We’re always looking for ways to level-up our at-home Mexican food. Whether we’re trying to make a spicy, umami-packed salsa roja or filling our kitchens with the fragrant smell of sizzling fajitas, we’re always keen on making our dishes taste better. If we can pull that off while at the same time inching closer to authenticity, then we really get hyped.
With that aim, we linked up with award-winning chef, tv-personality, author, and owner of New Orleans’ Johnny Sánchez, Chef Aarón Sánchez. As part of Hispanic Heritage month — which runs from September 15th through October 15th — the chef has partnered with Hispanic food brand Cacique to provide recipes and video tutorials on how to bring the authentic flavors of Mexico into your kitchen. But we wanted to go deeper so we put the Food Network star on the spot about everything from how to build the perfect taco to a breakdown of the various Mexican cheeses to the one thing Americans need to stop doing to their guacamole.
Let’s dive in!
Let’s start it off with some of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to make Mexican food at home?
Stop using unripe avocado. All it takes is a little bit of preparation to get your avocados ready to use. Stick them in a paper bag and leave them out on your counter for a few days in advance and voila, you’ll have that perfect creamy texture and flavor.
Stop using inauthentic ingredients. For example, when selecting a cheese for your recipe, in place of inauthentic options like cheddar, opt for traditional Mexican staples like Queso Fresco – the most popular Mexican-style cheese. Plus, going out to different neighborhoods and finding different/ethnic grocery stores is always a great idea. You can get to know different areas of your town or city while connecting more deeply with cultures by going to authentic stores where you’ll find exciting ingredients like an array of dried chiles to select from.
And stop being wasteful. Don’t toss it, use it all! Zest your limes before squeezing for the juice. Use the stems of your cilantro, save your veggie peels/scraps and bones in a ziplock bag and store in the freezer throughout the week to make stock on weekends that you can use for meals in the week to come. Using everything to create more flavor and stretch ingredients to make them useful for multiple meals is key, especially these days.
You’re a lover of spicy foods — what are your favorites types of salsa and which one should we start making at home?
I’m a big fan of doing salsa cruda, which is where you don’t roast any of the vegetables. I think that’s a good one. Taking the staple ingredients like jalapeño, onion, cilantro, beautiful ripe tomatoes, and just letting that speak for itself, maybe add some lime juice at the end — not being too fussy about measurements.
If you want to go the cooked salsa route, maybe chili guajillo or chile arbol for heat, with some garlic cloves. Pureeing that and simply using that as a base with a touch of vinegar, that’s a very simple straightforward hot sauce that anyone can make.
You spent time as a chef in San Francisco, Baltimore, New Orleans, New York City — all great food cities. If you had to choose a favorite, which city are you going with?
They’ve all added a lot to my culinary journey at different times of my career, but I have to say it was really exciting to be in San Francisco in the late ‘90s. It was right at the cusp of the dot-com boom and there were a lot of restaurants that were really doing the farm to table thing before it was popular and so en vogue. That was something that was really impressed upon me as a young cook, that was a really special time in San Francisco, just to see the diversity and the availability of product. But when it comes to New York City… that’s where I was brought up.
I think a lot of people would agree but it’s the best food city anywhere in the world. New York is where I laid my bones and had my first restaurant, my mom had a restaurant there for 30 years, so New York for me would have to be at the top.
I read that a lot of your cooking was heavily inspired by your mother and your grandmother. What do they still do better than you?
Hah, well they do everything better! Sadly my grandmother is passed for some time now, but I think the idea of doing traditional techniques and highlighting authentic ingredients is something my grandmother and my mom have really instilled in me as a cook and as a chef. I always gravitate towards ingredients that don’t need to be manipulated, that need to have space to shine on their own. Also, they act as a bridge and a conduit to my culture.
That’s a big reason why I’ve worked with Cacique — they’re a family-owned company and one of the leading Hispanic food brands in the country because they believe in the same principles that I do, the way I was brought up and grown. That link to authenticity.
Speaking of authenticity, I want to get your take on the molcajete. Do we all need one in our kitchens? I know the answer is yes, but I’m excited to hear you speak on it.
Absolutely! The molcajete is a very romantic tool that is used a lot in Mexican cooking. My mom told me this wonderful story that when there is a bride to be in Mexico it’s very typical for an older woman to pass down her molcajete to the soon to be bride, because the idea is that that molcajete has been “amansado” or seasoned and broken in and there is a lot of stories and great energies surrounding that molcajete if you get one passed down.
It’s very similar to a cast-iron skillet in the United States that your grandma might’ve made fried chicken or biscuits in or whatever, it has that same sort of levity and importance.
Could you give us a quick rundown of Mexican cheeses? I feel like when people want to describe Mexican cheeses they tend to describe them by their American counterparts when that’s not really fair or accurate.
The idea of a Monterey Jack cheese is what you would call in Mexico “queso blanco.” My family is from the North of Mexico and there is this huge Mennonite community and they would make this white cheese that somehow became Monterey Jack. Monterey is in the North of Mexico so it kind of got more of a generic moniker, but as far as talking about authentic cheeses, you gotta go with queso fresco ranchero.
Queso fresco is the most popular cheese in Mexico. It’s used as an accent, it adds a beautiful freshness and creaminess.
Then you have your queso cotija which I call my “seasoning cheese,” which has a very sharp saltiness to it that really elevates a lot of dishes. I actually like to use it on pasta to finish rather than a pecorino or parmesan.
Then you have the beautiful melting cheeses like the Queso Oaxaca, panela, all those different subsections of stringy high water content cheeses that melt beautifully.
The best rule of thumb is to taste them on their own, understand their flavor profile and purposes, and start implementing them in traditional dishes. That’ll help you know Mexican cheeses.
What has been the go-to quarantine snack that you’ve been throwing together around the house?
I’m always really engaged in what trends are in food. Especially right now — because we are in quarantine we have the chance to reflect. So lets rescue family recipes, or think about cooking one-pot dishes. I really believe that the next trend people are going to explore is homestyle flavors, making complex multipurpose sauces at home that can be used on multiple dishes.
Right now, I’m in love with this ragu, it has onions and carrots and mushrooms and is slow-braised with tomatoes, and Cacique Pork Chorizo really adds this beautiful seasoning and aromatic spices and then you put some ground beef in there as well and you serve that with some cheesy crispy toast points, that’s a recipe I keep making at home that my family loves.
View this post on Instagram
@johnnysanchezrestaurant is celebrating Friday Faux Fest! We’re serving up a @jazzfest staple for the hospitality workers in New Orleans… crawfish enchiladas! Stop by at 3300 Gravier today for the best fest bites!! @blueoakbbq @juniorsonharrison @deucepigalow @hogsforthecause #fauxfest #TGIF #jazzfest
Can you run us through what your definition of a perfect taco is?
When you think about tacos I think about them in three components. The tortilla is the base, whether its corn or flour. If its beef, or lamb, or mutton, it should go in a flour tortilla, because it has a little bit more body and it allows it to hold up to those braised flavors. Then you have your fillings, whether its a braise or carne asada or fish, that’s the center point. Then you have your salsa or garnish, whether that’s a roasted tomatillo salsa, or roasted tomato salsa, or a beautiful fresh chopped salsa. Then garnish with pickled onions, cabbage, pickled jalapeños, whatever you’re into, but the flavors need to work in synergy and harmony.
What are some Mexican ingredients that everyone should have as a pantry staple?
Beautiful crema Mexicana. You can use that for dressings or to finish dishes, or use it in a sweet capacity by serving it over fresh berries. You have to have a really great cheese a good seasoning cheese like a cotija or a queso fresco. Then make sure you have tons of cilantro, lime, all those things that wake up the palate. Pickle some chilis too!
It’s not hard to pickle chilis, just go to a farmers market, pick up some chilis, equal parts water, sugar, vinegar, and whatever spices you want and you have pickled vegetables very easily.
View this post on Instagram
Today I'm sharing one of the recipes that is featured in my new memoir, #WhereIComeFrom: Tio Mario's Famous Chili Con Carne Colorado-Style Burritos. When Tio Mario and I first moved to New York together, I traveled often. Since I was usually pretty run down, Tio took it upon himself to do some of the cooking, and when I’d come home, he always had this dish ready for me. Link in my Stories now.
What do you think is a food trend that exists in Mexico that hasn’t popped off here in the States that we should start exploring?
If you go to a market place in Mexico you will see a lot of these countertop restaurants that have two or three items on the menu and are made specifically for the workers. We’re gonna start seeing more of that here. Homestyle casual restaurants that will not only cater to the Hispanic Latin community but cater to a larger audience. The way that we can continue to share aspects of our culture is by bringing home out to the masses
The way we eat at home should be shared with people in a restaurant setting.
Here in the states we have an obsession with guacamole, but that’s not the only way to utilize an avocado, what are some other ways?
If you go to Mexico you’ll see a salsa called Salsa Taquero which is basically a puree of avocado with chili, maybe some cilantro. You can tempura avocado and dip that in a nice creamy Mexican spiced sauce with some chipotle and boom that would be brilliant.
As far as guacamole though, don’t refrigerate your avocados, serve it room temperature and don’t overwork it, and never ever put raw garlic in your guacamole!
What other food cultures really inspire you outside of Mexican food?
Anything that has an abundance of flavor. Thai food, Vietnamese, I love Korean food because of all the different pickles, the bbq culture, marinated meats, I’m a huge fan of that.
When I cook at home I gravitate towards a little bit of Italian, some Lebanese cooking. Mexico is a huge melting pot, we have a big Lebanese community in Mexico, so you’ll see a lot of those dishes represented in Mexican cooking. I love those fresh Mediterranean flavors.
This question is a bit more personal but it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about during quarantine as we become increasingly detached from our family. What advice do you have for second, third, fourth-generation Mexican Americans, on staying close to our Mexican roots?
Cuando pierdas la lengua pierdes tu patria. When you lose your tongue, you lose your country. Keep up with your Spanish. When I grew up parents didn’t want their children to be viewed as immigrants, so they only spoke English at home, but that narrative is no longer relevant.
Keep up with your Spanish, travel to Mexico, immerse yourself, visit where your family is from in Mexico, visit your ancestor’s village. Celebrate your legacy through food. That’s the best way to do it.