On Zarela's Mind: Seven Basic Rules for Cooking Mexican Food

A friend from Austria visited me recently on a day when there were several volunteers helping put together a tasting of some new dishes I’ve been working on. He was amazed, almost incredulous, that someone would give up their Sunday to come and help me.

Yet for my volunteers, this is their Sunday fun, an activity where they learn Mexican cooking, practice their Spanish, maybe even sing and dance.

Interns and others, mainly second-generation Mexican-Americans like Gabriela Lopez and her boyfriend Alex Uballez, who are now part of our family, have read my books or visited my website and feel that I can help them reclaim their culture through cooking. And what better way? Food is at the center of Mexican identity.

For people who cannot afford cooking school, it’s a good opportunity to learn a few things because, as you know, ‘Cada maestro tiene su librito.” Just as important as a good sharp knife is a little notebook to write down basic rules in cooking (You can read others in my book, "Zarela’s Veracruz"):

1. Always work with a sharp knife.

2. Place a moist tea towel under your cutting board so it doesn’t slip, the knife doesn’t get out of control and cut you.

3. Always weigh ingredients for certain things—baked goods and the chorizo we ended up making so the proportions will be perfect and it will taste like my mother’s

4. Though many people would consider it very unchef-like, use measuring spoons.

5. If a recipe says,'Cook covered, in a medium heavy sauce pan at a simmer,' make sure you do just that. The thickness of the pan, the heat of the fame and whether it is covered or not makes an enormous difference.

6. Always grind your spices right before you use them.

7. Roast the tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and garlic—don’t broil them. The sugar needs to caramelize and the charring adds great flavor. And never wash them afterwards!

Before my volunteers leave, I ask them what they learned that day. They are always surprised how much they absorbed in an afternoon of fun. And this weekend, everybody left with a little Zip-lock bag of chorizo, Sonora–style.

One of the cooks, a 13-year-old, sent me a beautiful note afterwards:

I thank you so, so much for welcoming me into your home and sharing your passion and knowledge of food with me. An experience like this is something I will take with me forever. I loved learning from you so much and I tried my best to absorb everything.

There is more but you get the drift. Now check out the chorizo recipe. You will be amazed how easy it is.

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

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