Every cuisine has classic combinations of flavor that emanate from its platters and plates. As distinctly recognizable as these combinations are (everyone knows when a dish tastes Italian or Moroccan or Thai), rarely are they as easy to isolate into building-block recipes as they are in Mexico. No one, though, has attempted this project -- the dislodging of these cornerstones from full-built Mexican dishes -- yet it's an exercise I think can be very useful when getting to know the Mexican kitchen. So I'm formalizing a first pass at it here, and what follows is the way my 15 Essential Recipes naturally group.
All recipes, except the one for tortillas, make a salsa, sauce or seasoning. One group focuses on tomatoes (with fresh or dried chiles as flavorings), another on tomatillos (again with fresh or dried chiles), and a third on purees of rehydrated dried chiles. In addition, there's an essential recipe that focuses on fresh poblano chiles and one on the classic Yucatecan spice, achiote. These recipes together illustrate the principal flavor choruses that sing their way through dishes in Mexico. Some are utilized more than others, though I think most Mexican cooks would agree that each plays an essential role in the cuisine.
Within the recipes that feature tomatoes, one (the Essential Simmered Tomato-Jalapeño Sauce) slowly simmers them into a sauce spiked with jalapeños and seared white onion, a second (Essential Simmered Tomato-Habanero Sauce) sizzles them in a pan with fruity, renegade habaneros, and a third (Essential Quick-Cooked Tomato-Chipotle Sauce) does the same with smoky chipotles and sweet garlic. Each has a different tomato texture, each a distinct profile resulting from its featured chile.
Roasted tomatoes that don't receive any additional cooking (no further sizzling or simmering) get worked together with jalapeños, garlic and cilantro into a salsa (Essential Roasted Tomato-Jalapeño Salsa) that has both richness and robust freshness -- a combination of characteristics you don't find in any of the cooked sauces. And if freshness is your passion, then one of the two chopped salsas will satisfy -- either the classic mix of raw tomato, white onion, serrano and cilantro (Essential Chopped Tomato-Serrano Salsa) or the fiery, close cousin (Essential Chopped Tomato-Habanero Salsa) made with habaneros, plus radishes for crunch.
Tomatillos offer a tangier backdrop than tomatoes. When they're simmered with serranos, onions and garlic in the Essential Simmered Tomatillo-Serrano Sauce, there is a mellow transformation in flavor and texture. Simply working together the same basic ingredients-no further cooking -- creates a salsa (Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Serrano Salsa) with a rough texture that springs into a very zesty mouthful. Simply blend together roasted tomatillos with the smokiness of chipotles and the sweetness of roasted garlic, and you wind up with a salsa (Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa) that emphasizes tangy sweetness and fire.
The seasonings and sauces made from purees of rehydrated dried chiles transform each chile's concentrated flavor into an even more concentrated (but less raucous) experience, filled in and balanced with herbs, spices and garlic. When you make the Essential Sweet-and-Spicy Ancho Seasoning Paste you'll notice that the rich, dried cherrylike ancho flavor comes to the fore, while natural bitterness fades. The near-molasses edge on the woodsy, dried-fruit punch of black pasillas is the focus of Essential Bold Pasilla Seasoning Paste; the tangy vegetal qualities of the chile are much less apparent.
The Essential Simmered Guajillo Sauce pulls together the whirl of brilliant raw flavors into a well-proportioned sauce that casts sweetness against natural sharpness. And Essential Sweet-and-Smoky Chipotle Seasoning Salsa is an exercise in boldness: smokiness made even smokier by frying the dried chiles, roughness smoothed and piquancy concentrated by slowly cooking the puree, and everything balanced by plenty of sweetness from dark sugar and roasted garlic.
We're a long way into these essential recipes to be just arriving at Essential Roasted Poblano Rajas. This simple mixture of rich-tasting roasted peppers, seared white onions, garlic and herbs, is without doubt quintessentially Mexican and thoroughly useful -- it works with everything from condiments and salsas to salads, soups and casseroles.
While you'll find several flavors of seasoning pastes in Yucatecan markets, the rusty-colored achiote one is known and used throughout Mexico. All the garlic, herbs and spices give it a baroque quality, though the earthy flavor of achiote is what this seasoning (Essential Garlicky Achiote Seasoning Paste) is all about.
Corn tortillas are a backdrop to all Mexican flavor -- more so than beans and rice, certainly more than flour tortillas. The Essential Corn Tortilla recipe gives detailed directions for how to make them. I include this recipe not because ready-made tortillas are difficult to find, but because I want to encourage you to (occasionally) make your own: The feel of the dough, the smell of a griddleful of golden rounds and the taste of a just-baked tortilla will teach you more about the Mexican table than anything else I can imagine.
As you page through the rest of the book, you'll find that when one of these Essentials is the cornerstone of a recipe, we've highlighted it. I hope this will bring them to your attention, as well as bring to mind ways to utilize these basic flavors in dishes of your own creation. You may even find yourself making double or triple batches of your favorite Essentials to have on hand as a head start. In each dish that uses an Essential, I list the amount you'll need; if you already have the Essential made, simply measure out the appropriate quantity and move straight on to finishing the dish.
Source: "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant flavors of a World-Class Cuisine " by Rick Bayless