This is a post I wrote a while ago, but it contains some of my favorite Mexican dishes. Moving to southern California was like “Open, Sesame!” for me – I encountered so many culinary treasures previously hidden. I left the photos unchanged, just like I submitted them to Rick Bayless’s Twitter contest. I hope at least one of these meals will inspire you for Cinco de Mayo.
I ate my first taco at a bowling alley in Highland, Michigan, in 1986, while accompanying my ex-husband’s sister and her friends to the meeting of their bowling league. And I did not care for it at all. I found out later that taco meat is highly seasoned with cumin and at the time I was put off by it. The texture of avocado reminded me of melons, and melons and I do no keep good company. I found the green mushy fruit bland and not deserving of my time.
I discovered cilantro purely by chance. Mother was visiting at the time and we were shopping for groceries at a local supermarket. We bought some nice looking green beans, but when we cooked them they had a specific taste that we could not stand. We deemed the beans spoiled, rotten, contaminated, and threw the whole batch away. The next day I went to the same supermarket to inspect the beans because I bought them before at the same place, and they were fine. When my nose approached the vegetables another smell, forceful and overbearing, got my attention. The green leaves next to the beans resembled Italian parsley, but when I rubbed them between my fingers, I thought I would just keel over and die. Poor, innocent beans were as healthy and fresh as they could be. They were just positioned next to cilantro, which usurped and overpowered their taste without a thought. And every time a family member would come to visit from Serbia, I would put them to the cilantro test. We are proud to be extremely adventurous in culinary matters, but not one of them liked it. Or to be more precise, we all just hated it.
For a while I avoided Mexican food, enjoying almost all the other world cuisines available to us. But I am a curious person, always looking to broaden my horizons, and it irked me to think that there was an abundance of dishes I was neglecting based on my underdeveloped palate. If I could eat liver, brain, Rocky Mountain oysters, snails, shellfish, feta cheese, and gorgonzolla, I could learn to like cumin, avocado, and cilantro. At the same time I started watching cooking shows on PBS and my passion for food came at me full strength. I started exploring this undiscovered territory slowly adding small amounts of cumin to my ground beef. I would buy the wrinkly, ugly, almost black avocado, and cut it in half, just to stand mesmerized by its pristine green pulp. I mastered the deceptively simple art of taking the pit out and started making my own guacamole. Little by little the cumin and avocado grew on me, seduced me, and made me fall in love with them.
Cilantro had a more arduous fight ahead of it. I’d pick it out from salsas in Mexican restaurants and became resigned to an eternity of not being its fan. I love to cook with herbs and spices. I have always grown my own, and every morning, for years, the first thing I do after a sip of coffee is to go out and look at my pots. I could not stand the thought of not being able to enjoy so many dishes just because I could not stomach the cilantro. So I braced myself, bought a bunch, snippped a leaf or two in pico de gallo or a salsa, and surrendered. It was definitely a battle. Over time cilantro won. I even learned to love it. Mexican food in our house became a staple.
And then we moved to Southern California and tasted our first fish taco. At a work potluck Christmas party, Ricardo brought home-made posole. Enrique made ponche spiked with tequila, Joe and Lupe brought spicy carne asada, Juan made chorizo. My Mexican neighbors send plates with tamales and lured the Beasties to stay over for some caldo de res and horchata (having three girls their age did not hurt). My mind was spinning. Where was all this coming from? So I started learning again.
In the spring of this year the College Kritter and I went to Yucatan and Cozumel over Christmas break. That was her present from us for graduating high-school, getting enrolled in a University and turning eighteen. It was her choice destination. And I was her choice companion. I will have to write about our adventure another time. But we discovered another variation of Mexican cuisine dining in Playa Del Carmen, Valladolid, and Cozumel. We avoided tourist traps and ate in the restaurants that locals frequented. Queso relleno, poc chuc, huevos motullenos, cochinita pibil, negro relleno, ceviche… We were in culinary heaven. In every restaurant we talked to waiters and cooks (Kritter speaks fluent Spanish and I can get by with what I picked up from co-workers, adding odd words in Italian), got the recipes, and vowed to replicate the dishes at home. I bought the “tortilladora” from an old woman in Valladolid, and decided to start making my own corn tortillas.
A couple of weeks ago Rick Bayless started a contest on Twitter. He tweets a recipe in 140 characters, we make it, photograph the finished dish, mail the photo to him, and hope to become winners of his newest cookbook Fiesta at Rick’s. I participate every time. It has become a much anticipated event in our household. My photos have not won me the book yet. But the journey that Rick took us on is a gift by itself. Every single recipe is a jewel, bursting with flavors, well balanced, assertive, and addictive. We are looking forward to Mondays when he puts out the new recipe, hidden in abbreviations of the tweeterese.
My love affair with Mexican food is only growing stronger. I do not think it will ever end. One of these days I am taking on the ridiculously long process of making the Yucatecan specialty cochinita pibil. I have already bought the banana leaves and stashed them in the freezer. Until then, Mondays at Rick’s will be more than sufficient to keep the flame growing.
WEEK ONE, POBLANO RAJAS
â€ Sear 1.25# bnls chix brst; cool, cube. Brn 1 onion,add 3 grlc,2 poblanos (rstd,pld,slcd),6 oz chard,1c broth,1c crema.Boil2 thickn.Add chix â€œ
WEEK TWO, ENCHILADAS VERDES
â€ Rst 1#tomtllos,1 on,3 grlc,3 serranos;puree;sear n oil 2 thkn;simr w 2c broth,.5c crema.Oil,micrwv 12 torts,roll w rstd veg,sauce, chs, bake â€œ
WEEK THREE, TROPICAL BEACH CEVICHE
â€ 8oz slicd raw scallops+1c grapefrt j:45 min.Drain;blend 2/3c juice,1-2 chipotles,4 rstd grlc,2T br sgr.Mix w scal, red on,trop fruit,jicama â€œ
WEEK FOUR, CHIPOTLE GLAZED RIBS
“Proc 4 grlc,6T ancho,4t sugr&peppr,5t salt,1t oreg,½t cumin.Rub 4 slb ribs;ovrnite.Bake 300 75 min.Blend:7oz chiptles&3/4c honey.Grill;glaze”