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OUR ANNUAL COOKBOOK SPECIAL

Basic Sophistication

December 12, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

Yes, there are too many cookbooks being published. Too many recycled low-fat ideas, too many cute books, too many recipes and not enough real writing, too much packaging and not enough passion. Still, it wasn't easy for each writer on the Times Food staff to choose just one favorite book from the year. Many worthy cookbooks are not mentioned--though we will describe several notable ones in next week's issue. What follows on the next few pages is a highly subjective list of the cookbooks that pleased us most this year.

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Mexican cookbooks in this country tend to be of two types: either tricked-up, tamed-down "Southwestern" cooking or ultra-authentic, impossibly obscure quasi-ethnographic studies.

The first are mostly written by chefs more interested in promoting their restaurants than in providing workable recipes for the home cook or passing on an accurate sense of how a real cuisine actually tastes.

The second are equally uncookable, being based on the premise that if you can't find the right type of wood to line the pit for your cochinita pibil, well, why bother?

There are exceptions, of course. Patricia Quintana has done some very nice work in high-end Mexican food. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have included some recipes in their books that capture the spirit of Mexican home cooking without pandering to fashion. Mark Miller's book on salsas has some very good, very authentic recipes that are still manageable. And much of Diana Kennedy's work can be readily adapted with just a little tinkering.

But until now, the really shining example of striking a middle ground between the two camps was Rick Bayless' "Authentic Mexican" (William Morrow, 1987). Now there's another: "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen" (Scribner, 1996).

Bayless is chef and owner of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, two of the best Mexican restaurants in the United States (those not familiar with patterns of immigration might be surprised to learn that they're both in Chicago). But his books are anything but chef books.

The strengths of "Authentic Mexican" were Bayless' passion for the true flavors of Mexico and his discernment as to when it is possible to compromise in ingredients and techniques without affecting the essential character of the dish.

"Mexican Kitchen" takes that one step further, filtering it through 10 more years of cooking, tasting and traveling. The food is at once more sophisticated and more elemental.

Best of all, it's a pure blast to cook from. As someone who loves Mexican food but is inexperienced at Mexican cooking, I found it struck exactly the right balance between challenge and reassurance. For example, the world of dried chiles can be puzzling--I can identify many chiles by sight, but what do they taste like? And what of the fine points? What is the difference between light brown and dark brown chipotles?

Bayless lays out the intricacies of the various varieties in forthright, understandable descriptions (the light brown chipotle meco tastes of "brown sugar, ripe pineapple, tobacco and mesquite chips . . . all in a good way" while the black-red chipotle colorado, or morita, tastes of smoky dried sweet cherries and dried orange rind with a rich, lingering heat).

Then he explains the intricacies of preparation--toasting (on a pan? in a broiler? in oil? stem and seed first or not?), soaking (throw away the water; it's acrid), pureeing (in a blender? in a food processor? in a molcajete?) and straining (it's a texture thing). And that's before he even gets to the actual making of a sauce.

Having boned up on the basics, I made the guajillo chilequiles with thick cream, aged cheese and white onion. Once the initial preparation of the chiles is finished (stem and seed, toast, soak, puree in a blender and strain), the mixture slowly simmers into a thick sauce. At the last minute, tortilla chips are mixed in with chopped white onions, then crema fresca, queso an~ejo and chopped cilantro are showered over all.

It was absolutely delicious, that fascinating interplay of flavors--the spice and fruit of chiles, the clean sear of white onions, cilantro's fresh grassiness, salty cheese, rich, sour cream--that is perfectly Mexican.

What's more, every ingredient could be found in my run-of-the-mill neighborhood supermarket. And although it certainly is nothing like quick-cooking, most of the roughly 1 1/2 hours the dish took to prepare was spent in another room playing chess while things soaked and simmered unattended. If you had a big batch of guajillo sauce prepared in advance (not a bad idea considering how delicious it would be as a salsa either for dipping or for enchiladas), the whole thing would come together in less than 15 minutes.

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