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Entertaining tips from Rick Bayless for a fiesta without fuss

Rick Bayless toasts with Jamaica-Cactus Fruit (Prickly Pear) MargaritFronterGrill Chicago November 27 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Rick Bayless toasts with a Jamaica-Cactus Fruit (Prickly Pear) Margarita at Frontera Grill in Chicago, November 27, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 3, 2013 1:15AM



With the word “margarita” prominent in its title, it’s no surprise that putting together the newest cookbook from Rick Bayless involved a lot of tequila. But fans of the agave-based spirit take note: It did have its downside.

“When you’re tasting hard alcohol in the middle of your workday, it sounds like fun, but it also can be detrimental to getting a lot of work done,” says Bayless of the research involved to create “Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks” (W.W. Norton & Company Inc., $24.95). “All I can say is that we had some interesting afternoon meetings. The more we tasted, the louder we got.”

Sound levels and adjusted work schedules aside, Bayless found the process of making his eighth cookbook to be “total fun.” And it shows. From the easy-to-follow cocktail recipes, all of which include versions for single servings and pitchers, to the dozen seasonal guacamoles to the big-on-flavor snacks — homemade corn nuts, anyone? — this book has party written all over it.

So when we were on the hunt for someone to put together a holiday soiree that didn’t necessitate hours in the kitchen or a culinary degree but still had plenty of pizzazz, we knew just the guy to ask.

For the book’s inspiration, Bayless didn’t have to look far. “The truth is when I asked people what they make most from my books, almost always the first thing out of their mouths was guacamole and margaritas,” says Bayless. “So I thought, why not do a whole book based on those?”

The recipes were a no-brainer, too. With Frontera Grill passing the quarter-of-a-century mark, Bayless had plenty of signature, seasonal dishes and cocktails to choose from.

But “Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks”is more than just 235 pages of greatest hits. For this book, Bayless switched gears a bit from his previous ones in which he wrote directly to home cooks and focused on the flavors of Mexico and how best to achieve those in an American kitchen. “Even though I’m a dyed in the wool restaurant chef, I’m also a very passionate home cook,” he says. “I love to share with people the knowledge I have that I think will enrich their lives and make their own cooking that much better.”

This time around though he opted to shine the light on what makes the culture at Frontera restaurant distinct. (Bayless says this book is one in a series of three that will explore the evolution of the cuisines at all of his restaurants, including Topolobampo and Xoco. Next up: a cookbook on ceviches and Mexico’s street food. Also in the works for Bayless: a new Chicago restaurant. “We are doing something completely different and new but still Mexican,” says Bayless of the still-under-wraps spot.)

So what does this adjusted thought process mean for your party? Plenty.

For both the margaritas and guacamoles Bayless created “master class” sections in which he explains the role of each ingredient. “The fewer ingredients you have in a dish or drink, the more intimate your knowledge of each must be and the more delicate their balance,” he writes. His hopes readers use that information to create their own signature margarita or guacamole. But don’t worry — the recipe for the uber-popular Topolo Margarita is in there, too.

Appealing to a variety of budgets was a priority as well. “A lot of people say if it’s a big group just buy ready-made margarita mix and put a bottle of cheap tequila in it and you’re done,” says Bayless. “But I wanted to show how you can actually work with good products and not break the bank.” One of his flavor-enhancing wallet-friendly recommendations involves infusing inexpensive triple sec with a vanilla bean.

Mezcal, tequila’s rustic and smoky relative, is prominently featured in the book, as are aqua frescas. These “soft drinks of Mexico” are perfect for those who don’t drink alcohol, including kids, as well as a base for terrific cocktails, says Bayless.

In the snack section, Bayless urges party hosts to step away from the store-bought vegetable and dip platters and instead take inspiration from Mexico’s street vendors and serve seasoned fruit and vegetables.

One thing that hasn’t changed in this book is Bayless’ commitment to seasonality and emphasis on local ingredients when possible, something he’s pioneered from the beginning at his restaurants. (It’s fitting that when we speak with the chef, he just returned from doing a cooking demonstration at Green City Market.)

Creativity with of-the-moment ingredients is encouraged, whether it’s a peach and basil margarita in the summer or adding roasted fennel to guacamole, one of Bayless’ current favorites.

And as for that age-old dilemma on how to keep your guacamole from turning brown, Bayless says forget about adding the avocado pits. Using a lot of lime juice will work but also will make it taste terrible, he adds. “The way to keep guacamole from darkening is to keep it cold,” says Bayless.

He recommends moistening a clay flower pot and putting it in the refrigerator. When your guests arrive, place the guacamole in a metal bowl that fits inside the pot. For added temperature control, lay an ice pack underneath the bowl. “It’s a simple way to do a rustic presentation for your guacamole, but it’s one that will keep it in good shape for the longest period of time,” says Bayless.

Party food that looks good and tastes great? We’ll drink — and eat — to that.

Lisa Shames is dining editor at CS magazine.

SESAME-GREEN CHILE PECANS

Serves 3

1 to 2 fresh serrano chiles, stemmed (see Note)

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1 egg white

1 tablespoon agave syrup or honey

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups (about 10 ounces) raw pecan halves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small dry skillet, roast chile(s) over medium heat, turning frequently, until soft and blackened in spots (about 10 minutes). Remove chile(s) and add sesame seeds. Stir regularly until golden and aromatic (about 3 minutes). Set seeds aside.

Rough chop chile and scoop into a small food processor or blender. Add egg white, agave syrup or honey, Worcestershire and salt. Blend until smooth.

In large bowl, combine pecans and green chile mixture. Stir to coat nuts with the mixture (it will take longer than you think to get the coating thorough and even). Use your hands or a slotted spoon to scoop the pecans onto a baking sheet lined with parchment or a non-stick baking mat, spreading pecans into a single uncrowded layer; leave behind chile mixture that doesn’t cling. Then, with a small spoon, drizzle a little of the left-behind chile mixture directly onto pecans; sprinkle pecans with toasted sesame seeds.

Bake until nuts are shiny and dry looking (about 20 minutes). Cool, and serve.

Nuts can be stored in airtight container for a week or so at room temperature or for several months in freezer.

Note: When handling chiles, wear rubber gloves to avoid getting spicy chile oils in your eyes or on sensitive skin. Wash hands before touching skin or eyes to avoid irritation.

From “Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks”

GUACAMOLE WITH TOASTED WALNUTS AND POMEGRANATE

MAKES ABOUT 3 CUPS

1 fresh poblano chile (see Note)

3/4 cup walnuts

3 ripe medium-large avocados

½ medium white onion, chopped into pieces no larger than ¼-inch (1/3 cup)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Salt

Seeds from ½ medium pomegranate, removed from pith (generous ½ cup)

Roast poblano chile over an open flame or 4 inches below a broiler, turning regularly, until blackened all over (abo ut5 minutes for an open flame, 10 minutes for broiler). Place in bowl, cover with kitchen towel, and let cool. Rub blackened skin off the chile and pull out stem and seed pod. Rinse to remove any bits of skin and seed. Roughly chop and scoop into a mortar.

While chile is cooling, heat oven to 325 degrees. Spread walnuts on baking sheet and bake until toasty-aromatic (8 to 10 minutes). Cool.

Scrape about 2/3 of the walnuts in with the chopped poblano; set remaining walnuts aside for garnish. Use pestle to crush walnuts and chopped poblano together to a coarse puree. Scrape mixture into large bowl.

Cut avocados in half, running knife around pit from top to bottom and back. Twist halves in opposite directions to release the pit from one side of each avocado. Remove pit, and then scoop the flesh from each avocado half into bowl. With an old-fashioned potato masher, large fork or back of a large spoon, coarsely mash avocado with poblano-walnut mixture.

Scoop onion into strainer, rinse under cold water, shake off excess water, and add to avocado, along with parsley and lime juice. Stir to combine, and then taste and season with salt (usually about 1 teaspoon). Cover with plastic wrap pressed directly on surface of guacamole, and refrigerate until ready to be served. When serving moment arrives, scrape guacamole into serving dish and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and remaining walnuts.

Note: When handling chiles, wear rubber gloves to avoid getting spicy chile oils in your eyes or on sensitive skin. Wash hands before touching skin or eyes to avoid irritation.

From “Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks”

PRICKLY PEAR MARGARITAS

SERVES 8

½ cups Jamaica Tequila (below)

1 cup fresh lime juice

½ cup orange Curacao or other triple sec

1 cup prickly pear puree (below)

½ cup agave syrup or simple syrup

1 lime wedge

Jamaica sugar (below) or granulated sugar

In pitcher, combine tequila, lime juice, Curacao, puree and agave. Cover and refrigerate until chilled (about 2 hours). Use lime and Jamaica sugar to crust rims of 8 (6-ounce) martini glasses. Fill cocktail shaker half full with ice and pour in generous 1 cup of margarita mixture. Shake and strain into 2 sugar-crusted glasses; repeat for remaining margaritas.

For Jamaica tequila: Measure 2 cups 100 percent blue agave blanco tequila into small saucepan. Cover and slowly warm over low heat. Remove from heat, add 11/2 cups dried Jamaica flowers, re-cover and let steep for 10 to 15 minutes. (Find Jamaica flowers at Mexican markets or online; dried hibiscus flowers can be substituted.)

Line a strainer with cheesecloth, pour tequila through it, gather corners of cheesecloth and squeeze or wring out flowers, extracting as much tequila as possible. When infused tequila has cooled, it is ready to use. (Infused vodka stores in glass container; it will keep its vibrant flavor for a couple months.)

For prickly pear puree: Peel 4 or 5 prickly pears. Cut a ½-inch slice off both ends of prickly pear; peel (make a ½-inch-deep incision down one side, end to end, then peel away thick rind). Roughly chop fruit that’s in the middle, and scoop it into food processor or blender and process to a smooth puree. Strain into container. Cover and refrigerate until used (up to 3 days).

For Jamaica sugar: Place ½ cup dried Jamaica flowers in electric spice grinder and coarsely pulverize. Mix with ½ cup sugar.

At its simplest, margaritas can be made with plain blanco tequila, prickly pear puree, and granulated sugar for crusting glass rims.

Note: Prickly pears (also called cactus pears or “tuna”) are most likely fo und in Latino markets. We found them at Rogers Park Fruit Market, 7401 N. Clark; HarvesTime Foods, 2632 W. Lawrence, La Chiquita Supermercado, 2637 S, Pulaski; Pete’s, 2526 W. Cermak, and Carniceria Jimenez, 3840 W. Fullerton, all in Chicago.

Adapted from “Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks”



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