Courtesy Zarela Martínez
On our family’s ranch in Sonora, Mexico, I grew up cooking, smelling, tasting, inventing, experimenting. My mom always said, “You have to prepare food with love — otherwise the food resents it.” She taught me that treating food with respect comes from the same place as treating people with respect. I’ve tried to bring that warmth and sense of hospitality to my whole career as a chef.
When I was about 11, I asked my mom, “Why did you name me Zarela? Why couldn’t I have a normal name?” She said, “Because it’s gonna look good in lights, honey.” I was a tomboy, a mess all the time, riding my horse, Desprecio, through hills and canyons while singing my mom’s favorite songs. I don’t know what she saw in me, but she saw it. So she and my dad spent a lot of time developing my mind.
After college, I spent two years on the ranch with my dad going through gourmet cookbooks, like Helen Corbitt’s. We ate Mexican food at lunch and continental at night, at our beautiful table with linen and with blue-dove china. And plastic flowers: At 7,000 feet high, there were no real flowers.
Then I went to El Paso, Texas, as a social worker, got married and had twins. I started cooking for friends because I needed extra money. That’s when my mom said, “You have a real talent for this; I’m going to give you your inheritance now so you can study cooking.”
She sent me to a Beverly Hills caterer, who taught me the business and the importance of creating a distinct style, an identity. My mom and I started to research Mexican cuisine.
Tex-Mex was the rage then, but the cooking I grew up on was very different. It was regional and included strong influences from Spain, such as the olive oil and garlic in my recipe for Camarones al ajillo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce). Whenever I make this, the smell of olive oil, garlic and chilies takes me back to the ranch.
Courtesy Zarela Martínez
My mom and I found the dish in a wonderful seafood restaurant in Mexico City, called Pardiños, and I immediately fell in love with its exciting combination of flavors. But there was something we couldn’t identify — and we could duplicate anything! So we went back a few times. Money talks: We finally gave a waiter 100 pesos — a lot of money then — to watch the chef and tell us what he used. The secret ingredient was powdered consommé base. He heated the oil and garlic, put in some of the base, then added the chilies and shrimp. That was the elusive flavor!
It horrified food purists, I later discovered. When one national food magazine did a feature on me, the staff refused to print the recipe with powdered consommé base and substituted a reduction: They boiled a tankful of chicken stock down to two tablespoons. Ha! The flavor was … acceptable but not the same.
My mom took me all over Mexico and traveled on her own to find recipes. She discovered a little bar in Veracruz with many snacks — botanas — but they didn’t let women in, so my stepfather brought out all the botanas, and beer. That’s where red snapper hash, another of my signature dishes, comes from.
My mom’s research helped create my distinctive identity in cooking. But I think the most important thing she taught me was to treat people and food with love.
— As told to Gene Santoro
Camarones al ajillo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce)
- 5 large garlic cloves, finely minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 cube chicken bouillon or 2 teaspoons other chicken-stock base
- ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3-4 dried red chilies, guajillo or Anaheim, about 3 ounces
- 3 fresh chilies, Anaheim or poblano, about 4 ounces (add 1 jalapeño if you like a spicy flavor)
- 1 pound medium shrimp, in their shells
- Salt, to taste
- Juice of 1 lime
- In a small bowl, combine the garlic and bouillon or chicken-stock base with the oil; let the mixture sit, preferably overnight.
- Cut off the stems and tops of the dried and fresh chilies; remove the seeds, being careful not to break apart the pods. Cut the chilies crosswise into ¼-inch rings. Marinate the dried chilies in the oil mixture for several hours, if desired. Set aside the fresh chilies.
- Devein the shrimp by using a small knife to slit the shells down the center and removing the dark veins with the knife tip. I like to leave the shells on the shrimp. Rinse them, pat dry with paper towels, and set aside.
- Heat the oil mixture in a deep, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is rippling, add the fresh chilies and the shrimp. Fry, turning the shrimp once, until they get pink, about 2 minutes on each side. Taste and add salt, if desired; the chicken base is salty. Sprinkle with lime juice. Remove the shrimp mixture from the oil. Plate and serve immediately.
Serves four. Nutrients per serving: 344 calories, 24g protein, 18g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 18g fat, 159mg cholesterol, 564mg sodium