|          Rick Bayless Article|
Rick Bayless: putting Mexico on the mapBy DAI HUYNH
When it comes to chilies, you could bite into a red-hot firecracker or a smoky, raisiny poblano. But venturing into the unknown is what makes life interesting, Rick Bayless says.
When the 47-year-old Oklahoma native traveled to Mexico as a teen-ager, a new world of flavors opened up to him, and he studied authentic Mexican food for nearly three decades.
Today, he's executive chef of Chicago's popular Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants and author of three cookbooks. He will showcase his work on television with a new cooking show scheduled to air in late May or early June on PBS. Mexico -- One Plate at a Time will highlight the national dishes of that country, including mole poblano and posole (hominy soup). The series will have a companion book by the same name, due in bookstores in September.
Bayless was in Houston recently for a fund-raiser and took time for a one-on-one interview. Here's what the self-described gringo has to say about himself, Mexican food and its growing popularity.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I grew up in the food business. My grandparents had a restaurant; my aunts and uncles owned restaurants; and my parents had a restaurant.
When did you learn to cook?
When I was young -- we're talking about 5 or 6 years old. I loved to go to my parents' restaurant and play in the kitchen. That was one of my hobbies. Everybody in my family knew I loved to cook, and everybody was always giving me a cookbook.
So when did you start considering cooking as a career?
When I was 10 years old, Julia Child came on TV for the first time, and it was an eye-opening experience for me. She opened the door to really refined cooking, but she did it in a very casual way. That's what got me turned on to thinking about food -- that it could be something I could do with my life.
But you switched gears in college. You went to graduate school to be a linguist.
Yeah, but when I was finishing my dissertation for my Ph.D., I decided that academics wasn't the right place for me. I was much too active a person, making my way through graduate school by teaching cooking classes and catering. I realized that's where my heart is -- in food.
Why did you decide to focus on Mexican food?
I went to Mexico on a family vacation one year, and the vitality of the culture and the people of Mexico captivated me.
I came from a sterile, suburban background, and when I got to Mexico, I saw this incredible, ripe earthiness, and it opened my spirit.
You and your wife, Deann Groen Bayless, later traveled to Mexico to write a cookbook?
We thought, after two years of really saving our money, we would go to Mexico and stay there about a year and write a book on regional Mexican cooking.
Instead, you stayed for five years. Did you have to worry about money?
Constantly. We lived on a shoestring. We traveled 35,000 miles by bus through Mexico, crisscrossing through the countryside.
How did you gather the recipes for the first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico (William Morrow & Co., $28.50)?
You know my family did barbecue, and that's considered to be the regional cuisine of Oklahoma. And there was a sense of real pride in my family, that we were the keeper of the culinary tradition. When I got to Mexico, there was that 10 times over. In every community, all the specialities were prepared by the people who can do them really well, and so I found those people.
Is it possible to generalize Mexican food?
There's no way. It's some of the most regional cooking in the whole world. Unfortunately, in the United States, what we know is Mexican-American food and not Mexican at all.
Based on your books, there are six Mexican regions, all of them boasting different foods and techniques. Can you talk a little about each one?
It's cowboy country. It has over a third of the land mass, but with less than 10 percent of the population.
The food is very simple, very rustic. It's what we consider in the United States as Old Western food: lots of steaks and very simple preparation.
Central is the most complex because it's the perfect fusion of the great court cuisine of the Aztec empire and the court cuisine of the Spanish empire. Those two cultures fused into a very sophisticated level of cooking. And there is more variety of dishes there than any area of Mexico.
Southern Mexico has a very strong indigenous profile. There are dishes that have a long, lasting history and deep roots in traditional cooking. You may find dishes that are exactly the same as they were the time before the conquest.
West central Mexico?
West central Mexico is what most Mexican-American food is based on, around Guadalajara. It's known for meat cooking and fried foods. Tacos and simple salsas, like pico de gallo, are very indicative of the west central cooking -- not a lot of the moles or the more complex dishes of Mexican cuisine.
It has two faces. You get that wonderful, sort of Spanish-influenced fish-cooking right on the coast. But if you go up into the mountains, it becomes very indigenous, lots of dishes that are based on wild greens, grains, legumes, like pre-Columbian cooking.
Finally, the Yucatan?
That was an area that wasn't a part of Mexico until about 150 years ago. The cooking of the Yucatan is very close to the cooking of Guatemala. There are no moles, and the tortillas are thicker. They're hand-patted in a very different way.
What is the backbone, the soul of Mexican cooking?
It's all about flavors, the flavors of roasted vegetables, chilies and herbs, blended to form these wonderful sauces that are served in these great, generous portions.
When you're talking about sauces, do you mean the kind Tex-Mex restaurants put on top of enchiladas?
No, you won't find anything like that in Mexico. In Mexican cooking, sauces are basically salsas made from a purée of chilies or vegetables.
Is it difficult to find authentic Mexican food in the United States?
Mexican food has taken a huge leap in the past couple of years. People have started opening restaurants that really do honest-to-goodness Mexican food.
About two months ago, the New York Times outlined new Mexican places that opened in New York City. Ten years ago there were only a few tired standards, a few taquerias. But now, there's an explosion going on.
What do you foresee for authentic Mexican cooking in this country?
What I'm seeing is something very much akin to the way Italian food developed here in this country. First, all we knew was Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs. And then we begin to understand that's not really Italian food -- there's northern Italian food and southern Italian food. It's vast; it can be light and sophisticated, or it can be hearty and robust. Now we're beginning to understand the same about Mexican food.
Get a taste of Bayless' cooking without leaving Houston. Here are two recipes adapted from Salsas That Cook: Using Classic Salsas to Enliven Our Favorite Dishes (Simon & Schuster, $18) by Rick Bayless, JeanMarie Brownson and Deann Groen Bayless. In Puebla, Mexico, shredded pork with chipotle-cascabel sauce, tomatoes and onions is called tinga.
Tiny Tostadas of Smoky Chicken Tinga
With Avocado and Aged Cheese
3/4 cup Chipotle-Cascabel Salsa (see below)
1/2 (15-ounce) can whole tomatoes with half the can's juice
1 tablespoon vinegar, preferably cider vinegar
1 small white onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
2 cups (loosely packed) coarsely shredded cooked chicken (poach, grill or broil a large chicken breast or buy a small rotisserie chicken)
1/2 teaspoon salt
24 good-size corn tortilla chips, preferably homemade thick ones
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and diced into 1/4-inch pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons finely grated Mexican queso añejo, Parmesan or Romano cheese
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Combine salsa, tomatoes with their juice and vinegar in a blender or food processor and purée. In large skillet over medium heat, cook onion in the oil until crisp-tender and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Press the salsa mixture through medium-mesh strainer into skillet. Simmer, stirring regularly, until quite thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in chicken, cool, then taste and season with salt.
Arrange chips on serving platters. Top each chip with a heaping tablespoon of chicken tinga, a few pieces of avocado, a sprinkling of cheese and a little cilantro. Makes 24 small tostadas, enough appetizers for 6 to 8 guests.
6 each: dried chipotle chilies and dried round cascabel chilies, stemmed
13 medium tomatillos, husked and rinsed
6 or 7 medium ripe plum tomatoes
12 garlic cloves, peeled
2 large white onions, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
Preheat broiler. In heavy skillet over medium heat, add chilies and stir, pressing them down regularly until chilies darken a little in spots. The toasting process will take 2 to 3 minutes. Place chilies in bowl and pour very hot water on them, laying a plate on top to keep chilies submerged; set aside.
On a broiler pan or heavy baking sheet, spread tomatillos and tomatoes and set them about 4 inches under broiler. Roast 5 to 6 minutes, or until softened and charred in spots (tomatillos will turn olive green with dark spots). Turn them over with tongs and roast for another 5 to 6 minutes, or until completely softened and equally darkened on other side. Remove to cool; set aside.
Reduce oven to 425 degrees. Break onion into rings; spread garlic and onion on baking sheet. Roast in oven, stirring well with tongs or long-handled spoon every couple of minutes until garlic turns soft and onion is deeply golden and charred on edges, about 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
Scrape onion and garlic into food processor and pulse until finely chopped but not pasty. Scoop into bowl. Drain rehydrated chilies. In food processor or blender, combine chilies, tomatillos and tomatoes with their juices. Process until finely puréed. Scrape into bowl with onion and garlic. Add thyme and water. Taste and season with salt and sugar. Makes 4 cups.
| Here are a few more Rick Bayless Recipes:|
Quick cooked Tomato-Chipotle sauce |