A Passion For Mexican Cuisine

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It was there that his grandmother passed on her passion for food and travel. He has used his classical French culinary education and applied it to Mexican cuisine, which he says goes beyond tacos and guacamole. He is currently the culinary director at Rosa Mexicano, which is located in New York City.

We invited Santibańez to share a bit of his knowledge and passion for Mexican food as our Chef on a Shoestring. We challenged him to make a meal for four for under $30. His menu: an appetizer of Avocado Soup; an entrée of Grilled Chicken Quesadilla with a Molcajete Salsa; and for dessert, Mango Mousse with Toasted Coconut Flakes.


Serrano Chile (seh-RRAH-noh): A small (approximately 1 1/2 inches long) slightly pointed chili that has a very hot, savory flavor. The skin changes from green to bright red as it matures, finally turning yellow. Fresh serranos can be found in Mexican markets and some supermarkets. They are also available canned, pickled or packed in oil. Serranos are sometimes mixed with other vegetables, such as carrots. They can be used fresh or cooked in various dishes and sauces, such as guacamole and salsa. Serranos are also available dried, either whole or powdered.

Jalapeño (hah-lah-PEH-nyoh): These chilies range from hot to very hot. The smooth, dark green skin turns bright red when ripe. They are popular because they are easily seeded (the seeds and veins are extremely hot). They're available fresh and canned and are used in a variety of sauces, sometimes stuffed with cheese, fish or meat. You can find jalapeños dried, but in their dried form jalapeños are known as chipotles.

Salsa: Salsa is the Mexican and Spanish word for "sauce," whether cooked or fresh. Salsa can range in spiciness from mild to super hot. The difference between salsa and pico de gallo is that salsa is more of a "sauce" whereas pico de gallo is a relish made of finely chopped ingredients, such as onions, jalapeño peppers and cucumbers, along with various seasonings.

Quesadilla: A flour tortilla filled with a savory mixture, then folded in half to form a half-moon shape. The filling can include shredded cheese, cooked meat, refried beans or a combination of ingredients. After the tortilla is filled and folded, it's toasted under a broiler or fried. Quesadillas are traditionally served as an appetizer, but Santibańez is serving them as an entree.

Evaporated Milk: Canned, unsweetened milk made from fresh, homogenized milk from which 60 percent of the water has been removed, with vitamin D added for nutritional value. Evaporated milk comes in whole, low fat and skim versions. It's often used to enrich custards, or add a creamy texture to a dish. Because it is less expensive than fresh milk, it's often popular for use in cooked dishes.

Condensed Milk: A mixture of whole milk and sugar that is made of 40 to 45 percent sugar. This mixture is heated until about 60 percent of the water evaporates. The resulting condensed mixture is extremely sticky and sweet. Unsweetened condensed milk is referred to as evaporated milk.

Molcajete: Or more correctly, molcajete y tejolote (mohl-kah-HEH-teh ee teh-hoh-LOH-teh), a Mexican mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock. Any mortar and pestle may be substituted.


Chilled Avocado Soup

1 greenhouse cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 scallion, white portion cut from the green
1 small jalapeño pepper, halved lengthwise
1 large Hass avocado, peeled and pitted
1 pint chicken stock
1 cup water
1 lime, juice only
12 mint leaves
1/2 cup firmly packed cilantro leaves
salt to taste

  1. In a blender, place the avocado, half the cucumber, scallion white, half the jalapeño, stock, water and salt. Blend until the mixture achieves an even consistency. Add lime juice, mint and cilantro and continue to blend to form a smooth, speckled soup. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
  2. Cut the other half of the cucumber into small 1/4 inch cubes and slice the green part of the scallion. Serve the soup in chilled bowls topped with the cubed cucumber and some slices of the scallion.
  3. As there are very few ingredients in this soup and as it is served cold, the salt factor in this recipe is very important. Santibańez says to keep it strong.

Grilled Chicken Quesadilla with a Molcajete Salsa

Chicken Quesadilla

1 pound chicken cutlets (ask butcher to divide into 4 equal pieces and pound thin)
1 tablespoon chipotle puree (from can, found in any grocery store)
1 clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 lime, juice only
1 pinch black pepper
salt to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
8 flour tortillas
12 ounces Chihuahua cheese, grated (or substitute jack cheese)
cilantro or scallions, chopped for garnish

  1. Make a marinade for the chicken, blending chipotle, garlic, thyme, lime juice, black pepper, salt and olive oil. Rub this mixture on the cutlets, and let them marinate while you prepare the rest of dinner.
  2. Grill the chicken for 3 minutes on each side, then slice. It is best to use an outdoor grill, but a grill pan also works very well.

To Assemble the Quesadillas:

  1. Place one tortilla flat, cover fully with 3 ounces of the cheese and arrange the slices of chicken on top, and cover with the other tortilla. Continue to do the same for the remaining quesadillas.
  2. Grill the quesadillas at a lower heat until the cheese is well melted and the tortillas are lightly charred. Cut each quesadilla in four pieces and serve with the red salsa. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro or scallions to garnish.

Molcajete Salsa

6 ripe Roma tomatoes
4 serrano chilies (more or less depending on size and taste) or 2 jalapeño chilies
2 small garlic cloves

In a cast-iron skillet, roast the tomatoes and chilies at medium high heat until charred. Remove the peels from the tomatoes and the chilies. In the molcajete (or another type of mortar and pestle), put the garlic clove and the chilies with some salt and grind finely. Add the tomatoes and keep grinding until the salsa has a smooth texture. Season to taste and serve.

Mango Mousse

2 mangos (1 1/2 pounds approximately)
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
1 can (14 ounces) condensed milk
1 lime, juice only
1 pint strawberries, stemmed and sliced
3 tablespoons coconut flakes, toasted lightly
assorted cookies (needs space) (optional)

Peel and cut the mangoes to obtain as much flesh as possible. In a blender (not in a food processor) blend mangoes, evaporated milk, condensed milk and lime juice for 2 minutes until very smooth. Pour into four serving glasses and chill for at least three hours.

Slice strawberries and place on top of the mango cream. Top with lightly toasted coconut flakes. Serve with your favorite cookies (The chef recommends plain wafers).