That fateful day in 1519 when Cortez entered Montezuma's Aztec capital may well mark one of the most important moments in culinary history. At this convergence of Aztec and European palates, the native Mexicans brought to the table a collection of novel ingredients—squash, corn, beans, tomatoes, peanuts, coconut and chocolate, to name a few—while the Spanish contributed continental meats, citrus, cheese, milk, wine, garlic, cinnamon, oregano, black pepper and more. The fusion resulted in a wealth of New World culinary treasures.

This heritage lives on. A careful look at today's authentic Mexican cooking reveals subtle flavors, unique combinations and a reliance on fresh, locally grown ingredients—often the only choice for millions of cooks living in Mexico's rural regions. True Mexican food is fresh and light, with a solid emphasis on vegetables and spices. You wouldn't know it by looking at U.S. restaurant menus, though. Here, Mexican food (we don't usually grace it with the word cuisine) can be heavy, filling and predictable. The primary ingredients—beans, rice, fried meats and flour tortillas—barely hint at the range of flavors found on the Mexican table.

The carnival atmosphere of May 5, Cinco de Mayo—a date set aside to honor Mexico's independence—provides a welcome and appropriate occasion for experiencing the food traditions of this proud country. With signature dishes rooted in a whole-foods approach, including plenty of options for adventurous vegetarians, the emphasis remains on seasonal produce and dried staples, such as rice and beans, prepared in a range of styles. And though Mexican cooking can be simple—in many cases, corn and beans are the main ingredients—it can also be dynamically complex. Celebrate this month with a fiesta in your kitchen, and embrace the adventure of Mexican cuisine.

Border-Style Drunken Beans

Serves 6 / This is a lighter, vegetarian version of a traditional dish favored by the caballeros (cowboys) of northern Mexico. Chipotle peppers provide a smoky flavor that in the original dish is supplied by bacon. Get the recipe...



Green Rice

Serves 6 / Poblano peppers give this dish a richer flavor, but milder Anaheim chilis may be substituted. To roast poblanos, cut in half, place on baking sheet cut side down, and broil for 10 minutes or until mostly charred; place in a paper bag for 5 minutes. Steam will loosen skin for easy peeling. Get the recipe...



Red Snapper Veracruz

Serves 6 / The coastal cuisine of Veracruz exhibits a definite Mediterranean influence. This sauce complements virtually any white fish. Get the recipe...



Fresh Squash with Peppers and Corn

Serves 6 / Versions of this summer dish are found throughout Mexico; this one hails from Oaxaca. It works well as a side dish but is also hearty enough to be a main dish. Get the recipe...



Sopa de Tlalpán

Serves 4 / This soup from Tlalpán, a suburb of Mexico City, is traditionally made with chicken, but the vegetarian version is light and delicious. Get the recipe...



Classic Mexican Flan

Serves 16 / This lighter version of the traditional Mexican custard is decadently rich and easy to make. Keep portions small; a little goes a long way. Get the recipe...