`WE do not not yet have a Mexican Julia Child,'' says Patricia Quintana, speaking of the absence of a celebrity cooking instructor on Mexican television. But when Mexico does, it may very well be Ms. Quintana, the strikingly attractive cookbook author, cooking teacher, and executive chef for the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, who will play that role of lifting a country's cuisine to a more appreciative and elegant level.
Mexican cooking today is very much in the process of discovering its own roots. As can be seen by any visitor to Mexico City or any of this ancient country's distinct regions -- from Baja California down to Oaxaca on the South Pacific Coast and across to the Yucatan Peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico -- Mexicans are profoundly fascinated with their past.
For several thousand years before the European colonial period, the peoples of the region developed an array of cultures in which corn, chiles, fish, and other native produce became the staples of a cooking that later was embellished with Northern and Southern European influences.
To begin to understand Mexican cooking, one should spend the day at the National Museum of Anthropology here in the capital, following the early migration of the country's Asian ancestors across the Ice Age land bridge in the North Pacific and the development of its often warring civilizations.
Then have dinner at one of the popular Mexican restaurants, like the Fonda de la Refugio in the Zona Rosa, to sample traditional dishes like chiles en nogada (stuffed chiles in walnut sauce) or empanadas (zucchini blossom-stuffed turnovers), or dine at one of the newer resaurants like Estoril, which, like their counterparts in the United States and Europe, treat traditional Mexican elements in a lighter, more attractive manner.
At this moment, Mexican cooking is poised between its future and its past, while at the same time it is troubled by the country's austere economic present. Young chefs, including women chefs, encouraged by enterprising restaurateurs in Europe and the US, now cater to an educated middle class.
``We are trying to establish a new wave in Mexican cooking,'' Ms. Quintana says. ``We are presenting traditional dishes more artistically, combining ingredients in new ways. We are striving for a more aesthetic presentation. We are cooking in a lighter way, with less grease; we are cooking vegetables and meats. . . . But we cannot change the basics.''
Typical of this effort is the formation of the Circolo de Arte Culinario, a small group of cooks, writers, artists, and historians, who have an interest in food. In January, they are planning an exhibition of foods as prepared in old Mexican paintings.
``Everybody talks about food in Mexico,'' Quintana says. ``They talk about it a lot: what they ate yesterday, what they're planning to eat tonight. Now, younger professional women, after studying other things, still want to know more about cooking. They want to know more about the management of cuisines.''
Hence Quintana's cooking school, in the handsome Bosques de las Lomas section of Mexico City, has become quite busy. She emphasizes the basic techniques of Mexican cooking, using the mortar and pestle.
``We still use our hands in cooking,'' she says, referring to the US fascination with new gadgets and equipment. ``Many Mexicans still use the stone grinder,'' she adds -- although the visitor to her school will also notice, among the stone, clay, and wooden utensils, such modern accessories as convection ovens.
Apart from her teaching, and the presentation of Mexican foods in the Ministry of Tourism's private dining room, over which she presides, Quintana's major contribution to Mexican cooking is her new book, ``The Taste of Mexico'' (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $35).
This is a spectacular volume. The recipes have been collected by Quintana from all parts of Mexico -- culled from her files of more than 7000 recipes kept in her school library. Some are from restaurants, others are for traditional foods served by vendors or in homes. Most are gorgeously illustrated in color photographs by Ignacio Urquiza, set against striking Mexican seaside and countryside backgrounds, in old towns, alongside art works, or amid richly colored arrangements of chiles, seafood, and breads.
For authenticity's sake, there are some real palate-testers: How about ant eggs, or Maguey worms, Pachuca style, or corn fungus?
But mostly the large volume is a very useful guide to the regional styles and dishes of Mexican cooking. From the northern cattle-grazing territories come a Filete al Chipotle (a beef fillet served on a tortilla, napped with a chile sauce). From central Mexico, a cold avocado soup. From the port of Manzanillo on the North Pacific coast: Camarones al Queso con Pimientos y Cebolla (Saut'eed Shrimp With Cheese, Peppers, and Onions). A watermelon drink from the South Pacific Coast. A date bread from southern Baja California. And a pecan brittle from Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico.
``A Taste of Mexico'' encourages the traveler to consider more than this country's old ruins, its silver and ceramic handcrafts. Mexico's diverse foods are every bit as crucial to its civilization as its familiar sights. Quintana's text should encourage more visitors to explore more of this old-new country. Sopa de Aguacate Fria estilo Atlixco (Cold Avocado Soup, Atlixco-Style)
Atlixco is one of the most important avocado-producing areas of Mexico. What is known as the California avocado was developed from this Mexican fruit. Broth 5 quarts water 4 chicken legs and thighs 6 chicken wings 1 white onion, sliced 1 head garlic, unpeeled and halved 3 carrots 6 ribs celery 2 bay leaves 6 mint leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried mint 6 black peppercorns Salt to taste Soup 1/2 cup butter 1 white onion, pur'eed 2 cloves garlic, pur'eed 1/2 leek, pur'eed 1 carrot, pur'eed 6 ripe California avocados, peeled 1 cup cr`eme fra^iche or heavy cream 1 cup plain yogurt, beaten Salt to taste 2 tablespoons lime juice 1/2 cup olive oil Garnish 1/4 cup white onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
Prepare the broth: Bring water to a boil in a stock pot. Add chicken, onion, garlic, carrots, celery, bay leaves, mint, peppercorns, and salt. Simmer over low heat until mixture foams. Stem, simmer 1 1/2 hours.
Cool for 1 hour and strain. Skim off fat, and refrigerate. If broth separates, reheat slightly.
Prepare the soup: Melt butter in a saucepan. Add onion, garlic, leek, and carrot with 3 cups broth. Cook until thick, about 25 minutes. Cool. Meanwhile, in a blender or food processor, blend avocados with 6 cups broth (Blend in batches, if necessary.) Strain. Add cr`eme fra^iche and yogurt. Stir in vegetable mixture, and salt to taste. Add lime juice and olive oil. If the soup is too thick, add a little more broth. Chill in freezer for 1 hour.
To serve, pour cold avocado soup into soup bowls fitted in liners filled with crushed ice. Garnish with onion and cilantro.
Makes 8 servings. Camarones Al Queso Con Pimientos y Cebolla (Shrimp With Cheese, Peppers, and Onions)
This dish is served in Mexico Lindo, a restaurant in the port of Manzanillo. Shrimp 3/4 cup olive oil 1/2 cup butter 3 large white onions, sliced on the diagonal 5 red bell peppers, roasted and sliced in strips 5 green bell peppers, roasted and sliced in strips Salt and pepper to taste 48 medium shrimp, shelled and deveined Topping 14 ounces Oaxaca, manchego, or mozzarella cheese, grated 14 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8 small clay bowls or ramekins.
Heat oil and butter in a frying pan. Brown onion. Add red and green peppers, and cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Stir in shrimp, and cook for 5 minutes. Correct seasoning.
Divide shrimp mixture among the bowls. Cover with cheeses, and bake for 20 minutes or until mixture is hot and cheese has melted.
Makes 8 servings. Rellenitos de Platano Macho (Stuffed Plantain Patties) Plantains 4 plantains, partially ripe, peeled and thickly sliced Salt to taste 2 large eggs 1/4 cup flour 2 1/2 cups vegetable oil Stuffing 1 1/2 cups refried beans Garnish 2/3 cup sour cream 1/3 cup cr`eme fra^iche 16 romaine lettuce leaves
Boil plantains in salted water to cover until fork tender. Drain; set aside to cool. Pur'ee plantains in blender. Beat eggs, and add flour. Add egg mixture to pur'eed plantains. Form patties, and stuff with 1 tablespoon beans, shaping batter to enclose. Heat oil until almost smoking, and fry patties, turning once. Drain on paper towels. Before serving, mix sour cream and cr`eme fra^iche. Serve 2 to 3 patties, on individual plates. Place lettuce leaf and mixed creams on the side. Serve hot. Makes 24 patties.