Mexican salads – but not a tortilla shell in sight

The Washington Post

Crunchy jicama, apple and chayote salad has a lively pepita-avocado dressing.
Crunchy jicama, apple and chayote salad has a lively pepita-avocado dressing. The Washington Post

So, you run into a salad story written by a Mexican – me – and expect to see a taco salad? Not likely to happen.

There are no taco salads in Mexican kitchens. At least I have never, ever seen or heard of a taco salad either in Mexico or served in a Mexican’s home, wherever that may be in the world.

To be blunt, I do hope for a world without taco salads – and the cold and soggy taco shells of their aftermath.

Would you care for a burger-and-french-fries salad with ketchup and mustard squeezed on top of dressed greens? Not I, although I would devour a bacon cheeseburger with fries any day, hot off the pan, with or without a plate.

There are fabulous tacos of all different sorts for every mood and every occasion, and there are salads, just as extraordinary and with just as many options. Mexican kitchens are a brimming source for both. Sadly, not many people are aware of the latter.

Maybe that’s because in Mexico, “ensaladas” are likely to be served more often at home than in restaurants. Typically, they’re not even referred to as salads; their names or titles tend to be based on a main ingredient – often with endearment, followed by the way it is cooked. A chayote squash salad with a vinaigrette might be called “chayotitos en vinagre.”

Come to think of it, the term ensalada has been used in Mexico for any salad with some kind of lettuce, although that has started to change in the past decade or so. Nonetheless, the main point here is that tacos are tacos; salads, whatever we call them in Spanish, are salads.

The taco salad must have been a fun and welcome addition to American menus when it made its first appearance in the 1960s. According to “Taco USA” author Gustavo Arellano’s authoritative research, it was the man behind Doritos, Elmer Doolin, who had the idea of making a Doritos bowl with what, in that era, was considered the contents of a taco: ground meat, sour cream and cheddar cheese. Some undressed pieces of tomato and shredded lettuce might have shown up soon after. As a very early Tex-Mex creation, it has its place in history. But luckily, we have come so much further than that hard-shell version of a taco and a salad mixed together.

Here’s what I can say about Mexican salads: They are often unique, with an exotic element in them, with playful textures and multiple layers of flavor in the vinaigrettes or dressings. Those vinaigrettes or dressings tend to be so full of sazón - which can be loosely defined as having the knack for matching and mixing ingredients and flavors - they could be eaten on their own.

Mexican salads are also surprising. You are likely to see Mexican ingredients you might expect, paired with ingredients you wouldn’t necessarily think of as belonging to Mexican cuisine.

In the accompanying recipes, you’ll find crisp chayote squash paired with tart Granny Smith apple and wet jicama sticks enveloped in a rich, velvety avocado dressing with a pepita (pumpkin seed) base and laced with dill. You’ll find cucumber, radish and jumbo lump crabmeat in a creamy dressing packed with mint, basil and jalapeño. You’ll see chunks of mushrooms and artichoke hearts bathed in an irresistibly tart lime vinaigrette touched by capers and thickened with dry and salty queso.

Mexican salads are so eye-opening that they really help take “Mexicanness” out of the box that seems to equate Mexican food only with tacos. They also prove the point that tacos are exquisite and can shine on their own - just like our ensaladas.

Jicama, apple and chayote salad

Serves 4

This salad offers three kinds of crunch: the mildly sweet, watery crunch of jicama; the tart and soft crunch of Granny Smith apple; and the silky, lemony crunch of raw chayote. All are enveloped in a velvety, creamy dressing.

Once you peel and cut the jicama, apple and chayote, toss them in the dressing right away so they won’t dry out and change their flavor.

Make ahead: The salad can be refrigerated up to 12 hours in advance. Toss well before serving.

From Pati Jinich.

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup water

7 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 3 or 4 limes)

1 clove garlic

1/4 packed cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and upper parts of stems, plus 1 tablespoon for optional garnish

1 packed tablespoon fresh dill, coarsely chopped, plus 1 teaspoon for optional garnish

Flesh of 1 large, ripe avocado, cut into chunks

1 1/4 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard

1/4 cup raw, hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas), plus 1 tablespoon for garnish

1 pound jicama, peeled and cut into julienne (matchsticks)

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and cut into julienne

1 pound firm chayote squash, peeled and cut into julienne

Combine the oil, water, lime juice, garlic, cilantro, dill, avocado, salt, pepper, mustard and pepitas in a blender; puree to form a smooth dressing.

Combine the jicama, apple and chayote in a mixing bowl; add the dressing and toss until well coated.

Just before serving, garnish with the remaining tablespoon of pepitas, plus the tablespoon of cilantro and teaspoon of dill, if using.

Per serving: 320 calories, 5 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 12 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

Crab, radish and cucumber salad

Serves 4

You can serve this salad as a luscious appetizer in cocktail glasses or atop crackers. It can also be a meal on its own. A piece of toast or some grilled or steamed potatoes on the side would be lovely as well. If you have any leftovers, tuck them into a sandwich or warm pita pocket for a luxurious to-go lunch.

Make ahead: The salad can be made and refrigerated a day in advance. Toss well before serving.

From Pati Jinich, cookbook author and host of public television’s “Pati’s Mexican Table.”

1/2 cup packed finely chopped basil leaves and tender stems

1/4 cup packed finely chopped mint leaves

1/2 cup packed finely chopped parsley leaves and upper parts of stems

1/2 cup packed finely chopped chives

2 scallions, white and light-green parts, finely sliced

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and finely chopped (seeded, if desired, for less heat)

1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3/4 cup regular or low-fat mayonnaise (do not use nonfat)

1/2 teaspoon salt, or more as needed

1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, cartilage removed

5 ounces cucumbers, quartered lengthwise and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces

4 ounces radishes, rinsed, quartered and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces

Whisk together the basil, mint, parsley, chives, scallions, jalapeño, rice vinegar, lime juice, mayonnaise and salt in a mixing bowl.

Fold in the crab, cucumber and radishes just until coated; let sit for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Taste, and add salt, as needed.

Per serving: 400 calories, 21 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 33 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 920 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

Mushroom and artichoke hearts in a cotija dressing

Serves 3 or 4

This chunky, deliciously tart and teasingly salty salad can be eaten on its own, as a side or as an appetizer.

Make ahead: The salad can be made and refrigerated a day in advance. Toss before serving.

From Pati Jinich.

Finely grated zest of 1 lime, plus 6 tablespoons juice

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 dried arbol chili peppers, stemmed and chopped, or 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more as needed

1 clove garlic, pressed or minced

2 scallions, white and light-green parts, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon finely chopped capers, rinsed and drained

3/4 cup finely grated cotija cheese (may substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese)

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more as needed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces white button or baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and cut into quarters

Two 6-ounce packages vacuum-packed artichoke heart pieces, rinsed, drained and patted dry (may substitute one 14-ounce can artichoke hearts)

Combine the lime zest and juice, oil, arbol chili peppers or crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, scallions, mustard, capers, cheese, salt and pepper in a medium bowl, stirring with a fork until thoroughly incorporated.

Add the mushrooms and artichoke hearts; toss to coat and incorporate. Taste, and add salt, as needed. Serve with an extra chili pepper or crushed red pepper flakes, if you like.

Per serving (based on 4, using kosher salt): 320 calories, 9 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 820 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar