This week I was delighted to appear as the guest chef at the Wilkinson Public Library’s brand new program called Books and Cooks. The program will air the first Tuesday of every month and feature local professional and amateur chefs cooking their favorite recipes from cook books they found in the library. Since my appearance fell on Cinco de Mayo, I decided to stick with the theme and make something from the Mexican culture. The obvious choice for me was Mexico: One Plate at a Time by Rick Bayless. One of the main reasons I like Rick Bayless is that he shares my own food philosophy; as he says in his introduction: “I want to engage as many people as I can in sharing fresh, honest food.”
Bayless goes on to write:
“Until the fairly recent past, our species has lived in small, relatively self-sustaining communities, sharing daily life with the same handful of folks in more or less the same place from birth to death. Without a second thought, we nourished ourselves with locally grown, seasonal foods. All that has changed, and the ties that bound us to our families, communities, terrain, seasons and food have in many cases weakened. I think that it is safe to say that a sense of disconnection, or disenfranchisement, permeates many lives. Just as we’ve had to learn to substitute planned physical exercise for the healthy exertion most of our ancestors experienced in everyday life, so, I believe, to be completely healthy, do we have to exercise our connection to the world we live in. Food provides the perfect medium for that.”
I love thinking about food in the way that Bayless talks about it in his book. He goes on to give advice on ways that we can use food to connect with the world we live in including shopping at farmer’s markets and growing something even if it is only a small pot of herbs on a windowsill. To read more ideas Bayless has for reconnecting witht he world via food as well as for some great recipes, check out Mexico: One Plate at a Time.
Using this cookbook for the Books with Cooks show, I decided to make Classic Guacamole and Horchata De Almendra. I followed the recipes exactly as found in One Plate at a Time with only one exception. I love any type of avocado dip and guacamole is one of my favorite finger food recipes. I personally like the avocado to dominate the taste and even the texture of the guacamole though. To do this, rather than mashing the avocado, as Bayless recommends, I like to keep the avocado in larger chuncks. To do this, I halve the avocados and then use a paring knife to cut the avocado into half inch squares which I scoop it out with a spoon.
Here is the guacamole recipe as found in One Plate at a Time:
2 serrano chilies, stemmed
½ medium white onion, finely chopped
2 plum tomatoes
¼ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
3 ripe avocados
2T fresh lime juice
Roasting the Chiles. Lay the chiles in a small ungreased skillet set over medium heat. Turn them every minute or so until they have softened (they’ll darken in spots), 5-10 minutes. Mash them into a coarse puree, using a mortar, or finely chop them. Place in a large bowl.
More Flavorings. Scoop the chopped onion into a strainer and rinse under cold water; shake off excess water and add to the bowl with the chiles. Chop the tomatoes into small bits – skin, seeds and all is my preference. You should have a scant cup. Add to the bowl along with the cilantro.
The Avocados. To cut an avocado in half, you have to negotiate the large egg-shaped pit in the middle. Make a cut down the length of one avocado straight through to the pit. Continue cutting all the way around the pit until you wind up where you started. Twist the two halves in opposite directions and pull them apart. Scoop out the pit (the hueso, or bone, in Spanish) with a spoon. Then scoop out the avocado flesh from the skin and add to the bowl. Do the same with the remaining avocados. Use an old-fashioned potato masher or the back of a large spoon to mash the avocado flesh into a coarse pulp, mixing in the other ingredients as you go.
Seasoning the Guacamole. Taste the guacamole and season with salt, usually a scant teaspoon, then add some of the lime juice and taste again. Continue seasoning with lime until the guacamole has enough zip for you. Cover with plastic wrap, placing directly on surface, and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
Serving. Unless you’re serving guacamole dolloped on tacos or the like, the classic way to present it to your guests is in a Mexican lava-rock mortar (molcajete), sprinkled with chopped onion and cilantro. Sliced radish, if you have it, looks pretty here, and to the Mexican eye completes the very popular, patriotic red-white-and-green motif.
Working Ahead: Guacamole is good when freshly made, but, in my opinion, it tastes better when the flavors are allowed to mingle for about half an hour before serving. If well chilled, it’ll keep for several hours. After that, the flavors get out of balance and the avocado starts to brown.
For the Horchata, I followed the recipe exactly as it appeared in the book. I was unable to find blanched almonds in our local store, so I blanched my own. To blanch almonds, simply put your premeasured almonds into a bowl and pour boiling water over them. In just a few minutes you will find it easy to peel the brown skin off the almonds. Discard the skins and use the now white almonds for your Horchata. I found this recipe made a delicious, refreshing drink very reminiscent of rice pudding. Here is the recipe as found in One Plate at a Time
Horchata De Almendra
2/3 cup rice, medium or long grain rice
1 1/4 cup almonds, blanched
a 3-inch piece of cinnamon stick
4 ½ cups water
1 cup sugar, plus a little more if desired
In a large bowl combine rice, almonds, cinnamon stick and 2 ½ cups of water – here it should be hot tap water. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Pour the mixture into the blender, add the sugar and blend on high for several minutes, until the mixture is as smooth as possible – there’ll still be a hint of grittiness when you rub a drop between your fingers.
Strain through a fine sieve (if yours isn’t very fine, line it with cheesecloth), pressing on the solids until only a dryish pulp remains. Pour into a pitcher, add the remaining 2 cups (cold) water (or the milk), taste and sweeten with a little more sugar if you wish. Serve over ice. In Oaxaca, they swirl a little pureed red cactus fruit (tuna or jiotilla) into each glass, turning the horchata rosy, then top the drink with cubed cantaloupe and broken pecans.