A FRESH LOOK AT MEXICAN CUISINE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Picture the best Mexican meal you have ever eaten in a restaurant -- creamy guacamole with crisp tostados, a tortilla wrapped around cheese and spicy Chorizo, mysterious but wonderful fried ice cream.

OK. Got it in your memory bank? Now, wipe it out.

Patricia Quintana wants you to forget everything that you thought you knew about Mexican food. She wants you to understand that salsa is more than pico de gallo. That chilies are more than jalapenos and serranos. That vanilla isn't just a flavoring for baking. And that Mexican cuisine can mean an elegant presentation of hearts of palm soup, chicken with almond mole and chocolate meringues with mint sauce.

Patricia Quintana, a culinary ambassador often described as Mexico's Julia Child, has been researching traditional cuisine of her homeland for the past 26 years, has written three cookbooks and now is preparing a pilot for "Patricia Quintana's Flavors of Mexico," a cooking show produced by Maryland Public Television. If the concept sells to underwriters, MPT will go into production with a 26-part series, showing her at home shopping the markets and talking to people in Mexico and preparing food back here in the studio kitchen.

"People understand Mexican food, but they don't understand Mexican cuisine," Ms. Quintana said in an interview recently at Sisson's restaurant, where chef Bill Aydlett prepared a dinner in her honor using recipes from her latest book, "Mexico's Feasts of Life" (Council Oak, $39.95). "Mexican food has been adapted to the palate of the American people."

These adaptations -- from tacos to refried beans -- tell only a small part of her Mexican food story, which relies on more than 300 varieties of chili, salsas that contain everything from feta cheese and oregano to orange juice and tortillas that are blue, white, yellow, pink, even green.

The way to introduce yourself to the real Mexican cuisine, she said, is to familiarize yourself with the basic ingredients.

The cuisine is based on corn or masa -- the raw material for the tortilla. These corn cakes can be folded, rolled, toasted, fried, stuffed or shredded. They can don many disguises -- taco, tostada, enchilada, quesadilla, gorita, panucho.

Besides corn, the other fundamental ingredient is chilies -- a long list of peppers ranging from mild to four-alarm fire. In addition to type, the same chili can change character if it is dried, roasted and peeled or merely warmed to bring out the flavor. For example, the chipotle is a mildly hot, smoked and dried jalapeno pepper, and an ancho is a mild, dried poblano pepper.

Another basic to learn is technique, starting with use of what the Mexicans call a molcajete -- a three-legged mortar made of black volcanic stone or scored clay in which the ingredients for fresh salsas are ground by hand. (Locally, you can find stone mortars and pestles for under $20 in ethnic food stores, such as the

Thai-Phillipine Oriental Foods store located at 523 Gorsuch Ave.)

"We still do the same salsas that we did 3,000 years ago, using the mortar and pestle," she said. "I don't know what happens. It's a magical taste and you don't get the same results using a food processor."

The best way to learn about salsas, she added, is to make a basic version and then creatively add to it. Here are her suggestions on making a basic salsa:

The basics: Take 4 ripe roma tomatoes and roast them over a gas grill, over an open fire or in a cast-iron skillet until the skin turns black. Put aside. Grind 2 cloves of garlic with salt in a large mortar and pestle. Then add 1 to 2 toasted jalapenos and make a paste. Then add the tomatoes and grind into a thick sauce.

Thick or thin: If you want the salsa thick, leave it alone. If you prefer a thinner sauce, add beer, broth, tequila or water and mix until it reaches the desired consistency.

Flavoring options: Get as creative as you wish by adding sliced avocado, chopped onion, cilantro, olive oil or any combination of ingredients.

Uses: The salsa can be used with shish kebabs, on poached fish, pasta, cold shrimp, beans barbecued or grilled pork chops, chicken or meats. It can be whisked into cream for a piquant sauce for crepes or omelets. Or the salsa can be spooned onto an open-faced cheese sandwich.

But Ms. Quintana's version of contemporary Mexican cuisine that she calls "cocina nueva" goes well beyond the basics of corn and salsa. Her interpretation, based on ancient customs and ceremonies, is infused with the knowledge and influence of the French chefs she studied with -- Michel Guerard and Gaston Lenotre. Like them, she pays greater attention to detail and garnish and has lightened the food -- using less oil and indigenous fresh herbs and vegetables.

"My style of cooking is to bring sophistication to traditional recipes and give Mexican food the recognition and honor it deserves," she said. "I add a touch of presentation and new creativity to traditional Mexican food without forgetting the basics."

For example, she said she prepares a salad with cooked artichokes and squash blossom flowers and splashes it with a vinaigrette dressing flavored with basil and cilantro. Although squash blossoms have become the darling of the trendy chef set, she emphasized that they have been used in Mexican food for more than 3,000 years. Other examples of her "cocina nueva" include: vanilla shrimp, pineapple and coconut tamales, marinated pork with almonds and prunes, tornedeau with morels in puff pastry and cream of walnut soup.

Her style also has made an impact on American chefs, who have visited the Quintana family ranch in northern Veracruz. Mark Miller of the Coyote Cafe in Sante Fe, N.M., and Dean Fearing of the Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas have studied with her. So have Steve Garcia and John Stedlar of Saint Estephe in Manhattan Beach, Calif., the duo who expect to open Bikini, a new Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant, this summer.

But even those American chefs who have been exposed to the Quintana cuisine for only an instant say she has made a difference in how they look at Mexican food.

Bill Aydlett, chef and part-owner of Sisson's, said her recipes, particularly the vanilla shrimp he prepared for her dinner, break stereotypes about food and lead chefs to new ideas.

"Her magic and her insight in combining things has yet to be touched by any chef -- American or European," he said. "She's got the guts to put her ideas down on paper and sell them. I think if people are not intimated by what she is trying to sell they are going to be pleasantly surprised. It will change their ideas about food."

The following recipes are from her latest book, "Mexico's Feasts of Life" (Council Oak, $39.95). They have been adapted somewhat because her cooking instructions are sometimes a little vague for the novice cook.

Grilled snapper with beer salsa

Serves eight.

FISH:

8 small snapper, (1 1/2 pounds each), boned and lightly scored, or 1 large (6 1/2 pound) snapper

1 cup vegetable oil

6 garlic cloves, peeled and pureed

salt, to taste

black pepper, to taste

SALSA:

4 garlic cloves, peeled

salt, to taste

1/2 medium white onion, peeled and quartered

6 medium tomatoes, roasted

4 fresh chilies serranos or 2 chilies jalapenos, roasted whole

4 chilies anchos or dried red chilies California, or dried Mexican chilies (roasted, deveined and seeded)

2 cups beer, for soaking the chilies

GARNISH:

TC 1 medium white onion, chopped

3/4 cup chopped cilantro

To prepare the fish: Put the fish in a shallow dish. Cover with oil and sprinkle with garlic. Marinate for 1 hour. Meanwhile, prepare a charcoal fire, putting the fish on the grill when it is medium hot, not sizzling hot. Drain the fish, reserving the marinade. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper, then grill for 10 to 12 minutes for the small fish and 18 to 20 minutes for the large fish. Turn gently with the help of a spatula, brush the exposed side with reserved marinade, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill for another 10 to 12 minutes for the small fish and 20 minutes for the large fish. Probe in the slashes to check for doneness; the flesh should be uniformly white.

Prepare the salsa: Grind the garlic, salt, onion, tomatoes, chilies and beer, preferably in a mortar and pestle, gradually adding each ingredient as you grind. If using a food processor, grind carefully to retain chunky texture. Adjust seasoning and garnish with onion and cilantro.

To serve: Place the fish on a serving platter. Serve salsa on the side.

Vanilla shrimp

Serves 10 to 12.

96 medium shrimp, about 3 1/2 pounds

3 tablespoons minced garlic

2 medium white onions, peeled and finely chopped

4 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

1 cup butter

3/4 cup olive oil

2 to 4 additional tablespoons vanilla extract, according to taste

salt, to taste

freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

3 cups chicken broth, reduced to 1 1/2 cups

Place the shrimp in a large glass bowl. Add garlic, onion, 4 tablespoons vanilla, pepper and salt. Marinate in the refrigerator for 2 hours.

Heat the butter and oil in a paella pan or large skillet. Saute the shrimp for about 1 minute on each side, turning. Season with the rest of the vanilla extract and salt and pepper. Remove shrimp from the pan. Stir in wine and chicken broth and cook until the sauce thickens. When the sauce is ready, return the shrimp to pan and heat through for another minute or two. Serve with rice.

Almond and walnut cookies

Makes 15 to 20 cookies.

These cookies (tejas de almendra y nuez) are a festive favorite, Ms. Quintana says, and they are often prepared for special family occasions. The cookies are baked very thin, then wrapped around a buttered rolling pin to cool, making them look like little taco shells.

8 egg whites, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups clarified butter, cooled

1 cup almonds, blanched, lightly toasted and ground

1 cup walnuts, ground

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter 4 baking sheets. Beat the egg whites and salt with an electric beater until they thicken. Then gradually add sugar and beat until the mixture becomes glossy. Gently fold in flour by hand. Add 1 1/2 cups clarified butter alternately with ground almonds, walnuts and extracts. If the dough is too dry, add the remaining butter.

Place the cookie dough on a prepared baking sheet by rounded tablespoons, slightly flattening each with the back of a spoon until the cookies extend to about 2 to 3 inches, depending on the size you desire. Arrange 3 cookies on each tray. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, turning tray once during baking to assure even cooking. When golden brown, remove from oven.

Remove cookies from tray immediately, with the help of a spatula. While the cookies are still hot, wrap each around a buttered rolling pin and allow to cool.

It is important not to prepare too many cookies at one time or you will not be able to follow this procedure while the cookies are still hot and pliable. Be sure to clean and rebutter the baking sheets after each batch or the next batch will stick. Store cookies in an airtight container.

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