Recipe: To master Mexican cooking, learn a few key techniques

WASHINGTON — Nearly every regional cuisine has its own version of a red sauce.

In Italy, the iconic sauce that tops pastas and pizzas has a thick consistency and a somewhat sweet taste from hours of simmering on the stove. In Spain, a shorter cooking time yields a brighter, lighter flavor. And in Mexico, tomato sauce often has a thin, transparent quality.

“It’s just very different,” said Roberto Santibañez, a Mexico City native who is co-owner and culinary director at Mi Vida, a Mexican restaurant in D.C.’s Wharf development.

“Even if the ingredients are super similar — we all use a little garlic, a little onion — it’s the little techniques [that] are going to identify the culture with that tomato sauce.”

Mastering a few of these culinary techniques, especially when it comes to Mexican cooking, can pay off big when you need to throw together a fast and flavorful meal.

Take roasting vegetables, for instance. A standard European-style roasted vegetable recipe calls for a coating of olive oil or vinegar, but Santibañez said in Mexico, the traditional method is to dry roast vegetables — meaning tomatoes, onions and chiles go into the oven bare.

“We dry roast everything, and that also affects the flavors and the identity of the final product,” said Santibañez, who in addition to Mi Vida oversees three locations of Fonda, his New York City-based Mexican restaurant.

A salsa made from vegetables that have been roasted with oil yields a completely different dip than one without. Even the way in which you chop fresh herbs can alter the final taste of a dish — and perhaps this is great news for lazy cooks, because Santibañez said when it comes to chopping cilantro, an herb commonly used in Mexican cuisine, there’s no need to separate the leaves from the stems.

After the cilantro is washed and dried, simply trim some of the stem off the bottom, “and then from the stem up, you cut it up altogether,” Santibañez said.

“And it tastes different. Cilantro that has been chopped correctly tastes different.”

Keeping a few traditional Mexican spices and sauces on hand can help turn mediocre ingredients into a masterpiece. For starters, Santibañez recommends making your own chile powder, since typical grocery store blends tend to lack in freshness and flavor, compared to what you can make at home.

Toast a few dried, stemmed chiles — you can find a variety at most markets — in a saute pan over medium-low heat. Then, blend the toasted chiles in a coffee grinder and store them in a jar to use as needed. (Santibañez’s “Truly Mexican” cookbook offers a guide for chiles, with details that include their heat level and ideal toast times.)

Another staple to keep on hand is Santibañez’s salsa verde cruda, which calls for five ingredients and a blender — no cooking required. The vibrant and spicy tomatillo salsa can be drizzled over eggs, or used to top fish, chicken or steak.

It’s also the perfect accompaniment to pair with a bowl of fresh tortilla chips and an ice-cold margarita. (In other words: It’s as important of a condiment as ketchup.)

“It’s the simplest, easiest thing in the world to do — no roasting, no nothing,” Santibañez said about the salsa.

“You have these wonderful, fresh flavors that are so incredibly easy to obtain when you know the techniques.”


Recipe: Fresh Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa Verde Cruda) 
Courtesy: Roberto Santibañez, “Truly Mexican”  (also available at Mi Vida)

Ingredients: 

  • 1/2 pound tomatillos (5 or 6) husked, rinsed and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 fresh serrano or jalapeno chiles, coarsely chopped, including seeds, more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped white onion
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine salt, or 11/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Directions: 

Put the tomatillos in the blender jar first, then add the remaining ingredients. Blend until the salsa is very smooth (the tomatillo seeds will still be visible), at least a minute. Season to taste with additional chile and salt, and blend again.

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