Chef brings the taste of her native Mexico to D.C.

Entertainment,Alexandra Greeley


If you go

Mexican Cultural Institute

2829 16th St. NW



Petite, energetic and possibly the most exuberant female chef in town, Mexican-born Patricia Jinich runs the culinary programs for the Mexican Cultural Institute, and with her contagious enthusiasm for Mexican culture and food, has attracted countless visitors to the landmark building on upper 16th Street.


An architectural delight and somewhat of a minimuseum with its collections of furniture, artwork and artifacts, the mansion was built in the early 1900s for a member of President Taft's administration and in the interim also functioned as the Embassy of Mexico. Today, it attracts visitors who come for the lectures, movies, art exhibits and ... for many, most importantly, Jinich's cooking classes.

That she has become a celebrity chef may puzzle her family and even perhaps Jinich herself, for growing up in Mexico with all its gastronomic riches, Jinich saw herself as the family rebel, a bohemian more interested in long-haired philosophical musings than in family recipes.

Like many traditional Mexican family households, food and good eating were never far from her family's daily life.

"I always loved food, but that was something we did at home, on weekends," she says. "I grew up in an interesting environment of food. You know that daily life in Mexico surrounds food -- the national holidays, religious holidays ... and a lot going on around the holidays, and all related to celebrating."

So when her sisters started cooking, Jinich headed off to university to study social sciences and then political science.

"I didn't want to become a professional cook. First I wanted to be philosopher or writer," she says, taking her first job at a think tank dealing with democratic institutions in Mexico.

After she married and moved to Texas, however, her life and interests began to shift just slightly.

"I went to all the crazy markets there, and I would come home to cook wild things," she says. "I started getting into cooking. I told my husband about a college in Dallas with a course about food and cooking, the science and business of food."

Instead, she ended up working on a PBS project profiling Texas chef Stephen Pyles and Mexican food, a job that required extensive research into regional Mexican ingredients and cooking.

"I would do the research and I located the best cooks in little towns," she says. "I was Mexican, but could also speak English."

But Jinich, ever the philosopher, didn't give up just yet on her academic career. With a move to Washington, a master's degree in Latin American studies from Georgetown and a job with a D.C.-based policy research center, it seemed that had left the cookpots behind.

Not quite. Bored and unhappy, Jinich was urged by her husband to do what really gave her pleasure: cooking. After giving up her job and taking several courses at Maryland's L'Academie de Cuisine, Jinich composed a teaching curriculum for Mexican cooking. And as chance would have it, the new director of the Mexican Cultural Institute met her, heard of her cooking classes and invited her to teach at the institute.

The outcome? A series of sold-out classes -- dinner afterward. And assuredly an ever-growing fan base for Mexican food -- and for Patricia Jinich.

Q&A with Chef Patricia Jinich

What is your comfort food?

Mmmm, this is my favorite of all time -- chicken Milanesa with mashed potatoes and chipotle sauce. And in Mexico, this is very common, like the Mexican version of the schnitzel. I love sweet tamales, which are tamales de dulce.

What's in your fridge right now?

Tons of experiments I'm working on, such as different kinds of chayote salad and different versions of cucumber salad. And I have some dried chilies that I'm pickling. And you will always find chipotles en adobo and always refried beans.

Which is your favorite restaurant?

It's a place Chiandoni, a very old ice cream shop in Mexico City. It's 100 years old and started by an Italian immigrant. They only have ice cream and the most incredible coffee. ... And hot fudge sundae, when I go my dad picks me up and we go straight there. They use really old cups made of old-fashioned material. ... The hot fudge sundae just kills me. I would go there in a second.

Where is your favorite place in the world?

That's hard. *** I love Oaxaca, I love the city of Oaxaca but I love Valle de Bravo, and that is a little town ... west of Mexico City, a two-hour drive. And it's a very small, non-touristy town, charming, next to a lake. It has the cobblestones and little streets, and a charming zocalo and an old-fashion ice cream store. The biggest blackberries are sold in little markets, and fresh squash flowers and cactus paddles. And nonstop wild mushrooms for three to four months a year. ... I used to play dominos with my dad there.

How do you get your inspiration?

*** Just anything, I just get excited about every little thing. I get inspired and want to share with my boys who were born in U.S. And I just see the way my older boy feels about the U.S. For me one of the ways to keep them linked and to open the world for them is through food, so I show things I used to eat when I grew up. I want to travel to all places haven't been to in Mexico. I want them to be aware of the wonderful culture in Mexico. ***

From the Chef's Kitchen

Patricia Jinich's Beachside Coconut Flan

Serves 8 to 10

The flan cooks in a hot-water bath, so ready a deep baking pan filling it part way with hot water before placing in the baking mold or cups holding the flan mixture. The water should come up at least to about half the height of the mold/cups. The flan, covered in plastic wrap, can be refrigerated once it has cooled down for up to a week. If it was refrigerated, take it out to room temperature before serving so it will be easier to unmold.

1 cup sugar

1 cup sweetened condensed milk

2 eggs

1 1/3 cups unsweetened dried and shredded coconut

Optional garnish: slices of fruit, such as ripe mangoes or berries

In a pan, heat sugar over medium-low heat until it achieves caramel consistency. You may need to move the pan from one side to the other as the sugar starts to dissolve and bubble a bit. Once it looks like caramel and is melted, decide how dark/strong you want the caramel. The lighter the color the, lighter the flavor. But be careful because if it gets too dark it can taste bitter and it can also burn quickly. Remove from the heat and pour it into the bottom of a flan/round tube mold or into 10 individual custard cups. Do so quickly, since caramel hardens fast.

Preheat the oven to 360 degrees.

Place sweetened condensed milk, 1 cup water and the eggs in a blender, and mix very well. Add shredded coconut and puree the mixture for 1 minute or so. Pour mixture on top of the hardened caramel in the mold or individual cups. Place molds in an already hot-water bath, in a deep baking pan in the oven. Remove once flan has set and top has browned. It will be about 35 to 40 minutes, depending on the depth of the flan. Let them cool and serve. To unmold, run the tip of a knife around the flan and turn onto a plate. Drizzle caramel on top. Flan can be served with any fresh fruit of your liking.

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