I am what you’d call a mutt. Growing up, my brothers and I were told that our forebears hailed from a plethora of places, stretching across Europe from Poland to Ireland, and even down into Africa, with a little Jewish thrown in for good measure. This was mostly family lore, however, as more than one of my great grandfathers was apparently adopted, making our ancestral origins anyone’s guess. One key result of this patchwork of genetics, as you can imagine, is that my generation wasn’t raised with anything like a clearly defined, inherited sense of cultural or culinary heritage. We ate dishes from all over; my mother favoring simple, Midwesternish fare such as goulash, stroganoff, meatloaf, and casseroles, while my father, the far more adventurous cook, bounced all over the gastronomic globe, wherever his fancy took him. That being said, there was one cuisine he preferred above the others: Dad had a serious and near perpetual hankering for Mexican food.
Now, what we called “Mexican food” back in the day wasn’t really. It would be more accurate to call it “Mexican influenced”. Dad grew up in Southern California near the dawning of the Cal-Mex hay day, before the move toward freshness and authenticity for which the term has become increasingly known. Until about the turn of the 21st century, “Cal-Mex”, Tex-Mex’s West Coast cousin, meant dishes which may have had their origins south of the border, but which had been tweaked to better appeal to the US-American palette, resulting in sauce-drowned entrees paired with gloppy beans and “Spanish-style” rice generously dolloped with sour cream, innocuous salsa, and dripping with gooey, molten cheddar cheese. We’re talking artery-clogging comfort food disguised as ethnic fare, and boy howdy was it good! It’s no wonder that Dad pined for it when he relocated to Washington State, where, to hear him tell it, there was nary a Mexican restaurant in sight. He just about threw a parade when the first Taco Bell opened in our area, and with the arrival of such chains as El Torito and Azteca, our Sunday-after-church meals quickly became dominated by enchiladas, tamales, tacos and burritos.
At home, Dad experimented with those same flavors quite a lot, putting his own personal twist on the cuisine. His ground beef and rice tacos were a dinnertime staple, and his turkey burritos were an eagerly anticipated Thanksgiving leftovers tradition. He and Mom even bought a press and tried their hand at making their own tortillas for a while.
It was the 80s, though, so not everything was cooked from scratch. Our family’s go-to, every day burritos were made using refried beans from a can, and topped with bottled taco sauces in a variety of heat levels. While some of us kept to the milder end of the capsaicin curve, and Mom was such a spice wimp that she usually opted for ketchup, Dad was a heat fiend. He and one of my brothers would haul out one of those giant, Costco-sized jars of whole pickled jalapeños and compete to see who could eat the most, eyes streaming and noses running, before succumbing to the heat. It seems amazing to me now, but for a long time growing up, I didn’t realize that jalapeños came any other way.What the heck are those things?
It’s no wonder, then, that when I first set out on my own as an adult, the recipes I called home for were my father’s Mexican-inspired ones, and the first spices I bought for my fledgling kitchen were cumin, chili powder, paprika, and oregano. Dad cooked from instinct, never writing anything down, so when I asked him, he was at a loss as to how to guide me through recreating his dishes. Finally, when pressed, he rattled off a list of ingredients, giving no indication of quantities, and including only basic instructions. The most accurate gauge for measuring that he could offer me was, “Keep adding more until it tastes right.” This was my first introduction to the cooking term “to taste.” Looking back, dad’s cryptic instructions also paved the way for me to feel free to experiment, although I didn’t go hog wild in that arena for some time. When I did begin to dabble in earnest, I did so using the spices I’d had the longest relationship with: Mexican ones.
For a few years after I first became serious about cooking, I kept coming up against the idea of “culinary tradition”. I would hear dyed-in-the-wool chefs talk about having grown up learning from their Italian nonnas or how, try as they might, they would never be able to recreate their mère’s coq au vin with any real success. These were folks who had been gifted with a rich cultural birthright, one that shaped them and their craft and provided the pathway to a solid identity in the kitchen, what the competition shows like to call “a strong Point Of View (POV)”. Due to my muddy ancestry, I didn’t feel like I had that. The closest thing I had was a sometimes vague nod to a culture I had not been raised in, and it felt fraudulent to claim it as a sort of adopted cuisine. When people asked what kind of food I liked to prepare, I felt pressured, as if I were expected to pick a specialist subject to major in, or else I was only “playing at” cooking. The answer I always gave in those moments was, “I don’t know…, a little bit of everything…,” which often had the unintended effect of making them wither, as if I’d rendered every single one of their follow-up questions inert, leaving them nowhere else to take the topic.
One night I was talking with a new acquaintance who, surprisingly, wasn’t stymied by my standard response. Instead, he posed what turned out to be something of a game changing follow-up question: “Okay…so what kinds of things do you cook on a daily basis? What are your go-tos?” When he put it that way, not in terms of some grand, overarching culinary category, but within the realm of the intimate, the homey, the comfortable, it seemed, for the first time, like such a simple question. He wasn’t quizzing me on my culinary know-how. He wasn’t asking to swap recipes or compare opinions on which brand of cookware was the be all and end all. He just wanted to know what my personal experience was in the kitchen.
As it turns out, personal experience is what it really all comes down to. It’s not the environment that one is born into which secures them a place in the kitchen; it’s the time they spend working there, and a person’s heritage doesn’t necessarily dictate their cuisine. Moreover, strong POVs are not gifted, they’re earned, and in that way, it doesn’t matter what a person cooks, so long as they cook. As I began to understand that, I came to feel more confident in the kitchen and less like an imposter. I even grew comfortable with the idea that, yes, I cook “Mexican-ish”, and that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, by embracing my tangled roots, I, in turn, became inspired to take a stab at preparing more authentic dishes. I will admit to indulging in the occasional canned-refried-beans, cheese, and ketchup burrito (don’t judge me!), but more often these days I opt for fajitas and tacos made from fresh ingredients. Heck, I even make tamales once a year around Christmas time, and recently tried my hand at pressing my own tortillas (disaster, need more practice).
While I now consider myself reasonably well versed in true Mexican cuisine, I still don’t think of myself as someone who specializes in it. I have had a long and loving relationship with the flavors, and will likely continue to do so, but my own kitchen POV has taken a different direction. No, when I think of a true specialist in that area, I naturally think of someone like Chef Rick Bayless.
Chef Bayless is an American, born into a family of restaurateurs in Oklahoma, who is one of the most respected experts in the world of Mexican cuisine. He lived there for many years, learning about the local fare and writing the first of many critically acclaimed cookbooks: “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico”. He has won an impressive number of the culinary industry’s top awards, and his television program, “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” garnered him a Daytime Emmy nomination. Bayless also owns several restaurants, naturally, including Topolobampo, which was one of the first fine dining Mexican restos in the US. His food is obviously an unbelievably far cry from my own and yet I feel a certain connection to his work from a non-Mexican-who-cooks-Mexican-food standpoint. Therefore, when I stumbled across his book, “Mexican Everyday,” on the shelf of my favorite used book store, I knew it had to be part of my collection.
Whereas in past Cookbook Challenge posts, I’ve had a specific dish in mind to make when I set out, this time around I had only the book itself, and was free to browse through it and pick whatever suited my fancy. It wasn’t an easy choice; there are so many tempting recipes! In the end, I decided to go with the one that was as far from the kinds of things I typically cook as possible, so I skipped anything with words like “taco”, “enchilada”, or “salsa” in the title. What I landed on was the following:
3 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 garlic cloves, peeled (divided use)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs (3/4 cup if they’re the coarse-textured panko)
1 1/4 pounds ground pork
I must interrupt the ingredients list here. I couldn’t find any ground pork in my local market, so I had to grind my own. Good thing I enjoy that sort of thing; it makes me feel totally badass!
1/2 cup (loosely packed) coarsely chopped mint leaves, plus extra leaves for garnish, if you wish.
My mint came straight from my patio garden! See?
One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire-roasted)
1 to 2 canned chipotle chiles en adobo, stemmed and seeded
1 to 2 tablespoons chipotle canning sauce
1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
About 1 1/2 cups beef or chicken broth.
You may have noticed that one of the egg whites is kind of cloudy, rather than clear, as we are used to seeing them. Not to worry; in fact, it means the egg is super fresh. The whites start out cloudy, but get clearer as they age. How sad that we’re so unaccustomed to seeing truly fresh eggs that we find them suspicious?
I only got 14 meatballs, rather than the 16 the recipe suggests. Perhaps Chef Bayless was picturing a differently sized plum than I was. Or perhaps between grinding my own pork and my mishap with the blender, I ended up without enough mixture to make 16 balls.
It should be noted that during this phase, the baking meatballs began to smell torturously incredible. Even now the memory of that peppery, garlicky, cooked pork aroma makes my heart beat a little faster and the tasty lunch I have been looking forward to all day suddenly holds near-zero appeal.
You know that smell I described above? Add to it the warm tang of cooked tomatoes and the smokiness of the chipotle, and it was all I could to resist sampling them before the dish was completed. I managed, but I think I deserve some kind of award for doing so. Not everyone could have held up under that kind of pressure!
This dish was so very worth the wait. It was one of those bites that completely lived up to the promise made by the way it smelled in the oven. It was warm and comforting, tangy and smoky, with a subtle brightness supplied by the mint. I’ll admit it was a shade spicier than I tend to like things, although I only used one can of chipotles, but I was so enamored with the flavor that I mopped my brow and cheerfully cleaned my plate.
In his book, following the recipe, Chef Bayless offers some suggestions for ways to switch up the recipe, but I think I’m going to make it a few more times as written before futzing with it at all. If it ain’t broke…!
So there we have it. I now have one more authentic Mexican dish to add to my repertoire, although I must admit that, being my father’s daughter, I’m already considering inauthentic applications. Chipotle meatball subs, anyone?