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Mexican food beyond the basic
Ask cookbook author Lesley Tellez, a Southern Californian now living in New York, about her taste memories from the four years she lived in Mexico City, and they come tumbling out like sweets from a broken pinata.
That first steak taco purchased from a street vendor: "You could smell it cooking, that really meaty, greasy smell that's so delicious," she said. "That first moment of having that taco in your hand and the array of salsas in front of you, being able to choose and decide which one I am going to put on it and which one tastes the best, was a revelation."
And the city's bakeries, where customers use metal trays and tongs to select items: "The bread smell would hit you as you were walking down the block. It was such a tactile and palpable experience, from the smell to grabbing the tongs and choosing your bread."
Followers of Tellez's blog, The Mija Chronicles (www.themijachronicles.com) — "mija" is short for "my daughter" — know the author's keen attention to detail and her embrace of Mexico City's culinary joys. You'll find the same assets in her recent cookbook, "Eat Mexico: Recipes From Mexico City's Streets, Markets & Fondas" (Kyle Books, $24.95).
Con todo: The book's introduction begins: "Siempre 'con todo.'" Translation: Con todo? — With everything? — is what food vendors would ask when proffering a food item. Siempre means always. And as Tellez gobbled up the city, that was her answer: always with everything.
She ate her way through neighborhoods, learning and blogging as she went. She took a 14-month program on Mexican gastronomy at the Escuela de Gastronomia Mexicana. She channeled her enthusiasm into this cookbook, filling it with recipes (salsas, moles, quesadillas, tlacoyos) and more challenging items: masa (fresh nixtamal) and chicharron (pork cracklings), as well as recipes inspired by Mexican flavors.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Rancho Cucamonga (her great-grandparents came from Mexico, but "the language and most of the cultural customs hadn't made it to my generation," she writes), Tellez attended college in Boston, then worked as a journalist at the Dallas Morning News before moving to Mexico City in 2009 with her husband for his job.
The culture shock? Everywhere she'd lived, "there were barriers between you and the food," she said. "You don't get to sit on a stool less than a foot away from the food you just ordered and watch a woman pick up a hunk of masa from the bucket and make the tortilla for the quesadilla you just ordered."
Four years after they landed there, her husband's job transfer brought them back to the States. Her connection to Mexico remains, going beyond the blog and cookbook. She and a friend founded "Eat Mexico" (www.eatmexico.com), which employs guides who give culinary walking tours in Mexico City neighborhoods and markets, plus a couple of tours in Puebla, with eating along the way. Tacos? Yes, but she adds, "The tide is moving more toward people wanting to try chapulines (grasshoppers)."
Dark Chocolate Chicharron Cookies
Adapted from "Eat Mexico," by Lesley Tellez. You can find chicharron at most Mexican markets. Tellez suggests choosing thinner versions with the least amount of meat. She has also used packaged Baken-ets. To crumble chicharron, she suggests placing pieces in a plastic bag and whacking them with a meat pounder or frying pan until crumbled into small pieces. You can also use a food processor, but stop short of a fine powder.
Prep: 20 minutes
Bake: 10 to 12 minutes
Makes: About 32 cookies
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon each: baking soda, salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup each: granulated sugar, packed light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted, cooled to room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
7 ounces dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cacao), chopped into 1/4-inch chunks
1 cup crumbled chicharron (pork cracklings)
Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl; set aside. In bowl of a stand mixer, beat together eggs and sugars until light, fluffy and doubled in volume, about 3 minutes. Lower speed; mix in butter and vanilla until combined.
Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir dry mixture into wet just until combined. Gently stir in chocolate and chicharron, being careful not to overmix. Cover dough with plastic wrap; refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours or overnight. (Resting time allows dough to develop flavor.)
When ready to bake, heat oven to 350 degrees. Drop dough by mounded tablespoonfuls, about 2 inches apart, onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until edges start to brown and middles are still soft. Cool on baking sheet 1 minute; remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
Nutrition information per cookie: 171 calories, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 29 mg cholesterol, 19 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 148 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Adapted from Lesley Tellez's "Eat Mexico." Chayote ("vegetable pear" in English) has a thin skin, so it's not worth peeling.
Prep: 35 minutes
Cook: 8 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
8 ounces green beans, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 chayotes, diced into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon honey
1/4 cup olive oil
1 ripe tomato, chopped
2/3 cup each chopped fresh cilantro and crumbled queso fresco or feta
Heat water to a boil in medium saucepan. Fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes; place nearby. When water boils vigorously, add beans and good pinch of salt. Cook until crisp-tender and bright green, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer beans with a slotted spoon to ice water. Chill 5 minutes, then drain dry.
Blanch chayote in the green bean water until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to ice bath, cool, then drain dry.
Whisk together vinegar, mustard and honey in a large bowl. Keep whisking as you add oil in a slow stream, until fully integrated. Add cooled beans and chayote, tossing to coat well. Add tomato, cilantro and cheese. Mix until combined. Add salt if needed. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Nutrition information per serving: 154 calories, 12 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 117 mg sodium, 3 g fiber