Phoenix, Ariz., enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a center of innovative Southwest cooking. For in addition to its many hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints serving border food, its climate and burgeoning population have attracted several world-class chefs anxious to incorporate fresh and spicy local ingredients into their cooking.
New Southwest cooking is a true amalgam of styles and ingredients, with an emphasis on hardwood-grilled meats and assertive sweet, sour and hot flavors. It is a happy combination of the native dishes of local Pueblo Indians and Sonoran Mexicans, the traditional cuisine of the conquering Spaniards and the sensibilities of chefs trained in classic French techniques.
Indigenous ingredients play a starring role: corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, purple Mexican garlic, tomatillos, avocados, prickly pear cactus pads, hominy. Foods are often cooked in corn husks (tamales) or banana leaves or rolled in corn or flour tortillas.
My favorite "upscale" restaurant with a Mexican-oriented kitchen Los Mayas at El Pedregal, a shopping complex in Phoenix with a futuristic Santa Fe look. Chef Donna Nordin, who studied with Diana Kennedy (the Julia Child of Mexican cooking), calls her food "authentic and progressive Mexican." Her dishes are either just as they might be in Mexico City, Oaxaca and the Yucatan, or they are modernized for current tastes.
Instead of the refried beans typical at most Mexican restaurants, Los Mayas serves black bean frijoles, instead of beef tacos there are crispy rolled taquitos filled with chorizo and instead of fajitas the menu offers a fajita salad. Among the other wonderful dishes -- salmon with creamy chipotle sauce, grilled shrimp with spicy melon salsa and avocado-lime pie come to mind -- my vote goes to the easy-to-prepare and delicious pork with pickled red onion and to Ms. Nordin's famous chocolate-pecan pate.
LOS MAYAS COCHINITA PIBIL
1/2 package banana leaves, available in Hispanic grocery stores
L 5 pounds boneless pork butt, trimmed and cut in 2-inch cubes
1 cup orange juice or pineapple juice
1/4 cup lime juice
1 cup achiote paste, available in Hispanic grocery stores
1 teaspoon oregano
salt and pepper to taste
Place a layer of banana leaves in a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Lay pork cubes in pan. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over pork. Cover with additional banana leaves, then cover pan with aluminum foil. Bake in a preheated, 375-degree oven 2 1/2 -3 hours or until tender. Serve with pickled red onion (see recipe below). Serves eight.
LOS MAYAS PICKLED RED ONION
2 red onions, cut in 1/2 -inch thick slices
salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Place onion in a saucepan with salted water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil 1 minute. Drain. Add remaining ingredients to pan. Add water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil 3 minutes. Cool and refrigerate until needed.
LOS MAYAS PATE DE CHOCOLATE
(MEXICAN CHOCOLATE PATE)
1 pound bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces butter
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons Kahlua
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups chopped pecans
Chop chocolate and place in a bowl. Heat butter and cream to scald. Pour over chocolate and stir until melted. Add cinnamon, Kahlua, vanilla and pecans. Pour into a 12- by 3-inch pan and chill. Serve with whipped cream or Kahlua-flavored creme anglaise, if desired. Serves eight.