Mexican-born chef, television personality, cookbook author and Chevy Chase resident Pati Jinich started as a policy wonk, parlaying her 2005 master’s degree in Latin American studies from Georgetown University into a position at Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue, a job she realized wasn’t for her. “I loved my home country so much and wanted to help in any way I could, but I didn’t think I was helping in a way that touched people’s lives,” Jinich says. She enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine cooking school in Gaithersburg (now closed) to become a food writer and help undo misconceptions about Mexicans one recipe at a time. She started teaching cooking at D.C.’s Mexican Cultural Institute and in 2007 became its resident chef. (She still is.) Her James Beard Foundation award-winning PBS cooking show, Pati’s Mexican Table, is in its 10th season. She’s also written cookbooks—Pati’s Mexican Table (2013) and Mexican Today (2016)—and her third book, Treasures of the Mexican Table: Classic Recipes, Local Secrets, comes out on Nov. 2. We asked her all about it.
What is the inspiration behind Treasures of the Mexican Table?
Mexican cooking is part of mainstream lingo now—salsa, guacamole, chicken tinga, taco Tuesday—so I thought, Now, let’s get to the next level. This is my way of saying, ‘Wait, there’s more!’ There are hundreds more Mexican classics that haven’t crossed the border but have passed the test of time in Mexico. They define our country’s cooking. There are tons of vegan and vegetarian dishes, sophisticated dishes like green beans cooked in fresh corn puree until just tender and dressed with chunky tomato sauce and pumpkin seeds. This isn’t cheffy Mexican food. They are nurturing, family-friendly, super-accommodating dishes.
The subtitle is “Classic Recipes, Local Secrets.” What are some examples of the local secrets?
Oh my gosh, there are so many. A veal chop that I absolutely love comes with a very perfumed and delicate white mole called a bride’s mole because it’s used mainly for weddings or celebrations in central Mexico. They want [the mole] to be soft and exquisite, so they use pine nuts and yellow banana peppers instead of red or green chiles. It matches the dish to the gown because it’s traditional to marry in white dresses. The green bean recipe I told you about seems very modern—you could find it on a trendy vegan menu today—but has existed in the Yucatan since pre-Hispanic times. They’d throw a hot rock into it so [the beans] would cook quickly. Of course, I adapted the recipe from the ancient technique. No hot rock—I cook the beans in a fresh corn sauce that makes them sweet and creamy.
What dishes would you serve at a book signing to reflect what Treasures of the Mexican Table is all about?
Different chunky guacamoles; chunky chile mangoes in a guajillo marinade with chips or on baguette; different tamales; chorizo chicken and potato tinga on tostadas; [braised goat or lamb] birria in quesadillas; unexpected things, like a date and pecan cake that is absolutely delicious. Lots of vegetarian dishes, like the green beans in corn. Also tok seel, white beans from the Yucatan. We think of Mexican beans as soupy, but these are seared.
What are some of the recipes that resonate for the holidays?
We eat turkey for Christmas, usually with adobo, but people here don’t know about that. For the roasted fiesta turkey with chorizo and cashew stuffing in the book, I cobbled together all the things I love about Mexico. It’s made with candied pineapple cooked down with brown sugar and pureed dried chiles. It’s sticky, sweet, tart, barely spicy and the stuffing is unexpected and deeply Mexican. If you want new flavors, try this turkey. You won’t go back to another one. A potato crown—rosca de papa—baked in a Bundt pan is insane. It’s cheesy, chunky and very retro. Mashed sweet potatoes with caramelized pineapple is kind of like our sweet potatoes with marshmallows. In Mexico, they sometimes eat it as dessert.
What are some American misconceptions about Mexican cooking?
The same one from when I moved to the U.S. remains, that it’s always having chile peppers in it and is spicy. And that is not the case, as you see in many, many, many recipes in my new book. Or they equate it with overly greasy, heavy food and there are so many delicate, soft, sophisticated simple dishes. Another is that Mexican cooking is laborious. Yes, we have our share, but we have others too. And laborious ones, like tamales and moles, are for celebrations, meant to be made communally, with the family.