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Mexico City native Pati Jinich is intimately familiar with the cuisine of Mexico — and the many misconceptions she feels surround it.
"Our food isn't always spicy," she says. "Our food doesn't always have a chili in it. And when it does, it's not necessarily a spicy chili. The ancho chili is sweet, the guajillo chili is happy.
"And surprisingly for people, Mexican food is usually very healthy and wholesome and uses ingredients from scratch: we love salads! We just don't call them that. You know, we'll call them nopalitos, challatitos; we call them by the name of the ingredient."
In addition to hosting the PBS show, "Pati's Mexican Table," Jinich is also the chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute, part of the Embassy of Mexico. We met up with her to whip up a "healthy" and "wholesome" Mexican breakfast called huevos ahogados, or sunken eggs. Because, as Jinich explains, eggs are huge in Mexico.
"Mexico is a powerhouse of salsas," she explains. "And eggs are incredibly cheap and accessible and affordable, and they're full of protein. So when you match the gazillion-million salsas with this one magical ingredient, you get like a thousand different ways of eating eggs!"
But to make sunken eggs you need more than just eggs and salsa. As Jinich explains, you need one more very special, traditional, ingredient: the fleshy, hand-sized pad of the prickly pear cactus.
"Cactus paddles, nopalitos, are an icon for Mexicans," she says. "You see nopales in every kitchen instead of meat. They'll be the rage of vegetarians one day when they sell them without the thorns because they're very persnickety! But they're super meaty and crunchy and tart and tasty."
After removing the thorns, Jinich suggests you cut off the edge and bottom of the nopales, before slicing and dicing them. Then you sauté them, and once they've browned a bit, you pour salsa verde on top.
"In Mexico we love love love salsas!" Jinich says with a smile. "They run through our veins. We have them from breakfast to dinner."
The particular salsa verde Jinich uses for her sunken eggs is made from tomatillos, jalapenos, garlic, cilantro, and onion.
"Now I'm going to pour it on top of the nopales," Jinich explains. "So you have the tart from the nopal, which will be crunchy on the outside and chewy. And then you will have the super tart and punchy but very homey taste of the salsa verde."
As soon as the salsa touches the nopales, a hissing, steaming sound fills the kitchen.
"That's what you want," Jinich says. "I always say in my classes, if you go into a Mexican kitchen, no matter where it is in the world, and you don't see smoke and you don't hear sizzle and you don't see bubbles, don't eat the food. It's not gonna be good!" The next step in the dish is to "drown" the eggs.
"We love drowning eggs in any kind of salsa," Jinich says. "You know how in other countries they have very elegant poached eggs and then sometimes they'll ad sauces on top? We directly cook the eggs in the salsa, so there is no way you can end up with a dish where you taste the egg and it's sort of bland and then you taste the sauce. Here they cook together."
The secret to perfectly poached eggs, Jinich says, is lowering the heat so the sauce is simmering, but not super-hot.
"So when I add my eggs to drown them or poach them they won't break or crumble," Jinich says. "And I do one by one in a cup, so it goes in the sauce together at the same time, because the moment it touches the hot sauce, the egg starts cooking, and you want it to look pretty."
Jinich drops the eggs in a circular pattern around the edges of the pot, and indeed, the final presentation is beautiful — and, as she points out, amazingly easy to achieve!
"And then when you bring it to the table," Jinich says with a laugh, "people are like, 'Whoa, how did the eggs come out like that?'"
[Music: "Comida" by Rockin' Amigos from Super Spanish Vocabulario]
Eating in the Embassy: Mexico