A few weeks ago I saw Pati Jinich when she appeared at Melissa’s Produce as part of her book tour for her new “Mexican Today” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin, $30). She’s a dynamo of energy and ideas, with the kind of overeducated, non-food background that’s surprisingly common among those who end up in the professional food world. Now filming the fifth season of “Pati’s Mexican Table” for PBS, her focus is wide and anthropological, interpreting regional Mexican cuisine for modern American cooks. As a modern American cook herself, she’s kind of uniquely suited for the job. After growing up in Mexico City, destined for advanced academic degrees and a life as a political analyst, she moved to Dallas with her husband, where she found her way to the kitchen, wanting to replicate the flavors she missed from home.
The recipes in “Mexican Today” reflect Jinich’s navigating multiple traditions—her family is Jewish, inhabiting a parallel stream of Mexican cooking making possible tantalizing options like matzo balls in a jalapeño- and mushroom-enhanced soup. The book includes multitudinous tacos, from straight-up classic pork carnitas to a 100% vegan plantain-filled version. Enchiladas cover a lot of delicious ground, from famous Mexico City Sanborn’s Suiza—Swiss style, a designation Jinich says is used in Mexico for dishes with lots of cheese and cream—to enchilada-like treatments for crepas, savory crepes that are a culinary vestige of the Maximilian and Carlota era of the late 1800s.
Jinich reminds us how much the Mexican kitchen showcases vegetables, including two personal favorites of mine, the familiar chile relleno and the deserves-wider-exposure nopalitos, cut-up cactus paddles she combines with corn and guajillo chiles. I was intrigued by the recipe for Cilantro Baby Potatoes—an extremely bold amount of the title herb is called for, and I wondered how in the world sautéing the small potatoes before saucing would work. The answer is: Works great! My family sort of went wild over them. (I used water instead of the broth called for.) Wholly intact potatoes end up with creamy insides absolutely infused with the bright-tasting salsa; so good. See for yourself—the recipe follows.
Cilantro Baby Potatoes from Pati Jinich’s ‘Mexican Today’
After you scrub the potatoes, drain and dry them well. If they are not completely dry when you add them to the hot oil to sear them, the oil will splutter all over the place.–Pati Jinich
3 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
2 pounds baby red potatoes, rinsed and dried
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
½ cup chicken or vegetable broth (or water)
2 ½ cups tightly packed, coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and upper parts of stems
1 jalapeño or serrano chile, seeded if desired
Heat oil over medium heat in large skillet that can accommodate potatoes in a single layer. Make sure potatoes are dry, then add to hot oil and season with ½ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Let potatoes cook and brown gently, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, or until skins have begun to wrinkle and change in color from pink to light brown; they should remain intact.
Combine lime juice, broth or water, cilantro, jalapeño, and ½ teaspoon salt in blender and purée until completely smooth.
Pour purée over potatoes, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 2 to 3 minutes. Cover pan and cook 10 to 12 minutes, stirring halfway through, until potatoes are completely cooked and very soft, and sauce has thickened. Serve hot.