Chef Rick Bayless sets the Mexican standard in the United States, at all price points, with a fleet of first-class eateries, all in Chicago and the surrounding area, except for a Philadelphia location.
He’s written eight cookbooks, and his Frontera Foods company makes sauces, marinades and tortilla chips for supermarkets.
And, yes, he also has a television show, “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” on PBS.
So you’d think Bayless, 61,would know pretty much all there is to know about Mexican food. Think again.
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“I always learn something,” Bayless said of his travels throughout Mexico for the show.
When Rick Bayless was a boy (growing up in Oklahoma City) and his family was watching sports, he would hop on his bicycle and head to his neighborhood library.
There, he would spend hours poring over the library’s extensive collection of cookbooks.
The Oklahoma City library “saved my life during that time, and it showed me how a culture expressed itself through its food and its food traditions,” Bayless said.
“I first went to Mexico when I was 14, and I absolutely felt at home. Most people, when they go to foreign countries, say ‘Wow, this is weird.’ But I just loved it,” he said.
The food in Mexico is far, far more diverse than most Americans realize, and the culture is more intricate. Americans tend to think that all of Mexico is like the northern section that is next to the United States, an area of desert and relatively little population, he said. And the vast majority of Americans who visit Mexico go only to the beach areas that are heavily Americanized.
“Seventy percent of Mexico is high in the mountains,” he said. “My Mexico is Mexico City and south.”
The country continues to astonish and delight him. He recently returned from a trip there, and said, “Mexico City, I think, has a better restaurant culture right now than New York City.”
With nearly 9 million residents, the cosmopolitan city boasts chefs who are exploring foods from all around the world, but Bayless is most excited by the ones who are creating modern variations on traditional Mexican cuisine.
“I was in a place where this one chef did an absolutely perfect little square of confit pork and he served it with a velvety green mole sauce, and then he dotted it with microgreens and served it with a mix of green Mexican squash, like chayote. It was one of the most stunning plates that I had ever seen. And it had all of the satisfaction of grandma’s green mole with pork stew in it, but it had this great texture and it was a stunningly beautiful dish.
“That, to me, is the heart and soul of Mexican cooking.”
Here are three of his recipes.
Classic Mexican rice with fresh vegetables
Prep: 20 minutes; cook: 25 minutes; makes about 3 1/2 cups, 4 servings
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup long- or medium-grain rice
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled, finely diced
1 or 2 serranos or 1 large jalapeno chile, stemmed, deseeded and chopped
1 ripe, medium-small tomato, roasted or boiled, cored and peeled, or half of a 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained (preferably Glen Muir)
1 1/2 cups broth (preferably poultry) or water
Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon if using salted broth, 1 teaspoon if using unsalted broth or water
1 cup fresh or (defrosted) frozen peas, optional
1 large carrot, peeled, chopped into 1/4-inch dice, optional
Several sprigs fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
Frying the rice: About 40 minutes before serving, measure the oil into a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan set over medium heat. Add the rice and onion; cook, stirring regularly, until both are lightly browned, 7-10 minutes. Mix in the garlic; cook a minute longer.
The liquid ingredients: While the rice is frying, prepare the tomato: Seed it, if you like, by cutting it in half width-wise and squeezing out the seeds, then puree it in a blender or food processor. Pour the broth or water into a small saucepan, add the salt and bring just to a simmer.
Simmering and steaming the rice: Add the pureed tomato and the chopped chiles to the browned rice and cook for a minute, stirring several times. Add the simmering broth, stir the rice, scrape down the sides of the pot, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, 15 minutes; turn off the heat, and let the rice stand, covered, until the grains are tender (but not splayed), 5-10 minutes.
The optional vegetables: While the rice is cooking, simmer the fresh peas until tender (4 to 20 minutes, depending on size and freshness), then drain and set aside; frozen peas only need to be defrosted. Separately, simmer the carrot 5 to 8 minutes, drain and add to the fresh or defrosted peas.
Finishing the rice: When the rice is tender, add the optional vegetables and fluff with a fork to separate the grains and stop the cooking. Scoop the rice into a warm serving dish, decorate it with fresh coriander or parsley, and it is ready to serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 294 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 52 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 662 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Herb green ceviche with cucumber
Makes about 4 1/2 cups, serving 8-10 as a starter
FOR A SCANT 1 CUP OF HERB SEASONING:
1/2 head garlic, cloves broken apart, unpeeled
2-3 fresh serrano chilies
1 medium bunch cilantro (thick bottom stems cut off)
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley (thick bottom stems cut off)
1/2 cup olive oil
FOR FINISHING THE CEVICHE:
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless Alaskan halibut fillets or ahi tuna — cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 (7 ounces total) small “pickle” cucumbers or Persian (baby) cucumbers, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 ripe large avocados, pitted, flesh scooped from skin and then cut into cubes
Lettuce leaves (butter lettuce works great here), for garnish
Make the herb seasoning: Set a dry skillet over medium heat. Lay in the unpeeled garlic cloves and chiles.
Roast, turning frequently, until soft and blotchy brown in spots, about 10 minutes for the chilies and 15 minutes for the garlic.
Cool until handleable, then slip the skins off the garlic, pull the stems off the chilies and roughly chop (no need to remove the seeds). Place in a food processor along with the cilantro (about 1 cup if packed), parsley (about 1 cup if packed), oil and 2 generous teaspoons salt. Process until nearly smooth (it will be pasty). Scrape into a storage container and refrigerate until serving time.
Finish the ceviche: In a large bowl, whisk together the lime juice and 1/2 cup of the herb seasoning. (Cover and refrigerate the remainder for another preparation.)
Add the fish and cucumber, and stir to combine. To blend the flavors, cover and refrigerate for a half hour (for best results no more than an hour).
Taste and season with a little more lime juice or salt if you think necessary, gently stir in the avocado (save a little for garnish if you want), then serve on lettuce leaf-lined plates or in martini glasses.
Note: You’ll have more than you need of the herb mixture. Store it in a covered container in the refrigerator (pour a film of oil over the top). It’ll keep for a month or more. Smear it on chicken before grilling or roasting it or stir it into scrambled eggs. You can also add to salad dressing and cream sauces. It’ll make your everyday cooking taste special-occasion.
Working ahead: The herb seasoning can be stored in the refrigerator for a month or more. All the basic prep work can be done early in the day you’re serving; store everything separately, covered, in the refrigerator. Mix and season the ceviche shortly before serving -- no more than an hour -- waiting to add the avocado until the guests have assembled.
Sparkling ginger margarita
Prep: 10 minutes Chill: 2 hours Makes: 8 cocktails
16 thin slices fresh ginger, unpeeled, coarsely chopped
8 fresh kaffir lime leaves, halved lengthwise, optional
1 1/2 cups 100 percent blue agave blanco tequila
1/2 cup fresh Key lime juice
1/2 cup orange curacao or other triple sec
1/4 cup ginger agave syrup, see recipe
1 cup sparkling wine
Muddle ginger and half the kaffir leaves, if using, in the bottom of a pitcher. Add tequila, lime juice, curacao and syrup. Stir; refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours.
Fill cocktail shaker half full with ice. Pour in 2/3 cup margarita mixture, including a small amount of muddled ginger and lime leaf. Shake; strain into two martini glasses. Top each with sparkling wine. Repeat with remaining mixture. Slap each leaf between your palms to release aroma. Float a piece atop each drink.
Ginger agave syrup: Heat 1/2 cup light agave syrup or simple syrup, 2 tablespoons water and 1/4 cup finely chopped, unpeeled ginger in a saucepan over medium heat. When mixture reaches a simmer, time for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature; strain.