Sneak Peek! and Exclusive Interviews with “Mercy Street” Designers Amy Andrews Harrell, Costume Designer, and Ignatius Creegan, Hat Designer

Jordan Wright
January 10, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

In our October interview with Mercy Street Co-Producer Lisa Wolfinger, we examined the story behind the new PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s Civil War era miniseries.  Set in Alexandria, VA the plot is based on the true story of the Green family of Carlyle House and their hotel, Mansion House, which was commandeered by Union troops to serve as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers.  Part I of six episodes was screened at the Alexandria Film Festival on November 5th and I’m thrilled to report that Alexandria is repeatedly mentioned.  The first installment premieres January 17th.

In exclusive interviews with Mercy Street Costume Designer and Richmond, VA resident Amy Andrews Harrell, and the show’s hat designer and Petersburg, VA resident, Ignatius Creegan, I gleaned some interesting facts about the creation of the show’s beautiful period costumes.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Harrell’s professional career started when she became Set Costumer on Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Soon after she graduated to Costume Supervisor on HBO’s TV miniseries, John Adams, the winner of four Golden Globes and thirteen Emmys, earning more than any miniseries in history.  In 2012 she was Key Costumer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, winner of two Academy Awards.  By 2013 she was designing costumes for National Geographic Channel’s docudramas, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy.  Most recently she was Costume Designer on the yet-to-be-released thriller Imperium.  Filmed in Richmond, VA the feature film stars Daniel Ratcliffe and Toni Colette.  Harrell has a Master’s Degree in Costume Design from Southern Methodist University.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

What was your primary resource for research on the period?

For inspiration I used the book by John Guntzelman, “The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States” as a guide.

Did you use any fabrics from the era?

I discovered a bolt of ten yards of original cotton from 1860 on eBay that I used in Jane Green’s dress.  Also I had good luck with an antiques store in Mechanicsville that had pieces of dresses of the period.  The silks were shattered, as old silk will do, but we were able to use parts of things.  We used a lot of things from there as well as from a vintage store in Richmond called Halcyon, owned by Connie Carroll.  She found some wonderful pieces of embroidery, lace and net that I could add onto Jane Green’s dress.  I loved that it came from an estate in Richmond and is of the period.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

How many multiples did you need to make to hold up to the mud and blood?

Only in one instance.  The first dress that Hannah wears gets ripped, so we had to make two of those.  We had very limited resources to work with, but still it was very exciting.  Whenever I looked out a window I could see one person doing three people’s jobs.  We didn’t have the breathing room I’ve been accustomed to.  We really worked without a net.

How did you keep them clean?

We knew beforehand which characters would get bloody or hurt and we had extra things for them.  While stage blood has detergent built in to it, it can wash out if it’s on too light of a fabric.  It’s unpredictable.  It can turn a garment pink when you least expect it.

What’s a costume disaster from the filming?

We had really good luck, even though at night I would sometimes have dreams that there were things I forgot – – like someone without a costume!

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Milliners Ignatius Creegan and partner Rod Givens who live and work in their 7,000 square foot Civil War era mansion in Petersburg, VA, have worked with Harrell on many of the abovementioned films and were responsible for creating the historically accurate bonnets and caps.  Creegan’s career goes back to 1987 when he started designing and making hats for theatre, movies and private clientele.

How did you decide what to design?

We worked with Amy’s designs and found a fair number of photographs of hats from the period.  We also had designed historic era hats in the past.  We have an antique straw sewing machine we used for some of the hats.  These “straw machines” were the first commercial machines made for the industry.  Notably the Civil War was the first time sewing machines were used.

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

What was the process like?

It was interesting because I was able to use actual fabrics from the period.  I cut them up to match the dresses.  It was wonderful to be able to take a couple days to hand sew them.  Hats were something that people made by hand then.  It was an education for me to be able to work with those vintage styles and a luxury to incorporate those fabrics and trimmings including some wonderful old velvet ribbons that Amy had collected.

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

What was it like to design hats for a period piece?

It’s interesting to consider what people were wearing in our neighborhood back then.  A lot of the men’s designs are still wearable today and we are now starting a men’s collection based on what we did for Mercy Street.  We plan to expand on those designs of hats and caps for our own clientele.

An Interview with Lisa Wolfinger, Co-Producer of “Mercy Street”

Jordan Wright
October 8, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Mercy Street: Behind the Scenes

Mercy Street: Behind the Scenes

On November 5th the Alexandria Film Festival and Visit Alexandria will host the premiere of PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s new Civil War era miniseries, Mercy Street.  Based on true stories and set historically in Alexandria, the drama tells of love, war and medicine on the home front.  Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was once the melting pot of the region, filled with soldiers, civilians, female volunteers, doctors, the wounded from both sides, runaway slaves, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

The private screening will kick off the city’s ninth annual film festival, which runs from November 5th through the 8th at both the AMC Hoffman 22 Theater and Beatley Central Library.  The festival will also include an advance screening of Love The Coopers and many more.  For information and screening times go to www.AlexandriaFilm.org

Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, who has written, produced and directed a wide range of genres, including drama, historical docudrama, high-end documentaries and reality, is the Co-Producer of the PBS Masterpiece Theatre mini-series, Mercy Street.  Her work includes the critically acclaimed three-hour docudrama special for the History Channel, “Desperate Crossing, The Untold Story of the Mayflower”, nominated for two primetime Emmy Awards; the two-hour special, “Fire on the Mountain”, nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy and awarded the CINE Masters Series award; the 90-minute Salem Witch docudrama titled “Witch Hunt”, nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy; and the docudrama miniseries, “Conquest of America”, nominated for a Primetime Emmy and winner of a gold medal at the New York Film Festival.  Wolfinger will be on hand for the premiere along with some of the cast members to participate in a Q & A.

Interview with Lisa Wolfinger

What initially drew you to focus on American history throughout your career?

That’s an interesting one!  I was educated overseas, but I am American.  I spent most of my school years in France and England so my focus was on European History.  When I married and moved to the States, I realized I knew very little about American History.  So I began working my way up to it through a number of historic documentaries.  For Mercy Street I looked into the Civil War.  It seemed like the next step for me.  I was especially drawn to the medical side.  I wanted to find a fresh window and I discovered a very interesting story about the medical side of the war that had never been told.  It’s a crucible in many ways.  It’s what I like to call the beginning of modern medical science.

Why did you want to tell this particular story? 

What excited me most of all were these very daring female volunteers who were the first nurses coming into this conflict, trying to make a difference.  But there were other elements of the story that also excited me.  By setting it in a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, it also gave me an african american story line.

Audrey Davis, Director of Alexandria’s Black History Museum, gave expert historical background on Alexandria’s early African American experience.  What did she share with your other advisors and what intrigued you the most about the city’s history?

When I settled on the medical side of it, I realized I had to focus on that story rather than the battles.  I started looking into general hospitals behind the front lines.  I stumbled on a story about Mansion House, about a hotel turned Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.  The article was written by the curator at Carlyle House.  It was also  the story of Mr. Green, a local entrepreneur, who built this hotel on his front lawn.  Through that angle I realized that the Green family stayed in town during the war living side by side with the Union occupiers.  It gave me a family saga with the Greens and a medical story as well.  The setting was so rich and rather unique in many ways.

There is an important and fascinating side to the story referencing women’s places in the medical profession.  As a woman, was it important to you to include this?

Absolutely.  That is the story I wanted to tell as a female filmmaker.  It’s important to tell stories of remarkable women and what I loved about this story is that these are not iconic women, nobody has ever heard about them, and yet they are based on real people who did extraordinary things.  Women coming in and conquering prejudices and trying to make a difference.

You have assembled an amazing cast of famous television stars from some of TV’s hottest series.  How much training in nursing care and Civil War era behavior did they get before shooting?

Oodles!  Because I come from a filmmaking history background, the one thing that was going to make this series special was attention to detail.  So we brought in a whole panel of advisors to make the world look real and believable and authentic. The cast was so eager to throw themselves into the Civil War until it became second nature.

Alexandria recently celebrated its Sesquicentennial, but there’s still controversy over a statue at Prince and Washington Streets honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  How are the relationships between the Union soldiers and Confederate sympathizers expressed in Mercy Street?

We worked very hard to create a world where we represent different and points of view.  We have unpleasant characters on both sides of the conflict and we don’t shy away from it.  It was a very complicated time with brothers fighting brothers.  James McPherson is one of our advisors and in one of his notes he was concerned that we were romanticizing some of the Southern characters, so we had to find a balance on both sides of the conflict.  We also have some very strong African American characters with a very strong voice.

Are there still Southern slaves in the city at this time?  And how do they interact with the Union troops or free slaves?

We dealt with that.  Season 1 takes place in the spring of 1862 and the refugee slaves in Alexandria were protected by the Union Army and called contrabands but they are not technically free.  We have many different points of view including from the African American perspective.

Mercy Street has one of the best slots in television – – following Downton Abbey.  Can this miniseries hold its own against one of the most beloved series on “Masterpiece”?

Yes, but it’s like comparing apples and watermelons.  They both have strong ensemble casts.  But Mercy Street but this is a big, epic story.  Downton Abbey audience will very much enjoy this story about the North and South.  There’s humor, romance and intrigue whether you’re a Civil War history buff or romance buff.

Who designed the costumes? 

Amy Andrews Harrell who lives in Richmond designed and constructed many of them.  With one dress she incorporated a fabric she found on eBay that came from somebody’s attic that dated back to 1860.  She was able to build upon the costumes with authentic period lace and accessories and other fabrics.  Amy is known for her work on Lincoln and On Cold Mountain and many other period shows.

Is there anything you would like to say about the premiere in the city that it takes place?

We are very excited to show the film here in the city where it is set.  It seems so fitting.  The actors are looking forward to coming down for it because they ingested the period by osmosis.

Chef to Chef with Chris Lusk

Jordan Wright
February 2, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts 

Chef Chris Lusk

Chef Chris Lusk

At forty-one, East Texas native and Johnson & Wales grad, Chris Lusk has seen the ins and outs of a few restaurant kitchens and learned a wide variety of international cuisines.  After an externship in an Irish hotel he cooked Tex-Mex at Stephen PylesStar Canyon in Dallas, Asian cuisine at an unnamed restaurant in Florida, and Italian at Otto Enoteca under Mario Batali.  Later he worked with the iconic Brennan family’s Foodie’s Kitchen in Metairie and more recently at Commander’s Palace and Café Adelaide where he honed his Creole and Southern-style cooking.  He is now Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans.

At DC’s Acadiana in a room filled with shuckers, chefs, industry lobbyists and oyster lovers at the Gulf Oyster Industry Council’s Washington, DC event last month, I met Lusk over a platter of his incredible Crispy Oysters Rockefeller.

Jordan Wright – Can you describe the twist you put on the classic dish?

Chris Lusk – Traditionally it would be served on the half shell with a puree of purslane, chives, capers and other greens, then spiked with absinthe.  Though it’s often spiked with Herbsaint, it really hadn’t been invented yet.  So absinthe is used.  Then it would be finished with breadcrumbs.  My version has a crust made from dehydrated spinach, chives, green onions, breadcrumbs and Parmesan.  Then it’s garnished with more Parmesan and a pesto made of green onions, chives and olive oil then spiked with absinthe.  To prepare the oysters we drained the liquor off and marinated them the pesto then rolled in the breadcrumb mix.  The crust really adheres to it.  Then we flash fry them till oyster begins to plump and it’s still moist inside and crispy on the outside.

What we’re getting at this time of year is a smaller oyster.  They go through phases during the year.  I prefer to use a medium-sized oyster.  At this time of year they are thriving in the cool water and they’re the perfect size and salinity.

You’ve been named one of Esquire magazine’s “Four Breakout Chefs to Watch”, cooked at the James Beard House and won the Louisiana Seafood Cookoff.  What’s next?  

I don’t know.  I have a larger operation and bigger kitchen here with Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, and have a lot going on right now. They just opened their second restaurant, Seafood R’evolution outside of Jackson, MS in Ridgeland. It’s similar in concept but with more seafood.

Can you tell us about the dessert you prepared which prompted Esquire’s John Mariani’s to award you the “Best Dessert of 2011”?

It was a white chocolate biscuit pudding, a play on a dish my grandmother made when I was growing up.  New Orleans is famous for bread pudding so my spin on it was what I was exposed to as a child where my grandmother used the leftover biscuits from breakfast.  I took that inspiration and added white chocolate and a bit of Barq’s Root Beer Syrup on top, it’s an iconic soft drink that once was made here.  Then I fried some pecans, which are from around here, as a garnish and I serve it with white chocolate ice cream.

I was very fortunate growing up to be exposed to farming.  Growing up I spent summers with my grandparents who were farmers and I learned about canning and pickling using ingredients from the farm.  My other grandparents were ranchers and raised cattle and hogs so we made sausage and used different cuts of meat.  I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about farming and ranching growing up.

I understand you are continuing your study of both Cajun and Creole cuisines.  Can you talk about the differences between these two venerable cuisines?

Creole is more of the refined version of the French, Italian, German, and even African influences and Cajun reflects the more rustic, spicier and bolder flavors.  Most Cajun is one-pot meals like jambalaya, gumbos, chicken fricasee and etoufées.  What you see in New Orleans are the French dishes indicative of Creole.  The use of Pernod, Herbsaint and absinthe lean more towards the Creole side.  Although a lot of the lines have become blurred now – – and you can see the Creole and Cajun coming together.

Would you say you’re a fan of Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse or Justin Wilson?

That’s a hard question because I’m a fan of all of them for different reasons.  Justin Wilson gave the first glimpse of what Cajun regional cuisine is.  Prudhomme went to the next level with blackened fish, K-Paul’s and Commander’s Palace.  He really put it out there on a larger scale.  Then Emeril took it one step further.  Those three guys have enabled me and my generation and the generation after mine to do what we do in New Orleans.  Those guys are the ones that gave the younger chefs the opportunity to push the boundaries.

What are your favorite cookbooks? 

I have Lafcadio Hearn and many others.  My cookbook collection is all over the place – – Paul Prudhomme, Wilson’s books, Harold McGee and many others have influenced me in my style of cooking, including a lot of ethnic cookbooks that I use in different techniques of frying or pickling – like Japanese for instance.  I learn from everyone including my dishwashers and sous chefs.  You can never become too educated to learn from someone.  Some of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had have been staff meals.  The thing about New Orleans is everybody can cook here!

Opened in 1880 Commander’s Palace is one of the great American restaurants of all time.  What did you learn while you were there?

That’s when I really started my education apart from culinary school.  It really opened my eyes to Southern food.  I learned a lot.

What signature dishes are you preparing at Restaurant R’evolution, the French Quarter spot where you are cooking now?

One of the dishes I recently put on was inspired by Vietnamese cuisine.  It’s a Hoisin Glazed Grouper tied in with a blue crab pho broth and served with lightly pickled vegetables and rice noodles.

What new ingredients or techniques are on your radar these days? 

I’m using lot of Asian ingredients like four different types of soy sauce such as Japanese and Filipino for curing eggs and making marinades, also different types of fish sauce and Indian spices.  Sometimes just for myself I make sushi rice with marinated cobia and fresh wasabi.  I’m inspired by the Vietnamese fishermen we have here.

Who was your first inspiration in the kitchen? 

My grandparents were farmers and raised cattle and grandpa made sausage, things that are very popular now, so I was really fortunate as a child.  I lived in a small city but spent summers with my grandparents who had a lot of land.  We’d sit around and shuck corn, pick peas and can together.  We do a lot of that at the restaurant pickles, jams etc.  My grandpa used to clean out Coke bottles and make his own tomato juice and put the caps back on them.  Man, that was the best tomato juice I’ve ever had!

What was the first dish you learned to cook and who did you serve it to?

I learned to make scrambled eggs as a child that I served to my mom and dad.  I’m sure they were pretty rubbery and overcooked, but they were pretty nice about it.

What famous person would you like to prepare dinner for?

Thomas Keller.

Wow! No stress there.

Ha! No stress in that! I’m a big fan!

No Longer the Runaway Chef Peter Chang – To Appear at Sips & Suppers

Jordan Wright
January 14, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts

Chef Peter Chang

Chef Peter Chang

One of the featured chefs for the Sips & Suppers dinners coming up next week is Peter Chang – an elusive chef known for ditching restaurant kitchens like a discardable cell phone.  At last he has found in another accomplished chef, Gen Lee, the perfect partner to build an empire.  The duo has already opened six successful restaurants around Virginia, with Arlington scheduled to open early February and another outpost in Rockville in March.

I’ve been a lucky duck to sample his cuisine twice in my life – once at a sumptuous banquet when he was the executive chef at DC’s Chinese Embassy in the 90’s, though I wasn’t aware he was the chef that oversaw the dozens of dishes offered at that lavish banquet.  Years later on a hot tip I sought out his cooking at an obscure Chinese restaurant in a strip mall at the corner of Duke and Van Dorn in Alexandria.

Chang doesn’t dumb down his food for American palates.  And it’s not for the faint of heart.  As I recall the dish was the hottest, saltiest and most addictive chili pepper chicken I’d ever experienced.  I have never forgotten it.  By the time I planned on a return visit, he had scampered off for parts unknown leaving a trail of desperate fanatics in his wake.

Chang, who speaks no English, allows Gen Lee to act as his spokesperson.  The two have cooked together for many years.

Whisk and Quill – Do you see everything in a yin/yang balance? 

Gen Lee – Yes.  It’s always going to be like that for us.  In Sichuan Province it is very hot and wet and filled with trees.  People who live there have to eat a lot of spicy food that’s why they use the Sichuan peppers.  

Does Peter cook in one of the VA restaurants now?  

Not on a daily basis.  He cooks for parties and special events, but he also checks on every restaurant on a weekly basis.  He’s very strict about that.  I can’t tell you which restaurant he is cooking in at any given time, but he’s always cooking and he’s always training his cooks to get it right.  We’re happy if its 90% right, because our recipes are very, very difficult.  We don’t use sauce.  For ten years when Peter and I worked as corporate chefs on a riverboat on the Yangtze River, we did the real, real Sichuan there.

How young was Peter when he first started cooking?  

He was in high school.  He always knew he wanted to cook and he went to cooking school at 18.  He always watched his grandma cooking and helped her make lots of vegetarian dishes.  You know, we don’t use much meat, but lots of vegetables mushrooms and such.

Does Peter listen to music when he’s cooking? 

 No, it’s very difficult.  Everything is very quick.  There are 20 different spices – different ones for different dishes – and it all happens fast.

What are some of the restaurants’ signature dishes?

The cumin lamb chops and bamboo fish, and everyone orders the dry-fried eggplant cut like steak fries.

Would you say your dishes are classic Sichuan?

Yes, it’s his specialty.  But, for example, they don’t use lamb chops in China and the difference is the ingredients are better quality here.

Lately American chefs are using Asian ingredients in fusion cuisine and mixing things up.  Where do you see this going?

A lot of chefs try it using French techniques.  They are not using the real Chinese techniques and that worries me.  These chefs are not Chinese.  They are Hispanic or Korean.  There are only a handful of real Chinese chefs here in America.

Chinese food has been losing favor to Thai and Korean in the past decade or so.  Do you hope to bring back Chinese food to its earlier popularity?

Our dream is to bring back the real Chinese food, not just to make money.  In a few years we know we can retire, but it’s not about that.  Right now we have six restaurants.  Already in our Richmond restaurant we are doing 500-600 a day.  It’s like a war zone with like 100 people in line every day.

Will you be opening in the Northern Virginia area soon?

Yes, we will have two more restaurants – – one in Arlington and soon after in Rockville.

This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Jordan Wright. 

Dozens of prestigious local, national and world-renowned chefs will prepare the Sips & Suppers dinners on Sunday, January 25th.  A separate evening of chef’s treats and cocktails takes place on Saturday, January 24th.  Expect appearances by Joan Nathan, Jose Andres and Alice Waters.  For further information and to purchase tickets to the fundraiser for Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen visit www.sips2015.eventbrite.com and www.suppers2015.eventbrite.com.

Turning Up the Heat with Richard Sandoval with a Nod to Shakira

Jordan Wright
December 2, 2014
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts

 

World-renowned chef and international restaurateur Richard Sandoval has penned his latest cookbook, New Latin Flavors – Hot Dishes, Cool Drinks (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) just in time to spice up the holiday season.  Most of you will be familiar with his DC Latin/Asian fusion restaurants Zengo, Masa 14, El Centro D. F., but also Ambar with its flavor-forward Balkan dishes, La Sandia in Tyson’s Corner, or the chic, sleek Toro Toro, a churrascaria that opened downtown this April.  With thirty-eight successful restaurants worldwide from Dubai to Paris and New York to Mexico, Sandoval’s empire is a testimonial to his delicious contemporary Latin cooking.

Richard Sandoval serving up churrasco at Toro Toro - Photo credit  Jordan Wrigh

Richard Sandoval serving up churrasco at Toro Toro – Photo credit Jordan Wright

In his fifth cookbook Sandoval has given us a collection of 125 inspired recipes that draw from the rich culinary traditions of Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and Argentina.  Gorgeous photographs from Saveur photographer Penny De Los Santos grace the pages and highlight the mouth-watering recipes.  For the first time Sandoval has tailored a cookbook expressly for the home cook spanning his repertoire of quesadillas, ceviches, arepas and enchiladas plus delicious Latin-inspired cocktails.  Think tequila, mescal, cachaça, rum and pisco.  Do you feel a party coming on?

Whisk and Quill caught up with Sandoval after he had dodged a blizzard in Denver to get to his DC book launch.

Whisk and Quill – What direction do you think food is going in today? 

Sandoval – I think after the recession people’s ways of eating have changed dramatically.  The last ten years it went very forward with all these molecular restaurants.  I wanted to go retro.  You know, back to our roots, back to comfort food and local ingredients, to make people feel comfortable again.

Would you agree that some of the best dishes from the past have been ruined by modernization?  Although now I see more chefs returning to the classics but putting their own spin on it.

Absolutely!  That’s always been my approach.  A lot of my Latin cooking started with my grandmother in her kitchen.  I would take dishes, like the mole, and interpret them in my way.  I took the roots of these recipes and kept them the way they were meant to be.  

What are your favorite ingredients? 

I’ve always loved chiles and you’ll always see chiles in my cooking.  But as far as cuisines, in the past three or four years I’ve been doing more Peruvian.  I love it.  And I love Thai food.  I’ll be opening a restaurant in mid-January at the new City Center here in DC.  It’s called Mango Tree.  We brought a chef from Bangkok who worked at one of the other Mango Tree restaurants.  I plan to take the roots of their cuisine, tweaking it a little bit as far as my flavor profile and presentation, but leaving the core as it is, maybe just changing the heat level and the balance.  I’m incredibly excited.  The restaurant already exists in London and Bangkok and Dubai.  It’s classic Thai.  I’ll just be readjusting it to what I do.  

How do you begin to create a fusion dish?  Do you start with a single ingredient or do you use your palate’s imagination? 

I start with a single dish.  The first fusion restaurant I did was Zengo, and Zengo means ‘give and take, back and forth’ in Japanese.  It was two chefs, two cultures.  First I would do a Latin dish.  I hired an Asian chef to work with me and I would give it to him and he would ‘Asianize’ it.  Then he would create an Asian dish and give it to me and I would ‘Latinize’ it.  It’s two chefs collaborating.  It wasn’t just me reinventing Asian, or what I thought it was.  This way it made more sense to me.  

Why is this book important to you? 

When had my first Mexican restaurant twenty years ago, it was doing modern Mexican cuisine – – with more forward thinking.  In this book I went retro with more traditional food and more comfort food.  It’s very accessible to the home cook.  It was very important to me to make sure that when people buy this book, they see it’s about having fun, that it’s not overly complicated where people would look at a recipe and say, ‘Ohmygod, I’ve got to go to Williams Sonoma to get the equipment and will I be able to find the ingredients?’  I wanted to be sure I made it very accessible and very fun.  

Who would you most like to dine with living or dead? 

I’ve always been very intrigued by Nelson Mandela.  How someone can spend so much time in jail and then be able to come out and forgive.  Most people would not be able to let go of what happened to them.  He just kept moving on with his life and changed his country with his strong spirit and by sharing his ideas.

What if I asked you to name a woman? 

Wow!  I’ve always liked Shakira!  She’s a beautiful woman and a great artist and I love her music.

Maybe she could sing to you. 

I don’t think her husband would appreciate that!

We’re fantasizing here. 

Okay, I could cook for her and she could sing to me.

Here are a few recipes to spice up any holiday party.

PONCHE Striped Bass Tiradito Grilled Tostada with Beef Salpicón
  • 1/2 cup (2.0 g) dried hibiscus flowers
  • (jamaica)
  • One 3-inch (7.5-cm) cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (130 g) tamarind pulp, broken
  • into pieces (see Notes)
  • Two 4-inch (10-cm) pieces fresh or
  • frozen sugarcane, peeled and cut into
  • 12 sticks (see Notes; optional)
  • 24 fresh or drained bottled tejocotes
  • (see Notes)
  • 2 ripe guavas, cut into 12 wedges
  • (see Notes)
  • One 375-ml bottle (1. cups) 100%
  • agave tequila, brandy, or light rum
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) orange-flavored liqueur,
  • such as Grand Marnier
  • 12 pitted dried plums

The Mexican warm fruit punch of the holiday season, ponche is sometimes nothing more than spiced syrup with booze. My family recipe is better, and infused with the tropical flavors of hibiscus and tamarind.

Serves 10 to 12

[1] Bring 2. quarts (2.5 L) water to a boil in a large nonreactive saucepan over high heat. Remove it from the heat and add the hibiscus flowers and cinnamon stick. Let them stand for 5 minutes. Add the sugar and tamarind and bring them to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often to break up the tamarind, for 5 minutes. Strain the liquid into a large heatproof bowl, pressing hard on the solids; discard the solids.

[2] Return the liquid to the pot. Add the sugarcane, if using, and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Reduce the heat to medium and cook the liquid at a brisk simmer for 5 minutes. Strain it again to remove any tamarind debris.

[3] Return the tea to the pot and add the tejocotes and guavas. Simmer until the guavas are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tequila and liqueur and simmer just until the mixture is hot. Remove it from the heat, add the plums, and let them stand for 5 minutes. (Do not add them earlier or they will get too soft.)

[4] To serve, return the pot to very low heat to keep the ponche warm. Ladle the ponche into mugs, adding the fruits to each serving. Serve it hot. Notes You can substitute 1⁄3 cup (75 ml) tamarind concentrate for the tamarind pulp. If neither is available, use . cup (120 ml) fresh lemon juice. Fresh or frozen sugarcane is available at Latin groceries and large supermarkets, and is often sold peeled. If the thick skin needs to be removed, use a large knife to chop the cane into manageable 4-inch (10-cm) lengths. Stand the pieces on end to cut away the peel. Cut the sugarcane lengthwise into thick sticks.  Tejocote is a small round stone fruit (that is, with a large seed in the center).  It is sold fresh at Mexican groceries around Christmas time, and in jars year-round.Kumquats or crabapples are good substitutes because they are similar in size to tejocotes. You may want to alert your guests that the tejocote seeds can be spit out.  Pineapple guava, about the size of a large lime, is the most widely available variety around Christmastime. If it is not available, substitute about one-quarter of a pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into bite-size pieces.  Goya, the leading Latin food product manufacturer, sells a nonalcoholic ponche in a jar with enough tejocotes, sugarcane sticks, and guavas for this recipe.  Drain and discard the liquid—you really just want the fruit.  Leave the tejocotes intact, but cut the sticks and guavas as needed to yield twelve pieces of each.

with Ponzu, App le & Radish Tiradito de lubina rayada con salsa ponzu, manzana y rábano

  • 1/2  Granny Smith apple, peeled
  • 2 large radishes, trimmed
  • 14 ounces (400 g) skinless striped
  • bass, cut on a diagonal into .-inch
  • (6-mm) slices
  • 1Ž2  cup (120 ml) Ponzu, homemade
  • (page 48) or store-bought, chilled
  • Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
  • Sriracha, for serving

Tiradito is the South American version of ceviche, and it often has Asian influences, such as the ponzu in this recipe. It is one of the lightest (and quickest) first courses you’ll ever make, yet at the same time, it is one of the most flavorful. There are many good brands for sale, but it is also easy to make your own (page 48), and it is worth the minimal effort for this recipe, where it plays such a big role.

Serves 4
[1] Just before serving, use a V-slicer or mandoline to cut the apple and radishes into julienne. (You can also use a chef’s knife.) Combine them in a small bowl.

[2] For each serving, fan the bass on a chilled
serving plate with a  rim.  Spoon 2 tablespoons of the ponzu around, but not on, the bass.Top each with one-quarter of the apple mixture and the grated lemon zest.  Serve immediately, with the Sriracha on the side.

tostada con salpicón de res
For the Salpicón Dressing:

  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) distilled white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons minced red onion
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano,
  • crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black
  • pepper
  • 3/4 cup (180 ml) olive oil
  • For the Grilled Tortillas:
  • 6 corn tortillas
  • Canola oil, for brushing
  • For the Salpicón:
  • 1/2 head iceberg lettuce, cored and
  • shredded
  • 1/2 seedless (English) cucumber,
  • cut into 1/2-inch (12-mm) dice
  • 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into
  • 1/2-inch (12-mm) dice
  • 4 radishes, cut into 1Ž4-inch
  • (6-mm) dice
  • 1/2 cup (90 g) drained nonpareil capers
  • 1/4 cup (5 g) coarsely chopped fresh
  • cilantro
  • 3 cups (645 g) Shredded Beef Filling
  • with Tomatoes and Chilies (page 175),
  • at room temperature
  • 2 ripe Hass avocados, thinly sliced

There are many different versions of salpicón, the hearty salad that is a specialty of both Mexican and Colombian cooks. The constants are shredded meat (or poultry or chopped seafood) and a sharp dressing. I like to serve it on grilled tortillas for a smoky crunch that everyone loves. (The tortillas can also be fried in oil, if you wish.)

Serves 6

[1] Make the dressing: Whisk the vinegar, lime juice, onion, oregano, salt, and pepper together in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil.

[2] Grill the tortillas: Prepare an outdoor grill for direct cooking over medium-high heat. For a charcoal grill, let the coals burn until they are covered with white ash and you can hold your hand about 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the cooking grate for about 3 seconds. For a gas grill, preheat it on high, then adjust the heat to 450oF (230oC). Or preheat a stovetop grill pan over medium-high heat.

[3] Lightly brush the tortillas on both sides with oil. Place them on the grill and cook, with the lid closed as much as possible, turning them occasionally, until they are crisp and lightly charred, about 2 minutes. Remove them from the grill.

[4] Make the salpicón:
Toss the lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, radishes, capers, and cilantro with the dressing in a large bowl.

[5] Place a tortilla on each of six dinner plates. Divide the lettuce mixture among them, topped by the beef. Top them with the sliced avocado and serve immediately.

Shredded Beef Filling with Tomatoes & Chilies Ropa vieja con tomates y chiles

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more
  • as needed
  • One 2.-pound (1.2-kg) beef brisket,
  • fat trimmed to 1⁄8 inch (3 mm)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black
  • pepper
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 jalapenos, seeded and coarsely
  • chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • One 28-ounce (785-g) can fire-roasted
  • tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • . cup (5 g) finely chopped fresh
  • cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon mesquite-flavored liquid
  • smoke (optional)

Slowly simmered with tomatoes and jalapenos, this braised brisket is called ropa vieja (“old clothes”) because the shredded meat looks like raggedy clothes. There will be about a cup or so of the cooking liquid left over—be sure to save it as a sauce for pasta or polenta. You may even want to serve this as a main course with Mashed Potatoes with Oaxaca Cheese (page 145).

Makes about 4 cups (910 g)

[1] Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat it to 350oF (175oC).

[2] Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season the brisket all over with 1 teaspoon salt and . teaspoon pepper. Place it in the Dutch oven, fat-side down, and cook it, turning after 5 minutes, until it is nicely browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the brisket to a plate.

[3] If needed, add another 1 tablespoon oil to the Dutch oven. Add the onion, jalapenos, and garlic and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring them occasionally, until the onion is softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and their juices with the oregano and bring them to a boil. Return the brisket to the Dutch oven and add enough hot water to come about three-quarters up the side of the meat. Bring it to a boil over high heat.

[4] Cover the Dutch oven and transfer it to the oven. Bake until the brisket is fork-tender, about 2. hours. Transfer the brisket to a carving board, tent it with aluminum foil, and let it stand for 10 minutes. Set the cooking liquid aside.

[5] Using a sharp knife and your fingers, shred the brisket with the grain. Roughly cut the shredded beef across the grain into bite-size pieces. Transfer it to a bowl. Skim off the fat on the surface of the cooking liquid. Stir in about one-third of the cooking liquid to lightly moisten the shredded beef. Add the cilantro, lime juice, and liquid smoke, if using, and mix it again. Season the beef to taste with salt and pepper. (The beef can be cooled, covered, and refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 2 months. Reheat it before using.)