“Some residents of Mexico City have roots there that date back generations; others have come more recently from places as far-flung as tropical Chiapas or remote villages on the Isla Guadalupe, an island off the southwest coast. Whether from a region best known for cloud forests or for cattle ranching, each resident brings his or her specific attitude to cooking and eating influenced by both family and regional history. These myriad traditions have melted in the vast, fast-paced city to create a distinct sensibility at the table. It is a cuisine that defies easy description, yet it is recognizable to those who live there.”

Despite a lot of chefs having a lot of free time for the last year, I haven’t seen a lot of new food books. The demise of paper publishing is the obvious reason but that’s been happening for a couple of decades. So it was a welcome sight to see a brand new book in the food and drink section and even nicer to discover it focused on Mexican cuisine.

World Food: Mexico City was penned by James Oseland, a writer I’m most familiar with from his time as editor-in-chief of the magazine Saveur and his Cook’s Playbook column in the Wall Street Journal. Back in 2006, Oseland also created perhaps the best book ever on the cuisine of some of the lesser known countries of Asia with Cradle of Flavor.

World Food: Mexico City is part miniature coffee table book that shares a glimpse of the capital’s dining scene and part recipe book that shares a few of Mexico’s most-loved dishes. 

It works best as a coffee table book. James Roper’s photography, alternating between color and black and white, vividly reflects the sometimes casual, sometimes formal atmosphere of the food scene in the town that sometimes in reference, sometimes in deference, we sometimes call Chilangolandi. The visuals are a refreshing change from the far too often seen, perfectly staged and perfectly lit studio shots that, these days, fill food books. Roper’s photos take us from tables with unmatched plates to sides of cazuelas smeared with chile stains. They make us want to eat from the bowls his camera has captured.

The only real negative about World Food as a coffee table book is its small physical size but it also carries a reasonably small price tag ($433.55 at Amazon). 

“Attend a party in Mexico City and you’ll enter another realm, where appetizers and small plates reign supreme. There’s nothing like a celebration for a chance to regale friends and family with an array of tempting offerings. A host doesn’t need to craft a full meal, as long as there are enough snacks out for the guests, from crunchy, pungent pickled chillies aromatic with oregano and bay leaves to crispy little fried taquitos served with lashings of guacamole, Cotija cheese, and crema, Mexico’s sour cream.”

As a recipe book, World Food: Mexico City is less successful. You’ll find James Oseland’s recipes for many of the Mexican standards…chiles en nogada, mole almendrado, bacalao a la vizcaina, frijoles refritos…but you’ll find far more of those standards in the books of Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless. I did some comparisons between the writer’s recipes and the ones in the old standards like Authentic Mexican and The Cuisines of Mexico, looking for little nuances that might make Chef Oseland’s a little different or, hopefully, better but didn’t see anything in the ingredients or directions that suggested it.

Instead, as a test of World Food’s recipes, I chose one that Chef Oseland borrowed from the capital’s Colonia Roma restaurant, Casa Virginia. It’s basically a roast leg of lamb marinated in a sweet sauce with chiles pasillas. In a reasonably equipped kitchen you might find almost all of the sweet spices and other ingredients except perhaps the chiles (that are available in almost every Mexican market or supermarket) so, hopefully, you’ll try it yourself at home.

Pierna de Cordero con Pasilla

Executive Chef Corentin Bertrand and Chef Mónica Patiño, Casa Virginia

I’ve left the quantities and cooking times in the recipe as they appear in the book but we reduced them significantly when we prepared the dish. The published recipe calls for an 8 pound leg of lamb, which we found impossible to find in central Mexico; the most recent lamb I purchased weighed a grand total of 8 kilos when butchered and the single bone-in leg we used weighed just over 1 kilo (2.5 pounds).

The recipe also says that it “Serves 4” but neither us or our friends individually eat almost two pounds of meat at dinner. We found the 2 pound leg more appropriate to serve four.

1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon plus pinch of grand cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup honey
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
One 8-pound bone-in leg of lamb or one 6-pound boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of excess fat
1 medium white onion, thickly sliced
1 cup chicken broth (the book includes a separate recipe) plus more if needed
2 garlic cloves
7 pasilla chiles, 3 stemmed and seeded, 4 left whole

1. To marinate the lamb, in a bowl, whisk together the ginger, coriander, 1 teaspoon of the cumin, the cinnamon, honey, oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Using a knife or a skewer, poke about 30 holes into the meat, spacing them evenly over the entire surface. Coat the meat completely with the marinade, massage it into the holes, then place it in a large covered bowl and refrigerate for at least three hours or preferably overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the lamb from the refrigerator. Using a roasting pan with a lid large enough to accommodate it, put the lamb into the pan, scatter the onion and garlic around it, then pour the broth over it. Cover and cook for 1-1/2 hours; if you don’t have a roasting pan with a lid, improvise and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. After one and a half hours, remove the lid and continue to cook, turning the meat every 30 minutes, for one hour and 40 minutes longer.

3. During the last 30 minutes or so of cooking, fill a medium bowl with hot water. Heat a 12 inch skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the skinned and seeded chiles and cook, turning them frequently, until the surface softens slightly and they become fragrant, about two minutes.

Transfer the chiles to the hot water and soak until they’re softened, about 10 minutes.

Transfer the softened chillies to a blender along with 1/2 cup of their soaking water, add the remaining pinch of cumin and half teaspoon of salt, and blend until smooth. Place the sauce into a bowl, then taste for salt, adding more if needed. 

4. When the liquid in the roasting pan has evaporated, using a spoon, smear the sauce evenly over the lamb, including the underside. Raise the oven temperature to 500°F and cook uncovered until the sauce has created a thin crust on the surface of the meat, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile place the whole chiles directly on the oven rack and roast them until they puff up, about two minutes. 

5. Remove the lamb and chiles from the oven. Cover the lamb and let rest for 15 minutes. Carve the lamb and transfer the slices to a serving platter, garnished with the roasted chilies. Invite diners to break up the chiles and eat the flesh and seeds along with their lamb.

World Food: Mexico City recommends serving the lamb with scalloped potatoes. As we just had a new stock of russets in the pantry, we chose baked potatoes with butter, sour cream and chives.

And how was Casa Virginia’s pierna de cordero? Well first, it was nice to simply have a leg of lamb that was different than the way we usually roast it, with a rub primarily using rosemary and garlic. Second, the taste of the lamb wasn’t overpowered by the chiles or the sweet marinade. Our only real criticism…and it was a small point…was a little too much sweetness from the honey.

You may have problems locating a copy of World Food: Mexico City. The only retailer we found was Amazon.

“Reprinted with permission from World Food: Mexico City: Heritage Recipes for Classic Home Cooking by James Oseland, copyright © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.”
Photography copyright: James Roper © 2020.

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