Rick Bayless shares tips for flavorful tacos, his favorite Mexican pantry staples

“I have spent most of my career trying to convince people that Mexican food is way more than tacos,” chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless said during a demonstration last month at the World Culinary Showcase at the National Restaurant Association’s annual show in Chicago.

“I always felt if I just stayed in that taco world I wasn’t doing anything for this incredibly varied, rich tradition of Mexican food,” he said. “But tacos, as you all have noted, have become a thing...There are chefs everywhere who are opening taquerias. Some chefs should be opening taquerias and some of those chefs shouldn’t be opening taquerias.”

Bayless described the ubiquitous, Americanized taco of ground beef served in a “crispy, U-shaped shell,” which is the antithesis of the authentic Mexican cuisine to which he has dedicated his career. Bayless has several Chicago eateries dedicated to regional Mexican cooking and the James Beard Foundation named his restaurant Topolobampo as its pick for Outstanding Restaurant this year.

The chef demonstrated two taco recipes for the crowd, foregoing typical carne asada or chicken in favor of a pair of vegetable- and seafood- centric tacos.

The most important element of any taco is the base on which it is built, Bayless said. “Tortillas are the canvas on which all Mexican flavors are painted.”

Bayless’ restaurants process Mexican corn in house to make fresh masa, but tortillas made by hand from packaged corn flour are still a cut above store-bought tortillas, he said, demonstrating how to press the thin rounds and transfer them to the hot griddle. Tortillas should be cooked until they pick up toasty color on each side. Bayless recommends surrendering the spatula and flipping them by hand, as they do in Mexico.

For his first taco, Bayless crafted a version of a popular street food that hails from the city of Toluca. A flavorful sauce made from guajillo chiles bulked up with black beans and leafy greens formed the filling of the vegetarian taco.

Bayless roasted the chiles and rehydrated them in water, incorporating some of the soaking liquid into the final sauce. To finish, he seasoned the dish with salt and a touch of sugar, to bring out the fruity quality of the chiles.

“European food is all based -- flavorwise -- on how to get the most meat flavor into everything on the plate...Mexican cuisine is a vegetable-based cuisine,” he said.

The second taco was a play on the Mexican dish esquites, which is made from corn kernels seasoned with mayonnaise, chile, lime and cheese. To turn the popular side dish into a taco filling, Bayless added bay scallops.

While assembling the esquites taco, Bayless explained the importance of using authentic ingredients. Mexican oregano has a different flavor than its Mediterranean counterpart and is best purchased in its whole leaf form and crushed between the palms before it’s added to a dish. Cumin, which many people associate with Mexican cuisine, is actually not a traditional seasoning and is rarely used in the country, Bayless said. Mexican mayonnaise, which is made with lime juice, has a unique flavor that makes it worth seeking out, he said. Bayless even sources olive oil from Mexico, with his favorite being the Baja Precious brand made from indigenous olives.

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