So you want to have buena sazón?
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: recipes are guidelines, not rules.
However, you should only break the rules of a recipe if your kitchen experience and technique are solid. The craft of cooking DEFINITELY has rules. Believe me, it’s taken many inedible batches of cookies (stevia is not sugar when making biscochitos, the cookies tasted like pure lard) and more than one flavorless roast (a dried herb doesn’t pack the punch of a fresh one) to figure this out first hand.
In one of my favorite cookbooks, Zarela’s Veracruz, la reina de la cocina Mexicana and True Goddess of Mexican Cuisine, Zarela Martinez includes a humorous and informative chapter called If You Really Want to Cook Like Me. Zarela tiene buena sazón for sure – she is an outstanding chef with decades of culinary experience behind her apron, so of course I want to cook like her!
In this chapter she leaves no doubt that canned chicken broth IS NOT fresh chicken stock, dried herbs are not their fresh green counterparts, and that margarine is by no means butter. She also says that, “leaving out any one stage of a recipe guarantees that you will never get the desired results.” For example, I have learned that sauces should be layered and stewed. If you forget to add an essential ingredient you could throw it in last minute, but the sauce will not be as rich or complex as if it were layered properly. And braising meat before roasting or boiling makes all the difference in flavor and texture.
Quality and specificity of both ingredients and technique make or break a recipe. Substitutions matter and, as Zarela says, “make all the difference between singing the melody as written and whistling off-key.” This is not to say that you have to sing it note for note, but you have to be able to hit the notes that you do sing. The ability to use your own style and experience with flavors, textures and culinary chemistry to make a recipe your own without compromising the deliciousness of the original dish is the definition of a great chef. In other words, don’t be lazy and be conscious of how each substitution you make will change the recipe.
I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend one of Zarela’s cooking demonstrations, a part of Food Is Art, a year long collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York. Zarela mesmerized us all with her knowledge and love for Mexican cuisine. She is also incredibly generous with her knowledge of her craft and she has been gracious enough to share it with me.
During the coming months I will be spending some time with her in the kitchen. She is the cook and hostess that I aspire to be (in addition to my lovely mother and madrina, of course). I invite you to explore her website for authentic Mexican recipes, facts about Mexican culture and the intriguing stories of her life. I hope to share with you what Zarela teaches me as I join her in her kitchen and at her table each Sunday.
Now….I’d like to hear from you! What has been your greatest kitchen mistake and what did you learn from it?