Although he describes himself as an introvert, Jeff Smedstad has always been at ease when sharing his garnered wisdom of Mexican cuisine. At the original strip mall location of Los Sombreros in Scottsdale, a diner's question about ingredients could easily coax him out of the kitchen, and if a curious guest glanced in the open kitchen at the restaurant's later digs, catching the chef's eye, an engaging conversation about the dish being plated followed his greeting.
Smedstad now shares his personal take on Mexican cuisine, "food inspired by all of Mexico and by all my life" in The Elote Café Cookbook. The cookbook, originally released in 2009, is a love song about the craft of the kitchen, "the heart of the people" and the food of Mexico, the power of "honest food," and those who shaped and influenced the chef-owner of Sedona's Elote Café.
In the book's introduction, titled Cooking, the chef preps the reader for the recipe chapters, arranged by course, that follow. Jeff traces his culinary evolution beginning when he was a cook trainee in the Coast Guard. Formal culinary training and extensive travel later influenced his style of cooking, what he calls,-"a little bit Mexico and some of Arizona and a lot of Jeff."
The intro includes a comprehensive guide to the ingredients in Jeff's kitchen where elote (Nahuatl for corn) is emblematic and lard, real homemade lard, is a top ranked secret ingredient. His description of ingredients for the Mexican pantry, chile varieties, herbs and spices, and cheese along with his picks for meat, hot sauce (oh yeah, Cholula!) and Mexican chocolate brands, emphasize the importance of quality and discernment of flavor.
A step by step guide, with photographs, for making tamales is in the Botanas y platas chicos (appetizers and small plates) chapter along with tamale recipes: Red and Green Chile stuffed, Green Corn, Uchepos (made with fresh corn husks) and in the dessert chapter Tamal de Chocolate.
Instructions for masa dough used to make sopes and quesadillas, and an ode to corn tortillas --"the canvas for a hundred dishes" -- celebrate the quality of taste and texture achieved from scratch cooking. Try the recipes for homemade Chorizo, Quesadillas de Costilla (short ribs) and Tacos de Cachete (beef checks) and you will switch your allegiance from your favored taco stand to your home kitchen.
The adventurous omnivore will delight in the inclusion of instructions for cooking a whole pig or goat in the entrees section (Platos Grande). Both recipes begin with the use of The Cure, Jeff's spice mix made with cumin, ancho chile, and allspice. Dishes like Vegetable Picadillo Chile Relleno, Trucha Veracruana (trout), and Quinoa with Quelites (lambs quarters-a leafy green) will please the non- meat eater. Each recipe shines with sauces and garnishes that whisper of Jeff's classic background in European technique.
The Elote Café's popular Mexican Lime Crème Brulee along with Pastal de Elote, a rich cake made with buttermilk and corn topped with cajeta (goat's milk caramel), are two of the signature dessert recipes in the book. But the book doesn't end with dessert; a Bibidas (drinks) section includes a discussion of locally crafted beer and wine, Jeff's tequila preferences, and recipes for tequila-based cocktails.
Smedstad closes the cookbook with an explanation that his recipes are "Mexican in spirit" but they are his unique take on the cuisine. He encourages the cook to use his recipes "as a jumping off point for your own culinary adventures."
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