Coaches Fiesta

While Ms. Finn and the kids were still in Chicago last weekend, I needed to host a party for the Waves Swim Team coaches and some of the board members. The coaches are high school kids (well, graduating seniors) and two young adults. So I was thinking of just ordering a few pizzas and calling it a party. But of course there needed to be a few appetizers, and then one thing lead to another and before you knew it I planned to make an entire Rick Bayless menu from his current TV show.

About Rick Bayless. Rick is one of the foremost authorities on Mexican cooking. He opened his Frontera Grill in the mid 80’s in Chicago, and my friends and I were among the first customers. Shortly thereafter he opened Topolobampo – the first “fine dining” Mexican restaurant in Chicago. Both are still around today.

But Rick Bayless has become an industry. Unlike other chefs who open outputs in food meccas and the latest hotspots (read Vegas), he seems to be focused on outreach, with a possible lean toward empire building. He’s authored a half dozen cookbooks (his Authentic Mexican is considered a modern classic, side by side with Diana Kennedy’s Mexican cookbooks); he’s a staple on public television cooking shows and his name is on a line of respectable nationally distributed products.

Despite my knowledge of him, I’ve never been a big fan, with no reasonable explanation. I’ve never bought his books, watched his shows or cooked his recipes. Until now.

The hook was that his “party fare” dishes were quick to put together. For the most part they were, but don’t forget I’m a very experienced and efficient cook, and they still took me a lot longer than what’s implied on screen. Why? The age old cooking show problem: prep time. Though he shows some chopping and sautéing, there’s no retreiving, package removal, cleaning or skinning involved. Pots and pans are pre-staged. On TV, plating simply requires that one reach for the perfect bowl, which has been placed within arm’s reach.

One further delay is that I needed dinner, not just appetizers. And while the multiple small taco menu seemed OK, I felt we needed more substance. So I added a flank steak, chicken thighs and tenders as soft taco ingredients, using a recipe from The New Basics, one of my old favorite cookbooks. Those recipes are back from when fajitas were considered a new trendy dish. Wow.

Randomly, I happened to pick up the current Cooks Illustrated and saw Spicy Pickled Onions for steak tacos. Perfect. So that was also added to the menu.

In all, prep and cooking time ran about 2 hours; grilling was completed after guests arrived and some of us migrated back to the patio.

Here’s the menu and links to the Bayless recipes:


  • People liked the pumpkin seed guac more than the mango. Very surprising. I liked them both. The pumpkin seeds I got were small, roasted ones, which were ground to a paste (with a dash of oil). I’ve become addicted to the leftover seeds.
  • People loved the nuts. But I’d make a half recipe at most, and found them a little troublesome to get to the exact right crispness, especially on day two+.
  • Queso was solid. Don’t add too much dark beer, and keep it warm (fondue / sterno) or it will separate later, even in a ceramic pot.
  • Escabeche – probably my favorite. Perfect for a simple appetizer or light meal. GREAT recipe.
  • Pickled onions – also a very, very nice recipe. Use rice wine vinegar instead of red for more delicate flavor and you’ll bring out a better pinkness in the red onion slices.
  • The marinades for the chicken and steak differed quite a bit. Both were good, could have been interchanged with each other. Very simple. Don’t forget about them, even if not using for tacos / fajitas.
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