For a long time, I didn’t use cookbooks. Why bother, when the internet is stuffed to the gills with all the info an amateur could want? But then, for reasons I can’t recall, I picked up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. The introduction blew me away. I felt simultaneously as though I’d been slapped and patted on the back, and I’ve chased that feeling ever since. While I’ve learned a lot from subsequent books and blogs, nothing has resonated quite the way those first few chapters did. Until now, with the release of Rick Martínez’s Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico.
This recently released volume isn’t so much “cooking textbook” as it is “intimate culinary thesis.” Even though I’ve only owned it for a few weeks, and it might be premature to call it one of the greatest cookbooks I own, let me tell you why Mi Cocina is, if not the greatest, then at least the most beautiful cookbook I’ve read.
A good story bolsters any cookbook
Not all journeys begin with a happy first step. By this point, you’ve probably heard all about what happened at Conde Nast in 2020, including the reckoning at Bon Appetit where Martínez was senior food editor, and I won’t presume to tell his story. Suffice it to say, the cook stood up for himself in the face of inequitable treatment and pay.
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Though you can find him on both the Food52 YouTube channel and the Babish Culinary Universe, the majority of Martínez’s time post–Bon Appetit has been spent on the road. He flew south in October 2019, bought a car, and spent 586 days traveling the length and breadth of Mexico. Each section of the resulting book features a personal essay about his time learning and eating in a given region. These bits of context are intimate and sincere, elevating the recipes they precede.
A cookbook full of color
If we really do “eat with our eyes,” as the old expression says, then this book is visual buffet. From cover to cover, the pages of Mi Cocina are a kaleidoscope of colors and texture. The gorgeous photography and typesetting draw your gaze from course to course while remaining eminently readable.
Few cookbooks have left this kind of visual impression on me. Bourdain’s Appetites had a strong visual signature, and fellow Bon Appetit alum Molly Baz’s Cook This Book is similarly striking. Martínez’s collection captures a vivid sense of place and time with a color palette that will stand out on any bookstore, library, or kitchen shelf.
That being said, the book can be a touch difficult to navigate. For the most part, recipes are grouped by region rather than type. I understand why it’s this way, as the whole text is written through the lens of the author’s journey through these regions. But a more comprehensive index would have been helpful.
The recipes have heart
The love in this book is overwhelming: It exudes from the pages, particularly when discussing Martínez’s family and their history. “My mom is the reason I cook,” he says, before going on to document her exploration of a heritage and identity that his own travels would eventually follow.
Martínez’s descriptions and openness are illuminating throughout, and readers can see the growth from beginning to end. This is especially true when, at the end of the introduction, he rejects the idea of toning down his experience for a general audience.
“The recipes in Mi Cocina are inspired not only by my travels but also the road to self-acceptance and, finally, my happiness,” says Martínez.
The flavors speak for themselves
All of this would ring hollow if the food was bad, or even average. But hot damn, this man knows his craft. I started with a staple: Frijoles de Olla, or “Simple beans with scallions and herbs.” I’ve made plenty of homemade beans, and the ingredients for this version seemed pretty basic. But then I smelled the steam rising off the pot. When I tasted them, the depth of flavor in the broth was shocking.
Over the next few days, I chose three condiments from his sizeable roster. The Salsa de Aguacate was smooth and fresh, with the creaminess of avocado and the tang of chiles and tomatillos. Salsa Tatemada was another simple thing done well, bright tomato acidity with a little char on its onions and serranos. Then the Salsa de Chipotle y Chile de Arbol, whose smoky heat lit up everything it touched.
Homemade corn tortillas followed (another revelation), as did a delicious Mexican butter rice with poblanos and carrots. By the time I reached the Pollo al Pastor on page 73, I had enough leftovers for a week. Yeah, I burned the chicken skin a bit (my oven is a temperamental beast), but the flavors were superb. Conclusion: Mi Cocina is a Master’s-level text.
This has been a whole lot of words for a cookbook recommendation. But there’s more going on with Mi Cocina than a simple list of recipes, too. Rick Martínez has created something noteworthy here, with equal virtue as a travelogue, journal, and culinary guide. Martínez is almost aggressive in his sincerity, the tone of a person freed from past constraints.
“Here,” Martínez seems to say. “This is what I love. Isn’t it beautiful?”