SWEET HEAT MEXICO
No land has rocked my soul more sweetly than Mexico. I've traveled from Baja to Oaxaca and across the Yucat•n Peninsula searching for the secrets to Mexico's sensational sweet heat, and found the most extraordinary food in the most ordinary places. Small nondescript kitchens in rug-making villages. Working-class eateries under freeway overpasses. Off-road beachside shacks. I've cooked with local chefs of all ranks, making masa, moles, and mezcal, whipping up gorgeous salsas from potent ripe chiles, and otherwise engaging in culinary acts of sweet, smoky, fire-roasted deliciousness. I was introduced to the amazing red annatto seed and became an instant devotee of this powerful little flavor igniter.
In Mexico wherever you go, mouthwatering delicacies come warmly wrapped in the superbly satisfying yet modest tortilla: from the pibils and lime soups of the Yucat•n to the barbacoa, pozole, and carnitas of Central Mexico and the sensational seafood of Mexico's Caribbean-inspired southeastern regions. And like a tortilla, Mexican cuisine easily wraps itself around new tastes and crosses culinary borders.
Mexico's big flavors found their way so prominently into my cuisine that I named my restaurants in San Francisco Sweet Heat in homage to these radiant tastes. So it's only fitting we start our journey around the global kitchen here. Buen provecho!
MEXICAN FLAVOR FAMILY
ACHIOTE, CHILES, CILANTRO, CORIANDER SEED, CUMIN, MEXICAN OREGANO, TOMATILLOS
ACHIOTE is a fantastic Central American paste that hails from the brick-red annatto seed. It infuses anything it touches with sexy, bright red-orange color and subtle, smoky, peppery overtones and a slight nutmeg back note. Achiote instantly transforms five dollars' worth of bland chicken into a genius gourmet meal. Alone, it doesn't have much taste, but awakened with water or citrus, its flavor ignites. Use it as a paste or marinade for almost anything: seafood, poultry, vegetables, rice, stews-you name it. You can buy achiote in brick form (small and large) online as well as in most ethnic food stores.
CHILES dominate the Mexican flavor profile, coming in a staggering array of shapes, sizes, and intensities, ranging from mild to mind- blowing. Among my personal favorites: poblano, ancho (a dried, smoked poblano), jalapeÒo, chipotle (a dried, smoked jalapeÒo), guajillo, habanero, serrano, and Anaheim.
CILANTRO, grown from coriander seeds, looks like wispy parsley, but flavorwise it is worlds apart. Cilantro not only brings an unusual lemony, grassy bite that brightens Mexican and Asian cuisines and perfectly offsets heat; it also creates balance, like a slice of lemon in an iced tea. It's also visually beautiful, adding a decorative touch of flamboyant green to sauces, salsas, guacamoles, stews, stir- fries, and other veggie dishes.
CORIANDER SEED is a mini but mighty seed in the Mexican flavor family that also travels the world. Coriander adds a citrusy, aromatic element to food, and like many spices, this bright sunshine seed is best toasted, then ground.
CUMIN is a culinary superstar. This potent aromatic seed has an earthy, peppery flavor that sweetly enhances almost any dish: veggies, meat and poultry, eggs, and sauces. (This versatility makes cumin a key element in other regional staples, like India's garam masala.) Fantastic ground or in seed form (see World Pantry Primer, page xi), this rich and fragrant supernova of flavor partners perfectly with coriander.
MEXICAN OREGANO is a softer, menthol version of the oregano we all have in our cabinets. It adds a warm and slightly bitter flavor to dishes like Achiote Chicken Stew with Spicy Pickled Red Onions (page 12).
TOMATILLOS lend a luscious tang to any meat, poultry, seafood, or vegetable dish. Cooking these small, lime-green fruits releases their piquant sweetness. In the gooseberry family, tomatillos are the base of uniquely Mexican salsas and sauces and appear in everything from guacamole to enchiladas, tacos, and Chilaquiles (page 203).
Salsa is as classic to Mexico as chutneys are to India. Here, tangy pineapples meet spicy habanero chiles for the epitome of sweet heat. This hot, piercing salsa is the rage on everything and was in squeeze bottles on every table at my Sweet Heat restaurants. I created it for fish tacos, but it become a signature condiment. I couldn't make it fast enough!
11/2 cups chopped fresh pineapple 1/2 cup fresh cilantro 1 orange habanero chile, stemmed and chopped 1/2 cup chopped white onion 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 1/2 cup water
1 Add the pineapple, cilantro, habanero, onion, lime juice, salt, and water to a blender and puree until smooth. (You can use canned pineapple, but a lot of the tangy freshness that defines this salsa might be lost.)
2 Serve on fish, chicken, tacos, chips, or with anything else you like.
GRILLED CORN WITH CILANTRO PESTO AND COTIJA CHEESE
Unlike the classic Italian pesto, this piquant Mexican version with cilantro and pumpkin seeds creates a powerful flavor that's fantastic on corn as well as fish or chicken. Instead of serving the corn on the cob, you can cut the kernels off, sautÈ them, and then stir in the pesto for a great corn salad. Feel free to substitute Parmesan cheese if you don't have cotija, and use any leftover pumpkin seeds as snack food with a cocktail while the corn is grilling. The seeds stay fresh for a week if stored tightly covered.
1/4 cup green shelled pumpkin seeds 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon canola oil 2 teaspoons chili powder 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic 2 cups fresh cilantro, washed and large stems removed 1/2 cup grated cotija cheese, plus more for sprinkling (optional) 8 ears of fresh corn
1 Preheat the oven to 450F.
2 In a small bowl, combine the pumpkin seeds, 1 tablespoon of the canola oil, the chili powder, and salt. Mix well. Spread the pumpkin seeds out evenly on a baking sheet and place on the middle rack of the oven. Stir the seeds every few minutes until they are golden brown and crackling, about 10 minutes. When the seeds are done, transfer to another flat pan to cool so they don't overcook on the hot pan.
3 To prepare the pesto, in a food processor, combine the garlic, cilantro, the remaining 3/4 cup canola oil, the roasted pumpkin seeds, and the cotija. Puree until evenly mixed but slightly chunky. Add salt, if desired. Set aside. (The pesto can be covered tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 1 week.)
4 To prepare the corn, preheat a grill to high.
5 Husk the corn and place it on the grill. Leave the grill open and turn the corn every 2 minutes to evenly roast it all around, roughly 10 minutes. Char marks will let you know it's perfectly done. Use tongs to take the corn off the grill and place it on a platter.
6 Using a pastry brush or butter knife, liberally slather the pesto over each ear of corn. Roll the corn around to completely cover it with pesto. Sprinkle with a little more cotija, if desired. Serve immediately.
Excerpted from Jeffrey Saad's Global Kitchen by Jeffrey Saad. Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey Saad. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.