NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Rick Martínez about his new cookbook Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico.



Have you ever wondered what it would be like to just quit your job and move abroad? Rick Martinez did.


MARTIN: A few years ago, he started doing research for a regional Mexican cookbook. He flew to Mexico City, bought a car and ate his way through all 32 states in the country. He fell in love with it, so he left his job in New York City, found a place by the beach and stayed. Now, Rick hosts a couple of cooking shows and has published that cookbook. It's called "Mi Cocina: Recipes And Rapture From My Kitchen In Mexico."

RICK MARTINEZ: When I was asked to develop recipes for publications or for YouTube, I was always asked to develop a variation of, you know, an existing dish - so a different version of an enchilada or a taco or a burrito. And I was like, I wanted to expand the canon.

MARTIN: Yes, his book has tacos, but it's also got so much more - pozole verde, a hardy hominy chicken stew, and aguachile, butterflied shrimp with avocado, cucumber and lime. Rick knew the food was going to be amazing in Mexico, but he was blown away by the generosity he found.

MARTINEZ: You know, like people inviting me into their homes and showing me how to cook this food or cooks in a restaurant or in a stall in the market, like, inviting me into the kitchen to show me how something was done. And that was how I encountered a lot of food and a lot of cooks around the country. And it was just, like, this desire to show me the beauty of the cuisine and the culture and to share with me what they had grown, what they had cooked, what they had made. And it was just so beautiful - like, the idea of sharing this with a complete stranger.

MARTIN: The photos in this cookbook are so beautiful, I told Rick I want to live inside it and eat all the food, so he agreed to give me a taste of it by walking me through one of his recipes - salsa de chipotle y chile de arbol. It's got smoky dried jalapenos that are stewed with tomatoes.


MARTINEZ: It's very spicy. Do you like spicy?


MARTIN: So do I like spicy? I am going to admit to you that my tolerance is a little low.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter) You can always cut back on the chiles, or you can take the seeds out of a chile de arbol.

MARTIN: And I do.

Come on, little guys.

I also core my tomatoes and rough-chop my onion, peel my garlic. As for those chipotles...


MARTINEZ: You should smell them. I love the smell of chipotles, like...

MARTIN: Oh, smell them - OK, let's see. Let's open one. That is delicious. I have never cooked with these.

MARTINEZ: Oh, I love...


MARTINEZ: I love them so much. To me, they're great because the jalapenos are allowed to ripen, so they turn red, which actually makes the flavor a little bit more floral, a little more fruity. They have the - more of the sugars develop, and so you actually have a much more complex flavor in the chile, and then it's dried and concentrated, and then it's smoked. So it's just, like, a really beautiful, layered flavor.

MARTIN: With everything prepped, I toss my ingredients into a small pot, add some water and bring to a simmer.


MARTIN: Rick ate a whole lot of salsa during his travels. He wanted to include more of them in his cookbook, but he ran out of pages. Salsas, he says, are beacons of possibility. Some are made with fresh ingredients. Others are pickled. They can be chopped or mashed. And for Rick, every recipe in this book is connected to a memory, including the one we were making.

MARTINEZ: There was a woman in Guanajuato, and she had these amazing salsas, and she was making them in, like, huge batches. And they were all just, like, so vibrant and so beautiful. And I just remember, like, the smell. Like, it was, you know, the - chipotles and chile de arbol have a very distinctive smell, especially when you're blending them in that quantity.

MARTIN: Right.

MARTINEZ: And I was like, oh, my God, this is, like, super - this is going to be, like, really spicy. So I ordered a gordita stuffed with chicharrones, which I love, and I just put as much as I could stand on there, and I was tearing up as I was eating, but it was really, really delicious.

MARTIN: Wait, what? This is going to be that spicy?

MARTINEZ: I mean, it - yeah, it's...

MARTIN: Rick, you're going to challenge my little one-dimensional Idaho culinary taste buds here.


MARTIN: Rick grew up in Texas watching Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless cook Mexican food on TV - white chefs.

MARTINEZ: You know, like, I respect the work that they've done, and I knew a lot more about Mexico and culture and food because of them, but there was a part of me that - like, why is it that they get to do this, right? There are talented Mexican chefs. I didn't know them at the time - you know, there was no internet - but I didn't understand why they were the faces of Mexican culture and cuisine. And it was important for me to do this because I needed to understand where I came from. You know, I'm a Mexican American. I am an American, and I made this food primarily for American cooks, but there's a part of me that needs the validation from Mexicans.

MARTIN: He got that chance when filming a cooking segment with his Mexican crew.

MARTINEZ: We shot this dish. It's the tacos gobernador, which is an iconic dish of Mazatlan, the city that I now live in. And there were two gentlemen in the crew who are from Mazatlan, who have eaten this dish their entire life. And so, you know, like, I have this nervous energy. I don't say anything, but I'm like, I want to know what these guys are going to think of this taco because they've grown up with it, right? I do my, like - you know, my bite and smile at the end, and now I'm - as I did in all of the episodes - like, now I'm going to feed my crew. So everybody takes a bite, and my cameraman literally just puts his arm on my shoulder, and he's like, this is the best taco gobernador I've ever had in my entire life.

MARTIN: Oh, no way.

MARTINEZ: And I was like - I almost started crying.



MARTIN: At this point, we check in on our salsa. The chiles and the vegetables have cooked down to this soft consistency. I put them in the blender.


MARTIN: I mean, it looks amazing. It looks beautiful.


MARTIN: I'm going to lift...


MARTIN: ...This.

MARTINEZ: I want a breakfast taco now.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, here we go.


MARTIN: Oh, my God. That is so hot. That is...


MARTIN: I mean, it's very good, Rick.

MARTINEZ: Well, you went in for the second bite.

MARTIN: I'm getting used to it. I think I psyched myself out.

MARTINEZ: I'm surprised that you keep going in, so that's good. That's a good sign.


MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

MARTIN: The flavor is really great. You're right. This is like my fifth or sixth go into this salsa bowl at this point.



MARTINEZ: After the initial taste and the scream, I was like, oh, my God, I've just killed Rachel Martin. Oh, my God.

MARTIN: But what a way to go.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

MARTIN: What a way to go (laughter). Rick Martinez, it has been so fun to talk to you. Thank you so much for doing this.

MARTINEZ: It has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: The book is called "Mi Cocina: Recipes And Rapture From My Kitchen In Mexico."

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Tags: Mexico