18 March 2011

Adventures in Mexican Cooking

I dislike the blanket term "Mexican food", since just like any other country there are a wide range of styles and ingredients and regional traditions. About the closest you can get to summing up a cuisine in one national term is with an island like Jamaica or Cuba. Also, I've never been to Mexico, but have enjoyed the recent explosion of more authentic restaurants, and I'm a huge fan of the fusion style of New Mexico. The problem is that I was never particularly good at cooking in this general category.

With Italian food (another overly broad category), it took a few revelations like really learning how to cook pasta. It's not just boiling water and throwing a noodle against the wall to get it to stick. It's using the right amount of water and salt, and the right shape of pasta for the sauce, and incorporating some of the pasta water into the sauce. It's learning how to layer the sauce over time to build, concentrate, and balance flavors. It's using odd, bitter vegetables to complement sweet and savory elements in the meal.

I decided to try to apply some of the same work in fundamentals to generic Mexican food.

Huevos Rancheros

I used some of the leftover mole sauce from my chicken enchiladas that I'd saved in the freezer. The construction here is simple: white corn tortillas, refried beans, mole, fried egg, a dash of hot sauce, served with a little shredded romaine lettuce and sour cream.

What made it good? The labor-intensive homemade sauce was a big part, but I also augmented the beans with rendered chicken fat. Not a lot, just enough to give flavor and texture. I'm also an eternal fan of any dish that involves a runny yolk meant to ooze down and meld with the other ingredients, forming new sauces along the way. Also important here: no cheese. I love cheese, and even have a guilty fondness for the gloopy cheese-laden plates that pass for Tex Mex cooking around here, but that's a crutch, and it's not focusing on flavor. It's just a shortcut to add a bunch of fat and salt to a dish without much work.

While this is ostensibly a breakfast dish, I had it for dinner and couldn't quite finish the three eggs. Rich, hearty, delicious, and pretty quick and easy to make if you have some leftovers lying around.

Enchiladas Verdes de Carnitas

My usual way to make carnitas is to take a Boston butt (pork shoulder) and throw it in a pot with two cans of Ro-Tel peppers and tomatoes. Let it all slow cook until the whole thing falls apart. Remove the bones, and shred the pork with forks or your fingers. Once you're done, you can pack plastic containers full of shredded pork and rendered fat and freeze them for use in all sorts of things in the future. Here, I decided to make some simple enchiladas.

The mistake I've made in the past with enchiladas is just using dry tortillas, filled and rolled up, and then they crack and taste awful. I've learned to warm them up in a lightly oiled skillet until they just start to turn translucent, and then fill and roll. Makes all the difference in the world. Also, the bottom of your baking dish needs to have sauce in it. I'd love to say that I made one from scratch here, but I had a couple of jars of salsa verde that I wanted to use up. A little sauce on the bottom, and then it's important to make sure that all exposed surfaces of the tortilla have some sort of sauce on them. The filling is simply carnitas, topped with salsa verde, a little cheese (OK, I was in the mood for it this time), and then a little extra carnitas on top for decoration. If you're feeding a bigger crowd, this is also a good way to indicate what's filled with chicken/pork/beef/etc. I served it with some slow cooked black beans.

I'm not going to claim that either of these is truly authentic, but I found myself way more satisfied with the results than attempts in the past. And really, there wasn't much to it. Just a few simple techniques here and there that made everything come together properly. And while neither of these came directly from him, I do have to give big thanks to Rick Bayless for an excellent explanation of the basic philosophy in his cookbooks.

7 comments:

Samantha Dugan said...

Dood, you had me at "runny yolks". Looks delicious!

Benito said...

Sam,

Thanks! I started, deleted, and restarted this post a half dozen times. People got really excited when I posted the pictures on Facebook, but as I wrote it I kept feeling, "Is this just way too basic? Am I trying to explain how to make a grilled cheese sandwich?"

I think Taco Bell has screwed up a lot of us in terms of, "Oh, just take something starchy and pile the same dozen ingredients on it." This kind of cooking doesn't have to be just a delivery system for ground beef and melted cheese.

Cheers,
Benito

Samantha Dugan said...

I went to Taco Bell last year, first time in like 10 years...holy crap is that just wretched. Not a snobby thing, I love me some Jack In The Box but everything, right down to the tortillas at Taco Bell are just terrible. I know people crave and love it but I simply cannot do it.

I thought your eggs looked wonderful and shows how easy it really is to make something so delicious and satisfying at home.

Benito said...

Sam,

Same here with the Taco Bell. Sometimes it's a weird craving, but it's not because it has anything to do with the parent cuisine. I've got some surprisingly authentic places that are just as close to the house where I can get things like elote and pressed tortas, made out of *real* food.

I think a lot of the mass market "Mexican" food tends to focus more on just cheese and meat and starch without recognizing how much a simple dash of epazote or slow introduction of guajillos could truly make the dish.

Cheers,
Benito

Joe said...

I'm so pissed I don't like eggs.

Benito said...

Joe,

Sorry to hear that... Whenever I get tired of the old scrambled routine, I'll switch it up with blindfolded or poached or shirred eggs.

Cheers,
Benito

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