Pati’s Mexican Jewish table

How two different cultures connect through food

Mexican food (photo credit: Penny De Los Santos)
Mexican food
(photo credit: Penny De Los Santos)

We went to the first annual Mexico Food Fair in Los Angeles to meet Pati Jinich, author of Pati’s Mexican Table.

During her lively cooking demonstration delivered in Spanish, Jinich showed how quickly Mexican salsas – chili-flavored sauces made from raw or cooked vegetables or fruits – can be prepared. “Chilies are capricious,” noted Jinich, and put a few hot peppers in the blender with their seeds so that her salsa would be more “picante” (piquant). To flavor her salsa base of roasted tomatillos (which resemble green tomatoes), onions, garlic and salt, she asked volunteers from the audience what they liked. “Pine nuts,” said one man, and into the blender they went, along with green onions cut in small pieces. She finished the smooth, thick green sauce with chopped fresh coriander.
After her cooking demonstration, we asked Jinich how being Jewish as well as Mexican influences her cooking. “I want my kids to have ties to Mexico because I was born there and much of my family is there,” said Jinich, “but at the same time I have a strong Jewish identity. I began making Shabbat meals when my kids started to go to school. We often have matza-ball soup; I serve the matza balls in chicken broth flavored with sautéed onions, garlic, jalapeno peppers, mushrooms and fresh coriander.” During Jinich’s childhood in Mexico, when her Polish grandmother made grivenes (an Ashkenazi specialty of chicken skin fried in chicken fat), “we ate them in corn tortillas with guacamole.” Her grandmother also prepared Mexican gefilte fish. Instead of poaching the fish balls in fish stock, she cooked them in Veracruz sauce, a tomato sauce flavored with pickled chilies, capers and olives. From a Sephardi cooking teacher in Mexico, Jinich learned to prepare such dishes as chicken with tamarind and dried apricots. In Mexico, Sephardi Jews use hibiscus flowers as a seasoning; Jinich uses the dried flowers to flavor the vinaigrette for her spinach and goat cheese salad with caramelized pecans. When Jinich was asked about the characteristics of authentic Mexican cuisine, she replied that although certain Mexican dishes originated with the Aztecs, Mexican cuisine is also influenced by African, Caribbean and European foods. For example, the Aztecs had no cheese or garlic but both are important in today’s Mexican menus. Mole poblano (a sauce of chilies flavored with chocolate and a variety of spices) is an iconic dish in Mexican cooking, and yet half of its ingredients are not native to Mexico.
RED RICE – Arroz Rojo

This recipe is from Pati’s Mexican Table. Pati Jinich flavors her Mexican red rice with a purée of ripe fresh tomatoes with onion and garlic and often adds a colorful selection of vegetables, such as carrots, corn and peas, to cook along with the rice. She always sneaks in a couple of whole fresh chilies as well, and warns: “If you are having Mexicans over, watch out: Those chilies are the treasures we all hunt for.”

A Mexican cook’s trick to good rice, notes Jinich, is to soak the rice in hot water to get rid of excess starch, any dirt, and the talc that is sometimes used as a milling aid, as well as to soften and relax the rice. Removing the excess starch helps keep the grains separate, so the cooked rice is fluffier and less sticky. Sautéing the grains of rice in hot oil before any liquid is added gives the dish another layer of flavor.
Rice reheats beautifully and can be made up to 2 days ahead, covered and refrigerated. Jinich recommends reheating it in a covered saucepan over low heat with 2 tablespoons water.
Serves 6 to 8

❖ 2 cups long or extra-long grain white rice or jasmine rice

❖ 450 gr. (1 pound) ripe tomatoes, quartered, or a 400-gr (14½-ounce) can tomatoes

❖ ⅓ cup coarsely chopped white onion

❖ 2 garlic cloves

❖ 1 tsp. kosher salt or coarse sea salt, or to taste

❖ About 3 cups homemade or canned chicken or vegetable broth

❖ 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil

❖ 2 parsley sprigs

❖ ¾ cup peeled and diced carrots (optional)

❖ ½ cup fresh or frozen green peas (optional)

❖ ½ cup fresh or frozen corn kernels (optional)

❖ 1 or 2 jalapeno peppers or other small hot green peppers (optional)

❖ 2 Tbsp. water, if needed Soak the rice in a bowl of hot water for about 5 minutes.

Drain in a sieve and rinse under cold running water until the water runs clear; drain well.
In a blender or food processor, purée the tomatoes with the onion, garlic and salt until smooth. Pass the purée through a strainer into a large liquid measuring cup; note the amount and reserve. Pour enough chicken broth into another liquid measuring cup to make 4 cups liquid total – you want to keep the two liquids separate, since you will add the purée first.
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the rice and cook, stirring often, until the rice becomes milky white, 3 to 4 minutes.
Pour in the tomato purée, mix gently, and cook until the purée darkens, thickens and has mostly been absorbed by the rice, about 3 minutes.
Stir in the chicken broth and add parsley, carrots, peas, corn and jalapeno peppers. Bring to a rolling boil, cover and reduce the heat to lowest setting. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed, but there is still some moisture in the pan. The rice should be cooked and tender; if it is not but all the liquid has been absorbed, add the 2 tablespoons water, cover again and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from the heat and let the rice rest, covered, for at least 5 minutes. Remove parsley sprigs.
Fluff with a fork and serve.
“This is my classic red salsa,” wrote Jinich, “rustic and deep, with a hint of smoke that comes from charring the ingredients... Delicious on everything it touches, it is excellent served as a dip for chips, drizzled on tacos, quesadillas and all sorts of appetizers, or used as a base for meat and vegetable dishes.”
“Workhorses in the kitchen, salsas are simple to make and come charred, fried, puréed, mashed, chopped or raw, and with endless variations... Their common thread is the chile since all have at least one kind, be it fresh or dried, yet they are not all spicy...
They can go on top, on the side, below, in between, or all over just about any dish.”
Makes about 2 cups

❖ 450 gr. (1 pound) ripe tomatoes

❖ 1 garlic clove, unpeeled

❖ A 6-mm. (¼-inch)-thick slice of a large white onion (about 30 gr. or 1 ounce)

❖ 1 jalapeno or other hot green pepper, or to taste

❖ ¾ tsp. kosher salt or coarse sea salt, or to taste

Preheat the broiler. Place the tomatoes, garlic, onion and chili on a baking sheet or in a broilerproof skillet. Broil 10 to 12 minutes, turning halfway through. Remove the tomatoes when they are mushy, their skin is charred and wrinkled and juices begin to run. The chili and onion should be softened and nicely charred, and the papery skin of the garlic should be burned and the clove softened.

Alternatively, you can char the vegetables on a preheated comal or in a cast-iron or heavy nonstick skillet on top of the stove over medium heat.
Remove the skin from the garlic clove and discard. Place the garlic in a blender or food processor, along with the tomatoes, onion, half of the chili, the salt and any juices.
Purée until smooth. Taste for heat, and add more chile if necessary until you have the desired heat.
This uncooked salsa has long been a favorite of ours. We like it with broiled fish, grilled chicken, beans, potatoes and other cooked vegetables.
Makes about 2½ cups, about 8 to 10 servings

❖ 2 medium jalapeno peppers or other fresh hot peppers

❖ 2 large garlic cloves, peeled

❖ ¼ cup cilantro (fresh coriander) sprigs

❖ ¼ cup parsley sprigs

❖ 450 gr. (1 pound) ripe tomatoes, finely diced

❖ ¼ cup minced onion

❖ 1 to 2 Tbsp. lemon juice

❖ 1 Tbsp. olive oil (optional)

❖ ½ to 1 tsp. ground cumin

❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper

❖ 1 to 2 Tbsp. water, if needed

Core jalapeno peppers; remove seeds and ribs if you want them to be less hot.

Put jalapeno peppers and garlic in food processor and chop finely. Add parsley and cilantro and chop finely.
Transfer to a medium bowl. Add tomatoes, onion, lemon juice, olive oil and cumin. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add water if salsa is too thick. Refrigerate salsa in a covered container until ready to serve. Serve cold.

Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.