Maybe one reason tapas have become so popular -- too popular? -- is that the word is easy and fun to say, even for Anglophones. Bocaditos, the title of Reed Hearon's new cookbook (Chronicle Books, $15.95) is more of a mouthful, but the recipes inside give new life to a culture of small plates lately grown a bit stale from overfamiliarity.
Hearon (who recently parted ways with LuLu, his first big restaurant) is something of a master at gastronomic multitasking. As recently as last year, he was simultaneously the culinary expert at a restaurant serving South-of-France cooking (LuLu), one serving Ligurian food (Rose Pistola), and one offering Mexican dishes (Cafe Marimba).
At the moment Hearon seems to be on a definite Mexican roll. His first cookbook, La Parrilla: The Mexican Grill, published last fall, opened simple, spicy new vistas to backyard barbecuists grown weary of such overworked staples as burgers and ribs. Bocaditos may well do the same for those who've had their fill of squid a la plancha.
Not that bocaditos are unfamiliar. In fact, Hearon says, "they are the foods most commonly thought of as Mexican food. North of the border we are all familiar with tortilla chips, tacos, and tamales. These are all bocaditos, transformed to fit the mass-market tastes of the United States."
Like most great chefs, Hearon inveighs against the creeping blandness of factory-produced food, and he preaches the gospel of making things from scratch, with fresh, authentic ingredients. The back of the book contains instructions on how to make a wide variety of basics, from roasted-corn salsa to mole amarillo to fresh corn tortillas.
Hearon divides bocaditos into three categories. Botanas ("plugs") are meant to "plug up that hunger you get at snack time" and include a fair number of meat dishes, including albondigas (meatballs), fried pork skins, and carnitas of pork and duck.
Antojitos ("little whims") range from taquitos to enchiladitas and are, in miniature, what most of us think of when we think of Mexican food. Mariscos ("seafood") includes vuelve la vida ("return to life"), a kind of seafood cocktail that's considered a traditional remedy for a hangover.
Quite a few of the recipes seem labor-intensive, and whipping up a batch of Hearon's bocaditos is a little bit like being a caterer for a day. Bocaditos' economies of scale don't really operate in favor of the home cook. But the book is full of handsome graphics and bits of lore and information that at the least will make you a more appreciative eater. Spending time with Reed Hearon is, as always, a gustatory education.