For traditional, home-style Mexican food, ‘My Abuelo’s Mexican Feast’ is a treasure trove
“My Abuelo’s Mexican Feast: A Life and Love of Mexican Food.” By Daniella Germain with Elsa Germain. Hardie Grant Books. $29.99
It’s no secret Maine doesn’t have great options for Mexican food, especially if you’re looking for something a little more interesting than tacos or Tex-Mex. For that matter, New England generally isn’t known for its wealth of Mexican food. So for someone looking for something beyond a mediocre burrito or platter of melted cheese covering flaccid enchiladas, it means taking things into your own hands.
Enter “My Abuelo’s Mexican Feast: A Life and Love of Mexican Food,” by Daniella Germain. It’s not a perfect book, but it puts solid, tasty Mexican recipes front and center, a welcome relief from boring, American fare masquerading as our southern neighbor’s cuisine.
A real joy of the volume is its unique design. Germain eschewed glossy, high-definition photos of food in favor of simple, colorful illustrations, mixed with collages of old family photos. The effect is reminiscent of a children’s book. While this approach sacrifices the hyper-detail of professional food photography, it more than makes up in whimsy and comfort.
The recipes in “My Abuelo’s Mexican Feast” mirror its design. Don’t open the book looking for high-concept, trendy or even inventive concoctions. But for traditional, home-style food, Germain’s book is a treasure trove.
Germain maps her book through memories of her grandfather (Abuelo). The book follows his life journey, highlighting fish and seafood dishes he ate as a child in Veracruz, street foods from his time in Mexico City, and home-cooked soups and stews from his horse ranch in the country. My attention was drawn to a recipe for pozole, a hominy-baed Mesoamerican soup, and cabrito en cerveza (goat in beer jus). There are plenty of sweet breads and desserts; sandwiches; salsas; and drinks, like micheladas (beer and lime cocktails) and tequila con limon y sangrita (a shot of tequila with a lime and tomato-onion juice chaser).
While I wanted to plunge right in, a tight deadline and availability of ingredients narrowed my choice of meal down to a fairly simple soup, caldo Xochitl (hot flower soup). The preparation was incredibly basic – put chicken, aromatics, and vegetables into a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil then simmer until the chicken is cooked. I made a couple of alterations, swapping breasts with thighs (in my opinion, thighs taste way better and are a more forgiving meat) and omitting the fresh oregeno, thyme and parsley. I also reduced the amount of water the recipe called for, from 16 cups, which seemed crazy high, to 6-8 cups, eyeballing it until there was about an inch of water over the chicken and other ingredients.
The result, from such an easy preparation, was fabulous. A deeply flavorful, bright soup with a spicy backbone from the chilies. The flavors were enhanced with the addition of fresh cilantro, lime juice and crunchy fried totopos to garnish the soup. It would have been great with avocado slices, if the avocados I’d bought the day before weren’t still hard as stones.
Bottom line, Germain’s book offers straightforward Mexican home foods in an original, colorful and fun package. I’m already looking forward to making something else, with the hope that some bright flavors from south of the border can light up my kitchen as we head into the dark, cold pit of winter.
Caldo Xochitl (hot flower soup)
Our reviewer reduced the amount of water, and used chicken thighs instead of breasts.
FOR THE SOUP:
2 free-range, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 liters (16 cups) water
1 large white onion
2 fresh red chillies, seeded and membranes removed, sliced
5 black peppercorns
1/4 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
4-5 sprigs each of fresh oregano, marjoram, thyme and flat-leaf parsley
1 bay leaf
2 large carrots, chopped
1 tsp white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
FOR THE CORN TORTILLA “TOTOPOS”:
2 stale tortillas
Vegetable oil, for frying
FOR THE GARNISH:
2 avocados, sliced
Place all the soup ingredients in a large saucepan or stockpot over a high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the chicken breasts are very tender, about 25 minutes.
To make the totopos, cut the tortillas into wedges. Heat the vegetable oil over a medium-high heat in a frying pan and fry the tortilla wedges until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
Remove the chicken from the stock and shred the meat. Divide the chicken equally among 8 serving bowls and add a ladleful of the stock and some of the carrot to each bowl. Top with the avocado, cilantro and totopos. Serve immediately with lime wedges and the salsa of your choice.