PBS Chef Daisy Martinez Wants to Change Your (Food) Life

April Peveteaux

One of the most delightful new chefs on television, Daisy Martinez, is teaching those of us not blessed with an Abuela how to keep our home filled with Latin flavor without calling for delivery. I spoke with Daisy, my fellow Brooklynite, and she inspired me to get a good gadget, taught me all about sofrito, and even gave me tips on the best local eats! Can I tell you how much I love this lady?

Here’s what Daisy taught me:

Before you studied at the French Culinary Institute, who taught you to love cooking?

That distinction would definitely go to my mother and my grandmother. These were women who were very comfortable in the kitchen. They loved feeding their family and nurturing their family from the heart of the home. The kitchen was definitely identified as my happy place very, very early on.

One of the earliest memories that triggers feelings of love and security is of my mother breaking open something hot and blowing on it so I wouldn’t burn my mouth. What says love better than that?

Latin foods are one of those genres that you enjoy at a restaurant; you don’t make it at home. Is it your goal to have the rest of us also cooking Latin food as if we were natives?

Absolutely! Here in the United States when you think of Latin food the mindset automatically goes to – and it’s not even authentic Mexican – Tex Mex food. As good as that stuff is, (because, hey who doesn’t like a nice crispy taco?) the truth of the matter is that authentic Mexican cooking is so much more than that and so much more varied than that, even from region to region.

I’m going to dispel the notion that that’s all that Latin food is. When you think of all the different countries that comprise Latin America -- and not even including Spain, -- that’s a whole lot of stuff. Climate, and oceans and the seafood, the produce . . . it’s incredibly varied.

The other aspect: The people who claim ownership of this food, who grew up with these recipes, are going to feel such an incredible sense of validation and pride to see their culture, their food, their whole vibe being presented in a positive manner.

What’s the biggest misperception about Latin foods?

Latin food is spicy.

Again, to use Mexico as an example: The food of one region of Mexico might be spicy and in another region of Mexico it might be more citrusy or acid-based. In Puerto Rico we like heat. In Cuba, not so much. In Spain there isn’t a whole lot of heat happening either. That’s the big misconception; that you equate Latin food with hot. It can be. And when it is, it’s lots of fun. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be.

What’s the most important ingredient in Puerto Rican dishes?

Sofrito -- I can say that without blinking an eye.

Sofrito is an aromatic puree. Think of it like the New Orleans Holy Trinity.

We use onion, garlic, sometimes tomato, and sweet bell peppers. The defining herbs in Puerto Rico’s sofrito is culantro. The Vietnamese call it sawtooth parsley but it’s like cilantro times ten with a note of black pepper. It’s truly delicious.

In Cuba they use cilantro, in Spain they use thyme. In Mexico they’ll use epazote, which is a really interesting herb, a cousin of mint. I found that if you mix three parts cilantro, one part mint you approximate the flavor of epazote pretty well. My mouth just watered!

Depending on those defining herbs, you can tell where the sofrito is from.

What’s the best dish for a busy parent to add to their repertoire?

A good roast chicken goes a long way because you can stretch it for two or three meals. If you braise it in a sofrito based tomato sauce with some potatoes in there and serve a nice vegetable on the side you’ve got a great dinner. That same chicken, you dice up the white meat and make a nice salad for the next day. Then you use those bones for stock for a soup.

You learn to make a roast chicken well and you’re set.

What is your signature dish?

The pernil and the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) ranks up there. The rice with pigeon peas is my grandmother’s recipe and there is never a time when I don’t serve this -- even to old-timers -- they’ll always look at me and say, “This tastes like my mother’s.” Which is the best compliment anybody could ever give me.

Whenever you’re cooking on your show, you use canned beans. It’s refreshing not to have you recommend soaking the beans overnight.

You don’t have that luxury every night. You have to be generous with yourself and opt on the side of good reason.

Canned beans are an option. A packet of mystery spice, not so much. You rinse your beans, you get rid of the most of the goop that’s on them and you proceed as normal. Not that stuff that you can’t pronounce that has twenty-six letters and four numbers. I’m a mom and I don’t want to feed that to my kids.

What is the one kitchen gadget everyone should have?

I can’t live without my micro plane. With the micro plane you can zest any citrus, you can grate cheese on it. It’s like my raft.

One more question. I was watching your show this morning when you were making tostones (fried plantains). Did you say, “It’s so good it makes you want to beat your mama?”

Yeah, I’m sorry. But you want to smack somebody! If your mama happens to be the one sitting next to you, she’s in a whole lot of trouble.

You, too, can benefit from Daisy's wisdom by picking up her new book, Daisy: Morning, Noon and Night: Bringing Your Family Together With Everyday Latin Dishes, and watching Daisy Cooks! on PBS.

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