In Two of Spring 2022’s Best Cookbooks, Delicious Can Be Messy

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In new books from Rick Martinez and Kwame Onwuachi, culture and autobiography collide in exciting ways, and the definition of ‘authentic’ is never tidy or straightforward

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In “Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico” (Clarkson Potter), ex-Bon Appétit food editor Rick Martinez shares dishes inspired by a nearly two-year journey through every state in Mexico, one he began in 2019. But Mr. Martinez doesn’t claim to be an expert in Mexican cuisine. After a childhood eating Chef Boyardee in Austin, Texas, he freely admits, he “had a very scattered, incomplete picture of Mexico.”

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Even after he traveled everywhere from the Yucatán to Baja California, he resisted the pressure to create a definitive book of “real” Mexican cuisine. “When you call something authentic, you’re necessarily saying that everything else is not,” he writes. “You’re saying there is only one true version of a dish and therefore everyone else is making it wrong.”

Instead of attempting to re-create the splendid sopa de Lima, pescado a la talla or chicharrones en salsa verde he encountered in his travels, he delivers “a highly personalized love letter to that dish, with my own unique sazón, of course—my personal flair and signature that makes these dishes my own.” It’s an approach that feels new and intuitive at the same time. Isn’t every cook a prism through which any number of culinary influences are refracted?

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So Mr. Martinez’s take on a sweet, salty fruit snack called gaspacho moreliano features generous slices of pineapple, jicama and mango rather than the traditional small dice, transforming the dish into a striking accessory for “everything from grilled meat to fish.” After tasting carnitas all over Mexico, Mr. Martínez shares his favorite version from Mexico City: tender rather than crispy, seasoned just with salt and pepper, with “a little funk” from a combination of braised pork shoulder, ham shank and pig’s trotter (his slightly “more manageable” alternative to the practice of cooking the entire pig in a copper pot).

Getting personal doesn’t just mean putting a unique spin on beloved recipes. Food carries memories. Tamales are a tribute to his mother, who taught him how to make them the way she did just a year before she died. Aguachile, a ceviche-like mix of shrimp cured in lime juice and dressed with cucumbers, avocado and serrano salsa, conjures his time on the Pacific coast in a town called Barra de Navidad, where he ate it on the beach for breakfast all 10 days he was there.

The modestly titled but ambitious “Básicos” section is as unique as a fingerprint. There’s nothing more telling than the contents of a cook’s pantry. The slew of condiments, seasonings and salsas—from oil-roasted salsa macha to charred salsa tatemada—are packed with the vibrancy that has always been a hallmark of Mr. Martinez’s cooking.

Pantry-based recipes are fundamental to another new cookbook that, in its own way, asserts the right to weave a personal cuisine from a blend of ancestral recipes, diverse influences and idiosyncratic obsessions: Kwame Onwuachi’s “My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef (Alfred A. Knopf), written with Joshua David Stein. “The pantry is the soul of the diasporic kitchen, where hardship has been alchemized into…
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the richest, deepest, most delicious flavors of the world,” writes Mr. Onwuachi, a James Beard Award-winning chef.

Mr. Onwuachi’s pantry is a family tree with roots in the American South, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Nigeria and beyond. Jamaican jerk paste sits side by side with his mom’s Creole house spice and obe ata din din, the Nigerian pepper stew that forms the foundation for countless dishes. Recaito, the Puerto Rican green seasoning base, recalls the author’s childhood in the Bronx; the spiced Ethiopian oil nitter kibbeh, his time as an up-and-coming chef in Washington, DC Rather than keeping these flavorings separated in the name of “authenticity,” Mr. Onwuachi often intermingles them in his dishes to emphasize their connections. “They are not islands but part of the same river,” he writes.

Freely interweaving these flavorings has another advantage: It’s flat-out delicious. Coconutty Jamaican stew peas get an aromatic foundation from a ginger-garlic purée he learned from a friend in India, plus a sprinkling of his mom’s house spice. Mr. Onwuachi’s take on the burger is a whole world on a bun, topped with pickles tossed with Trini green seasoning and bacon roasted with Jamaican jerk powder.

The recipe for Mom Duke’s Shrimp tells the story of two of this chef’s deep loves: his mother’s take on peel-and-eat shrimp and New Orleans–style barbecue shrimp. Simmer the shrimp in a broth enhanced with beer, wine and Worcestershire, then give the sauce a silky finish with cold butter. It’s a winning combination that would come only from the mind of this chef.

Rick Martinez’s Pro-Level Pantry Wisdom

“I don’t generally like using dried herbs because they tend to lose their flavor as they sit (and who knows how long they have been sitting on the shelf at the store), but the three that I do keep in my pantry are Mexican oregano, avocado leaves, and bay leaves.”

“…I have found that keeping my kitchen stocked with six different types of dried chiles (ancho, chipotle, guajillo, pasilla, chile de árbol, and cascabel) and four fresh (jalapeño, serrano, habanero, and poblano) allows me to approximate the regional flavors of each dish without having to special-order chiles whenever I get a craving.”

Kwame Onwuachi’s Key Base Flavor

“GGP—ginger-garlic puree—is a key ingredient in the majority of dishes that come out of my kitchen. The combination of the wake-up-your-mouth zing of ginger and the slightly softer garlic is common throughout the Caribbean, but I owe this particular preparation to my friend Alex Sanchez… [His cooks in Mumbai] told me it’s in everything they make, and once I started using it as a base flavor, I understood why.”

To make it: In a food processor, combine 2 large stems ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, with 1½ cups peeled garlic cloves and cup grapeseed oil. Process until smooth. Keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator 1 week, or in the freezer 6 months.


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