Cy and I have never had cable TV, so we’ve always been big PBS watchers. When digital TV came and we suddenly could watch PBS cooking shows every night, we discovered “Pati’s Mexican Table,” hosted by Pati Jinich. We loved it from the first episode we saw. Cy and I both thought that she was someone born to teach cooking on TV from the get-go, even with no previous TV experience. And it’s not just us. Her fans also include Sara Moulton, one of TV’s best cooks and teachers, so that’s saying something.
Pati and her family live here in the DC area. For nine years now, Pati has been the chef and teacher for Mexican Table, a culinary program dedicated to showcasing the diversity of Mexico’s cuisines, presented at the DC Mexican Cultural Institute. Cy and I first got to meet her there, and were delighted to learn that she is every bit as warm and welcoming in person. And funny and charming and, really, I’m going to have to stop because I’ll just go on and on. (Seriously, she has that effect on people. You can listen NPR’s Ari Shapiro glowing about her here.) And, of course, her food is fantastic. The Mexican Table classes get repeat attendees year after year (including us now). Pati says this made her dig even more deeply into research on Mexico’s culinary history and the food of the individual regions and cities. She’s a native of Mexico City, and didn’t start cooking until she came to the US about 20 years ago. But her former career as a political/policy analyst and historian gave her the opportunity to travel all over Mexico and, luckily for all of us, begin learning about food across the country.
Pati’s second book, Mexican Today, was released last month. And last week she had a book tour event at the Mexican Cultural Institute, hosted by Bonnie Benwick, Deputy Food Section Editor of the Washington Post. The interview gave us some insight into her life, and also about cooking on TV. For example, before she signed with PBS, the Food Network came calling. But they wanted her to dye her hair red (better on camera), get a dog to round out her already TV-adorable family, and work with a voice coach to lose her accent. Luckily, she didn’t do them. (Nothing against dogs, but I’m a cat person.) Even on PBS, though, she says it took a few seasons for her to be able to be entirely herself. This, in turn, led to James Beard and Emmy award nominations, all well-deserved.
When I approached Pati about a wine discussion, she told me right away that she’s not a wine expert, so she wasn’t sure she’d have a lot to say. As you can see, though, she definitely has insight. I started writing my notes up from our conversation just before her book event last week, and was lucky that Bonnie Benwick asked most of my follow-up questions (and let me use the answers here). What follows is a condensed version of our conversation, plus follow-up. I hope it’s as much fun for you as it was for me!
Your first book, Pati’s Mexican Table, is one of my kitchen staples. While it’s not completely traditional, you focused on foods that have a history for you and seem deeply rooted in Mexico. Was it important to you to write the book that way? When I started writing the first book in 2009-2010, I wanted it to be about Mexican food in Mexico. I felt it was important to represent the culture, as someone who grew up in Mexico City and also has lived in the U.S. for a long time. Also, I didn’t start cooking until after I moved to the U.S., and these were the foods I found I missed. Some of the recipes are traditional, some are newer, and they’re from all over Mexico. But of course I had to include my childhood favorites from Mexico City.
You seem so completely at home in the kitchen and are really good at teaching through your show and recipes. It’s a little surprising that you didn’t grow up cooking. A lot of people say that, and I tell them I was really good at eating growing up!
Did you get a chance to have food from all over Mexico from early on? Yes, but my first real exposure to food from all over the country was when I worked on a political analysis project and traveled to talk to people in the governments of the states in Mexico. I ate so much and loved it. Looking back, I didn’t have any idea I’d be making many of those foods later on.
And have some of them found their way into the new book? They have. And I keep learning new things every time I go back. Even if I’ve visited a city or region a dozen times, I’ll discover something new and wonder, “How did I never see this before?” So I wanted to include some regional recipes. But I’ve also focused on new things, and also foods that we’ve pulled into Mexico and put our own flavors into. Like macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, pizza, and hot dogs. And then there are lots of things I make for my family, especially dishes that I can pull together in a hurry when we’re all over the place in different directions.
So the title, Mexican Today, reflects all those things? Yes, exactly! Plus, the idea that Mexican food today is very exciting, and it changes all the time. When I started cooking programs for the Mexican Cultural Institute, I began researching the origins of the food in different regions. Like the U.S. we have Asian, African, and European influences in the food. But the pace of combination along with “traditional” Mexican food is just amazing now.
When you started the books and the show, did you have trouble getting ingredients, especially here in the DC area? I worried when the first book came out that people might not be able to find some of the ingredients. But not for the second book. Latin and international communities are demanding the ingredients and there’s a real market for them now. I still can’t get everything in one store, but I can find almost everything. There are only maybe five things I can’t get here.
What are they? Acitrón (candied cactus heart), fresh avocado leaves, and some of the Recados – seasoning pastes from the Yucután – which are very specific and delicious, but which you can easily buy in Mexico. Also fresh Hoja Santa and Epazote. Although last year Johnson’s (a local DC nursery) got me plants and I grew them myself. But you still can’t buy them in markets here.
I spent a lot of time in Mexico City doing environmental work in the 1990s and early 2000s. I rarely saw customers drinking wine in restaurants, even the fanciest ones. Has that changed? Absolutely! Wine drinking has really taken off in the past 8 or 9 years. Mostly at tablecloth restaurants rather than taquerias, but really, all over the place.
Has the jump in drinking wine also come with an increase in wine production in Mexico? There has been a crazy surge in winemaking in Mexico. Much better than when I was a kid. And you’re even starting to see some of them here in the U.S., like Monte Xanic.
What’s your favorite Mexican winery/vineyard? I love Casa Madero. Although it’s not a new winery – it’s one of the oldest in Mexico, going back to the Spanish – it has very modern wines. The 3V is my favorite, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo.
I have to ask you about pairing red wine and Mexican food. On one hand, there are wine experts who say that the tannins in the chiles interact with red wine tannins in a way that leaves you with more heat and less flavor. Yet in your cooking classes at the Mexican Cultural Institute, you tell us how much you enjoy red wines with Mexican foods. I do love red wines with Mexican foods. Maybe the issue with the chiles is more with Mexican food in the U.S., because there are like 20 different varieties of chiles that you’ll find in Mexican food in Mexico. They all have different flavors and intensities. Strong and complex wines definitely work with Mexican foods.
I also remember you telling us that Mexicans use a lot less cumin than we do in the U.S. for Mexican food. I’ve always thought cumin can be tough to pair with red wine. Do you think this might have something to do with the perception that red wine and Mexican food don’t mix? That’s interesting. There is a lot of cumin in Mexican food here, although that seems to be changing. Honestly, I think they’re just choosing the wrong wines!
What are your favorite wines with Mexican food? I like big reds, and especially Spanish wines like Tempranillo and Grenache. And also others like Syrah, and of course the 3V. One of the things I talk about in the new book is how we in Mexico like to take food and make it even more flavorful. There’s even a word for it – sabrosear. It also means to have fun. But you’ll need a big wine. It’s like watching two wrestlers, you don’t want to have a match between a big guy and a small guy. With really flavorful food, wine can seem like an afterthought or even a nuisance to me if it’s too weak.
How about white wines? I like white wines with tacos because whites are so refreshing. And that really goes well with tacos for me. Not that there can’t be complex, layered flavors in tacos. But cool and refreshing wines work with the different flavors and textures. Lately I’ve really been enjoying Russian River whites.
Back to a couple of food questions. What do you like to eat when you’re traveling in the US? I really love to stop in Mexican restaurants when we travel, it’s great to see how Mexican food has regional qualities in the U.S. too. And to see what they’re doing with Mexican food these days. But my kids are tired of it – they groan every time my husband and I turn the car into the parking lot of another Mexican place. We all like Korean food, Italian, pretty much anything and everything.
And a question for people traveling to Mexico City. When you visit, where are the places you have to go eat? I mean the ones you’d go to right after you get off the plane. There are two restaurants we always go to and they’ve been around forever. The first is El Cardenal, it’s an old, established restaurant. Traditional Mexican food, no shortcuts. Delicious! Then Klein’s, which is like a coffee shop/diner. I have to eat the enchiladas with salsa verde when I’m there.
And then there’s ice cream. Chiandoni is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor founded by Italian immigrants. They make all kinds of flavors, including gelatos that use Mexican ingredients and flavors. Especially pecans. Most people here don’t realize it, but Mexico grows a lot of pecans, both for export and for eating in the country. They’re fresh and delicious!
I had no idea – and I’ll certainly try them when I’m in Mexico again. Thanks for talking with me, Pati, and for the tip on the fresh Hoja Santa! My pleasure, Tom, and I hope you and Cy will be back at the next Mexican Table!
I really enjoy cooking from Pati’s first book and I look forward to adding dishes from Mexican Today to my rotation. But for this week’s recipe, I wanted to give you one that she made for one of the Mexican Table classes. The subject was the end-of-year holiday season in Mexico, or Fiestas Decembrinas. It runs from the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12 all the way through to February 2 (the family member who finds the toy version of the baby Jesus in his sweet bread on All King’s Day – January 6 — has to throw a tamal party that day). One of the dishes Pati made was Pork Tenderloin in Prune Sauce. I asked her permission to reprint it for you, and she graciously agreed. She told us that while turkey is generally the meat of choice for Christmas in much of Mexico, there’s often a pork dish as well. And holiday pork is served with a fruit sauce. This one is great for the holidays, or any other time. I make it for company a few times a year and everyone loves it. And the leftovers are equally good.
Nothing in the recipe is difficult, but it takes some time – about two hours from start to finish. Much of it is the pork cooking away in the oven by itself, so you’ll have time to make rice and such to serve with it. A few things I’ve picked up in making the dish: While the recipe calls for around 2-1/2 pounds of pork tenderloin, there’s enough sauce for more. So if you can fit 3-1/2 or so pounds of tenderloin in a single layer in your Dutch oven, go ahead and do it. Make one and a half times the spice rub for the pork, but use the same amount of sauce ingredients. Also, while you can toast the chiles in a skillet on the stove, you can also do it in the oven. You’re heating the broiler to char the tomatillos, onions, and garlic that go into the sauce anyway. So it’s easy to put another rack near the bottom of the oven and toast the chiles on a small baking sheet. Just keep an eye on them, because they can burn quickly.
I took Pati’s advice and paired the pork with a big red wine. Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc’s Notes d’Orphée ($19) is 85% Syrah, 15% Cabernet Franc, and the fruit in the Syrah pairs really well with the prunes and Ancho chiles in the sauce. Then there’s the little bit of freshness from the Cab Franc. It’s a smooth wine, so no worries about tannin-induced heat. The wrestlers are well-matched here!
By Pati Jinich, reprinted with her permission
2 to 2-1/2 pounds pork tenderloin
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon brown sugar
4 chiles anchos, stemmed and seeded
4 chiles guajillos, stemmed and seeded
2 cups pitted prunes (about 8 ounces)
5 cups water
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
¾ pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed (6 small or 4 medium)
6 unpeeled garlic cloves
Half of a large white onion, peeled
In a small bowl, combine the rub ingredients and rub all over the tenderloin.
Heat a comal or skillet over medium heat. Once it is hot, lightly toast the chiles for about 20 to 30 seconds per side. Place them in a medium sauce pan, along with the prunes. Cover with the 5 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and keep it at a steady simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat.
Place the tomatillos, onion, and garlic on a foil-covered baking sheet and place under the broiler anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes. The ingredients should be completely charred on the outside, and soft. The tomatillos should also be mushy and juicy. Peel the garlic as soon as it is cool enough to handle and place it in the blender along with the onions, tomatillos, chiles, prunes, and the simmering liquid (plus any liquid from the vegetables on the baking sheet). Add the ½ teaspoon of salt and puree until completely smooth.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large casserole or Dutch oven set over medium heat, heat the oil. Once it’s hot but not smoking, brown the meat on all sides, for a total of about 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and pour in the pureed sauce. It will sizzle and bubble. Turn off the heat. Make sure the meat is entirely surrounded with the sauce, under and over, and place the casserole, uncovered, in the oven. Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes, baste the meat once halfway through. Take the casserole out of the oven. Cover it, let it rest for 10 minutes, then slice and serve the meat with plenty of sauce.
Note on the tenderloin quantity: this recipe makes enough sauce for more meat. If your casserole can handle another tenderloin without crowding too much, go ahead and use it. Make one and half times the spice rub amount, but use the same amount of sauce ingredients. When you add the sauce to the pan, lift one of the tenderloins a little so you get a good sizzle from the sauce.
Note on toasting chiles: Since I have to heat the broiler anyway, I toast the chiles in the oven. Put another oven rack down near the bottom of the oven away from the broiler element, and put the chiles on a small pan. Once the broiler is hot, put the pan on the low rack and toast for about a minute. Check carefully to see that they’re not burnt.