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After spending years as a chef, food editor and recipe developer, exploring different kinds of cuisines, Kate discovered a passion for Latin food, culture and cooking when she married her husband. Hola Jalapeño is where Kate cooks through Mexico, Central America and beyond and embraces fresh, healthy and simple cooking at the root of traditional Latin cuisine while experimenting with modern preparations.
I am so excited to have Kate Ramos of Hola Jalapeño joining me here today.
(*All images below are Kate’s.)
On Foods She Loved Before Mexican Cuisine:
I would say probably Italian food. I am a lover of pasta. Before we got married, my husband and I went and traveled around Italy for 3 months and we ate pasta every single day and I had no problems with that whatsoever. After a while, Armando was kind of done with pasta. We did actually find a Mexican restaurant in Florence. We went there for his birthday and it was $10 for a burrito and I think they charged us $5 for chips and salsa because the ingredients were so rare there that it was really expensive to have that stuff, but I’m fine with pasta every single day of my life. Other than Mexican cuisine, that’s probably my favorite.
It’s mostly plant-based in both places. It’s all about regionality. Well, I know most about Mexican cuisine, but they’re very much tied to the products and the produce grown in that region. It’s very similar to Italy in that regard and food is very high priority to both cultures, so I’d say it’s very similar. There’s obviously ingredient differences but I think that either culture would be at home in the feel of the food, if maybe not the actual ingredients that they’re using.
On Being Introduced to Authentic Mexican Cooking:
I probably was first introduced to authentic Mexican cooking and not Tex-Mex cooking, when I moved to Napa Valley and I started working at Mustards Grill and I worked with a lot of Mexican cooks in the kitchen and that’s where I first learned an intense amount about Mexican cooking.
I was surrounded by these people who had moved to the United States from all different regions of Mexico. They would make food for a family meal for the staff and each person would take turns and they would take that opportunity to make something from where they were from, in different regions of Mexico. I think that’s when I started realizing how immense Mexican cuisine is and how varied it is, especially how vibrant it can be, probably from those experiences. As I worked through kitchens, I had moved on from Mustards but I continued to work in restaurant kitchens mostly with Mexican people and continued to learn. To this day, I’m constantly intrigued by how varied and distinct the food can be.
I would say that the meals at the restaurant were highly influenced by what was going on behind the scenes in the kitchen. We did have a lot of Latin-inspired dishes that would come out of the kitchen that were on the menu. Cindy Pawlcyn, who owns the restaurant, has a lot of Latin inspiration in her cooking and I’m sure a lot of that came from working with Mexican cooks her whole life. I would say the dishes were a lot more refined, the ones that we would actually serve the customer, but they were highly influenced by what was happening.
On Mexican Food:
I would say that Mexican food is so much more than the Tex-Mex food found in most Mexican restaurants across the United States and maybe Canada. The food of Mexico is enormously diverse. It can’t really be described in one succinct idea of what it is, except to say that it’s always bold, it’s always vibrant and it’s always, like I was saying before, intimately linked to the products and the produce of that region. It’s varied from the foods of Oaxaca are completely different from the food of Chihuahua where my husband’s family is from. They all are very colorful and bold and fresh flavors, so I’d say that’s the one unifying concept behind it.
I would say that Mexican food is not easy. It’s not like splash-dash in the pan, you’re done. I think a traditional Mexican home would have you feel like it is because they constantly have a pot of beans, they constantly have rice, they constantly have all these things that constitute a meal. But if you’re going to make a traditional meal from scratch, you have to make the beans, you have to make the rice, you have to make the tortillas, the sauces take a long time to make. I think it’s not hard, but it takes a lot of time to actually recreate a full-on traditional Mexican meal.
You can go to the burrito truck and it’s like, “Can I have a burrito?” And two minutes later they hand it to you. If you were to make all those ingredients, it would take you hours. Carnitas is very popular meat that’s in burritos or tacos. That takes hours because it cooks in its own fat. It’s like a confit of pork. So that’s not something that you just, “Yeah, I’m going to go make some confit for dinner tonight. I’ll be done about 11:30 if you want to come over for dinner.” So, it is very time-consuming.
On Some Resources For Learning More About Mexican Cuisine:
There are some really wonderful, amazing cookbooks out there. Some of my favorites, Pati Jinich. I think she has a show on PBS. I have not watched her show, but I love her cookbook and it’s called Pati’s Mexican Table. She’s just a wealth of knowledge about food from all over Mexico. Another one about the desserts of Mexico that is really fantastic is called My Sweet Mexico and it’s by Fany Gerson, who is a pastry chef in New York. She’s Mexican but she lives in New York. She spends time half and half. Her book is phenomenal because it goes through all the different regions and has very unique things in there you would never see in the United States. Rick Bayless is also a wonderful resource. All of his cookbooks are really good and very in-depth. Then, of course, there’s Diana Kennedy. She’s like the Julia Child of Mexico. She moved to Mexico in the 1970s and has written about Mexican food for 30 or 40 years and her books are really great.
On the Food Culture in Mexico:
I would say that it’s very much a priority in people’s daily lives. Sitting down around a meal with family members is very important. It’s not something to be set aside or maybe happen once every two weeks. Sometimes here in the United States, we kind of let food go by the wayside. It’s an essential part of life there and I think it’s really embraced as part of living a good life, is enjoying the food and drink and family and enjoying the fruits and produce and all that they have to offer that’s there fresh around you, is really important to people all over Latin-America.
On Something That Didn’t Turn Out as Planned:
Well, I would say, it has taken me a while to perfect my bean recipe which is pretty essential when you’re cooking a lot of Mexican food. I initially thought that bean should be thicker, like a chili, and then you would mash that up to make refried beans or whatever. My husband was always very, very kind, but he is like, “It’s okay, it’s great,” not very excited about it. It wasn’t until we went to visit his aunt and I saw her making beans and I was like, “You put so much water.” It’s like a soup really when you first make them and then as the week goes on, you take the beans out of the broth and then you mash them with oil to make refried beans or whatever. I didn’t get that at all until I actually saw her making the beans. So now, I have a pretty solid recipe. I feel pretty confident about it, but it took some time.
It’s called The Perfect Pot of Beans because I’m very proud that I finally have that recipe down. So you can make the perfect pot of beans too.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I have to say none. I don’t have a television, so I don’t watch cooking shows.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
Some of my favorites, I love Salt and Wind which is a travel/food lovely recipes, but it’s all about travel and I love that site because I live in the middle of nowhere, so I kind of can travel via that site. Another great one is Heather Christo Cooks. She has wonderful recipes that are easy for the most part and they always are delicious. Beard and Bonnet is a great blog that I love. Turntable Kitchen, I love her writing, Kasey’s writing is great. I could go on and on.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
I’m a big Instagrammer and obviously I follow mostly food bloggers or people in food. I really like Lisa Thiele. She does With Style and Grace and most of her photos are of her kids, but they’re so stinking adorable. I love it. It makes me happy. Mom’s Kitchen Handbook is another great one, that’s Katie Morford. She has really great recipes and she has tons of school lunch ideas which I steal all the time for my daughter who is in school. Like I said before, I love a sense of humor. I love ones that make me laugh, so one of my favorites is called Queen Bey Breakfast, which is photographs of Beyonce holding breakfast dishes, like superimposed breakfast food. It’s really hilarious. It makes me laugh every time.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
Well, I have the world’s ugliest wallpaper in my kitchen. I swear to God it is crazy. It is a montage of flowerpots and hanging flower baskets cut from different pieces of wallpaper. When we first moved into our house, we’ve lived there six years now. It’s embarrassing to admit that wallpaper still is up there. But now it’s like a part of the kitchen and as much as I do want to get rid of it, it just continues to exist. It’s like it defines our kitchen, it’s crazy.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Well, it’s not really an ingredient, but I used to really despise kombucha. I thought who in the world wants to drink vinegar. That is the weirdest thing, but now I have to have it all the time. It’s kind of disgusting. I have a slight addiction to kombucha. I used to despise it. I used to make fun of people who drank it and now I am one of those people.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
The ones I mentioned earlier are some of my Mexican favorites, but there’s tons more. I love cookbooks. I have a huge cookbook library. Some of the ones I’ve recently been reading and re-reading is Feast by Sarah Copeland. It’s a vegetarian cookbook that is just gorgeous and has such delicious recipes. Another one that I’ve been poring over is The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen. It really encompasses this region that I live in, this upper Midwest region of the world. She’s just an excellent writer. Another one this time of year I always have cracked open in my kitchen is called Blue Ribbon Preserves, because now I’m canning. I have tomatoes coming out every orifice, so I’m canning, canning, canning and it’s a book about canning and I always follow her recipes to a T and they always work beautifully.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I know you wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I have a hip-hop heart. I love hip-hop, so usually if I’m cooking or testing recipes or working in the kitchen, I have on Macklemore, I love his work, Mos Def, Talib Kweli. I also love 1990s hip-hop like old school, so I have Pandora Summertime Radio on all the time, but it’s mostly hip-hop.
On Keeping Posted with Kate:
Well, of course, the blog, holajapeno.com is the best place to go to see what’s happening in my kitchen. I love Instagram, Hola Jalapeño. I’m @holajalepno on Twitter or Facebook, my Facebook page too always has constant updates. Any of those would be a good place.