Host of the James Beard Award-winning PBS series Pati's Mexican Table and the docuseries La Frontera, Pati Jinich was born and raised in Mexico City. She's the resident chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., where she now lives with her husband and three sons. Her latest cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table, which came out in fall 2021, features stories and recipes she collected from her travels throughout the country. We sat down with her to discuss everything from her favorite kitchen tools to the secret to making the perfect taco.
EatingWell: What health ritual do you never skip, no matter how busy you are?
Pati Jinich: I have green juice first thing in the morning. It has celery, cucumber, spinach, kale, cilantro, parsley, aloe vera, ginger and turmeric. Since I am such a big eater, it gives me a few minutes to drink something nourishing and ease into the day before I run to eat something or make myself a cup of coffee.
Related: EatingWell's Green Juice Recipe
EatingWell: What do you typically eat in a day?
Jinich: Breakfast is a big deal for me. Usually overnight oats, scrambled eggs or avocado toast dressed with my homemade salsa macha. We haven't gotten used to the American lunchtime, so I do the big Mexican comida [the largest meal of the day in Mexico, with several courses] when my youngest son gets home from school [Jinich's other two sons are in college]. For example, rice and beans and a protein, like picadillo. (Right now I am obsessing over Peacadillo—made with peas for a plant-based alternative—from Mexican food brand Somos.) For dinner we may do a Mexican-style fideo seco, or quesadillas or a salpicón or a tuna salad. We always have good corn tortillas around, so I joke that every night in this house is a taco night!
EatingWell: What's the secret to the perfect taco?
Jinich: Every part matters. The tortillas, whether corn or flour, must be made from quality ingredients. And it is crucial to heat them properly, so they can become malleable, soft and resilient. This means heating them in a single layer on a hot surface like a griddle, comal or skillet that has been preheated for a few minutes. (The tortillas should lightly brown on both sides and make some air pockets inside—even if tiny.) As for the fillings, they should be so good that they can stand on their own. And salsas and garnishes should be well balanced and made from fresh ingredients.
EatingWell: What are some American misconceptions about Mexican food?
Jinich: That it is always spicy, greasy, has tons of cheese and is laborious to prepare. Most home-style Mexican cooking is nutritious, wholesome and not deep-fried. It uses lots of vegetables, fruits, grains and seeds. It is not always spicy nor does everything have cheese. And most home-style meals use just a handful of ingredients.
EatingWell: What Mexican recipes do you think everyone should try?
Jinich: There is a world of Mexican soups, salads and vegetable dishes that have not crossed the border yet. For example, chulibul: green beans with a tomato sauce and pepita topping. And chile mango: a delicious chunky condiment similar to chutney that is deeply Mexican and from Guerrero [a state on Mexico's Pacific coast]. That was my main focus in my latest cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table. Everyone can whip up guacamole, so many people know what tacos are; well, here are another 150 classic Mexican dishes that have been passed down through generations, that are beloved, that you should get to know too!
Related: Try Pati Jinich's Recipe for Calabacitas de Tapachula (Zucchini & Corn in Poblano Sauce)
EatingWell: We're all about balancing eating deliciously with being healthy. How do you walk that line?
Jinich: I grew up in a home where there was dessert every day. Sometimes that meant fresh mangoes covered in Mexican-style eggnog or a slice of homemade pound cake, sometimes that meant fruit salad. We grew up seeing desserts as something that, in balanced amounts, could be a part of your everyday life. I have that philosophy with everything in my kitchen.
EatingWell: What do the words "eating well" mean to you?
Jinich: Eating consciously. Seeing food and the act of eating from its backbone—where it comes from, how it is grown and harvested, who produces it, the techniques and recipes surrounding it and their history, what impact it has on the communities it comes from and the communities it gets to —and, of course, food that tastes good and is satisfying. From the stories it carries into your home, to the taste and fulfillment it brings to you as a whole, to how you share it with others.
EatingWell: Finish this sentence: To me, cooking is …
EatingWell: What's the kitchen tool you can't live without?
Jinich: My lime squeezer! I think I use it every single day.
EatingWell: Go-to Mexican restaurants in Washington, D.C.?
EatingWell: What food says home to you?
Jinich: Oh, black beans, Mexican red rice (arroz rojo) and salsa verde!
EatingWell: Beer, wine or cocktail?
Jinich: I can't choose just one! Light cold beer from the can, red wine and tequila, neat.
EatingWell: What is always in your fridge?
Jinich: Eggs, ripe avocados, fresh jalapeños and serranos, cilantro, parsley, celery, carrots, one kind of squash or another, spinach, milk and unsweetened almond milk, fresh berries and homemade pickled onions and salsa macha.
EatingWell: What's one diet trend you can't understand the hype for?
Jinich: Demonizing and banning single ingredients from your diet. I found the whiplash over things like eggs or butter mind-boggling!
EatingWell: What's your "if-I-only-had-one-meal-left" meal?
Jinich: Crispy chicken Milanesa, chunky mashed potatoes, chayote squash salad and copious amounts of chipotles in adobo sauce on the side. This was a once- or twice-a-week meal at home, growing up in Mexico City.
EatingWell: What's one thing you do—big or small—to help the planet?
Jinich: Looking for opportunities to make the most out of my ingredients and reduce food waste in my kitchen: from saving all the vegetables and peels to make my next vegetable broth, to shopping my pantry and fridge first and getting creative with what I have available. I use the leaves and stems from cilantro and parsley for an extra-crunchy garnish.