Pati Jinich, author of Pati's Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $34.95), wants you to know that Mexican cuisine is not "taco salads, nachos slathered with cheese, or overstuffed burritos." It's not heavy or fried. Often, it's not even that spicy.
As she writes in the introduction to her passionate new cookbook: "Show up in my kitchen any day of the year, and you'll find soft corn tortillas, refried beans, at least two different salsas, the fresh Mexican cheese called queso fresco, ripe avocados and fresh fruit."
Free Press reporter Bartley Kives recently wrote about new local restaurants that have allowed Winnipeggers to buy authentic Mexican tacos -- the kind made without "orange ground beef," as he says. Jinich's cookbook allows you to make authentic tacos at home, along with dishes like enchiladas verdes, pozole rojo, and Oaxaca-style mushroom and cheese quesadillas.
You won't be picking up packaged prepared foods in the "Mexican" section of your supermarket for these recipes. But neither will you be making complex mole sauces that require days in the kitchen chained to the stove. Jinich focuses on accessible everyday Mexican family cooking. These dishes, from salads and soups to drinks and desserts, are fresh, healthy and simple, with lots of big, bold flavours.
Raised in Mexico City, Jinich originally worked as an analyst specializing in Latin American policy, but soon found she was spending all of her spare time cooking. She is now the official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., as well as the host of the PBS television series Patti's Mexican Table.
In her debut cookbook, Jinich combines stories of her grandmother's and mother's kitchens with scholarly research into Mexican regional traditions. She applies this knowledge to what she calls her "Spanglish" sort of modern life, which involves working, running around and cooking for three hungry boys.
These recipes use some specialty ingredients that you could pick up at a Latin American grocery store or well-stocked supermarket. But mostly they rely on fresh, widely available ingredients -- some meat, fish and chicken and a whole lot of produce. (In fact, there are so many vegetarian options that most Mexicans don't even consider "vegetarian" as a separate category, Jinich says. They take it for granted that a lot of great food is crafted from rice, beans and vegetables.)
Along with recipes, Jinich offers handy tips and techniques. She tells you how to buy a perfect avocado. (Squeeze, gently.) She tells you how to add chilies. (Gradually, and testing as you go, because there's no going back -- and because chilies are so capricious that ones from the same variety, even from the same plant, can vary wildly in their heat levels.)
Since this is a cookbook built on fundamentals, I thought I'd start with two of Jinich's salsas, which she calls the "maracas" of her kitchen: "They shake things up whenever I need an extra kick of flavour." Jinich offers recipes for some hard-working tomato salsas, of course, but there are also green salsas and picos -- coarsely chopped uncooked salsas that can be made with tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes or fruit. These basic recipes are so easy, economical and fresh-tasting that you'll wonder why you bother with the jarred stuff.
Of course, you could just eat these salsas with tortilla chips, but you could also use them as building blocks for main course dishes that require green or red salsas. (Or even both, like the expressively named "Divorced Eggs.")
Jinich's charred tomato salsa is a classic standby. Significantly, it's the first recipe in the book. Charring, Jinish points out, is one of the signature cooking techniques of Mexican cooking. It concentrates and deepens flavours, adding a "a subtle sweetness and a rough, out-in-the-country personality." This technique originally involved cooking food over an open fire on a flat griddle called a comal, but Jinich has adapted it for broiler or stovetop.
And, as a bonus, salsas are healthy. Unlike most French sauces, say, which tend to pack on the butter and cream, salsas add loads of flavour with relatively little fat. Mango pico is a sparkling example, combining complex tastes of tart, sweet and hot. This easy, uncooked salsa would pair well with fish or seafood -- Jinich makes killer crabcakes.
Jinich even suggests using it as a daring dessert topping on ice cream or pound cake. (Though you might want to leave out the onion.)
Charred tomato salsa (salsa roja)
500 g (1 lb) ripe tomatoes
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
1 x 7 mm (1/4 in) sliced large white onion (about 28 g or 1 oz)
1 jalape±o or serrano chili, or to taste
3 ml (3/4 tsp) kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste
Preheat the broiler.
Place the tomatoes, garlic, onion, and chili on a baking sheet or in a broiler-proof skillet. Broil 10 to 12 minutes, turning halfway through. Remove the tomatoes when they are mushy, their skin is charred and wrinkled, and the juices begin to run. The chili and onion should be softened and nicely charred, and the papery skin of the garlic should be burned and the clove softened. Alternatively, you can char the vegetables on a preheated comal or in a cast-iron or heavy nonstick skillet on top of the stove over medium heat.
Remove the skin from the garlic clove and discard. Place the garlic in a blender or food processor, along with the tomatoes, onion, half the chili, the salt and any juices. Purée until smooth. Taste for heat, and add more chile, if necessary until you have the desired amount of heat. Can be made up to 5 days ahead, covered and refrigerated.
-- Adapted from Pati's Mexican Table
Tester's notes: So good -- about a hundred times better than the bottled kind -- and easy! I'd probably pull the garlic out a bit early, as it cooks very quickly and burnt garlic can be bitter. But when it comes to tomatoes, don't be afraid of a little blackness: getting the tomatoes good and charred has a brilliant effect on the taste. (You can remove the burned skin from the tomatoes and chili if you like, but Jinich leaves it on for depth of flavour.) I followed Jinich's advice about adding the chili gradually, and I'm glad I did. Less than half a chili got me to where our family compromises on heat. If using table salt instead of coarse salt, decrease the amount by half.
75 ml (1/3 cup) slivered red onion
60 ml (1/4 cup) freshly squeezed lime juice, or to taste
900 ml (4 cups) peeled and diced mangoes (about 1.1 kg or 2 1/2 lbs)
1 jalape±o or serrano chile, halved, seeded if desired, and finely chopped, or to taste
30 ml (2 tbsp) coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and top part of stems
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
5 ml (1 tsp) kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste
Toss the onion and lime juice together in a small bowl and let sit for at least 5 minutes to macerate and soften a little.
Place the mangoes, chile, cilantro, oil and salt in a large bowl. Gently fold in the red onion mixture. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if needed. Can be made up to 1 day ahead, covered, and refrigerated.
-- Adapted from Pati's Mexican Table
Tester's notes: Zingy and bright and gorgeous. You might want to shop a few days ahead to ensure you get ripe, sweet mangoes. You can also use greener, firmer mangoes -- just adjust the seasoning accordingly for the right blend of sweet and tart. Ever the practical cook, Jinich also points out that you can substitute any fruit that combines sweetness with a touch of acidity, such as peaches, pineapple or plums.
Again, if using table salt instead of coarse salt, decrease the amount by half. And be aware that using the seeds of the chile, where a lot of the heat is concentrated, will quickly increase the spiciness.