Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mexican & Nuevo Latino

We had a decidedly Latin American day today (is that the right term? After the mini-lecture/scolding Leo Romero gave us, I'm nervous about using any term incorrectly or offensively!). We started with a morning lecture and demonstration on regional Mexican cuisines, their origins and a short history and culture lesson on ethnic sensitivity.

I think the most compelling part of Leo's lecture this morning was his overview of various foods indigenous to specific regions of Mexico and how it affects the regional cuisines. For example, in the northern areas of Mexico, closest to Texas, there is a larger emphasis on wheat and cattle farming so flour tortillas and beef play a larger role in the local cuisine. The state of Veracruz has a long coastal boarder off the Gulf of Mexico, so seafood is more common in the area's dishes. It's obvious that Mexican food in the US doesn't represent many of the varieties available in Mexico. It's clear that it's not just Chinese food that has a weird hybrid version of itself in the US.

Leo also help clarify a few things I'd been confused about today, particularly in terms of salsa and rice. Whenever I made salsa at home (or at least tried to) I always found that the raw onion flavor would overpower all the other ingredients - not surprising, but frustrating. I always assumed it was because I used too much onion, but when I tasted the salsa that Leo made I realized that it was a matter of marinating the onions (whatever kind you use) in vinegar to help take the edge off the rawness. Very helpful for future attempts at salsa.

And watching him cook the rice was a real eye-opener. I don't think I would have ever thought that Mexican rice gains its flavor by first sauteeing a bit of salsa with the uncooked rice grains until they are toasty brown. It's only after the addition of peas that water (or chicken stock) is added and the rice is steamed. The thought of sauteeing the salsa never crossed my mind, but it really makes a lot of sense. It's an excellent combination of flavors that can be used fresh or as a base flavoring agent. While I don't intend on making Mexican rice anytime soon, I'm glad to know the secret to the flavor.

For lunch, he made an roasted pumpkin seed puree which he served with warm tortillas and chopped hard-boiled eggs. Although it doesn't sound particularly appealing (or filling), the dish was excellent and very satisfying. The seeds took on a creamy texture and the nuttiness of that sauce enhanced some of the sweetness in the corn tortillas. The hard-boiled eggs were cooked properly, so the yolks weren't at all gray or gritty. I really enjoyed the dish and would consider making it at home (once I got a blender).


Carlos Rodriguez was a gem, in my opinion. Despite a bit of chef (and male) bravado, he was a great teacher with a lot of patience and respect for us as students. Some chefs have come in and made us feel stupid, even belittling us, when we don't know something or do something wrong. I think Carlos was a great teacher because he would come and watch us doing something, not necessarily wrong, but perhaps not the most efficient way possible, and show us his method. Sure, other chefs have done the same thing, but Carlos never approached us with a "why the hell are you doing it that way?" but, rather with a "this works for me, let me show you, see if you like it" approach. Not only were people more receptive to it, but I think it showed that he was more open-minded and was willing to acknowledge that other chefs may have demonstrated it in a different way.

I also appreciate his candor about his life, his work and his restaurant. He was the first chef who really opened up to us about food costs, what it's like to cook, when he's been stressed out or had emotional breakdowns on the job. It made it very real for us and gave us a window into the world we might be entering. The chefs from Al Forno tried to tell us a bit about their lives, but the way they told us about it, it was almost confrontational: "You'll be miserable. You'll never have personal lives. Your marriage will fail. You'll be a terrible spouse and parent."
Carlos was really honest and I think it was clear from his passion for food and producing 'nuevo latino' cuisine he loved what he did, even if it kicked his ass sometimes.

I had the opportunity to make lamb empanadas, a dish that I love because of its portability and its possibility for endlessly delicious fillings. I also love that every cuisine in the world has some kind of dumpling-like food, so it was fun to make another culture's turnover/dumpling/what-have-you.

Making the filling and the dough was unexpectedly simple. I somehow convinced myself that the dough was going to be a big, complicated mess and need to rest and roll and... and... and...! I was so glad when after a few minutes of sitting there, it was ready to go and easy to roll out. I thought I was on a roll until we got to the part where we had to close them. Carlos showed us the way to do it, but I don't think any of us got it to look like his. They were all mangled and butchered looking, not at all consistent. I thought it would be easier because I'd made so many dumplings in my life, but apparently not all crimping techniques are created equal.

We deep-fried our empanadas, but I think if I made them again at home, I'd bake them off in the oven. The deep-fried empanadas browned very quickly and turned out perfectly, if not a little bit oily. We served them with a light salad and a mint flavored dressing, that matched the lamb filling very well (funny thing was Leo Romero just talked about how much he hated lamb and mint together this morning).

The next group was making a tuna cerviche with seaweed salad. Carlos explained that the acids found in cerviche didn't actually 'cook' the seafood, so much as it cured it a bit, changing the texture of the flesh. He dropped the slices of tuna in the acid for just a minute instead of letting it just marinate, sitting in the juice. He explained that if you left it in there too long, it would change the texture of the entire slice, rather than just the outside, which gave us a better contrast of textures and flavors. The tangy cerviche tuna over the cool and creamy avocado sauce and the spicy seaweed salad was the perfect blend of textures, flavors and mouth sensations. I think this was exactly what Ana Sortun was talking about when she said that taste isn't only found in fat, but can be added using seasonings. She happened to use spices and herbs (that really didn't agree with me :( ) but, Carlos' flavor profile was perfect, not too busy, pops of contrasting flavors and textures. I think that the flavors in this dish while strong on their own also worked well together -- better, I think, that the flavors in Ana's dishes.

The entree of the afternoon was sugarcane tuna with yucca(?). It wasn't my favorite dish of the day, but what I liked was that it followed the overall theme of the menu but wasn't too matchy-matchy. It was light and flavorful, but this was distinctly meatier than the other two courses which were much lighter in texture and flavor. Carlos felt we should all sit down and eat this course together over some wine so we could ask him questions about his restaurant (opening a second one in Brookline Village), career (wants to retire eventually, doesn't know when) and aspirations (him and a friend sent in video applications for Top Chef).

While we all picked his brain, the final group brought out the torta fluida with mango sauce. The torta fluida was like the best pot of melted chocolate in the world, but for me, the big winner was the mango sauce that had flecks of chili peppers in it. It was sweet and spicy, a really nice balance for me. The chocolate was great, but a little overcooked because they had been done in the convection oven, which does everything at a crazy speed.

I really enjoyed our afternoon with Carlos. I thought him one of our best teachers so far and a genuine person.

Postscript: We went to his restaurant in the South End - what a terrific meal at a pretty fantastic price too. I had the lamb special which was great and the torta fluida which was far better than the one we'd had in class. The true stand out was the pork arepa that was just spectacular. I'm still dreaming about that pork... four days later.