On Zarela's Mind: Grilling for Memorial Day

The smell of hard wood smoke on a man’s shirt is my madeleine. It takes me back to the two years I spent with my father in the ranch, both exiled there for being depressed. It was a wonderful experience for the two of us.

We built several barbecue pits and smokers and tried mesquite, oak, apple, even manzanita wood. Green wood produced lots of smoke and medium-hard was good for slow cooking, but hard woods were ideal for dozens of dishes from all over the world. (Years later I discovered a small market outside of Zaachila, Oaxaca, selling only wood for cooking.)

I’d get near my Dad and smell his Yardley Spice aftershave lotion mixed with smoke. For me, it was the way a man was supposed to smell. El Maestro, our blacksmith and wood-chopper was the only worker allowed to give me spoonfuls of coffee when I was a toddler. Maybe that’s when I developed this predilection. I loved him.

Mike (pronounced Maike) the cute cowboy with golden deeply tanned skin, rough chapped hands and sleepy green eyes that I had an ‘inappropriate’ crush on smelled like leather from his chaps, freshly-ironed shirts and the smoke of the camp stove.

Later during my travels throughout Mexico, I’d see the smoke curlicue from huts that dotted the hills surrounding a village and I soon would be transported to those happy times.

All this come to mind when the barbecue pit starts going on holidays like Memorial Day.

Barbecuing choices are endless. From Food and Wine magazine, I learned to brush fava beans with olive oil and grill until soft. I don’t salt them, preferring to season with chile-limon, the spicy and tart chile powder available in Latin American stores. Then, of course, there is corn to grill in or out of the husk, which can be slathered with mayonnaise, thick Mexican crema, powdered red chile and lime juice.

Sometimes I put two corn husks together to form a little packet and chop zucchini, onion, jalapeño and corn and embed a slice of queso blanco in the middle. The cheese’s high melting point make it ideal, but if you like something richer and gooier, shred white cheddar cheese thickly and combine with the vegetables. At a state dinner, I used the same technique for a small filet of fish spread with cilantro puree.

If it were up to me only, I’d be making my famous rabbit and artichoke grilled paella. But another option is this chicken, given to me by our guide in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and perfect for people of all ages.

Recipe: Pollo Asado Aquilino (Aquilino's Grilled Chicken)

Award-winning restaurateur Zarela Martinez blogs at You can also check out her how-to videos on YouTube.