NRA Show: Rick Bayless Demo

May 18 2009 - 5:42 AM

When you are tired of wandering through the 2,000+ vendors at the National Restaurant Association show, the Culinary Pavilion offers some respite for aching feet. This year's convention features a number of celebrity chefs, many of whom are hometown stars, like Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard and Lockwood's Philip Foss. Several other famous names are on hand for book signings, including Daniel Boulud and Art Smith. And naturally, the indisputable patriarch of Chicago's culinary scene, Rick Bayless, was on hand to give a cooking demonstration.

I had never seen Bayless cook before, on Iron Chef, PBS or otherwise, and was impressed at the amount of food history he packed into a 45-minute demo session. For those of you who love reality cooking shows, Bayless will also be competing on Bravo's Top Chef Masters (alongside Art Smith and Graham Elliot Bowles), which debuts on June 10 at 9 pm.

For this demonstration, Bayless created an old favorite at Frontera Grill, grass-fed flank steak marinated in salsa with fresh corn tamales and grilled knob onions. Though the menu at Frontera Grill changes every month, this dish is a constant staple. The salsa rojo recipe is also available online. Some Bayless thoughts on Mexican cuisine follow below:

On tomatillos: "The most useful vegetable for salsa is not a tomato, which doesn't even begin to capture the brilliance of the Mexican kitchen. No, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519, people would have been eating tomatillos. The two vegetables are actually not that closely related, and are about as close as say, a tomato and an eggplant, or a tomato and tobacco…If you work in foodservice and you're using canned tomatillos, you need to get a new job, or reform your boss."

On nomenclature for fresh and dried plants: "Just like the US has different names for fresh and dried fruit, in Mexico, dried chilies have different names from fresh ones. We have grapes in one hand and raisins in the other, plums when they're fresh and prunes when they're dried. Except the prune industry is trying to rename themselves the Dried Plum Board, but I refuse to stop using the term prune. Anyway, it's a jalapeno pepper when fresh, and a chipotle when dried. Chipotle actually means 'smoke-dried chile,' because it was the first chile force-dried in pits with a low smoldering fire."

On the utility of banana leaves: "You're probably used to seeing corn husks used to wrap tamales, but in southern Mexico and on the Gulf-side, banana leaves are used to wrap tamales. You can get a pack of frozen banana leaves and store them until you need them. Plus,they double as inexpensive table decorations, and you can use them instead of doilies. Normally I'd tie this tamale together with kitchen string, but if you want to go Martha Stewart, you can use a strip of banana leaf to tie it instead."

On his education in Mexican cuisine: "There's no school for learning Mexican cooking, so I spent 5 years traveling every state in Mexico. The Mexican culture is very family oriented, so if your grandmother makes salsa a certain way, you have to make it that way too. I learned from everyone's grandma, and because I had no allegiance to any one method, I was able to pick the best from the best."

On the future direction of Mexican cooking: "That's easy, it will be become more Mexican. Much like there's red-checkered tablecloth Italian restaurants serving spaghetti and meatballs, and then there's high-end regional Italian like Spiaggia. It's funny that we are so much more familiar with regional variation in Italian cooking, and Mexico is a country right next to us. Though, you can see American influences in Mexico as well. In the Yucatan, they are beginning to use fruit in salsa and calling it 'American salsa.' You can also get nachos in Mexico City with pumped American-style nacho cheese. That is definitely a technology borrowed from us."