Perhaps it was lost in translation. Maybe the title of Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara’s new cookbook, “My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions,” was translated a bit too literally, I thought. Recipes, sure. But “Convictions”?
It’s a concept clarified immediately. Her writing, recipes and photography transport you to a place and time built around her unique embrace of Mexican cuisine and her convictions on how to represent it.
These convictions include always working to cook with local and sustainable ingredients, and while she loves cookbooks and recipes, she considers cooking by intuition best — and urges the reader to do the same. Cámara believes that cooking begins by shopping well. She instructs, however, that it’s not enough to just go to a great market, it’s also important to understand how to get the best this market has to offer. This is particularly essential when choosing seafood.
Cámara stresses the importance of creating your own stocks. This can be done with little to no effort, especially with a pressure cooker (She’s a fan!). She tells us to taste as we cook, understand that salt helps balance heat — you won’t have Mexican food without chilies — and to pay attention to process. That it is the singularity of focus which provides us pleasure in the preparation of a meal, not just cooking as a means to an end.
While Cámara writes beautifully about her experiences more than 20 years ago in realizing her first restaurant, Contramar in Mexico City, and later her first U.S. restaurant, Cala in San Francisco, it’s the half-hour documentary “A Tale of Two Kitchens,” streaming now on Netflix, that provides a truly personal experience of her restaurants, cooking and convictions.
Her restaurants are family. She goes out of her way to embrace people who may find it difficult to gain employment in normal circumstances, hiring a diverse staff inclusive of previously incarcerated individuals, locals and immigrants. It’s difficult not to be moved by the words of those who have found a home in Contramar or Cala.
This idea of home is similarly present in “My Mexico City Kitchen,” where rather than present an aspirational restaurant cookbook, Cámara leans toward building a practical, authentic and modern take on Mexican cuisine. But to the idea of authenticity and modernity, Cámara has her own unique conviction:
“While I respect tradition, I don’t worry about authenticity any more than I aspire to be modern,” Cámara writes. “Anything I make is authentic to me, as modern as the moment in which I’m cooking.”
In the name of tradition, I opted to start with the corn tortillas. I realize that one doesn’t just begin as a tortilla-making wizard, but armed with locally-produced organic masa harina and using my cast-iron baking steel as a comal — a tortilla-making specific griddle — I set to the task.
The recipe makes 12 tortillas, and it was the 12th that finally produced a “yes!” My version of a comal worked well, but I struggled with pressing the tortillas properly. Despite not being up to standards, we enjoyed the ones I’d made. I will continue my efforts toward tortilla wizardom, it just didn’t happen this time around.
I was excited to find two versions of chorizo (red and green), several recipes including “pulpo” or octopus, vibrant salsas and, of course, a killer margarita con mezcal. But it’s the tricky ensalada de nopales that caught my eye. Not tricky because of any real difficulty, but because creating this salad involves dethorning several prickly green nopales, or cactus paddles. You can often find these already dethorned, but I felt up to the challenge, and knifing off the prickly bits is rather fun and cathartic.
The resulting salad was bright with texture and flavor. I wondered if perhaps the nopales would have been a bit less slimy if I’d salted them as pieces rather than full paddles, so I’ll try that next time. This didn’t hinder the salad from tasting perfect on a summer night, and we polished it off easily.
Modernity took on a new flavor with the flan de Nutella. This is pretty easy to translate: it’s Nutella flan. Cámara draws from her childhood in Italy — she’s half Italian — and her obsession with Nutella. If we’re honest, who hasn’t had a period of obsession with Nutella? If you haven’t yet, treat yourself to the peanut butter of Italy and try this recipe. Custardy, exceedingly flan-like, wobbly and delicious, I enjoyed a dark espresso with this take on a classic Mexican treat.
Cactus and watercress salad with ricotta salata (Ensalada de nopales y verdolagas con ricotta salata)
Because finding a good queso fresco outside of Mexico can be difficult, Cámara suggests Italian ricotta salata instead. Alternatively, you could make your own. This recipe makes an abundance of dressing; I recommend halving the amount of oil and lime juice first to see if that fits your need. Yields 4-6 servings.
1 pound cactus paddles, dethorned
½ cup sea salt
3½ ounces radishes, sliced on a mandoline
½ red onion, slivered
6 cups watercress, rinsed, dried, and torn into manageable bites
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon Maldon sea salt or another finishing salt
4-6 tablespoons grated ricotta salata
Place the cactus paddles in a bowl, sprinkle with the sea salt, and let rest for 1 hour.
Transfer the paddles to a colander and rinse them thoroughly until they no longer feel slimy. Cut them into ½-inch slices and transfer to a medium serving bowl.
Add the radishes, onion, watercress and cilantro to the bowl. In a jar or a small bowl, combine the oil, lime juice and finishing salt, and shake or stir to mix. Dress the salad and toss to coat.
Serve within 1 hour of dressing the salad, topping each portion with 1 tablespoon of ricotta salata right before you serve it.
Nutella flan (Flan de Nutella)
Cámara serves this at her restaurant Contramar in Mexico City. Her caramel method resulted in crystals for me. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong, so I opted to make it over, but this time not to stir at all. Here I found success. Serves 8.
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
2 (12 ounce) cans evaporated milk
⅔ cups Nutella
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
To make the caramel for the bottom of the flan, place the sugar in a small saucepan and cover with the water. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted and the liquid is golden but not dark brown. Pour the caramel into a 9-inch cake pan with 2½-inch high sides or a 10-cup Bundt pan. Set aside.
Bring a full kettle of water to a boil.
In the jar of a blender, pulse the condensed milk, evaporated milk, Nutella and eggs. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
Place the cake pan in a roasting pan and fill the roasting pan with the boiling water to reach at least halfway up the outside of the cake pan. Bake for 1 hour.
Place the flan on a cooling rack to cool. When the flan has cooled to room temperature, refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
Carefully place a serving plate over the cake pan and invert the pan and plate together so that the flan falls onto the plate. Pour the caramel that remains in the bottom of the cake pan over the top of the flan and serve. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
— Reprinted with permission from “My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions” by Gabriela Cámara and Malena Watrous. Published by Lorena Jones Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
”My Mexico City Kitchen”
By Gabriela Cámara and Malena Watrous
Lorena Jones Books. 368 pages. $35.
Who should buy this?: Best for home cooks interested in delving deeper into Mexican cuisine. For those seeking something beyond the typical taco-themed Mexican cookbook. Or anyone headed to either Mexico City or San Francisco for summer vacation.