More Than Tacos and Tortillas

Patricia Quintana wants to expand the way people think of her country's cooking. FOOD: MEXICAN CUISINE

WHETHER in jeans and Reeboks at an outdoor marketplace, or in traditional chef's whites for teaching, cookbook author Patricia Quintana is a striking representative of her homeland, Mexico. An accomplished chef, Ms. Quintana has established a cooking school in Mexico City and has written three cookbooks about her national cuisine. She also conducts culinary tours of ancient Mexican cities and is planning a chefs' seminar on Mexican foods at her family's ranch in Veracruz.

With dark hair pulled back smoothly, her heart-shaped face glows with enthusiasm and her eyes sparkle as she explains that she wants to do for Mexican cooking what Julia Child has done for French cooking - and more.

Quintana's mission is to expand the way people think about Mexican food: to introduce dishes that go beyond tortillas and tacos, such as the hearty beef dishes of Chihuahua, the grilled fish and seafood specialties of the coastal regions, and the sophisticated dining of Mexico City.

In her new book, ``Mexico's Feasts of Life'' (Tulsa, Okla.: Council Oak Books, $39.95, illustrated), she shares family stories that date back to her great-grandmother's Oaxaca kitchen of the 1880s. Quintana is the fourth generation in a family of gifted female cooks. Great-grandmother Emilia (of French descent) kept a model cookbook; grandmother Margarita shared Emilia's Veracruz kitchen and farm; and Quintana's mother, Mago, inclines toward international cuisine.

Recipes are interwoven with reverential memoirs of special holidays and family parties, with asides that mention Mexican food lore, myths, definitions, snatches of songs, and pre-Hispanic Nahuatl poems.

``Most people don't realize the multiplicity and diversity of Mexico,'' Ms. Quintana said in a recent Boston interview. ``Each region is so different. Each is an expression of its ancestral habits, the geography, and the ethnic groups whose language, music, and art contributed to its unique Mexican flair.''

Dishes in ``Mexico's Feasts of Life'' express ``the Mexican essence - the love of ritual, nature, and the joy of life,'' she explains.

In search of Mexico's true gastronomic heritage, Ms. Quintana returned to original family sources to show the involvement of food at weddings, birthdays, market days, christenings, and national holidays. She writes a newspaper column for Novdades, as well as for Mexican Vogue.

``I want to preserve the traditional Mexican dishes, handed down from mother to daughter. They are in danger of dying out,'' Quintana says. So involved is Quintana in this project that she and 12 other culinary and art experts in Mexico have formed the Circulo Mexicano de Arts Culinario, a group dedicated to exploring and preserving provincial and classical Mexican fare.

Travel and study abroad have led her to experiment with the Mexican recipes - using new methods, less oil, indigenous fresh herbs and vegetables - without straying far from the historical roots of Mexico's basic cuisine.

In her new cookbook there's an unexpected, exotic delicacy in her use of fresh herbs: a minted chicken broth with vegetables; shrimp steamed with vanilla; the cinnamon-clove flavoring of glazed sweet potatoes.

Full-color picture galleries are a plus, showing fresh and dried chiles and Mexican herbs and leaves. Some herbs are not available in the United States, but many are familiar: thyme, marjoram, chamomile, epazote, purslane, cilantro, lemon grass, and basil. The latter, basil, is used mostly for tea.

A chart suggesting substitutes for chiles that may not be available everywhere is extremely helpful, and in many recipes substitutes are also suggested. When Mexican cheese is required, for example, Armenian string cheese or mild fontina may be used.

The collection is ideal for entertaining, but also for caterers and chefs. Many recipes tell of ancient influences. Steamed Turkey in Adobo Sauce suggests the aromas of pre-Hispanic cooking, for this favorite bird is flavored with avocado leaves.

CHOCOLATE Meringues with Mint Sauce is a dessert inspired by French pastry master Len^otr'e and uses Mexican chocolate, which dates back to Hispanic times. Tamales with Pumpkin Seed and Sesame Stuffing are typical of the Tlaxcala region. Stuffed Cornish Hens in Orange Sauce hints at the Sephardic Jewish influence present in Monterrey regional cooking.

While ``Feasts of Life'' celebrates her country's holidays, Quintana explained the basic elements of Mexican cuisine in her book, ``Taste of Mexico'' (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1986). Easy directions tell how to prepare corn and flour tortillas, how to clean chiles, roast ingredients, make the sauces, and properly use cilantro and epazote - two herbs synonymous with Mexican flavors. Her first cookbook, ``Cooking Is a Game,'' was privately published.

Quintana describes the little-known ``corn truffle'' of Mexico, the corn fungus called cuitlacoche, cultivated since pre-Columbian times. Mexicans consider the large black kernels a rich and subtle improvement on mushrooms. They are prized as a filling for squash blossoms or crepes, a culinary legacy from the sorry rule of Maximilian and Carlota in the mid-19th century.

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