Mexican cuisine combines the traditional indigenous foods of the Aztecs and Mayas, like chocolate, corn, tomato, avocado, beans and chile peppers, with the meats, rice and garlic brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores.
By Reed Hearon
Picture nightfall on the coast of Mexico. A pile of mesquite branches is gathered and a fire is lit. A glistening red snapper, caught moments before, is quickly cleaned and smeared with a paste of citrus and spices. It sizzles briefly as it is laid across the grill.
The sight, sound, and smell of a piece of spicy fish hitting a hot grill conjure up a host of primitive memories. Some accident involving fire probably gave humans their first taste of cooked food. Ever since, fire has been the focus of food preparation and the social activity surrounding it. Even today, in our age of microwaves and frozen food, the backyard grill rekindles a primitive memory of communal feasting.
From the coast of Quintana Roo to the cattle country of Northern Mexico, the grill defines the celebration of life that is Mexican cooking. This is real food. Earthy. Healthful. Full of flavor. Fun-and easy-to cook and eat.
I will begin this exploration of the Mexican grill with brief descriptions of typical ingredients, techniques, and equipment. If in a specific recipe, you find something unfamiliar, please refer back to this section for a full explanation. I will then turn to cooking with recados, one of four essential building blocks of the Mexican grill. Recados are spice mixtures from the Yucatan peninsula and are little known outside of Mexico. Used for seasoning meats, fish, and poultry for the grill, they can usually be assembled in a few minutes and may be made ahead of time.
Salsas are the second crucial building block of the Mexican grill. Colorful, spicy, and always fun, salsas enliven all types of food. Grilled foods seem to demand the picante, cleansing edge that they give. Using techniques from pre-conquest Mexico, we will make more than a dozen salsas, each a bundle of unexpected flavor.
Fresh, soft tortillas form the third building block, bringing together seasoned meat and salsa. Tortillas are indispensable to the Mexican grill. If you've ever seen a four-year-old clutching a piece of meat wrapped in a tortilla, you can appreciate that nothing satisfies quite like a tortilla. And corn, not flour, tortillas are the whole-grain foundation of the Mexican grill.
Finally, we need a fire to grill over. You can grill successfully over gas or charcoal briquettes, or even simulate a grill with a hot iron skillet, but nothing tastes of Mexico like mesquite. Fortunately, mesquite charcoal (not briquettes) is widely available across the United States. I will discuss fires, grills, and most important, what to grill and how to grill it.
Although some of the ingredients sound strange (like epazote) and some of the cooking techniques seem exotic (grilled goat cheese in banana leaves or salmon wrapped in corn husks), the pleasure of the Mexican grill is that it is so simple. It is about a few ingredients, creatively prepared and combined to maximize flavor, then cooked over a fire, and served with spicy, contrasting salsa. You will need to seek out a supply of chiles, and I have given some sources in the next chapter. After that, all you need is a grocery store and a few minutes to savor the simple pleasure of cooking over a fire the Mexican way.
La Parilla: The Mexican Grill
By Reed Hearon
Photographs by Laurie Smith
Chronicle Books, 1996
Price: $19.95, paper
Reprinted by permission
from La Parilla
from Kate's Global Kitchen
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