Mexican-themed Paddling Menus

Call me a late bloomer but I have only recently come to discover Mexican-inspired food; probably because there isn't a large Mexican community and good Mexican restaurants are hard to find in my neck of the woods. But, lucky me, last winter I travelled to the western coast of Mexico, and recently an authentic Mexican restaurant nearby (the mama and the auntie cooks while the eldest son hosts and mixes the best ever margaritas I've ever tasted). So, better late than never: I fell in love with Mexican cuisine and spent a lot of time reading about it and watching movies which introduce foodies to the variety and regional richness of its culinary traditions.

A tradition based upon fish 

In San Pancho, on the Pacific coast, I ate a fantastic mahi-mahi ragout flavored with cumin and olives right on the beach, while in Rincon de Guayabitos, I shared a magnificent dorado cooked on the grill to perfection and seasoned very simply with lime juice, cumin and coriander leafs. The sides were, as always, fresh lettuce, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes, confetti rice and refried beans. Align this with a cerveza and an amazing view on the tiny fishing village and one can understand why this moment felt exactly like paradise; period.

Fresh foods that travel well 

Let's talk about tacos now: is there anything more festive and quick to fix than colorful tacos presented with all sorts of veggies, fish, meats and trimmings? People can decide for themselves whether or not to add hot sauce, blackened shrimps, guacamole, cheese or salsa and assemble their tacos the way they prefer. Street food at its best! But how about when you're planning a paddling expedition? Ingredients used in Tex-Mex cuisine are easy to work with, quick to prepare and flavorful. They are also filling, satisfying, full of fibers, vitamins and good quality proteins and many of them are perfect for people who prefer a vegetarian diet too. If some ingredients (like avocados, cilantro or fresh tomatoes) are a bit fragile, they pack easily in non-collapsible containers such as plastic boxes. Others are very sturdy travelers, like flour and corn tortillas, beans, pepper, onions or cheese.

An interesting way to change routine

During my last 3-day paddling trip in Maine (in June) with a group of friends we were discussing the best way to create appealing menus for a multi-day kayaking trip. One of the members of the party came up with this brilliant idea: why not create foodie paddling trips based upon one specific theme, such as one type of ethnic cuisine? I thought it was an interesting challenge and also an interesting way to get acquainted with another culture through its food in a fun, unconventional way. That's how I came up with this suggestion: how about a two-day kayak-camping trip inspired by Mexican cuisine and culture? One of the four couples would gather good music; another one would forage into history and geography and prepare a lecture on the topic; the third one would take care of the arts and traditions while I would create a 6-meal menu entirely based on Mexican food. Not 100 % authentic, perhaps, but certainly a good start…

Menu for a 2-day Mexican-inspired paddling trip

Day One
Breakfast (before leaving): Mexican ham and cheese omelet with salsa and toasts Lunch: corn chips with cold Calabacita (black bean salad) Snack: almonds and plums  Dinner: chicken and tortilla soup

Day Two Breakfast: cooked quinoa with soy milk, chopped apples and walnuts Lunch: Soft flour tortillas stuffed with Mexican tuna salad Snack: homemade gorp (peanuts, chocolate covered raisins, dried mango, mini-pretzels, banana chips, cranberries) Dinner: queso fundido with veggies and bean tacos

Day Three Breakfast: huevos rancheros with soft flour tortillas (sunny side up eggs with salsa and placed upon a corn tortilla)

The Mexican pantry

  • Pepper The Mexican pantry starts with pepper: Anaheim, chili, bell peppers, jalapeño, poblano, etc. Some fresh, other dried or smoked. We can certainly use them sparingly to suit our North American palates but they remain essential to bringing authenticity to our paddling menu. For a paddling trip, canned and dried peppers come very handy.
  • Flat bread Another pleaser is tortillas, either flour or corn; these are essential to preparing tacos, enchiladas, burritos, to eat refried beans or guacamole. Corn chips are another part of this category. They are bulky though, for a paddling trip, and very fragile. So maybe we can indulge once or decide to make our own out of tortillas simply cooked a few minutes in a pan or directly on a grill to make them crisp.
  • Veggies One of the reasons most people love Mexican food is because it is bursting with flavor and color: yellow corn, radishes, red or orange bell peppers, red hot tomatoes, cucumbers, green and red onions and, of course, essential avocados for guacamole or pozole soup. Add fresh cilantro, garlic and cumin seeds and you have the basis to create wonderful and easy meals. And since most of these vegetables are enjoyed raw and at their peak, you're in for some fresh and satisfying crunch! Something's missing? No doubt: fresh lime! Don't leave home without it and a zester!
  • Proteins When it comes to proteins, the Mexican pantry is also extremely diversified: shrimps, white fish, chicken and pork are regular staples, not to mention pinto, red and black beans used either for refried beans, chili (more a Tex-Mex creation than Mexican), burritos, salad or soups. In Mexico, beef is not eaten as often as in the States or Canada and I must say that the one I've had was not memorable. So let's leave it home and focus on our many other options. Queso (cheese) is extremely popular and a garnish for many dishes. Eggs are also served on a regular basis in the form of omelet, huevo rancheros (sunny side up with salsa) or breakfast burritos. Since it is a bit complicated to bring fresh meat or fish on board (except if we can catch our own fish), we'll rely mostly on canned chicken or meat, plus cheese and beans for our kayak trip. Except for the first night, when frozen chicken can be taken on board and left to thaw slowly at the right temperature, gently tucked between two icepaks.

A few more ingredients

Quinoa is a wonderful cereal that was very popular with the Mayan and Aztec cultures, just as corn was. It cooks very quickly too, which is convenient during a camping trip. So we will certainly create a dish or two that will include this ingredient that is loaded with very good quality proteins. It can be used in salads, soups or as a breakfast staple. With soy milk and fresh strawberries or blueberries it is delicious!

Recipes for Paddlers

Mexican Ham and cheese omelet (4 portions)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 4 oz ham, cut in small cubes
  • 8 eggs, well beaten with 1/3 cup milk
  • 2/3 cup medium salsa
  • 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, cook onion in oil with bell pepper for 8 minutes over medium heat. Add garlic, cumin, oregano and ham and cook 2 more minutes. Mix eggs with salsa and pour over vegetables and ham. Mix well to combine, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, spread with cheese and finish cooking omelet under broiler for 5 minutes. Serve with whole wheat flour tortillas.

Calabacitas (a hot salad with black beans)
(4 portions)
To serve this recipe cold instead of hot (the usual) prepare it a couple of hours in advance so the flavors will mix nicely.

  • 4 zuchinis, finely diced
  • 1 red onion, finely diced
  • 4 tbsp olive oil (divided)
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 fresh poblano chili, finely chopped
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 3 cups black beans, cooked and drained
  • 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 tsp cumin powder
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 3 tbsp red wine or cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Corn chips to serve

In a large skillet, cook zucchinis and red onions in half the olive oil for 3-5 minutes over high heat. Add garlic, poblano chili and corn and cook 2 more minutes. Remove from heat, add remaining ingredients and mix well. Let cool and pour in a plastic bowl with a lid. Serve for lunch with corn chips. Make sure corn chips have been placed in a non-collapsible plastic container in order to prevent crumbling.

Chicken and tortilla soup
(4 portions)
** Note:
prepare this soup on the first night of your trip with fresh chicken breasts that you have frozen before leaving home. Put it between 2 icepaks in order to let it thaw slowly and safely during the day. If you prepare this soup later on during your trip, replace fresh chicken with with canned. Drain well before adding directly to the boiling broth, along with vegetables.

  • 1 chicken breast, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp cumin powder
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1 small can chopped tomatoes, with juice
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 small can chopped green chili, with juice
  • 1 Anaheim pepper, chopped
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 small can corn, with juice
  • 1 small zucchini, very finely diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, to garnish
  • 1 avocado, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 fresh limes
  • Crushed tortilla chips, to garnish

In a large pot, cook chicken in olive oil over high heat for 6-8 minutes until done. Add cumin, chicken stock, tomatoes and cornstarch and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium, add remaining ingredients, except cilantro, avocado, limes and chips and cook 2 more minutes. Serve in large bowls, garnished with cilantro, avocado, lime juice and chips.

Flour tortillas stuffed with Mexican Tuna Salad 
(4 portions)

  • 1 large avocado
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 2 tsp cumin powder
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 tbsp canned jalapeño peppers, chopped
  • 2 large cans of tuna, drained
  • 2 small cucumbers, chopped in long stripes
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 4 large whole wheat tortillas

In a bowl, crush avocado with a fork. Add lime juice, onion, cumin, salt and pepper, jalapeño and tuna and mix well. Spread mixture evenly on 4 tortillas, leaving 2 inches in the bottom of each tortilla. Arrange cucumbers and cilantro and roll, starting by folding the bottom of the tortilla onto the ingredients. Serve.

Chili Con Queso with veggies
(4 portions)

  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Anaheim chili, diced
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small can chopped green chili, drained
  • 1 tbsp cumin powder
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 small can (6 oz) evaporated milk (unsweetened)
  • 1 small can chopped tomatoes (without juice)
  • 1 pound shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To serve:
Baby carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, radishes and celery
Corn tortillas cut in wedges

In a saucepan, cook onion and chili in oil for 10 minutes over medium heat. Add green chili, cumin powder and garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Add flour, mix well. Add milk and tomatoes and whisk vigorously to prevent lump formation. Stir in cheese and keep whisking until cheese melts and mixture becomes bubbly. Serve with raw veggies and corn tortillas.

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