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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  Fair
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Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday is a go-to resource
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Mexican Everyday, Rick Bayless' fifth cookbook, came out in 2005. Bayless is now on his seventh cookbook, Fiesta at Rick's (which will be published in July by Norton), but Mexican Everyday has become a standby for me and an exemplar of just how much one cookbook can enrich my life. The winner of Top Chef Masters, Bayless will be the keynote speaker at Isthmus Green Day on April 17 at Monona Terrace.

What first made me fall in love with this book isn't a recipe at all. It's the long, intensely personal introduction, which is only sort of about Mexican cooking. Bayless traces a 15-year arc of growing curiosity about "everyday eating" with his own pursuit of physical, emotional and culinary health.

Bayless wanted to be more physically fit but refused to give up good food (hurrah!). Pondering what "everyday eating" should be, he came to the simple conclusion that if he had a limited amount of calories to spend, he would spend them wisely: not on nutritionally ditzy processed foods, but on reasonable portions of nourishing foods that brought him real culinary satisfaction. He notes that time-tested cuisines, such as Mexican, are full of this kind of food: everyday dishes that can be made quickly but don't skimp on taste or nutrition. You might say Bayless found a practice of eating that could be called "sustainable" on both a broad and a personal level.

The recipes in Mexican Everyday hew to this idea. Many are one-dish meals. Bayless also provides ways to make easy substitutions or have one recipe do multiple jobs. A lime-cilantro dressing, for example, pulls triple duty as marinade, guacamole flavoring and dressing in a recipe for grilled chicken salad with rustic guacamole and queso añejo. His variations are straightforward and specific enough to encourage even an inexperienced cook. A recipe for home-cooked beans contains instructions for stovetop, slow cooker and pressure cooker, as well a quick way to turn that pot of beans into a complete dinner. Yet the whole thing takes only two pages.

Bayless' approach provides room for experimentation and imagination, but always with a safety net. Of course, some recipes you wouldn't even want to mess with. Avocado-mango salad with bacon, pumpkin seeds and blue cheese is pretty much perfect.

Another helpful section introduces readers to common Mexican ingredients. This guidance is key for those who may be intimidated by unfamiliar items. Negotiating chayote, epazote and various chiles is made much easier with color photographs, descriptions of proper scent and texture, and sources.

Madison has Mexican markets on all sides of town; Mercado Marimar on Park Street and Super Tienda Latina on Monona Drive are the ones I frequent. Although I was apprehensive the first time I confronted shelves full of new things, I walked out happy with a jar of cajeta (sumptuous goat's milk caramel), some spices and a bag of masa harina (tortilla flour).

As an entry point into a cuisine that I have eaten but never cooked, I look for recipes that have familiar ingredients and techniques. The grilled chicken salad mentioned above is a favorite, but red chile chicken and rice with black beans runs a close second. It's a simple one-pot meal that is satisfying in a bowl or wrapped in a warm corn tortilla, authentically Mexican and totally delicious.

After that, I dove headlong into grilled flank steak tacos with a garlicancho chile rub, refried beans and cajeta over vanilla ice cream. What next - creamy corn soup with chicken and poblano chile, or Swiss chard tacos with caramelized onion and fresh cheese?

Pick up Mexican Everyday, and you'll be seeing the farmers' market through a whole new lens this year.

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