the tuna mixture evenly among the pastry circles.
  6. Fold the pastry in half over the filling, brushing the edges with the beaten egg to help them stick. Use a fork to crimp and secure the pastry edges, then brush the tops with beaten egg.
  7. Transfer the empanadas to the prepared baking tray and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until golden and crisp.

Makes 20

Tortillas

There is no doubt that handmade tortillas are far superior to store-bought versions, plus they are fun to make. They also enable you to use yellow, white or blue masa flour. Even though nixtamal (the process of soaking and cooking corn in limewater) is the traditional and most authentic way to make masa, it's very labour-intensive. Store-bought masa is absolutely fine to use and the results are pretty much the same. You will need a tortilla press to make tortillas. You can easily pick one up at your local Latin American supermarket or online.

INGREDIENTS

  • 500g masa flour
  • 600ml warm water
  • pinch table salt
  • 50ml vegetable oil
  • vegetable oil spray for cooking

METHOD

  1. Combine the masa, warm water, salt and oil in a bowl until you have a soft and non-sticky dough.
  2. Lightly spray a comal or heavy-based frying pan with oil spray and place over medium-high heat.
  3. Place a square of plastic wrap over the bottom half of a tortilla press. To make 16cm tortillas, roll 50g of the dough into a ball and place it in the middle of the tortilla press. Cover with another square of plastic wrap (this stops the dough sticking to the press), then close the tortilla press and gently press to flatten the dough into a 3mm thick tortilla. If you are making 11cm tortillas, reduce the quantity of dough to 35g for each tortilla.
  4. Open the tortilla press, remove the top layer of plastic wrap and flip the tortilla onto your hand.
  5. Remove the bottom layer of plastic wrap and place the tortilla in the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes, then flip over and cook for another 2 minutes.
  6. Transfer the tortilla to a tortilla warmer or folded tea towel and repeat with the remaining dough, using more oil spray as needed.

Makes about 20 corn tortillas

Salsa taquera (Taco salsa) 

In Mexico City, food vendors make fresh salsa taquera at their stalls using a huge mortar and pestle. With its strong aroma of freshly pounded chillies, customers are enticed in to order tacos topped with this spicy, heavenly sauce. Every stall has their own recipe and Mexican people rate their favourite taco stand based on how good their salsa is.

INGREDIENTS

  • 300g fresh or tinned tomatillos
  • ½ white onion, halved
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tomato
  • 100ml vegetable oil
  • 2 dried guajillo chillies 
  • 10 dried chillies de arbol (alternatively use fresh cayenne or Thai red chillies)
  • 10g table salt

METHOD

  1. If you are lucky enough to find fresh tomatillos, remove the husks and thoroughly wash the fruit.
  2. Place half the onion, the garlic, tomato, tomatillos, 1 tablespoon of the oil and 500ml (2 cups) water in a saucepan. Bring to the boil over high heat and cook for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover the pan and set aside to cool to room temperature.
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil in a frying pan over low heat. Add the guajillo chillies and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes on both sides, making sure the chillies don't burn. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chillies and add them to the ingredients in the saucepan. Repeat this step with the chillies de arbol.
  4. Meanwhile, finely chop the remaining onion. Transfer the contents of the pan to a large mortar or blender, add the salt and pound with a pestle or blend to a chunky salsa. Place the salsa in a serving bowl, stir through the finely chopped onion and serve.
  5. Store the salsa in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.

Makes about 250ml

Salsa verde (Green salsa) 

Salsas are one of the most important accompaniments in Mexican cuisine, and salsa verde is probably the most popular, with its the tangy flavour of green tomatillos mixed with fresh chilli. It's also my favourite salsa.

Fresh tomatillos are one of the ingredients Mexican expats miss most, but tinned tomatillos are readily available and are nearly as good. You will find them at Latin American supermarkets or online.

INGREDIENTS

  • 300g fresh or tinned tomatillos
  • 10 green chillies, such as jalapeno, serrano or long, roughly chopped
  • ½ white onion, roughly chopped
  • ½ garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 100g coriander leaves, finely chopped

METHOD

  1. If you are lucky enough to find fresh tomatillos, remove the husks and thoroughly wash the fruit. If using tinned tomatillos, drain and rinse them. Roughly chop the tomatillos.
  2. Heat a comal or heavy-based frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the tomatillos, chillli and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until charred on all sides.
  3. Place the charred tomatillos, onion and chilli in a mortar or blender and add the garlic, salt and 250ml (1 cup) water. Pound with a pestle or blend the ingredients to a chunky salsa. Stir through the coriander and transfer to a serving bowl.

Makes about 250ml (1 cup)

Salsa de chipotle (Chipotle salsa) 

Chipotle chillies have long been loved in Mexico, but today they are hugely popular the world over. Chipotle chillies are dried jalapenos and their fragrant aroma and smoky taste make a wonderful addition to any number of dishes. It's definitely my favourite chilli and a must-have in my pantry. This salsa recipe is very simple make and goes well with tacos, as a marinade for meats or as a base for more complex dishes.

INGREDIENTS

  • 200g dried chipotle chillies
  • 4 tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • ½ white onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

METHOD

  1. Place the chipotle chillies and 500ml (2 cups) water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Boil for 5 minutes or until soft, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool a little.
  2. Place the chipotle chillies and their cooking water in a blender with the tomato, onion, garlic and salt. Blend until you have a smooth, runny salsa.
  3. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add the salsa and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Transfer the salsa to a bowl and set aside to cool.
  4. Store the salsa in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Makes about 750 ml

Guacamole 

When I was a child, I remember my dad loved to eat guacamole and chicharron rolled up in a taco. Now, of course, guacamole is everywhere, most commonly eaten as a dip with tortilla chips. It's actually extremely easy to make; it just depends on the avocados you use. In Mexico, we are lucky enough to have a huge variety of avocados at our disposal, but outside of the country there is less choice. I recommend using hass or fuerte avocados, as they are large, creamy and easy to peel.

INGREDIENTS

  • 5 ripe avocados (the bigger the better)
  • 15g table salt
  • 3 green chillies, such as jalapeno, serrano or cayenne, finely chopped
  • 100g coriander leaves, finely chopped
  • 3 limes, juiced
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

METHOD

  1. Gently mash the avocado in a bowl and stir through the remaining ingredients. Your guacamole is ready!
  2. Guacamole is best eaten on the day it is made, as the avocado will start to discolour once peeled, but if you do have leftovers it will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for 1-2 days.

Makes 500g

This is an edited extract from Comida Mexicana by Rosa Cienfuegos, published by Smith Street Books, RRP$45. Photography by Alicia Taylor. Food styling by Deborah Kaloper. Buy now