Cooking School Stories: Rosa Mexicano with Roberto Santibanez

Roberto Santibanez, the talent behind the Rosa Mexicano restaurants (and formerly of Fonda San Miguel here in Austin, Texas) has written a new book, Rosa’s New Mexican Table: Friendly Recipes for Festive Meals, and I was lucky enough to attend a cooking class with Roberto earlier this week. I will admit right up front that I am a Mexican food snob (an oxymoron if there ever was one). I was raised in El Paso, Texas, not 2 miles from the border of Mexico and just 30 or so miles from the border of New Mexico. I learned to make Mexican food from our housekeeper who was from the interior of Mexico, and from all of my friend’s mothers and grandmothers. I will tell you that Austin has great Tex-Mex, but when I want real Mexican food, it’s home to El Paso I go. So, given that context, I am sad to say that often restaurants or chefs that are labeled as “traditional” or hailed as “exceptional” are neither for me. I am however happy to say that Roberto’s cooking was both and I walked out of cooking class feeling like I was walking out of my best friend’s Mexican grandmother’s kitchen so many years ago.

What We Ate

The evening started with guacamole prepared in the style made famous by the Rosa Mexicano restaurants. The recipe for the guacamole alone justifies buying the cookbook. In the restaurants they make the guacamole tableside in a molcajete and it turns out you can do the same thing at home too very easily. The key to the recipe is to create a mash of onion, cilantro, jalapeno, and salt to toss with the remaining ingredients, keeping the avocado pieces as whole as possible.

Our appetizer was followed by Grilled Adobe-Marinated Chicken Tacos. What struck me about this recipe is how easy it is to make your own adobo. We learned that adobo isn’t a specific recipe, but rather a technique for combining dried chiles, spices, and garlic to create either a marinade/rub or a sauce. What’s great about this bit of knowledge is you can take Roberto’s adobo recipe and use it as a jumping-off point for your own. To make the tacos, Roberto pounded a chicken breast thin for uniform thickness and to increase cooking time, a great tip for a home cook, and he marinated it in the adobo for an hour before grilling it up quickly on the comal. A simple service in tortillas with three kinds of salsa made fresh that day during class, lime wedges, onions, cilantro, and cheese wrapped up the recipe. This is a flavorful recipe that would turn any week night dinner into something special. The chicken would also be great in quesadillas for a party or on skewers on the grill.

Our second entree was a Red Snapper Veracruz-Style, which couldn’t have been simpler. Snapper filets bake between two layers of tomatoes, onion, fresh spices, pickled jalapenos, olives, and capers. When the fish is cooked, you scrape the top layer of tomato goodness away from the fish, plate the fish, and then use a potato masher to create a great sauce right in the baking pan using the veggies and spices in which the fish was cooked. This is another easy week night meal or an impressive but not overly complex entree for a dinner party. To top it all of, it’s really good for you, so there’s no guilt at all about having second helpings.

The menu ended with a Watermelon Ice, a traditional raspado that was sweet with a hint of burn on the back of your throat thanks to a pinch of chile de arbole. Raspados are a wonderful summer treat because you can take advantage of the freshest fruits of the season and all you do is puree them with a little simple syrup, and freeze, scraping them every 30 minutes to build ice crystals. They are better for you than ice cream and are great make-ahead desserts.  You absolutely can’t skip the chile powder though, because then the surprise at the end will be gone. The combination of sweet and spicy is very traditional and is one you won’t want to miss.

What I Learned

Above all things I was reminded that the devil is in the details and that without the right techniques or equipment, Mexican food can be a mere shadow of itself. Some important techniques in traditional Mexican cooking include:

  • Dry roasting. Roberto pointed out that the Italians and French typically roast with some sort of oil, and that may Americans do as well. However, traditional Mexican practices employ dry roasting in a heavy pan or on a comal to add specific flavor profile to vegetables and spices. If a recipe calls for dry roasting, resist the urge to add oil, and let the natural process do its job.
  • Toasting dry chiles. Even a quick toast starts to break down the chile and release its oils. This is critical to making the most of the chile’s flavor and is a step you should never skip.
  • Roasting and skinning green chiles. I’ve always roasted my green chiles to take the skins off, but I never new why (beyond the fantastic taste the roasting brings). What I learned from Roberto is that that our bodies have a hard time breaking down green chiles, and in particular their skin. That’s one of the main reasons we roast and pull the skin off of chiles. Once again, do not skip this important step in recipes.
  • Peeling tomatoes. It’s all about appearance and texture, says Roberto, so always peel your tomatoes. A few seconds in boiling water is all it takes to get the skin of, so don’t be lazy.
  • Eat the seeds. Many recipes suggest that you should take out the seeds and veins in peppers of all sizes because that’s where the heat lives, but Roberto challenged that technique, saying that the flavor lives in the seeds and the heat is really in the ribs and core of the pepper. When you remove the seeds you remove the flavor. Excepting big poblanos that have so many seeds, its best to chop up the whole chile — seeds, veins, and meat — and add bits at a time to your recipe until you have the desired consistency. If you feel compelled to remove something from your chiles, start with the core and veins, but keep the seeds. Chapter 1 of Roberto’s book is a treasure trove of information on all things related to chiles.
  • You don’t have to put garlic in every recipe. Many traditional recipes have little to no garlic in them because garlic isn’t indigenous to Mexico. Garlic came to Mexico with the Spanish and there are still some regions today that don’t cook with garlic. Of course, if you like garlic, use it, but don’t be surprised if you see recipes that call for very little garlic or none at all. Before you automatically add the garlic, try the recipe as is and see what you think. The garlic may be masking another fantastic flavor and leaving it out may alter the flavor profile in ways you never imagined.

Anyone who wants to make traditional Mexcian fare needs three things:

  • A high-quality molcajete. A molcajete is defined as much by what it is as what it is not. While it looks like a mortar, it is not, it is wider and more shallow. It should be carved from one piece of volcanic rock and it should be heavy. The lava needs to be coarse to provide a surface to grind the food and spices, but if it is too coarse, much will stay in the bottom of the molcajete and lost to the cook. Many stores sell molcajete’s that are really a combination of gravel-size basalt rocks and concrete, and these are not what you want to buy. Roberto suggests Gourmet Sleuth as a good resource for shoppers on the hunt for a molcajete.
  • A tortilla press. In some parts of the world you can get perfectly acceptable corn tortillas, but for truly authentic cuisine, you will want to make your own. You’ll definitely need to practice to develop the techniques around making tortillas, but it’s not like the raw materials are expensive and you may find an hour of rolling and pressing my be just the stress relief you need. Roberto’s advice when buying a tortilla press was that it should cost at least $40, be very heavy, and cost as much to ship as it did to purchase. Also, buy a larger tortilla press, at least 8 inches across, so you can make tortillas in smaller and larger sizes.
  • The right ingredients. There are so many different kinds of chiles, and each brings its own unique flavor profile. Mexican food is becoming increasingly popular, so you may be surprised at the ingredients you can find at your local store. Take the time to look for good local resources for the right ingredients. If you can’t find what you need in town, the web is your next best resource. Online sites like MexGrocer make it easy to take a “no compromises” approach to traditional fare.

I’m inspired now to return to my roots and make some of my favorite recipes as well as some of the many new and wonderful treats in Roberto’s book. I think I will start simply by offering Rosa’s guacamole and a greatly-increased salsa selection at my next party. After that, who knows, with so many wonderful options, my family can expect to see a new and different recipe on the table on a regular basis. I’ll report back as I make each on to talk about how family-friendly each one was, how it would work for a party, and of course, how wonderful it is to enjoy real Mexican food.

1 Comment

  1. Sounds like this was an excellent class! I love Mexican cooking. I grew up with Tex-Mex but have spent enough time in Mexico to appreciate their amazing culinary tradition. I do recommend Diana Kennedy’s books if you are interested in learning more. Her “From my Mexican Kitchen” is a great primer.