The Tortilla Book by Diana Kennedy is a cookbook that I enjoy reading as much as I enjoy cooking from. Ms. Kennedy is widely regarded as one of the foremost English language authorities on Mexican food, but she’s not and never was your average celebrity chef. She approaches food writing more as a journalist or a cultural anthropologist with a little bit of barely contained evangelical zeal. The Tortilla Book is less cookbook and more a historical document of Mexican home cooking.
The Tortilla Book is a follow-up to Ms. Kennedy’s influential Cuisines of Mexico, published in 1972. When Cuisines was published Mexican food was hardly a novelty for American readers. Tacos and burritos were well-established in the culinary lexicon, and casserole-style enchiladas were popular with home chefs. Many cities – especially in the West and Southwest – were home to thriving, multi-generational communities of Mexican-Americans and more ‘authentic’ Mexican food. What Cuisines of Mexico brought to the table was a more expansive view of Mexican cuisine, with an emphasis on regional variations and home cooking.
The Tortilla Book is written in the same spirit, focusing on varied uses for the corn tortilla across different regions on Mexico. The vision is given in the introduction:
“This is not meant to be a “compleat” or definitive book encompassing all the regional variations of the taco… It is a “how-to” book designed to show that interesting and unexpected dishes can be concocted from tortillas – fresh, stale, and dried out to a crisp[.]”
This is not a vanity cookbook. There are no fancy pictures and only a few crude illustrations. The recipes use simple, inexpensive ingredients and reflect simple, home cooked meals. Many of the recipes are translations of compilations by Josefina Velázquez de León, a mid-century Mexican food writer with similar sensibilities. Ms. Kennedy is careful to credit her sources, the end result being a book that showcases a culture and its cuisine rather than the author.
But most people buy cookbooks to cook from, and The Tortilla Book‘s workmanlike approach to Mexican Cuisine may not be for everyone. In the kitchen I’ve found it more useful for ingredient selection and technique than for recipes. The simple instructions for broiling tomatoes, for example, elevate a homemade salsa. I’ve learned to keep my eyes out for epazote, which is hard to find in my area but which makes the difference between good and great black beans and soups.
The most exciting part of The Tortilla Book for me was an introduction to Oaxacan cuisine, which contains all the familiar elements of Mexican cooking but with the addition of candied fruits and sweet, aromatic sauces. Ms. Kennedy only credits regional influence, with Oaxaca being a melting pot of neighboring cuisines, but the flavor profile is almost Mediterranean or Indian. I’m no anthropologist – I just know this stuff is delicious.
I’ve adapted the filling from one of her chilaquile recipes for use as a general purpose taco filling. The result is a fragrant shredded chicken that’s more smoky than spicy, and studded with tiny dried currants for sweetness. I prefer this wrapped in soft, flour tortillas (with apologies to Ms. Kennedy) with queso fresco and simple vegetable garnish. You could just as easily add jalapenos en escabeche or choose pickled radishes over fresh.
And, because it’s the twenty-first century and this is the internet, I’ve adapted the recipe for the Instant Pot. The Instant Pot has a slight disadvantage here in that the pressure cook will express liquid which you’ll need to cook off afterwards. The pressure cook is fast enough that it ends up saving time overall, but it still feels a little bit counterproductive. If you don’t have an Instant Pot you can just as easily cook this on the stovetop, but you’ll need to allow 60-90 minutes of simmering the chicken to get it tender enough for shredding.
Wikipedia has excellent articles on the lives of Diana Kennedy and Josefina Velázquez de León, and the New York Times has an engaging article on Diana Kennedy at 96. (As of this writing she is still living). You may purchase a copy of The Tortilla Book from my Amazon Affiliate link here: https://amzn.to/3oC4HzM
For cooking the chicken:
- 4 ripe tomatoes
- 1 sweet onion, quartered
- 1 Tbsp garlic
- 4 Tbsp neutral oil (divided)
- 3-4 lbs chicken thighs
- freshly ground black pepper
- garlic powder
For the sauce:
- 1 sweet onion
- 4-6 mild dried chiles
- 1 Tbsp white sugar
- 1 Tbsp minced garlic
- 1/4 tsp black peppercorns
- 3 cloves
- 1 cup water
- 1-2 tsp mild chile powder (such as new mexico or ancho)
- 1/2 cup chicken broth (or 1/2 tsp bouillon)
For final preparation:
- 1/2 cup dried currants
- Lightly toast the dried chilies in a dry cast iron skillet over medium-low heat, about 2-3 minutes per side or until lightly browned. Remove the seeds if desired) and add to hot (not boiling) water and allow to soak for at least twenty minutes.
- Heat a dry cast iron skillet until hot and smoking. Add the tomatoes and onion and char until tomato skin is brown and cracked and onion is dark and starting to sweat. You don't want to turn them into charcoal, but don't be afraid of blackening the exteriors. Stir occasionally to capture all surfaces, then remove from the cast iron and let cool for a minute or two. Add the charred tomato and onion along with the garlic to a blender and puree until smooth.
- Turn on the Instant Pot in saute mode and heat the oil. When the Instant Pot is hot add the tomato sauce and cook on high heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until sauce is reduced, then reduce to a simmer. (Keep Warm setting)
- Trim excess fat from the chicken, and season liberally with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Heat remaining oil in a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and sear 2-3 minutes on each side until nicely browned.
- Add seared chicken to the Instant Pot. Close the lid and cook on low pressure for 20 minutes.
- While the chicken is cooking, remove the chilies from the soaking liquid and puree with the other ingredients for the sauces. Add to the cast iron skillet and cook over medium heat, scraping up the browned bits of chicken from the pan while cooking.
- When the chicken is finished, manually vent the steam and shred the chicken in the instant pot using a pair of barbecue tongs or two forks back-to-back. Add the chicken and liquid to the skillet and mix well. Simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes until sauce is reduced and mostly incorporated into the chicken. (It should look like moist, juicy shredded chicken - not chicken soup)
- Add the currants and cook for 2-3 minutes until currants have absorbed most of the remaining liquid. (Add 1/4 cup of water back if needed). Add salt as needed to taste.
- Serve as soft tacos, garnished with ingredients listed.
I own the 10-qt Instant Pot, sufficient to cook for 8-10 people. You may purchase the 10 qt variety here: https://amzn.to/2K7GDpt, or the smaller 6 qt variety here: https://amzn.to/39YHX9e There are other more expensive variants available, but I’ve never found the need for any of the fancier features.