Rick Bayless on Lesser-Known Cookbooks and Mexican Cooking Inspiration

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[Photograph: R. Elledge]

Rick Bayless wants to wean cooks off recipe dependence. In his soon-to-be-released More Mexican Everyday, he starts with simple uses for his go-to flavor bombs—sauces like his Roasted Garlic Mojo can fancy up grilled veggies, popcorn, guacamole, or any stir fry. He'll trust you to figure out the details. He offers simple steps to make mixtures like roasted poblanos with cream into a smooth, luxurious sauce, a vegetarian taco filling, or a soup. The more you play around, the more comfortable you'll feel with your own riffs, and the less dependent you'll be on following a complete recipe from start to finish.

That's not to say that Bayless is against cookbooks, though. His collection numbers "in the thousands," the vast majority of which he keeps near the test kitchen for chefs and staff to reference. I asked him a bit about his favorites, as well as how he got into Mexican food in the first place.

How did you first get interested in Mexican cuisine?
My first trip to Mexico was when I was a teenager on a family vacation. When I returned as a graduate student (with a notebook and a ridiculously small budget), I found that the dishes and menus didn't always match up with the cookbooks we have here in the U.S. That's what set me off on this journey.

Who are your Mexican cooking heroes and sources of inspiration?
All chefs of Mexican food owe a great debt to Josefina Velazquez De Leon, the pioneering chef and cookbook author. She toured the regions of Mexico in the 1940s and learned homemade recipes and led cooking classes, then turned that experience into two great cookbooks: Regional Dishes of the Mexican Republic and Mexican Cookbook Devoted to American Homes.

Which regional Mexican cuisines do you feel like people should know more about?
I'd have to say all of them, but one we've focused on around here is Chiapas, which is the inspiration for our latest menu at Topolobampo. It's just a super-interesting part of Mexico. It's about the size of South Carolina, but has incredible geographic diversity—there are coastal plains, rainforest jungles, vast canyons and mountains.

There is a strong Spanish influence there, but there are also many indigenous people who speak about 50 different dialects. So the food is reflective of that, with lots of Spanish heritage dishes and indigenous heritage dishes. Oh, and the toffee and chocolate is some of the best in the world.

What are your cooking interests beyond Mexican food?
I'm a huge fan of Thai food. Love it. I also recently returned from an amazing trip to China. But I only really cook at home about once a week. A lot of times, friends will bring me exotic ingredients, which I'll vacuum seal and use later.

What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more love?
Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert is an astonishingly good book but nobody talks about it. Elizabeth Schneider's Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference is exhaustive in its approach, and it's beautiful. And I can't forget Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, a classic.

For books about food, but not necessarily recipes, I heartily recommend anything by Gary Nabhan. He's brilliant when it comes to writing about the intersection of food, history, and culture.

Which cookbooks do you turn to for healthy meal inspiration?
Two books by Deborah Madison come to mind: The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Vegetable Literacy. Both are substantial reminders that nature's bounty is worth celebrating. And if you're looking to cut back on meat, these are a wonderful place to start.

What cookbooks do you recommend for beginner cooks?
Well, I do have another cookbook coming out at the end of April called More Mexican Everyday. It's a follow-up to Mexican Everyday, which was published in 2005.

In the years between, we've seen an explosion of farmers' markets. Hopefully we're moved past TV dinners, and people want to cook more. That was my whole inspiration for the latest book, which I hope gives home cooks a lot more confidence and less dependence on recipes. All it takes is some focus and preparation.

And when it's time for a drink, any favorite cocktail books?
I absolutely love The PDT Cocktail Book. It's so thoughtfully designed. More than that, though, it's really useful, especially for serious cocktail geeks. Likewise for Proof by Adam Rogers, which examines the science of liquor.