So why is a Korean food expert writing about Mexican cooking? It makes sense when you find out that Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee's parents had a Mexican grocery in the San Fernando Valley. Working there, she learned many a dish from the women who came in to shop, and she later immersed herself in the cuisine while living in San Miguel de Allende.
"I cook Mexican food better than Korean," says Lee, amending that with, "Well, it's not for me to judge." Lee, who lives in Los Angeles, has just come out with Quick & Easy Mexican Cooking (Chronicle Books; $22.95). She has already promoted Korean food with "Quick & Easy Korean Cooking" and, before that, Eating Korean (John Wiley & Sons).
The new book makes quick work of such complex-sounding dishes as spicy pork with achiote paste (cochinita pibil), herbed pumpkin seed mole, beef enchiladas with red sauce and chicken baked in creamy chipotle sauce.
Lee explains ingredients, cheeses, salsas, utensils, even how to make corn tortillas. If you think only hot celebrities are on A lists, it's not true. Lee has an A list of basic Mexican ingredients (beans, rice, tomatoes, cilantro, etc), a B list for more ambitious cooks (think nopales, crema, masa, tomatillos) and a C list for the really serious (annatto seeds, epazote, jamaica, piloncillo and the like).
Some of the recipes go back to those early days in the grocery. "The Lenten eggs I learned from the señoras buying shredded dried shrimp, eggs and nopales during Lent," Lee says. "And the chicken pozole is a variation of the original pork pozole the wife of our one worker, Arturo Sandoval, made when he invited our family over for dinner.
"They made this giant pot of soup, and we took turns eating at the tiny dining table in their kitchen, because we couldn't all sit down and eat soup at the same time. It was a lovely demonstration of hospitality and a shared meal even in the humblest of circumstances."
In her book, Lee makes fast work of that pozole by using a purchased rotisserie chicken and canned hominy instead of nixtamal that has to be simmered until tender. Once the chicken is in the pot, the soup is done in less than half an hour.
Pozole de Pollo (chicken and hominy soup)
From: Quick & Easy Mexican Cooking, by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee.
Makes: 10 to 12 appetizer servings.
1 whole roasted chicken (4 to 5 pounds)
3 quarts water
3 medium onions, 1 quartered and 2 chopped
3 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 (15-ounce) cans hominy, drained
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 limes, cut into wedges
4 radishes, sliced
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Warm corn tortillas
1. Shred the chicken and place the meat in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the water, the quartered onion, the jalapeños and garlic. Cover and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
2. Once boiling, add the hominy, salt, cumin, chili powder, oregano and black pepper. Reduce the heat slightly and continue to simmer 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Ladle the soup into large bowls and top each with a handful of chopped onion and some cilantro. Serve with the lime wedges, cilantro and corn tortillas on the side.