I had been starving for a new Mexican cookbook for quite a while. Yet there it was. Sitting on that virtual shelf of my local library. Easily discovered in the cuisine section of their e-books selection since last year.
The title was My Mexico City Kitchen. Not the kind of title to get you in a tizzy but the subtitle, Recipes and Convictions, was appetizing and, hey, when you’re hungry.
The author was Gabriela Cámara. The name rang a bell but it was just a tinkle, not a clang. In went her name to the search engine (including the accent on the a) and, before I even read a word, I recognized an image. That woman in the red apron, that’s the woman who emerged to applause when she ventured out from the kitchen of Contramar. Contramar, one of my most very admired restaurants. I like the look, the food, the buzz, the attitude. Contramar’s kitchen was her Mexico City Kitchen? I hit the download button. Firmly.
Contramar is an unusual restaurant. It attracts an unusual crowd. Men who still wear suit jackets. Women who still wear heels. Three inch heels. It can be almost empty at 2:00 pm. It can be bubbling-over full at 4:00 pm. And shoot-a-cannon-through empty at 8:00 pm.
Contramar is a seafood restaurant. When it opened back in 1998 it was a very bold seafood restaurant. It was in Colonia Roma, a bit of a shaky hood in those days. It was big, very big, with a lot of seats requiring a lot of tight jeans. It was introducing fish dishes that sounded very Mexican on the menu but you wouldn’t find in any other Mexican restaurant. And it was full. Almost all day, almost every single day.
My Mexico City Kitchen is one of those recipe books that, like most…make that all…recipe books these days, combine ingredients and instructions with the history and personality of the author. But this one is a little different.
There’s the usual growing up in her abuela’s kitchen. The nurturing, by hand, of the tortillas one at a time. The child on tiptoes peering at the bubbling sauce on the stove and inhaling the aroma with her nose held firmly high. But there the usual story ends.
Gabriela Cámara never went to culinary school. Gabriela never took a hefty chunk off her forefinger chopping Vidalias with a stupidly-priced Japanese knife. Gabriela never spent 14 hour shifts in a 90 degree kitchen. Gabriela never spilled boiling water over her feet testing if the pasta was al dente. Gabriela was never cursed by an egomaniacal head chef. Gabriela never had launched a single new business in her life.
And then, Gabriela Cámara opened Contramar. And, though I wouldn’t say she revolutionized Mexican cuisine, she is certainly one of the 21st Century’s major Mexican influencers.
“This cookbook doesn’t represent all of Mexican food which is a vast cuisine. There are already encyclopedia-length cookbooks for those who want to tour the country gastronomically, trying 10 different kinds of mole, for instance, and noting the regional distinctions. I deeply respect that knowledge, but this book isn’t about that. What I want is to show you how we cook and eat in Mexico City or more specifically how I cook and eat in Mexico City.”
My Mexico City Kitchen is an easy book to like because it’s practical. It’s not the kind of food book that you’d leave on a coffee table. It’s the book you’d find on the shelf closest to the stove. Leaning spine to spine against Rick Bayless’ and Diana Kennedy’s books. The recipes are ones that I can nudge/nudge, wink/wink suggest to my wife and there they are on the table a couple of days later.
There’s not a mention of foam or dry ice. No seaweed or spirulina or skyr. And it’s as if sous vide cooking hadn’t yet been invented.
“This book is a collection of my own favorite recipes, including things I serve at my restaurants – like Contramar’s tuna tostadas, a dish that has become iconic and reinterpreted at restaurants all over the world. But this is not a restaurant cookbook in the usual sense as so many restaurant cookbooks seem to be more aspirational than practical, featuring dishes that few people would attempt without having attended culinary school. Maybe it’s because I didn’t go to culinary school that I don’t cook that kind of food. I’m more interested in how food tastes than how it looks. Of course, I want my cooking to be beautiful – but beautiful ingredients don’t need much dressing up.
While I respect tradition, I don’t worry about authenticity any more than I aspire to be modern.
To this day, I love the entertainment of modern food but a squiggle of foam under a tower of unrecognizable food has never excited me as much as flavorful, market-driven cooking, in which you can taste the freshness of the ingredients shining through.
I learned to cook with my senses and have continued to cook in an intuitive way, integrating my observations into whatever I am doing, because paying close attention – from the market to the table – is the key step forward toward making great food.”
There are two dishes at Contramar that I consider iconic. The first is what the restaurant calls pescado a la talla Contramar. It is, in simple terms, a butterflied and grilled fish that is coated on one side with a parsley sauce and on the other with an adobo rub. Though the recipe certainly isn’t complicated, it’s probably best to not make it at home but to order it at Contramar, for the presentation is almost as important as the taste. It’s a visual delight as it arrives at the table on a wooden plate ready to be filleted by well-appointed and nimble-fingered servers.
Interestingly, for the most-celebrated seafood restaurant in Mexico, Gabriela Cámara doesn’t search the markets for exotic varieties of fish. Pescada a la talla has always used the very common huachinango (red snapper) when I’ve been at Contramar and there’s no mention of what species of fish it is on the menu. Another signature dish, filete de esmedregal, features another common fish, robalo (sea bass).
There’s a benefit to keeping it simple and the restaurant not paying 500+ pesos for a kilo of some rare creature that can only be line-caught two months of the year off the coast of Ensenada. The price of Contramar’s pescada a la talla is very affordable and after a couple of appies is big enough for two (though the restaurant doesn’t exactly encourage it being shared).
And which appie to have before the pescada? That is Contramar’s other legendary dish, the one that Gabriela Cámara called “iconic” in an earlier quote. She goes on to say this in My Mexico City Kitchen.
“It’s hard to believe, given that the tuna tostada has now been copied in restaurants around the world and is sometimes even listed as “Contramar’s tuna tostada” on other menus! I’m not complaining. In restaurants, imitation is flattery; I’m glad people like ours enough to want to make their own.
The raw tuna tostada remains one of our most popular menu items at Contramar, 20 years after we opened. This seems fitting, given that it was the ceviche and the tostadas on the beach in Zijuatanejo that inspired my friends and me to open a seafood restaurant in Mexico City.
Even though Japanese fusion cuisine was influential when we opened Contramar, no other Mexican restaurants were serving raw tuna back then.”
So a nudge/nudge, wink/wink later, I had forwarded a screen shot of Gabriela’s Cámara’s tuna tostada recipe to Don Day’s Wife with the subject heading “Maybe Friday?”
I was pretty sure I was golden. My wife loves featuring raw tuna in her dishes. And I know she knew and loved the tuna tostada recipe. Donny Masterton introduced her to it. At San Miguel de Allende’s The Restaurant. I think back in 2009. These days, it’s almost impossible to go to the almost impossible to get into San Miguel restaurant Tostévere without ordering it.
The next morning she asked, “Are you going to pick up the tuna.” I answered, “I’m on it.”
Now first I should explain that, to Don Day’s Wife, restaurant recipes are not rules, they are guidelines. Gabriela Cámara says that you should use “sushi-grade” tuna. My fishmonger says that, “All of my tuna is sushi-grade”. My wife says get frozen yellowfin from the supermarket and it will be fine and half the price. I get 6 oz. of fresh ahi and 6 oz. fresh albacore from the fishmonger. It’s three times the price of the frozen at the supermarket. I figure we’ll have the prettiest of all tuna in ruby red ahi and the deepest, richest taste from the albacore.
Next on the ingredients list is leeks. Almost impossible to find in San Miguel when I first arrived in 2004 despite “busco poros” being two of the first Spanish words to enter my vocabulary. These days it’s a little easier to find leeks locally but not a lot.
Gabriela says use only the white part of the leeks and cut them into concentric rings. Don Day’s Wife agrees.
Gabriela makes her tortillas from scratch and I mean really from scratch, starting with kernels of corn. Don Days Wife sends Don Day up the street to the tortilleria because, “If they’re crisped, you will hardly know the difference. I can’t even name one restaurant in San Miguel that grinds its own corn for masa.”
After buying the tortillas, five are taken from the pile and put on the fridge to dry out (the tostada was probably created as a way to use up stale tortillas).
The next step in the My Mexico City Kitchen’s recipe for tuna tostada is to make what Gabriela Cámara calls mayonesa con chipotle and I (and probably you) call chipotle mayo. Gabriela’s deserves a more formal name because she makes hers from scratch. Don Day’s Wife says, “I should but I don’t and there’s that big jar of Hellmann’s staring at me in the fridge.”
Both Gabriella Cámara and DDW do cheat with one part of their chipotle mayo. They both get their chipotle in adobo from a tin can. But I have never met one single Mexican chef that didn’t.
Gabriella Cámara’s recipe uses rice bran or safflower or “any vegetable oil with a high smoke point” to deep-fry first the tortillas and then the leeks. Don Day’s Wife uses sunflower oil which has a not so high smoke point (but is in the closest cupboard).
Gabriela Cámara says the tortillas should be fried one at a time. Don Day’s Wife fries two at a time because two fit fine in the fryer.
Meanwhile the tuna gets a very quick dip in a ponzu sauce which sounds very exotic but Gabriela tells us can be created with a 50/50 mix of orange juice and bottled soy (which Don Day’s Wife didn’t even know).
It’s then just assemble and eat. But carefully. If you can consume Contramar’s tuna tostada without it collapsing and crumbling on your shirt, you’re a much more sophisticated diner than I am.
“So, how was it” is the ultimate question when Don Day’s Wife creates something with a new recipe. Well I thought it was a WOW! And, even with a few shortcuts from DDW, just as good as the one served at Contramar.
For the complete recipe how-to, you will, of course, have to beg, borrow or buy the book. But, in addition to the instructions, you’ll also get a pile of very useful tips that Contramar’s founder includes in My Mexico City Kitchen. In the tuna tostada recipe, Gabriela Cámara tells us that fresh tortillas curl up if you try to fry them, that you can use a wooden spoon to check the temperature of oil in a fryer, and that a drizzle of olive oil will prevent your tuna from losing its color.
One more thing about My Mexico City Kitchen: It’s not just a seafood cookbook. You’ll also find recipes for classic Mexican meat dishes including cochinita pibil, chiles rellenos, enchiladas en mole rojo and the next one I’m going to nudge/nudge, wink/wink to Don Day’s Wife, puerco al pastor.