She is the host of “Pati’s Mexican Table,” a national TV series on PBS that makes traditional Mexican cooking accessible to everyone. Entering its fifth season, the show was recently nominated for two James Beard Awards for Best Culinary Series in a Fixed Location and Best Culinary Host. Pati is also the author of several cookbooks, including Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens, published in 2016.
You come from a family of accomplished cooks and food maniacs.
I’m the youngest of four girls. All of my sisters jumped into the food world very young, and they all live in Mexico City. The oldest is a caterer and cooking teacher; the next is a pastry chef who has also run several restaurants; and the third became vegetarian and then vegan and writes about this. Food has always been a center of conversation for all of us.
What is your goal with the TV show?
I want to show people that cooking healthy can be easy and simple. I like to introduce people to ingredients they don’t know, like tomatillos, although now they are more mainstream, and I want to teach them how to buy and store these ingredients. Instead of just recipes, I like to tell people about ingredients they’re about to use so that they’re empowered to use them in their kitchen. It’s like adding a new tool for cooking.
What are some of your favorite things about Mexican cuisine?
My most favorite thing is that it is so accessible and accommodating. It’s just a friendly cuisine, and the techniques and principles of preparing it are very common sense. The real Mexican cuisine isn’t what people tend to think, like Tex-Mex. What Mexicans eat in their homes is very easy, freshly made from scratch meals with a lot of grains, beans, vegetables and fruits. Their diet is not very meat heavy.
Is cheese a prominent ingredient?
Not really. It’s a funny thing because many think our dishes are very heavy on melted cheese. But when cheese is used, it’s fresh, low-fat cheeses like queso fresco or Oaxaca cheese.
Please share some of the common ingredients in traditional Mexican meals.
Tomatillos; fresh chiles; fresh tomatoes; white onions; scallions; herbs like cilantro and parsley; lot of fruits like avocado; zucchini; asparagus; chayote squash; jicama; giant corn, potatoes; beans such as black, pinto, lentils, fava and chickpeas.
How about spices?
People usually think Mexican food is very spicy, heavy on chiles. There are dozens of chiles, fresh and dried, and most are not that spicy. Ancho and bell peppers, for example, barely have any heat. Chiles are used more as a vegetable than a condiment. We stuff them, and add them to salads and soups. Other spices are usually very complex and are added judiciously. When I add cumin, for example, it’s in pinches versus big spoonfuls.
What does the phrase “culture of food” mean to you?
It’s the backbone of what you’re eating: inherited stories, techniques, the meaning of the food. It’s so much more than dicing and chopping. It has meaning because it’s been passed down for generations; for example, in Mexico it’s tamales for Christmas. The meaning behind food makes cooking and eating it so much more than just the basic meal.
Try one of Pati’s delicious recipes: Crepe Enchiladas with Corn, Rajas and Squash in Avocado Tomatillo Sauce.