I came, I saw, I ate achiote seared shrimp with quick habenero pickled onions.
Today, Jeremiah and I had the pleasure and privilege to attend a cooking demonstration by Rick Bayless. If you haven’t already read my last blog, or if you aren’t a fan of Top Chef (I’m not, but I understand he’s been featured on there), then I’ll give you a little background. Bayless owns three restaurants in Chicago, all serving beautiful and lovingly crafted Mexican food. As a young man, Bayless, who comes from a restaurant family, thought that he would leave the family business behind, favoring instead the study of Mexican culture and linguistics. Then, one day, he woke up with the epiphany that the study of the culture was intertwined neatly with the thing he loved the most, the passion that was so much a part of him: food. At that point, his attention turned toward bringing the authentic tastes of Mexico to the United States.
And so, with humor and a wonderfully laid-back attitude that met each challenge with a smile and a witty comment, Chef Bayless discussed his latest book, Fiesta at Rick’s, demonstrated some wonderful recipes, and took questions from the audience.
To begin, Bayless provided some background on the book, answering the questions, Why this? Why now? Not surprisingly, Bayless says that people often ask for tips and recipes to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, or for their family “Mexican Fiesta.” He also shared candidly that, more often than not, folks who say they own his books and love his books confess that their favorite recipes are – you guessed it – guacamole and margaritas. All of this feedback made him think that there must be a legitimate desire for some good “Mexican food how-to,” a book that celebrates what he calls the fiesta spirit. Now wait; don’t get out the sombrero and maracas just yet. He’s not talking about, in his words, pulling out the blender to have a margarita party. Well, at least that’s not all he’s talking about. Rather, his fiesta spirit speaks more to the joy that comes from getting together with family and friends to hang out, to relax, to breathe. To forget the worries and just enjoy life for a while. That fiesta spirit inspired this book, as Chef Bayless takes us into his home, with beautiful pictures, and allows us to be a part of the camaraderie.
But back to the demo.
When we arrived, there were glass urns of a beautiful dark pink beverage set up at the back of the demo area.
We were happy to be early, because from the looks of it, they were expecting a crowd.
As we made our way to our seats, we were offered watermelon agua fresca – delicious and refreshing. Once seated, an hour early, we were very surprised to see Bayless himself out, preparing his ingredients, quietly moving around the stage area, getting his bearings and making sure everything was ready. At one point, I turned to Jeremiah and said, “Look, Honey! He ties his apron just like we tie our aprons!”
Once two o’clock rolled around, Bayless took the stage and began to share a little about his background, what led him to become such an authority on Mexican food, and the rationale for the latest book. Then he got down to cooking.
He focused on three dishes: guacamole with bacon and tomatoes; achiote seared shrimp with quick habanero pickled onions, and agua fresca with watermelon. These were the stars of the show in part because they were simple, but they are each very adaptable as well; you could make guacamole with a host of seasonal ingredients, for instance. Likewise, the achiote marinade can be used on shrimp, fish, pork, or chicken, and the agua fresca can feature any fresh fruit that you can find.
Through it all, Bayless offered food background, helpful tips, and levity when things didn’t go exactly as planned. For instance, while rinsing diced white onion, he pointed out that the only water he had with which to work was Fiji…so of course, Fiji water would take the dish to a whole other level. When skewers wouldn’t be chopped with his knife, he broke them. When the blender he was using started to leak, he went with the flow. Literally. He also discussed the importance of responsible and sustainable food production, offering suggestions to us for resources that we could use to ensure the foods we were eating (in this case, seafood) were not exploited. He shared some great information on tomatoes, and talked a little about the rooftops gardens that he has above his restaurant Topolobampo.
As for helpful tips, I’ll pass a few random ones onto you – some I knew from reading Bayless, some I learned yesterday.
- When cooking Mexican cuisine, use white or red onions (red mostly being reserved for recipes coming from the Yucatan.) Yellow onions tend to muddy the flavors of your dish.
- Prepared achiote paste can be purchased (and believe me, this is worth your time.) When using achiote, be sure to cook it thoroughly; otherwise, the flavors are not pleasing. (Jeremiah and I can attest to this. We used achiote in a Bayless recipe one time, clearly incorrectly, because we never made that dish again.)
- If you have stale corn tortillas (and unless you make your own, pretty much every corn tortilla available here is stale) use this method to freshen them: take two paper towels, wet them, and wring out the excess water. Place a dozen corn tortillas between the towels and wrap them. Microwave on high for one minute, and then allow to rest for 2 minutes. They will be perfect.
Before the end of the demo, we got to sample the shrimp and guacamole, and I can assure you, everything was beautiful and delicious. (Please excuse the man’s hiney in the shot.)
To sum up, I left the demo liking him as much or more than I did when I arrived. His lack of pretense, his obvious passion for the work he does, and the commitment that he has to growing and providing the best, most responsibly obtained produce and meats were all obvious. If you have the chance to see Chef Bayless in person, I heartily recommend it. And if you don’t, check out the new book and bring some of his fiesta spirit to your home and family and friends.
(By the way, if you’re interested in the recipes, let me know, and I’ll email them to you. I don’t feel quite right about publishing them here, but they are worth sharing. And if these simple dishes are this good, imagine how great the rest of the book is!)