Mexican Recipes is a slim, sixty-page paperback recipe book published in 1967. It was offered by mail order in newspapers an magazines across the American West in the late 1960s by the now defunct Spanish American Publications.
It is printed in glorious black and white and peppered with themed clip art and a few hand drawn illustrations. There is no mention of an author or illustrator, only that the recipes were “compiled from our Mexican peoples living in the [American] Southwest.”
The book opens with a short introduction that resembles a middle-school theme. It opens by introducing the Mexican people, “a hard working, industrious, proud and independent race.” Over the course of four short paragraphs it covers everything and nothing, from life on a hacienda to common Mexican crops to Christmas traditions. It is as informative as a disconnected stream of factoids can be. We are also told that some of the recipes are “slightly adapted to modern tastes, but all still retain the distinctive flavor of chili and herbs of our neighbors South of the Border.”
Now Mexican food in the 1960s was hardly a novelty for Americans. Diana Kennedy had yet to publish her influential Cuisines of Mexico, which introduced Americans to heretofore obscure regional variants, but the taco and burrito and enchilada were familiar fare, especially for those living in the American West. And yet somehow I expected that this would be yet another compilation of casseroles and jell-o salads. When I read that recipes were “slightly adapted” I took it as a red flag.
I’m happy to be wrong. Mexican Recipes is a wonderful and thoughtful survey of Mexican cuisine, or, perhaps more appropriately, Mexican-American cuisine. Most of the book consists of familiar, traditional recipes, subtly altered to take advantage of readily available ingredients. I was hoping for a few oddball recipes or obscure dishes but no such luck. What I got instead was a collection of solid recipes for Mexican staples and standbys. There are a couple of casseroles and a few distinctly American inventions but this is hardly the gringo-lada cookbook I was expecting.
Mexican Barley Soup exemplifies the balance of accessibility and authenticity that Mexican Recipes is trying to achieve. This recipe is nestled in with a bunch of more obviously traditional recipes, including an excellent albondiga sopa and menudo, but I suspect that Mexican Barley soup is a modern invention. I’m no expert, but I’ve lived my entire life out West and had friends from all over Mexico and the only time I ever encountered barley on the menu was the cerveza. This is more likely a nod to the hearty beef and barley soup that was a winter staple for mid-60s Americans, gussied up with Mexican seasonings.
And it’s an inspired combination. From the ingredient list this looks like it has all the makings of a goulash or chili, but there are a couple of extra spices that give this a distinct south-of-the-border appeal. It’s just a smidge of oregano and coriander but it carries the dish. There’s also a little bit of fresh mint, which may be a proxy for Mexican epazote, that adds a lot to the final product. The first time I made this I doubled the recipe, on account of my family being pigs, and ended up with enough soup to feed the whole basketball team. I’ve scaled it back to make eight servings, but fair warning that these are hearty, entree sized servings. You might consider serving this with sliced avocado or fresh fruit, but it’s a complete meal on its own.
If you’re willing to wash two pots afterwards you can cut the cooking time down considerably by making the beef and veggie base and barley in parallel. I’ve included instructions for both options below.
- 1 1/2 lb lean ground beef (85%/15% works fine)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup celery (coarsely chopped)
- 1 cup anaheim or pasilla pepper (sliced and coarsely chopped)
- 1 large sweet onion (coarsely chopped)
- 1 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 15 oz can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tbsp fresh mint (finely chopped)
- 2 tsp hot chili powder (or 1 1/2 tsp cumin and 1/2 tsp cayenne)
- 1 1/2 cups pearl barley (rinsed)
- 6 cups hot water or beef broth
One pot method (about 1 hr 15 minutes)
- In a large dutch oven or stockpot, brown ground beef in olive oil over medium-high heat. When meat is mostly browned, add celery, pepper, onion, and spices and saute for five minutes until onion is translucent and the spices have released their fragrance.
- Open the cans of tomatoes. Using kitchen shears chop the tomatoes coarsely while still in the cans. Add both cans, including juice to the ground beef mixture. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 10-15 minutes until the liquid is somewhat reduced and mixture has thickened.
- Add water or broth and barley. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until barley is puffy and tender. For a thicker soup, simmer uncovered until desired texture is achieved.
Two pot method (about 45 minutes)
- In a large stockpot bring water or broth to a boil. Add barley - reduce to medium heat and cook, uncovered.
- Once barley is cooking, prepare ground beef and vegetable mixture in a separate dutch oven as described above. Allow to simmer 10-15 minutes after adding tomatoes.
- Add ground beef mixture to barley mixture. Stir well and continue to simmer over medium heat until barley reaches desired texture, about 45 minutes total.