Chef Hugo Ortega's immigrant success story is the personification of the American dream: A young man who speaks no English arrives in this country with a serious work ethic and climbs to the heights of his chosen profession. After growing up in poverty on the streets of Mexico City, Ortega began his American restaurant career washing dishes and bussing tables at Houston's Backstreet Cafe. Restaurateur Tracy Vaught recognized Ortega's initiative and potential, nurturing his talent by enrolling him in the Culinary Arts Program at Houston Community College. After graduation in 1992, Ortega became executive chef at Backstreet and, eventually, Vaught's husband. Their culinary empire now includes Hugo's, famous in Houston for Ortega's presentation of the authentic flavors of his Mexican homeland. For this book, Hugo and his pastry chef brother, Ruben Ortega, traveled through Mexico with accomplished food photographer Penny De Los Santos to document the street foods they grew up eating. The Ortega brothers' recipes and De Los Santos' evocative photos capture a multifaceted cuisine that represents the slow food aesthetic at its most basic – simple, robust dishes prepared from time-honored family recipes with local ingredients, shared on the street.
Ortega begins with some basic instructions and suggestions about the equipment and pantry staples necessary to recreate his Mexican street food dishes in the American home kitchen, reminding us that while these dishes may come from the street, they are definitely not fast food. Many require more than one preparation, but each delicious component is worth the time and effort. Ortega proceeds with antojitos (appetizers), tacos, salsas, tortas (sandwiches), ceviches and cocteles (marinated seafood concoctions), dulces (sweets), and bebidas (drinks), providing clear instructions throughout. Quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom) are a delightful seasonal treat, flavored with epazote and queso Oaxaca. Tacos de chile relleno made with stuffed poblano peppers proved irresistible, regardless of the preparation time involved, and the chileatole (warm corn porridge) will be a must on the first chilly day this year. Ruben Ortega's sweets are tempting, as well. His churros (fried fritters) could inspire me to get out the fryer and whip up a batch, but his nieves (sorbets) and helados (ice creams) remind me that the bowl of the quick ice cream maker is already in the freezer. The Ortega brothers will succeed in making your mouth water and ignite your motivation to get into the kitchen. ¡Ándale, pues!
Hugo Ortega appears in the Cooking Tent from 10-11am on Saturday.
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