Go ahead, splurge on a little rich food.
That's the message from acclaimed chef Rick Bayless in his latest cookbook, "Fiesta at Rick's: Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends" (W. W. Norton & Co., $35).
Bayless, the Chicago chef known for his traditional and contemporary takes on Mexican food, offers up treats such as a guacamole bar, a tequila tasting and watermelon-raspberry ice in the book.
Before a standing-room crowd of culinary students and chefs at the Clovis Institute of Technology recently, Bayless blended garlic, serrano chilies, parsley, cilantro and olive oil into a seasoning for ceviche. He showed how to present the dish in a martini glass with a lettuce leaf.
And he explained the rationale for "Fiesta," which is so different from his last book, "Mexican Everyday" (W. W. Norton, $29.95).
"Mexico taught me a big lesson," he says. "There should be two cuisines."
The simple, nutritionally balanced meals for most of the time are in "Mexican Everyday." And the "no-holds-barred" weekend party food is in "Fiesta," he says. "The two books go together."
For Bayless, "Fiesta" is the latest expression of his longtime exploration into Mexican cuisine. The fourth generation of his family to go into the restaurant business, Bayless found he enjoyed the "vibrant intensity" and "long hours" of restaurant work.
His parents ran a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma, but Bayless fell in love with Mexico's cuisine and culture. His Chicago restaurants -- Frontera Grill, known for contemporary regional Mexican food, and the fine-dining Topolobampo -- stretch far beyond the typical burritos, fajitas and nachos.
"I've chosen never to use those words, so people have to look at the menu in a different way," he says.
Along the way, Bayless racked up an impressive list of awards. They include best new chef of 1988 from Food & Wine magazine, several James Beard awards, including one for national chef of the year in 1995, and winner of Top Chef Masters, season one, in 2009.
At the demonstration, he shared some simple dishes and tips useful to budding chefs and home cooks.
When buying dried ancho chilies (also called pasilla chilies in California), choose flexible, cranberry-red chilies with the scent of a spicy prune.
He encouraged folks to look for canela, the soft Mexican cinnamon with a more subtle taste than cassia, the hard, intensely flavored cinnamon.
And the broth used in his smoky peanut mole should be weak; cut it with water if necessary. The reason: European cooking emphasizes meat flavors, while Mexican cuisine highlights vegetables. Using a full-strength broth would bring too much meaty flavor to this mole, he says.
For his herb green ceviche with cucumber, sashimi-quality fish is required, he says. Look for red gills and bulging, clear eyes. Sniff the flesh; it should smell like the ocean, not fish.
Both dishes were easy. The ceviche is part of "Fiesta," while the smoky peanut mole is from "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World-Class Cuisine" (Scribner, $35).
Bayless calls this mole a "starter" one. It teaches all the basic concepts of making moles, the sauces collectively known as Mexico's national dish.
This recipe would fit just as well in "Fiesta."
"In Mexico," Bayless says, "mole is for special occasions."
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