Kennedy has enlightened and educated many on the nuances of Mexican cooking.
"I ate tacos," says admiring fan Rich Levy of Houston, "and that was the extent of my knowledge
about Mexican food in the '70s. Her (first) book opened my eyes.
"Her recipes were at times long -- some were four pages long. And they
sounded so strange, but they were delicious. Her book was a revelation."
Kennedy has helped dispel many misconceptions about Mexican food.
"The general concept is that it's a plate of mixes -- a mix-and-match of
thefour starches blanketed with cream and cheese," she says. "That's simply
not true. Mexican food is so varied."
During her research, she discovered that spices such as cinnamon, cloves
andcumin are used very sparingly in cooked sauces, and that a large variety
of mushrooms are used in the colder highland areas of Mexico where there
are pine forests. The food anthropologist also points out that Mexican cooks
use many different herbs and aromatic plants, not to mention the hundreds of
different types of chilies.
"Mexico has more chilies than any other country in the world, ranging in
size and color," she says. "Nobody has done a complete collection of them,
and some of them have been misused.
"My approach is that we can learn a lot about them from traditional
recipes. The young chefs can play around with them as long as they use them in a
reasonable way. But first, we have to establish how do we use them, and
why do we use certain chilies."
Kennedy loves the excitement of traveling into the unknown, searching
and extracting undocumented and exotic recipes, some of which are several
hundred years old. But equally as daring is biting into a chili.
"It's an adventure, eating a chili. Oh yes, absolutely," she says. "You
never know how hot it's going to be."
Kennedy, who now lives in San Pancho near Zitacuaro, Michoacan, first
traveled to Mexico in 1957 to marry Paul Kennedy, a foreign
correspondent for the New York Times. In following her heart, Kennedy found home, and
even after her husband died, she remained in her adopted country, living
In her latest volume, Kennedy takes a different approach from her
previous works, which include The Tortilla Cookbook and The Art of Mexican
Cooking. "The thought of writing another conventional cookbook was just about to
kill me. You know, ingredients, methods," she says. "So I thought, how can I
incorporate all these things that go on in my life when I'm doing my
research. You know, it's not only about recipes; there's also the wonderful
countryside, wonderful farming methods that create these ingredients."
As in her prior writings, Kennedy remains a stickler for authenticity.
"There are lots of myths about the food (of Mexico)," she says.
"Somebody has got to try and be a perfectionist at this -- why not me?"
Capirotada de Doña Rosa's Bread Pudding
Rosa, who comes a few days a week to a friend's home in Puerto
Vallarta to cook, is well known for her capirotada. Her recipe is unlike
the more common ones in Mexico: rounds of bread fried crisp and
soaked in a syrup with nuts and raisins or other regional elaborations.
Hers is more like a bread pudding moistened with custard. -- Diana
7 cups whole milk
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for frying
6 (5-inch) corn tortillas
1 (1-pound) ripe plantain, sliced
16 small slices of dried bread (picon, challah or brioche), cut
10 ounces dried prunes, soaked until slightly softened, drained, and
1/2 cup each: roughly chopped pecans and raisins
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a saucepan, warm the milk with the
cinnamon and sugar. Put cornstarch into a small bowl, add a little warmed milk,
and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add some more milk, stir well, and
then return to pan. In a small bowl, mix egg yolks -- just to break them up,
not beat them -- add a little warmed milk, and quickly mix until smooth. Add
more milk and return to pan. Cook over low heat, stirring from time to
time and scraping the bottom of pan to prevent sticking until mixture begins
to thicken slightly. Stir in vanilla and set aside.
Heat about 1/8 inch of oil in a skillet and fry the tortillas on both
sides until they are leathery, not crisp. Add a little more oil as necessary. Blot
them well and line the bottom of an ovenproof 8-by-3-inch mold.
In skillet, fry the plantains on both sides in oil until golden brown,
blot, and set aside.
Put a layer of the bread over the tortillas, sprinkle with a third of
the drained prunes, nuts, and raisins, and add a third of the plantain. Remove the
cinnamon stick from the custard.
Very slowly pour 1 1/2 cups of the custard over the first layer, a
little at a time, allowing the bread to absorb the liquid -- if you pour it too
fast, it will all sink to the bottom of the dish. Repeat with second and third layers,
then pour remaining milk over top.
Bake in the top of the oven until most of the liquid has been absorbed,
about 40 minutes. Set aside for about 20 minutes before serving so that the
remaining liquid is absorbed. Serve lukewarm with crème fraîche or
cream. Makes 8 servings.
Bistec en Vire Vira (Steak and Onions Campechana)
This is a very simple, quick recipe for small steaks, usually served
with fried plantains, plain potatoes and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes and
radishes. Always leave some fat on the steaks for flavor -- you don't
have to eat it. -- Diana Kennedy.
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3 garlic cloves
Salt to taste
5 tablespoons bitter orange juice
2 tablespoons pork lard or oil
6 small steaks, about 1/2-inch-thick, lightly pounded
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
Crush peppercorns, oregano, and garlic together with salt. Dilute with
the orange juice. Season the steaks on both sides with mixture. Stack steaks
on top of one another and place in refrigerator to marinate for at least 30
Heat the lard in a skillet. When lard is very hot, sear three of the
steaks on both sides. Remove and continue with the remaining steaks. Return steaks
to pan; add onion. Fry until browned. Pile onion on top of steaks. Cook
only until tender.
Makes 6 servings.
Chilies Pasillas Rellenos de Papa
(Pasilla Chilies Stuffed With Potato)
Señora Williams says this is an old family recipe that possibly goes
back some 200 years. -- Diana Kennedy.
12 pasilla chilies
1 pound new potatoes, cooked, peeled and roughly mashed
6 ounces queso fresco or cream cheese, crumbled (freeze it first)
Salt to taste
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 pounds tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed
2 tablespoons roughly chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 heaping tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/2 cup chicken broth or water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Carefully slit the chilies open and remove the seeds and veins, leaving
the top intact. Cover with hot water and leave to soak until just soft -- about
10 minutes. (The time will, of course, depend on how dry the chilies were
in the first place.) Drain.
Mix together the potatoes and cheese, with salt if desired, and fill the
chilies (cut edges should almost meet).
Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the chilies, rolling them over so they
fry evenly, about 5 minutes. Remove, drain and hold in a warm place while preparing
In a saucepan, cover tomatillos with water and simmer until soft, about
10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a blender. Add onion and garlic; blend
Reheat the oil in which the chilies were fried, add sugar and fry the
sugar for a few seconds. Add salt to taste and continue cooking the sauce over
fairly high heat until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Add the broth to dilute to
a medium consistency.
Place chilies in large casserole dish or baking pan. Pour sauce over
chilies, cover, and heat in 350-degree oven until sauce is bubbling and potato
filling is heated throughout, about 15 minutes.
Serve the chilies with plenty of sauce and corn tortillas.
Makes 12 servings.