Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sonia Mendez García - A Chef With Mexican Roots

Chef Sonia Mendez García
Photo by Richard Brennan
Chef Sonia Mendez García is the creator of one of the most popular Mexican food blogs, La Piña en la Cocina.  It combines easy to follow recipes and a narrative that will pull you in even if you don’t cook.  It’s food writing and appetizing photographs at its best.  Each one of her recipes is carefully researched and prepared in her New York based kitchen.  Scroll thru any of the photos on La Piña en la Cocina’s website and you’re bound to find delicious images that will make you hungry and feel inspired to cook her recipes in your own kitchen.  The stories will make you feel right at home and they trigger nostalgia and emotion, especially if your memory is activated and you remember stories of your own upbringing.  

Sonia grew up in Los Angeles and in Houston with a very typical childhood of baseball games, riding bikes, the roller rink on Saturdays and trips to Monterrey, Mexico twice a year.  Those were the trips to her grandmother’s house where food became the binding glue that brought the family together.

For Sonia, food is love, it’s life and its what nurtures us.  Her mom cooked everyday, therefore food was a focus of her daily routine and it’s what connects her to her family with each dish that she prepares.

Sonia got serious about food in the midst of cooking classes, but it wasn’t until she lost both of her parents when it became a goal to learn as much as possible about Mexican food, the food of her ancestors which took on a new meaning in life.  What makes Sonia most proud is when someone writes to her and they express how a dish she has shared on her blog remind them of home.  

Food has the power to bring us together and that’s how I met Sonia.  It was like meeting a long lost cousin as we share a very similar background and may even share genes from our ancestral tree, with Sonia being from Monterrey and I from Allende, Mexico.  And when Mexican cousins meet, its an automatic fiesta!

Sonia talks about what food means to her and what drives her very successful blog:

SM - When I was growing up, my parents owned a food business for a short time.  Mom always sold her tamales during the holidays.  I would say that’s how I learned that food could be a passion as well as a business.  I was asked to teach Mexican cooking classes at the local kitchen store and that led me to get serous about the whole Mexican food scene.  For the most part, my cooking technique and style is traditional but I do enjoy some fusion now and then.  

LA - Are you considering opening a restaurant or which direction are you heading in now?  Is a cookbook with your recipes stirring the back of your mind? 

SM - At this point in my life a restaurant is out of the question.  No restaurant for now.  Been there, done that.  It’s too much work.  I would like to continue teaching and would absolutely love a cookbook filled with my recipes and stories.  

LA - How have your roots influenced your cooking?  Do you preserve your heritage thru your food?

SM - I would be nothing as a cook without the influence of my heritage, of my parents and extended family.  I owe it all to them.  My food is definitely and expression of who I am and the passion I feel for what I do.  I feel like I have developed my own style but with an ancestral influence on the flavors.  

LA - What other cuisines of the world have had an influence on you and what are your favorites?

SM - All the foods of Latin America inspire me, as well as indian and asian foods.  I love all the spices!  Flavors and ingredients that are on my list to experiment with in my kitchen are what make up Spanish cooking, which in a way was influenced by Mexican cooking.  

LA - What is the heart and soul of your flavors?

SM - The heart and soul to me is believing and standing by the ingredients.  As simple as fresh chiles, tomatoes and onions can be, they can also yield the most organic and delicious flavors.  It takes us back to the soul of ancestral cooking.  

LA - Would you say that Mexican cuisine ranks among the top in the world and one that is replicated in other cultures? 

SM - Yes and yes!  True Mexican cuisine is an art.  One never stops learning and I hope to continue taking it to new levels in my own repertoire.  

LA - What would you say is your everyday food or dish that you put together for breakfast, la comida or dinner that you repeat often?

SM - Breakfast on the weekends, always papas con huevo!  Basically its a comfort dish of fried potatoes with scrambles eggs, chiles and salsa, served in warm tortillas and they’re anything but simple and so enjoyable.  Comidas, all kinds of tacos.  Dinner, guisados and rice are a must!    

LA - What’s your favorite antojito and main dish?  

SM - My favorite antojito would have to be churros de maíz that Dad used to prepare from the freshly blended nixtamal masa.  With fresh lime and chile, of course!  The main dish would have to be Mom’s bean and jalapeño tamales hands down.  So simple but so delicious.  It’s dishes like these that bring me comfort.  

LA - What has been the most recent ingredient you acquired that was extremely rare and expensive and what dish did you use it in?

SM - For me it would have to be squash blossoms or flor de calabaza.  They’re very hard to come by where I live in New York.  I prepared them simply stuffed with queso chihuahua, covered in a batter and served in spicy caldillo de jitomate or tomato broth. They were to die for!  

LA - What is one of the most memorable meals you have had and in what country?

SM - In 2011, I finally returned to Monterrey after a long absence.  My Tia Minerva prepared pescado gratinado which is a fish au gratin.  It was prepared with minimal ingredients but so tasty and it reminded me of the seafood of my childhood.  Sadly, we recently lost her and she will never know how much it meant to me to spend that time with her. 

LA - Simple dishes prepared by our loved ones always give us strength and they always have the magic of bringing back the loving memories of our past.  That’s why it’s so special to keep the recipes of our grandmothers alive.  You definitely transported me to savor the wonderful fish you describe.  Is there a personal anecdote from your formative years that you remember that had an influence on you to become a chef?

SM - As a teenager during the summer, I would help distribute free lunches to low income children.  It was very rewarding to share food, its something that I continue to do any chance I get.  Always pay forward whenever you can. 

LA - I agree with you on that!  Sharing food makes us more human and it gives us dignity.  

LA - Are there any personal challenges or obstacles that you faced as you were becoming a chef?

SM - Yes!  It wasn’t easy trying to sell authentic Mexican food to the general public.  Especially since they had not tasted the authentic flavors and were used to the industrialized flavors of Tex-mex restaurants which aren’t even Mexican at all.  

LA - Do you dream about food?

SM - Absolutely!  It never stops! Lol!  I dream about cooking, eating, savoring and then cooking some more.  I love to participate in cook-offs, Chef’s night at kitchen stores, celebrity chef dinners, etc.  Recently I was at a chef dinner with Aaron Sanchez, whom I admire for his bold flavors and style.  

LA - Aaron Sanchez got his start in his own mother’s kitchen, the well known chef Zarela Martinez which I have admired and followed for years.  What other chefs inspire you?

SM - First, I admire my parents and all that they taught me about food.  Another one of my favorite chefs is Rick Bayless, although he’s not Mexican, I admire his passion for Mexican cuisine.  Chef Aaron Sanchez is Mexican American like me and he’s a good role model showing that hard work pays off.  My friend, chef Raul Vazquez, who I finally had the pleasure of meeting in person and enjoying his most delicious Mexican food.  Just listening to him speak of the food and his work is inspirational, you know he’s very passionate about what he does.  I admire that very much.  I also admire avant-garde chefs for their experimental foods such as molecular gastronomy, although I can’t say I would understand it or would even try to prepare it, but its inspiring to watch how passionate the chefs are when they prepare their dishes, which are works of art.  

LA - In your kitchen, what is the basic setup and what are the essential items you can’t do without such as cazuelas, ollas, molcajetes, etc…?

SM - My kitchen is very small!  I’m forever prepping ahead of time just to keep up.  Essentials are good knives, strong cutting boards, prep bowls, cazuelas, a molcajete, and a good blender!  I like to keep it simple.  

“My philosophy in life when it comes to food always gravitates towards the traditional.  I don’t take shortcuts.  When you take the time, your passion will shine and everything will be portrayed on a plate of food.  I believe simple is best.  Going back to our roots is where our true colors come thru, it’s our personality.” - Sonia Mendez García

Sonia is a chef, food writer, entrepreneur and creator of La Piña en la Cocina website.  She is also a resident chef at Hispanic Kitchen, a collaborator at Que rica Vida/General Mills and teaches cooking classes at select chef events throughout the country.  

Sonia graciously shared with us a very special dish which was taught to her by her mother, whom learned the traditional recipe from her ancestors: Asado de puerco en chile colorado.  It’s a rich, savory dish that every norteño, meaning from the northern part of Nuevo León, Mexico is familiar with and one that is traditionally served at special fiestas and bodas or weddings. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Chiles en Nogada - Mexico's Patriotic Dish

In late July and into September, markets in Mexico start having a peculiar resonating sound that resembles light wood or sticks being hit against each other.  Melodious calls and chatter invite passersby with, ¡Nueces, nueces de castilla!  In other words, There are walnuts, lots of walnuts everywhere!  Lot’s of sound and lots of nuts.  Walnuts are picked from the trees that grow right at the foot of the Popocateptl volcano in Atlautla, Estado de México and they’re brought down to the valley on large hand woven baskets. The cracking of the walnuts enlivens the markets in one of the most festive times of the year as the date of El Grito and the anniversary of the Mexican Independence approaches on the 16th of September.   The nueceras, or walnut vendors beat the nuts quickly and efficiently with only three or four knocks to crack them and reveal their sweet, tender fleshy inside that is used for the nogada sauce; a creamy, fragrant blanket that will be spread delicately over one of the most emblematic and historical dishes of Mexico: Chiles en Nogada.    

Along with the walnuts, your eyes will delight in the shimmering glitter of ruby-red pomegranate seeds neatly mounded in petite mountains that vendors proudly display.  The pomegranate seeds or granadas as they’re called in Mexico, are like glistening jewels that decorate and add crunch to the chiles en nogada.  Undoubtedly, its one of the most impressive and delicious manifestations of the Mexican culinary arts.

But those are only two of the star ingredients in the dish.  The creation was born out of the convents of Puebla in which the Augustine nuns took advantage of up to one hundred seasonal ingredients and utilized them in their ripest glory.  Grilled poblano chiles are stuffed with a spicy, fruity meat picadillo and sparkly pieces of acitrón, the dried candied flesh from the biznaga cactus that grows in the dessert; then they’re lightly dipped in an airy merengue batter called capeado and fried.  Finally, they’re cloaked in the most creamy, walnuty delectable nogada sauce finished with a touch of dry sherry and decorated with granada seeds and fresh coriander leaves.  

As with all things wonderful, industrial harvesting has had a negative effect on the cati.  The biznaga cactus grows very slow and over the years it has become a highly threatened species.  In recent years, in order to protect the species, harvest of the cactus has been made illegal, negatively affecting the indigenous populations that would harvest the cactus on a small scale as they have been doing for thousands of years for their sacred ceremonies, as well as for food and medicine.  In the caves of Tehuacan, Puebla, there is evidence of the use of biznagas dating back to 6,500 years.  

There are several versions on when exactly the Chiles en Nogada first made their appearance on Mexican tables.  But there’s no doubt that they made they’re historic debut around an important celebration which occurred in 1821, when the self-declared emperor, Don Agustin de Iturbide signed The Act of Independence and The Córdoba Treaty after The Mexican War of Independence in 1810.  

In the kitchens of the convents, the nuns were in a joyful patriotic frenzy and in the spirit of the celebration, they decided to honor the entrance of Agustin de Iturbide with a delectable dish which would also serve as a tribute to the Tri-Color army or Ejército Trigarante who fought for independence and donned the colors: green, white and red on their flag: Mexico’s National flag.  It coincided exactly in the month of September when the nueces de castilla or walnuts and pomegranates are harvested along with many of the other seasonal fruits. 

Chiles en Nogada are a great source of national pride and a tradition in Mexican kitchens; its a Baroque dish clearly symbolic of the Mexican flag with its vibrant green, white and red; green for the chile and coriander leaves, white for the nogada sauce and red for the pomegranate.  It sets it apart as one of the most historical and unique in the world and it rightfully became Mexico’s most patriotic dish.       

Chiles en Nogada require many separate preparations, but don’t be intimidated.  All of them can be prepared well in advance and the capeado is the only last minute effort.  It's my favorite season and I just take it one step at a time.

Finally, when you serve the commemorative dish to your guests, it will surely impress- con gusto!  

 ¡Que chula es Puebla!  How beautiful is Puebla!