Pati Jinich's Memorable Mexican Cuisine

by Meredith Jacobs

Pati Jinich, chef and host of the nationally-acclaimed PBS series Pati’s Mexican Table, has just come out with a wonderful new cookbook that helps every home cook bring delicious, contemporary Mexican cuisine to the table. From Pati’s go-to guacamole to her luscious chardonnay mango pecan tart, there is something here for every palate.

Mexican Today is Pati’s second cookbook (her first, Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking (2013), was included in New York Times Best in Books and Washington Post Best Cookbooks of the Year. Pati, one of JWI’s Women to Watch honorees, sat down with JW magazine for an interview. Oh - and she gave us her exclusive Apple, Pear, Hibiscus Flower and Pecan Charoset recipe, which you can find (with video) here

JW: We know there’s always excitement around your first book. But, what about the second? Is it old hat? How does it feel to have a second cookbook?

Pati Jinich: So excited about this one. But it’s different.

For the first cookbook, there was the excitement, but I felt I had my hands a little bit tied as a Mexican in the United States I felt torn between my motherland and my now home country. When I wrote the first book, I felt like I was treading a fine line – I didn’t want to upset Mexicans – I worried they would think “that’s not the way we do it,” because I had lived here 15 years and adapted things. But I also didn’t want to scare away Americans and do things too foreign to them.

This book is three years after the first and I have personally matured so much. I’ve become more self-confident about my execution and more confident in the kitchen. And I’ve seen how Mexican food has evolved here and in Mexico. If Mexicans in Mexico can take freedom in food, why can’t I? And I’ve seen an openness here and abroad that people want to try more. So that has given me so much excitement in the kitchen. And I now know that what I’m doing is okay with Mexicans in Mexico – no one is saying “Oh no, she’s not doing things the right way.” I can try new things without sacrificing their soul.

JW: You’re Mexican and Jewish and both cultures have such strong food cultures. How do you blend the two?

PJ: I think the Mexican culinary traditions and the Jewish culinary traditions are so alike in reunion and family and meaning. What matzo ball soup means to us – the generations that have eaten that soup. Mexico has that too. As a Mexican and a Jew, these get combined in such a strong way. Jewish community in Mexico feels very Mexican – there’s a double meaning. In Mexico, tamales are for celebrations and for Mexican Jews, tamales are for celebrations. This is a certain thing that’s made for the holidays, this is a certain thing made when it’s cold, and this is a certain thing made when you want to spoil your kids.

Enchiladas mean many things – satisfying meals, celebratory meals. For people who know, enchiladas means that this is going to be a fun meal – it’s going to be saucy and rich.

And just like Jews have a sense of pride, we talk about “my grandmother’s brisket,” it is the same with Mexican cuisine. A lot has emotional meaning.

JW: What’s the process like of writing a cookbook? How do you think of the recipes?

PJ: My recipes are written as if they are written for my friends. And most of my friends don’t cook. With the experience of the first book behind me, I’ve learned that it’s good to draw people into the recipe by the story and what that recipe means to you. I’ve always been open, but I’ve become more. I might say, “So this is soup, but this is the person who taught me the recipe and these are my tricks.” When I write my recipes, I write them the easiest way possible so no one will be daunted by the technique – if I think there is anything challenging, I have a side note explaining it. Cooking should be comforting. When you have to cook for your family, it should be fun and nourishing. That task you do every day should be more enjoyable and shared. I focus on easy but I treat my readers as capable, enthusiastic people. Even if they’ve never cooked in their life, I’m confident that when they read my instructions they say, “I can totally do this.”

JW: Do you have a special recipe? Something that says family or has a special meaning to you?

PJ: Matzoh ball soup. That means a lot to me because I grew up eating it in my maternal grandmother’s home at the high holidays. Also because I take liberties with it that she never would have. My grandfather was wild about chilies but my grandmother wouldn’t let him have as much as he wanted. Coming from Europe, she may have felt they weren’t suited for so much heat . Now we know they are so good for your health, but in her mind, she wanted to take care of him. She used to hide the chilies from him. So now I add more for him – like “here you go, have as much as you want.”

And I add toasted sesame oil to the matzo ball dough and it makes them so dreamy. That little touch makes them stand aside. In my family, we are obsessed with food and I feel like my grandmother would have loved these. I would have loved to have shared this recipe with her. She would have enjoyed it.

JW: What’s the first recipe you suggest readers try in your new cookbook?

PJ: First meal –taco night. I think it’s become a thing with people. You don’t have to make the horrible hard taco with ground meat. It should be fun night where everyone participates. Make it with a rice or a salad or guacamole. Then it’s really festive.

To make guacamole you need a bowl and a fork. You mash an avocado with lime juice and salt. But you can add chopped white onion or scallions or cilantro – you can top with cheese – you can make it your own.

I give you the recipe for my go-to guacamole in the book. Then, I tell you how to pick an avocado, how to store it. People need that information--how to make, how to serve, how to store.

JW: Are you doing a big book tour?

PJ: book launch is April 12th and then I’m going to 20 cities from New York to Los Angeles!

JW: How does having a second book differ from a first book? Are you just as excited? Do you run out to the bookstores to see it on the shelves?

PJ: Oh yes! So exciting. And I still went with my boys to all the book to all the book stores we know. We love finding the book and putting it where it shouldn’t be.

JW: What’s next?

PJ: I have so many ideas – I am writing ideas. I’m already testing stuff. Once I have a sufficient mass – 20 or 30 recipes and see what I am being drawn to I’ll see where it should go. But, I have been asked to do Mexican Jewish cookbook and am thinking about that.

JW: How did you come up with all of these recipes?

PJ: Every single dish I love. I was supposed to deliver 120 recipes. But then, I got so excited with the topics and the chapters and I started making more. So I delivered 160! And I was thinking that my editor was going to be so happy but no, she said we have to cut 40 because they had only planned for so many pages. But we kept an extra 14. It was so hard – she would say let’s take off that one and I would say really why that one???