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."
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."
Once a week, the Bayless family makes dinner together. "Lately, we've been on an Asian kick," he says. "The other night, Lane made chicken teriyaki, I made miso soup, and Deann made a salad."
Such togetherness in the kitchen comes naturally to Bayless, a fourth-generation food professional, who "grew up in a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City" and donned an apron before he could read.
He's determined to keep this weekly tradition alive, despite the constant tug of outside demands. Asked if he has ambitions to clone his restaurants elsewhere, like fellow star chefs Todd English, Wolfgang Puck, and Emeril Lagasse, who have opened shop in trendy Las Vegas as well as other American cities, Bayless is unwavering. "No way," he says. "Some people are drawn to that chain-restaurant mentality. But my cooking is very personal. I try to keep the focus on Mexico, not on me and my creative genius.
"Developers have finally stopped calling me about Las Vegas," Bayless adds with a laugh. "But people still ask so often that I often joke about posting a sign on the door: 'We are not opening in Las Vegas.' "
Other cookbooks by Bayless include 'Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen,' 'Authentic Mexican,' and 'Salsas That Cook.' A CLASSIC TURNS ELEGANT: Shrimp ceviche 'cocktail' (recipe at right) is one of many authentic Mexican dishes featured in Bayless's latest cookbook. 'The best ceviches,' he writes, 'epitomize freshness.' His cooking is lively but rooted in strong traditions.
Of the popular lime-marinated, raw-fish appetizer, chef Rick Bayless writes: 'Ceviche isn't native to Mexico, even though it's been a daily offering there for so many centuries -since the Spaniards or Portuguese brought limes to this land back in the mid-16th century -that I doubt there's a Mexican who wouldn't defend it as one of his own.'
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 generous pound unpeeled smallish shrimp
1/2 medium white onion, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus several sprigs for garnish
1/2 cup ketchup
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegary Mexican bottled hot sauce (such as Tamazula, Valentina, or Buffalo, the latter being on the sweet side)
About 2 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin
1 cup diced peeled cucumber or jicama (or 1/2 cup of each)
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and cubed
Several lime slices for garnish
Tostadas or tortilla chips, store-bought or homemade
Bring 1 quart salted water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of the lime juice. Scoop in the shrimp, cover, and let the water return to boil. Immediately remove from the heat, set the lid askew, and pour off all the liquid. Replace the cover and let the shrimp steam off the heat for 10 minutes. Spread out the shrimp in a large glass or stainless steel bowl to cool completely.
Peel and devein the shrimp: One by one, lay the shrimp on your work surface, make a shallow incision down the back, and scrape out the (usually) dark intestine tract. Toss the shrimp with the remaining 1/2 cup lime juice, cover, and refrigerate for about an hour.
In a small strainer, rinse the onion under cold water, then shake off the excess liquid. Add to the shrimp bowl along with the cilantro, ketchup, hot sauce, olive oil, cucumber and/or jicama, and avocado. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. Cover and refrigerate if not serving immediately.
Spoon the ceviche into sundae glasses or small bowls; garnish with sprigs of cilantro and slices of lime. Serve with tostadas or tortilla chips. Makes 3 cups, serving 6 as an appetizer.
Note: The ceviche is best made the day it is served.