The Yucatán Peninsula, located in Southeastern Mexico, is the focus of David Sterling’s regional cookbook: Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition . The Mexican part of the Yucatán Peninsula is divided into 3 of the 31 states: Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. This area is home to quite the unique cuisine. It is fairly isolated from the rest of the country and was actually once thought to be an island by European explorers. Many of the original Maya recipes and cooking methods still thrive, but the region has become a melting pot with influences from Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Cuba, Africa, and even Lebanon.
The author, David Sterling, is an Oklahoma native with backgrounds in Southwestern and classic French cooking. He focused on Mexican cuisine following his first visit in 1972. He moved to Mérida in 2003 and opened the first Yucatán-specific cooking school in Mexico: Los Dos. The intense amount of work he has placed into the book definitely shows. The pages are filled with 10 years of research and help from botanists, locals, and multiple photographers. His dedication has definitely paid off. Yucatán is an absolutely gorgeous book and the recipient of the James Beard Foundation Best Cookbook of the Year Award, 2015; the James Beard Foundation Best International Cookbook Award, 2015; and The Art of Eating Prize for Best Food Book of the Year, 2015.
Yucatán is divided by the Introduction, The Yucatan Market (overview of ingredients), The Maya Heartland, Fertile Shores, The People’s Food, The Urban Matrix, The Pueblos, Pantry Staples, and Basic Techniques.
I know very little about Mexican cuisine and even less about the Yucatán. Luckily, Sterling begins with an introduction to the food and a history lesson. This 6 1/2 pound, 576 page encyclopedia of a book continues to go into great detail of every aspect of life in the Yucatán, from the landscape that influences what grows to the various cultures that have left their footprints through the years.
There is a helpful reference guide at the beginning of the book to recipes and their page numbers based on your needs: Appetizers and Snacks, Quick One-Pot Suppers, Seafood, Fancy, For the Intrepid Cook, Vegetarian, Baked Goods, and Ice Creams and Sweets.
The Yucatan Market provides an extensive listing of ingredients used in Yucatecan cuisine. Each item is presented with a color photograph and the Spanish, English, Botanical, and Mayan version of the name. Substitutions are also noted for the more difficult to find ingredients. There is a thorough description plus the item’s culinary use. I particularly enjoyed the background information and whether the item was native or introduced to the area.
Sterling presents the recipes (a nice variety of appetizers, breads, sweets, various meats- including rabbit and quail, pasta, seafood, drinks, and soups) in a clear and concise manner. He has adapted them for the home kitchen without dumbing them down or losing the authenticity. Many are on the time-consuming side. They often require multiple steps and flipping to other recipes in the book to complete. This is mostly due to the nature of the cuisine. In the Yucatán, home cooks will generally have these various sauces and spice mixes as staples in their pantry. I found for quite a few of the recipes, I could do them in parts and store the staples to make less time when preparing the final dish. The more you cook from the book, the more you will have these ingredients and mixes on hand and less prep will be needed in the future. It can also be helpful when menu planning to pair recipes that use the same basic components.
Measurements are listed in Metric and U.S. Customary (with a note of course for metric being the most accurate- minus bulgur). Vivid, full page photographs (from multiple photographers) are scattered throughout the book. Many of the recipes have accompanying photos, but not all.Some ingredients may be difficult to find for the American-based cook, particularly the produce.
The technique section at the end of the book has illustrations and tips to help guide you through some of the more difficult steps of the recipes. There is also a resource list with websites and grocers that offer some of the more unique ingredients.
As I looked through all the recipes, my sweet tooth led the way and Esquimos immediately caught my attention. I bought popsicle molds in January and have only pulled them out a handful of times. This was the perfect way to put them to use. I first made Sorbete de Coco, a simple coconut sorbet. I filled the mold with the sorbet, then coated the chilled popsicles with dark chocolate and grated coconut. These popsicles were quite addictive and I am slightly embarrassed at how many I consumed in the days following their assembly. They were even dairy-free and vegan.
In addition to the Esquimos, I have also made Codzitos, Esquites, and Pan Frances so far.
The Codzitos were a quick snack made by rolling corn tortillas, frying them, then covering with tomato sauce, cheese, and cilantro (I forgot to add the cilantro before photographing). It is a great way to use up extra corn tortillas, especially once they have gotten stale.The tomato sauce can be made ahead of time or frozen to save steps needed when frying the tortillas. My grocery store was out of Edam cheese, so I used a coconut Gouda.
I tried Mexican-style corn on the cob for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it left me wanting more. Chad and I actually fought over the seconds. I came across the recipe for Esquites and immediately added it to the menu plan to help satisfy the craving. Instead of leaving the corn on the cob, Esquites is made tossing the kernels with crema and cotija cheese. Sterling elevated the dish by including bell peppers and poblanos. These can be left out, but I enjoyed the flavor and color it added. It came together quickly and was a refreshing side dish perfect to accompany the charred and smoked meat dishes available throughout the book.
Pan Francés is a bread similar to French Bread. Spraying the loaves a few times at the beginning of the baking process creates a crisp crust with a soft interior. I placed banana leaves in the slits as shown in the photos, but they didn’t stay well as the bread rose in the oven.
I only had 6 popsicle molds, so I kept the extra as Sorbete de Coco (Coconut Sorbet) for Chad since he doesn’t like chocolate. It definitely didn’t go to waste and was quite delicious on its own. Chad generally only eats vanilla ice cream and he polished off the container fairly quickly, then asked me to make it again. If you don’t have popsicle molds, you can also use paper cups and wooden popsicle sticks.
These can be made vegan and dairy-free depending on the type of chocolate you use. I used a brand of unsweetened dark chocolate that was 99 percent cocoa (the remaining ingredient was vanilla bean).
I tried both fresh and dried grated coconut for coating the popsicles. The dried was easier to coat in a uniform manner.
Work quickly when coating the popsicles. Cover with the coconut before the chocolate has a chance to harden. If the chocolate clumps and cools too much, melt for a few seconds in the microwave to make it smooth again.
This recipe takes some time (chilling the sorbet mixture, then the popsicles), but it is simple overall.
Sterling also offers a way to make the sorbet using a fresh coconut.
Disclaimer: I was provided access to a PDF file by University of Texas Press in exchange for this review. All comments and opinions are my own.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Yucatán and it is a wonderful reference for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in Yucatecan cuisine. There is so much more to the region than the popular tourist destinations. I hope I get the chance to visit someday and maybe even spend the day at Sterling’s cooking school.
Esquimos (Coconut Sorbet Ice Pops Dipped in Chocolate and Coconut)
Adapted from Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition
Sorbete de Coco (Coconut Sorbet):
1 cup (250 milliliters) water
1 1/2 cup (142.5 grams) grated unsweetened coconut (I used fresh)
3 cups (750 milliliters) canned coconut milk
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon (0.125 milliliters) (Mexican) vanilla extract
12 ounces (340 grams) unsweetened dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups (200 grams) freshly grated coconut or dry sweetened coconut
In a blender, combine water and 1 1/2 cups grated coconut and blend until a smooth puree, about 1 minute.
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the coconut milk and sugar over low heat until the sugar has completely dissolved. Bring to a boil by increasing the heat to medium. Boil for 30 seconds, then remove from heat. Whisk in the vanilla extract and coconut puree. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, 4 hours to overnight.
Whisk the refrigerated mixture until smooth. Pour into the ice cream machine and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the mixture to popsicle molds. Gently tap the filled molds to remove any large air bubbles. Insert the stems or popsicle sticks and freeze until solid, 4 hours to overnight.
Line a baking sheet or cutting board that can fit in the freezer with parchment. Place in freezer. Cover a large plate with half of the coconut. Use a double boiler over boiling water or a microwave in 20 second increments to melt the chocolate until smooth. Allow to cool enough to still be smooth, but not hot.
Remove one popsicle from the mold and, working quickly, dip the popsicle in the chocolate and immediately roll in the grated coconut. Place on prepared baking sheet or cutting board in the freezer. Repeat with remaining popsicles, adding more coconut to the plate as needed. If you do not have a wide enough freezer to arrange the popsicles in a single layer, then place a sheet of parchment between the layers.