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March 2010 Cookbook of the Month: The Essential Cuisines of Mexico

March's COTM will be THE ESSENTIAL CUISINES OF MEXICO, by Diana Kennedy, which is a compilation of Cuisines of Mexico, The Tortilla Book, and Mexico Regional Cooking.

Not too many votes overall this time, but I hope some more of us will get inspired to cook Mexican in March. The subject threads will go up sometime on the 1st; in the meanwhile, general discussion goes here.

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  1. Well, now I have an excuse to finally buy this book. I really hope I have time to participate this month, but, I'm not very optimistic. I suppose now's a good time to ask folks for their favorite recipes from this book? Also, maybe a listing of recipes that are quick and easy (so many of the recipes look super involved...)


    1. Thank you Caitlin. I expect my copy to arrive early next week. Having 3 books in 1, more or less, is a plus. My kitchen bookcase will thank me.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Gio

        The book arrived this afternoon! Real speedy delivery, that. Now I have the luxury of being able to spend this evening and tomorrow mapping out my culinary game plan.

      2. I have ordered from the library to start. The Middlesex system has 12 copies, all available, so there should not be any difficulty getting it to my local branch before the beginning of the month.

        1 Reply
        1. re: smtucker

          That's good to know. I can't request it because I've hit my 20 book request limit. But, I'll go in on Monday and do a special request. I can't believe February is almost over and it feels positively spring like outside.

        2. I didn't vote because I'm never sure how much I'll be able to participate... I did however order ECM - because of COTM discussions and DH's new found love of mexican food (and the distinct lack of anything other than Taco Bell in our area). And because I couldn't help myself I also ordered Desserts by the Yard after perusing it in a local kitchen store.

          1. My biggest hesitation with Mexican cuisine is that it seems to use so few of the vegetables that I grow, especially in the winter (chard, kale, beets, mustard greens, broccoli, peas, fennel), and cooking from my garden drives a lot of my recipe choices. But I'm involved with a non-profit that's installing vegetable gardens at the homes of low-income families, many of whom are Hispanic, so maybe this book will give me ideas for what winter vegetables they would appreciate and cook with.

            Also, I feel like such a slacker for having access to such great Mexican markets but not taking much advantage of them. DH regards most Mexican food to be too heavy and greasy, and admittedly, most fast-food and many restaurant versions are. This will be a good kick in the pants for me to start exploring.

            11 Replies
            1. re: Karen_Schaffer

              I don't garden (beyond herbs), but I still feel your pain. I like to go on cookbook jags for a week or two at a time, but it can be hard to incorporate all the winter vegetables from the CSA into some cuisines.

              1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                For the CSA boxes and other vegetal eaters like myself...
                There are plenty of greens and root vegetables utilized in the regional Mexican food detailed by Kennedy, which has only glancing similarity with "Mexican" as eaten in most of the USA.

                I have Kennedy's "Cuisines of" "Art of" and "My Mexico" . . . will try to use this as a reason to get "Cuisines" in play this month, certainly with the veg in mind. I've mostly used the books for great salsa recipes, cooked and fresh

                I hauled one of these volumes along in my one little suitcase for my month in Oaxaca, Mexico a few years back...totally useful.

                1. re: pitu

                  Great to hear! I'll be picking up a copy from the library in a day or two.

                  1. re: pitu

                    Hmm, I have the book in hand now, and I can't find much evidence of greens or root vegetables, alas. Maybe those are in her other books. This book just seems to have the usual suspects (chiles, tomatoes, chayote, nopales, corn, etc.). There's one recipe for wild greens, which is essentially spinach tortillas. Color me underwhelmed.

                    However, I think I'm going to enjoy reading the book and learning more about Mexican cuisine. It's possible I'll even get inspired to try something, but I have a suspicion I'll be sitting this month out. Which is fine, no problem -- I've got plenty of other cookbooks to explore!

                    1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                      If the book has any recipes using quelites, your greens can substitute. Likewise, broccoli for other cruciferous veggies may work. Soups are a good dish to supplement with greens. Still, that's getting away from the COTM idea.
                      I may have more suggestions when my copy arrives and I can get busy. The Google sample doesn't have a complete index :-(.

                      1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                        Karen, I've had the pleasure of cooking with Diana Kennedy at her home in Zitacuaro, Mexico. It sits on several acres of property, all of which she has planted in some type of vegetaion. She's lived there the last 30 or so years and built the house and property to be ecologically sustaining long before it was the trendy, or even responsible, thing to do. She has massive gardens and grows almost all her own vegetables, inlcuding corn, as well as lots of fruit and avocados.

                        The Mexican diet actually does have quite a bit of vegetable in it, it's just formatted differently than what American's think of as normal. Green salads, for example, don't exist as we know them, but you'll find cabbage and tomato salads on the plate pretty frequently. You can substitute your root vegetables for almost any of the meats in a lot of the recipes, especially those calling for pork or chicken. In Mexican cooking the emphasis is on the sauce not the center of the plate protein. I think this makes switching out meats for vegetables pretty doable. Or use both if you like. Just because a recipe doesn't call for a specific vegetable, doesn't mean it can't be used.

                        Acelgas, or chard, is a very common ingredient in Mexico and is used in anything and everything from soup to tacos to enchiladas. Spinach and watercress are also widely used.

                        Calabacitas are similar to zucchini, and calabazas are more similar to our winter squashes. I'm not overly fond of zucchini and find calabacitas a little more palatable. I've also seen and eaten calabaza in stews and soups. It's also poached in a syrup made from canela and piloncillo to make a sweet or dessert out of it that can be eaten straight or used as a filling in empanadas.

                        It's not in this DK book but Enselada de NocheBuena is a salad based on beets.

                        Also take a look at the bean and lentil recipes as they often contain vegetables, or vegetables can be easily added to them.

                        Almost any of the recipes can be enhanced or modified by the addition of your own root veggies or greens. The sauce, and how well it's balanced, is the focus in Mexico, not what it's served over or under. If you're unsure what might work and you've got some time for a little research, check out some of Rick Bayless' later cookbooks, especially Everyday Mexican, he frequently adds vegetables (lots of greens) to his recipes. Take his ideas and weld them onto DK's recipes. Won't make her happy, but it will use your vegetables and maybe allow you to try some recipes you didn't think you could :-)

                        Mexico has a wide variety of lenten dishes that make extensive use of vegetables (along with dried shrimp), but a quick look at the index of ECOM doesn't show any which is too bad. That would have been a good option for your garden.

                        Essentials is not especially my favorite DK cookbook. I've owned it for years, but rarely cook from it since I have all the original volumes. It is, however, a great read. Don't limit yourself to the recipes as read, add those veggies or greens and enjoy new flavors.

                        1. re: DiningDiva

                          DiningDiva I can't tell you how valuable your information and suggestions are to me. As I've been reading through this cookbook I seriously thought I'd not be able to cook from the book this month. Now you've given me a whole new perspective. Thank you very much!

                            1. re: Gio

                              Have to agree with Gio here. DD, you've just made my month!

                              1. re: soypower

                                I am glad my comments have been helpful.

                                Believe it or not, Mexican cuisine is not necessarily meat-centric. True, it can be difficult for vegetarians and vegan when traveling in Mexico, but this is due more to the use of lard than it is to meat usage. Traditional Mexican cuisine - of which Diana Kennedy has been a real champion - is rooted in the corn kitchen and the triology of corn, beans and squash. It's very much a land based cuisine defined by what comes out of the ground. Remember, Mexico is a warmer weather country than the U.S. What grows well in February in Minnesota probably won't grow as well in Sinoloa in February.The vegetables grown in both regions are going to be more attuned to the weather at that time.

                                If you read the recipes for sauces - moles, pipianes and the salsas - you should notice one thing. They are not thickened in the traditional way, i.e. with a roux . Pipianes and moles make use of nuts to thicken sauces, along with fruits, vegetables and tortillas among other things and, of course, reduction. This makes Mexican sauces way different than most others, and in many respects much more complex. Really focus on learning how to make a balanced sauce - one in which all the ingredients meld together into a harmonious single flavor - rather than one in which 1 or 2 flavors predominate. Get the sauce right and it doesn't matter so much whether it's served with meat, vegetables, or a combination of both.

                                From pg. 208 in ECOM
                                "Generally speaking in Meixco, vegetables are served as a separate dish, before the main course. They are made into Tortitas - little fingers of light batter served in a tomato sauce; or cooked into rather solid budines - puddings of eggs, cheese and flour; or cooked in a stew of meat and fish or in substantial soupls like the mole de olla or the favorite from Sonora, pozole de milpa."

                        2. re: pitu

                          Over the years, I've made several of the moles from The Art of Mexican Cooking. The first time was before many of the ingredients were readily available and it was quite an undertaking. It was totally worth it, though. Now I can get shelled pumpkin seeds, epazote, various chiles, and even Mexican oregano locally. How times have changed.

                          I got my book from the library and am looking forward to cooking this month!

                          Buen provecho!

                      2. I'm excited and am looking through the cookbook now. The Molletes under Light Meals looks like it would be a great lunch sandwich. May try that one tomorrow.

                        1. Wasn't gonna do it . . . wasn't gonna do it . . . wasn't gonna do it.

                          Not going to be at home. Already have "The Cuisines of Mexico." Not sure I'll have access to ingredients.

                          Used copy at Half.com for $9 +$4 S&H. Did it.

                          So I'll be following along at least.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: JoanN

                            Resistance is futile.

                            Seriously, it's hard to resist purchasing the COTMs when you know they are much-beloved classics. It just seems like you'll want the book sooner or later and that it's going to be worth your time and money.


                          2. I'm pretty new to the boards but this looks fun.

                            Although I'm in Los Angeles I rarely go into Latin cooking since I can head to a good Mexican place anytime I want.

                            This will be a good incentive for me to start doing more experimenting.

                            1. I have been reading the chapter on tortillas and am confused. Here in London we don't have great access to Mexican ingredients so I will probably have to make corn tortillas myself (or get them mail order or make the trip to Whole Foods). In the instructions, she talks about tortilla masa dough, which I'm pretty sure you can't get here. I can get masa harina though - so presumably I just add water to that? Is there any difference?

                              8 Replies
                              1. re: greedygirl

                                I buy masa harina here in the states to make tortillas. I think that is exactly what you want. Now, I don't have the book in my hands yet, so I can't refer to this section to see what Diane actually says.

                                1. re: smtucker

                                  According to Ms Kennedy, it takes 33 pats to make a proper tortilla.
                                  Anyway, on page 44 she describes how to make tortillas by hand and send us to page 462 to read about lime. Slaked or unslaked lime (calcium oxide) is an ingredient plus masa and water. Does masa harina have the lime already incorporated in it??

                                  1. re: Gio

                                    That “33 pats” made me laugh. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with a housekeeper/cook in a Guatemalan kitchen trying to learn to make tortillas by hand. Even after several of these mini-lessons, I can make only one mishapened, never-the-right-thickness tortilla in about the amount of time Alejandra makes half a dozen. You always know dinner will be ready fairly soon when you hear the pat-pat-pat sound coming from the kitchen.

                                    1. re: JoanN

                                      Ha, Joan. That same lack of skill makes me prefer to make fatter stuffed tortillas if I get involved in masa.
                                      These are called gorditas or tlacoyos (a regional term that apparently means different things in different places)

                                    2. re: Gio

                                      I think masa harina does have the lime already in it, AFAIK that is the difference between it and corn meal.

                                      1. re: corneygirl

                                        Yes, the lime is used in processing the nixtamal; by the time you're at the masa stage, whether it's fresh or dried into masa harina, that's been done.

                                  2. re: greedygirl

                                    Hi GG,

                                    In "Essentials", she has has two recipes for corn tortillas, one made with tortilla masa (dough made with dried corn and lime/calcium oxide), and the recipe following that is a 'variation' - tortillas made with masa harina/maseca (and water) - p. 50.

                                    1. re: greedygirl

                                      Greedygirl, yes you can use masa harina and just add water. Do you have a tortilla press, or will you be trying to make tortillas a mano (by hand)? I think masa harina is harder to work with than prepared masa if you aren't familiar with what the texture and pliability of good masa is. Once you get the pliability right, making the tortillas is pretty easy tho' I think the flavor with masa harina is lacking.

                                      The good thing about masa harina here in the States is that it's pretty inexpensive which allows for a lot of practice. It doens't matter if you mess up a batch of masa, if it doesn't work, just toss it out and start again. I don't know how expensive masa harina might be in London, but if the cost is reasonable, don't be afraid to get a bag and just practice with it without worrying about if it's "right" or not. Masa and tortillas are definitely an item that you - quite literally - need to get a "feel" for and the only way to do that is by playing with the dough and lots of practice. Allow yourself the luxury of playing with your food ;-)

                                      Go for it and just have fun with masa.

                                    2. Part of "Essentials" is on Google Books, like this pumpkin seed dip from the Yucatan

                                      1. First time particpating, found a copy at my local library.

                                        Can't wait to start trying stuff out!

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Johnny L

                                          Oh fun! Welcome aboard. This is definitely one of those "the more the merrier" endeavors.


                                        2. I just thought you all would want to know that Diane Kennedy was on the Splendid Table radio show. She had me laughing several times.


                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: corneygirl

                                            corneygirl: Thanks so much for the link. Kennedy made me laugh as well. Sometimes Rosetta-Casper (sp?) sounds overly gushy about stuff, but this program was quite interesting. The best part was that it reminded me that I have a plastic bag full of dried jamaica flowers and that it's been a long time since I made Agua Fresca de Flor de Jamaica! You can also freeze the agua fresca in ice cube trays or those popsicle-type molds. Delicious.

                                            Here in California, and probably in many other places, one can buy packages of jamaica in supermarkets like our local Luckys. One of the many reasons it's great to live here even with the earthquakes. . . and the draught.

                                            1. re: oakjoan

                                              I buy jamaice at mexgrocer.com. Even with shipping, it's less than what I can find it for in NYC.

                                              (And, pssst. Don't tell anyone. But it's great with a splash of vodka.)


                                          2. I didn't think I'd be participating since I've been so busy and the past few COTM's have just flown by me, but I've been wanting to try my hand at pozole so how could I resist? Looks like my library has a copy available for me too! Yay!