Vitals: Award-winning chef Aarón Sánchez – he with the big personality and friendly demeanor – seems to be on the Food Network nearly every hour these days. The Texan-born, New York City-based culinary personality stars on multiple Food Network shows including Chef vs. City, Chopped and Best Thing I Ever Ate (just to name a few) while juggling duties as the executive chef and co-owner of New York City hotspot Centrico and Kansas City outpost Mestizo. As one of the country’s landmark chefs pioneering the contemporary Mexican food movement, Sánchez has also written two cookbooks – “La Comida del Barrio” and latest release, “Simple Food, Big Flavor” – which showcase his signature fresh and sexy culinary style.
Experience: Sánchez grew in the kitchens of esteemed “Queen of Mexican Food,” Zarela Martinez. Martinez – who wrote what many consider the “bible” on her native cuisine, cooked for a dazzling array of international dignitaries and who hosted a renowned PBS culinary series on the food of Veracruz – helped establish the refined Mexican food movement in the United States. Sánchez earned his culinary stripes assisting his mother at her catering business and following their move from Texas to New York City as a teen, helped her at her first New York City restaurant, Café Marimba. The 36-year-old – who calls New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme one of his earliest mentors – attended prestigious Johnson & Wales University as a culinary student. While in his 20s, he worked under Douglas Rodriguez at his Nuevo Latino restaurant, Patria. After stints working at Erizo Latino, L-Ray and Isla, Sanchez took off for San Francisco where he worked in the kitchen at Rose Pistola. He opened his first restaurant, Paladar, in New York City in 2001. He currently owns two restaurants and plans to expand his empire with new concept restaurants in upstate New York, Miami and Louisiana.
In defense of Nuevo Latino cuisine: “I cook contemporary Mexican food, taking really traditional Latino dishes and then changing them ever so slightly with contemporary technique and great ingredients. I don’t believe in fusion, because I believe in the cultural integrity and significance of my dishes. I never, ever blindly combine things. But the thing with my food is that it’s really directed towards memory and nostalgia. That traditional food represents a feeling or a time in your life. And Nuevo Latino cuisine honors that tradition by keeping those memories alive but moving them forward through self-expression.”
On creating his own version of the “Motorcycle Diaries”: “My biggest challenge right learning how to ride a motorcycle for a new show I’m doing on Fox’s Spanish language channel, Utilisima. It’s all about me hitting the road on a bike in search of the best home cooks and recipes. We’re going across parts of Latin America, the Texas border and Mexico, getting down on these bikes to experience the country and the food. But the thing with that is that I’m a car guy and have no idea how to ride a bike. I have a ’68 Lincoln and I’m all about that low rider, Chicano thing that I enjoy. But a bike? I’m scared in the sense that I don’t want to look like a poser, so I’m getting some help learning how to ride. It’s going to be awesome, a modern-day horse to go on the ultimate food adventure and see the world.”
Ingredients he’s excited about these days: “My favorite right now is huitlacoche [a type of blue fungus that grows on the ears of corn]. It’s really luscious, exotic and one of nature’s beautiful accidents that thanks to new cultivating techniques, is more available than ever before. Native ingredients like hoja santa [an aromatic herb that grows in large leaves, often used to wrap items before steaming] and chipiles [a leafy green, similar to watercress] are becoming more and more common and now that people have a stronger knowledge of Mexican food, I feel confident about showcasing those ingredients and interpreting them based on my experiences.”
On being a hands-on dad of a toddler and tween: “No one can prepare you for that moment when your child is born. It changes your life automatically and from that moment there’s an automatic shift in your core, your foundation. I now have a deeper purpose in life and that’s to provide for them and be an example for these two young people. Having a son especially; someone to carry on my father’s name is incredible. All of the men in my family have daughters and my son is the only boy. I want my kids to know their culture as they grow up seeing dad cook and speak Spanish at home. Every day it starts with language and food. And even though I might make simple dishes like sopa seta, chicken, rice and beans, mashed plantains, I make sure to slip in a different flavor each time I prepare it so they experience something new. One day it might be salsa verde, another, a new variety of chile. Introducing new and different flavors to them is important. They don’t have to love it, but I want to expose them to it.”
On mom stepping in: “It’s so crazy – I used to be known before just as the son of Zarela Martinez. Now, she’s known as the mother of Aarón Sánchez! There’s been a real reversal of roles. She’s very proud, over the moon of my success. She’s always encouraged me to continue on the path I’ve been on, to do accomplish more than she has. It’s that Latino tradition; wanting your children to do better than you did. But that being said, if I cook something, she always adjusts the seasoning. My mom would never just say ‘I’m proud.’ She says, ‘I’ve seen growth, honey.’”
On the three sauces every home cook should keep in the fridge: “With my newest cookbook, I really wanted to get away from the format of presenting appetizers, entrees and desserts. It’s the product of my years consulting on Mexican restaurants. I developed these sauces as versatile flavor bases you can use to transform any menu, and I think that’s a cool idea for the home cook. Garlic chipotle love is something that almost has a feminine touch, it has that love from which a great dish begins. It’s smoky and savory, and you can add a spoonful to soups, whisk with a little olive oil for salad dressing or use as a marinade for just about any protein. The tamarind-pasilla paste is perfect: tart and sweet. Americans are fascinated with sweetness and so this flavor base is a great way to introduce those light, delicate, and elegant flavors as a marinade or rub with a wide range of red meat proteins.
And the habanero – well, that makes use of a pepper that tastes of the sun: bright, beautiful and light. It’s a perfect marinade for shrimp and seafood. And the best thing about these sauces is that you can keep them in a tightly-sealed container for up to one week or freeze. These are my staples, my sofritos, that can be used to introduce people to our quintessential Latin flavors.”
Here are Chef Aarón s three favorite sauces and pastes, straight from his kitchen to yours. Versatile and delicious, these are just a few of the great recipes from “Simple Food, Big Flavor.”
Makes 1 cup
1 cup canola oil
12 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Grated zest of 1 lime
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Pour the oil into a heavy ovenproof medium saucepan and add the garlic. Cover the pot with foil, put it in the oven, and cook until the garlic turns a nutty brown and is really soft (think cream cheese), about 45 minutes. Remove the pot from the oven and let the garlic and oil cool to room temperature. Put the garlic and the now garlic-infused oil in a food processor or blender. Add the chipotles and sauce, cilantro, lime zest, and salt and puree until the mixture is very smooth. Store in the fridge in a tightly covered container for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to a month.
Makes 3 cups
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 pasilla chiles, stemmed, seeded, and deveined
1 large white onion, quartered
10 whole garlic cloves, peeled
4 plum tomatoes, cored and halved lengthwise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cups strained tamarind pulp
1. Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Line a plate with paper towels.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to dance. Add the pasillas and fry on both sides until they’re puffed up, about 15 seconds total. Transfer the chiles to the paper towels to drain. Put them in a small bowl, pour in the boiling water, and let them soak until they’re soft, about 15 minutes. Drain the chiles and reserve them and the soaking liquid separately.
3. Discard the oil and wipe the skillet clean. Set it back over medium-high heat. In a large bowl, toss the onion, garlic, and tomatoes with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Season with salt and pepper, toss gently, and put them in the hot skillet. Cook about 7 minutes on each side, until they’re charred, with visible black spots. Transfer the vegetables to a clean bowl and let them cool at room temperature.
4. Put the tamarind pulp, chiles, 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid, and the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
5. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to a month.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups
1/2-cup olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 large yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 large red onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 habanero or Scotch bonnet chile, very finely chopped (yup, seeds too, if you can take the heat)
1. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Pout in the olive oil and add the bell peppers, onion, carrots, and garlic. Add a good sprinkle of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have all softened, about 20 minutes.
2. Stir in the habanero and book for 5 minutes more. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.
3. Transfer it to a blender, along with 1/2 cup water. Work in batches, if necessary. Blend until the Habanero Love is very smooth – Michael Jackson smooth. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week.