Basic Sophistication

TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

Yes, there are too many cookbooks being published. Too many recycled low-fat ideas, too many cute books, too many recipes and not enough real writing, too much packaging and not enough passion. Still, it wasn't easy for each writer on the Times Food staff to choose just one favorite book from the year. Many worthy cookbooks are not mentioned--though we will describe several notable ones in next week's issue. What follows on the next few pages is a highly subjective list of the cookbooks that pleased us most this year.

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Mexican cookbooks in this country tend to be of two types: either tricked-up, tamed-down "Southwestern" cooking or ultra-authentic, impossibly obscure quasi-ethnographic studies.

The first are mostly written by chefs more interested in promoting their restaurants than in providing workable recipes for the home cook or passing on an accurate sense of how a real cuisine actually tastes.

The second are equally uncookable, being based on the premise that if you can't find the right type of wood to line the pit for your cochinita pibil, well, why bother?

There are exceptions, of course. Patricia Quintana has done some very nice work in high-end Mexican food. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have included some recipes in their books that capture the spirit of Mexican home cooking without pandering to fashion. Mark Miller's book on salsas has some very good, very authentic recipes that are still manageable. And much of Diana Kennedy's work can be readily adapted with just a little tinkering.

But until now, the really shining example of striking a middle ground between the two camps was Rick Bayless' "Authentic Mexican" (William Morrow, 1987). Now there's another: "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen" (Scribner, 1996).

Bayless is chef and owner of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, two of the best Mexican restaurants in the United States (those not familiar with patterns of immigration might be surprised to learn that they're both in Chicago). But his books are anything but chef books.

The strengths of "Authentic Mexican" were Bayless' passion for the true flavors of Mexico and his discernment as to when it is possible to compromise in ingredients and techniques without affecting the essential character of the dish.

"Mexican Kitchen" takes that one step further, filtering it through 10 more years of cooking, tasting and traveling. The food is at once more sophisticated and more elemental.

Best of all, it's a pure blast to cook from. As someone who loves Mexican food but is inexperienced at Mexican cooking, I found it struck exactly the right balance between challenge and reassurance. For example, the world of dried chiles can be puzzling--I can identify many chiles by sight, but what do they taste like? And what of the fine points? What is the difference between light brown and dark brown chipotles?

Bayless lays out the intricacies of the various varieties in forthright, understandable descriptions (the light brown chipotle meco tastes of "brown sugar, ripe pineapple, tobacco and mesquite chips . . . all in a good way" while the black-red chipotle colorado, or morita, tastes of smoky dried sweet cherries and dried orange rind with a rich, lingering heat).

Then he explains the intricacies of preparation--toasting (on a pan? in a broiler? in oil? stem and seed first or not?), soaking (throw away the water; it's acrid), pureeing (in a blender? in a food processor? in a molcajete?) and straining (it's a texture thing). And that's before he even gets to the actual making of a sauce.

Having boned up on the basics, I made the guajillo chilequiles with thick cream, aged cheese and white onion. Once the initial preparation of the chiles is finished (stem and seed, toast, soak, puree in a blender and strain), the mixture slowly simmers into a thick sauce. At the last minute, tortilla chips are mixed in with chopped white onions, then crema fresca, queso an~ejo and chopped cilantro are showered over all.

It was absolutely delicious, that fascinating interplay of flavors--the spice and fruit of chiles, the clean sear of white onions, cilantro's fresh grassiness, salty cheese, rich, sour cream--that is perfectly Mexican.

What's more, every ingredient could be found in my run-of-the-mill neighborhood supermarket. And although it certainly is nothing like quick-cooking, most of the roughly 1 1/2 hours the dish took to prepare was spent in another room playing chess while things soaked and simmered unattended. If you had a big batch of guajillo sauce prepared in advance (not a bad idea considering how delicious it would be as a salsa either for dipping or for enchiladas), the whole thing would come together in less than 15 minutes.

The tacos of creamy braised chard, potatoes and poblanos were almost as good. In fact, I'll take responsibility for any shortcomings as I was rushed and probably should have seasoned more carefully. While the chilequiles took no added salt (probably because of the tortilla chips), the taco filling could have used more (probably because of the potatoes). Best of all, I learned how to make rajas (essentially roasted, shredded poblanos that are then fried with onions and garlic), which, with just a little queso asadero, are probably my favorite taco filling, though they're almost impossible to find at taco stands.

"Mexican Kitchen" focuses more on restaurant and fancy dinner party food than "Authentic Mexican" did--buy the first book if you're more interested in street food and home cooking--but it does so without needlessly encumbering the cook with pointless garnishes and constructions. At the same time, it delivers a straight shot of real Mexican flavors without being pedantic about the fine print of how they're derived.

It's a fine line, and no one walks it better than Bayless.

SMOKY PEANUT MOLE WITH GRILLED QUAIL

Bayless says this is the easiest mole he knows and recommends it for use with "everything from chicken, quail and duck to pork." It is adapted from a recipe in a series of books called "y la comida se hizo."

2 ancho chiles (about 1 ounce total), stemmed and seeded

1/4 cup oil

1/2 small white onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic

1/2 pound tomatoes (1 round or 3 to 4 plum)

1 cup dry-roasted peanuts, plus few tablespoons chopped for garnish

2 slices firm white bread (or 1/2 dry Mexican bolillo), torn into pieces

2 canned chipotle chiles en adobo, seeded

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon (preferably Mexican canela)

About 3 1/2 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup fruity red wine

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

2 bay leaves

Salt, about 1 1/2 teaspoons, depending on saltiness of broth

Sugar, about 1 tablespoon

12 partially boned quail (preferably at least 1/4 pound each)

Freshly ground black pepper

Parsley

Tear ancho chiles into flat pieces, then toast, few at time, on ungreased griddle or skillet over medium heat; press flat with metal spatula for few seconds until chiles crackle and change color slightly, then flip and press again. (If chiles give off more than slight wisp of smoke, they are burning and will add bitter taste to sauce.) In small bowl, cover chiles with hot water and soak 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even soaking. Drain and discard water.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy 4-quart pot (preferably Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add onion and garlic cloves and fry, stirring regularly, until well browned, about 10 minutes. Scrape into blender jar. Set pan aside.

Roast tomatoes on baking sheet 4 inches below very hot broiler until blackened, about 5 minutes, then flip and roast other side. Cool, then peel, collecting juices with tomato. Add tomato to blender, along with 1 cup peanuts, bread, chipotles, drained anchos, allspice and cinnamon. Add 1 1/2 cups broth and blend until smooth, stirring and scraping down sides of blender jar and adding little more liquid if necessary to keep everything moving through blades. Press mixture through medium-mesh strainer into bowl.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in pot over medium-high heat. When hot enough to make drop of puree sizzle sharply, add puree all at once. Stir as nutty-smelling, ruddy-red amalgamation thickens and darkens for about 5 minutes, then stir in remaining 2 cups broth, wine, vinegar and bay leaves. Partly cover and gently simmer over medium-low heat about 45 minutes, stirring regularly for flavors to harmonize. If necessary, thin sauce with little more broth to keep consistency of cream soup. Taste and season with salt, about 1 1/2 teaspoons, and sugar. Cover and keep warm.

Lay quail on baking sheet. Tie legs together with kitchen twine, then brush both sides with remaining oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Lay quail on hottest part of grill, breast-side down. Cover grill and cook about 8 minutes, checking once or twice to ensure quail are not browning too quickly. Flip quail and move to cooler portion of grill (quail finished over cooler fire always seem juicier). Cover and continue grilling until leg meat will separate from bone quite easily when you squeeze leg between 2 fingers, 4 to 6 minutes more.

Remove to plate and keep warm in oven while you set up plates. Ladle generous 1/3 cup sauce onto each of 6 warm dinner plates. Set 2 quail over sauce. Garnish with chopped peanuts and sprigs of parsley.

Note: Mole can be prepared up to 5 days ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered. If oil separates from sauce when reheated, either skim oil off or blend sauce in blender. Quail are best cooked just before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

502 calories; 1,151 mg sodium; 78 mg cholesterol; 35 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams protein; 1.69 grams fiber.

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