The Garces giveaway is officially over. Congratulations to Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars.
A year ago, I promised I’d cook dishes from Jose Garces’s Latin Evolution, and a year ago I did. Most of this was written in April of 2010, just before the big bad. The above flower of guajillo sauce ingredients sits in a blender I no longer use; the camera has been replaced; the store I bought the chiles from no longer carries them. But thanks to my long hiatus and some over-zealous gifting, I now have two copies of Latin Evolution, one to give away to a lucky reader. If you’re interested, post a response below with a link or address for your favorite Latin recipe.
As noted in my first Garces post, the term “Latin” covers many different culinary traditions, as does the aptly titled Latin Evolution. It’s not what you’d call authentically Spanish, but a celebration of Latin influences across the globe, principally from Spain, South America and Mexico. It’s pretty much just like Garces himself. He may be steeped in the Ecuadorian traditions of his family, and he may have trained with a few Spanish chefs, but he’s also just a guy from Chicago, and to my mind at least, his recipes have more in common with Charlie Trotter than they do with Simon and Inez Ortega. This is a good thing if you’re eating out, but it’s going to be tough on the interests of the home cook.
Sadly, the contemporary American side of the cookbook means that it has may of the traits I tend to avoid.
- “Architectural” elements. Garces likes to stack food on top of other food. Recipes are composed out of a lot of little recipes. Expect to use a lot of those little post-it flag bookmarks.
- Lots of directions, no reflection. I’ve made this point many times before. I’ll follow any instructions, as long as the explanation is sufficient. You want me to brunoise a shallot while wearing a PVC bondage hood? Fine, but you damn well better explain how this improves the soup.
- Foam or Air. I don’t mind foam in my cappuccino, but when foam or air appear in a compound noun, you know it’s time to run. Foam and air are invariably terms for innovative ways to put bubbles where bubbles don’t belong. Think “lemon air” or “beet juice foam”.
As I struggled through a couple of dishes, however, I realize these concerns don’t really run deep. Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, the cookbook is difficult. It’s probably best suited for professionals and diehard fans who want to gain a better appreciation of their favorite chefs and restaurants. Working through recipes helps you to understand the processes and ingredients that go into “restaurant food,” even if it is impractical to make at home.
That said, Garces’s team seems to have worked hard to keep the recipes just this side of possible for home cooking. Yes, Garces uses food additives like soy lecithin, xanthum gum, and agar powder, but only rarely, and I was pleased to find that these ingredients are all baking supplies, available through companies like Bob’s Red Mill. You don’t need an expensive Ferran Adria chemistry kit to make lemon foam. As such, Latin Evolution saves you the pain and disappointment that comes from someone like Michel Richard, who wanted me to spend more than three hundred dollars on flexipan molds just so I could make faux hard boiled eggs, or that Momofuku-r David Chang, who tantalized me for pages with stories of Frankenmeats before I realized that transglutaminase meat glue (TMG) costs about a hundred dollars a bag.
While the recipes were possible, they certainly stretched the limits of my kitchen and my abilities.
Roast chicken breast with poblano cornbread, charred pineapple and red chile sauce.
Let’s face it, if you work your way through these recipes, you want bragging rights. So I knew that if I was going to cook out of Latin Evolution, I was going to need discerning dinner guests. Jason and Dee went with us on out first visit to Amada, so I knew they would understand what I was shooting for and why. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to be able to recreate some of that?
I let them choose which recipe I should make, because they’re the only people I know who have more dietary restrictions than me. This means we eat a lot of chicken, but when it comes down to it, chickens are surprisingly versatile creatures. They can be made to do all sorts of tasty things and this recipe was no exception.
Garces assures us that the recipe takes its influences from all over Mexico, from the Yucatan flavors of achiote, orange and garlic, to the “chile spiced cornbread” whose inspiration he attributes to “Zarella Martinez”. But I think anyone reading the title will know that this familiar gestalt of chicken, cornbread, and chile is probably a tip of the hat to North-of-the-Border Latin. Hell, it may even be North-of-the-Canadian-Border Latin, because I always assume the quantity of sugar in cornbread is directly proportional to how far you travel away from the Mexican border.
The “chile” is a paste made out of guajillos. This is time consuming, but I felt like I was up to the task because I’ve always been a fan of Rick Bayless’s early cookbooks. Bayless calls guajillos his “workhorse” chiles, and speaks of them with considerably more poetry than Garces:
“A puree of roasted, rehydrated guajillo sings with a chorus of bright flavors that combine spiciness, tanginess (like cranberry), a slight smokiness and the warm flavor of ripe, juicy sweet tomato; the flavors go on and on. The puree is a deep, rich, red-orange—the color of good tomato paste”.
I prefer Rick Bayless when it comes to making chile pastes. Even his most uncompromising books, Authentic Mexican and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, are still more practical than Garces. Both are big on roasting every ingredient, but Bayless uses a cast-iron pan for just about everything. Garces on the other hand wants you to deep fry the peppers individually. He wants the garlic to be roasted in the oven, with tomatoes, and he calls for the onion to be cooked on a grill. After it’s all pureed it goes back into the skillet for frying, which, oh wait, hasn’t actually been used yet. There’s no denying that it makes for an amazing rich, red sauce, but in the end, it’s all going to be used for painting a decorative circle on your plate. How many dishes do I have to clean now, just get this little undercoat of guajillo?
The second “level” of the dish surprised me. The cornbread called for unusual ingredients in unusual quantities: 1 cup of butter + ½ pound of sugar + 4 eggs + 2 cups rice flour. Who makes cornbread without any cornmeal? Who weighs the sugar but doesn’t weigh the flour? Most importantly, who uses that much sugar? Southern cooks sneer at sugar in cornbread in any quantities, protesting that it is an unwelcome Yankee encroachment on their sovereign cuisine. I had to imagine that Mexico felt similarly—but since neither Rick Bayless nor Diana Kennedy even mention cornbread in their cookbooks, I’m guessing that they are richly and deservedly indifferent.
I double-checked the Garces recipe on-line against other recipes. I was disturbed to find that “Zarella” is really “Zarela” with one L, a Mexican born cook who currently works in New York. Her cornbread recipe was quite similar to Garces’s right down to the poblanos, rice flour, and fresh corn, but she only calls for two tablespoons of sugar. On the other hand, I found another Garces recipe on-line for 3 chile cornbread, which called for 8 oz of butter and 8 oz of sugar. The ratios were the same, so I decided he must really mean it. Yes, it was a much lighter and much sweeter cornbread than I’m accustomed to, but the rice-flour confection, studded with poblanos and fresh-cut corn, ended up tasting surprisingly like, well, cornbread. Served by itself, I would prefer less sugar, but in the end, I think this was deliberate because the sweetness helped as a contrast to the earthy guajillo sauce and the sour-edge of the chicken and grilled pineapple to come.
The cornbread is the pedestal to show off the achiote marinated chicken. The dish seems to play on our expectations here, because the color of the marinade for the chicken is very similar to the chile paste but with nothing else in common. Achiote comes in bricks, and its primary ingredient is annatto, the seeds of the achiote trees, also called “lipstick trees”. Annatto has a very mild peppery flavor, but it’s mostly used for the color. Achiote gets most of its flavor from the orange juice added in making the bricks. Garces ups the acidity with freshly squeezed naval orange. So the end result is tangy rather than hot.
Garces call for “4 (6 ounce) skin-on chicken breasts”. This gave me pause, because it was clear from the weight and the quick pan frying of the breasts that they should be deboned. But have you ever noticed that you can’t BUY deboned chicken breasts with the skin still on them? It didn’t actually instruct readers to debone the chicken, but I decided it was better safe than sorry, and the results were good, perhaps even a revelation. The breasts are just quickly seared in the pan, and the marinade helped to make a well-marked skin. How is it that I never thought of using chicken breasts this way? Ann said it was the best, most tender chicken breast she’d ever had.
With all this there’s also a side of roasted pineapple. It’s the simplest part of the dish, and the one I’m most likely to combine with other dishes. All you do is mark the pineapple on a hot grill—about a minute for each side. Chop the pineapple in ½ inch chunks, add olive oil, shallot, and cilantro. Aside from the tenderness of the chicken, it was the only part of the dish to get singled out for comment from my guests. Dee: “I just have to say . . . pineapple and cilantro? Yum.”
Sous-vide truffled chicken with fried eggs, rosemary fingerling potatoes, and truffled chicken jus.
Given the range of recipes in Latin Evolution, I wanted to try at least one other recipe before passing judgment. The recipe appealed to me because it basically followed the spirit of Sous-vide cooking without actually requiring a cryovac or an immersion circulator. Sous-vide is French for “causes food poisoning” and it sometimes compared to boil-in-a-bag, but I find this can be a bit confusing because it doesn’t really get at why people are so interested in risking life and limb to produce good food. If you make boil-in-a-bag rice, you’re not cooking; you’re just warming up precooked food at a high temperature. In Sous-vide you’re actually cooking the food, and you’re doing so by choosing the target temperature that you want, usually one which is well below the simmering point, so the temperature needs to be carefully monitored. In Garces’s recipe, you seal boneless chicken breasts in plastic with cream, and then cook them in a water bath at 155 degrees. That’s a low temperature for chicken, but you’re cooking it for two hours, so the chicken is not only reaching that temperature all the way through, but hanging there for a while. This does apparently, guarantee the death of microbes, but only just barely.
Why do you do this? Sealing the meat in means that it will cook only in its own juice, or in this case, cream. Cooking at 155 is important, because as soon as you hit 158, proteins start to contract, and juices get squeezed out. Really, I think no one should recommend Sous-vide cooking at home under any circumstances. Even if you have a Foodsaver device for sealing food into packets, and a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, you’re still taking chances. And when someone like me discovers that his Foodsaver machine is broken, and decides to continue on with the cooking anyway, that’s just stupid. I ended up using a standard zip lock bag, which I dangled in the water with twine and an alligator clip to keep the mouth of the bag just out of the water. This had the added advantage of keeping the bag off the bottom of the pot, so I could regulate the temperature a little more evenly.
The downside of course is that the meat doesn’t brown, but it’s easy enough to remedy that after the fact. Since you dutifully leave the skin on, and the chicken has absorbed some of that cream, a few moments in the pan makes for an amazing sear. The final product was tender and very, very rich.
Otherwise, the recipe is fairly conventional, but it is layered much like the last dish. You start with a Jus on the plate, then the fingerling potatoes, and then the chicken. It’s all topped off with an egg yolk. It’s just a regular fried egg, though most of the white is cut off with a three-inch ring mold, or, if you’re me, a slender water glass. The dish as a whole still seemed to be missing something on the vegetable front, so I threw in some broiled white asparagus on the side.
Even with the extra improvising, I was pleased with the end results. I always worry that recipes like this will require inordinate time and effort and still leave me with something that looks like Juan Miro threw up on a plate. But the dishes came through as advertised. Admittedly, I will probably not make these dishes again. I may only harvest ideas like the grilled pineapple or those tidy egg yolks for other applications, but going through the recipes was worth it. What I hope to get out of a cookbook like this is simply a better sense of how a chef’s mind works and a greater appreciation for the foods I can order in their restaurants, even if, in the end, I feel like the restaurant is where they should stay. Most of what Garces does well is not about the parts, but about the whole palette he comes up with—and nowhere is that more evident than in the tasting menus at Amada or Tinto. Imagine, if you have to do all this just to make chicken, what would it be like to put together twelve dishes for a tasting menu? To cook for a full house?
While fandom requires that I own an autographed copy of Latin Evolution, however, I do not need two. So I’m more than happy to give one away. I’ll choose randomly among people who respond to my questions in last week’s post or this one. For this post, interested readers should include a link to their favorite Latin recipe on-line. For last week, interested readers should name their favorite examples of food writing. I’ll announce the final winner in the next post.