RECENTLY I began to develop a Mexican kitchen at home. Basically only a few additional utensils are needed to transform the standard American kitchen into a Mexican or Tex-Mex kitchen. The basic items, which you probably already have, include an electric blender, ovenproof bakeware, standard frying and sauce pans and a food mill.
The specialized equipment which is unique to the Mexican or Tex-Mex kitchen includes a lava stone mortar and pestle. The traditional Mexican mortar and pestle look for all the world like pre-Columbian artifacts and are still known by their ancient names: molcajete and tejolete . Made of porous, dark gray volcanic stone, these time-honored kitchen tools are still preferred by Mexican cooks for blending and grinding their indispensible ingredients -- chiles, herbs, garlic, onions, nuts and seeds -- which would lose much of their texture if pureed in a blender. New molcajetes and tejolotes , unless fashioned from superior quality black basalt, a rarity today, are potentially gritty and must be cured before they are used.
To cure, first scour the surfaces with a stiff brush and plenty of water, then grind a handful of raw rice into the stone. Wash the tools again and repeat the operation at least two or three times. At first the rice picks up the stone's gray color but eventually one batch will remain white. The three-legged molcajete stands four inches high and its shallow bown is six inches in diameter. The stubby, triangular-shaped tejolote is 3 1/2 inches long and 2 inches across at the base. Available from Cisa Moneo at about $9.
Nearly everyone in Mexican cities buys ready-made tortillas these days. But for those who live far from a tortilla factory or prefer to make their own, a simple, heavy-duty metal tortilla press is essential It consists of two round, flat, aluminum-painted cast iron plates (6 1/2 inches in diameter) with a hinge at one end and an 8 3/4-inch-long handle at the other.
To use the press lay a double thickness of eight-inch square plastic wrap -- a sandwich bag is ideal -- on the bottom plate. Then place a walnut-sized ball of corn dough on it. Cover with another double layer of plastic wrap, close the press and push the handle down firmly. Open the press and lift off the top section of plastic. You should have a flat, round, tortilla ready for the griddle. From HOAN Products, Ltd., at about $17.
A cast iron griddle is rond and holds only one six-inch tortilla at a time, but it takes up little space on the stove and can be easily stored when not in use. It resembles the familiar American pancake griddle and measures nine inches in diameter with a 1/2 inch thick rim and a four-inch long handle. You'll be able to make sure each tortilla browns delicately without burning by working with just one at a time, but because the cooking process takes only two minutes or so, a batch can be finished in a jiffy. Try pressing the center of the tortilla with your fingers after you have flipped it over and just before you think it is finished to make sure it has inflated a bit.
Mexicans call this process "tickling," and it indicates that the tortilla is done. As for all cast iron implements, be sure to dry this one thoroughly after washing to prevent rust. From HOAN Products, Ltd., at about $10.
Chocolate was the royal drink of Mexico. Montezuma sipped his favorite beverage from solid gold cups. Modern Mexico is still a land of chocolate lovers and they customarily use delightfully carved wooden beaters called molinillos (little mills) to whip up their foamy delicacy. Molinillos look more like exotic musical instruments than hard working utensils. Decorated with simple geometric designs, this beater is usually about 12 1/3 inches long and has three sliding rings that do the work.
Mexican chocolate, available at Latin markets in Adams-Morgan, is pre-sweetened, lighter in body than ours, pleasantly textured and often flavored with cinnamon, cloves and browned almonds.
Drinking chocolate should be prepared in small batches in an olla , or earthenware pot. If you like to try the real thing, crumble the chocolate into boiling water -- 1 1/2 ounces per cup -- stir until it melts, then boil slowly for five minutes. Insert the molinillo and rapidly whirl the stick between your palms until the chocolate is frothy. It's much more fun than a blender and a molinillo is a delightful kitchen accessory to have on display. Available in most cooking equpment shops at about $5.
The food of Mexico and Tex-Mex, at its best, is a wonderful cuisine not to be judged by the products available in most U.S. restaurants. The small investment in the specialized cooking equipment mentioned above is well worth the money and a copy of Diana Kennedy's book, "The Cuisine of Mexico" will provide all the necessary recipes and techniques.