Those of us who can remember the dark age of American cooking - maybe better called the bland age - can also remember when the lights went on, when Julia Child made it possible to master the art of French cooking and Marcella Hazan taught us that an inviting Italian world existed beyond spaghetti and meatballs. Diana Kennedy joined these cookbook wonder women with the publication of The Cuisines of Mexico in 1972. She showed us that authentic, regional Mexican cooking was amazingly varied, complex, sophisticated, a joy to eat, and a joy to prepare. She extended our knowledge with The Tortilla Book, and then The Regional Cooks of Mexico. Now, Kennedy has put this trio of classics together in The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. She has simplified recipes where possible, brought them up-to-date while keeping their spirit, and, fortunately, left her original introductory texts untouched. We see the Mexico she saw when she researched the books, experience her pleasure at apprenticing in a Mexico City bakery or bumping over dusty roads to find a giant tamale that encased an entire loin of pork. There are well over 300 recipes in this fabulous compilation, including 33 entirely new ones. Every aspect of the Mexican kitchen is covered; you can be quite sure that if it isn't here, it isn't worth cooking. I've used Kennedy's books for years with happy, authentic results, so having the best of her books in one volume is a true treat.
Rick Bayless, no less an authority, practitioner, and proponent of Mexican cooking, is the prize-winning, chef/owner of two acclaimed Mexican restaurants in Chicago, and author of two previous cookbooks. Mexico One Plate at a Time, the companion to his recent 26-part PBS series, is a culinary gem for anyone interested in understanding and cooking classic Mexican food, and is assured a perennial place in every aficionado's collection. It's organized as a traditional cookbook, from starters, soups, and stews to main dishes, desserts, and drinks, with precise, detailed directions and clear advice on what can be prepared in advance. But Bayless offers a lot more, creating what becomes a masterclass for each dish. For example, you don't simply get a good guacamole recipe. First, there's a discussion of its history and flavor, when and how to serve it, and advice for American cooks. Then you'll find the "absolute best" classic recipe and one with a contemporary spin - here, Roasted Poblano Guacamole with Garlic and Parsley. Wrapping up is a demystifying Q&A on how and why this dish works. Bayless has managed to get inside the very heart and earthy soul of Mexican cooking and is eager to share that intimate expertise with us.
Sybil Pratt has been cooking up this column for more than five years.