After getting through a few recipes in this book, I decided that it was time to make an attempt on a larger scale. The challenge would be a three-course meal for six people (plus hors d' oeuvre).
To begin, chips and guacamole. There is a recipe in the book for standard guacamole on page 44. I've made guacamole so many times that I could do it blindfolded, so I just looked over Bayless' recipe, didn't see any surprises, and moved forward with my usual. Supremely easy, and quite delicious.
Seviche de Sierra
The recipe calls for sierra or Spanish mackerel, alternately substituting grouper or halibut. We wound up buying some astoundingly fresh tilapia, recommended by Dirk's. The tilapia worked out fine, but I want to return to this recipe with a stronger-flavored fish. Next time, I will call in advance and reserve myself some Spanish mackerel.
The preparation for Seviche is astoundingly easy, aside from juicing scores of tiny Mexican limes. The fish gets diced and marinated the night before, and the rest of the ingredients come together in about a half-hour. I've never prepared a seviche before, but I will again. It's a simple way to get big flavors from easy-to-find materials. Also, it's a recipe that you can spin in a hundred different directions, as we've all seen chefs around the city do.
I wish I had a sharper picture of the seviche:
Crema de Elote
A delicious cream of corn soup with roasted poblanos, garnished with queso fresco and chopped parsley. This recipe seems like a no brainer at first glance: get together your ingredients, blend, add milk and cream, simmer. After sitting down at eating it, you realize what separates the chefs from the hacks: texture and thickness. My guests seemed to really enjoy the flavor of the soup, but I was put off by a gritty textured and overly-thick soup. What seemed like the right consistency over the stove quickly thickened up in the bowl. The grittiness would have been solved with a proper sieve and a looser consistency.
Next time I serve a cream soup, I'll make it slightly thinner than I think it needs and I'll serve it in warm bowls.
In spite of my criticism, it is a nice, hearty soup with sweet and smoky flavors. Roasted poblanos really make it shine.
Chicken marinated in recado rojo
(achiote paste) and bitter orange juice, steamed in banana leaves with onions and chiles, served with pickled onions.
This recipe required the most advance preparation of any recipe I've tried in this book. I made the onions on Wednesday, the achiote paste and mock-bitter OJ (p 340) on Thursday, and everything went into the marinade on Friday. Saturday afternoon I prepared all the packages for steaming, which I could take care of closer to dinner time.
Bayless makes the package construction sound simple, but there's one major issue that I had. After thawing the banana leaves, I found that nearly every piece was split at the point it was folded. This didn't provide for a very water-tight package. So, I had to double-wrap some of them, which did not affect cooking time at all. My steamer was only large enough to manage two packages at a time, so the finished ones stayed warm in a low oven.
When I put the packages together, I did not have high hopes for the result. The marinade seemed agressively flavored and I wasn't confident about the presentation. Also, I don't like making things that I can't taste or check on throughout the process. This was a leap of faith.
The leap landed well, at least for those who were straight out of the steamer. The chicken that was held over in the oven was overly dry. In spite of that, they presented themselves very well, and the banana leaves added a new dimension to the flavor that I didn't account for when I originally tasted the marinade.
The recipe called for chiles xcatiques
, which I could not find. So, I used the recommended substitute of a Hungarian wax pepper (which seem to be ubiquitous in Mexican markets. These peppers added a nice heat dimension to the dish, but I don't like the consistency of steamed pepper strips.
The dish worked out nicely. Everyone was impressed with the banana leaf presentation, and I enjoyed the earthy-flavored chunks of chicken with a corn tortilla and some pickled onions.
petit pois whipped up two outstanding desserts which outshone any of my three courses. First, Ghiardelli chocolate truffles, both plain and flavored with chile de arbol
. The arbol truffles were deceptively chocolately at first, followed by a hit of red, hot chile. Excellent. There are quite a few remaining. First come, first served!
(The toothpick indicated that this was the plate of the hot ones).
Her second dessert was a pineapple-mango upside-down cake from "The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook" (an excellent cookbook, if only for it's aggressive use of photography). This cake was sweet, fruity, buttery and soft. It went well with a cup of coffee and some ice cream (although some whipped cream might be better). Amazingly, it looked exactly like the food-styled photo in the book.
Overall, I was more impressed with the fact that I could pull off a three-course dinner for six than with the food that I made. I think in the frenzy to orchestrate the evening, I let some things slip that would have made the dishes even better. It is nice to have made a few things that I've never attempted before like seviche and achiote paste. But I'm not cooking another recipe in this book until I buy a couple new sieves of various size.