Sutter’s Kitchen: YUCATÁN, Recipes From a Culinary Expedition

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On the table this month in Sutter’s Kitchen: Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition by David Sterling

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A stunning new addition to our cookbook selection this month, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition by David Sterling offers not only tons of incredible recipes and gorgeous photography, but a wonderful introduction to the Yucatecan people, culture, history, and environment as well. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to explore this beautiful book, and can say with no hesitation that it holds a feast of delights in store for both newcomers to and seasoned gourmands familiar with Yucatecan cuisine.

Accompanied by food expedition companions and fellow BookPeople employees Jessica and Tomoko, we set our sights on two dishes, Pollo en Macalú (p. 404) and Sikil P’aak (p. 285), and y’all, we ate some awesome, amazing food. We made some awesome, amazing food. Did I mention that as an added bonus the food was gorgeous and some of it was purple? I’ll get to that.

First, Sikil P’aak, a Maya dip made primarily of toasted squash seeds, Seville orange juice, and charred tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Yes, it is as delicious as it sounds.

Now, I personally love the learning process a new cookbook represents for me, and the sense of accomplishment I get when I try a new technique. So it is particularly exciting to me that Sterling includes a useful section in the back of the book describing basic techniques and recipes that helped us with a number of stages throughout the day, from charring vegetables in my cast iron skillet to preparing a substitute for Seville orange juice (Sterling rightly lists Seville oranges as difficult to find here in the States during most of the year). This part of the book is a goldmine for those looking for that extra bit of encouragement to venture boldly into new kitchen territory.

Here are the veggies before and after the charring process:

The skillet was also useful in toasting the squash seeds:

After being toasted, the squash seeds are ground to a powder in a food processor and set aside as the remaining ingredients are pureed, and then the two are combined with cilantro and chives. The result in an incredible, earthy, spicy dip that can be served with corn tortillas or chips:

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My intrepid spouse was particularly disgruntled to learn that he would be out of town for this particular feast. I promised to try and save some food for him, but alas, the Sikil P’aak didn’t make it. I ate the rest the next day. I am not sorry.

Next, the main dish, Pollo en Macalú, chicken stewed in spiced wine. This dish comes from the “Urban Matrix” section of the book, hails specifically from the city of Valladolid, and offered us a glimpse of the unique fusion flavors found in Yucatecan cuisine.

Again, the section on basic techniques proved invaluable, as there were several steps to this dish that required me to try things I’d never done before, like brining the chicken for several hours in a salt/sugar/spice solution. Many recipes in the book call for lard, and Sterling recommends enriching commercial lard in the basic techniques section in the back of the book, but I had been wanting to learn to render my own lard for some time, so I seized the opportunity. Several BookPeople employees can testify to how insanely proud of myself I was the day after I rendered my own quart of lard (sourced from a free-range farm outside of Austin).

After frying up a small amount of bacon in the pot, the chicken was browned in a combination of lard and bacon fat before being stewed in a combination of spices, beef stock, and red wine. I used a Cabernet Sauvignon, which turned everything a rich, dark, and vibrant purple:

Totally gorgeous.

After stewing for approximately twenty to thirty minutes, the chicken was removed and the sauce reduced and thickened, after which the chicken is added back to the pot along with slivered almonds, pickled jalapeños, green olives, and capers. Complex, flavorful, purple. Who could want anything else?

Now, I’ll admit, I’m a nervous cook, especially with complicated dishes, where there exist a greater number of opportunities for me to make some kind of critical mistake and end up exhausted and weeping, covered in flour and tomato sauce. But there was no need for concern here; Sterling’s instructions were so thorough and easy to understand that the result was nothing short of spectacular.

As an addition to our meal, Jessica and Tomoko also prepared a massaged kale salad with a lemon and mango dressing. The salad was not included in the cookbook, but it made a great addition to our meal, and had the added benefit of using one of our ridiculously enormous kale plants from the intrepid spouse’s garden. The tart sweetness of the lemon / mango combination and the buttery bitterness of the massaged kale went well with the heady stewed chicken and earthy dip.

Were we impressed with our work? I should say we were.

And why wouldn’t we be? Look at this deliciousness:

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Suffice to say, I am in love with this cookbook.

Cooks with little or no experience of Yucatecan cuisine (like me) will find Yucatan an invaluable resource; the recipes are clear and easy to follow, and range from simple to complex. Those with more experience will also find enormous value in the depth and richness of the comprehensive nature of the book. I can’t wait to try some of the other recipes, especially some of the baked goods, and I’m hoping to try my hand at tamales as well.

For those consumed with pathos for the intrepid spouse, I’m happy to say that while he was deprived of the magnificence of Sikil P’aak, he did manage to arrive home in time to leftover chicken in its delicious purple sauce, which only gets better with a little time in the fridge to allow the flavors to mingle. And not to worry, I have a feeling that Sikil P’aak will make an appearance in our kitchen again very soon…along with a number of other dishes from this amazing book.

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Copies of Yucatan  are now available on the shelves of our cookbook section and via bookpeople.com. 

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