Cookbook review: ‘Food of Oaxaca’ a culinary journey

Chef Alejandro Ruiz is widely considered a culinary ambassador for Oaxacan cuisine.

It’s not often that cookbook authors admit flat out that their recipes are not simple. Typically, a cookbook overpromises its easy-to-make vibe, vowing that dinner can be on the table in less time than it takes to set out the ingredients.

Chef and restauranteur Alejandro Ruiz makes no such promises in The Food of Oaxaca, originally written in Spanish and recently translated into English by publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Indeed, the 50 recipes may present a challenge to many home cooks who might scratch their heads at cilantro flower garnishes (optional) and purple miltomates (substitute tomatillos, heirloom if you can find them).

While 20-plus-ingredient recipes may not suit every cook, it’s the cultural culinary celebration that is the charmer here. Ruiz is the owner of Casa Oaxaca in Oaxaca, the capital city of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but he is generous to include the stories of other regional establishments. He sings the praises of El Manglito’s pork dishes and notes that the restaurant, located in the Oaxaca suburb of Villa de Zaachila, is only open on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He encourages visits to La Güera de Abastos in Oaxaca’s largest market to sample memelas (masa cakes) and tasajo (thinly sliced grilled flank steak cured in salt).

Ruiz is widely considered a culinary ambassador for Oaxacan cuisine, which is much more than the mole (pronounced MOH-lay) sauces the state is associated with. The region runs from the Pacific Ocean east through the valleys and into the Sierra Norte and Sierra Juarez ranges, and the food changes along with the terrain. If you are collecting places to go post-pandemic, The Food of Oaxaca might put southwestern Mexico high on your list.

In the meantime, make Margarita Scallop Cocktail and dream about a visit to a Oaxacan seaside cevicheria. Ruiz’s recipe calls for cutting the scallops into cubes but that’s if you are using sea scallops. Bay scallops can be used whole and this is an excellent recipe to tuck away if you plan a summer scalloping trip to Florida’s Nature Coast along the Gulf of Mexico.

Margarita Scallop Cocktail

Sourced from The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico's Culinary Capital by Alejandro Ruiz and Carla Altestor. Engish translation copyright and reprint permission by Alfred A. Knopf (2020, $35).
Course Appetizer
Cuisine Mexican
Servings 4

Ingredients
  

  • 1 cup lime juice freshly squeezed
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1/2 cup red onion julienned
  • 1 tsp chili chiltepin toasted and finely ground
  • 2 cups cucumber peeled and seeded, sliced into half circles
  • 14 oz scallops cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup peanuts toasted and peeled (see note)
  • 1 avocado sliced, for garnish
  • saltine crackers for serving
  • cilantro flowers for garnish (optional)

Instructions
 

  • Fill a large bowl with ice and a bit of water. Place a smaller bowl inside, where you'll prepare the ceviche. (This keeps the ceviche cold and at the proper temperature when serving.) Add the lime juice, olive oil, and salt, and let sit until the salt dissolves.
  • Add the red onion, chile chiltepin, and cucumber, and set aside for 5 minutes. Add the scallops and leave to marinate for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Divide into serving bowls, garnish with peanuts and avocado, and serve with saltine crackers. Garnish with cilantro flowers (optional).

Notes

Buy unsalted peanuts and toast them in a dry skillet. Watch carefully because they can burn quickly. Remove from pan immediately to let cool completely before adding to ceviche.
Chiltepin peppers are small, round, extremely hot, and also known as bird’s eye peppers. They can be purchased online already roasted though various purveyors. Google and take your pick. Or you might find them at a Mexican market. Most suggested substitutes aren’t widely sold in grocery stores, including several Thai peppers and peri-peri. The flavor is smoky so you might substitute chipotle chile powder, suggests the reviewer. A purist may scoff but start with a small amount depending on your tolerance for spicy food. A smattering of dried red pepper flakes could work, too.
Keyword oaxaca, scallops
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