Mexican food always tasted the same to me. I was bored with it. Then I visited Mexico several times and was introduced to authentic Mexican cuisine – a far cry from the fare offered at stateside burrito and taco establishments. I fell in love with it. But vacations do end and once again I’d be faced with Americanized versions of a cuisine that I eventually gave up on. That is until I stepped into Jalapeño restaurant in New York City. That was an aha moment for me. A rediscovery of the taste traditions of a Mexico I had explored several years ago and with which I became so enamored. What a joy!
What I love about Jalapeño is the total attention to detail. Oh, not just the service and the plating, which are exquisite. I’m talking about the authenticity of the food. Each and every dish is based on the chef’s family recipes – her grandmother’s to be precise. And you can taste it in such diverse classics as Pulpo a la Plancha, a sautéed octopus and house-made chorizo appetizer in a delicate wine sauce. Or Camerones de Mojo de Ajo, a generous entrée of jumbo shrimp in a gorgeous garlic sauce that’s served with white rice and a grilled plantain. Delectable, I tell you! Or if you’re really feeling adventurous, you can pre-order a marinated suckling pig roasted to sheer perfection. Very impressive. They even elevate the Chile Relleno, one of my favorites, to a new level of culinary art. Imagine a plump, grilled poblano pepper filled with fresh Mexican cheese, calabacita ragu, mushrooms and pumpkin seeds and placed over a savory tomato sauce. Not what you’re used to, right?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why are you tempting me? I can’t visit Jalapeño because I don’t live in New York.” Well, true Mexican cuisine is not a mystery to prepare at home. You can do it easily. It all starts with an authentic recipe. I asked Phyllis Kirigan and of course she was more than happy to oblige. Check out her Cochinita Pibil – or slow roasted Yucatecan Pork – below, and you’ll see what genuine Mexican cuisine is all about. I like her succulent pork in a sandwich, but you’ll find lots of ways to enjoy this unforgettable dish.
Like so many successful culinary endeavors, it’s all in the ingredients. Start out with the freshest and your recipes are half way there. When it comes to Mexican, one is bombarded with shelf after shelf of jarred sauces and pre-made offerings in supermarkets. Buyers beware! They’re not always what I would call bona fide Mexican. And as Phyllis has said to me countless times, “Why waste your money on that packaged stuff when you can easily prepare the real thing with fresh ingredients for less?” She’s right. The end result is always better. You can find so many of the components that make Mexican what it should be in your supermarket or at local Latino markets. Fresh chiles, avocados, tomatoes, plantains, cactus – it’s all there. Dried goods such as beans, rice, pumpkin seeds, spices and unsweetened cocoa are also easy to locate. Or you can always procure your ingredients online.
So the next time you’re thinking about a quick stop at a roadside joint for fast food Mexican, think again. Get yourself a good Mexican recipe, pick up some fresh ingredients, and have a fiesta at home. Or if you’re in New York, check out Jalapeño restaurant . It’s located two blocks from my apartment. Give me a day or two advanced notice, and I’ll meet you there. Buen provecho!
Diana Kennedy, whose mission for the last 45 years has been the documentation and preservation of regional Mexican cuisine, observes, “It gets to the point where, once you’ve tasted it, you can’t do without Mexican food. You hunger for it.” I agree.
I had the good fortune of studying with her at Peter Kump’s Cooking School in NYC, now the Institute for Culinary Education. At 87 years of age, she is still living in a remote area of Mexico, hauling dried corn in her rattling truck across the miles to grind into her own savory tortillas. Her most comprehensive book Oaxaca al Gusto was published in September, 2010.
Cochinita Pibil refers to the famous little pig cooked in a pib, the traditional oven of Yucatan, a pit lined with stones. Fortunately, a vibrant version can be made in your own oven. Cochinita Pibil can be served hot with salsa (recipe below) and tortillas, as a taco filling, in sandwiches, panuchos and any preparation calling for flavorful shredded pork. You need to start this recipe a day in advance, but it is well worth the effort.
1 T annatto seeds
¼ t oregano
3 whole allspice
1/4 t toasted cumin seeds
1/8 t hot paprika
3 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ cup Seville orange juice*
¼ cup quality tequila, such as Patron
1 T salt
3 ½ to 4 ½ lb. pork loin roast
2 large pieces of banana leaf**
Grind the first 6 ingredients in a coffee grinder (used only for spices) to as fine a powder as possible. Puree in a blender or food processor the garlic, orange juice, tequila, and salt. Add the powdered mixture and blend to a smooth paste. Score the meat all over and rub the paste over the meat.
If necessary, render the banana leaves more flexible either by passing them over a bare flame or placing them briefly in hot water. Pat dry. Wrap the meat in them and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Place a rack in the bottom of a Dutch oven and set the wrapped pork on it. Add ½ cup water and cover the pot with a tight fitting lid. Cook in a 350-degree oven for 2 ½ hours. Baste the meat with juices from the bottom of the pot. Continue cooking for another 2 ½ hours until meat is falling apart.
Shred the meat and pour the juices from the pot over it.
*Seville oranges or bitter oranges are not easy to find but can be mail ordered. A near match for a ½ cup is a blend of 1 t finely grated grapefruit rind, 3 T orange juice, 3 T grapefruit juice and 2 T lemon juice. Rice wine vinegar is a good choice for a substitute.
**Fresh banana leaves can be found in the Latin American markets of many cities. They can also be found frozen. They lend a mildly aromatic flavor to the pork.
½ cup finely chopped onion
3 chiles cayenne (or 3 chiles habaneros, seeds and ribs removed, if you can take the heat), finely minced
½ t salt
2/3 cup Seville orange juice*
Mix ingredients together and serve separately to sprinkle on shredded pork.
Inspired by Diana Kennedy and Roberto Rodriguez, Cooking classes
Photographer Bill Brady
Written by Victor Ribaudo
Recipe Provided by Phyllis Kirigin, aka sweetpaprika
Blog syndicated at the datingsymbol.com