Editor’s note: For the second installment in our Book Club series, we spoke to Lesley Téllez, author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets & Fondas (Kyle Books, June 2015).
How did this book come to be?
I’d been living in Mexico City for a few years, and I’d started a company that gave street food and market tours (also called Eat Mexico). And I was going to cooking school. I started thinking, what’s another way for me to share my love of this cuisine with the world? So I thought about a cookbook. The one I had in mind hadn’t been done before: a personal journey through Mexico City’s informal food scene, written by a Mexican-American woman who’d moved there to grow closer to her culture. I wrote the proposal in about a year, in my spare time. I found an agent in 2012 and we sold the book to Kyle Books in 2013.
The book focuses on the “street level” of food in Mexico City. How would you describe that culinary scene and what made it interesting to you?
It’s thriving, energetic, vital. I think what first made it interesting was that I’d never seen anything like it. I grew up in fairly bland suburban Southern California and I lived in Dallas before moving to Mexico. I’d seen food trucks. But not outdoor stands, one after the other. I had not experienced the smell of grease and char and cooked meat – and toasted corn! – emitting down the sidewalk.
I had never seen someone prepare my food in front of my face, or seen so many people up close truly relishing their food. And I was surprised that, despite their popularity, most of these stands didn’t live online anywhere. I wanted to know: Who were the people preparing this food? How did they learn? Where did they live? Once I got to know the foods themselves, I was struck by their history. Tlacoyos, for instance, traced themselves to pre-Hispanic times. Native ingredients such as squash flowers and huitlacoche – you could still eat them on the street and in markets for an affordable price.
Did you encounter anything surprising or that you previously weren’t aware of while researching your book?
I learned a whole realm of things related to writing a cookbook, and the science behind that, and how there are truly dozens of ways to prepare something as simple as Mexican rice. I was surprised that so many vendors took time to share their recipes with me. And that, for some dishes, like carnitas, you don’t need to overthink it. The meat cooks slowly in the lard. It’s going to be really good whether or not you add the juice of one orange, or Coke or milk.
Finally, can you list for us five favorite dishes from your book, telling us what makes them special to you and where is the best place in Mexico City to find them?
– The green-chile mushroom tamales, sold in the rainy season at the Milpa Alta market. I’d never had a mushroom tamal at a market before and I’m pretty sure these are seasonal only. The vendors use clavito mushrooms, which are meaty and delicious.
– The shrimp quesadillas (in the book I call them Crispy Shrimp Tacos), inspired by the street food stand on Orizaba street, between Puebla and Chapultepec in the Roma. This stand has been here for around 20 years, and pretty much everything is good. Dousing the quesadilla with Valentina sauce is required.
– Tacos dorados de zanahoria (Crispy Carrot Tacos) from Los Magesitos, a fonda in Azcapotzalco. I ate these once and loved them so much, I wrote myself an email to remember to make them at home. I did and they ended up in my cookbook. It’s something you don’t see very much: simple shredded carrot in a crispy tortilla. I went to cooking school with Miguel, one of the owners.
– Tortitas de huauzontle from El Bajio: A pressed, fried patty made from the fluffy huauzontle plant, this is one of my favorite things to eat at fondas. El Bajio (not a fonda, but a restaurant) does a great version. It’s like the ultimate veggie burger, bathed in salsa.
– Atole de pinole from the Xochimilco Market. Pinole has so much more corn flavor than the other atoles sold on the streets (rice and cinnamon, usually, or champurrado). I love going to the Xochimilco market in the early morning and standing outside, eating tamales and atole from the stands along the market perimeter. My friend, Ruth Alegria, first took me there, so I’m thankful to her for that.
Quesadillas de Camarón
(Shrimp Quesadillas with Avocado)
Excerpted from Lesley Téllez’s Eat Mexico
1 dried Mexican bay leaf
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
⅛ small onion, the rest sliced for garnish
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and cleaned
⅛ teaspoon white pepper
1 to 1½ quarts vegetable oil
12 corn tortillas, or more if using smaller shrimp
1 ripe Haas avocado
lime wedges, for serving
Valentina sauce or other tart, spicy salsa, for serving
Place the bay leaf, garlic clove, onion and 2 pinches of salt in a pot of water. Bring to a boil and add the shrimp. Cook briefly – about 30 seconds – until the shrimp has just turned pink and the flesh firms up. (Don’t worry about undercooking because you will fry these later.) Discard the aromatics and drain the broth, reserving for future use if desired. Place the shrimp in a bowl and toss with ¼ teaspoon salt and the white pepper.
Place a wire rack on a baking sheet in the oven and heat to 250°F, or the lowest setting on your oven. (For people with crazy-hot ovens, you can preheat the oven to 250°F, and then turn it off.)
Pour the oil into a deep pot and heat to between 300°F and 320°F. In a 12-quart pot, the oil will come to about 1 inch high; in a smaller 4-quart pot, perhaps 3 inches. The oil is ready when a dime-size piece of tortilla dropped in the pot sizzles and turns golden brown within 20 to 30 seconds. If the tortilla piece turns dark brown, your oil is too hot.
While the oil heats, warm three tortillas on a comal until soft and easy to fold. (Don’t overcrisp them or else they won’t fold at all, and the toothpicks won’t insert correctly.) Place two to three pieces of shrimp on one side of each tortilla and fold, securing closed with three toothpicks: one at each corner and one in the center.
Once the oil is hot enough, add the quesadillas and fry until slightly golden brown on each side, 2 minutes or less, depending on how hot your oil is. Transfer to the wire rack inside the warmed oven. Repeat with the rest of the tortillas and shrimp, frying two to three quesadillas at a time, depending on the size of the pot.
Once all the quesadillas have been fried, peel and seed the avocado and cut into about 1/4-inch slices. Cut the rest of the onion into slivers.
Let the quesadillas cool slightly, then carefully – taking care not to break the shell – remove the toothpicks and open each slightly, just wide enough to wedge in four to five slivers of white onion and one slice of avocado. Serve immediately with lime and salsa.
(photos by Penny De Los Santos)