BY :: JASON LAWRENCE
PHOTOGRAPHER JD URBAN
Right now, I’m sitting in the dining room of The Ambassador of Latin Cuisine, chef and television personality, Daisy Martinez, as she prepares ingredients and dishes to be photographed for an upcoming series in El Diario, the oldest, and one of the largest, Spanish language daily newspapers in the country. As I type, onions, tomatoes, finely chopped steak, potatoes, parsley and garlic are being arranged on a platter, ready for their moment in the spotlight before being transformed into empanadas.
A mother of four; author of three, global best-selling cookbooks (Daisy Cooks, Daisy: Morning, Noon & Night, and Daisy’s Holiday Cooking); and star of PBS’s Daisy Cooks! and Food TV’s Viva Daisy!, Daisy is always working — perfecting recipes, meeting fans, lending her support to culinary and charity events and sharing her passion for food with those around her.
Each week, Holidays with Daisy brings Daisy into the homes of El Diario’s readers, allowing them to share her passion for cooking and her culinary experience as she provides recipes and ideas for delicious holiday menus, featuring traditional Latin dishes inspired by her own Puerto Rican heritage and flavors of the region.
As empanadas are stuffed and deep fried, filling the room with incredible aromas, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be sitting here experiencing this process and sampling each dish after the shutter snaps; capturing its visual beauty, but unable to replicate the sensations it creates. Breathing it in reminds me of being home for Thanksgiving even though, as a Virginia native, this is nothing like the foods I grew up with. Daisy makes elegant comfort food on steroids — eating it is a purely sensual experience.
It’s something more than the years of education, the countless hours spent in the kitchen and the muscle memory of hands that have folded empanadas since childhood that makes Daisy’s food special. Her passion for what she does, and her sincere desire to share the flavors that are dear to her heart, entwine with the ingredients to make magic.
“¡Coñaso!” is shouted around the corner in the kitchen. Like most people that are bilingual, Daisy likes to intermingle her languages, throwing in Spanish here and there, when English just doesn’t quite capture the appropriate feeling. She likes to curse in Spanish, which always makes me laugh because although I have no idea what it means, it expresses dissatisfaction in a way that English curses simply can’t. The curse has been emitted because Daisy has forgotten to buy eggplant. It’s not a critical component of the dish, but an ingredient she felt would provide an additional, intensifying flavor. You see, Daisy is a perfectionist with food. For her, not having the eggplant is like a painter finding himself without the brush needed to make the ultimate finishing stroke on a masterpiece – the result will still be an incredible work of art, but the artist will see the missing streak of paint and know that it is just short of perfection.
This seriousness though is what helps make the magic. Balanced constantly with laughter it creates an experience, not just a meal. Through Daisy’s firm encouragement, I’ve tasted foods that I’d already written off years earlier or never entertained putting in the gigantic hole in my face that I call a mouth. Daisy has confidence that if you don’t like a dish, you just haven’t had the chance to taste it prepared correctly – and she will provide you with that opportunity. Every single time, she’s proved my preconceptions wrong and removed grateful ingredients from my “dead to me” list.
OK, so you’re saying, “Of course her food is delicious. She’s a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and a professional chef! I burn Ramen noodles and my instant pudding always comes out all wrong – there’s no chance I can make her dishes at home.”
And I’m replying, “You’re wrong fool! Not only can you prepare these delicious meals at home, you can make a chipotle flourless chocolate cake instead of pudding and use those uncooked Ramen noodles as bedding in your hamster cage!”
“How do you know!?” you ask again, like a petulant child. After getting over the hurt of you not trusting me, I’ll answer – “Because I’ve done it myself! Yes, really!”
This past Summer, my mom and I attended a cooking class that Daisy holds annually at Whitehead Light Station in Maine. On a small island, living in the old lighthouse keeper’s residence, we would wake each morning to views of water crashing against the rocks and our assignment for the day. After breakfast, we’d don our aprons, grab our knives and, together as a group with Daisy’s guidance, prepare an incredibly decadent and satisfying lunch. There we were, yelling “Behind you chef!” like professionals, roasting red peppers over an open flame, steaming freshly caught lobster in seaweed, stuffing slices of garlic into marinating pernil and making achiote oil to color and flavor our perfectly cooked rice. I have never (let me reiterate, never) made perfect rice before this class. With two simple rules, Daisy showed us how. And once you get over the fear of making rice, you can do other things you’re afraid of, like set spiders free outside instead of killing them. No more instant rice, and you can leave the “San Francisco treat” in San Francisco where it belongs. It’s very liberating!
Since then, I’ve made several of Daisy’s dishes at home, following her recipes, and they’ve come out amazing each time. It’s a great way to impress your friends at a dinner party and, more importantly, it’s something special to do with family and friends. Cooking can bring people together, lighten the mood and break down barriers faster than almost anything else because, after all, one of the few things we all have in common is our need to eat and our love of delicious food. And few embody the communal power of cuisine more than Daisy because to her, nothing is more important than family and that includes her blood relatives, as well as her friends and fans. When you’re in Daisy’s kitchen, it’s like being in your mom’s, or your aunt’s, or your sister’s, or your best friend’s home — she is a beautiful, genuine, strong and talented woman who has worked hard for success but never forgotten her roots.
And that’s what’s exciting about this latest venture with El Diario – it’s a great way to bring the family together. Imagine, each week, gathering new recipes, sitting down to plan your holiday meal, shopping for all the fresh ingredients and then preparing and cooking, together. In this world where we’re so connected, but often so busy that we neglect time together with the ones we love, wouldn’t it be nice to return to basics for a season and bring togetherness back to Christmas, Channukah and all of the other holidays we celebrate as another year comes to a close? I think so, and that’s why this year, I’ll be foregoing the American classic turkey or ham on Christmas and making pernil, empanadas and arroz con gandules with my partner and our family. Oh, and as Daisy is serving me a beautiful slice of it right now, coconut flan! “¡Coñaso! How could I forget the flan?”
To connect with Daisy and get the latest and greatest recipes, details on upcoming events and to be the first to learn about her upcoming cookbook, check out the sites below:
- Like Daisy on Facebook
- Connect with Daisy on Twitter at @la_daisy
- Visit Daisy’s website at DaisyMartinez.com
- Holidays With Daisy weekly in El Diario
- Learn more about Daisy through candid interviews on The Everyday People Project.