A Fresh Look At Mexican Cuisine

July 07, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Picture the best Mexican meal you have ever eaten in a restaurant -- creamy guacamole with crisp tostados, a tortilla wrapped around cheese and spicy Chorizo, mysterious but wonderful fried ice cream.

OK. Got it in your memory bank? Now, wipe it out.

Patricia Quintana wants you to forget everything that you thought you knew about Mexican food. She wants you to understand that salsa is more than pico de gallo. That chilies are more than jalapenos and serranos. That vanilla isn't just a flavoring for baking. And that Mexican cuisine can mean an elegant presentation of hearts of palm soup, chicken with almond mole and chocolate meringues with mint sauce.

Patricia Quintana, a culinary ambassador often described as Mexico's Julia Child, has been researching traditional cuisine of her homeland for the past 26 years, has written three cookbooks and now is preparing a pilot for "Patricia Quintana's Flavors of Mexico," a cooking show produced by Maryland Public Television. If the concept sells to underwriters, MPT will go into production with a 26-part series, showing her at home shopping the markets and talking to people in Mexico and preparing food back here in the studio kitchen.

"People understand Mexican food, but they don't understand Mexican cuisine," Ms. Quintana said in an interview recently at Sisson's restaurant, where chef Bill Aydlett prepared a dinner in her honor using recipes from her latest book, "Mexico's Feasts of Life" (Council Oak, $39.95). "Mexican food has been adapted to the palate of the American people."

These adaptations -- from tacos to refried beans -- tell only a small part of her Mexican food story, which relies on more than 300 varieties of chili, salsas that contain everything from feta cheese and oregano to orange juice and tortillas that are blue, white, yellow, pink, even green.

The way to introduce yourself to the real Mexican cuisine, she said, is to familiarize yourself with the basic ingredients.

The cuisine is based on corn or masa -- the raw material for the tortilla. These corn cakes can be folded, rolled, toasted, fried, stuffed or shredded. They can don many disguises -- taco, tostada, enchilada, quesadilla, gorita, panucho.

Besides corn, the other fundamental ingredient is chilies -- a long list of peppers ranging from mild to four-alarm fire. In addition to type, the same chili can change character if it is dried, roasted and peeled or merely warmed to bring out the flavor. For example, the chipotle is a mildly hot, smoked and dried jalapeno pepper, and an ancho is a mild, dried poblano pepper.

Another basic to learn is technique, starting with use of what the Mexicans call a molcajete -- a three-legged mortar made of black volcanic stone or scored clay in which the ingredients for fresh salsas are ground by hand. (Locally, you can find stone mortars and pestles for under $20 in ethnic food stores, such as the

Thai-Phillipine Oriental Foods store located at 523 Gorsuch Ave.)

"We still do the same salsas that we did 3,000 years ago, using the mortar and pestle," she said. "I don't know what happens. It's a magical taste and you don't get the same results using a food processor."

The best way to learn about salsas, she added, is to make a basic version and then creatively add to it. Here are her suggestions on making a basic salsa:

The basics: Take 4 ripe roma tomatoes and roast them over a gas grill, over an open fire or in a cast-iron skillet until the skin turns black. Put aside. Grind 2 cloves of garlic with salt in a large mortar and pestle. Then add 1 to 2 toasted jalapenos and make a paste. Then add the tomatoes and grind into a thick sauce.

Thick or thin: If you want the salsa thick, leave it alone. If you prefer a thinner sauce, add beer, broth, tequila or water and mix until it reaches the desired consistency.

Flavoring options: Get as creative as you wish by adding sliced avocado, chopped onion, cilantro, olive oil or any combination of ingredients.

Uses: The salsa can be used with shish kebabs, on poached fish, pasta, cold shrimp, beans barbecued or grilled pork chops, chicken or meats. It can be whisked into cream for a piquant sauce for crepes or omelets. Or the salsa can be spooned onto an open-faced cheese sandwich.

But Ms. Quintana's version of contemporary Mexican cuisine that she calls "cocina nueva" goes well beyond the basics of corn and salsa. Her interpretation, based on ancient customs and ceremonies, is infused with the knowledge and influence of the French chefs she studied with -- Michel Guerard and Gaston Lenotre. Like them, she pays greater attention to detail and garnish and has lightened the food -- using less oil and indigenous fresh herbs and vegetables.

"My style of cooking is to bring sophistication to traditional recipes and give Mexican food the recognition and honor it deserves," she said. "I add a touch of presentation and new creativity to traditional Mexican food without forgetting the basics."

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