A Taste of Passover, With a Mexican Accent
PATRICIA JINICH teaches regional Mexican cooking at the Mexican Cultural Institute here. But at the Lubavitch Center recently she showed about 70 Jewish women how to cook for Passover.
She made gefilte fish in a Veracruz sauce of tomatoes, pickled peppers, olives and capers, and spoke of how her Polish grandfather loved to wrap fresh, warm tortillas around gribenes (chicken cracklings with fried onions) with a side of guacamole.
Some of the women were in long dresses, with their heads covered. Ms. Jinich, 37, had on a Mexican huipil blouse with red and green trim under her chef’s jacket.
Still, she said, “The Yiddische mama and the Mexican mama have lots in common.”
She should know.
Ms. Jinich (pronounced HEE-nich) grew up in Mexico, one of 40,000 to 50,000 Jews, most of them descendants of Eastern European immigrants.
(The first Jews came to Mexico from Spain during the Inquisition. “To this day,” Ms. Jinich said, “there are women in regions of Mexico who light candles on Friday night in secret.”)
Her father’s parents escaped from pogroms in Poland at the turn of the 20th century, moving to Mexico City’s Polanco neighborhood, named for the Polish Jews who had settled there. Her mother’s parents fled Austria and Slovenia in the 1930s.
They, and their food, blended in.
Passover and holiday cooking were a mix of European and Mexican when Ms. Jinich was growing up: chicken soup with matzo balls, mushrooms and jalapeños; meat stews with salsa on the side; Austrian tortes made with Mexican vanilla and chocolate; and a Passover flourless chocolate pecan torte, served with berries sweetened with shaved piloncillo, raw Mexican brown sugar, and flavored with lime juice.
Ms. Jinich and her husband, Daniel, moved 11 years ago from Mexico City to Dallas, where he worked in banking. She became interested in cooking while she was a production assistant with the highly regarded local chef Stephen Pyles on a television program.
They moved to Washington two years later and she began working for a policy research institute, but she was miserable. “I would get up in the morning, send the kids off to school and dread my job,” she said. “The most fun was deciding where I would have lunch.”
Juan Garcia de Oteyza, then the cultural attaché of the Mexican Embassy, suggested that she start a culinary program. Switching from policy to tortillas, she soaked up Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks about Mexico’s regional foods.
“Patricia approaches cooking and ingredients in cultural terms to show the landscape of Mexico,” Mr. García de Oteyza said. “She has this uncanny way of making food come alive, linking it with culture and history.”
The idea for a Mexican-Jewish cooking class came from one of her students. The class was presented as part of the Lubavitch Center’s Aura program for Jewish women.
Ms. Jinich got suggestions from her family, all of whom love to cook and some of whom do so professionally. One sister, Alisa Romano, is a pastry chef near Miami; a second, Karen Drijanski, is a caterer in Vancouver; a third, Sharon Drijanski, has written vegetarian cookbooks and lives in Miami.
Her classroom at the Lubavitch Center was relatively humble. For her occasional Mexican Table culinary program at the Mexican Cultural Institute, she cooks on a stage at the mansion that houses it. There are Mexican mosaics in the background and two cooktops.
At a class there on “Mexican Chic,” waiters in tuxedoes served tomato soup with mushrooms as Ms. Jinich charred tomatoes and tortillas on her grandmother’s comal, a cast-iron griddle.
When she first moved to Washington, Ms. Jinich would bring ingredients back from Mexico. “I stuffed my suitcase with dried chilies and hibiscus flowers,” she said. “In those days we couldn’t get Mexican avocadoes, round light green squash, tomatillos or cactus.”
With Mexican ingredients more widely available in the United States, even kosher products are more common.
Ms. Jinich needed kosher canned chipotles for a Passover dish of chicken with tamarind and apricots that she learned from Flora Cohen, a woman of Syrian background who taught Ms. Jinich and other Jewish brides in Mexico City how to cook. To her surprise, she found chipotles with a certification acceptable to Nechama Shemtov, director of women’s issues and program development at the Lubavitch Center and the wife of the Lubavitch rabbi.
Meeting Mrs. Shemtov’s standards made this class her most challenging, Ms. Jinich said. Mrs. Shemtov watched her every move as she prepared.
“Somebody who kept kosher had to light the stove,” said Ms. Jinich, who is not kosher. “I had to crack open every one of the 100 eggs I used for a flan and put each one in a separate bowl to make sure there was no blood in them.”
Now that it’s over, maybe she can relax with some kosher for Passover tequila.
Recipe for Chicken With Apricot, Tamarind and Chipotle Sauce:
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1/2 cup kosher for Passover vegetable oil
3/4 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons apricot preserves
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons sauce from chipotles in adobo
1 or more chipotle peppers from chipotles in adobo, optional
Season chicken well with salt and pepper. Place a large heavy skillet over high heat and add oil. Add chicken pieces skin side down in a single layer. Reduce heat to medium and slowly brown, turning occasionally, until browned evenly on all sides.
Pour 4 cups water over chicken, raise heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer. Stir in dried apricots, apricot preserves, tamarind, sugar and chipotle sauce, including 1 or more chipotle peppers if desired for more heat.
Simmer, adjusting heat as necessary, until sauce has thickened enough to coat chicken, about 30 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, and serve.