A quick flip through "Mexico the Beautiful Cookbook," by Susanna Palazuelos and Marilyn Tausend, will quickly convince any reader that there is more to Mexico than "tacos, tamales and tongue-scorching salsas."
This is a big -- and expensive -- book (Collins, 256 pages, $45). It is the sixth in the series of "beautiful cookbooks," each of which is oversized and lavishly illustrated with superb color photography, by Ignacio Urquiza in this case. Consequently, it is difficult to decide whether to leave it on a coffee table to be admired by guests or lug it into the kitchen to consume counter space.
I'd suggest that a reader take time to read Ms. Tausend's knowledgeable text, then take on the more than 250 recipes assembled by Ms. Palazuelos, an admitted "food lover" who said she has been collecting these recipes for years. They are, for the most part, traditional recipes readily found in Mexico City, Monterrey, Merida, Durango, Veracruz and Chihuahua.
Her family has an interesting culinary history. For instance, one ancestor is Narciso Bassols, the author of one of Mexico's first cookbooks, "La Cocinera Poblana," published in 1895. Ms. Palazuelos is a noted caterer and a member of Circulo Mexicano de Arte Culinario, a group honoring the nation's top women chefs.
Those exploring Mexico's culinary arts for the first time will undoubtedly be struck by the variety, by the rich flavors and arresting aromas, and by the fact that not absolutely every dish is as hot as a blast furnace. Even those that call for a fiery chili or two can be cut back to taste.
While Ms. Tausend explores the history and cultures found in Mexico's 31 districts, Ms. Palazuelos brings it all to life in chapters devoted to soups, snacks, seafood, meat, poultry, vegetables, salads, breads and desserts. Particularly strong, I thought, were her sopas, ranging from a classic tortilla soup to a recent arrival, pasta soup. In between are such sopa delights as cream of avocado, squash blossom, black bean, garlic, melon, crab, vegetable with radish sauce and the wonderful lime soup presented herein.
The farther away cooks are from Mexico, the more difficult it may be to obtain some of the ingredients, but Ms. Palazuelos usually notes substitutes.
If there is one traditional dish of the Yucatan peninsula, it is said to be lime soup. The bittersweet limes of the Yucatan, variously referred to as citrus limetta or lima agria, are difficult to find outside the Yucatan, even in Mexico. A close cousin is the small Key lime of Florida, but since even this is often hard to come by, this recipe can be made with the sweeter, larger Persian limes as a substitute. The fried tortilla strips, listed as optional, give this tasty hot soup a nice, crispy topping. The side dish of avocado is optional, too.
Sopa de lima (lime soup)
L 2 whole (and skinless) chicken breasts, about 12 ounces each
10 cups water
3 cloves garlic
3 small sprigs cilantro (coriander)
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 (1-inch) stick cinnamon
1 whole clove
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon oil
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup finely chopped green bell pepper (capsicum)
2 cups peeled and chopped tomatoes
6 Key limes, 3 sliced, 3 halved (or 3 Persian limes as substitute; 2 sliced, 1 cut into sixths)
4 chicken livers, cut up
rTC 1 avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced (optional)
fried tortilla strips (optional)
Place the chicken breasts, water, garlic, onion, cilantro and salt in a large pot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil and cook, covered, over low heat for 35 to 40 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Strain and reserve the stock. Shred the chicken and set aside.
Toast the cumin, cinnamon, clove and oregano in a small skillet, then transfer to a blender. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved chicken stock and puree.
Heat the oil in a deep, Dutch oven-like pot with a cover, add the red onion and saute for 2 minutes or until transparent. Add the pepper and saute for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook over medium heat for 7 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the rest of the chicken stock and the pureed spices. When the broth comes to a boil, add 2 of the sliced Key limes (or all but 6 slices of 2 Persian limes), the chicken and the chicken livers. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Correct the seasonings.
To serve, place a slice of lime in the bottom of each bowl and cover with the hot soup. Pass a small plate of Key lime halves (in sixths for Persian limes) and avocado slices separately so individual soup portions can be topped with the avocado, if desired, and lime juice added to taste.
If you like, you can fry some tortilla strips and serve them as garnish (2 or 3 tortillas from a package, cut into 2- to 3-inch strips and fried in oil until lightly browned, should be sufficient).