The Nopalito cookbook begins not just with masa, but a primer on the different colors of masa. Blue corn, authors Gonzalo Guzmán and Stacy Adimando explain, has a little more protein than other varieties, so it makes a sturdy and nutritious base for tortillas and tamales. White and yellow corns vary more widely, but if you plan to make your own masa—and the authors take it as a given that you will—seek out small to medium size corn kernels so they cook evenly during the nixtamalization process.
This is the attention to detail and uncompromising spirit that propelled the Nopalito cookbook to win a James Beard award for global cooking last year, and it’s exactly why it’s one of our current favorites. We’re also big fans of its authors. Guzmán is the chef of Nopalito, a pair of San Francisco restaurants devoted to modern Mexican cooking, and has been a vocal supporter of traditional Mexican foodways. Adimando is the executive editor of Saveur, a magazine devoted to following food to its source, and is on the verge of publishing a new book on regional antipasti that draws on her Italian heritage.
We’ve picked out three stellar dishes to give you a taste of this book’s charm. Together they make a cozy menu for a Sunday dinner or casual dinner party, with components you can easily prep in advance. They also make shopping a breeze; the cascabel chiles you throw into the birria also get steeped into a toasty chile oil for your quesadilla appetizer. That quesadilla recipe will yield more oil than you need; toss the rest with Guzmán’s spicy roasted vegetable mix for a side dish to serve with the birria. (If you can’t find cascabels, these Spanish nora peppers are a close substitute.)
For dessert, whip up a batch of these Catalan churros, swapping the anise seed in the dough for cinnamon to put them in the same Mexican universe as the rest of your meal. We think Guzmán and Adimando would approve.
Break out the birria
Brussels Sprout Quesadillas
Quesadillas are a fan snack on their own, but they make a great starter when paired with a refreshing cocktail, and set a casual mood for the rest of the meal. In Mexico, these snacks are often filled with vegetables in addition to cheese; squash blossoms and mushrooms are two common options. Here, Guzmán cooks down onions and shredded Brussels sprouts for a sweet, caramelized filling that adds vegetal heft to balance out stringy Oaxacan cheese. Get the recipe.
Birria al Res
Birria is a classic stew of the Western state of Jalisco. Traditionally made with goat or lamb, it’s a common dish to find at weekend markets, served from enormous cauldrons to passing shoppers with freshly toasted tortillas. But Guzmán notes you can make birria with whatever meat you want, and this beefy version calls on succulent short ribs for the job. Birria tastes even better the next day, so braise it ahead of time, then reheat it shortly before your guests arrive. Get the recipe.
Roasted Vegetables in Cascabel Chile Oil
Mexican cooking is nothing if not resourceful, and we love a recipe that pulls double duty. To balance out the heft of melted cheese and braised short ribs, toss a mix of vegetables in the leftover chile oil from your sprouts quesadillas. The carrots, squash, and broccoli in this recipe are the good kind of wintry mix, just the warming vegetable side you need to scare away the cold. Get the recipe.