Post by Matt, Information Services staff
Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!
September is always a tough time of year for me. As a kid, the end of summer vacations, the return of school or just the cooling temperatures and longer nights all put a real damper on my mood. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t get two whole months of vacation during July/August and I don’t always have to go back to school, but I still struggle with the changes and increased pace of living that September always seems to bring.
That said, I’ve recently grown to appreciate some elements of September. Like the things that make it maybe the best month for camping and hiking: no bugs, less crowded parks, warm days and cool nights. On days with bad weather, September can be a great time to cozy up with a new book or gather together on the couch and watch a classic film or a new TV show. As a horror movie fan, September is often the time when I start thinking about the movies I’d like to watch in October and, often, I can’t help but start watching them a little bit early.
“So what?” you might think. “Wah wah, September’s hard – you like to go camping and watch movies – we get it! Show us the food pics!”
I will, I promise. I guess what I’m trying to set up here is a pre-apology for my lack of bravery and experimentation this month. As you’ll see, I pretty much stuck to the basics with my cooking and I feel a little guilty about it. One reason, as I’ve explained, is that I feel a little depressed this time of year. Another, is that I’m a bit afraid of Mexican food.
I’m pretty sure my reluctance stems from a lack of knowledge. To my family, Mexican food was tacos and burritos stuffed with the same ingredients: ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and salsa. At some point, guacamole became a radical new addition. This might be a familiar scenario for many of you. While I can’t dispute this perfect combination of foods, I always suspected that there might be more to an entire country’s culinary output.
Obviously, there is. In fact it’s much more accurate to describe the above ingredients as ‘Tex-Mex’ and not necessarily grounded in the traditional cooking of Mexico. Tex-Mex cuisine comes from Texas, a combination of home-cooking techniques and recipes from people of Mexican descent, known as Tejanos, and the mixing of traditionally Mexican ingredients (tortillas, salsa) with American ingredients (ground beef). It makes sense that, over time, Americans & Canadians would confuse and conflate Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine until all that remained was the Tex-Mex taco. It’s also another unfortunate instance when a culture’s multi-faceted cuisine is hidden behind a single element, as we discovered with bannock in Indigenous cuisine.
When I started reading Gabriela Cámara & Malena Watrous’s My Mexico City Kitchen, my eyes were opened to the incredible versatility and variance that exists in Mexican cuisine. Cámara is also a world-renowned chef, famous for experimentation and fusion, so the 150 recipes in this book represent just a single interpretation of what’s available. Looking through the book and gauging my energy level, I decided to start with the basics. I would make ‘Pico de Gallo’ and ‘Guacamole.’ I also marked the recipes for ‘Huevos Rancheros’ and ‘Tortilla Española con Chile Serrano.’
Sure, the September blues and my inexperience played a factor in my decision, but I was also thinking about you, dear reader! After August’s cast-iron Dutch Oven debacle, I was determined to set a good example, keep it simple and avoid buying any new kitchen equipment. Oh, but I really wanted to though… I was very tempted to buy a tortilla press and make my own tacos, or invest in a molcajete and make the perfect guacamole. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t, but it’s always nice to dream.
Here’s the complete list of instructions for the pico de gallo from My Mexico City Kitchen:
In a bowl, gently stir the avocado, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, chile, lime juice, oil and salt. Taste and add more chile or salt if needed. Serve immediately.
That’s it. Sadly, I had to make two subtractions from that list of ingredients; I’m one of those people that thinks cilantro tastes like soap and my partner had to veto the spicy chiles. But undeterred by the loss of complexity to the flavour profile of my salsa, I carried on. The guacamole was straightforward as well and came together easily. It tasted perfect; the creamy avocado melded wonderfully with the acidity of the tomato and lime, as well as the sharp burst of sea salt. The pico de gallo was tasty, if a bit soggy and overpowered by onion. I also decided I would omit any avocado next time. Combined with some locally made tortilla chips, these dips made for a hearty movie snack.
Then I tried my hand at huevos rancheros. A fried tortilla topped with fried eggs and garnished with salsa and avocado, huevos rancheros is a quintessential Mexican breakfast. The trickiest part of this recipe is timing. Frying multiple tortillas and keeping them warm while you carefully cook the eggs is a great lesson in multi-tasking and time management. These steps went as planned, though I always struggle with knowing when my eggs are done. I decided to add some of my leftover pico de gallo on top of the eggs, along with a few slices of avocado.
This simple dish tasted great and I really enjoyed the combination of egg, avocado and salsa, but the fried tortilla was almost impossible to bite through without making a huge mess. If any huevos-heads out there have tips for me, I’m listening!
Finally, I decided to try the Tortilla Española con Chile Serrano, just without the Chile Serrano. I won’t blame this one on my partner: I didn’t want to bother with the extra gloves and hand-washing that accompanies careful use of spicy peppers in the kitchen. This is another reason I feel a bit guilty; if I’m making food from Mexico, how can I so casually eliminate one of its most defining ingredients? All I can say is, yes, I’m a monster. Normally I’d be happy to immolate my taste buds in the name of an inconsequential WordPress blog I write for work, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make the second trip to an international grocery store this time. I’m sorry, but, also, I think sometimes that’s okay?
Regardless, it would have been a waste of good peppers since this recipe was my biggest failure yet. I chose this Spain-originating breakfast staple because it sounded easy, filling and gave me a chance to redeem my egg and potato-based, disc-shaped fiascos from the previous month. According to Cámara & Watrous, a Tortilla Española is a frittata made with eggs and fried potatoes, mixed together, in this case, with onion and pepper and flipped in a cast iron pan to create a solid, delicious circle of crispy, warm goodness.
According to me, it’s this mess:
Hang on, please, put down the pitchfork. Let me explain what happened. Or at least what I think happened. Clearly, the ratio is off: there’s too many potatoes and they’re probably too big. The recipe called for 1.5 lbs (650 g) of potatoes chopped into ½ inch (12 mm) chunks. I think I overbought potatoes and then didn’t bother to weigh them at home. I also pulled out a ruler to see how large ½ inch really is and, yup, it’s way smaller than I thought. The other major issue was heat. I used the same pan to fry the potatoes and mix the frittata, which meant that when I added the eggs, they began to set almost immediately in the sizzling hot pan. Without a chance to seep into the cracks or bond the potatoes and onions, the eggs in my tortilla española just became one more part of a massive potato-egg-onion scramble. In the end, it tasted fine – it just looked completely unappealing.
And that concluded my time with My Mexico City Kitchen. Overall, a mixed success on my part. But if you’re looking to dive into the world of modern and traditional Mexican cuisine, I can’t recommend this cookbook highly enough. It has dozens of interesting recipes from Gabriela Cámara’s award-winning restaurants, as well as a number of meaningful family recipes to explore. Perhaps best for meat-eaters, as a large number of recipes highlight animal proteins of one kind or another, but there are plenty of opportunities to adapt recipes for other dietary needs.
Mexico is a big place, so check out these cookbooks that highlight the regional cuisines and unique foods of our southern Northern American neighbours:
- Tamales: Fast and Delicious Mexican Meals | Alice Guadalupe Tapp
- The Art of Mexican Cooking: Traditional Mexican Cooking for Aficionados | Diana Kennedy
- The Best Mexican Recipes | the editors at America’s Test Kitchen
- Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition | David Sterling
- Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy | Diana Kennedy
Join me next time when I eat vegetarian for the whole month of October with The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook.
Have questions? Want more recommendations?