Mexican Cooking experience
Well, I cooked mexican this weekend. I'm an experienced chef and a proficient ethnic cook. I am sorry to say that cooking mexican basically sucked for me. I'm not sure if it's just me or what (probably).
I made some very nice carnitas with a pork shoulder. Okay, that was very easy and they did taste good, but to me, the downfall was this: it was a) no challenge and b) tasted just like any other mexican food I could have gone out and bought and wasn't anything special.
I made some chiles rellenos. Good, but again, no challenge and while good, were just like any other mexican food and nothing special. Used good chilies, good cheese, all that.
I made some salsa, which is always good, but again, no challenge there, and it pretty much tasted like salsa always tastes. Nothing special. I used good ingredients, and fresh chilies and all that.
Then there was the tortilla experience. Okay, I expected that the first few would not turn out too well, but I was not prepared for unmitigated disaster. We used Masa flour, followed the directions carefully etc. The first bad thing that happened was that my husband, in an effort to get them thinner and bigger, broke the tortilla press. It's metal, but hey, it snapped like a twig. Okay. On to the rolling pin. Got them nice and thin. Onto a nice hot cast iron pan. Instant puffing. They came out like leaden pancakes and were raw in the middle. Turned the heat down. Tried again. Still not good. Scrapped it and went for the handmade purchased ones I had in the freezer. Much better.
The next day, mostly out of spite :-) I made a chicken mole. Good, a bit more of a challenge, but still, nothing special and ended up in the freezer, where it will wait to be recycled as a tortilla filling on a day I don't want to cook.
So my take on it is this: I was expecting a challenge and either picked the wrong recipes or did something horribly wrong. Or perhaps it's as I suspected and mexican cooking essentially all tastes the same and should be topped with salsa and crema and served wrapped in a tortilla. I know that isn't true, but now I'm all bitter. So maybe someone can help me out and direct me to some better recipes.
This is an interesting thread. I have a few thoughts...
First, a question. I'm curious to know where you have had Mexican food. If you're saying that your food tasted like what's available at restaurants in, say, Madison Wisconsin, then we can work on improving things a bit. If you're saying that the food you prepared is equal to what can be found in the best traditional Mexican eateries in Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Mexico itself, then I would venture to say that there's not much more that can be done as Mexican food probably doesn't appeal to your palatte.
While not of Mexican descent myself, I grew up in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles, have eaten at a great number of Mexican eateries in California (plus a few in Chicago and Mexico itself), and have spent the past six years cooking with my soon-to-be wife's Mexican family. There are a few things that I prepare (primarily salsas) that are better than anything I can now find in a restaurant/taqueria in the SF bay area. On the other hand, there are some things that I cannot do as well at home or have yet to attemp (al pastor, for example).
Apart from learning from family, I have found Rick Bayless' books and TV shows very helpful, especially for preparing regional dishes that are not known to the family. I also find the writings of Marilyn Tausand, in particular her book "Savoring Mexico" published by Williams Sonoma. Another book I really like is "Secrets of Salsa." http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1931498202/102-8010056-9279316
Salsa. If there's any aspect of Mexican cooking that is most dear to me, it is the making of salsas. First thing is, there are thousands of salsas. Saying "I made Mexican food and salsa, and it wasn't good" is like saying "I made French food and sauce, and it wasn't good." The first question a French chef would ask is: which sauce? I'm guessing you meant what I call "salsa cruda" or somethings "salsa fresca," which is chopped tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, and perhaps garlic. As far as I'm concerned, there are only a few months out of the year, in late summer, when tomatoes and chiles are in season, when that salsa has any business being prepared. Otherwise, if I'm making a tomato-based salsa, I used canned and blend the ingredients together. But even within that, I've made dozens of different blended tomato salsas, with varying additional ingredients. I've posted a few recipes on this board (here on Home Cooking and also I think on General Topics back in the old days). There are also dozens of different salsa possiblities that do not include tomatoes. That book I mentioned above is a great list of vastly different salsas, and most of the Bayless/Kennedy/Tausend books also contain numerous recipes. So my recommendation to you is to experiment with other salsa recipes.
I have actually not made carnitas at home, so I can't help with specific recipes there. But there is a HUGE difference in the quality of carnitas that can be found in commercial eateries. The very best are those that have generous and highly complex seasonings (my current favorite has lingering hints of cinnamon and clove in addition to more common salt and chile flavors), a balance of flesh and fat, and a variety of textures from juicy, fluffy, toothsome, and crispy that comes from perfect braising followed by a quick toss on a hot grill just before eating. I almost never find carnitas of that type in a restaurant, even here in San Francisco. If your carnitas were at that level, then I commend and envy you. But to me, great carnitas would never be described as "wasn't anything special," so I have hope that you can improve and make carnitas that'll blow away what you can easily get elsewhere.
As others have said, you absolutely cannot make good corn tortillas with dried masa. A while back I decided that I was going to buy some Maseca so I could make my own fresh corn tortillas anytime I wanted to at home. I learned after a while that it was hopeless. I continue to try making them with fresh masa from the local tortilla maker, but it is an art that I still have yet to master. Unfortunately the only people that I know who make tortillas at home use wheat flour (which are great and a lot easier to master, though in the end not as deeply satisfying to me). So I don't know that I will ever get them to come out like the best handmade corn tortillas that I have had in some restaurants.
Chiles rellenos bring me back to the issue of sauce. The rellenos themselves are pretty straightforward though time consuming. As long as you use good chiles, good cheese, roast and peel them properly without destroying them (the hard part, imo), batter, and fry them well, then that part is easy and there is only so good they can be. The greatest of good chiles rellenos comes in the sauce they are served in, which even here in California are almost NEVER good in a restaurant. In fact I can't recall the last time I enjoyed chiles rellenos in a restaurant. I've tried making them a few times and they are pretty darn good, better than the restaurants. But man, on man, the ones my fiance's grandmother makes are divine, and it's because the sauce is so good.
So there's what's on my mind. I fear that I may be coming off as pompous or derogative, which is not my intent. I really hope you continue to explore this wonderful cuisine, both in your own kitchen and in restaurants. I hope that you just need to discover the good stuff.
Nick, what a wonderful post. You captured my sentiments and questions perfectly. I was also delighted to see you mention Marilyn Tausend. I've spent time cooking with Marilyn in Mexico and she is a delight and a storehouse of knowledge about la comida Mexicana. To your excellent post, I'd like to add a couple of other comments.
Give me some crispy, velvety carnitas with a dab of guac in an equally velvety hot corn tortilla and you can get me to do just about anything ;-). Carnitas in Mexico are different and more succulent for a very big reason. Over the last 20 years American pork has become exceedingly lean, Mexican pork has not. Mexican pork is fed a lot of different things and is still allowed to fatten up. Carnitas are easier to do in Mexico because their pork is fatter and more conducive to the type of cooking method used in amking them. The only place I've found in the U.S. that makes carnitas nearly as good as what you get in Mexico is Super Cocina in San Diego, which is truly a comida de la casera type of place.
Chile Rellenos are an art form and one that's not easily mastered without routine practice. It's also not unusual to find chile rellenos in Mexico made out of dried chiles, severed at room temp, in escabeche, and stuffed with everything from cheese to picadillo to seafood. Getting the batter light and airy and the proper frying is critical. Like many of the items from the Mexican kitchen, they don't hold well for very long.
Which brings me to the point that it helps alot to know appropriate techniques. Mexican women start as young girls helping with the food prep. They make daily what we may make only a few times a year. They learn how things should look, smell and feel, to the point where it become second nature or instinct. It's hard to develop that instinct doing something only a few times.
Because of the tremendous depth, breadth and complexity of the cuisine, I think it really does help to understand it better if it's taken in context. In the last 4 months I've had Birria (goat) in Guadalajara and Cabrito (goat) in Monterrey. Both were superb and quite different and reflective of how people in different parts of the country used the same resource (in this case goat)to create signature dishes that are very different. The flavors, seasoning and even presentation were no where near the same, even though though the protein source was. Where one eats Mexican food whether in Mexico or outside Mexico will color what one perceives to be Mexican food. While I marvel at the intensity and flavors of the food of Southern Mexico, my palate prefers the food of the Central Mexico. And Mexican soups are a revelation.
I've had the opportunity to cook with some of the best - Rick Bayless, Roberto Santibanez, Susanna Trilling, Ricardo Munoz, Marilyn Tausend, and have taken classes with Diana Kennedy and Marge Poore. Diana Kennedy's flavor profiles fit my palate best, but I have to say that Rick Bayless' passion for Mexican food is extremely infectious and he is probably one of the best instructors in any subject that I've had the pleasure to learn from, he's a natural teacher. I've stuied and eaten alot of Mexican food over the last 20+ years, I can't say that I think I've done much more than scratch the surface. It's also a little like falling down the rabbit hole, following what intrigues you can lead to a whole host of other equally interesting discoveries or explorations :-)
One of my favorite phrases is "salsa bar"! Salsa cruda is one of my least favorite because it is so often done with those rock-hard square tomatoes...if it's pink, it ain't salsa cruda.
Oddly enough, one of my favorite restaurant salsas is Rubio's roasted...the one that is almost black. It has a wonderful texture and flavor. Just chips and that are enough for me.
I'm not familiar with that salsa. Is it anything like Baja Fresh's black salsa? I understand that one is flavored with Liquid Smoke.
I make a black salsa that might interest you. To a few fire-roasted whole tomatoes (strangely enough, I think out-of-season tomatoes work fine here, if not better than ripe ones), I add dozens, and I do mean dozens, of blackened dried chiles de arboles. What I usually do is get my comal and/or cast iron skillets blazing hot and then walk outside with them and throw the chiles in. Shake 'em until they turn black, while trying not to breathe the pain-inducing smoke. Blend them well with the tomatoes, salt, garlic, and perhaps some water to thin it out. Usually I avoid blackening dried chiles because just a bit adds a bitterness that overwhelms everything else. But in this salsa I go all out with the black and it just works. The Cuban who taught me this recipe adds diced avocado to the salsa, which I sometimes do but I don't think it's necessary.
I was going to recommend Rick Bayless' books as well. Have never gone wrong using his book "Authentic Mexican." There are some of his recipes on Epicurious, too. Gourmet Magazine did a feature of a "taco party" in July 1997 with some great recipes that I come back to time and again, including rajas con crema, carne asada, pollo in pipian verde (a green mole sauce) and grilled shrimp. One thing to keep in mind about Mexican food is that it really doesn't lend itself to short-cuts or fat reduction. Beans and tortillas that are not made with lard are not going to taste as good as the real thing. Here are some links:
Rajas con Crema:
Grilled Shrimp with Ancho Pasilla Sauce:
Pollo in Pipian Verde:
Rick Bayless' Salsa Mexicana:
Bayless' "Mexican Kitchen" is also very good. Makes me understand what good Mex. food is all about. The writing and photos should help you (the OP) feel more inspired about Mex. cooking again. Commend you on your effort at homemade tortillas; I haven't ventured there yet. Where did you get your recipes from?
Learning to cook a new kind of cuisine (even if one has lots of general experience) is like learning a new language for me. Even bodily movements and rhythm in the kitchen can feel vastly different. Good luck and report back w/ your progress.
re: Carb Lover
Y'all have been so encouraging...I have read some Bayless books, as well as some Diana Kennedy...I think my block is that it all seems to repeat the same flavours, just in a different configuration, and I have never figured out why. It all just tastes like tacos to me - good tacos, but tacos nevertheless. I think it's just me. I'm proficient at a half dozen ethnic cooking styles. This one just eludes me.
The tortilla recipe came off the bag of masa flour, which came from mexico, so I figured what the heck. It's flour I bought from a mexican place, and I was told it was the one to use. After the press broke, the whole thing just kind of deteriorated to a grudge match. Thank god we had a lot of beer in the house. That helped.
If you live near a tortilla factory, try getting some fresh masa from them. The fresher, the better. It comes in two textures: masa para tamales and masa para tortillas. Sometimes you can get it still warm from the grinding/mixing machinery. If you can get that, rush it straight home and make your tortillas immediately. Next best is to get fresh masa from a grocery store. Even that will beat the hell out of masa flour.
"The tortilla recipe came off the bag of masa flour, which came from mexico, so I figured what the heck."
Yeah, but basically that's the same as following the Toll House recipe from a bag of Nestle Morsels... it's a decent recipe, but advanced home cooks will use it strictly as a guideline and move on from there...
I don't know where you live, but if you are getting the same flavors at home using fine ingredients, you must go to some great mexican restaurants! :D Anyway, I also recommend the books by the authors mentioned here as well as Patricia Quitanna. Also, not knowing exactly what sort of flavors you are looking for, perhaps you'll want to delve into something more complex in flavor. Like Hutlacoche, Yucatecan Recados or a strong Barbacoa?
*Rofl* I ALWAYS use the recipe off the Chipits bag!!! I could have played around with it, but I thought for a first foray, what the heck, try the bag. I have had the principle that until you have mastered the mother recipe, you don't have the right to improvise. Master the mother and you can create many children. Sigh. I think part of it is that I live close to some first rate mexican home cooking restaurants. I am getting okay results at home, just as good as the restaurants, but I guess I was expecting to transcend that...which I didn't. I am going to look for some huitlacocha next time I am in the US...can't find it here - it's considered hog food and gets processed as such.
Good homemade tortillas take practice, lots of it. I have added a bit of lard to the dough on occasions and I liked the texture better. I toast on a cast iron grill too. But if you cannot get fresh masa you are just as well off buying a good pre-made tortilla. If you can find a neighborhood with a large Mexican population you might be able to find fresh or frozen masa.
Moles I have found, like a lot of things are better a day or so later. The last one I made I just did not like at all. Luckily it was for a gourmet club dinner and because of time consideratons I made the sauce a couple of days ahead. By the time Sat. P.M. came around I was astonished by the cahnge in flavor. Much rounder and complex than it had been initially. When you defrost what you made you may find you have a very different product on your hands.