With the publication of “ Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking ” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013; $30), the circle is complete. Former bookworm policy analyst turned cooking instructor, food blogger, chef and public television culinary host Pati Jinich directs her research, experience, love of country and personal journey onto the printed page.
It’s a tall order, capturing the spirit and energy of this 40-year-old Chevy Chase mother of three, whose career path has been carved step by step with kitchen utensils. Washington Post Food section readers have come to know her through salsa, salad, taco and casserole recipes: everyday food that has become her mission.
Jinich’s secrets are revealed through notes called “Mexican Cook’s Tricks” on many of the 115 recipes in the book. She rubs the ends of cucumbers to fend off bitterness. White onions are preferred because they contain less sulfur than yellow. The edges of the first handmade corn tortilla on the griddle will tell you whether there’s enough water in the dough. When you’re making enchiladas, pass those tortillas through hot oil or subject them to the heat of a dry skillet beforehand: That will keep them from cracking. Pre-mix the cocoa powder with a little of the liquid when making her sister’s marbled pound cake, and you’ll avoid a dusty brown countertop.
Few of the dishes will send cooks off to Latin markets, as Jinich knows that so many of her go-to ingredients have achieved mainstream status. (Here’s looking at you, chayote squash.) Instead of recommending specific brands, she’s careful to identify the best qualities of, say, dried beans or a rich piloncillo sugar.
Not to be missed are her pork tenderloins, marinated ever so briefly, then glazed with a sweet citrus sauce. They could not be simpler, although those who don’t cook for a crowd will need to scale down from 10 servings. That raises, for me, one of two quibbles with the book. Enough of the recipes are crafted to serve six or more that I found myself doing the math and hoping for the best. Jinich’s voluptuous corn torte, another keeper, survives when halved from 12 servings — large sigh heaved, as it would be all too easy to consume an entire 9-by-13-inch pan of it.
The directions for some dishes call for a bit of reading between the lines. Cajeta, the thick caramel that one-ups dulce de leche, is meant to be “drizzled” into ramekins for Jinich’s Impossible Chocoflans (12 servings!). But it becomes quickly apparent that the stuff must be heated first. This is a book for someone who has an established rapport with pots and pans.
The other quibble has to do with the book’s photography. The fact that Jinich was able to work with the likes of Penny De Los Santos and her styling crew speaks volumes about the project. But I found a disconnect between the images and the author’s intent. What I’ve seen in person as vibrant and bright comes across as overly composed, in that modern, Martha Stewartesque way. The mood doesn’t always match the food.
Yet the food is beautiful to behold. Even more important, it is food that can satisfy, every day.
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