Real Mexican cuisine - beyond burritos
Chicago chef Rick Bayless aims to shatter stereotypes about his favorite food
Rick Bayless had no idea a family vacation in Mexico, taken when he was 14, would change his life. Now, when people ask the award-winning cookbook author, TV cooking-show host, and chef/owner of two of America's most popular Mexican restaurants (Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago) why he chose to specialize in Mexican cooking rather than, say, French or Thai, he recalls his impressions from that trip: "We went to Mexico City, Teotihuacan, Taxco, and Acapulco - and I was swept away by a culture that spun together vibrant art, welcoming ambiance, thrilling flavor, and generous hospitality."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Bayless's love affair with Mexican culture and cooking has only deepened since then. When he and his wife/business partner, Deann, lived there from 1980 to 1986, they traveled 35,000 miles throughout the country's six distinct regions, chatting with street-food vendors, observing home cooks in their kitchens, and visiting markets.
The colorful region of Oaxaca is a particular favorite of the couple. They have returned there many times, often for Christmas. They also sponsor an annual pilgrimage south of the border with their Chicago crew. These journeys, for which they shut down both restaurants, "provide the anchors that connect the Fronterans to the food they prepare and serve," says Bayless. While there, they study Mexican cooking methods and sharpen their skill at making such specialties as ceviche, adobo sauce, mole, and more.
When most Americans think of Mexican cooking, it's more often fajitas, burritos, and nachos that come to mind. But those are "Mexican-American" dishes and not "real Mexican cooking," Bayless says.
He is on a mission to help others get beyond these stereotypes and experience the fresh ingredients, vibrant flavors, and lively, communal spirit at the heart of authentic Mexican cooking. This desire is what motivated him to write "Mexico: One Plate at a Time" with co-authors Jean Marie Brownson and Deann Groen Bayless (Scribner, $35), and to host the 26-part public-television series of the same name.
"We're still at the 'spaghetti-and-meatballs stage' - how I describe our knowledge of Italian food just 25 years ago," Bayless writes in "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," which won the prestigious James Beard Award for best international cookbook of 2000. "I wrote this book to help us take the first steps toward real Mexican cooking - steps that parallel the progress we've made in our understanding of real Italian or Chinese cooking."
He speaks of first steps, but perhaps, with dishes such as Chilaquiles (Tortilla Casserole), Chicken With Green Pipian (Pumpkin Seed Sauce), and Fish a la Veracruzana (with tomatoes, capers, olives, and herbs), they should be called first leaps. Either way, Bayless holds readers' hands as they venture into the classics of authentic Mexican cuisine. Each dish is presented as a minichapter with three parts: First, an introduction to prepare readers for "the full experience of the dish, from flavor to history and culture." Then, he presents "the best recipe" that his "25 years of testing has produced" (in both traditional and contemporary forms), and finally, Bayless, always the teacher, shares questions and answers that occurred to him and his team of testers along the way.
"I'm hoping to get people cooking at home more than just once a year for a Mexican theme party," the affable Bayless said during an interview at his Chicago office. "But I'm less interested in home cooking than I am in food as an expression of culture and how it enriches our lives with friends and family."
His own family life has been enriched by a book project he's undertaken with his daughter. "It started out as a kids cookbook," he says, "but it has evolved into a collection of simple, straightforward, and delicious recipes. And no smiley faces."