When Mely Martínez’s publisher gave her the choice of several release dates for her first book, The Mexican Home Kitchen, it was a no-brainer: Sept. 15. “September 16 is Mexican Independence Day,” she says. “We start celebrating at around 11 p.m. on the 15th, and bells are rung at midnight.”
The book publishing debut for the 60-year-old author is cause for even more celebration for many — including her 63,000-plus devoted followers on Instagram. And here in North Texas, it’s particularly exciting, as Martínez and her family have lived here — in Frisco — since 2015. Her 25-year-old son David Castañeda did all the photography for the book, which is one of the most highly anticipated titles during an unusually highly charged cookbook publishing season. Last week, Eater named The Mexican Home Kitchen one of its Best Cookbooks of Fall 2020.
For Martínez, the publication represents the culmination of 11 years of work.
When she and her husband came to live in the United States in 1991, first in McAllen, Texas, and then in Akron, Ohio, finding the foods she loved cooking back home was a challenge. “In order to buy tortillas, every six months we’d have to go to Chicago,” she says of their time in Akron. For a person who had loved cooking since she was a child, that wasn’t easy.
Born and raised in Tampico, a coastal city in the Gulf state of Tamaulipas, Martínez spent summers on her grandmother’s farm in Veracruz. There, she says, “They cook what they have on hand. My uncles in the evening went out to hunt rabbits, and you knew the next day you’d have rabbit for lunch. If they went to fish in the river, we knew we’d have fish — and whatever my grandmother had planted in her garden.” Her grandmother’s big kitchen with its wood stove was where she loved being, and that’s where she learned to cook.
When Martínez was 20, she became an elementary school teacher and moved to the south. That gave her the opportunity to travel extensively in the Yucatán Peninsula, where she loved exploring the foods. Later, her husband’s work in human resources led them to live in states all over Mexico. Everywhere, she soaked up the cuisines — tasting, exploring markets, cooking the regional dishes.
The second time the couple came to the U.S. to live, in 2003, they landed (with their son) in a suburb of Atlanta. Excitedly they sat down to eat at an “authentic” Mexican restaurant she’d heard about. “And then they brought this enchilada with yellow cheese melted on top, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God — this is not Mexican, They’re killing me!’”
A few years later, in 2008 in Washington, D.C., she met Diana Kennedy, and the renowned cookbook author (who had been living in Mexico and writing about its cuisines for more than half a century) suggested Martínez open her own restaurant. That wasn’t exactly what Martínez wanted to do, but it started her wheels turning. “I realized there were no books written by Mexicans, or by Mexican-Americans,” she says. She sprung an idea: “I’m going to write a book about Mexican recipes so people who are Mexican and have children who don’t speak Spanish can have the recipes in English.”
Martínez started by launching a blog in December of that year — Mexico in My Kitchen. There she features the kinds of dishes people cook at home all over Mexico, particularly in the states where she has lived: Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Veracruz, Puebla, Estado de México, Tabasco and Yucatán. Eleven years later, you can find on the site some 550 recipes — in both English and Spanish.
“It was hard to choose which recipes would be in the book,” she says. Those 85 or so that made the cut were selected based on the interests of her readers over the years. “Most of the readers are Mexicans in the U.S. or other parts of the world, or people who are married to Mexicans who want to cook the food, or the children of Mexicans, because they still remember the food of their mom. They tell me, ‘When I see your recipes it’s like my mom telling me how to do it.’”
One of Martínez’s favorites is Enchiladas Rojas — filled with queso fresco, bathed in a sauce of guajillo and ancho chiles and garnished with more queso fresco and chopped onions. I haven’t made that yet, but I have made (and loved) another of her favorites, the famous cake Pastel de Tres Leches. It’s a denser version than most, not a sponge cake, and requires an overnight rest for the tres leches — condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream or media crema — to soak in properly. The result, topped with vanilla whipped cream, is super luscious. (Find the recipe here.)
I also loved the Pollo a la Veracruzana — which I was attracted to because of Martínez’s formative time spent in the region. It features bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or breasts (I used a combo), which you sear then add to sautéed onion, garlic, diced carrots and potatoes, along with tomato sauce, olives, raisins, capers and herbs. It’s wonderful, easy, ready in about an hour and — as Martínez points out in her headnote — very forgiving and riffable according to the vegetables you have on hand. (Find the recipe here, and a review of the book here.)
This week, in celebration of Mexican Independence Day, pozole will be top of mind for many. Throughout Mexico, says Martínez, it’s “one of the stars” of the holiday, for which people make a much bigger deal than they do for el Cinco de Mayo, she says. Flautas (chicken or beef), tamales, tostadas, empanadas and buñuelos are also popular Mexican Independence Day foods, and to drink, “Some people will make atole. In Central Mexico, where it’s cooler, champurrado.” (Atole is a cornmeal drink; champurrado is Mexican hot chocolate.)
“Here in Dallas, there is a large community of Mexican women,” Martínez says. Every year on the night of the 15th, she gathers with them to celebrate. “We call it the Mexican night. In Mexico, the President yells ‘¡Viva México!’ And people say, ‘¡Viva la Revolución! And ¡Viva Benito Juárez!’”
Now we have plenty of her recipes to keep us busy and well fed — starting with cooking up a big pot of pozole rojo to celebrate with on Thursday night.
Or whenever — it’s a great thing have on the stove anytime during the autumn or winter.
Meet Mely (virtually)
DMN Download is partnering with Cooks Without Borders to host a virtual cookbook release party to celebrate Mely Martínez and her debut cookbook The Mexican Home Kitchen: Traditional Home-Style Recipes That Capture the Flavors and Memories of Mexico. Join Dallas Morning News Food Editor Erin Booke, Leslie Brenner and guest of honor Mely Martínez on Thursday, Sept. 24 from 5 to 6 p.m. for a festive chat about Mexican cooking followed by a Q&A. There will be exciting giveaways — including two signed copies of Mely’s cookbook, plus a traditional molcajete and a beautiful Mexican cazuela care of Ancient Cookware (a website specializing in traditional cooking pieces).
Pozole Rojo (Red Pozole)
For the soup:
4 quarts water
2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into cubes
1 pound pork spare ribs or baby back ribs
1 white onion, cut into quarters
8 large cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 cans (15 to 15.5 ounces each) white hominy, drained and rinsed
For the red sauce:
5 guajillo chiles, sliced open, seeded and veins removed
5 ancho chiles, sliced open, seeded and veins removed
6 cloves garlic
1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
Salt to taste
For garnishing and serving:
1 head iceberg lettuce, finely shredded
1 ½ cups finely chopped white onion
Crushed dried piquin chiles
1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
Dried Mexican oregano
Limes, cut into wedges
To make the soup: Place the water, pork shoulder, spare ribs, onion and garlic in a very large stockpot over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and let simmer, skimming off the foam that forms on the surface , partially covered, for 2 ½ hours, or until the meat is tender and falling off the bones. Season with the salt when the meat is almost done cooking.
Remove the pork shoulder and spare ribs from the pot, trim any excess fat and remove any bones. Remove and discard the garlic and onion from the broth. Strain the broth and return it to the pot. Shred the pork with two forks and return it to the pot.
While the pork cooks, make the red sauce: Soak the guajillo and ancho peppers in just enough hot water to cover them for 25 to 30 minutes, until they are soft. Drain them and add them to the jar of a blender, along with the garlic, onion, oregano, and about 1 cup of cooking broth or water. Blend until smooth.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the sauce and salt to taste. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly, and with care not to splatter. Reduce the heat to medium, and continue simmering for about 25 minutes.
Strain the sauce into the broth, using a wooden spoon to force the thick liquid through the strainer if necessary. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium, cover and gently simmer about 10 minutes. Stir in the hominy, season with salt and pepper to taste and simmer until all the ingredients are heated through.
Serve the pozole in large Mexican soup bowls and place the garnishes in serving dishes for everyone to add to their own bowls.
SOURCE: The Mexican Home Kitchen by Mely Martínez