Posted by: gbdub | March 29, 2010

Meet My Muse: Rick Bayless

Way back on Christmas (almost 3 months ago already), I became the proud owner of a pair of cookbooks by Mexican cooking wizard and winner of Top Chef Masters, Rick Bayless.  Rick has a pile of awards, television shows, books, and restaurants to his credit, including the James Beard National Chef of the Year award in 1995 and International Cookbook of the Year in  2001 for Mexico – One Plate at a Time. Rick brings to his writing and his recipes a contagious enthusiasm and respect for the traditional dishes he presents, as well as a contemporary chef’s palate and willingness to experiment.

These two offerings, Authentic Mexican and Mexican Everyday are a great pair of books for the aspiring Mexican gourmand. Between them, you’ll find a diverse array of Mexican flavors, techniques, and recipes, ranging from vibrant but simple everyday eats to rich, complex dishes worthy of the most special occasions. If you have even the slightest interest in Mexican food, I can confidently predict that, a few pages into these books, you’ll be salivating and searching for the nearest source of fresh tortillas and ripe tomatillos.

Also, Rick is apparently the brother of ESPN sports commentator Skip Bayless. Go figure.

Authentic Mexican – Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico is exactly what it says it is. Rick traveled extensively throughout Mexico in the 80’s collecting authentic recipes from the country’s varied culinary regions, from street stalls and market fondas, from Mom & Pop cafeterias, and from fine restaurantes. Authentic Mexican, first published in 1987, is the culmination of those travels. As such, it is as much an encyclopedia of Mexican cuisine as it is a cookbook. It is a compendium of the varied styles Mexico has to offer: Central Mexican moles, Oaxacan dried pepper sauces scented with clove and cinnamon, the classic seafood preparations of Veracruz, and countless others.

The book does not shy away from authenticity: many of these recipes require (a lot) of time, numerous (and, depending on where you live, possibly hard to find) ingredients, and an adventurous palate. The Top Chef Masters winning mole poblano has over two dozen ingredients, a recommended preparation consuming six hours over 4 days, and a complex flavor filled with layers and elements completely foreign to your average American tastebud. But Rick guides you though with aplomb, giving complete instructions, recommended timing and order of operations, and numerous suggested variations if you want a slightly different flavor or just can’t track down a decent chile guajillo. And when you do complete one of these marathon recipes, you sit down to your well-deserved dinner with a real sense of accomplishment, a sense of having adventured from your usual culinary comfort zone, and a bloody tasty meal that might just become your new comfort food.

There are of course a wide variety of equally tasty eats on the quick and easy end of the spectrum, including classic tacos and other street fare, soups, side dishes, and beverages. In addition to well thought out, generally easy to follow recipes, Bayless fills this book with extensive notes on classic techniques, ingredients, and history. You are given instructions on selecting the perfect dried chile, forming a proper tortilla, and skinning a cactus paddle. He tells you not only what to prepare and how to prepare it, but why you use those ingredients and techniques and what each added element should accomplish.

The only nitpick I can apply to this book is that it is somewhat dated: while there are a few pages of full-color photographs, the majority of recipes are illustrated with simple line drawings (these are actually quite helpful for certain techniques). Writing in 1987 before Mexican food (apart from basic and often bowdlerized Tex-Mex offerings) went mainstream in much of the US, Bayless is occasionally overly pessimistic about the availability of various ingredients and the modern amateur chef’s familiarity with them.  That said, the recipes are timeless by design and no one will care how many pretty pictures your cookbook has when you set a bubbling bowl of tinga poblana in front of them.

All in all, this is a great and delicious tour of classic Mexican flavors that will expand your repertoire and your palate. If you believe, as I (and probably Rick) do, that the quickest way to another culture is through its stomach, or if you just want to blow your neighbor’s tacos out of the water, add this to your shelf.

Mexican Everyday is a rather different animal. Fresh, modern, brightly colored, and filled with dozens of gorgeous photos, it is a thoroughly contemporary cookbook when laid alongside Authentic Mexican. Rick brings a rather different philosophy to this cookbook which he outlines in an extended introduction. These are recipes suitable for everyday eating, characterized by relatively simple preparation, fresh,  bright flavors, and contemporary style.  While they may not be as “authentically Mexican” as the meals in Authentic Mexican, they still make full use of the Mexican palette of flavors and styles – the recipes are streamlined, not dumbed down.

In the aforementioned introduction, Rick lays out his philosophy on eating. Sort of a 20 page “Rick Bayless Diet”, if you will. To Bayless, the keys to good everyday eating are simple, fresh, deliciously seasoned preparations of natural ingredients, served in moderate portions. He bases this on his observation of timeless cultural diets – no fad eating, whey protein powders, or doubly processed ultra-refined soy flour crisps. An important aspect of this philosophy is feasting. Every now and then, about once a week or so, humans need to blow off some steam with a no-holds-barred celebration of good eating, filled with “big hunks of meat, lavish preparations,  refined anything, luxuriously rich desserts”. Without these opportunities to let go, dieting becomes bleak, food must all be “good” or “bad”, and we soon start eating “defiantly” all the time. To Rick, it’s far better to burn off the occasional feast with a solid regimen of exercise than to deprive ourselves of the pleasure of good eating. Old advice, but I think I can get along with it.

The recipes reflect this philosophy, and are tailored for the daily table. No marathon moles here – the recipes are pared of nice but unnecessary bells and whistles, lengthy preparations are streamlined to obtain maximum flavor with minimal time, and modern cooking tools (broilers, slow-cookers, and microwaves) are embraced. A good example is the technique of quickly pan roasting tomatillos on the stovetop, rather than the more lengthy standard method of broiling. It yields most of the roasted flavor, but takes half as long. But quick does not mean bland or limited – there are a wide variety of salads, soups, vegetables, salsas and dressings, and grilled and roasted meats and fish in this book, all well-seasoned with vibrant and fresh Mexican flavors.

As in Authentic Mexican, Bayless gives a solid introduction to the various Mexican ingredients and techniques. This is invaluable to someone who has no idea what a chayote is, or how to pick a good one. Most recipes are accompanied by “riffs” – Rick’s suggested alternate preparations that might turn a side into a meal, make for a “fancier” dish, or just add a bit of variety to a meal you’ve previously prepared.

Mexican Everyday would make a good first foray into serious Mexican cooking for the fledgling chef. The recipes are straightforward, quick, and delicious. For the more seasoned cook, these recipes are a great change of pace for everyday cooking when you really just want to eat some great Mexican food. Either way, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find something in this book worth working into your daily culinary repertoire.

You’ll see a lot from both of these books on Sibling Cutlery over the coming weeks as I try to work my way through as many of these recipes as I can. Kind of a “Julie and Julia” sort of thing, but more “Rick and Garrick”. Also, there will be no Meryl Streep.

I’ll leave you with the final words from the introduction to Authentic Mexican which serve as a bit of inspiration to me in my exploration of Mexican cuisine: “After many years, I have come to appreciate Mexican cooking on its own terms, with all its beautiful ingenuity and brilliant flavor and texture. It has broadened my culinary horizons in ways I never expected; it’s brought me to a deeper respect of human nourishment than I could have otherwise hoped for. I wish the same for each person who explores these pages.”

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  1. Garrik. I was mentioning you to a friend who used to work at Lockheed Propulsion when they had a rocket division and he was curious where you were employed in the Phoenix area. I forgot. Enjoyed meeting you again…and all your experiences. Drop me a quick line, would you? Thanks.

    Bill G

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