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Food & Entertaining

Celebrating a Mother's Love

Author: Karen Fernau
Issue: May, 2016, Page 106
photography by Grace Stufkosky

Chef Mel Mecinas’ Cucumber Granita with Citrus Salad
One of the Valley’s Top Chefs Pays Tribute With a Special Mother’s Day Menu

With five boys to feed, Ines Lopez spent countless hours in front of a wood-fired stove stretching her backyard harvest into meals that kept hunger at bay.
That’s how Chef Mel Mecinas remembers his mother, the industrious cook he credits for his rise from dish-
washer to executive chef at Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North.

“My mother worked as a seamstress, but when she wasn’t sewing she was in the kitchen cooking,” he says. “It’s where she ruled the family, and it’s where by watching her, smelling the food and tasting the flavors that I learned to love cooking.”

Ines, who by Mexican tradition keeps her maiden name, never taught her sons, four of whom grew up to be chefs, to cook. Instead she taught them the ground rules: Never waste anything. Fresh is the only option. Meat is precious, so treat it with the utmost care. A pantry stocked with dried beans, corn and chilies means there’s always dinner. Most importantly, families are bound by the meals they share together.

“Sometimes I think we ate better because we were so poor,” Mel reflects. “We took nothing for granted and appreciated everything. The meals my mother cooked were simple, sometimes just beans, scrambled eggs and her red chili sauce. My mother knew the importance of doing the best you could with what you had, and of eating together.”

Chef Mel Mecinas in his restaurant, Talavera.
Mel grew up in Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, a mountain town in the Oaxacan region of Mexico known for its leather sandals, hand-stitched clothing, moles and mescal. When Mel was 9 years old, his father, Armando, sold the eight donkeys he’d been using to haul firewood to market and emigrated alone to Los Angeles. Also an accomplished cook, he worked in restaurants, skimming money from his minimum-wage paycheck to send to his wife and sons.

Back at the family home, Ines was now alone in the kitchen with double the work. She began each day by taking a bag of dried corn to a communal grinder in the town square to be turned into flour for tortillas. Meals were created from memory, not recipes, and prepared without the convenience of a refrigerator or oven. “Let’s just say she didn’t have a blender,” Mel says.

While many chefs today subscribe to the locavore philosophy of cooking with food harvested within 100 miles, for Ines, cooking local was a necessity. Her definition of this now-popular discipline was any food within walking distance: beef from the Tuesday farmers market; mangos from trees lining the streets; and corn, chilies, beans and squash from the family garden.

When Mel turned 18, he left home and followed his father to Los Angeles, working his way up from a dishwasher
in a Chinese restaurant, to a line cook for Joachim Splichal of Patina, to a 20-year career in elite Four Seasons kitchens in California and Arizona.

He worked alongside a handful of notable chefs, from the legendary Julia Child and Charlie Trotter to regional luminaries Christopher Gross, Gio Osso, Silvana Salcido Esparza and Justin Beckett.

Although he values his fellow chefs’ influences, he more often than not turns to his mother’s sensibilities for guidance and inspiration. “My mother had no help, no butter, no oil,” he says. “She made do with what she had and a few wooden spoons, a knife and a strong work ethic.”

Mel has yet to cook a Mother’s Day meal for Ines, who along with his father, now lives in Oaxaca where she and Armando own a thriving grocery store bought with the money sent from Los Angeles. “My mother never spent the money. She saved it all,” Mel notes.

Nowadays, when his parents visit Mel, his wife and their two sons at their home in Scottsdale, he attempts to cook for Ines.

“I tell my mom that I cook, that it’s what I do, and I want to cook for her,” he says. “She doesn’t always listen. My mother is still the boss.”

This year, in honor of his mother, Mel created Mother’s Day dishes that reflect the bold, clean flavors of her Oaxacan-style food. The baked egg dish, spiked with chilies, onions, spinach and chorizo, can be prepped on Saturday and cooked for a Sunday brunch on the patio. Serve with a granita salad showcasing in-season citrus.

The second entree, a guajillo-coated grilled salmon, is served with a lime-spiked gazpacho salad made with avocados, red onions, cucumbers, roasted peppers and tomatoes.

Along with his fabulous recipes, Mel offers a wise piece of advice for the special occasion: “Don’t let your mother in the kitchen. This is a day you cook to show your love for her.”

Chef Mel credits his love of cooking to his mother, Ines, seen here enjoying a birthday celebration with her friend, Eugenia.
Chef Mel Mecinas’ Cucumber Granita with Citrus Salad

For Granita:
    4 large English cucumbers
    1 inch fresh ginger, peeled

For citrus salad:

    1 large grapefruit
    2 blood oranges
    2 Cara Cara oranges
    2 tangerines
       Pinch fresh basil
       Optional: 2 tablespoons Tajin seasoning, a chili-lime season available at Hispanic markets

For granita, place unpeeled cucumber and ginger into a juicer or blender. Blend or juice until smooth. Pour juice into a large flat sheet pan. Place in freezer for at least 4 hours or until completely frozen.

For salad, peel and dice all of the citrus into 1-inch pieces. Toss with basil and Tajin seasoning. To assemble, remove frozen cucumber-ginger juice. Use a fork to shave into a consistency similar to shaved ice. Add ¼ of the granita into 4 chilled salad bowls. Top with equal portions of the citrus salad. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

Chef Mel Mecinas’ Mother’s Day Egg Casserole
Chef Mel Mecinas’ Mother’s Day Egg Casserole

Chef Mel Mecinas’ Mother’s Day Egg Casserole
    2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
    ½ cup baby spinach leaves
    ½ cup diced red onions
    ½ cup diced poblano peppers
    ½ cup jalapeños, slightly charred on a grill and diced 
    ½ cup chopped mushrooms
    1 cup cooked chorizo
    12 large eggs, beaten
    1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
       Salt and fresh ground white pepper
    ½ cup diced tomato
    2 ripe avocados, peeled and cut into thin fan-shaped wedges
    ½ cup crumbled queso fresco
        Pinch of chopped cilantro

Prepare in four personal-size cast-iron skillets or a single casserole dish. For either preparation, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

For individual servings, divide ingredients into four equal portions. Place a skillet on medium heat. Add about ½ tablespoon oil. When hot, add 1 portion each of spinach; onions; poblano and jalapeño peppers; mushrooms; and chorizo. Sauté about 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently. Pour 3 beaten eggs into sauté pan, and scramble for 1 minute. Top with ¼ cup pepper jack cheese.  Set aside and repeat with remaining servings. When complete, place skillets in the oven and bake for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted.

Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Garnish with diced tomatoes, avocado wedges, queso fresco and cilantro. Serve immediately.

For casserole, heat large skillet to medium-high. Add about 1 tablespoon oil and, when hot, add spinach, onions, poblano and jalapeño peppers, mushrooms, and chorizo. Sauté 2-3 minutes. Set aside. Lightly oil a 3-quart baking dish. Add vegetable and chorizo mix. Pour eggs into pan, and top with pepper jack cheese. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Cut into 4 equal servings. Garnish each with avocado wedges, diced tomatoes, cilantro and queso fresco. Season with salt and white pepper.

Serves 4

Chef Mel Mecinas’ Guajillo-Coated Salmon With Gazpacho Salad
Chef Mel Mecinas’ Guajillo-Coated Salmon With Gazpacho Salad

Chef Mel Mecinas’ Guajillo-Coated Salmon With Gazpacho Salad
For salad:
    1 ripe avocado, peeled and diced
    ½ cup finely diced red onions
    1 cup cucumbers, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces
    1 cup fire-roasted peppers, diced into 1-inch pieces
    3 heirloom tomatoes, diced into 1-inch pieces
    ½ cup heirloom cherry tomatoes, diced into 1-inch pieces
    1 lime, zested and juiced
    2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
    ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
        Salt and pepper to taste

For tortilla chips:

    3 corn tortillas, 7 inches each
    ¼ cup canola or olive oil
    1 tablespoon chipotle powder

For salmon:
    2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
    4 salmon fillets, about 6 ounces each
    ¼ cup guajillo chili powder
        Salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes:
    2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
       Salt and fresh ground white pepper

Begin by preparing salad and tortilla chips. For salad, add diced vegetables into a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, add lime juice, lime zest, Tabasco and oil. Whisk until completely blended. Pour dressing over vegetables, and mix well. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate.

For tortilla chips, dice corn tortillas into ½-inch squares. Add oil to a large sauté pan on medium heat. When hot, add tortilla pieces and sauté until crispy, about 3-5 minutes. Remove and dry on paper towels to remove excess oil. Toss with chipotle powder. Set aside.

For salmon, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season fish on both sides with guajillo powder, salt and pepper. Add oil to a large sauté pan and heat on medium. When hot, add two pieces of salmon and sear both sides until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Repeat with remaining pieces. When done, place in a shallow oven-proof dish and bake for about 6 minutes.

Assemble by placing equal portions of the gazpacho salad on 4 plates or in 4 shallow bowls. Arrange salmon on top of salad. Season with salt and white pepper. Garnish with cilantro and tortilla chips. Serve immediately.

Serves 4
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