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Rick Bayless creates a fiesta without fuss

Rick Bayless toasts with Jamaica-Cactus Fruit (Prickly Pear) MargaritFronterGrill Chicago November 27 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Rick Bayless toasts with a Jamaica-Cactus Fruit (Prickly Pear) Margarita at Frontera Grill in Chicago, November 27, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 6, 2013 9:25AM

With the word “margarita” prominent in its title, it’s no surprise that putting together the newest cookbook from Rick Bayless involved a lot of tequila. But fans of the agave-based spirit take note: It did have its downside.

“When you’re tasting hard alcohol in the middle of your workday, it sounds like fun, but it also can be detrimental to getting a lot of work done,” says Bayless of the research involved to create Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., $24.95). “All I can say is that we had some interesting afternoon meetings. The more we tasted, the louder we got.”

Sound levels and adjusted work schedules aside, Bayless found the process of making his eighth cookbook to be “total fun.” And it shows. From the easy-to-follow cocktail recipes, all of which include versions for single servings and pitchers, to the dozen seasonal guacamoles to the big-on-flavor snacks — homemade corn nuts, anyone? — this book has party written all over it.

So when we were on the hunt for someone to put together a holiday soiree that didn’t necessitate hours in the kitchen or a culinary degree but still had plenty of pizzazz, we knew just the guy to ask.

For the book’s inspiration, Bayless didn’t have to look far. “The truth is when I asked people what they make most from my books, almost always the first thing out of their mouths was guacamole and margaritas,” says Bayless. “So I thought, why not do a whole book based on those?”

The recipes were a no-brainer, too. With Frontera Grill passing the quarter-of-a-century mark, Bayless had plenty of signature, seasonal dishes and cocktails to choose from.

But Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks is more than just 235 pages of greatest hits. For this book, Bayless switched gears a bit from his previous ones in which he wrote directly to home cooks and focused on the flavors of Mexico and how best to achieve those in an American kitchen. “Even though I’m a die-in-the-wool restaurant chef, I’m also a very passionate home cook,” he says. “I love to share with people the knowledge I have that I think will enrich their lives and make their own cooking that much better.”

This time around though he opted to shine the light on what makes the culture at Frontera restaurant distinct. (Bayless says this book is one in a series of three that will explore the evolution of the cuisines at all of his restaurants, including Topolobampo and Xoco. Next up: a cookbook on ceviches and Mexico’s street food. Also in the works for Bayless: a new Chicago restaurant. (“We are doing something completely different and new but still Mexican,” says Bayless of the still-under-wraps spot.)

So what does this adjusted thought process mean for your party? Plenty.

For both the margaritas and guacamoles Bayless created “master class” sections in which he explains the role of each ingredient. “The fewer ingredients you have in a dish or drink, the more intimate your knowledge of each must be and the more delicate their balance,” he writes. He hopes readers use that information to create their own signature margarita or guacamole. But don’t worry — the recipe for the uber-popular Topolo Margarita is in there, too.

Appealing to a variety of budgets was a priority as well. “A lot of people say if it’s a big group just buy ready-made margarita mix and put a bottle of cheap tequila in it and you’re done,” says Bayless. “But I wanted to show how you can actually work with good products and not break the bank.” One of his flavor-enhancing, wallet-friendly recommendations involves infusing inexpensive triple sec with a vanilla bean.

Mezcal, tequila’s rustic and smoky relative, is prominently featured in the book, as are aqua frescas. These “soft drinks of Mexico” are perfect for those who don’t drink alcohol, including kids, as well as a base for terrific cocktails, says Bayless.

In the snack section, Bayless urges party hosts to step away from the store-bought vegetable and dip platters and instead take inspiration from Mexico’s street vendors and served seasoned fruit and vegetables.

One thing that hasn’t changed in this book is Bayless’ commitment to seasonality and emphasis on local ingredients when possible, something he’s pioneered from the beginning at his restaurants. (It’s fitting that when we speak with the chef, he just returned from doing a cooking demonstration at Green City Market.)

Creativity with of-the-moment ingredients is encouraged, whether it’s a peach and basil margarita in the summer or adding roasted fennel to guacamole, one of Bayless’ current favorites.

And as for that age-old dilemma on how to keep your guacamole from turning brown, Bayless says forget about adding the avocado pits. Using a lot of lime juice will work but also will make it taste terrible, he adds. “The way to keep guacamole from darkening is to keep it cold,” says Bayless.

He recommends moistening a clay flower pot and putting it in the refrigerator. When your guests arrive, place the guacamole in a metal bowl that fits inside the pot. For added temperature control, lay an ice pack underneath the bowl. “It’s a simple way to do a rustic presentation for your guacamole, but it’s one that will keep it in good shape for the longest period of time,” says Bayless.

Party food that looks good and tastes great? We’ll drink — and eat — to that.

Lisa Shames is dining editor at CS magazine.

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