Let's hear it for the moms whose cooking shaped our own.

April 29, 2021
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Zarela Martinez in the kitchen with mortar and pestle on the island
Credit: Courtesy of Zarela Martinez

On this episode, Homemade host Martie Duncan chats with MasterChef judge Aarón Sánchez and his mother, restaurateur and author Zarela Martinez, about Mexican cooking and how she influenced his culinary career. Zarela also shares stories of learning to cook, exploring Mexico's cuisines and cultures, and the pleasures of sobremesa.

We also hear from Aarti Sequeira, Adam Richman, Carla Hall, Duff Goldman, Rodney Scott and Michael Symon, each with fun and fascinating stories involving their moms' recipes and techniques in the kitchen. Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPlayerFM, and everywhere podcasts are available beginning May 5.

About Zarela Martinez

Born in Mexico, Zarela Martinez immigrated to the United States in 1973 and soon after began to study cooking. She found a mentor in Chef Paul Prudhomme, whom she met in a New Orleans cooking class around 1979. She launched a catering business two years later. After creating the menu for Café Marimba, a restaurant that introduced New York City to fine Mexican cuisine, Martinez opened a regional Mexican restaurant, Zarela, in the city in 1987. In 2001, she starred in the PBS series "Zarela! La Cocina Veracruzana" and has made several television appearances since. She is the author of Food from my Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined, The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Traditional Recipes from Mexico's Heart, and Zarela's Veracruz: Mexico's Simplest Cuisine.

Episode Transcript

ZARELA MARTINEZ There are millions of chefs, but the ones that really triumph are the ones that have their own style. The most important thing is to find something that you're so passionate about that you cannot live unless you're doing that.

MARTIE DUNCAN Now she gave you her special banana pudding recipe? Or you had to pry it out of her. Or how did that happen?

RODNEY SCOTT That was not given. We all sat down and we started talking about food and putting the menu together and the banana pudding came up, and we just kept going at it and going at it until it that flavor memory kicked in. And I was like, "Wow, yes. Right there. That's my mama." 

AARÓN SANCHEZ Imagine that: being a single mom, a pair of twins. You know what I'm saying, twins? Five-thousand dollars to your name. Going to New York City and putting all of it on yourself.

MARTIE She's a force of nature, you're saying.

AARÓN Yeah. And that's why I gravitate towards strong women, like yourself, obviously. And women that handle their business, because I just identify with that so much. Because I have my mom as an example. 

MARTIE Welcome to Homemade. I'm Martie Duncan. On this show, we always like to get the stories behind our favorite recipes and what better way to do that than to talk with some of our famous chef friends about their moms? Our Homemade team has dug back into our archives for some fun and fascinating conversations that run the gamut, about how some of these mothers to the world's greatest cooking personalities influenced them early on or somehow missed that cooking DNA altogether! Later, we'll hear from Carla Hall, Rodney Scott, Michael Symon, Duff Goldman and Adam Richman about everything from spinach pie to lasagna and fondue to meatloaf from their mothers' kitchen. Plus, Masterchef judge Aaron Sanchez and his mom, restaurateur Zarela Martinez, both join me to talk about mole and their Mexican cooking podcast!

In today's first clip, Season 6 winner of Food Network Star Aarti Sequeira tells us that those first early lessons in patience and practice came directly from cooking with her mom.

So one of the things that we have in common is cooking with our moms and learning a lot about cooking from our moms. What is your favorite recipe that takes you back to your mom's kitchen? The thing that you make together, one of those traditional things. What — tell me about that.

AARTI SEQUERIA It's probably chapatis. We have a lot of homemade breads in India, and they all tend to be sort of flat because fuel is very expensive there. So ovens are pretty much non-existent or have been until recently. So a lot of the bread cooking happens on the tava. It's a flat, like a pancake pan, almost, or a crepe pan. So chapatis are a simple bread. There's no leavening in it. It's whole wheat, really finely ground whole wheat flour, a little bit of oil or ghee, and some water. And that's it.

MARTIE Really?

AARTI Yeah. That's it.

MARTIE No leavening.

AARTI No leavening whatsoever. And so you knead it for a wicked long time. And that kneading kind of puts a little bit of air into it. But it also activates the gluten, and so you have that sort of elastic aspect to the bread. But my mom would make this dough fresh every other day. One day we'd have rice, one day we'd have chapatis. We'd go back and forth. And we would split up the labor.

So either she would roll the chapatis and I would cook them, or I would roll them and she would cook them. And so I just remember her looking over and me rolling them and not being able to get them into a circle. And she'd be like, "What's that? Australia?" And I was like, "Yes, I know. It's terrible." And she's like, "It's OK. You know, you just keep — you have to keep practicing."

And even to this day, she'll make daal, she'll make lentils. And I'll go, "I have made lentils the exact same way that you told me to and it doesn't taste the way that you make it."

MARTIE Isn't that truth?

AARTI Yes. And I'll say, "What is that?" And she said—she says, "Aru, if you had made this recipe every week for 60 years, then you would make it like this, as well." And that, I think, is the thing about cooking that keeps me going, is that, these days we're so used to being able to do something instantly, you know—web. It's order food instantly. You want a book? Order it on Amazon, instantly. You know, they're even, whatever, coming up with drones so they can drop the book on your face, like right then. You know? But the thing about cooking is it forces you to slow down. It forces you to practice, because there's something about cooking that is untouchable and unexplainable. That only comes from doing it over and over and over again until you and that dish kind of have a relationship and we're having a conversation with each other. You know? Because every time you cook it, your onions are gonna be a little bit different. Your heat is going to be a bit different. And all of those things will teach you about another aspect of that dish

MARTIE There are no strangers at Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ. Rodney is a James Beard Foundation Award Winner, and has gone to great lengths to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table, and is treated like family. So it was important to him to include his mom's banana pudding recipe on his menu. 

Well, I feel like that you're bringing some family into the menu because you've got Ella's Banana pudding. Who's Ella?

RODNEY SCOTT That's my mama.

MARTIE Tell us a little bit about Ella's banana pudding and why it's so good that you put it on your menu.

RODNEY Let me tell you how special that banana pudding is. That banana pudding takes me back to when I was too short to see the kitchen counter, and my mom would give me broken Nilla Wafers that were left in the bottom of a box while she was making the banana pudding. So, I knew if she was in there whipping up banana pudding, I would run right in there to be able to get me some crumbs of cookies. And growing up, just about every other Sunday or so, we had banana pudding on the table. It was just good.

MARTIE Yeah. My mama made one, too. Now, tell me this. Did your mama use whipped cream on the top or is it meringue?

RODNEY She used whipped cream.

MARTIE And that's how you serve it at the restaurant?

RODNEY Yes.

MARTIE Now she gave you her special banana pudding recipe? Or you had to pry it out of her. Or how did that happen?

RODNEY That was not given. We all sat down and we started talking about food and putting the menu together and the banana pudding came up, and we just kept going at it and going at it until it that flavor memory kicked in. And I was like, "Wow, yes. Right there. That's my mama." So we kind of reinvented it, my mama's banana pudding just by working it out.

MARTIE Earlier this season, Iron Chef Michael Symon shared some Greek and Sicilian family history, as well as a hilarious story about his mom taking over the kitchen at his new restaurant on opening night!

MARTIE Well listen, you're really known for, you know, being an Iron Chef and all of this over-the-top cooking you do. But really, your cooking all started at home and cooking at home is really what you love to do. Your mom was a great cook.

MICHAEL Yeah.

MARTIE Your Pap was a great cook and your grandmother. Tell me a little bit how you grew up, and then how did that translate to you getting into the food business and becoming a chef?

MICHAEL My mother's Greek and Sicilian. So, obviously, she loves food, loves to cook. Until I was in high school, my mom stayed home. We had a home-cooked meal on the table every night. My Yiayia, her mom is actually from Sicily. And then my Papou, I never met. He passed when my mom was 12. So, my Papou got kicked out of the Greek community when he started dating a Sicilian woman.

MARTIE Oh, my.

MICHAEL So she learned how to — she had an eighth-grade education. She learned how to speak Greek and cook Greek. And then my Papou, I guess, the story is, my Papou invited all his friends over and my Yiayia cooked him this big Greek dinner for all his friends and they accepted them back into the Greek community because she could speak Greek, cook Greek. And so my mom, until her father passed away, was only allowed to speak Greek in the house until my grandfather passed away. So until she was 12, and my Papou passed away. So, she didn't even know she was Italian or Sicilian until after he had passed. I'd say growing up, for me, it was about 60-40, Greek to Sicilian food when my mom cooked.

MARTIE What is your favorite dish of your mom's that she cooked for you?

MICHAEL Oh, you know, it's probably her lasagna. I mean, my mom's lasagna, we serve it — it's actually funny — at Angeline, our restaurant named after my mother at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Her lasagna's on the menu. And I mean, she's made it for me, with me, with the cooks a million times. And I think we have it, I would say about 90 percent there. It's never as good as — it'll never in my mind be as good as my mom's. But she had it, and she thinks it's better than her's. So I, you know, I don't know what to think, but…

MARTIE It's the mother love.

MICHAEL It is.

MARTIE I mean, I have the same thing with my mother's recipes. I'm in her kitchen here with her pots, her pans, making the exact same thing she made, and it doesn't taste the same. My dad and I would say, "It's not quite right. Not quite right."

MICHAEL No.

MARTIE Not quite the same.

MICHAEL When we opened Angeline at the Borgata, the opening party, my mom and dad, they were nice enough to fly up my mom and dad to come to the like the grand opening because the restaurant was named after my mother. And there's a lot of her recipes on it. I think, did you meet my you met my mom and dad?

MARTIE Oh, yeah, yeah. A couple — yes.

MICHAEL So, you know, my dad's 6'4" and my mom's 4'10". You know? So...

MARTIE She's tiny! Little tiny thing.

MICHAEL Teeny tiny. So I go out into the dining room, I'm in the kitchen, I go out the dining room to make sure they're OK. And I'm like, "Dad, where's Mom?" And he's like, "Oh, she got up. I think she went to the restroom." We're waiting. We're waiting. I'm like, where the heck is she? So I go and I look over by the bathroom. I don't see her. And I go back to the kitchen. She has an apron on, and her, you know, she's Greek and Sicilian so she wears those big-ass heels. And she has her heels on. She's in the kitchen telling them they made the meatballs wrong. Now, this is a 250-seat restaurant, I'm like, "Mom! What?" And all these cooks are like, "Who's this? What's going on?" You know? Like, and she's like…

MARTIE But they weren't going to say no.

MICHAEL No! She's like...

MARTIE They weren't gonna say no.

MICHAEL She's like, "Who made the meatballs?" I'm like, "Ma, you got to get out of the kitchen." And so I go back up out. I'm like, "Dad, you've got to get Mom. We're in the middle of feeding 300 people, and my mother's in the middle of the kitchen. She has completely shut down production." My dad's like, "I'm not going... I'm not... You're going to have to deal with that. I'm not dealing with that."

MARTIE Oh gosh.

MICHAEL You know, it's like, he's 6'4". She's 4'10". Everyone's scared to death of her.

MARTIE Oh, she is — knows her business.

MICHAEL Oh, yeah. And when she's mad at me, she could like — in Greek, my name is Michalis. So I'm like, "Mom, you've got to get out of the kitchen." And she grabs me and she's like, "Michalis!" And I'm like, oh boy. Just do whatever, do whatever you have to do.

MARTIE I'm in trouble with. Whatever she says.

MICHAEL Just fix the meatballs. I'll, I'll, I'll go back somewhere else.

MARTIE Ah, so that lasagna is still on the menu.

MICHAEL So, lasagna is still on. And she loved the lasagna. She stayed for an extra day to to tweak the meatballs.

MARTIE Help them with the meatballs.

MICHAEL Yeah.

MARTIE Through curiosity and some minor experimentation, pastry chef and author Duff Goldman tweaked his mom's fondue as a kid, and he shared with me how that unique meal influenced his draw to travel and adventurous eating.

MARTIE What did you cook when you were a kid? I know you say your mom's a great cook. What did you cook when you were a kid?

DUFF GOLDMAN We would have fondue night once in a while. 

MARTIE Oh fun.

DUFF Once every other month or so. But we would do a beef fondue. So we'd take the fondue pot and my mom would do a mixture of butter and oil and heat it up. And then she would cube all this meat, and then she would make all these different sauces. We had like a barbecue sauce and a curry mayonnaise. That was my favorite. A bunch of different sauces. She would do like a tamarind. And then we would get the big long fork. And you stick it in the thing and you cook it. And what I realized was that I liked when the meat would be crispy on the outside but still pink in the middle. I would put my meat in there and I would get it crispy on the outside, but it was cooked all the way through, and it was gray. So I'd be like, well, I want it pink in the middle. So I would leave it in for less time, but then it wasn't crispy on the outside. So then, what I figured out was that if I turned the heat up, I could make it crispy on the outside and pink in the middle. And my mom would get really mad because she didn't want the thing to be that hot, so I'd have to wait till nobody was looking and I would just inch the heat up. That was like how I figured out, like, oh, I can control the food that I'm eating. And my mom, she loves the television. We watched like Julia Child, and "Galloping Gourmet," and the "Frugal Gourmet."

MARTIE Oh, me too. 

DUFF Justin Wilson.

MARTIE Me, too. 

DUFF Remember Justin Wilson? God, I love Justin. "I guarantee..."

MARTIE Oh yeah. "Aiyeeee." Are you kidding me? I'm from the South. "I guarantee..."

DUFF Yeah.

MARTIE Oh yeah. I would run home from school so I could watch Justin Wilson. I loved all those shows.

DUFF Oh yeah. Yeah, they're really great. 

MARTIE I mean, you said tamarind. We wouldn't have had tamarind in our kitchen for anything. Your mother was pretty adventurous then.

DUFF Yeah. She was a hippie.

MARTIE Awesome!

DUFF She used to make sushi in the house. Like, he did a lot of cool stuff. And this is like in the '70s, the '80s. We were eating interesting stuff back then. And, you know, thank God she did. Hopefully, whenever we have kids, you know, I'm gonna feed them all kinds of stuff. Just because I want to make sure that my kids are adventurous in eating.

'Cause there's so many wonderful things that come with that, you know, in learning about cultures. I mean, my wife and I love to travel, love to eat. In every country we go, we eat all kinds of crazy stuff. And it's a really wonderful way to start to learn about a different people because you're starting out on common ground, you know? Everybody's got to eat.

MARTIE Now, not everyone got the cooking gene from their mom. But despite her mother not being Julia Child in the kitchen, celebrity chef and author Carla Hall told me about how she still craves her mom's meatloaf all these years later.

Was your mama a good cook too?

CARLA HALL No. That's a quick conversation.

MARTIE Yeah. I figured not because you said you didn't have like much of a clue about some of the stuff going on in the kitchen. I figured it was your granny that was the cook, and your mama just...

CARLA  I mean, my mother went to boarding school. So from fourth grade to eleventh grade, she was in boarding school in Camden, Alabama. And even though I say that my mom doesn't cook — but my mother makes certain things. You know — like back in the day — I grew up in the 60s, so there were five things that she made. A pot roast. A meatloaf. She would make a lot of Hamburger Helper.

MARTIE I love Hamburger Helper. Just don't dis the Hamburger Helper. I love Hamburger Helper.

CARLA OK, I have a recipe in my book called Hamburger Help Me! I said, My Mama's Hamburger Help Me! But I love meatloaf because of my mom.

MARTIE Me too.

CARLA I absolutely love meatloaf. I had it at this restaurant called the Marshall in New York City. And I had ordered this meatloaf Reuben. And I sat there. And it was such a visceral memory for me that I started crying as I was eating the sandwich.

MARTIE I knew you were gonna say that. Isn't it funny how food can just transform? It's like music.

CARLA Mhm.

MARTIE When you hear a song, it takes you back to a place and time. And I think food does the same thing with the smells and the tastes. They transport you back to wherever that memory is embedded. Isn't that amazing.

CARLA Yeah. Yeah. It's such a gift.

 Now, your mom's meatloaf. Was it like a traditional meatloaf or?

CARLA It was.

MARTIE Kind of those same flavors in yours or?

CARLA Yes, definitely. So the Worcestershire sauce and the onions and everything. The only thing that I do differently is I do, like, the mirepoix. So take the onions, the celery, the carrots, and I blend it up. I use oatmeal just like she did.

MARTIE  Your mommy used oatmeal?

CARLA  Yeah. Yeah. She used oatmeal.

MARTIE My mommy used white bread, of course. And kind of toasted it and made bread crumbs out of that. And sometimes she didn't — she'd just tear up the white bread and throw it in there. I'd never heard of it with oatmeal. Tell me...

CARLA I grind the oatmeal, I put the milk that I'm going to put in. I let the oatmeal sit in the milk with all the spices. So the cayenne pepper and the salt and black pepper, cumin, all of that — she didn't put cumin in hers. And then that goes into my mix and I mix my egg in that.

MARTIE Right.

CARLA So I had this egg-milk oatmeal mixture with the spices. And then I have my vegetables and all that goes into the meat mixture.

MARTIE TV Host Adam Richman of Man Vs. Food, Modern Marvels and The Food That Built America walked me through his mom's delicious spinach pie recipe.

Now what's your favorite thing to make with your mom or your favorite recipe that your mom makes?

ADAM RICHMAN OK, so without question, my favorite, I mean, it needs to be like its own food group — and it's not like spanakopita. My mom makes her version of a spinach pie. It has no crust. There's a little bit of bread crumbs to hold it together. But it's the type of thing that my college friends back at Emory would ask if I were bringing an extra one home. And my mom would often call me and say, "Is there anything you'd like me to prepare and have when you get home?" And then it was like spinach pie was like the letters R, N, S, T, L, and D on Wheel of Fortune, where they just give them to you. They already just know you're going to pick them.

MARTIE Right.

ADAM And so my mother was just like, "OK, I know, spinach pie, but..."

MARTIE "But what else?"

ADAM "What besides spinach pie?"

MARTIE OK, walk me through how to make one really quick.

ADAM Oh, it's — see, this is the thing. It's my mom's spinach pie is like Cacio e Pepe or throwing a knuckleball at Major League Baseball. I could teach you how to throw in an afternoon, but it will take you a lifetime to learn how to throw it for strikes.

MARTIE Perfect it, yeah.

ADAM So, basically, my mom thaws out a couple boxes of frozen spinach.

MARTIE OK.

ADAM Got to be frozen. Chopped spinach, not whole leaf. Eggs, ricotta, a little bit of Parmesan, a big onion that she has just lightly sautéed but she still wants to be a little crispy. So don't blanch it. Chop it, sweat it, take it right off the heat.

MARTIE OK.

ADAM Um, breadcrumb. Then you take some mozzarella and cube it like about the size of a playing di, and then you cut the rest like a domino or a mahjong tile. And then you basically make the mix. And my mom does it very much by feel and by sight. Preheat your oven to about 355, oil like a Pyrex pan, press the mixture in, and then lay the mozzarella on top. I think she starts it covered with foil and then finishes it uncovered.

MARTIE Gets it brown on the top.

ADAM Right. Exactly. I've tried to make it a few times and it's... OK. It's a pale approximation of mom's though.

MARTIE Before we get into my chat with Zarela Martinez, her son Aaron Sanchez -- an award-winning chef, TV personality, cookbook author and philanthropist talked with me about how his mom got him mentored by the one and only Paul Prudhomme, as well as a crazy story involving Zarela's mole! 

MARTIE You know, people may not know this, but you have a long history with New Orleans way before you started Johnny Sánchez. Tell me a little bit about your experience with Paul Prudhomme.

AARÓN Yeah. You know, I alluded a little earlier with the tattoos about my father sadly passing very young. As a young man, I kind of reacted poorly to that and was incorrigible and rebelled and maybe wasn't doing the right things. And it's all very well documented in my memoir, Where I Come From, so hopefully, y'all can pick that up.

But I was looking for direction. I was looking for guidance and mentoring. My mom made a call to Chef Paul Prudhomme, who they had become good friends, and said, "Look, I got this boy with potential, but he needs to get right. We need to break him down and build him back up."

So I got sent to New Orleans at 16-years-old for a summer and it was literally culinary boot camp and life boot camp. And then he became, obviously, my mentor, but a father figure. And then I came back when I was 18 to live for a year. And that's where I got bit by the bug of New Orleans.

MARTIE Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about your memoir. I love the story about your mom making the mole. Can you tell our audience a little bit about that? That's so charming and such a sweet story and a sweet food memory.

AARÓN Thank you for saying that. You know, my mom and I are just we just started our own podcast — not competing with yours, darling. OK? But it's gonna be on Heritage Radio. It's called Cooking in Mexican from A to Z. So my first initial, Aarón, and my mom's name is Zarela with a Z.

MARTIE Zarela.

AARÓN So we're gonna cover all different ingredients in the Mexican vernacular and world. And then what we're going to do is teach people about how to use the ingredients. Give them some background and then pepper in a bunch of stories.

So one of them is the mole that you alluded to. So, I remember back in the day, early '80s, we used to go back to El Paso and Mexico and we were like ferrying ingredients back. We were like chili mules. You know what I'm saying?

MARTIE Yes, I do know.

AARÓN Because we couldn't get the ingredients in New York City. So my mom would kind of charge us with going there, visiting with the family, and then we would bring back ingredients with us.

MARTIE Let me just make sure people understand that. Your mom had a restaurant in New York City. She's quite a legendary restaurateur in her own right. So she's not just a cook. She was a restauranteur.

AARÓN Yeah. I mean, we had the restaurant for close to 30 years. And you got to remember, my mom at that time, people had no idea what Mexican cuisine was all about. They thought it was all about like cheesy, crappy combo platters and all that. But my mom was really making a very concerted effort to elevate the cuisine. And subsequently, she had a beautiful run of almost 30 years with her namesake restaurant called Zarela's.

MARTIE In New York, right?

AARÓN Yeah, in New York City. I imagine that: being a single mom, a pair of twins. You know what I'm saying, twins? Five-thousand dollars to your name. Going to New York City and putting all of it on yourself.

MARTIE She's a force of nature, you're saying.

AARÓN Yeah. And that's why I'm very — I gravitate towards strong women, like yourself, obviously. And women that handle their business, because I just identify with that so much. Because I have my mom as an example. 

MARTIE Tell us that mole story, if you don't mind.

AARÓN So my mom — we lived in this little apartment building. Kevin Nealon, for all you old schoolers, that was on Saturday Night Live, lived in our building.

And my mom started to make mole. And part of the process is toasting the chilis and kind of extracting the essential oils. It ended up being a complete s--- show, smoked out the house and the building.

People evacuated the house, thinking that there was a fire. But in essence, it was just my mama making mole. So we're out there sitting in our pajamas looking at the building and people are like, "Oh, my God, what's going on?" We're like, "Hey, y'all. We're just making mole, not a big deal." You know what I mean?

MARTIE Hey, Kevin Nealon, we're just making mole up here. Don't worry about us.

AARÓN Exactly.

MARTIE That is such a great story. What is your favorite food memory or your favorite recipe from growing up with your mom?

AARÓN I have so many. I think there's the stuff that my mom did at the restaurant, which I love and still a big part of my life. But for me, when I wanted some home cooking, and what dish that I craved, it was a dish called sopa seca, which translates to dry soup.

And basically what it is, is you take like, you know, fideo or alphabet pasta and then you would toast them with some olive oil, kind of get it nutty. And then you would add a puree of roasted tomato, garlic, onion, and cilantro. After you roasted it, then you would puree that and add that to that to that mixture of toasting pasta, and then you would add stock. So you're almost cooking it like a risotto.

MARTIE Like a risotto. Yeah.

AARÓN Yeah. So you'd add stock so they get it nice and soupy but has that texture. And then at the end, you just finish it with great cotija cheese. And it's like this warm, comforting, risotto, pasta-like dish.

MARTIE You're listening to Homemade. When we come back, Aaron's mother Zarela Martinez joins me to discuss various regional Mexican dishes and her advice for mothers out there raising aspiring chefs of their own. We'll be back, after the break.

Welcome back to Homemade. Before the break, we heard from Chef Aaron Sanchez about his mom, and how as a single mother of twins, she put it all on the line to open one of the very first authentic Mexican restaurants in New York City

MARTIE I wanted to talk to the woman herself, chef Zarela Martinez; she truly paved the way for Aaron's culinary career and that of many others as well. If you don't remember her landmark Mexican restaurant in NYC, Zarela, then maybe you're just too young  — it was THE THING. She and Aaron also have their own podcast called Cooking in Mexican from A to Z. I am thrilled to welcome Zarela Martinez to Homemade!

ZARELA I'm thrilled to be here, thank you so much for inviting me.

MARTIE Listen, I'm crazy about your son, everybody is but I am so crazy about that boy, he's so fun. We had him on Homemade a little while back and he made us laugh and he told a lot of stories about you. I wanna start like in your early days, your mom is the one who encouraged you to cook. You learned a lot about cooking from your mother, is that right?

ZARELA Oh absolutely, you know, we grew up on a cattle ranch and there wasn't much to do, I mean I always had cousins and friends stay there and in the afternoon my mother would give us a cooking class every day.

MARTIE So what part of Mexico was that? Where, you grew up?

ZARELA Chihuahua.

MARTIE Chihuahua?

ZARELA Yeah I was born in Sonora. Agua Prieta [00:05:39] and raised in this cattle ranch but because the ranch was very far away from anyone, far from stores, the schools or anything we were in boarding school all our life which is why I speak English.

MARTIE Was it your mother that encouraged you to go out and take culinary classes from different parts of the country is that right?

ZARELA Well what happened was that I was married to a widower with three kids and I need to make extra money so I started baking cookies for friends and then cooking for my sister and cooking for her friends and my mom said you know you have talent honey, I'm gonna give you your inheritance. At night and I'm going to take you to cooking classes all over and that's what she did, she found, somehow found this caterer, Lilian Haines, who taught me everything about catering and from there on I went to different chefs

MARTIE Is that how you met Paul Prudhomme because I know he was very important to your culinary career.

ZARELA Yeah exactly. I mean I just took a class that was terrible, it was in, gonna go take a class in Julie Dannenbaum at the Greenbrier.

MARTIE Right.

ZARELA And after that class so we decided to go to New Orleans and, and the class that we wanted to take was awful, it was called The Enraged Chicken and it was one of those places where the students would serve in the restaurant at night so you know I only lasted one day there and that same day we walked into Paul Prudhomme's restaurant told him what had happened and he said you come here and I'll teach you Cajun and you teach me Mexican.

MARTIE How wonderful. So he recognized that you had talent too, it wasn't just your mother. He recognized right away that you had talent.

ZARELA Oh he hadn't had my food yet, he just kind of liked me.

MARTIE I see. But he did later become your mentor, your culinary mentor.

ZARELA Absolutely, like right away. He taught me not just to cook but to, how to deal with the press, you know, everything, he taught me everything.

MARTIE I remember going to Zarela a lot in New York. I used to be in the fashion industry in the wedding business and I had a designer that I worked with that loved Zarela and would take me there all the time. The worst hangover I ever had (laughs) was after a night at Zarela.

ZARELA Oh.

MARTIE Drinking tequila and the most amazing food. I think the thing I remember the most was the tamales.

ZARELA Yeah we used to make a different one every single day

I remember going to Zarela and getting these fabulous tamales and they would be, like you said they would be different every time and it was my very first place to ever really drink tequila that wasn't part of a margarita, you know.

ZARELA Yeah.

Martie Duncan (11:10): Like you would have um different brands of tequila that you don't just see everywhere, you know?

ZARELA Yeah.

MARTIE All the different ones.

ZARELA Now it's mezcal, everybody has mezcal.

MARTIE That's true, even my friend Guy Fieri has got a Mezcal with Sammy Hagar. I remember Zarela just being like mind blowing for me, I loved it. I read that at some point you decided you needed to do a whole culinary tour of Mexico so that you could learn as much as you could about Mexican cuisine ...

ZARELA And culture.

MARTIE Outside of what you already knew and culture.

ZARELA Yes.

MARTIE Can you tell me a little bit about that? So what did you do? Did you just start driving? 

ZARELA I went with my friend Laurie Smith whose this very talented photographer and with my mom and we went to Oaxaca where I found my spiritual home, you know, I fell in love with Oaxaca right from the beginning and from there we went to Chiapas, there was some festivals going on and it was amazing and from there we went to Yucatan ... no, Tabasco then Yucatan and then I went by myself to Veracruz.

MARTIE Is there a book about all these travels somewhere?

ZARELA Well, they're not in, not in depth but yes in my first book Food from My Heart, which is still available, you know, paperback and Amazon.

MARTIE And what's it called again? Food from My Heart?

ZARELA Food From My Heart and it's actually a really great book because it's a culinary autobiography

MARTIE So as you were going around Mexico did you see similarities or were all the regions quite different?

ZARELA All, all the regions were very different. Because of the herbs, mainly,, the techniques Oaxaca was the most different of all but no they were all very different.

MARTIE And what are some of the techniques that are really the foundation of Mexican cooking?

ZARELA Probably the one technique that is more characteristic of Mexican food is roasting vegetables. You know, roasting the tomatoes on the grill roasting the chilies, onions, garlic because we say it has that haunting kind of smokey flavor 

MARTIE What makes the food and the cuisine of Oaxaca so different and so special?

ZARELA Well because it's known as the land of the moles, I mean even Puebla has that mole poblano which is very well known. Oaxaca has like seven moles, probably like 700, like 7,000 because everybody has got their own variation of that particular mole but that's what distinguishes Oaxaca food more than anything. It's one of the core products you know.

MARTIE I think one of the things that I recognized from your podcast was that all moles don't have chocolate which I think is a big misconception that a lot of us have, mole doesn't have to have chocolate right?

ZARELA No, mole is simply a pureed sauce that has a thickener sometimes you know like seeds, nuts, bread, and it has aromatics and chilies either fresh or dried.you treat everything separately, you know, you're not gonna put all this stuff together, you're gonna toast the chilies and that's gonna be one layer of flavor, toast the thickener, I mean everything has layers and layers and layers of flavor.

MARTIE And every ingredient treated separately before it comes together in the mole?

ZARELA Exactly.

MARTIE So can you walk me through one easy mole that a home cook might be able to make? Like, what's the basic mole 101, how would I do that?

ZARELA Well mole amarillo probably would be the, the easiest one. You'll get like a, a green tomato. and roast that.

MARTIE OK.

ZARELA Because you want it to be yellow and you won't be able to get the right chilies because it's called chili chilcosle [00:18:41] and you're not gonna be able to get that but you can use chili guajillos which you'll toast, puree and that one is thickened with a lil bit of masa .

MARTIE OK.

ZARELA You know, corn dough. And then it has (minimum? cinnamon?), spices and, and herbs. You know like cloves and maybe you know like ...

MARTIE Cumin or ...

ZARELA Actually not really cumin but cloves, well, maybe that one has cumin but like cumin is hardly used at all in Central to southern Mexico.

MARTIE You know, one thing I don't know much about Mexican cooking is when it comes to vegetables. Is there a vegetable that you would say is a signature thing that we should learn to try or try to cook 

ZARELA Well, there's squashes of all kinds, something that characterizes Mexican food is very interesting because they were, they were nomads at the beginning and they were hunter gatherers so they found a pod that they could eat at every stage of maturity like a, like a squash whereas you would eat the tendrills, you would eat the seeds, you would, you know, you would, you would, as, as it matures you know it becomes a, a different thing and, and so I think squashes are like the, a very, very typical you know Mexican vegetable.

MARTIE I didn't know that.

ZARELA chayotes and zucchini and calabacitas and you know all sorts of things.

MARTIE I don't know that last one you said, you, what did you say? Calaba?

ZARELA Calabacitas, it's, it's, it's a, it's like a zucchini kind of a squash done with a salsa like pico de gallo and cheese and corn and that's, it's called Calabacitas con queso and it's like zucchini with cheese in and this ... and one of the, I use a building block for that, you know, the salsa the same as you make THE PICO DE GALLO and then you wanna saute a little bit of it and then you saute it and then you add the zucchini all, all diced up nice and fine, a little bit diced up and the corn and then the cheese and in a, a flash you have this delicious dinner. 

MARTIE Now, one thing that may not be that well known about you but I read somewhere that part of the reason that you became so interested in cooking and having a restaurant was because you have a great love of entertaining. 

ZARELA I do love to entertain. That's my fun.

MARTIE Yes me too they call me Martie with the party so I love to entertain as well. We have been on lockdown for quite a long time now, can you give me some tips for entertaining Zarela style, How do you like to entertain?

ZARELA Well I like to plan everything very well. Sometimes I like to make a 'make your own taco' party.

MARTIE Yes.

ZARELA Where, where I'm gonna have a big group of people and make a bunch of fillings and toppings and, or have tortillas or where people make their own tacos I like to do a lot of things that I don't have to heat up this time of the year make this pineapple jalapeno salad with pearl onion.

MARTIE That sounds great.

ZARELA And I make the, my snapper hash and this really great shrimp salad with avocados and, and jalapeno and a lime dressing. So it's the, all this lively flavors.

MARTIE What did you say? What kind of hash?

ZARELA Snapper hash, that's my signature dish. It's a ...

MARTIE Snapper hash, I want to know about that.

ZARELA Well it's basically, you could make it at home, if you could make my pico de gallo n other words, my sauce and then you ...

MARTIE OK.

ZARELA Would add like a teaspoon and a half of, of cinnamon, a teaspoon and a half of ground cumin, here you would use it and then a quarter teaspoon of ground cloves and you add this to, to the cooking, to the ... and some fennel, cilantro, cook the sauce down a little bit and then put the fish on it and cook it for about three or four minutes, let it cool in the sauce and then you shred it and then you've got your hash.

MARTIE Oh and then you put those inside a taco or ...

ZARELA Yeah.

MARTIE Oh it sounds beautiful.

ZARELA It's delicious.

MARTIE Well, I come from the land of Gulf seafood and snapper is one of my favorite things so yeah so I, I can't wait to try that. I, I'm gonna find that recipe and try it. when you have people over I read somewhere that your favorite part of the whole experience is when people languish around the table and just talk afterwards. Is it called sobremesa?

ZARELA Sobremesa yeah. I love that and it's, you know, sometimes people come and, and uh and they wanna leave right afterwards and I get really furious and I say you know I've been cooking all day long for you and serving you and now you just eating and this is not a restaurant. I have you here because I wanna have you know conversation and sometimes I have a theme, so one time I had, the theme was mothers and Kathleen Turner was here and she told the story that when she finally had the money she took her grandmother, her mother to, to Venice and you know they had this room on the, on the canal and they finished their dinner and then this huge fireworks display came on across the canal and the grandmother said you don't, you didn't have to go that far.

MARTIE So, we have grilling season and outdoor entertaining season coming up soon., are there any tips that you can give us for, perfect dishes for grilling outside, 

ZARELA Oh, absolutely. I like to make a paella on the grill. I make this salmon with a Chipotle paste marinade, it's a saute that I use to Chipotle a lot, and put the marinade on the salmon and grill it, and it's fantastic. Also, you know, there is some chiles rellenos from Oaxaca that, that you don't peel, you fill them with a cheese and then you grill 'em. And then, so the outer coating gets burned and you just kind of peel it off like that a little bit and then eat it, and it's got the most amazing flavor that you can imagine.

MARTIE Paella too, I love, so, um, even though it's not a Mexican dish, uh, I think that's wonderful. Uh, never thought about making it on the grill, and I know in Spain, they typically make it outside, but 

ZARELA Yeah.

MARTIE I always make it in my kitchen, so you just take a big cast iron pot or something and make it [crosstalk 00:36:18].

ZARELA I have paella pans, yeah.

MARTIE And then just make it outside?

ZARELA Well,I don't have a backyard, I used to have this wonderful house with a backyard, so I just make it in my little New York kitchen, but you'd be amazed, all the stuff that I can make in here. I did a six course meal here in this tiny little kitchen, and it was, and it was fine,

MARTIE Six courses at your house, I, I can't wait, I hope I get my name on a, that invitation list one of these days, it sounds remarkable. So, living with Parkinson's and living in New York, what would be something that you really enjoy doing now? 

ZARELA I love to go to museums.

MARTIE OK.

ZARELA It's been one of my favorite things to do, especially right now, there's a lot of stuff going on. So, that's what I did when my boyfriend was, before he died, every weekend we planned  two or three activities, and you know, he'd like to make the decision, so I would pick three things that I would want to do, and I said, "Well there's this, and there's that, and then  there's this. What do you want to do?" And then he would pick, and then he'd say, he said he picked it, but I really picked it. So we go to talks, you know, like, go to presentations, we'd go to openings, we would do movies, you know, we just, it was very varied, but, but now with this problem with, I have a lot of problems walking, so, it's, I have to really pick what I'm, what I'm gonna do.

MARTIE All right, so, I want to know, do you have advice for mothers of aspiring cooks or aspiring chefs? I imagine, that people when they have a child that wants to go into the culinary field, they ask you about it since you were very influential in helping Aarón find his path, do people ask you for advice, and what do you tell them?

ZARELA Well, first of all, I tell them they have to be very well rounded. You know, they have to be informed, they have to develop as a whole person. And then they have to [ 00:30:02] go to culinary school or at least work at every position in the kitchen, you know, so that they get a real feel for what it is. And the most important thing, this was just my first teacher told me, is that I had to develop my own style, because here are millions of chefs, but the ones that really triumph are the ones that have their own style, and I've developed that, you know, so, if people go to a party that I'm catering and then they taste the food, even if I'm not there, they'll say, "Oh, Zarela must be catering." So, it means...

MARTIE Right.

ZARELA So, that's very, very important. And you know, there's a lot of you have to treat your staff a certain way, pay them well, But the most important thing is to find something that you're so passionate about that you cannot live unless you're doing that. 

MARTIE Thanks so much to all of our guests today. Zarela's podcast with her son Aaron Sanchez, Cooking In Mexican from A to Z, can be found wherever you get podcasts. You can also keep up on everything she has going on at Zarela.com, that's z-a-r-e-l-a.com.

Next week, you know her from TV's Sister, Sister but she's also got her own cooking show on YouTube these days. I'm looking forward to welcoming the lovely Tia Mowry to Homemade.TIA MOWRY The reason that I love pickle juice, it's an easy way to brine.  Not to say that brining takes a lot of time and energy, but there's steps to it. But when you have pickle juice, it's just already made for you and it's just loaded with all of that salt and that flavor thit makes your your poultry or whatever, you know, meat that you're cooking nice and tender. And then it also gives it loads of flavor. But like I said, it's an easy way to just take your dish to the next level.