"My food is definitely market driven and minimalist," says Gabriela Cámara, sounding like any self-respecting Bay Area chef rightly enamored with the region's preposterously good farmers' markets. "But it's Mexican in that it relies on pronounced acidity and a variety of different chiles." And with that, the Chihuahua-born restaurateur has tidily outlined a healthy and delicious approach to cooking that we could all benefit from adopting this summer. In 2014, Camara moved to San Francisco to open her restaurant, Cala, after the success of her Mexico City restaurant, Contramar, a global destination known for its breezy, languorous lunches centered around pristine seafood.
Even if you haven't dined at Contramar, you might know the restaurant's photogenic two-toned grilled whole snapper-butterflied and slathered with a vivid salsa verde on one side and achiote-red chile paste on the other. It was on the menu when the restaurant opened in 1998 and has recently found a second life as an Instagram star. In the Bay Area, Cámara's deft touch with hyper-seasonal products like local abalone and puntarelle at Cala earned the respect of diners and a certain market-driven minimalist named Alice Waters. In her book, My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions (Lorena Jones Books; $35), Cámara shares her philosophy and recipes that span two decades and two countries. Compared to those in many other chef-authored cookbooks, the recipes here are strikingly simple, primarily built around super-fresh produce, seafood, and exacting technique.
Here, Cámara gives us three easy recipes that embody her chile-spiked, acid-tinged, seasonal approach to cooking. Any one of these dishes could easily be made on a weeknight, or, if served together, would make a fine summer seafood feast.
“The menus at both Cala in San Francisco and Contramar in Mexico City feature tostadas topped with seasonal seafood,” says Cámara. “Celeriac or Napa cabbage pairs well with the crab. I like how celeriac’s texture mimics that of the crab, but I also love the distinct crunch that the cabbage provides.” Grating celeriac on the large holes of a box grater yields tender pieces.
“It’s very Spanish to serve shrimp this way, adding green things (in this case spinach) to the water in which the rice is cooked, and using this as a base for buttery prawns freshened up with a squeeze of lime. It’s easy enough to be a weeknight dinner but tasty enough for company too,” says Cámara.
Cámara says, “This is a super-simple salad, made to show off the season’s freshest asparagus and either zucchini or yellow squash (or both) that are young and tender enough to be enjoyed raw. I like the combination of green zucchini and yellow squash on the plate, but it’s not essential to use the two. What is important is that you buy the smallest and most delicate zucchini or squash that you can find. When buying asparagus, test to make sure that a stalk snaps neatly.”
Use acid freely. "Acid literally excites the palate. I use Mexican limes in my restaurants, which are more acidic and less sweet and floral than Persian or Key limes," says Cámara. If you can't get Mexican limes, use whatever limes you have access to, then add a little bit of white vinegar to give your dishes more zip.
Seasonal means simple. Peak-season produce has a natural sweetness to it that you don't want to mask. "We're drawn to sweetness, like candy," says Cámara. "I like to let seasonal ingredients shine by not messing with them too much." In summer she takes full advantage of naturally sweet produce like squash, corn, and tomatoes and uses minimal to no saucing. "People think Mexican food is overly heavy and complex, but it doesn't need to be."
Spice food wisely. "The overuse of chile is the first mistake people make when they first start cooking Mexican food," she says. "Use just enough to accentuate ingredients without overpowering them." Deploy dried and smoked chiles for depth and bass notes and fresh chiles for treble and brightness.
Season the seafood. "Even pristine seafood can taste a little dull on its own," says Cámara. Amplify its flavor by adding a balanced combination of salt, chile heat, and acid.
If you can't buy it, grow it. "In my parents' garden in Mexico, we'd grow what wasn't part of the Mexican diet: basil from the south of Italy, rosemary, sage, arugula, chicory, and fennel. Now, at my house in San Francisco, I'm trying to grow the Mexican herb hoja santa with varying success.'' Can't find a good source for the pleasantly pungent Mexican herb epazote? Grow your own with seeds from seedsavers.com ($3.50/packet of 250 seeds).