The fresh fragrance of cilantro filled the air.
Steam drifted lazily from the sloping pot as celebrity chef Daisy Martinez stirred her signature rice, bright yellow, studded with chunks of chorizo, a classic Latino side dish that in many ways epitomizes the cuisine that Martinez has made famous, on her television show Daisy Cooks, and in the companion cookbook of the same name.
The cuisine – like Martinez – is simultaneously traditional and contemporary. The rice dish – Martinez’s take on comfort food, especially served with beans – is prepared in her grandmother’s old pot. But, there’s nothing hidebound about the chef or her recipes.
Their goal is simple – to create food that is satisfying both physically and emotionally, that tastes good and creates memories.
That is key to Martinez, who perched on a stool in her Flatbush kitchen to talk about why she cooks and what she hopes to communicate to the legions of fans hungry for her special blend of culinary legerdemain and charm.
Martinez, who was born in Brooklyn, and returned to her roots when she graduated from high school, said, “I love Brooklyn. It’s close enough but far enough. I don’t know of anyplace else where you could sit on your porch on a rocking chair with a thunderstorm out there, and feel great.”
Her joy at cooking grew out of happy hours spent in her grandmother’s East 5th Street home. “Come Friday night, people started piling into her house,” Martinez recalled. “Abuela used to say, if the doorbell rings, you put the pot on the stove because there’s nothing sadder than you go to somebody’s house and all they give you is conversation.
“It was a lot of fun,” Martinez went on. “Family. Friends. There was always a lot of noise in their house and smells from the kitchen. The women talking, and the men watching the baseball game in the living room. And it was those sounds, those smells, those memories, that made me associate the kitchen with security, feeling safe and feeling loved.”
Martinez’s evolution from enthusiastic cook to professional chef was gradual. For her 40th birthday, her husband gave her a surprise matriculation at the French Culinary Institute.
Two weeks after she graduated, she began working as a kitchen assistant to noted chef Lidia Bastianich, who was doing a television show. When the producer of that show learned that she had a grounding in Latino cooking, “He asked, would you be interested in doing a show on that? That was it. I did 26 episodes of Daisy Cooks for PBS.”
Enthusiasm and a commitment to demystifying culinary arcana combine in Martinez’s approach to teaching the art of cooking. Standing by the stove, she pointed out the “resplendent” color of the grains glistening in the pot, slowly plumping up as they absorbed the stock they were simmered in.
Everything is done to eke out flavor from the ingredients. The chorizo pieces, Martinez noted, are “bloomed” in the hot achiote oil, “To lend fragrance to the oil and subsequently to the rice," she explained. If you don’t have or don’t want to use chorizo, many other foods will be equally good. “You could add shrimp, you could add corn, you could use crabmeat.”
An essential building block is Sofrito, a savory melange of onion, garlic, peppers and herbs, that, said Martinez, is “The answer to every woman’s prayers, next to a good husband.”
The “secret to perfect rice” is as close as your fingertips, Martinez added. “The level of liquid needs to be two fingers above the level of the rice. You leave it at high heat till the level of the liquid meets the level of the rice, you turn once, then lower the heat, cover it and walk away for 20 to 25 minutes.”
Cooking does not have to be time-consuming, she stressed. “In 45 minutes, you can have a pot of braised chicken with sofrito and tomato sauce, a pot of white rice and a beautiful green salad – all in the time it took t o go to the drive-through.”
Martinez is not resting on her laurels. She is “currently in contract for a new show,” and has a column in the culinary magazine, Everyday with Rachael Ray. In addition, she is, “Working on a second cookbook, which will encompass more of the traditional foods from Latin America made user-friendly for the home cook.”
Martinez’s culinary universe doesn’t begin and end within the walls of her home kitchen. Rather, she enjoys eating out at numerous Brooklyn restaurants.
These include Queen, on Court Street, “for Italian food;” Blue Ribbon in Park Slope, “for the best fried chicken in the world;” Palo Santo in Park Slope for Pan-Latin food from “an amazing chef who works magic with his hands;” DiFara’s Pizzeria on Avenue J, “my guilty pleasure;” Peter Luger’s for steak, “That’s my birthday dinner;” Moim, in Park Slope, for “off-the-hook Korean food,” and El Viejo Yayo at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, “for a crispy Cubano with roast pork.”
Is there a restaurant of her own in Martinez’s future? “I’d love the opportunity to put something on Cortelyou Road or Newkirk Avenue, down the line,” the Victorian Flatbush resident admitted. “If I have a place, it couldn’t be in name only. It would be me there. That’s a huge commitment.”
Fans of Martinez can go to her website, www. daisymartinez. Com, where they can sign up for her newsletter or link to her food blog on Brooklyn restaurants.
1/2 cup achiote oil
1/2 cup sofrito
1/2 cup alcaparrado (a mixture of olives, pimientos and capers sold in bottles, widely available ) or coarsely chopped pimiento-stuffed olives
2 to 3 tablespoons salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
3 cups long grain white rice
Chicken broth, homemade or canned as needed (about 4 cups)
Heat the achiote oil in a heavy 4- to 5-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium heat. Stir in the sofrito and cook until most of the water is evaporated. Add the alcaparrado or olives, salt, cumin, pepper, and bay leaves, stirring to combine. When the mixture is bubbling, add the rice, stirring to coat and to fix the color to the rice.
Pour in enough chicken broth to cover the rice by the width of two fingers. Bring to a boil and boil until the broth reaches the level of the rice.
Stir the rice once, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 20 minutes, without opening the pot or stirring.
Gently fluff the rice up by scooping the rice from the bottom to the top. Serve hot.
(Makes about 4 cups)
2 medium Spanish onions, cut into large chunks
3-4 Italian frying peppers or cubanelle peppers
16-20 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large bunch cilantro, washed
7-10 ajices dulces, optional
4 leaves of culantro, or another handful cilantro
3-4 ripe plum tomatoes, cored and cut into chunks
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into large chunks
Chop the onion and cubanelle or Italian peppers in the work bowl of a food processor until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, add the remaining ingredients one at a time and process until smooth. The sofrito will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. It also freezes beautifully.
(Makes about 1 cup)
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons achiote (annatto) seeds
Heat the oil and annatto seeds in a small skillet over medium heat just until the seeds give off a lively, steady sizzle. Don't overheat the mixture or the seeds will turn black and the oil a nasty green. Once they're sizzling away, pull the pan from the heat and let stand until the sizzling stops. Strain as much of the oil as you are going to use right away into the pan; store the rest for up to 4 days at room temperature in a jar with a tight fitting lid.