The James Beard Award for the 2015 Cookbook of the Year went to the University of Texas Press’s lovely tome, “Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition” by David Sterling. There are some cookbooks you never want to get near a stove and this is one of them, a gorgeous collection of Yucatan culinary history, photos and recipes bound in a 560-page coffee table book that’s meant to savor and explore.
There’s so much to learn of this microcosm of Mexican cuisine (the author insists this is not Mexican food but Yucatecan), including ancient Mayan influences, neighboring culinary influences such as that from Cuba, spotlights on cooks and restaurant owners and the colorful varieties of fruits, produce, beans, spices and grains grown there, sold in the endless markets. Chapters delve into the many regions with their culinary specialties, from the “urban matrix” of Campeche, Merida and Valladolid to the Maya heartland and the more rural towns.
Naturally, there are recipes — 275 recipes, in fact, with a handy index in back. Below is a sample recipe for Chayas Fritas, a leafy green plant that makes an excellent side dish. Chaya is considered the "miracle food" of the Mayas, according to Sterling, and is becoming more available in "southern-tier states" of the U.S.
The good news is the cookbook of the year offers hours of reading enjoyment, especially if you’re like me who devours cookbooks such as this one sans a skillet in hand. The bad news is, you’ll not want to get this gorgeous book near a kitchen.
Sterling is founder, proprietor, chef de cuisine, and teacher at Los Dos Cooking School, the first culinary institute in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cooking. His work at Los Dos has been featured on “The Martha Stewart Show” and “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” with Rick Bayless.
Chayas Fritas/Tsaajbi Chaay
“Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition” by David Sterling
Prepare ahead note: Chayas fritas keeps well under refrigeration for a couple of days. Heat a bit of oil or lard in a covered skillet, add chaya, cover and cook until heated through. Use leftovers to make Huevos revueltos con chaya.
For the bacon and sofrito
2 tablespoons (30 ml) Spanish olive oil
4 oounces (114 g) smoked slab bacon, cut into large dice
1 cup (170 g) red onion, finely chopped
1 cup (140 g) red bell pepper, seeded, cut into small dice
5 medium cloves garlic (1 ounce/30 g), peeled and finely chopped
1 medium chile habanero (1/4 ounce/7 g), seeded and minced (Substitute: chile serrano)
For sautéing the chaya and finishing
10 1/2 ounces (300 g) fresh chaya leaves (Substitute: chard or kale), thick stems removed and cut into chiffonade or coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon (15 ml) sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon (3 g) sea salt
1/2 tablespoon (2.5g) freshly ground black pepper
Directions: Fry bacon and sofrito. Choose a large, heavy casserole equipped with a tight-fitting lid. Heat the olive oil in the casserole, add the bacon, and cook, uncovered, over low heat until the bacon is thoroughly browned, 6-8 minutes. Remove the bacon and set aside; reserve the cooking fat.
Adjust the heat to medium. Add the remaining sofrito ingredients to the reserved cooking fat and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent and the bell pepper is softened, 2-3 minutes.
Sauté chaya and finish. Add the chaya, stir to thoroughly incorporate into the cooked vegetables, reduce the heat to low, and cover. Cook 20-25 minutes, or until the chaya is tender, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Return the bacon to the casserole and toss to incorporate. Add the remaining ingredients; check the seasonings and serve.
Yield: Approximately 6 servings.
Cheré Coen is the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.