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Read up on some of 2014’s most-loved cookbooks, tested and reviewed by the one and only Food52 community.
The bright pink color caught my attention first; then the title, Mexico: The Cookbook. Before I even checked the index, I wondered: Would this book contain what I had been looking for? I'd been long searching for a recipe for sweet tamales made with strawberries.
My obsession with this tamale comes from my yearly winter visits to Puerto Vallarta, a seaside town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Ms. Vicky, the town’s tamale stand owner, has not had them on my previous five visits (sigh), and even the local food vendors at the Saturday market weren't selling them. Based on what I’d seen offered during my evening waterfront strolls, they were tempting locals with corn prepared in other ways: on a stick; kernels fried with various chillies; or in a cup, covered with queso, mayo, spices, or lime.
But, bingo! There it was, on page 644 of my Mexico: The Cookbook: Tamales de Fresa, or strawberry tamales. On the opposite page was a picture of the rosy dough, wrapped in corn husk and set on a typical Mexican-style plate. Oh, how I wished I could have jumped into that picture and enjoyed them straight away. But, should I buy this book for just one recipe? I did buy the book, of course -- for that recipe, but also for the others that I was delighted to find inside.
Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s book is a tome on Mexican cuisine. Surpassing 700 pages, she provides any cook with a great reference guide to complement their cookbook collection. I already have several Mexican cookbooks, but this one has a wider scope of Mexican cuisine than some of the others I have -- and all in one place.
More: Find out what Arronte considers the 10 essential tools for Mexican cooking.
In her introduction, Arronte covers the history of Mexican cuisine and its influences. I wasn’t surprised to read that “without corn, we have no country” -- and no tamales, I might add. She divides her book into 11 sections -- from rice and beans to fish and seafood to sauces, drinks, and desserts. The first section, “Street Food and Snacks,” has over 100 pages, connecting readers with familiar Mexican favorites: guacamole, enchiladas, gorditas, quesadillas, tacos, and tostadas. And she makes these recipes easy to execute; whether you're a novice or an expert in Mexican cuisine, you're in good hands here. Everyone will like these early pages.
I didn’t make any of this section’s recipes, but I certainly appreciated Arronte’s description of where every one of the 700 recipes originated. She also provides you with the preparation time, cooking time, and serving sizes, which is always appreciated. However, a regional map of Mexico would have been a helpful addition, so that the reader could also locate the origin of these recipes geographically.
No matter your experience or knowledge of Mexican cuisine, you will soon discover that it isn’t always about moles, corn, or chiles. Arronte’s Shrimp with Chipotle Sauce includes grated ginger and is delicious served with her recipe for plain rice. I have never cooked chayote before, but I tackled her Pickled Chayote Salad with ease and made a note to put it on a summer barbecue menu. And while my chicken didn’t hit a grill but rather an oven, the recipe for Grilled Chicken with Cilantro and Lemon was a quick weeknight dinner. I also found many other recipes that I could easily make during the week, like Pork and Beans. Should you have more time, this cookbook also features the infamous spicy stew Birria from Jalisco and Cochinita Pibil, a well-known slow-roasted pork recipe from the Yucatan.
More: Thinking about picking up a copy of Mexico? Better get your hands on some dried Mexican chile peppers.
As a Canadian, our major grocery stores are just starting to carry typical Mexican cooking ingredients: Fresh poblanos, tomatillos, masa flour, and various dried chiles are all finding their way here. Many other ingredients used in Arronte’s book remain elusive, however: epazote, grasshoppers, nopalitos (cactus paddles), banana leaves, and some cheeses.
No matter this challenge, the book is exhaustive in its recipes and scope and, like the other one-country subject books from Phaidon, is a one-stop, easy-to-read resource with great pictures and a clear index. If you are a collector of these books, like India, add this one to your collection, too. As for the tamales, I have already planned to devote a summer weekend to making them. Wish me luck!
First photo by Mark Weinberg; all others by James Ransom