Rick Bayless brings skillet tacos to The Dish

Chef Rick Bayless is celebrated for his award-winning Mexican cuisine - but it's his interests outside the kitchen that had food publication Eater recently asking, "Is Rick Bayless the most interesting man in the world?" Bayless stars in a dinner theater stage production, he's a yoga enthusiast, he cultivates $30,000 worth of produce in his backyard, and he hosts some "legendary" parties.

Bayless is now one of Chicago's most prominent chefs and has been hugely involved in Chicago Gourmet since its first year. He traditionally kicks off the weekend with the first celebrity chef cooking demo.

Here's how to make some of his signature dishes: skillet tacos, "sturdy greens" salad with mango and habanero, tacos of creamy roasted poblano, corn and zucchini, Mexican red rice, coconut bread pudding and a mezcal margarita to drink!

Skillet Tacos

Tacos del Sartén

Serves 4

First, I start by making a batch of Green Chile Adobo. I set a large (10-inch) skillet over medium heat and lay in

½ head of garlic, separated into unpeeled cloves

4 to 5 fresh serrano chiles, stems removed

and roast, turning regularly, until soft and browned in spots, about 10 minutes for the chiles and 15 for the garlic. When the chiles and garlic have cooled, I slip the skins off the garlic, roughly chop everything (no need to remove the chile seeds) and scoop it into a blender or food processor. To that I add

1 large bunch cilantro (thick bottom stems cut off), roughly chopped (about 2 cups loosely packed)

1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley (thick bottom stems cut off), roughly chopped (about 2 cups loosely packed)

1 cup olive oil

2 generous teaspoons salt

I process it all, stopping to scrape down the sides if necessary, until it's nearly smooth and looks a little like pesto. Lastly, I scoop out 1/3 cup of the adobo, combine it with two tablespoons of water and set it aside. (I cover the remaining adobo and keep in the refrigerator for another use.)

Before I start the final cooking, I heat my corn tortillas. I very lightly dampen 2 squares of paper towel (stacked on top of each other) and use them to wrap

12 corn tortillas

then I slide them into a heavy plastic bag. Without sealing the bag, I microwave the tortillas at 100% for 1 minute. I leave them there while I finish the rest my taco filling.

By this time, I've decided whether I'm using

1 pound skirt steak, trimmed of excess fat and silver skin

OR 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs

OR 1 pound thin-cut (1/2 inch or little less) pork chops--I prefer the ones from the blade end

OR 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined, if you like

Whichever meat or poultry I've chosen, I pat them dry with paper towels and season with a generous sprinkling of salt.

In a very large (12-inch), heavy skillet set over medium-high, I heat

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, olive oil, bacon drippings or fresh-rendered pork lard

When I see the first whisp of smoke, I lay in the meat in a single layer and strew onto the open spots

1 medium onion, cut into ¼-inch slices

As the protein sears, I nestle in the onion, turning it as it browns. When the meat is richly browned on one side (about 2 to 3 minutes for shrimp, about 5 minutes for everything else), I turn it over, brown the other side, then remove the protein to a plate. I like the onions really caramelized, so I leave them in the pan a little longer, stirring regularly for several minutes, until they're richly browned.

While the onion is cooking, I cut the meat or poultry into ¼-inch slices (skirt steak must be sliced across the grain), add it back to the pan and stir in the reserved Green Chile Adobo. If the mixture looks like it needs to be saucier, I add a little more water, then I taste everything and season it with salt if it needs some.

After scooping the mixture into a warm serving bowl, I carry it to the table, along with the warm tortillas wrapped in a towel. For me, these tacos are perfect topped with

¼ cup crumbled Mexican queso fresco or queso añejo or other fresh or aged garnishing cheese like fresh farmers cheese, dry goat cheese, Romano or Parmesan

A big handful of cilantro leaves

and accompanied by a simple salad and some fried beans.

"Sturdy Greens" Salad with Mango and Habanero

Ensalada de Quelites con Mango y Habanero

Serves 4 as a small side salad

½ fresh habanero chile, stemmed (remove the seeds if you wish)

3 garlic cloves, peeled

The zest (colored part only) of ½ orange

¼ cup fresh orange juice

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup agave syrup or honey

Salt

1 small white or red onion, thinly sliced

4 cups sliced (about ½-inch is good) sturdy greens (kale, chard, beet greens or, spicy mustard greens --you'll need to start with about ½ pound of most greens, then pull off or cut out the stems/stalks before slicing)

2 cups (about 3 ounces) frisée leaves (if your frisée is in a head, cut out the core and tear the leaves into rough 1-inch pieces)

1 large ripe mango (I like the yellow-skin ataúlfo/honey Manila mangos best for flavor and texture), peeled, flesh cut from the pit and chopped into ¼-inch pieces

A couple tablespoons crumbled Mexican queso fresco or other fresh cheese such as feta or goat cheese

A couple tablespoons pinenuts or slivered almonds, toasted lightly in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden and aromatic

In a small microwaveable dish, combine the habanero and garlic. Cover with water and microwave at 100% for 1 minute. Drain and transfer to a blender. Add the zest, juices, oil and agave or honey. Blend into a smooth dressing. Taste and season highly with salt, usually about ½ teaspoon.

Scoop the onion into a small bowl and stir in a little of the dressing.

With all the greens in a large bowl, use your fingers to massage the kale, making it more tender by breaking up its fibers until it darkens a little, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the onions and frisée to the greens. Drizzle on about 3 tablespoons of the dressing (the leftover can be covered and refrigerated for another salad) and toss to coat the greens well. Taste and season with additional salt if you think it's necessary.

Divide the salad between 4 serving plates and spoon over each about a tablespoon of mango (the mango you don't use is yours to snack on). Sprinkle the salads with the cheese and nuts and it's ready to serve.

Tacos of Creamy Roasted Poblano, Corn and Zucchini

Tacos de Rajas, Elote y Calabacitas

Makes about 4 servings

4 (about 1 pound total) medium fresh poblano chiles

3 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

1 large white onion, sliced ¼ inch thick

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

¾ cup Mexican crema, crème fraiche or heavy cream, plus a little more if necessary

Salt

4 zucchini (about 1 pound total) cut into cubes a little smaller than 1/2 inch

1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

1 sprig epazote, leaves removed and thinly sliced (if you have it)

OR ¼ cup chopped cilantro

12 corn tortillas, heated right before serving

¼ cup crumbled Mexican queso fresco or other fresh cheese such as feta or goat cheese

Roast the poblanos directly over a gas flame or charcoal fire, or close under a preheated broiler, turning regularly until blistered and blackened all over, about 5 minutes over an open flame, 10 minutes under a broiler. Collect the chiles in a bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and cool until handleable. Rub off the charred skin, pull out the stems and seed pods and briefly rinse under cool water to remove bits of skin and seeds. Slice the roasted chiles into ¼-inch strips.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a very large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high. When hot, add the sliced onion and cook, stirring regularly, until the onion is richly browned, but still a little crunchy, about 7 minutes. Then stir in the garlic and oregano. After a minute or so, when the garlic is fragrant, add the chile strips and crema, stirring nearly constantly until the cream has thickened enough to coat the chiles nicely, a couple more minutes. Taste and season the mixture with salt, usually about ½ teaspoon. Transfer the rajas a la crema to a bowl and wipe the skillet clean.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet and return it to medium-high heat. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring frequently, until richly browned all over, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the corn and let that brown, a couple more minutes. Scrape in the rajas a la crema, along with the epazote (or cilantro). Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, adding a couple more tablespoons of crema if the mixture needs it. Taste, add more salt if you want and scrape it into a serving bowl. Serve on warm tortillas topped with queso fresco sprinkled over the top.

Mexican Red Rice

Arroz Rojo Mexicano

Makes about 5 cups

2 garlic cloves, peeled

½ of 15-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained

1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil

1 ½ cups long-grain white rice (I typically like the meatier texture of medium-grain rice, but since I don't fry the rice in this version, medium grain turns out too sticky)

1 ¾ cups chicken broth or water

Salt

Hot green chiles to taste (roughly 1 to 2 serranos or 1 large jalapeño), stemmed, a slit cut down the side of each one

2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into ¼-inch cubes (optional)

About ½ cup defrosted frozen peas (optional)

About ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley or cilantro

Put the garlic in a small microwave-safe bowl, cover with water and microwave at 100% for 1 minute. Drain, scoop into a blender or food processor and add the canned tomatoes. Process to a smooth puree.

In a 6-cup rice cooker, stir together the oil and rice. When the rice is thoroughly coated, stir in the tomato puree, broth (or water) and 1 ½ teaspoons salt if using unsalted broth or water, 1 teaspoon if using salted broth. Nestle in the chiles. Cover the rice cooker, turn it to "cook" and set a timer for 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, gently stir the rice to incorporate the tomato mixture. Re-cover and let the rice cook until the cooker changes to the "keep warm" mode, about 20 minutes. Taste a grain of rice: It should be very close to done at the core. If not, sprinkle in a little water, re-cover and cook 5 minutes more.

If you're using carrots, scoop them into a microwave-safe bowl, splash with a couple of tablespoons water, cover with plastic wrap, poke a few holes in the top and microwave at 100% for 2 minutes. Carefully uncover (it's steamy and hot) and tip off the water.

When the rice is done, uncover it and sprinkle in the carrots, peas (if you are using them) and the parsley or cilantro. Use a fork to gently fluff the rice, reaching all the way to the edges of the bottom, to release steam and slow the cooking. Re-cover, let stand 5 to 15 minutes and the rice is ready to serve. In my rice cooker, I can hold this warm for about 30 minutes without having the peas turn gray.

Coconut Bread Pudding

Budín de Pan y Coco

Serves 6 to 8

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) butter, cut into pieces, plus more for greasing the pan

14 ounces bread (I like brioche, but cakey white sandwich bread works well, too), crusts trimmed off if you wish, cut into ½-inch cubes (you need about 8 cups)

3 eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, preferably Mexican

¼ teaspoon salt

1 14-ounce can coconut milk (regular, not "lite")

½ cup sugar

Powdered sugar, for serving

Turn on the oven to 400 degrees. Scoop the butter into a large, microwave-safe bowl and melt in the microwave at 50% power for 1 minute. Scoop the bread into the bowl and stir slowly until it is evenly coated. Spread the bread on a baking sheet, slide it into the oven and toast, stirring every 5 minutes, until the bread is richly browned, about 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 300 degrees and transfer the bread to a buttered 8-inch square baking dish. Let the bread cool while you make the custard.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, vanilla and salt. In a small (1- to 2-quart) saucepan, heat the coconut milk and sugar over medium-low, stirring until the mixture is just warm (not close to boiling) and the sugar is dissolved. Pour the warm coconut milk into the eggs in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until well combined. Pour the custard over the bread and stir it slowly several times. Let the bread soak for 15 minutes to absorb the liquid. Slide the baking dish into the oven and bake until the bread pudding is just set, about 30 minutes. 
Sprinkle with powdered sugar, cut into pieces, scoop onto small plates and you're ready to delight a few friends. 



Mezcal Margarita

Margarita de Mezcal

Makes 8 6-ounce margaritas

2/3 cup fresh lime juice

¼ cup sugar

1 cup mezcal (I love all the single-village Del Maguey mezcals)

1/3 cup brandy (an inexpensive brandy is fine here)

1 teaspoon Peychaud bitters

A lime half for moistening the glass rims

Coarse (Kosher) salt

Ice cubes (you'll need a generous quart--small ones are best)

  1. Make the base. In a large pitcher, stir together the lime juice, sugar and 3/4 cup water until the sugar has dissolved. Add the mezcal, brandy and bitters. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.
  2. Shake and serve. Moisten the rims of 3 6-ounce martini glasses with the cut side of the lime half. Spread coarse salt on a small plate, then upend the glasses into the salt to crust the rims. Fill a cocktail shaker about ¾ full of ice and measure in ¾ cup of the mezcal margarita for 3 drinks. Cover and shake for about 15 seconds to thoroughly chill the mixture--that's how long it takes for the perfect amount of ice to melt into the drink. Strain into the prepared glasses and you're ready to offer a unique experience. Finish the remaining margaritas in the same way.