Sunday, October 02, 2005

Cookbook Review: Healthy Mexican Regional Cookery

I've got a relatively modest cookbook collection of 30-40 volumes, and most of them aren't really worth reviewing, but from time to time I'm going to indulge myself and write a review here. Particularly of cookbooks that have particular personal importance or that I think are overlooked. I'm not, for example, going to review Joy of Cooking.

Seven or eight years ago I picked up a cookbook called Healthy Mexican Regional Cookery: A Culinary Travelogue, by Lotte Mendelsohn. Living in the culinary wasteland of Urbana, Illinois, I was looking for real Mexican food, perhaps as a way of connecting with my New Mexican roots. (Despite the fact that New Mexican food, although better than Americanized Tex-Mex food, is not particularly "authentic".) Aside from a couple of New Mexican cookbooks, it's the only Mexican cookbook I've ever purchased.

About the title. The book is definitely about Mexican Regional cuisine, with recipes organized by region, starting out with the border cuisine most familiar to Americans, and ending with Oaxaca and the Yucatan. And there's some travelogue going on, with short essays about topics like chiles, and tomatos, and the author's experiences in various parts of Mexico. And each recipe has a brief note about where she first encountered the dish, or why it's important. So that's entertaining.

But "healthy"?! Compared with a couple of Tacos Grande from Taco Bell, maybe. But there is the recipe for Chiles Rellenos Los Mochis, where you stuff chiles with chorizo sausage and cheese, then smother them with sour cream and bake. Low fat in no way, shape, or form. Some astonishing proportion of the recipes in this cookbook feature bacon. This said, eating healthy is, in my view, about reasonable portions of great food, and maybe if you only had one chile relleno, you might survive. As long as you didn't have the canteloupe pudding, Postre de Melon de Apatzingan, for dessert... ingredients: 1/2 pound almonds, 2 canteloupes, 6 egg yolks, 3 cups (!) sugar, 1 cup heavy cream. Mmm...

OK, back to the review. One of things I particularly like about this cookbook is that it emphasizes the regional differences, and specialties, of what is a very diverse, but not very rich country. From the gulf coast, there are recipes for crab soup and chiles stuffed with sardines. I just made a Salsa Verde de Pepita, with tomatillos, epazote, and pumpkin seeds, so be served over chicken or wild fowl. (Epizote is kinda like cilantro, but with a sharper flavor. Available pretty much only in Mexican markets.) Very good, and not like anything I've had before. Many of the recipes seem like rural festival food to me -- somewhat complicated, but relying on spices (and yes, fats!) rather than expensive cuts of meat or fancy non-local ingredients.

The book covers good versions of standards like Mexican-style rice, several types of mole, and black beans, but these are intersperced in with other much less familiar dishes from the same regions. Or there are surprising regional variations, like tacos from the Yucatan, with eggs instead of meat. I should plug the booze recipes too, like the fermented fruit beer...

I do recommend this cookbook, but more than that, I appreciate cookbooks that explore regional cuisines, much more than those written by celebrity chefs. And I would love to find a restaurant in New York City that serves the kind of food described in this cookbook.

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