Few cuisines are more festive, more filling and more outrageous than Mexican. A Mexican meal is like a good junk novel or a James Bond movie; it is something to turn to when life has seemed like so many celery sticks, either literally or figuratively.
Because I would like to be able to create this kind of diversion at will, and also amaze my friends, I have been trying to learn Mexican cooking. I even went so far as to take a lesson. It turns out that Mexican cooking is not that hard, but it can be tedious.
Although the tortilla is at the base of many of the more scrumptious Mexican dishes, it became clear that tortilla making is inappropriate to the repertoire of the Family Cook. For one thing, you need a tortilla press. Also, the tortilla is cooked to the count of five on one side, the count of 10 on the other, and then to the count of five again on the first side. This is, of course, impossible to keep straight when there are children in the kitchen.
Therefore, if you feel you must make something involving a tortilla, it is best to buy the tortillas in the frozen-food section of your supermarket and take it from there.
However, it is possible (and heaps more sophisticated) to make a Mexican feast while skirting the torturous tortilla. A South of the Border fiesta like this makes a wonderful outdoor meal that will feed people of all ages happily, and it makes a wonderful change from the usual barbecue repertoire. All of it is easy; there is nothing here that will leave you slumped in a corner of the kitchen come dinner time, begging for a margarita. Instead, start with sangria. SANGRIA DE NARANJA (12 servings)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
1 bottle (4/5 quart) dry red wine
1/2 cup Cointreau or other flavored liqueur
1 orange, halved and thinly sliced
In a pitcher or punch bowl, mix sugar with juice, wine and liqueur (this one is not for the kids). Add orange and ice. GUACAMOLE (6 servings)
1 ripe avocado
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 medium-size ripe tomato
2 scallions, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon fresh coriander, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small garlic clove, mashed
In a small bowl, mash one half of the avocado with the lemon juice, and chop the other half finely. Mix in all the other ingredients, including the chopped avocado, until well blended but still chunky. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour. Serve with broken-up taco shells. MEXICAN BARBECUED STEAK (6 generous servings)
3 pounds top round or similar cut steak, in 1 piece or several, cut about 2 inches thick
Ground black pepper
1 large orange
Make diagonal, half-inch-deep cuts in steak, about 1 inch apart. Grind pepper over steak and rub in on both sides. Grill 5 inches above medium-hot coals for about 10 minutes on each side, or to taste. Remove meat from grill and squeeze orange over slits, then sprinkle lightly with salt. Cut in thin slices and baste again with juices. From "Mexican Cooking" (Sunset Books) MEXICAN RICE (6 servings)
3 tablespoons oil
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
1/2 large white onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2/3 cup canned tomatoes, drained
3 cups strong chicken broth
1 cup frozen or fresh peas
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat, add rice and brown a little. Add chopped onion and garlic, stirring for about 3 minutes. Then add tomatoes and cook, chopping them with a spoon, for 3 minutes more. Add the chicken broth and simmer for 30 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. Add the peas and stir until they are just heated through. FRUIT SALAD IN A PINA (4 children's servings)
Lay the pineapple on its side and slice about a 3/4-inch slice from top to base, leaving green leaves intact. Scoop out fruit and cut into cubes, discarding bits of core. Section the oranges and cut each section in half crosswise. Toss with pineapple chunks and refill the pineapple cavity. Serve with toothpicks to spear fruit chunks. LIME PIE
9-inch pastry shell
3 eggs, separated
1/4 cup lime juice
3 tablespoons hot water
1 cup sugar
Prick the pastry shell and bake in 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven.
Beat egg yolks until very light, then add lime juice, hot water and half the sugar. Cook over hot water until thick, stirring constantly.
Beat egg whites until stiff, adding remaining sugar gradually during beating. Fold into lime mixture. Pour into baked pastry shell. Bake at 350 degrees until top is delicately browned, about 15 minutes.