Chicago Gourmet Mod Mex: Ten tips from celebrity chefs

Chicago Gourmet Mod Mex: Ten tips from celebrity chefs
The flavors of Mod Mex. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

"Mod Mex & Mod Mix" Chicago Gourmet's special celebrity chef event focusing on "The New Face of Mexican" once again, rocked it at Saturday's food and drink extravaganza hosted by rock star chef Rick Bayless at Kendell College.

Rick Bayless demonstrates how to make a simple mole. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Rick Bayless demonstrates how to make a simple mole. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

The program began with breakfast and a wake-up cocktail of passion fruit and tequila, followed by a program where each chef individually described and demonstrated their take on Mexican cuisine.

Tomatillo and ancho chili peppers played a big role in chef creations. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Tomatillo, ancho chili peppers and corn mesa played a big role in chef creations. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

The all-day event featured an “Iron Chef” type competition where Bayless and the other star-studded chefs including Javier Plascencia (Misión 19, Tijuana); José Ramón Castillo (Que Bo!, Mexico City) and Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark (Parachute, Chicago) created their culinary masterpieces using a limited number of specific ingredients--with tomatillos, ancho chili peppers, mesa, spices and coconut all playing lead roles.

Master mixologists Eryn Reece (Death & Company, New York City) and Erick Rodríguez (Almazecalera, Mexico City) kept the creative juices flowing with their innovative cocktail creations.

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Sommelier Jill Gubesch.

The day also featured wine pairings from Topolobampo and Frontera Grill’s long-time Sommelier Jill Gubesch—who really knows her stuff.

Gubesch explained her choices and elaborated on how pairings can transform one’s perception of a dish by offering different nuances.

Peter Sagal, of NPR's famed "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" emceed the day--moving things along at just the right pace while keeping the crowd and the chefs in a festive mood.

Peter Sagal emceed the event. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Peter Sagal emceed the event. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

After the demos, the crowd was able to sample the culinary creations along with the wine pairings and cocktails.

What I learned:

I’ve always thought myself a knowledgeable cook, in tune with the latest food trends and styles, but it turns out that I had a thing or two to learn.

Here are the 10 things I'll be trying:

1. Sauteing fish skin side down.

According to the chefs, sauteing fish skin side down works especially well with striped bass and trout. Just press down on the fish with your fingers--like chef Johnny Clark (Parachute) does-- or if you're worried that you might burn your fingers use a kitchen utensil. When the fish feels done turn it to the other side for a few seconds, remove and serve.

Husband and wife team, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark (Parachute).

Husband and wife team, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark (Parachute). Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

2. Adding baking soda to cooking water.

Adding a small amount of baking soda to the pot when cooking greens keeps the greens green--the chefs all agreed on this one.

3. Fermenting tomatillos.

Fermenting tomatillos adds a unique flavor to a dish and it's easy to do. Slice or dice the tomatillos, place them in a bowl, brine with salt, cover with wax paper and let them stand for about a week at room temperature. That's all there is to it, according to Rick Bayless, who said he fermented tomatillos for the first time for Saturday's Mod Mex event.

4. Skip the broth and use water.

One of the first things most culinary students learn is how to make broth but according to Bayless, for a cleaner, more honest flavor for sauces…forget the broth and just add water.

5. Temper chocolate by hand at home.

José Ramón Castillo (Que Bo!, Mexico City) shows us how to temper chocolate by hand. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

José Ramón Castillo (Que Bo!, Mexico City) shows us how to temper chocolate by hand. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Although most chocolate shops have huge tempering machines, the labor intensive process of hand tempering actually turns out better chocolate--and if you (or I) are so inclined--we can try it at home.

6. Culantro or cilantro?

Culantro has a similar flavor to cilantro and holds up better in cooked dishes. Next time I make tortilla soup, I'm going to try culantro. According to Parachute's Kim and Clark, culantro also works well in Asian dishes.

7. Barnacles...for dinner?

If you think barnacles are those spiky, slimy, slightly phallic things that grow on rocks in the ocean, you are right. Currently about 80% of these critters are consumed in Spain where they are considered a delicacy. But don't be surprised to see them locally--if you haven't already. I hope to be sampling some soon.

8. Ancho Reyes liqueur.

Ancho Reyes liqueur, based on a 1927 recipe from Puebla, a town in Mexico known for its ancho chiles can change the character of a cocktail or a food dish with just a few drops. It is available locally at Binny's and should retail in the mid-$20's range.

9. Mayacoba beans.

Similar to pinto beans, but not as easy to find locally, peruano or mayacoba beans are a staple in Mexican and Asian recipes.

Peruano or mayacoba beans are popular in both Mexican and Asian cuisines. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Peruano or mayacoba beans are popular in both Mexican and Asian cuisines. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

10. "Hot" oils!

Although I usually use canola or olive oil, I will be purchasing some safflower and sunflower oils that are especially good for cooking with a high heat. Bayless uses Spectrum Organic oil, available at Whole Foods, or Rice brand oil which has a high smoke point of 232 °C (450 °F) and a mild flavor with no aftertaste.

More information.

For more information on Bon Appétit's Chicago Gourmet 2015 and related events, click here.

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