Roberto Santibañez understands how intimidating it can be to study the cuisine of another culture. As a young man, he left his home in Mexico City to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. All the new techniques, butter, and cream overwhelmed him at first, but the school broke down the cuisine into meaningful categories. They grouped sauces using similar techniques, and taught that once you make one sauce, it can be applied to 20 dishes. And with a couple of variations, that one sauce can be made into dozens of others.
In Truly Mexican, Santibañez applies this method of cooking and teaching to the cuisine of his homeland: Once you make one adobo, you're equipped to make dozens more. He tips his hat to authors of other great Mexican cookbooks, but unlike most other books, he explains that he doesn't want to showcase Mexico's regional variations; rather, he wants to show how much the seemingly disparate food has in common.
The book's lengthy yet valuable introduction introduces readers to less-familiar ingredients like chayote and epazote, and teaches valuable techniques, like how to render lard and make great tortillas. It includes a chart on chiles with flavor notes, toasting tips, average size, and heat level. And it teaches Santibañez's five commandments of great Mexican cooking: Buy the best ingredients; toast chiles, roast tomatoes; look, touch, smell; pay attention to texture; season to taste.
Unlike many other books, chapters aren't divided by course, but rather into salsas, guacamoles, adobos, moles and pipianes, and sides. Santibañez believes sauces are building blocks for great meals, and each recipe has several serving suggestions in addition to detailed recipes like pork braised in tomatillo sauce, enchiladas made with mole poblano, and adobo-marinated fish or skirt steak.
I've always felt that many Mexican dishes like tamales require the many hands of a large family to prepare because they are so labor-intensive. Santibañez admits that this is the case with a handful of recipes, but that once you learn a few tricks and techniques, most dishes are comparatively easy. Each recipe in Truly Mexican lists the active cooking time, and the cooking-from-start-to-finish time. I wish every cookbook did this. It helps readers gauge whether a recipe is a weeknight dish or a weekend cooking project. There is also advice for making dishes ahead or freezing when possible, both of which can save you a lot of time.
Each recipe includes suggestions for substitutions, since some chiles are harder to find than others. Recipes list both kosher and table salt, which most cookbooks do in the introduction, but who reads the introduction? Seriously, though, the difference is almost double between table salt and kosher salt, and I'm thankful that Santibañez lists both options in each recipe. He also lists many ingredients by volume and weight, which is another detail many cookbooks skip.
Throughout Truly Mexican are sidebars introducing readers to preparation tips or tricks. Recipe headnotes often give a little history about a dish or ingredient, or where it originates. And beautiful photographs show plates of juicy meat, bowls of bright salsas, and various ingredients and techniques.
If the name Roberto Santibañez sounds familiar, it's probably because Leslie Kelly just reviewed his new restaurant at Safeco Field, called The Flying Turtle Cantina. Everyone is talking about the great tortas--Mexican sandwiches--served there. While there aren't any recipes for tortas in Truly Mexican, this video of Santibañez on YouTube shows you everything you need to know.
Read Part II of this week's Cooking the Book's and a recipe from Truly Mexican.