Houston Chef dishes on Mexican food & the gluten-free diet

Chef Hugo Ortega enjoying Mexican street food Photo by Penny de los Santos

The March/April issue of Gluten-Free Living spotlights Hugo Ortega, the Executive Chef of Hugo’s restaurant in Houston, and recent author of Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico. Ortega talked with Gluten-Free Living about authentic Mexican street food and why it’s a natural dining choice for those who follow the gluten-free diet. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: How has Mexican food adapted for the American diner?

A. I think it has to do with the pioneers of our cuisine who have exposed our great cooking beyond our borders. It has enchanted many people from different parts of the world with its flavor, spiciness, the use of different peppers, herbs, cacao, huitlacoche (corn truffle) that are so unique to Mexico. The diversity of the food has piqued the interest of many American diners.

Q: Many authentic Mexican dishes are slow cooked, like a mole sauce or carnitas. What is the history behind the slow cooking method?

A. This method is pre-Hispanic. For moles, it develops the flavor of the 29 ingredients required, with balance achieved when the last ingredient, chocolate, is added. For meats, such as for barbacoa, we use this method because we use the whole carcass. The slow cooking method helps to make it tender. You develop more flavor like this; the herbs and spices that we use to wrap the piece of meats develop more thanks to the long cooking time.

Q: Corn, which is gluten free, is such an important ingredient, from masa flour to maize to corn tortillas. Was it a more prevalent crop in Mexico than wheat?
A. Yes, corn is the backbone of Mexican cooking. Maybe even say it is the only ingredient that can be considered necessary to our cuisine.

Q: Can gluten-free diners assume most Mexican food is gluten free? Is use of wheat, barley or rye the exception rather than the rule? Still, what should gluten-free diners be on the lookout for as having the potential to contain gluten?

A. Yes, it is gluten-free with the exception of Mexican food from the northern region, which uses flour tortillas. I recommend finding out which region of Mexico the food is from.

Q: You have a new cookbook. Is it largely gluten free?

A. Yes, except for the churros recipe and some of the desserts.

Q: What piqued your interest in gluten-free food?

A. Mexican food is gluten-free. I didn’t know until we researched it that it is a food well tolerated by many people. I have always cooked with many spices, nuts and herbs; flour, in my opinion, is an ingredient for breads and pastries. I have always been on the savory part of the cuisine.

The March/April issue of Gluten-Free Living features Ortega’s menu for a casual Mexican dinner party for six. It has everything from start to finish with recipes including carnitas, re-fried beans, Mexican rice, salsa, roasted corn, and cream cheese custard. The magazine will be on newsstands Feb. 26. You can subscribe at glutenfreeliving.com