Some people’s memories have a sound track, an Usher jam calling to mind a rowdy birthday or a Bon Jovi song bringing back an awesome first date—instead, my memories smell like carnitas frying in a pot and garlic roasting on a comal. That’s what happens when your mom is Zarela Martinez, one of the best Mexican cooks there is.
I never forgot how powerful the flavors in the Mexican culinary arsenal are, the way just a few chipotles and a couple of garlic cloves could become something so good it could make you curse. And later in my life, the way a simple sauce could rocket my mind back to my mom’s kitchen. When she’d cook for me and my friends in New York, setting a bright green pumpkin seed sauce or sopes crowned with some mouth-searing salsa in front of us, they’d ask, their eyes wide with excitement, “Aarón, what’s that?” That? I’d think. That’s love right there.
When I was a kid, I’d ask her to make sopa seca, a sort of Mexican-style pasta. She’d fry alphabets so they’d get all nutty, and simmer them with pureed roasted tomatoes and onions, cilantro, and a little chile. But she cooked more than just Mexican food. I remember these chicken wings with pineapple, soy, ginger, and scallions. Talk about delicious! I still can’t make them quite like she does.
Whenever we visited El Paso, the border town where I was born, I was reminded how she got so damn good at cooking. I’d get giddy before those trips, because it meant I’d get to have my grandma’s beans, which are pretty much the greatest food on earth—well, aside from whatever else she made. When I got a little older, it dawned on me why it was all so delicious: she was never in a rush. Her beans would sit on the stove for what seemed like forever, getting tastier by the hour. Even after I’d learned to cook more complicated food, I never forgot how with patience and a little know-how, even the simplest dishes could be spectacular.
As a kid, I’d gaze into her pot as she stirred a deep brown mole or stare at poblanos blackening over the blue flame on the stovetop. When I got a little older, I started to chip in. At first, I was relegated to chopping vegetables. Maybe I got to put together an hors d’oeuvre. But I quickly graduated to toasting chiles, a simple but vital task. I caught on quickly—when you’re from a family of cooks, like a family of athletes, you realize that there are some things you can just do, without necessarily being taught.
When I decided to work in kitchens, I wasn’t after glory or fame. This was before the Age of the Celebrity Chef. All I knew was that I wanted to create the kind of joy that the women in my life created. But I knew I had to carve out my own path. So when I was still a teenager, I took off to New Orleans (where I swear I didn’t see one Mexican) and started working for Paul Prudhomme, the chef who put the city on the national gastronomic map. I was thrilled by the food there, the delicious gumbo of Cajun, French, Italian, Creole, Native American, and Spanish influences that was as complex and satisfying as the best moles.
Paul became my mentor. He taught me how to season food properly. He taught me to think, really think, about what goes on in your mouth when you taste food. He taught me the difference between blackening and burning. What is it? About three seconds.
I went on to cook at Patria in New York for Douglas Rodriguez, another mentor who opened my eyes to ingredients and techniques that I’d never seen before. That’s where I met and fell in love with aji amarillo, the delicious chile from Peru, and learned to make sofrito, the incredibly flavorful slow-cooked vegetables that make Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican food so damn good.
The kitchen crew at Patria also taught me some life lessons. One night, I was doing my thing on the grill station. I was rocking it. Three hundred meals and zero complaints. I was pretty proud. I looked over at the sous-chef, Georgi, a guy I really respected, and said, “Hey, how come every time I mess up, you guys chew my butt like chum, but tonight I didn’t even get one compliment?” He glared at me. “This isn’t a popularity contest. When nobody says anything, that is a compliment.”
By the time I finally ran my own kitchen, I had so much to draw from, so many different chefs and eating experiences that had shaped my culinary style. The result was cooking that broke down borders, that brought together ingredients and techniques that made so much sense but had been kept apart out of habit.
For this book, I decided to take all my incredible flavor memories and distill them into fifteen recipes, to cram all that flavor into magical sauces, purees, and pastes that you can keep in the fridge or freezer and pull out whenever you want to turn a simple collection of ingredients into a seriously tasty dinner. We’re talking an easy but amazing spice rub, a practically effortless cilantro–pumpkin seed pesto, an easy homemade dulce de leche, and much more. Each chapter begins with one of these, and what follows is a bunch of great recipes that apply it. Take my Garlic-Chipotle Love, for example, a puree of four easy-to-find ingredients that’ll become your secret weapon in the battle for good food. I zoom in on certain techniques and ingredients to make sure you’re successful, then I tell you how to store it and show you how once you’ve made it, you’re minutes away from mussels steamed with chipotle and beer; smoky, garlicky mashed potatoes; and hearty bean and butternut squash picadillo. I even show you all the ways it’ll become a part of your everyday eating, whether you spread a little on your next burger or use it to spike your next salad dressing. I’m sure you’ll come up with your own ideas as well. Then you’ll have a “whoa” moment—those fifteen recipes are your ticket to nearly one hundred dishes.
Once you’ve got an arsenal like this, your food will go from inspiring smiles and polite nods to igniting ridiculous grins and bear hugs.
© 2011 Plácido