Like sister restaurant Café Gratitude, Gracias Madre, the newish vegan Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood, has a pretty concise menu. There's a handful of savory snacks, such as local Manzanilla olives, plus fewer than a dozen each of appetizers and mains, among them spicy mole enchiladas. The list of options for cocktails, spirits and wine is far more extensive. For Chandra Gilbert, executive chef at the restaurant, it's less by design and more from professional habit.
"I was never taught to be complicated. I worked under Annie Sommerville at Greens [in San Francisco], which had a simplistic menu with a lot of repetition based on seasonality," Gilbert explains. "It was the same thing when I worked at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley." Gilbert's culinary perspective grew outside those kitchens as she explored different avenues of natural foods.
"When I was working as director of operations at Café Gratitude in the Bay Area, I was into alkalinizing 45-day juice cleanses. I was really into raw cooking; I spent almost a year going raw, checking out raw food festivals," Gilbert says. "I did a really long, free, work-trade for an amazing fermenter in the San Francisco/Berkeley area. Her name is Alex Hozven. She runs the Cultured Pickle Shop. All this has looped back into my style."
With menu development for Gracias Madre, Gilbert looked at references beyond her own career, reading and studying cookbooks by authors like Diana Kennedy. Gilbert is just as informed by her travels, by the food of Los Angeles and by Central American staff members who have shared their family recipes.
"It's not like I reinvented anything. This is food with a long history," she says.
The chef thought a couple early reviews showed that some people may have misunderstood the restaurant's first focus. "We opened in the winter. There were questions about why we didn't use corn or tomatoes. We're a 100% organic restaurant. The season runs itself."
Chilaquiles Roja or Verde
From: Chandra Gilbert of Gracias Madre
Note: It will help with the frying if your tortillas are a little dry. If they are fresh, cut them first, put them in a warm oven for a few minutes first to dry them out a bit, and then proceed.
Red Chili Sauce:
4 dried ancho chilies
3 garlic cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1. Take 4 dried ancho chilies and remove seeds, stems and veins. Heat chilies lightly on a skillet over medium heat to draw out their flavor.
2. Put chilies in a saucepan and pour boiling hot water over to cover. Allow to sit for 15 minutes. Reserve water to make the sauce.
3. Add all the ingredients plus 1½ cups of chili soaking liquid to a blender. Hold down lid of blender tightly while blending and blend until completely puréed. When cooking chilaquiles, strain through a mesh sieve into a frying pan to remove pulp and seeds. Yields 2½ cups.
1 pound tomatillos, husks removed
1 jalapeño pepper, stems and seeds removed
2 cloves garlic
1. Put 1 pound of tomatillos into a saucepan and cover with water by an inch. Add jalapeño and garlic. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes over boil, until tomatillos have changed color and are cooked through.
2. Use a slotted spoon to remove tomatillos, jalapeño and garlic from saucepan. Add to a blender along with a cup of the cooking liquid. Blend until completely puréed. Add salt to taste. Yields 2½ cups.
1 cup raw cashews soaked overnight and rinsed
½ cup water
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1. Blend all the ingredients in a Vitamix or powerful blender until smooth.
1 dozen corn tortillas (preferably stale, or left out overnight to dry out a bit), quartered or cut into 6 wedges
Rice bran oil
1 ½ to 2 cups red chili sauce or salsa verde
A few sprigs cilantro, optional
2 Tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1/4 quarter chopped red onion
1 avocado, sliced or roughly chopped
1. In a large sauté pan, coat pan generously with rice bran oil to cover about 1/8 inch up. Heat oil on medium high to high.
2. When the oil is quite hot, add the tortillas. Fry until golden brown. Remove tortillas and transfer to a paper towel - lined plate to soak up excess oil. Sprinkle a little salt on the tortillas. Wipe pan clean of any browned bits of tortillas.
3. Add two tablespoons of rice bran oil to pan and bring to high heat again. Add your choice of salsa and let salsa cook for a few minutes to reduce liquid. You can adjust cooking time according to your preference in sauce.
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4. If you would like to use a few sprigs of cilantro, add them to the salsa. Then add the fried tortilla quarters to the salsa. Gently turn over the pieces of tortilla until they are all well coated with salsa. Let cook for a few minutes more. Remove from heat. Serve chilaquiles garnished with cashew crème, chopped cilantro, chopped red onion, sliced (or chopped) avocado, and a lime wedge.