FOOD WISE: Resolve to explore new tastes in 2013

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Red Snapper Veracruz, ceviche and chips and a margarita. (Photo by Chef Renee Morgan)

Oh good gravy! It’s that time of year again. The time when we make those pesky resolutions. Those promises to ourselves about how we’re going to lose weight, read all the great classics, go to the gym at 5 a.m. every day, leap tall buildings in a single bound and all the rest of that stuff.

I love the idea of resolutions. A fresh start. A chance to change the bad habits of the past year and adopt some new, productive, life-enhancing ones that make a positive impact on us and those around us. Yeah right!

The problem is most of us don’t stick with our resolutions. I think this is partly because we pick things that are too stringent or unrealistic or not specific. Take for example, the ever-popular lose weight goal. That’s pretty generic. Maybe we should be specific and set realistic expectations. Maybe taking baby steps will be more doable. For example, committing yourself to discovering a new vegetable dish each month that might encourage you to eat more veggies and less junk. This is less daunting than, say, losing 50 pounds. Once you’ve mastered that goal, you can always adopt the next healthier choice until little by little, you’ve changed your life. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to discover and learn about new food than the real or imagined deprivation of a strict diet.

Of course, there are other factors to our lack of success with New Year’s

resolutions, as well. Sometimes they were half-hearted to begin with. And let’s face it, none of us like accountability. Ugh! Such an ugly word. That’s why I’ve decided to pick a resolution this year that is entirely about having fun, my kind of fun. Oh, I know I’ll work on the healthy stuff too, like losing weight (or so my doctor tells me), but I prefer not to think of those goals as resolutions so much as an on-going lifestyle change.

I bet you’re dying to hear what my fun resolution is, aren’t you? Well (dramatic pause)….I’m going to explore and cook from the cuisines of countries from around the world. (Crickets chirp) What? You don’t find this to be an exciting endeavor? Ok, let me convince you what a great idea this is. First of all, I’ve always wanted to travel the world and see exotic lands, but that opportunity hasn’t presented itself. This is a way for me to get to experience a small, uhem, taste of those countries. (Pun intended.) Secondly, I’m not just going to pick a dish and cook it. I want to study the country and what foods, spices and herbs are indigenous to their cooking so that will be another way I get to experience the country. I guess I’m kind of a geek that way, learning and doing research for the fun of it. Thirdly, this experiment will make me a better cook as I learn about ingredients that are new to me and cooking methods of other countries. This is how you build true expertise as a chef.

As I explore, I’ll share my findings with you. Well, let me restate that a bit. When it’s good and I think something will be useful and tasty to you, I’ll share. There are bound to be some disasters along the way. I won’t trouble you with those gory details; although some of you may enjoy the inevitable laugh those experiences bring even more.

This week I chose to start close to home with Mexican cuisine. I know, I know. Haven’t we all eaten enough tacos and enchiladas to already know all about that? Oh my goodness, it’s so much more than that. There are so many different regional kinds of cooking in Mexico, much like southern food, Texas barbeque,

Yankee pot roast or a New England lobster boil in the United States.

As you might imagine, Mexican food is heavily influenced by the introduction of imports from Spain during their conquest of the Aztecs. They introduced many of the elements that make Mexican food today so undeniably yummy. The Spaniards introduced olives, capers, rice, cinnamon, many different kinds of meats, as well as, dairy products. They also introduced important cooking techniques like frying. Lucky for us, the Mexicans adopted these foodstuffs readily and even modified some of them to reflect their own dietary preferences.

For example, some of the tastiest elements of Mexican cuisine are the cheeses.

Their famous Chihuahua, Cojeta and Oaxaca cheeses are actually derivatives of sheep’s milk or mozzarella cheeses introduced by the conquistadors.

But it wasn’t just the Spaniards. The French introduced many different kinds of breads and sweets, which led to Mexican versions like bolillos and conchas. The Germans brought with them important beer-brewing techniques and who doesn’t like an ice-cold DosEquis from time to time? Lime and salt for me, please.

Some of the most important flavors of Mexican cooking that are indigenous to the country includes a wide variety of chilis, as well as: corn which is ground into masa (yea! Tamales!) a beautiful assortment of fruits and vegetables, agave, cocoa and vanilla. When you combine what was already in the country with what the Spaniards introduced, can you see the layers of wonderful flavors that begin to develop?

One of the things I love most about Mexican food is that it is so closely tied to the culture and celebration. Birthdays, weddings, Easter, Christmas, quincinera, baptisms, Day of the Dead, Candlemas…its all celebration. I love it! Dishes like mole and tamales are enjoyed only at celebrations and not everyday meals, since they are quite time-consuming to make. Talk about putting the love in your food!

One of the more unpleasant stories I uncovered had to do with the food of Western Mexico. There is a town close to Guadalajara where a hominy stew called Pozole, which was originally made with, gulp, human flesh. Yikes! On a positive note, tequila also comes from the same area.

As I learned more about the country’s food, I found myself faced with an important decision. What to cook? Interior Mexican, Coastal, Yucatan? I could spend many years just cooking Mexican food and not master it all. I couldn’t allow myself to go there, as is it is my nature to get a little obsessed and that isn’t the purpose of this experiment. I finally settled on Coastal Mexican because I was struck with how healthful the dishes are from this region. I think a common misconception is that all Mexican food is fried, covered in cheese and fattening. Not so, particularly with the cuisine of the coast and the Yucatan.

Here’s my menu:

* Tostadas de Ceviche or Shrimp and Tuna Ceviche with Homemade Tortilla Chips – these are easier than they sound. Just cut corn tortillas into six pie-shaped wedges and fry in lard. I know lard sounds bad but when you are frying at a high heat and quickly the chips don’t really absorb that much of the oil. Salt them as soon as they come out of the oil and drain on paper towels.

* Sopa de Hongos y Nopales or Mushroom Cactus Soup with Roasted Tomatillos. Don’t judge. Cactus is wonderful, crunchy and slightly tangy and compliments the woodsy tenderness of the mushrooms.

* Huachinango a la veracruzana or Red Snapper Veracruz – the sauce can be made a day ahead to make cooking easier on the day you are serving the dish. In fact, I liked the taste of the sauce better the second day. The flavors seemed to be more developed.

* Pastel de Tres Leches or Three Milks Cake with Fresh Berries. Oh my goodness, was this meal good and I had the peace of mind of knowing that is was mostly low fat and healthy seafood. Plus, my husband is a happy, happy man! Score! If you want to try some really great Mexican cuisine, I recommend the cookbooks of Chefs Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. Although these two are not Mexican, they have spent many years studying the people and cuisine and living in the country. Their cookbooks are excellent.

Next time, I think I’ll explore Spain. It seems like the next logical step since this week’s country was so heavily influenced by Spanish food. If this week is any indication, 2013 year is going to be fun! Maybe I’ll even change my tune about resolutions. Until next week, bon appetite.

Red Snapper Veracruz

1 3-3/12-pound red snapper, scaled and cleaned or equivalent in fillets

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Olive oil, for pan

Veracruz-Style Sauce, recipe follows

2 to 3 dried bay leaves

3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 small white onion, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse fish under cold running water, inside

and out, being sure to remove all traces of gills and blood. Blot dry with paper towels, inside and out. Lightly season, inside and out, with salt and pepper.

Lightly oil the bottom of a large roasting pan. Cover the bottom of the pan with half of the sauce. Place fish over sauce. Tuck bay leaves, thyme and onion into the cavity of the fish. Pour remaining sauce over fish.

Bake just until the flesh flakes when tested with the tip of a knife, 30 to 40 minutes. Use two large spatulas to transfer fish to a platter spooning sauce and cooking juices over it. Or remove fish from bone and serve on individual plates, with sauce spooned over it. Serve over rice.

Veracruz Sauce

1/2 cup olive oil

10 garlic cloves, 6 left whole, 4 very finely chopped

2 medium white onions, finely chopped

Two 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with their

juice

24 pimento-stuffed green olives, sliced if large

4 to 6 pickled jalapeno chilies, stemmed, seeded, and cut lengthwise into thin strips

2 teaspoons small capers

4 dried bay leaves

1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

4 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried thyme

4 sprigs fresh marjoram, or 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried marjoram

4 sprigs fresh oregano, or 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried Mexican oregano

2 teaspoons coarse salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon

1 cup dry white wine

In a medium stockpot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add whole garlic cloves, and cook, stirring, until golden on all sides. Remove garlic and discard. Add minced garlic and the onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced, about 15 minutes.

Add olives, chilies, capers, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, marjoram, oregano, salt, cinnamon, and wine. Cook until the sauce has thickened to desired consistency, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

If using fresh whole herbs, remove and discard before serving