Taste Testing: Mexicocina

Mexicocina: The Spirit and Style of the Mexican Kitchen
by Betsy McNair (Author), Melba Levick (Photographer)
$24.95 at amazon.com

With Mexicocina as my guide, I’m hoping I’ll be able to bring the flavors of Mexico to my family. Chef Betsy McNair's carefully selected recipes span the geography of Mexico's many regions and the photographs of traditional Mexican kitchens are an inspiration. I decided to give the cookbook a spin and make café de olla, aguas frescas, a beet salad, pozole and chocolate truffles. I’m lucky because the markets around my East Harlem, NY neighborhood are mostly Mexican and I was easily able to find the ingredients the book calls for.

Our whole family lives together in the same house; my mother and father-in-law and their tweenager on the first two floors, my husband, myself and our baby boy on the 3rd, and my sister-in-law, her husband and their baby girl right above us. We are los Huxtables. Most Sundays we get together and share a big meal.

The Meal

I begin the meal with a cup of cafe de olla, but I realize too late that I’m out of cinnamon sticks so I have to put a couple of pinches of the powdered stuff in my coffee. The cinnamon sprinkles clump together and stick to the roof of my mouth and it's gross. Nonetheless, I get how this could have been a more festive alternative to my morning brew and I approve. I also remembered that cinnamon is a superfood, helping to control blood sugar and cholesterol which should offset the three tablespoons of piloncillo the recipe calls for. (Piloncillo is a cone-shaped unrefined sugar that is common in Mexican cuisine but dark brown sugar is a fine substitute.)

The aguas frescas were made with fresh pineapple, grapes and strawberries. These were a big hit, even with the babies! The beet salad was just fine. It made the most lasting impression on my fingers, which are now a lovely shade of magenta. It’s probably a good idea to wear gloves if you plan to handle beets. What makes the semi-permanent stain worth it is that beets are packed with nutrients and are rumored to have cancer-fighting properties. They are also rich in folate.

Pozole is not something I grew up eating. In fact, I wasn't even sure what hominy was! The short answer is corn. Hominy is a dried corn kernel that has been soaked in alkali, making the hominy easier to digest. I appreciate that my food has been pre-digested for me. Pozole was real a winter treat. The hominy was the embodiment of all that is sweet about corn while the tomatillos added a tartness I found very pleasing. Cilantro, lime and radish added brightness and a dash of habanero sauce made the whole stew dance. The pork was meltingly tender and only got better the next day. The ancho chili truffles are addictive and one batch makes enough to keep in the refrigerator for days (or hours).
All in all, I would certainly recommend Mexicocina if you are looking to add some traditional Mexican flavors with a twist into your repertoire.