A Little Latin Flavor

Fiery Food Network star Daisy Martinez talks about why everyone should know how to break down a chicken, the dish her kids can’t get enough of, and the ingredient worth flying to Puerto Rico for.

Bob Curtis

Daisy Martinez never meant to be a Food Network star. Though the Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican mother of four always had a passion for cooking—she got her start young with a "Suzy Homemaker Bake Oven"—it was always a hobby, never a job. And then one year, as a surprise birthday present, her husband enrolled her in cooking school. Soon she’d graduated from the French Culinary Institute, and landed a job as a prep-kitchen chef on the set of the PBS show Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen. She then worked as a private chef in New York City, and later owned a catering company. In 2005, Daisy’s own PBS show, D aisy Cooks!, debuted—and the companion cookbook, Daisy Cooks! Latin Flavors that Will Rock Your World, won an award for “Best Latino Cuisine Cookbook in the World” by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Later, a chance meeting with Food Network queen Rachael Ray led to the production o f Viva Daisy! a cooking show produced by Ray’s company, which debuted on the Food Network in January 2009.

I would now love the opportunity to cook for Sonia Sotomayor. I am just so proud of her, and for her that I would love to show my love in the best way I know how.

Hungry Beast spoke to Daisy about how to make flawless scrambled eggs and why her dream is to cook for Sonia Sotomayor.

Let’s start with the basics: What kitchen skill do you think everyone should have?

Breaking down poultry. There are so many things that you can do with every little bit of a chicken or even a duck. Use the breasts for a delicious supreme, and the dark meat for a soup, a salad, or a braise. Then use the bones for a fond [the browned and caramelized bits of meat and vegetables stuck to the bottom of a pan after cooking a piece of meat] or a jus, or even a stock as the base for a soup. Even if you don't break it down when it’s raw, you'll definitely want to carve it after you roast it. My sons made a big deal about learning how to do this because it impresses the heck out of their girlfriends.

What is your favorite cooking technique?

I love braising—it just means comfort food to me, although I would have to say that roasting comes in a close second. I feel like I'm coaxing the flavors out of whatever I'm cooking if I invest a little time to do it right.

Is there one dish you think everyone should know how to make?

Scrambled eggs. There, I said it! Perfect scrambled eggs should be fluffy, not tough or toasted, devoid of any color but their own glorious yellow. They should barely quiver on the plate, not lay there like a latke! They should be delicate on the tongue, and rich in flavor. I don't skimp when it comes to scrambled eggs; I want mine with real butter, and enough cream to hold them up, but not leak. Salt, pepper and a sprinkle of fresh herbs and you have a little piece of heaven on a plate.

What are the five things you always have in your refrigerator/kitchen?

Sofrito—I am never without that. There is an endless number of dishes that I can start with sofrito, olives will enhance it, or stand on their own as a nosh. I always keep a few different cheeses in my refrigerator: a soft, a semi-hard cheese, and a dry cheese, like Parmesano or aged Manchego. Any dish in my kitchen will benefit from a squish of lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit, and so I always have them on hand. And always a couple of different extra-virgin olive oils; sometimes I infuse them with citrus or ginger or different herbs.

You're a big cheese fan—what are your favorites?

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Actually, I love a cheese my maternal grandmother, Clotilde Gonzalez, used to make. It is a simple Puerto Rican cow's milk cheese called queso de hoja and it is wrapped in a plantain leaf. It is slightly crumbly with a bit of salt, and she would serve it to use for breakfast with slices of sweet mango from the tree outside, and a hunk of pan de manteca that my cousin Luisito would bring home from the bakery where he apprenticed.

What hard-to-find ingredient do you think is worth hunting down?

Hmm...that's a hard one, because I live in New York City and have access to just about everything and anything. But judging by what my viewers and readers tell me, I would say it's a toss-up between Ajicitos dulces (cachucha peppers) and Culantro (recao). In Puerto Rico there is a fruit known as a Poma Rosa which looks like a red-striped pear, and has creamy, floral, delicate flesh unlike anything I have ever tasted before. I keep trying to find it in the United States, and have so far been unable to find it. I am dying to get my hands on some because I am feeling all kinds of sauces, desserts, and even savory dishes that will be amazing with the addition of this fruit. Maybe I should get a jump on the market and try to get it over here myself!

Is there a food you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t yet?

I love to try all different types of seafood. I always dreamed of eating the famed "angulas" and barnacles of Spain, and was thrilled when I tracked them down during my visit to Barcelona and Madrid. The chiles and potatoes of Peru were also on my list, and have made a good dent on that list as well. Now I am on a mission to visit the Navarra region of Spain and Uruguay to taste local flavors.

What is your favorite dish to cook for your family and friends?

One of my favorite things to cook is Pavochon, the Puerto Rican Roast Turkey that is prepared in the style of Lechon, that sinfully delicious Puerto Rican Roast Pork. I always make two turkeys for Thanksgiving: a Puerto Rican-style turkey and a traditional turkey, and year after year, the Puerto Rican-seasoned turkey is the first to go. The bones make a great start for soup the next day!

What do you make that your kids love?

My children were brought up on Puerto Rican pasteles (savory stuffed packets wrapped in banana leaves) and they appreciate and love the Mexican and Peruvian tamal. Carne asada (roast beef) is rivaled by Puerto Rican roast pork, Argentina's asado (grilled beef), or even Mexico's cochinita pilbil (roast pork). All have pride of place in my kitchen and on my table, and my children love them all.

What person would you most like to cook for in the world?

It used to say Oprah Winfrey, because I was on her show while I was in culinary school and I love that she touches so many people, but I've since re-thought this, and I would now love the opportunity to cook for Sonia Sotomayor. I am just so proud of her, and for her, that I would love to show my love in the best way I know how.

Click here for Daisy’s recipes on Cookstr.com.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.