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Down Mexico Way

South of the Border, the Food Is Fiery and the Tequila Smokes

August 06, 2000|AMELIA SALTSMAN | Amelia Saltsman last wrote about fire-roasted eggplant salad for the magazine

I ADMIT IT. MY CULINARY AND DISTILLERY geography's a bit hazy when it comes to Mexico. I have to consult a map to remind myself that Oaxaca--home of the smoky, rustic liquor mezcal--is just a stone's throw from Guatemala and a very long way from Tex-Mex. Or that tequila was named after the town that lies between Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. Add to that the complexities of various regional Mexican cuisines, which bear little resemblance to the border food that Southern Californians love, and I felt compelled to shore up my knowledge.

To remedy my plight, I drove up one Sunday through summer fog to the sunny crest of a Westside canyon to visit my friend Nancy Zaslavsky, author of "A Cook's Tour of Mexico" and "Meatless Mexican Home Cooking." I'd gone literally and figuratively to the mountaintop; Nancy is nearly encyclopedic on the topic and leads culinary tours to her favorite haunts in Mexico.

She eased my mind immediately. "Though southern Mexico has a world class-cuisine--nothing like border food--it is unfamiliar to most Americans." Nancy and her husband, Morris, have been exploring Mexico's markets and kitchens since their first road trip to Ensenada in 1970 after relocating to Los Angeles from New York.

Like other evolved cookery, she says, southern Mexican dishes are about layering flavors, in this case, riffs on heat and smoke forged from Spanish and Caribbean influences. And like other fine cuisines, southern Mexican cooking has its superior spirits.

Tequila and mezcal, made from the heart of the agave, a lily relative, defy flavor comparisons since most alcohol is made from grains, fruits or vegetables. As Nancy points out, "Tequila tastes like itself and can be measured only against other tequilas."

The best are 100% pure Weber blue agave (maguey in Spanish) and legally produced only in Jalisco and parts of Guanajuato, Nyarit, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan. The cores (pinas) are steamed in brick ovens, naturally fermented and distilled. Much tequila is immediately bottled young as joven, also called "silver," "white" or "clear," the vanilla notes unadulterated by aging or the additives found in lesser tequilas.

Tequila reposado is oak barrel "rested" from 2 to 12 months and tequila anejo is aged 1 to 5 years. More golden, complex and smooth than the silver, they're best sipped like fine scotch or cognac.

For the mezcals, the pinas are roasted to give the liquor smoky overtones, with the alcohol content nearing the 100-proof mark. The best mezcals, which come from small Oaxacan villages, are made from several agave varieties and, unless they are mezcal con gusano, aren't bottled with a caterpillar. Wouldn't you know, as connoisseurs turn their attention to these potent potions, increased demand for tequila has created an agave shortage and prices are rising.

But there was no lack of tequila that afternoon as Nancy and I cooked and chatted in her kitchen. Black beans Veracruzana, smoky sweet with pilo cillo sugar and chipotle chiles, bubbled gently in the clay cazuela on the stove. Nancy blended a toasted tomato-peanut salsa from San Miguel d'Allende and Michoacan blackberry-citrus salsa while I plucked rose-tinged amaranth leaves for earthy Guanajuato-style braised potatoes and greens. Jalisco chicken adobado, rich with lime, tequila, chiles and spices, and Puebla tequila-and-chipotle-rubbed lamb lay marinating in the fridge. It was obvious that this menu was wonderfully do-ahead, and contrary to popular thinking about Mexican cooking, used only two tablespoons of oil.

As the sun slipped behind the mountain, guests began to arrive and we gathered on the guava-and-epazote-bordered patio to sip silver tequila and fresh-lime margaritas, "a cocktail designed to pique the appetite." She kept it simple so we'd taste the counterpoint between citrus and spirit: no salt, no aged, oaky tequila, and most certainly no frothing in a blender. Just 1 part lime, 1/2 part Cointreau and 11/2 parts top-notch tequila.

The aroma of grilling meat and homemade tortillas cooking on a comal over hot coals soon beckoned us to tables set with bright, hand-woven cloths from Michoacan and Oaxaca. With one bite of my taco--succulent crisp-skinned chunks of chicken zingy with fresh-squeezed lime and tequila, a smear of creamy beans, blackberry-citrus salsa and the chewy, homemade tortilla--I got it. I experienced the smoldering heat from the marinade's dried ancho and guajillo chiles, the citrus and tequila undertones and the fruity notes of fresh manzano chile in the garnet-colored salsa, all wrapped in the tortilla's earthiness.

The sky darkened, the candles in iguana-shaped sconces flickered like reptilian tongues, and we felt the evening's coolness. We sipped tequila anejo and Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal from Chichicaps. I think my geography lesson went quite well.

Pollo Adobado

(Grilled Chile-Tequila Chicken)

Adapted from "A Cook's Tour of Mexico,"

by Nancy Zaslavsky (St. Martin's Press, 1995)

Serves 8

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