So you want to have buena sazón?

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: recipes are guidelines, not rules.

However, you should only break the rules of a recipe if your kitchen experience and technique are solid.  The craft of cooking DEFINITELY has rules. Believe me, it’s taken many inedible batches of cookies (stevia is not sugar when making biscochitos, the cookies tasted like pure lard) and more than one flavorless roast (a dried herb doesn’t pack the punch of a fresh one) to figure this out first hand.

One delcious bite of Zarela's mole

In one of my favorite cookbooks, Zarela’s Veracruz, la reina de la cocina Mexicana and True Goddess of Mexican Cuisine, Zarela Martinez includes a humorous and informative chapter called If You Really Want to Cook Like Me.  Zarela tiene buena sazón for sure – she is an outstanding chef with decades of culinary experience behind her apron, so of course I want to cook like her!

In this chapter she leaves no doubt that canned chicken broth IS NOT fresh chicken stock, dried herbs are not their fresh green counterparts, and that margarine is by no means butter. She also says that, “leaving out any one stage of a recipe guarantees that you will never get the desired results.” For example, I have learned that sauces should be layered and stewed.  If you forget to add an essential ingredient you could throw it in last minute, but  the sauce will not be as rich or complex as if it were layered properly. And braising meat before roasting or boiling makes all the difference in flavor and texture.

Tamal, platanos y mole and a Oaxacan salad

Quality and specificity of both ingredients and technique make or break a recipe. Substitutions matter and, as Zarela says, “make all the difference between singing the melody as written and whistling off-key.” This is not to say that you have to sing it note for note, but you have to be able to hit the notes that you do sing. The ability to use your own style and experience with flavors, textures and culinary chemistry to make a recipe your own without compromising the deliciousness of the original dish is the definition of a great chef.  In other words, don’t be lazy and be conscious of how each substitution you make will change the recipe.

The lovely Zarela tiene buena sazón!

I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend one of Zarela’s cooking demonstrations, a part of Food Is Art, a year long collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York.  Zarela mesmerized us all with her knowledge and love for Mexican cuisine.  She is also incredibly generous  with her knowledge of her craft and she has been gracious enough to share it with me.

During the coming months I will be spending some time with her in the kitchen. She is the cook and hostess that I aspire to be (in addition to my lovely mother and madrina, of course).  I invite you to explore her website for authentic Mexican recipes, facts about Mexican culture and the intriguing stories of her life. I hope to share with you what Zarela teaches me as I join her in her kitchen and at her table each Sunday.

Now….I’d like to hear from you! What has been your greatest kitchen mistake and what did you learn from it?

10 Responses to “So you want to have buena sazón?”
  1. sweetlife says:

    Great post, I love Zarela and how envious I am you had a chance to see her demo, oh wow I have had tons of cooking mishaps including blowing up my blender while making mole, I had forgot to put the tiny plastic ring on the bottom..what a mess,lol I look forward to your next posts…..


    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      Zarela is amazing, her knowledge and passion for Mexican food is so profound.
      Oh no, that must of been messy and frustrating, I’m sure, since mole is so labor intensive! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Lesley says:

    My biggest cooking lesson in recent months is not to cook a crazy-complicated recipe when there’s a chance I could be tired and hungry. It would seem like common sense, but for some reason I didn’t want to face it, until my planned, super-awesome tortilla casserole turned into a weird chilaquiles hybrid, because I didn’t want to do complete all the steps. It wasn’t good, by the way. (Although in theory, I love the idea of a chilaquiles hybrid.)

    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      Ay, Lesley! I’ve definitely fallen victim to that one too…exhaustion and cooking a complicated dish don’t mix for sure. I once made a horrible pay de mango for a potluck, it was very embarrassing. MMMM….can’t wait to see a post about a chilaquiles hybrid…like enchilada casserole but better I imagine!

  3. Josy says:

    I totally agree about recipes being guidelines, but when it comes to desserts measurements are a must! I have definitely learned the hard way. I’ve put more baking soda than called for, confused my salt measurements and put too little flour! Needless to say none of the things came out right. Baking= exact science

    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      I absloutely agree Josy! I’ve baked cookies that were more like muffins and cakes that never rose. So, like I mentioned I only break the rules of a recipewhen I know my kitchen experience and technique are solid since the craft of cooking definitely has rules. And yes baking is absolutely a science! Measurements and ratios are oh-so-important, I’m still working on getting ratios down tight….

  4. I agree with you 100% that recipes are guidelines, not rules. “There are no rules in cooking!” If a reader is inspired to follow a recipe more or less, personalizing it with their own tastes, the recipe has succeeded.

    My greatest kitchen mistake? Mistaking baking soda for cornstarch to thicken a gravy was not a good thing I realized, as I watched the gravy bubble and foam down the front of the stove. Maybe some can drink while they cook. I can’t.


    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      Whoa! The bubbling gravy is a hilarious image, although I’m sure you were disappointed to lose your gravy that meal. As for whether or not I am able to drink and cook at the same time…maybe a few sips of wine or beer but prudently since I want to keep all my fingers when chopping 😉

  5. I have Zarela’s Veracruz sitting on my nightstand – great cookbook. I agree cooking becomes intuitive after a person becomes adept with the food science of heat, texture, and flavor. And, if you’ve got it right, it can be like magic!

    In the graph about Zarela being the cook and hostess, I was a bit envious because I thought you were saying Zarela is your mama – then I realized you were talking about three mujeres. I look forward to following your cooking adventure with Zarela.

    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      What’s your favorite recipe in her book? I’m having trouble deciding what to make next!

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