One chef’s quest to change the way Americans view Mexican food

April 21, 2024 | Rethinking Mexican food, one dish — and story — at a time (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON Marcela Valladolid has been teaching home cooks the ins-and-outs of Mexican food for years on her Food Network shows “Mexican Made Easy” and “The Kitchen.”

Curious about ceviche? Valladolid has the answer. In search of a killer salsa? She has several from which to choose.

But in Valladolid’s latest project, “Casa Marcela,” food isn’t the only focus. Rather, the spotlight is on the culture behind her native cuisine.

This Monday, July 11, 2011 photo shows potato salad studded with grilled corn and poblano peppers in Concord, N.H.  For Marcela Valladolid, salads are not starters. They are big and substantial.  For the AP's 20 Salads of Summer series, Valladolid offered this potato salad recipe.    (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
Recipes from Marcela Valladolid A big and substantial potato, corn and poblano pepper salad from Marcela Valladolid. Find the recipe here. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
This photo taken Aug. 30, 2009 shows a  Jalapeno Roast Chicken with Baby Broccol.  Marcela Valladolid's recent cookbook "Fresh Mexico" features modern Mexican cuisine using less of the common ingredients Americans are use to and looking to fresh vegetables, an expanded selection of chilies and even oysters, crabs and prunes. Fresh broccolini is arranged around the whole chicken for the final roasting of Jalapeno Roast Chicken with Baby Broccoli. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
Recipes from Marcela Valladolid Jalapeño roast chicken with baby broccoli. Find the recipe here. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
This photo taken Nov. 8, 2009 shows a roasted turkey in apricot-chili glaze. With the roots of Americans originating in over 125 different countries it is only natural the flavors and traditions of other cultures should become part of our Thanksgiving feasts. Marcela Valladolid, author of "Fresh Mexico", brings her Mexican roots into this adapted recipe for roasted turkey in apricot-chili glaze. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
Recipes from Marcela Valladolid Roasted turkey in apricot-chili glaze. Find the recipe here. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
© 2017 Kaz Sasahara. All rights reserved. www.lancerphotography.com
Marcela Valladolid’s latest project, “Casa Marcela,” dives into the rich culture behind Mexican cuisine. (© 2017 Kaz Sasahara)
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This Monday, July 11, 2011 photo shows potato salad studded with grilled corn and poblano peppers in Concord, N.H.  For Marcela Valladolid, salads are not starters. They are big and substantial.  For the AP's 20 Salads of Summer series, Valladolid offered this potato salad recipe.    (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
This photo taken Aug. 30, 2009 shows a  Jalapeno Roast Chicken with Baby Broccol.  Marcela Valladolid's recent cookbook "Fresh Mexico" features modern Mexican cuisine using less of the common ingredients Americans are use to and looking to fresh vegetables, an expanded selection of chilies and even oysters, crabs and prunes. Fresh broccolini is arranged around the whole chicken for the final roasting of Jalapeno Roast Chicken with Baby Broccoli. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
This photo taken Nov. 8, 2009 shows a roasted turkey in apricot-chili glaze. With the roots of Americans originating in over 125 different countries it is only natural the flavors and traditions of other cultures should become part of our Thanksgiving feasts. Marcela Valladolid, author of "Fresh Mexico", brings her Mexican roots into this adapted recipe for roasted turkey in apricot-chili glaze. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
© 2017 Kaz Sasahara. All rights reserved. www.lancerphotography.com

Growing up in Tijuana, Mexico, Valladolid crossed the U.S. border regularly to attend school in San Diego, California.

“Even with that close proximity, people had tremendous misconceptions of who we were as Mexicans, how we lived our lives as a family and the foods we prepared,” she said.

That observation, combined with a summer job washing produce and cleaning dishes at her aunt’s cooking school in Baja, was enough to prompt Valladolid to switch her focus from architecture to the culinary arts.

Over the years, Valladolid, 39, has seen a shift in the way Mexican food is viewed and consumed in the U.S. Simply put, she’s watched its popularity soar.

“Tortillas outsell bread, and salsas outsell ketchup in the good old US-of-A. I think [Mexican cuisine] has just always been a part of American culture,” she said.

Still, there is work to be done.

“There’s still a misconception that it’s heavy; there’s still a misconception that it can’t be sophisticated; there’s still a misconception that the recipes can be really complex and labor-intensive,” Valladolid said.

In “Casa Marcela,” Valladolid busts through these misconceptions, both with approachable dishes and the personal stories behind them. A recipe for oxtail, bean and chile stew is followed by a detailed description of a traditional Mexican baptism. Valladolid’s pickled beets are paired with a memory from her favorite restaurant in Tijuana.

“Casa Marcela” shares recipes and stories from the Mexican cuisine and culture. (© 2017 Kaz Sasahara)

And using pictures of her own family in her kitchen at home, Valladolid walks readers through a step-by-step process for making tamales.

There are also pages filled with instructions for strawberry-layered tres leches cake, watermelon and mint salad, and, of course, fish tacos.

“This book is about living on [the U.S.] side of the border, how I hold tight to those traditions, how I want to pass them down to my children, how incredibly proud I am of my heritage,” Valladolid said.

“It’s my personal mission to talk about just the culture in general about how we approach food, about how we approach entertaining, about how we live our lives, how we set the table, how we’re also busy moms now and don’t have time for those recipes that are 40 ingredients.”


Valladolid was recently at a book-signing event at Room & Board, where she shared some of her best tips for stress-free summer entertaining.

Don’t experiment: A dinner party is not the time to test new recipes. Have a few already in your arsenal (test them out first on your own family), and whip them out when guests come over to dine.

Check your attitude: “What sets the tone for your party is your attitude from the moment your guests arrive. If you’re nervous or frazzled when your guests arrive, they’ll be able to feel it,” Valladolid said. 

Allow yourself plenty of time not only to prep the dishes before everyone shows up, but also to shower and get yourself ready. Choose a meal that can be assembled ahead and served at room temperature.

Cheese, please: Valladolid admits, “It’s so not Mexican, but go for the cheese board.”

Setting out a few things to nibble on will keep guests occupied while you finish pulling everything together.

“My fridge is always stocked with a couple of good cheeses. I always have honey and honeycomb, I always have prosciutto because my kids love it and if all of the sudden, I have to entertain, I’ll grab one of my cutting boards and I’ll make a nice board with whatever cheese I have, whatever deli meats I have,” she said.

 

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