Get The Ink Out: Fiesta cooking with Bayless

The kitchen is my favorite place in any home. I don't care how pretty it is, if it has the latest gadgets or if it is bigger than a three-car garage. The kitchen is where magic happens.

So when I heard that an amazing magician named Rick Bayless would be doing a cooking demonstration Thursday at the Macy's Home Store, I could hardly contain myself.

Bayless' focus for the demonstration was commemorating events Mexican style, which matches perfectly with his newest book, "Fiesta at Rick's." The audience sipped on Rick's Favorite Summer Soft Drink, also known as agua fresca veraniega, while he talked about why celebrating is the theme of "Fiesta."

Growing up as the fourth generation in a restaurant family, the farthest from his Oklahoma home he'd traveled was Texas and Kansas — that is until he was 14. That year, he got to plan the entire family vacation. He wanted to go somewhere where they spoke another language. Next stop: Mexico City.

The smells from the street vendors below wafted up to their hotel room, there was a palpable sense of fiesta, he said.

"Despite all I've learned about cooking, the thing I learned most from Mexico is how to commemorate moments in life," he said. Whether that be a quincearñera or the first tomato harvested that season, there is always a reason to enjoy good food and good company.

As he spoke about that first trip to Mexico, the smell of bacon drifted through the air. He teased us a bit but didn't say why he had it.

He started his demonstration with guacamole, of course. While slicing open a few Hass avocados, he gave a brief history about them (did you know they were developed in Anaheim in the 1920s?) and the difference between the Hass- and Caribbean-style avocados (Hasses have more oil whereas the Caribbean ones are sweeter but drier). There are two essential flavorings for guacamole: salt and lime.

Then came the onion.

"I'm pointing out that this is a white onion because people are color blind [with yellow onions]," Bayless said. "People think, 'There are red onions or that other kind.'"

Next he added flat leaf parsley. I know, you're thinking, "Where the heck is the cilantro?" Not here, my friend.

He added chopped tomatoes grown in his restaurant's rooftop garden boxes. And for that extra kick Americans crave (in Mexico, Bayless said, guacamole is paired with a fiery salsa on their food instead of eaten with chips), he put in chipotle chilies.

Time for another history lesson.

The Aztecs, according to Bayless, waited to harvest jalapeños until they turned red. Then they would force dry them by putting the chilies into a smoldering pit and covering it all with a mat to create a wonderful smokiness. Maybe it was my mouth starting to drool, but smokiness sure sounded like chipotle to me.

Remember that bacon? Yeah, it went in the guacamole.

Why? Because this is Bayless' take on commemorating his traditions. His family spends an afternoon creating the perfect BLT with the first tomatoes harvested each season. This isn't any regular BLT. It's on fresh bread from a local bakery, bacon from a local farmer, and as that final touch avocado.

Bayless also put together achiote-seared shrimp with quick habañero pickled onions. As I couldn't eat it (curse you, allergy!), I won't go into many details. Here are the take-a-ways: Achiote tastes terrible if it's not cooked. A lot of it will give you flavor. A little will give you a beautiful blood red color. It's great smeared over chunks of pork and cooked for hours. Habañeros are the hottest chilies known to man, but has the most flavor, Bayless said. If you want to try the flavor without the heat, use a razor blade and cut out a tiny piece of the wall, but don't get the vein.

After his demonstration, I was lucky enough to meet Bayless and ask him a couple of questions. Per my father's unwitting request, I asked, "What is your quintessential dish? And how do you make it?"

"If a chef can answer that question, he's a one-note wonder," he said. "A really good chef puts breadth into his food."

Then I asked him my own burning question: How does he motivate himself to cook at the end of a long day?

"It's about perspective," he said. "If you're only looking for the outcome, you're not going to be motivated. It's a process. Get into cutting the lettuce. Sautee an onion and smell it. It's not just about cooking dinner. Some people say they come home, turn on the TV and veg out. You can do that with cooking. Put your mind in neutral and experience the food."

The whole evening was a great fundraiser for Second Harvest Food Bank, housed at Irvine's Great Park. With a $5 donation to get in, and people giving more after they heard an anonymous donor would match what was raised, $900 was raised, according to Kathie Monroe, a spokeswoman for the food bank.

Bayless chose this group for the donations because he said he hates seeing food go to waste and wants to support anyone who rescues food, but that's a topic for another column.

Web Editor JAMIE ROWE can be reached at (714) 966-4634 or

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