What passes for Mexican food on this side of the border -- the tried and true carne asada, rice and beans -- is merely an amuse-bouche when held up against the vast repertoire of dishes south of the border.
In fact, regional, Mexican cuisine is so broad and varied that many claim it rivals the renowned cuisines of Europe and Asia.
"The more I go to Mexico, the more I know nothing," said Steve Sando, who travels all over the country in search of bean, corn and chile seeds for his company, Rancho Gordo Beans in Napa, Calif. "I'm so humbled because it is so regional."
While authentic dishes have long been served up in big cities like Chicago, home of celebrated chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless, the golden age of Mexican cooking has finally arrived in the Golden State.
Here in Wine Country, a new crop of Mexican chefs trained in high-end kitchens have started combining local, seasonal ingredients and global techniques to reinvent their own traditional dishes.
Chefs like Mateo Granados of Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg and Erasto Jacinto of Jacinto's Kitchen in Santa Rosa are creating lighter, more modern versions of their childhood favorites, using olive oil instead of lard but staying true to their culinary roots.
"This is the kind of food I grew up eating," said Granados, a native of the Yucatan peninsula. "I want to make this cuisine at the same level as the other cuisines."
Granados, who started his career at restaurants such as Masa's in San Francisco and the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, started selling tamales made from his grandmother's recipe at farmers markets and launching his own line of habanero sauces a few years ago.
Granados also started his own mobile restaurant, Tendejon de la Calle, then opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant last fall.
Through all his endeavors, Granados shines a spotlight on the Yucatan's signature dishes, including its most famous: Cochinita Pibil, a slow-roasted pig marinated overnight in vinegar and a piquant blend of annatto seed, cinnamon, cloves and black peppers.
"All these spices got put together when we got colonized," Granados said. "Yucatan cuisine is a cross between Spanish and Italian, Lebanese and Indian cuisine."
In the Yucatan, baby pigs are traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in the ground overnight. At Mateo's Cocina Latina, the pork is cooked overnight in the oven, for 12 hours at low heat.
The annatto seed, which is ground into the crimson-hued achiote paste, is widely used in the Yucatan, a region with a proud culinary tradition dating back to ancient Mayan culture.
Granados also serves a beloved dish from his childhood, Yucatecan Picadillo, a tostada topped with ground beef that's been cooked with raisins, celery, capers, olives and garlic.
Also traditional are his Yucatecan Panuchos, crisp, black-bean stuffed tortillas topped with cured onions, greens and chicken marinated in annatto seed.
Granados sources most of his ingredients from local farmers such as Pedro Ortiz of Santa Rosa, who was born in Oaxaca and sells at farmers markets all over Sonoma County. At Ortiz Brothers Farm, Ortiz grows hard-to-find ingredients such as epazote, a pungent herb used in beans and sauces; and papalo, an herb similar to cilantro. He also grows a few of the chiles unique to Oaxaca, such as chile de aqua and dried pasilla. At least 60 different chiles are grown in Oaxaca and nowhere else.
Jacinto, another native of Oaxaca, opened Jacinto's Kitchen four months ago in the Sonoma Valley with the help of his brother and business partner, Pablo Jacinto. Although the menu includes American classics, Erasto's mission is introduce the cooking of his Oaxacan mother and grandmother to Wine Country.
The brothers like to compare today's Mexican cuisine to Italian cuisine 25 years ago. It's a rich motherlode of flavor just waiting to be mined.
"When we first came here, everything was burritos," Erasto said. "Then we introduced squash-blossom quesadillas and rabbit tostadas at Mustards Grill."
The brothers grew up in the verdant valley surrounding Oaxaca City. They ate simply -- mostly beans and corn -- but during celebrations, they enjoyed the famous, labor-intensive mole sauces over turkey, pork or chicken.
The Jacinto brothers came to the Napa Valley in 1985 and have cooked in many high-end kitchens, including Cindy Pawlcyn's Mustards Grill in Yountville. They also consulted for C Casa at the Oxbow Market in Napa.
At Jacinto's Kitchen, Erasto specializes in Oaxacan classics like chicken smothered in a mole negro, a thick sauce built upon layers of toasted chile negro and chile ancho, apples and bananas, sesame seeds and golden raisins.
Other popular dishes at Jacinto's Kitchen include Braised Lamb Tostadas, Sauteed Shrimp with Housemade Chorizo in a cilantro-jalapeno broth, and Pasilla Chiles Rellenos made with roasted chiles that are crisp and less greasy, because they are not fried.
The following recipe is from Mateo Granados of Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg. You can find the annatto seed paste, banana leaves and masa fina at Mexican markets. Granados prefers to use the Del Mayab Achiote (annatto seed paste) from La Perla.
Makes 6 servings
4 pounds pork shoulder (bone in and skin on)
7 ounces annatto seed paste (achiote)
1/4 cup white distilled vinegar
3 cups water
1 cinnamon stick (broken in half)
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 medium yellow onion, julienned
1 small package banana leaves (enough to wrap the shoulder
For cured red onions:
2 large red onions
3 cups distilled vinegar
2 cinnamon sticks
3 tablespoons salt
For handmade tortillas:
3/4 pound masa fina
4 ounces extra virgin olive oil (high quality)
1/2 tablespoon coarse sea salt
For pork: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk the annatto seed paste with the vinegar and 3 cups of water. Season with salt and strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Line a roasting pan with the banan leaves (or aluminum foil), leaving enough space hanging over the rip to wrap the leaves around the pork shoulder. Place the pork shoulder on the banana leaves adn pour the strained sauce over it. Add the whole cloves of garlic, onions and cinnamon stick pieces and wrap the leaves over the shoulder. Cover the pork with aluminum foil and roast in the oven for 4 1/2 hours, until falling off the bone.
For the cured onions: In a medium bowl, combine the red onions, vinegar, cinamon sticks and salt. Set aside to cure whiel the pork is cooking.
For the tortillas: Take the masa and work in the olive oil and salt by hand. Form into 2-ounce balls and falenn with a tortilla press. Grill on a flat top.
You can serve this traditional dish of the Yucatan as a snack or appetizer. If you want to serve it for dinner, Granados suggests adding tortillas, rice and beans.
Makes 6 servings
2 pounds ground beef, hamburger quality
Sea salt, to taste
1 large yellow onion, 1/8-inch dice
4 celery stalks, 1/8-inch dice
2 medium carrots, 1/8-inch dice
4 large garlic cloves, sliced
10 green olives, without the pits, sliced
3 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon golden raisins
2 pinches fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup cold water
Salt to taste
1 medium, whole roasted jalapeno
3 cilantro sprigs
Baby salad greens, for garnish
Pickled red onions, for garnish
Spread the ground meat in a braising pan over medium heat (large, flat-bottom pan with high sides) spread the ground beef. When it starts rendering its fat, season it with a little salt, remembering that you will be adding capers and olives later.
Add the garlic, onions and cook until they are tender. Add the celery and carrots and stir it. After five minutes, add the capers, olives, raisins and 2 pinches of black pepper. Stir again and wait another five minutes, then add 1/4 cup of cold water.
Let simmer for 10 minutes, then turn the heat off and add the roasted jalapeno and sprigs of cilantro. Cover and let rest for about 12 minutes.
Serve over a tostada and top with greens and cured red onions (see recipe above).
The following recipe is from Erasto Jacinto of Jacinto's Kitchen in Oakmont. You can find corn husks and queso fresco in Latin markets.
Erasto's Sweet Corn Tamales
Makes 30 tamales
1 1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/4 cup garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
4 cups sweet corn, grated
2 ears, cut corn kernels
4 cups whole milk
2 cups grits
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, ground
1/2 tablespoons salt
1 1/2 pounds queso fresco
30 corn husks, washed and soaked
Saute onions, garlic and jalapeno in the olive oil and butter until soft. Add the grated corn and bring to a boil; add milk, bring to a boil again. Add the whole corn kernels and the grits; season with salt and pepper, stir until well combined, reduce heat and simmer until the grits are tender (about 10 to 15 minutes). Pour into a hotel pan and cool.
To assemble: Fill each husk with 2 ounces of corn mixture, then stuff with 1 1/2 ounces of queso fresco. Fold both sides over filling and tie both ends of tamale. Prick the tamale several times with a sharp knife to create vent holds. Steam the tamales in a steamer for one hour. Serve with a salsa of your choice.
The following recipe is from Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo Beans in Napa. Any of the pinto-like beans will work in this recipe, including Rio Zape, Red Appaloosa or Anasazi.
Borrachos (Drunken Beans)
Makes 4 servings
4 cups cooked pinto beans
1 bottle lager beer
2 slices good quality bacon, diced
1/2 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 to 4serrano chiles, chopped
1/2 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Lime wedges for serving
In a large soup pot over medium heat, warm the beans. Add the beer and simmer for about 20 minutes, letting some of the beer cook off.
Meanwhile, in an ungreased heavy skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until the fat is rendered. Remove with a slotted spoon on a paper-towel lined plate and pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the excess oil.
Keep the flame at medium and cook the onion, garlic and chiles until soft and fragrant, about 20 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until soft and wilted. Add the cooked bacon and stir.
Transfer this mixture to the beans, season with salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Serve with warm tortillas and lime wedges.
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