Hungry cooks who always have wanted to learn the basics of creating real Mexican food could hardly find a better primer than "Truly Mexican."

Roberto Santibanez, a native of Mexico City and chef at Brooklyn's Fonda, has compiled an accessible cookbook that focuses on teaching neophytes the essential building blocks of Mexican cuisine.

Salsas, the "mouth-awakening" condiments ranging from crunchy, tangy Pico de Gallo to smoky, intense Burnt Chipotle Chile Salsa, get their own chapter. There's an entire array of guacamoles, combining cool, creamy avocados with ingredients that might surprise gringos, for example, Pineapple and Cucumber Guacamole and Blue Cheese Guacamole with almonds.

The chapter on adobos promises to revolutionize Mexican rookies' understanding of the cuisine. As Santibanez explains, adobos are purees of toasted chilies, with other spices like clove, cinnamon and cumin, that are used to marinate grilled proteins or used as the braising liquid for luscious, fragrant stews.

"Once you learn how easy they are to make, adobos will become a trusty part of your culinary arsenal," Santibanez writes, "a simple way to turn a few ingredients into something spectacular."

For the more ambitious cooks, the chapter on moles and pipians (pumpkin-seed sauces) offers more of a challenge. Moles, the complex sauces often requiring more than 20 ingredients in some cookbooks, can be accomplished with 10 to 15 in some of Santibanez's recipes. Oaxacan Yellow Mole has "only" 11 ingredients, including two types of chilies. (The doctorate-level moles are here, too, like the 29-ingredient Black Mole from Oaxaca.)

Basics of Mexican home cooking are lovingly rendered as well, like Chilaques, tortilla chips simmered in salsa, Fideos Secos, Mexican spaghetti in chili sauce, and Carnitas, spiced braised pork browned in its own fat.

Conquer some adobos or moles and salsas, and cooks already have grasped the hardest parts of making masterful tacos, enchiladas and tamales. Santibanez's eye for detail in the book provides those who haven't traveled to Mexico with real standards, including photographs of the typical Mexican holding a taco, or stuffing a tamale.

The photography in "Truly Mexican," by Romulo Yanes, provides exquisite, useful details on almost every page. The sort of questions that plague beginners -- how charred should tomatoes get for roasted tomato salsa? How chunky should the guacamole remain? How browned should my carnitas be? -- are answered in the book's clear, vivid images.


Truly Mexican

Roberto Santibanez with JJ Goode


264 pages, $35