Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My "Mexican Kitchen"

I have a new cookbook!

Before I left, I checked this book out of the Brooklyn Public Library as part of pre-trip research. I also had “My Mexico” by Diane Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cookbooks, and “Seasons of My Heart” by Susana Trilling on my nightstand, but Rick Bayless was the only one who described the different kinds of chiles in such evocative detail and with such clarity that I actually felt confident I could go out and find the right chiles for the right recipes. I’m too cynical to expect my heroes to ever truly be as they appear, but when I read his books, I feel all mushy and sure that he is a good and wonderful person. It helps that I share his philosophy on food, its blessings, and the value of authenticity as a principle that values traditions but recognizes food as dynamic rather than something to be preserved as artifact. (This is the book’s dedication to his daughter: “With loving hope that the world you grow up into is blessed with generous gardens, comfortable kitchens and welcoming tables.”) And his missionary zeal in promoting lard! So when I saw “Mexican Kitchen” on sale just days before moving to my new apartment at Amate Books, the beautiful and carefully edited English-language bookstore here in Oaxaca, I couldn’t resist.

Sadly, I haven’t cooked as much as I’d hoped, at least not yet. The amount of kitchen equipment that came with my apartment is shockingly limited—I’m lucky to have a can opener. And the same challenges I’ve always had living and cooking alone are even more present here. Produce and other basics, like tortillas, go bad very quickly. My homestay family buys 30 fresh tortillas every day; I know how alien I look buying five. The smallest amount of sugar I was able to find was a 1 kg plastic sack at a dry-goods stall, and until I found a woman selling eggs individually at the organic market, I despaired of buying fewer than two dozen at a time.

I did buy some soy sauce and sesame seed oil in a moment of intense longing for Korean food, thinking I would make that most basic of Korean foods, bulgogi, with the thin cut of beef they have here called “tasajo,” but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I had thought that cooking at home would be a good way to eat the foods I miss, but I’ve become a spoiled brat about ingredients, and even my tried-and-true, cook-anywhere recipe for pasta with tuna, garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil just tastes bad since my taste buds got accustomed to high-quality Italian or Spanish tuna. The one stick of butter I bought was so depressing, I haven’t touched it since.

But the more I read Bayless, I’m inspired to take advantage of the ingredients I do have access to. Every time he laments the inavailability of Oaxacan queso fresco in the U.S., or says something like, “In Oaxaca, I do…, but in the U.S., I substitute…”, I feel like shouting, “Rick, I’m in your spiritual home!” How I can waste this opportunity, when Oaxacan cheese; piloncillo, the unrefined sugar sold in brown cones; and fresh hierba santa are staring me in the face every time I go the market? Every dollar I save is 0.75 Euros I can spend in Spain in October and November (and goddamnit, the dollar keeps falling in value), but I may just have to suck it up and buy a molcajete and comal. I did make a salsa the other day, a simmered tomato sauce that Bayless says is Yucatecan in style, and even though it took a fair amount of time to parboil the tomatoes, skin them, mash them in my neighbor’s molcajete, and then simmer them with white onions and a halved serrano pepper, it had the fresh, delicious flavor of food that is also absurdly simple. Of course, if I buy a molcajete, I know I will want to take it home, and I’ll probably end up having to pay overweight baggage charges to Continental Airlines. Sigh. Well, such are my priorities.

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