My Mom's Sopa Seca: Aaron Sanchez's Food Memories with his Mom

It's always fascinating to learn where a chef first got his roots in cooking. We often think that it's easy to follow in the culinary footsteps of a parent when the path has already been laid down for you; but in fact it could be quite the opposite if you want to make your own path and impression in the culinary world. This was just the case for Nuevo Latino Chef Aaron Sanchez.

What some don't know about Food Network's and Centrico's talented chef is that his mother, Zarela Martinez, too is a Mexican cuisine icon in her own right. Having written three cookbooks and opened her own famed restaurant in New York City, Zarela's, Aaron wanted to veer away from his mother's influence in cooking and form his own footprint in dining. Yet, he remains ever thankful for his mother's support and inspiration (case in point, Aaron's Letter to Mom).

We caught up with Chef Aaron while he shared with us some food memories of his beloved mother, Zarela Martinez...

What was it like to grow up in the culinary footsteps of your mom, Zarela?

It was difficult, actually! I had to come up from her shadow and I wanted to make my food different from hers, that's why I headed more towards Nuevo Latino instead of just Mexican cuisine. In my culture, it's very easy and logical to follow your father's career footsteps, but not so much your mother's. So I wanted to make my mark as a man, and it's nothing chauvinistic because I still celebrate her and she's my inspiration, but I wanted to prove that cooking was my calling, too.

What is your favorite food memory of your mother?

Ha! I remember when we were living in the Upper West Side, we lived in a small apartment and my mom was making mole and to make a proper mole you have to toast the chilies. I just remember the whole apartment filling with smoke and almost smoking out the entire building. Everyone thought we were burning down the building, but we had to explain that we were just smoking the chilies!

What was your favorite dish that your mom cooked for you?

My favorite was definitely her sopa seca, which is a Mexican-style risotto. It was so good, I just remember asking for her to make it all the time!

Check out a video of Chef Aaron cooking with his mom Zarela below...

What's your favorite food memory with your mom?

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Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Sanchez

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Aaron Sanchez on Cinco de Mayo

Tomorrow marks the day where the colors red, white, and green can be seen flying over many restaurants, and items like Flautas, Micheladas, and Tres Leches seep into menus everywhere. While many Americans have finally figured out that Cinco de Mayo is not actually Mexico's Independence Day, few still know what it really stands for. Cinco de Mayo is actually a celebration of Mexico's unexpected victory over France in the 1862 Battle of Puebla.

But to get an even better idea of this much celebrated festivity as well as Mexican cuisine in general, we went to he who knows best, our good friend Chef Aaron Sanchez. He shared with us some insight of what Cinco de Mayo means to him and a new view into Mexican cuisine.

Here's what he shared with us...

What does Cinco de Mayo mean to you?

For me personally...well, my sister married a French guy so it's the time of year where I get to give him a lot of crap for the Mexicans beating the French in Puebla! Ha ha...so I like to bust his chops on Cinco de Mayo. But seriously, it means a lot of things to me. Although it's a celebration of one of the biggest battles in Mexican history, it's also a time to celebrate your identity and pride as a Mexican. It was the perfect example of how a more powerful army and country was defeated by a smaller unexpected force, like Mexico.

It's also about remembering what Mexico fought for. All of the food that we cook on that day is representative of Puebla, for instance the Chiles en Nogadas (stuffed chiles with walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds) which has every color of the Mexican flag in it.

Aside from that, it's also another opportunity for me to be thankful. Of course, it's the busiest day of the year for me at my restaurants and I'm very grateful for that! I'm extremely grateful that the culture and food of my country has provided a living for me and my family, and this is a great day to remember that.

Marcus tells us that you taught him all about the culture and food of Vera Cruz, Mexico. How is it different from other Mexican cities?

Recently, Marcus and I really had a chance to talk about Mexican cuisine and he was just blown away by it from his last trip there and the many influences of just this one region. Vera Cruz is where Cortez first landed in 1519 and where the Spanish brought African slaves, so apart from the Spanish and indigenous influences, there is also a heavy African influence as well. For me, the food from Vera Cruz transcends regions.

The Europeans brought with them their foods which mixed with the native ingredients, as did the Africans who brought over peanuts, black eyed peas, greens, and yucca which eventually found its way into the foods that we consider traditional Mexican food today. So Vera Cruz truly became the cross cultural melting pot and mecca for all of these many heritages.

If you wanted the world to know just one thing about Mexican cuisine, what would that be?

I'd love for the world to know that Mexican cuisine encompasses so many different influences and cultures. It's a mix between of all its settlers and inhabitants, from Spanish to indigenous, French, German, African and many, many others. The food is distinct in each of the 32 states and all of its marvel cannot be summed up into just one type of food.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Sanchez

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10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Mexican Food

By:Justin Chan

The Wall Street Journal recently paid tribute to the power of Mexican food in America by running an article that lists several fun facts that you might find interesting (you can find them below). The piece was published in concurrence with Taco Bell's 50th anniversary last month.  While Taco Bell cannot be classified as traditional Mexican food, it is undoubtedly a fast food version that Americans, particularly the hungry and on-a-budget college students, seem to like.

Taco Bell, in fact, is one of many chain restaurants that helped put Mexican cuisine on the map. Chipotle Mexican Grill is also gaining prominence, as more and more Americans try to satiate their growing desire for the Central American cookery. Although such chains have made Mexican cuisine trendy, the roots of Mexican food in the United States can be traced as far back as the 1800s. Tex-Mex food, for instance, originated during that period, and the term "Tex-Mex" was first coined in 1875, when the Texas Mexican Railway was chartered. Since its creation, Tex-Mex food has incorporated influences from Spain, Mexico and South Texas and has spread across the country. Although it is generally described as a regional American cuisine, it was created by Mexican Americans who borrowed largely from the Mexican food culture.

Here are some other facts you probably didn't know:

1. Taco Bell may have popularized tacos, but the history of tacos dates back to the Mexican Revolution, when refugees brought the food to the United States.

2. Tortillas were once canned. During the 1980s, many Americans could only find canned tortillas, a creation that can be attributed to El Paso's George N. Ashley. Ashley first sold the product in 1938 and had some success, but his creation can no longer be found on supermarket shelves today.

3. Fajitas were made famous by Ninfa's, a restaurant managed by Rio Grande Valley native Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo. In fact, the dish was so appealing that chains like El Torito and Chi-Chi's sent spies to steal the recipe.

4. The invention of the nacho can be credited to Ignacio Anaya, a chef in Piedras Negras, Mexico. Anaya initially made the snack for military housewives who went shopping on the holidays. The concept, however, gained popularity in the late 1970s, when Frank Liberto, a concessionaire in San Antonio, decided to sell nachos at Arlington Stadium.

5. Disneyland played a role in the invention of Doritos. In the early 1960s, Mexican workers at the theme park's restaurant fried leftover tortillas and added flavoring to help create the now-popular brand.

6. America's first Mexican-food celebrity was not Mexican. A man by the name of Buffalo Bill Cody earned the unique recognition after he started a Mexican restaurant outside of Madison Square Garden in 1886.

7. The first official American fans of Mexican food were members of the military. In 1879, the War Department agreed to allow San Antonio canners to feed its soldiers chile con carne.

8. The earliest margaritas were made in a rigged soft-serve ice-cream machine. In 1971, Mariano Martinez used the machine to blend a prefabricated mix stored in a Spackle bucket and create the beverage.

9. In 1966, two New York housewives operated an early version of the taco truck. Although the truck did not have a full kitchen, it was available for catering.

10. Some accredit the popularity of Mexican cuisine to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. During the fair, tamaleros from San Francisco would roam the area and promote their food.

What's your favorite Mexican dish?

Photo: rdpeyton 

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"To Die For" Lunch at Taqueria de los Muertos

By: Allana Mortell

When I first moved to New York, I began the dreaded apartment search. My roommate and I checked out a billion different places - some with tiny kitchens and mini-fridges and some with bedrooms better fitted for a dollhouse - you name it, we saw it. One of the biggest deal breakers for me was apartment proximity to food. The broker we were then dealing with kept telling us how up & coming Prospect Heights, Brooklyn was. As we walked around the neighborhood, we giggled in delight as we passed restaurant by restaurant by restaurant - many open late (another of my "deal breakers").

I first saw Taqueria de los Muertos on a whim,  walking by the restaurant on our way to look at another apartment. Though I knew nothing about the restaurant, the name stuck with me and I knew I had to go back. So, three weeks later, on a beautiful too-sunny-for-March-day, I ventured over to Prospect Heights, so excited and so hungry.

Living in New York is expensive, there's no doubt about it; so many restaurants these days charge outrageous amounts of money for plates of food smaller than any tapas restaurant I know. I walk out of those "hip, new restaurants," with holes in my pocket and my stomach still grumbling. So, I walked into Taqueria de los Muertos with a ten-dollar bill,  hoping for the best. I eventually left so full of food and unbelievably satisfied that the employees and my friends could've rolled me on out down the street, seeing as after the meal, I could barely move.

When you first walk into Taqueria, the decor will undoubtedly catch your eye. Down the corridor towards the kitchen, the white walls are adorned with probably a hundred tiny skulls plastered all over. "De los muertos" simply translates to "of the dead," which I have to assume is in relation to Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a holiday celebrated in Mexico to pray for and remember those who have passed. The tiny skulls were cool but even cooler were the larger ones and decorated ones hanging from all the different walls surrounding the small yet cozy restaurant. Who knew that they were an indicator of the "to-die-for" meal that I was about to have.

As I approached the menu, I almost squealed in delight. One of my favorite things on the planet is corn on the cob. Sure, it's usually slathered in butter but I absolutely love it and when its charred black from the grill, it's even better. You can't find corn on the cob on every menu; often you find it at street fairs or carnivals when its most authentic served hands-on, super messy. When I saw I could pay 3 bucks for maiz chanclado - grilled corn with chipotle mayo and cojita cheese, I literally lost my mind. Done and done!

The corn came served on a plate, covered in cheese. Though upon taking the first bite, it wasn't over-done or heavy, it was just right amount of cheese to lightly coat the corn while still getting a saucy bite from the spicy mayo. As I chomped my way down the cob, ever so gracefully, the toasty kernels were still the highlight of the dish, not overpowered by its accompaniments. The dish was buttery, spicy and honestly, one of the best things I have ever had.

Next came the fish tacos. I decided on the masa harina catfish, which is whitefish coated with "dough flour", or masa harina. To make the flour, which is the same traditional flour used to make tortillas or tamales, corn maize is dried and then treated in a solution of lime and water. The soaked maize is then dried and ground to make a dough. Alongside the fish was shredded cabbage in the prettiest color purple I've ever seen. It was crunchy, bright and a touch on the sweet side. Inside the taco was a lime cilantro sour cream with sprinklings of pico de gallo which added another dimension to the dish. The taco was folded more like a burrito, which I found very intriguing yet delightful. The best part about that is when you're finishing up, you always have that last bite which is always the best because you get to taste all the sauce, juices and last bites of cabbage and fish, the medley of flavors shining right at the end.

You truly get more than what you pay for at Taqueria de los Muertos. It's been a good few days since my meal at Taqueria and I'm still thinking about how good the food was, always a good indicator of a great restaurant. Though we didn't end up signing any leases in Prospect Heights, I now have two great reasons to head back to a fantastic and reasonably priced restaurant.

Taqueria de los Muertos is located at 663 Washington between Prospect Place and St. Marks. They're open 12-10 Monday to Friday, 10-11 on Saturday and 10-10 on Sunday.

Photos: Allana Mortell

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Street Food Focus: Churros

By: Allana Mortell

In a city of thirteen million people with over 20,000 restaurants to choose from, there are still some days I find myself unsure of what I want to eat. I'll walk by a restaurant and browse the menu, but end up leaving because I either need to "save my pennies" or realistically, look for something quick, cheap and on-the-go.  And since my sweet tooth always overpowers my other taste buds, I often find myself wandering the streets, running after that distinctive smell of butter, sugar and cinnamon. Enter, the churro.

With their crisp, shimmering, golden-brown outsides and soft, gooey insides, the churro is a characteristic Spanish dessert whose popularity has enormously grown over the past years.  A typical churro is made from the basics - flour, water, sugar, eggs and vanilla - however, their shape is all unique. After being piped from a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle, the pastry dough is then lightly fried in vegetable oil and finished off with a traditional coating of cinnamon and sugar.

The origin of the churro proves especially interesting, since there has been long debate over who actually discovered this fried treat. Though legend does state that Spanish shepherds first developed the churro, there are other stories saying the Portuguese sailors brought the churro over from Northern China, where it was originally called "You Tiao." Regardless, popularity quickly spread of this fried pastry that could be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dessert or simply as a quick and tasty snack.

Given the plain nature of the traditional dessert, the options are seemingly endless in playing with different flavor combinations for the churro. Originally, the Spanish churro was the size of a breadstick with no outer ridges and either eaten plain or rolled with cinnamon sugar. Now, in Spain, there are two separate kinds of this pastry, the churro that is generally more thin and fluted and the porra, a longer, thicker version, never folded and often commonly found in Madrid. Both are always crunchy on the outside with a soft center and depending on the region, sugar and cinnamon may be sprinkled on top.

In Cuba, churros are served with guava, a type of fruit filling whereas in Chile, Argentina and Brazil they are served with dulce de leche and finally, in Spain and all over the United States, churros are best served next to a piping hot cup of thick, rich chocolate or "churros con chocolate," as we all say. In Spain, Mexico and the Philippines, its tradition to serve churros as breakfast or an afternoon snack, often sold by street vendors or even from carts in amusement parks.

Now, you can imagine my surprise during the first week I arrived in New York and saw churros being sold from a cart at the bottom of a dirty subway platform. I ventured over, hungry as always and was pleasantly surprised to see how much bang I was actually getting for my buck. Color me shocked that the four quarters I had steeped in my pockets  bought me three whole churros doused in cinnamon sugar, ready to be absolutely devoured. Turns out, I wasn't the only churro-lover patron in this subway radius. Within two minutes, trains came and left and over 15 people stopped to grab some fried sugary dough.

These days, however, random subway stops and street vendors aren't the only staples in the city to find authentic churros. Recently, La Churreria in Nolita opened and has gained quite the cult following for selling homemade churros for a price slightly rivaling its subway-selling counterparts. For 3 bucks, you can snag 3 churros or for 10 bucks, grab 8.

So whether you're in the neighborhood or racing up (or down) those subway steps, beware of those churros carts. You'll be surprised how quickly your one-dollar bills slowly start to disappear.

Photo: Ken Stein and cherrypatter 

For more street food stories, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)