Chef Hugo Ortega’s new cookbook is a compilation of mouth-watering recipes sold by vendors on the bustling streets of Mexico City. Seen here: a beautiful guisado de cazuela de chicharrón. (Photo/Courtesy Penny de los Santos)

Chef’s spotlight: Hugo Ortega on the street foods of Mexico

Despite Hugo Ortega’s growing number of accolades – he was a recent James Beard Foundation Award finalist and was named “2011 Chef of the Year” by the Houston Culinary Awards – the Houston-based chef is astonishingly humble when asked about his favorite foods.

“I have always loved huraches,” says Ortega, who, as a youth in Mexico City, would buy the treat as breakfast or lunch from his favorite street vendor. As a young boy, Ortega would shine shoes for pennies to help make ends meet at home and he says, he always had one goal: to earn enough money to buy a hurache as a reward for his hard work. After all, huraches – simple masa cakes formed in the shape of a sandal, fried in rich lard and topped with a flavorful tomatillo or guajillo sauces before being sprinkled generously with mouthwatering strands of quesillo cheese – made a perfect meal for a growing boy.

“That delicious masa coupled with rich lard was just intoxicating to me back then, and still is,” says Ortega. “That’s the trilogy of Mexican cooking: masa, protein, vegetables. And the way this combination is served up by street vendors in countless variations is absolutely fascinating.”

Ortega loves the food of his youth so much that he decided to make it the focus of his first cookbook. With “Street Food of Mexico,” Ortega delves beyond simple tacos and introduces readers to a dazzling array of foods available on the crowded streets of Mexico City.  He calls street food – the simple, comfort meals that hungry blue-collar workers, school children and city employees can buy from vendors on nearly every block of Mexico’s third largest city – the most authentic, heart-warming cuisine in Mexico. And with the book’s beautiful photographs of smiling street vendors and rustic, hand-prepared dishes, there’s little doubt as to the truth of his claim.

Chefs spotlight: Hugo Ortega on the street foods of Mexico chef hugo edited wordpress food NBC Latino News

Several recipes from Chef Hugo’s new book, “Street Food of Mexico” are his grandmother’s. And don’t think he’s not an authority to talk about street food: as one of the odd jobs he had as a child, he sold homemade flans street side in Mexico City to help make ends meet at home. (Photo/Courtesy Paula Murphy)

“This is food for the people, made by the people in stands and carts all over the city,” says Ortega. “It’s cheap and it’s made with fresh ingredients made available in some of the most spectacular markets in the world.  That’s how it’s been for generations since Mexico City became a hub for production in the 1950s and attracted people from across the country.”

And don’t think this “fast food” is made using any shortcuts: what makes this food so authentic, explains Ortega, is that these dishes are made by vendors who primarily live on the outskirts of town, prepared in home kitchens using time-honored family recipes. So whether it’s mole cooked low and slow on humble kitchen stoves or succulent cabrito (goat) roasted in deep pits overnight, these dishes are not only delicious, but truly authentic with their use of traditional technique and fresh, local ingredients.

To ensure that his book stayed true to the Mexican grandmothers whose recipes have fed generations of city dwellers, Ortega took to the road in a 4,000 mile long culinary journey over the course of 10 days to the country of his birth. He and his brother Ruben (a talented chef in his own right as the head of pastry at Hugo’s) started their trip in Mexico City and eventually explored the roots of the dishes they loved. Their taste buds took them to seven states across Mexico, where the two sampled everything from seafood ceviches on the Pacific coast bordering Tijuana to moles from the mountainous range of Oaxaca.

“The recipes in this book are 100 percent the way they have been made by families for years,” says Ortega. “That was important to me, to pay tribute to all the people who eat, make and enjoy this food.”

“And when people make it at home, they’ll know with the first bite the soul of the people who and country it represents.”

Here is one of Ortega’s favorite discoveries from his culinary tour of Mexico: guisado de cazuela de chicharrón. Here it is, straight from the pages of “Street Food of Mexico.”

Guisado de cazuela de chicharrón [pork cracklings stew]

Chef’s note: Puestos de chicharrónes are found throughout markets in Mexico City, where these crunchy pork skins are in containers under lamps, and customers can buy them by the kilo. In some stands, the large dried pork skin — usually the actual size of the pig it came from — is hanging from hooks, exposed in all its glory. Chicharrónes can be eaten dry, in a tortilla with salsa de aguacate or cooked in a stew, as offered here. Chicharrónes wilt and reduce in size in hot liquid. They are available in the potato chips/snacks aisle in Mexican/Latin grocery stores. Keep in mind that chicharrónes are naturally very salty; therefore, add salt to taste.

10 medium tomatillos, husks removed, washed, roasted

1 large white onion, quartered, roasted

6 garlic cloves, peeled, roasted

1 whole jalapeño pepper, roasted, stemmed

¼ cup olive oil

2 (4 oz) packages chicharrónes

2½ cups beef stock

1 tsp dried Mexican oregano

¼ tsp ground cumin

Pinch ground cloves

¼ cup pipicha leaves, optional

12 regular-sized tortillas, warm

½ small bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped for garnish

½ small white onion, finely chopped for garnish

Place tomatillos, onion, garlic and jalapeño in blender and purée into a smooth consistency.

Place saucepan over medium heat, add olive oil to pan and preheat 2 minutes. Add tomatillo sauce and bring up to a boil, 3 minutes, stirring continuously.

Add chicharrónes, stirring frequently to completely submerge them in sauce. Allow to wilt, about 3 minutes. Add beef stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and leave gently bubbling for 5 minutes. Add oregano, cumin, cloves and pipicha, if using. Cook for 2 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

Place ¼ cup stew on each tortilla. Garnish with cilantro and white onion.

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