Cookbook serves up Mexican dishes and food for thought


In 1987, Zarela Martinez opened Zarela Restaurant on Ne York's East Side with a goal of familiarizing Americans with what she calls fine dining the modern Mexican way.

Her concept -- blending traditional Mexican cuisine with inventive interpretations of familiar dishes -- has been well-received, and the restaurant's success has led to Ms. Martinez's first cookbook: "Food From My Heart" (Macmillan, $25).

It's a somewhat unorthodox cookbook, as it includes not only recipes but Ms. Martinez's reflections on life and the history of her country. It's what she says people have told her is several books at once.

"It's a memoir, a guide to Mexican culinary basics and a personal recipe collection all interspersed with glimpse-by-glimpse evocations of Mexican life and culture," she said.

Along with 175 recipes, Ms. Martinez has compiled an excellent summary of the ingredients and cooking techniques that form the essence of Mexican cooking. There are menus -- from a make-your-own-taco-party to a ranch breakfast -- and mail-order sources.

"This is a memoir of food as well as life experiences, for the recipes that conclude each chapter mirror my development as a chef as I incorporated my growing knowledge of Mexico's many culinary traditions."

But you might prefer just skipping around and reading about how food is connected with the identity of the Mexican people or beginning with Ms. Martinez's personal story that traces her roots from Chihuahua to New York City.

Here are two recipes from the book:

Mexican-style rice

2 cups long-grain rice

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 medium-size onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

2 large tomatoes, roasted (see note) and peeled

2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

2 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves

Salt to taste

1 to 1 1/2 cups shelled fresh peas (optional)

3 cups hot chicken stock or water

Place rice in a bowl or saucepan, cover with hot water and let soak for 15 minutes. Pour into a colander and rinse with cold running water until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly.

In a heavy, medium-size saucepan or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, heat the oil over medium heat until rippling. Add the rice. Reduce heat slightly and cook, stirring and tossing the rice constantly, for 10 to 12 minutes. At first, it will tend to stick; later it will turn translucent. When ready, the rice will be golden. Drain off as much excess oil as possible.

Puree the onion, tomato, garlic and cilantro in a blender or food processor and add to the rice mixture. Season with salt and cook, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the peas, then stir in the hot chicken stock. Cover tightly and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 15 minutes, remove from the heat and let sit in a warm place, tightly covered, for 8 to 10 minutes before serving. Makes six to eight servings.

Note: To roast a tomato, place it on a heated griddle or cast-iron skillet over high heat -- or under a broiler -- and turn so the skin blisters and blackens all over. Peel off the blackened skin before using. This should be done over a bowl to catch the juice.

Salsa verde de Tampico

8 fresh chilies, either jalapeno or serrano, or to taste, tops removed, halved crosswise

1 medium-size onion, quartered

5 garlic cloves

1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil

1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1 teaspoon powdered chicken stock base

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse until coarsely chopped, then process to desired consistency. (It is best when slightly coarse.) Can be stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, though it will discolor. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

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