AKUMAL, Mexico – There is no one American cuisine, and I suppose you can say there is no one Bittman cuisine either. The nation developed without respect for what was here before the Europeans flooded in, and what might have been was supplanted by anything goes. This culinary manifest destiny can be fascinating, of course; my block has Turkish, Southwestern, Tex-Mex and Italian, all within 100 feet of one another. (That’s before you cross the avenue.) None are very good, but you can’t complain about variety.
My own story is one of rejecting, or at least subsuming, a limited culinary heritage that I saw, and continue to see, as inferior to those of much of the rest of the world. Oh well, it’s not inconceivable that in the course of their threatening, perhaps horrible, early years and subsequent difficult journey across the Atlantic, my grandmothers lost many of the better elements of the cooking of their mothers and grandmothers. I’ll never know.
What I do know is that in coming from a culture in which the food was just not that interesting and in living in a place of such endless choices, I found most cuisines equally alluring when I was learning to cook, and I happily buzzed from one to the next, sometimes cooking Mongol food on Monday, Okinawan on Tuesday and Catalan on Wednesday, rarely tackling the same thing twice. My kitchen is like my block, although modesty aside, my food is usually better.
I’m not sure whether I’d like to settle into a cuisine and stay there, or if I’d even know how. But it’s not really an option for me – the demands of food writing mean that I’ll long be developing new recipes.
The anything-goes routine is a joyful challenge, but it’s also what makes it so refreshing to occasionally cook in a place where the options are circumscribed. This could be as intrinsic as a coastal community dominated by gardens and fishing boats, as luxurious as a weeklong apartment stay in Paris, or as exotic as what has become an annual trip to the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán. Once here, my cooking becomes decidedly Maya/Yucatec, or my perhaps lame but certainly well-intentioned interpretation of it. (I actually don’t know enough to distinguish between the two, though I do know that there’s a difference; for a discourse on this, see the new book “Yucatán” by David Sterling.)
In my experience, the cooking of this part of the world is chili-dependent but rarely hot. Historically, this may be because chilies are not a locally important source of nourishment; there is always the holy trinity of beans, corn and squash. Mild rather than mind-blowing, chilies are appreciated mostly for subtle flavor. This doesn’t mean you don’t see habaneros; you do. But the Mayan cooks I’ve seen use them include about a tenth of one at a time. That adds a tiny bit of heat and a distinctive fruitiness.
No doubt much of the Latino part of our population, especially people who’ve immigrated, understand all of this, but those of us who grew up gringo don’t. We think of chilies as jalapeños, serranos, Thai and then the dried, red-hot specimens like chili de árbol and cayenne. These are all fine if used sparingly (or intentionally not), but they can turn a dish one-dimensional if allowed to dominate.
The milder chilies add complexity as well as (and sometimes instead of) heat, and may be thought of more as a subtle spice that results in mysterious flavors you can’t duplicate otherwise. They’re fun rather than fearful.
And for the most part, we simply don’t use them enough. We don’t understand them, and that lack of understanding results in a limited pantry. Learn to love them – and tame them – and you can use them daily.
The first thing I do upon arrival here, then, is to lay in a supply of chilies, most of which are dried, 95 percent of which are mild and some of whose names I couldn’t tell you.
For example, there are always chipotles that are clearly not made from jalapeños. By definition, a chipotle is a smoked dried jalapeño, so it is misnamed; but no matter where you go in Mexico, you will find these mild chilies that were held over or next to a smoldering fire for hours, or maybe days. Used judiciously, they add warmth, flavor and smokiness – but not much heat – to just about anything.
Which brings us to heat. Any chili, even a mild bell pepper, can contain some heat. And that heat is stored variously in the seeds, stems, veins and skin, all of which can be removed. With dried chilies, the process is easy: Just break the thing open, get rid of the seeds and stem and, if the chili is moist enough, tear out the veins. By doing this, you’ve really disarmed the thing and rendered most chilies safe to eat in the quantity that will allow you to enjoy their flavor without blowing the top of your head off.
Then you’re ready to expand your cooking repertoire.
Scrambled Peppers and Eggs
Time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 2 to 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 red bell peppers, chopped
2 poblano or Anaheim chilies, chopped
1 fresh hot green chili (like jalapeño), chopped, optional
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and ground black pepper
4 eggs, beaten
1. Put oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s translucent, 1 or 2 minutes.
2. Add peppers, chilies and garlic, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until peppers are brightly colored but not too soft, 4 to 6 minutes.
3. Reduce heat to medium-low and pour in eggs. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, until eggs are cooked, 3 to 8 minutes. Serve on toast or over rice, or wrapped in a flour tortilla.