STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Ever since Diana Kennedy released the book "The Cuisines of Mexico" in 1972, she's been considered one of the leading experts on authentic Mexican cooking. Kennedy is originally from Britain. She moved to Mexico in 1957. She spent decades crisscrossing the country in search of recipes and new dishes and the perfect tamale.
In the past, her books have focused on regional cuisines across Mexico. Her new book dives into the cooking of just one state, Oaxaca.
NPR's Jason Beaubien caught up with Kennedy in her home in western Mexican.
JASON BEAUBIEN: Diana Kennedy's house is at the end of a dirt road that's only passable in a pickup truck or a four-wheel drive. This part of Mexico is quite lush at this time of year. Recent heavy rains have made her rambling gardens feel like a swath of jungle.
On her seven acres she has fruit trees - apricots, oranges, figs. There's an overgrown corn patch. In raised beds she's growing vegetables. Other plants that are scattered about like weeds are actually herbs. Vines crawl from one tree to another.
DIANA KENNEDY: This chayote, I brought from Siere de Puebla. And you eat the vines, as well as the chayotes.
BEAUBIEN: Chayotes are pear-shaped vegetables that taste a bit like zucchini.
KENNEDY: The local ones here - the ones that grow like wild over the trees - have spines on them and it's a less compact flesh.
BEAUBIEN: Kennedy's is a cook's garden. It's a repository for key ingredients for recipes from various parts of Mexico.
KENNEDY: This is edible and it's use with beans in Veracruz - part of Veracruz.
BEAUBIEN: In the greenhouse attached to her house, she proudly declares that the only plants you can't eat are two orchids. The glass structure currently is overrun with chilies; red sweet ones and bright orange habaÃ±eros, ready to be picked.
In her kitchen she's toasting dried chilies in a skillet.
KENNEDY: This wonderful aroma comes up as you're doing this.
BEAUBIEN: Kennedy is often referred to as the Julia Child of Mexico, an ex- patriot who's come to dominate the national food scene. At 87 years old, she's still fit and moves energetically around her kitchen. Traditional clay pots line one wall. Spices and vegetables hang in wicker baskets. The centerpiece of the kitchen is a long cement counter, adorned with Mexican tile and topped with built-in gas burners.
And if she happens to let you into her kitchen, you have to behave yourself.
KENNEDY: Now, don't go over on the garlic, because most people put far too much garlic in Mexican food.
BEAUBIEN: She's cooking a simple recipe of beans with yerba santa that comes from the western highlands of Oaxaca.
KENNEDY: Not those big elephant garlics you get in the States - just drives me mad. I don't want to crush them down either. I don't like crushing it, crushing it on the board and leaving all the flavor on the board.
BEAUBIEN: Kennedy is a stickler for authenticity. She isn't just cooking to create a meal. She's cooking to preserve, to document dishes from remote parts of Mexico that are usually made entirely with local ingredients.
She's crushing some wild oregano and cumin seeds in a stone molcajete.
KENNEDY: Wonderful flavors come out of these, as you know. Don't ever overdo the cumin. We're not in the north where the cumin is more predominant.
BEAUBIEN: Her new book is called "Oaxaca al Gusto." It's a cookbook with recipes but it's not a conventional cookbook. At almost seven pounds, it could also be a coffee table book, or a text book, or a travel log, in which this southern Mexican state is viewed through its food.
Kennedy divides the book up, not by recipes, but by geography, and she dives into the varied cuisines of this diverse state. She says this is what makes Oaxaca special.
KENNEDY: Because of all these cultural differences and because of all these microclimates, where you've got all these different ingredients that are used.
BEAUBIEN: And she follows the local recipes religiously, using the chilies and other spices that are from that area. She's a food anthropologist. In her section on the Amuzgos, an indigenous group from the Pacific coastal region of Oaxaca, she writes: Tamales, too, play an important role in their diet. They are filled with iguana, armadillo, goat, shrimp, mushrooms, beans, pumpkins, and even the black grubs known as cuetlas((ph).
KENNEDY: Now, we can turn this over.
BEAUBIEN: The book even has a recipe for iguana in a mole sauce. Kennedy says she can already hear her critics in the U.S.
KENNEDY: Okay, so they're going to say, there are a lot of wild recipes that nobody can do in this book. But a lot of recipes you can do. And I want to say, how many recipes do you do in any cookbook. I swear you don't do half of them.
BEAUBIEN: One that many people north of the border may skip is her recipe for a wedding stew from the isthmus, in which you cut up a whole ox and boil for hours.
But there are many simple recipes in this book, like the beans she's cooking. The chilies, garlic, cumin and oregano are blended with a bit of water in an old electric blender.
KENNEDY: In this - the bean pot.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BLENDER)
KENNEDY: I'm going to, now - here's the beans. You see all soupy beans. And you want them, when you cook them, you do want some - leave all that broth in it because the flavor is in the broth...
BEAUBIEN: She adds the spices into lard that's sizzling in an unglazed earthen pot. Eventually she'll put the pre-cooked beans in too, and let simmer. Right before serving, she adds rough chunks of fresh yerba santa leaves to the mix. The yerba santa gives a slight flavor of anise to the beans.
KENNEDY: It'll go in just like this.
BEAUBIEN: She serves the beans in fresh, homemade tortillas with a bit of cheese crumpled on top. The chilies play off against the mild licorice taste of the yerba santa.
Kennedy's new book is beautifully illustrated with luscious photos of raw ingredients, cooked meals, overflowing markets and sweeping landscapes of Oaxaca.
Her deep expertise is also the one downside of this book. The index is arranged geographically, making it hard to find a recipe unless you already know what part of the state it comes from. She also leaves out recipes for such staples as masa, the ubiquitous tortilla dough that's required in many recipes. But she makes up for these short comings by providing insight into the culture and history that accompany these meals.
In the end, Kennedy delivers a collection of authentic, unusual recipes from one of the culinary hotspots of Mexico.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEXICAN MUSIC)
INSKEEP: And you can try Diana Kennedy's recipes for yourself. Just go to our Web site, NPR.org.
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.