Chef spotlight: Iliana de la Vega

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Chef Iliana de la Vega's famous Oaxacan black bean soup.


5:00 am on 08/10/2012

Vitals: Born in Mexico City, an only daughter with two brothers; mother was a chemist from Oaxaca, father an entrepreneur from Guanajuato; married for 27 years to Ernesto Torrealba, an architect who now helps her operate the family restaurant, the critically acclaimed El Naranjo in Austin, TX; proud mamá of two daughters: Ana, a baking and pastry graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, where mom also teaches, and Isabel, an anthropology student at UT Austin.

Experience: A self-taught chef who learned by reading books and teaching her friends to cook, de le Vega flirted with college in her early years, studying communications first, then pedagogy, then switching to hospitality administration. “But all I really wanted to do was cook,” she says. She opened her first restaurant, also called El Naranjo, in Oaxaca in the mid 1990s with virtually no professional experience and no formal culinary education. And it was a hit, instantly grabbing the attention of important restaurant critics around the world and shining a new spotlight on Oaxacan cuisine. The restaurant closed in 2006 when local social and political unrest devastated the area’s economy. In need of work and opportunity, she and Torrealba uprooted the family and moved to the U.S. Shortly thereafter, she was recruited to join the CIA’s San Antonio, TX campus to teach Mexican cuisine. And just three months ago she and Torrealba finally reopened El Naranjo—now on this side of the border.

The self-taught Chef Iliana de la Vega now teaches at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in addition to running her Austin restaurant, El Naranjo.

Early food memories: “Mexican food was not in fashion when I grew up. People don’t like to talk about that, but it’s true. If you invited someone over for dinner, you cooked French food. Sure, everyday cooking at home was Mexican or continental; my mom, for instance, used to make pork loin seasoned with Coca Cola. But that was just not interesting to me. It was tasty, but it never moved me. However, when my mother cooked something Mexican—then I was in. If it had chile it spoke to me.”

On her first days of teaching: “When I first started, I really didn’t know how to teach. And I didn’t even know a lot of technique or recipes yet. So whatever the people taking my class said they wanted to learn…I would say, Next week we will make that. I’d go home and read and practice that recipe and technique over and over until I got it, then I would teach it. This was in the days before internet so the research wasn’t simple. And there were sure a lot of mistakes along the way.”

On her mom: “I dreamed of moving to Paris to attend the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. But my mother said, I don’t think so. We are a traditional family and my daughter will not be living alone in France. It was a different time. She didn’t really understand why I wanted to cook. She thought it was too simple, that it wasn’t a career. But she was still supportive and she was one of my greatest teachers.”

On one of her more bizarre jobs: “I managed a Dominoes Pizza in Oaxaca. It was before we opened the first restaurant, and at the time I just needed a job. The franchise was a mess, losing money with employees stealing. But in six month we turned it around and started making a profit. Shortly after, it was ranked one of the best stores in Mexico. We even won the rookie manager of the year worldwide. It wasn’t my kind of food but it did teach me about customer service, quality control, promotions and all the things that go into running a restaurant.”

On landing her CIA teaching gig: “I went for an interview at the main campus in New York with one of the Vice Presidents. I told him, I am not French-trained, in fact I have no training. I just know how to cook and love it. He said, That’s what we want, somebody who understands the food and its origins. I still had to do a practical, though, meaning I had to cook for several of the higher ups at the school. I didn’t even know who they were so I wasn’t nervous. I made them my favorite dishes that I knew by heart: a Oaxacan black bean soup, a mole amarillo, a chayote salad. I got the job.”

Food she’s most passionate about: “The chiles of Mexico! I’ve been working with a group of growers there to help them protect their treasure—the chile pasilla oaxaqueño. I want to help make sure it is not grown anywhere else so we can preserve their livelihood. And I want to encourage them to continue to growing them, as they are very difficult and the growers themselves are very poor.”

On her style of cooking: “I want people to feel like I’m opening my kitchen at home to them. The way I cook is the way I would like people to see my country. Through my eyes. This is how I see Mexico and its food. Simple. Pure. Bold.”

Below is the recipe for  de la Vega’s black bean soup, one of the dishes she made for the CIA brass before she was hired to be on the faculty.

Oaxacan Style Black Bean Soup

10 corn tortillas

1 cup canola oil

3 tbsp canola oil

2 thick slices white onion

1 garlic clove peeled

4 avocado leaves

2-4 oaxacan pasilla chiles, clean reconstituted in hot water (Substitute with morita chiles if not available.)

4 cups cooked black beans (with some broth)

6 cups water

Salt to taste

8 oz panela cheese (or queso fresco) diced

1 Avocado small dice

1/3 cup crema Mexicana

1. Slice the tortillas in three sections and julienne them crosswise, air dry or slightly bake them in an oven for drying not roasting. Heat the oil in a sauté pan, when sizzling hot add the tortillas in batches, removing with a slotted spoon when crispy and slightly golden, place over a rack to drain excess oil.

2. In a stockpot heat 3 tbsp oil, add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and golden, remove and discard onion slices. Reserve the flavored oil.

3. Place avocado leaves in a small skillet, het up until fragrant; transfer them to the blender, along with 2 chiles pasilla, 1 cup of beans and 1½ cups water in blender jar process until very smooth, You can also pass it through a strainer, adding  water if needed.

4. Warm up the seasoned oil over medium low heat, add the pureed beans; repeat this step until all the beans are pureed. Season with salt, and check for chile flavor, adding more blended chiles if needed.

5. Serve hot, topped with the julienned tortillas, garnish with avocado and crema. (Serves 8)

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A Vision of Mexican Fare

Byron Smith for The Wall Street JournalFonda’s duck zarape

Fonda, an authentic Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s Alphabet City, unveiled an updated brunch menu this year.

“Mexican breakfast is one of my favorite things in the world,” says chef and owner Roberto Santibanez. “In Mexico, we see brunch as a very savory meal. [The] sweetest things are the juices…the sauces with eggs, chopped up tomatoes, chilies and onions.”

Two Fonda specialties are the huevos divorciados ($12), two sunny side up eggs stylishly separated by two sauces, salsa verde and ranchera sauce, served with black beans, bacon, queso fresco and crema; and huevos a la Mexicana, scrambled eggs with onions, jalapeños and tomatoes topped with Chihuahua cheese served with salsa verde and tortilla strips ($12).

Byron Smith for The Wall Street JournalThe huevos a la Mexicana

In addition to Fonda’s morning fare, visitors can order from a versatile dinner menu of Mexican cuisine, like classic chicken, beef or seafood enchiladas in mole or habanero sauce.

Brunch-goers may choose to share an appetizer of guacamole with hand-pressed tortillas ($11) or duck zarape ($11), soft-corn tortillas filled with braised duck in a roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce.

“I was born south of Mexico City. It’s my mission to showcase my vision [of] the urban place that I was brought up in,” says Mr. Santibanez.

Fonda, 40 Avenue B between East Third and East Fourth streets; brunch is served Saturday and Sunday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.; (212) 677-4096.

—Alexander HeffnerA version of this article appeared August 11, 2012, on page A20 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Vision of Mexican Fare.

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Cancer and Eating Right

by Jillian Mckee

Cancer is a scary word.  It is an even scarier thing to be diagnosed with cancer.  The treatments, the long days and the unpleasant side effects are never fun, but, unfortunately, are necessary in many cases.  Due to the sheer nature of some treatments, your health may be severely compromised.

Of course, it may be that you have fought and beaten it.  If you have, congratulate yourself and celebrate.  Beating cancer is a phenomenal task.  You are a living example of what someone can do to fight against cancer and live.

Regardless of your cancer state, or even if you currently do not have cancer, it is a good idea to consider changing your diet to a more healthy eating regimen.  Doing so will not only help you prevent cancer or its recurrence, but also help maintain a healthful lifestyle that may even turn the tide against cancer.

Studies have shown that a diet rich in natural fruits, vegetables, and fiber is generally good for you. As a cancer patient or survivor, a proper diet is even more important.  Cancer and its treatments weaken the body and the immune system.  Eating a diet rich in vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates helps bolster immunity against infections and illness. Cancer is already a painful disease and you do not need a secondary illness on top of that.

Regardless of the cancer type, nutrition for mesothelioma to melanoma is important.  Proper nutrition will help keep your body and immune system in fighting shape. The best medicines in the world work even better when a patient is in top health.  A proper diet is essential to good health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees. Health for women fighting various cancers or preventing cancers comes from healthy eating habits. No one expects or wants cancer.  Prevention is still the best medicine and prevention starts with healthy eating and living habits. While the possibility is always there for anyone to contract cancer, odds are stacked in your favor if you maintain a positive outlook and healthy lifestyle.

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Half-Off Tacos for Officers: Prohibited, but Part of Job


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The World´s 50 Best Restaurants infographic

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Jose Carlos Capel, aposto por Mexico y gano!

En entrevista con Jose Carlos Capel, Presidente de Madridfusion, nos cuenta sobre su gran amor por México, su cocina y la apuesta que hizo al traer el concepto y la marca Madridfusión y el triunfo que se comprobó este 2012 nuevamente. Con el slogan de “Magia, Cocina y Ciencia”, Guanajuato se lleno de cocineras, cocineros, profesionales, estudiantes y amateurs llenos de ilusión por ver a sus ídolos y maestros y aprender de ellos

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