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Park Slope restaurant Fonda has become a popular dining destination for authentic Mexican cuisine. So its patrons should be very excited that its chef and owner, Roberto Santibañez, has just published a comprehensive cookbook called Truly Mexican, outlining the major foods south of the border. We called him up to learn more about the cookbook writing process and what’s in store next.
What made you want to write a cookbook?
Basically I’m trying to train chefs to cook Mexican food to get a grasp on the cuisine. When you go to cooking school, you get all these European techniques. So you can be one of the best-trained chefs with the best marks in school, but if I put cilantro and tomatillos in front of you, you don’t know what to do or how to get flavor from them. You need teaching to see this. Mexican food gets put off to the side. I’ve been training chefs for so many years, and I’ll see they’re still roasting tomatoes with oil. Of course they’ll get different texture and flavors! They’ll go, “Really? I shouldn’t do that?” The whole thing is about trying to change people’s minds if they want to cook real, authentic Mexican food. You know, even friends of mine are fascinated with the introductory techniques. I could translate that book in Spanish and it would do well in Mexico.
Where do the recipes in the book come from?
Lots are from the National Archives in Mexico. Many are mine, too. We tried to go according to the teachings. So if we’re teaching tomato salsas, we’ll need to make a few to understand the techniques, the textures, the blending. One can be traditional and one more modern.
What was the book writing process like?
It’s a complicated thing. You have an idea and it develops and it becomes a more concrete idea and then it’s a table of contents. Then you think about how many recipes and sub-recipes you want and then you do descriptions. Then you start writing the introductory texts. And first you have to cook from the recipes to test them.
What’s the one recipe in the book that readers should master first?
Everyone should have a go at making the basic tomato salsa until they get it perfect. Master the roasting of the chiles, and then do salsas with roasted tomatillos and the pipianes, and then go deeper into complex moles. It’s a natural progression.
Do you have a favorite recipe in Truly Mexican?
I love many of the recipes. I love the dried noodles [fideos secos] in the back — it’s one of my favorites to do at home for my family.
The book covers many aspects of Mexican cuisine. What is your favorite region for ingredients?
Yeah, Michoacán. They use a lot of pumpkin-seed-based sauces and I love those. They make a lot of carnitas. They have a sauce that instead of pumpkin seeds uses dried melon seeds. They’re very resourceful cooks out there, and they have a great abundance. Lots of fresh corn and cheese and cream because it’s a region where there’s cattle.
Check back in tomorrow, when Roberto discusses the moment he knew he wanted to devote his career to Mexican cuisine.