Last year at this time, I had the privilege of interviewing el chef guapo, Aaron Sanchez.  While he’s neither a Mission neighbor, nor has a restaurant in here (I wish!), its my blog, so I guess I can write what I want to (unlike my column in the examiner.com– my editors get mad if I go “off-topic”- but hopefully, you, my readers, won’t. So, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, here is the interview (originally published on Examiner.com May 4, 2011):

Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez shared with us some of his views on Mexican cuisine, a favorite local eatery, and best of all, some great recipes!

Aaron is son of legendary Mexican cooking authority Zarela Martinez, and has appeared on Iron Chef America (one of the few chefs whose battles have ended in a draw, tying with Masaharu Morimoto), is a frequent judge on Chopped!, a Chefs vs. City co-host, and recent runner-up in Chopped All-Stars. He’s also executive chef/owner of Centrico. Aaron has co-authored La Comida del Barrio: Latin-American Cooking and his newest book, Simple Food, Big Flavor: Unforgettable Mexican-Inspired Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours, scheduled for release in October, is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Gray: I don’t know if you know the Bay Area well or have a favorite SF or Bay area Mexican restaurant?

Sanchez: I lived there … for almost 2 years, in the late ‘90s. I used to frequent El Castillito, 136 Church St. (between Duboce Ave. & Reservoir St., its still there!).

Gray: What would you recommend as a good dish for novice chefs, new to Mexican cuisine, something that is relatively easy but really brings home the flavor of Mexico and distinguishes immediately “authentico” Mexican from Ameri-Mex fast food?

Sanchez: Definitely, use Cacique products as a starting point … go to their website. I like to cook with the philosophy of using great ingredients and not altering them too much. Cacique lets me do that … their products have great cultural relevance. Queso Fresco is an example … I love to use it in my cooking with its robust flavor and creaminess that compliments Mexican dishes. Like my Tortilla Soup (with Crispy Tortillas, Cacique® Queso Fresco), “an easy-to-prepare dish that will make your guests taste Mexican tradition  in every bowl.” (Author’s note — follow this column all this week for more of Aaron’s recipes.)

Gray: What is your opinion on the TAM II “dumbed down” milder japeño and the milder Hidalgo Serrano? Do you see this as a good way to get more Americans excited about Mexican cooking?

Sanchez: Ludicrous! I don’t see why you would alter a great natural product. The idea that the flavor is too aggressive doesn’t suggest that this is the way to go, there is an arrogance in altering chiles which are an indigenous product, if the flavor is too aggressive, just use less of it, less chile.

Gray: Given that in SF we support 6 or 7 Mexican fine dining establishments in a relatively small city and have one of the largest percent of Mexican populations in the US, and given that we have no Mexican Cultural Institute or similar entity, what do you think we can do to promote Mexican culture and specifically cuisine in SF Bay Area?

Sanchez: It will take a collective of different food personalities, food historians, local writers, not just chefs, to highlight different types of establishments and raise more of an understanding and awareness of the regional specialties and aspects of Mexican cuisine. People need to get together and more make more noise.

Gray: Where would you recommend someone go to study Mexican cuisine and cooking techniques?

Sanchez: Come to my restaurant, Centrico (in New York) to taste authentic Mexican flavors and dishes, talk to my mom (Zarela Martinez), she is a great reference, check her website. I also recommend Susan Trilling in Oaxaca; she has a great cooking school, Seasons of my Heart.

(Author’s note — Susan’s cooking school is featured on Tasting Mexico, look for it on the Food Network — in which Aaron co-hosts one of the most beautiful culinary tours of the country ever produced.)

Gray: I know your mother has been a great influence on you in terms of your career and cooking style. What would you say is the best piece of advice she gave you?

Sanchez: She said, “Develop your own style, work with other chefs. Travel to Mexico, know your culture and your food, and make sure when someone tastes your food they know its Aaron Sanchez’ food.”Image

Aaron Sanchez’ Tortilla Soup (with Crispy Tortillas, Cacique® Queso Fresco)

Ingredients

  • 4 oz. Cacique® Queso Fresco, crumbled
  • 2 oz. Cacique® Crema Mexicana
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tomatoes, washed
  • 4 tomatillos, peeled and washed
  • 1⁄2 cup yellow onion, small dice
  • 1 Chile Guajillo, seeded and toasted
  • 1 tsp. chipotle chile canned in adobo, minced
  • 1 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1⁄2 tsp. oregano
  • 1⁄2 tsp. cumin
  • 6 oz. corn tortilla chips
  • 2 qts. chicken stock
  • 1 avocado, diced medium
  • Cilantro sprigs
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Servings: 8
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Preparation:

In a large soup pot, place olive oil over medium heat. Add tomatoes, tomatillos, onion, both chiles, garlic, oregano and cumin. Sauté for 15 minutes until all is very soft and mushy. Add 5 ounces of the tortilla chips to the pot along with the chicken stock or water and bring to a boil. Once the soup is boiling, turn down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper. Place the soup in a blender and blend until very smooth. Add the soup back to the soup pot and bring back to a simmer and check seasonings.

Pour about 6 ounces of soup in a bowl and garnish with the reserved tortilla chips, a drizzle of Cacique® Crema Mexicana, crumbles of Cacique® Queso Fresco, avocado and a sprig of cilantro.

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