For years, I taught my sons to cook. Now, I’m learning from them

Pati Jinich

THE WASHINGTON POST – As I walk into our kitchen, I see Juju looking determined. Tonight is the night for orange chicken. My 14-year-old has taken out the ingredients he needs and is following a recipe, step by step, from someone I have never heard of, who has a gazillion followers on YouTube and whose instructions, to me, sound kind of absurd.

“Who would drench one pound of chicken breasts in two cups of cornstarch, Juju, are you sure?”

“Ma, he is specifically calling for it,” Juju replied. “Look at his reviews and five stars and comments. It is supposed to make the chicken super crunchy.”

I am assisting, helping peel and mince, trying to teach some knife skills along the way. Then we go back to coating the chicken with a mountain of cornstarch that I stare at skeptically, while I teach him how to safely fry. We move on to the sauce.

“Wait, don’t you think it needs more ginger and garlic and a lot more chilli to have a tasty amount of heat, Juju?” I asked.

No concessions. “If you don’t want to follow the recipe as he says, then don’t help me, Ma,” he said. “I can do it solo, but I wanted you to make it with me and spend time in the kitchen together.”

Well, that was that. Sold. I took a step back, shut it and really just assist.

Double-stacked shrimp and cheese tacos (tacos bravos). PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

I love it when my boys, all young men now, jump into the kitchen. Alan, now in college, started to cook following outrageous recipe videos, the pancakes-over-pizza-over-a-burrito kind of a thing, when he was seven or eight. He sketched drawings and plans on Post-its. It got messy for a while. Sami, who just graduated high school, relished in being our picky eater. Slowly, he started helping cook, as he went from eating three things (bread, noodles, chocolate milk) to almost everything, whipping up marinades, mixes for pancakes, cookies and crepes, and then taking on precise and challenging desserts. Juju, now entering ninth grade, since very young had been mostly into baking and all things chocolate, luscious sweets and indulgent treats – but that was another era.

All the while, as I turned my career toward food, they have been my most loyal supporters and most sincere critics. Every year, with a new season of my public-television series Pati’s Mexican Table I come back from a different region of my home country full of new ingredients, techniques and dishes I am eager to test. And my boys help. The rules: Never say something is good when it does not work, and only offer praise, along with the reasons for why, when something really does. Then the dish becomes part of our family’s history and meals: a treasure to share with whoever will listen, a dish that comes from somewhere, that has a story.

That was exactly what happened when I came back from filming in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, where I learned to make double-stacked shrimp and cheese tacos, aka tacos bravos, from the man who invented them. They are irresistible from top to bottom, and everyone in my family loved them so much that they started asking for repeats.

The amazing thing now is that we are bringing things to the table. In the middle of this lingering pandemic, our kitchen has become a place where we are rediscovering one another as the people we are today and as we evolve, sharing a crazy curiosity and hunger to explore the world. From home.

I thought I knew my kids, and their cooking and eating ways, but nope. I was wrong.

At this point, Alan and Sami are away at school. As sad and hard as it is to see them go out on their own, one of the best feelings is when they text me for the instructions to make a dish that they miss from home and they really want to share with their new community. And then they bring their world to us. Meanwhile, Juju moved from cooking mostly sweets to taking on the world by making classic savoury dishes from every possible cuisine that is not Mexican.

Much to my shock, those insane amounts of cornstarch did give his fried orange chicken from the YouTube star a ridiculously delicious, irresistible crunch. And that sauce, after it simmered and became more subtle and sticky, with the judicious amounts of garlic, ginger and chilli, perfectly coated the chicken.

I liked it so much that I started to think about the day when Juju will be out of the house, too. When I miss him, will I get a craving for tacos bravos, or for orange chicken? If it is the latter, I know just who I’ll text for the recipe.

DOUBLE-STACKED SHRIMP AND CHEESE TACOS (TACOS BRAVOS)

These over-the-top tacos, called tacos bravos in Mexico, are like double-sauced, double-cheesed shrimp quesadillas. Cooking show host Pati Jinich learned to make this from its creator Toño Contreras, the owner of Mariscos El Rey in Guaymas, Sonora. The combined sauce and melting cheese form a crust on the tortilla stack as they heat on the comal and make them irresistible.

INGREDIENTS

Two pounds ripe Roma tomatoes

Four cloves garlic, peeled

Two to three chiles de árbol, stemmed but not seeded, or more to taste

Two tablespoons tomato paste

Two teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

One teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt, plus more as needed

Four tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

Two pounds medium shrimp, rinsed, shelled, deveined and butterflied

Freshly ground black pepper

Two tablespoons unsalted butter

12 to 16 (six-inch) corn tortillas

Three cups melty shredded cheese, such as quesadilla, Oaxaca, mozzarella or muenster

One ripe avocado, halved, pitted and sliced

STEPS

In a medium saucepan, combine the tomatoes, garlic and chiles, cover with water and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook, until the tomatoes and garlic are completely soft and the chiles are plump and rehydrated, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes, garlic and chiles to the jar of a blender. Add the tomato paste, oregano and salt, then puree until smooth.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat one tablespoon of the oil until shimmering. Carefully add the tomato puree (it may sputter), cover partially and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened and darkened and the flavours have intensified, five to six minutes. Remove from the heat.

Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. In a large saute pan over high heat, one tablespoon of the butter with one tablespoon of the oil. Once the butter begins to foam, add half the shrimp and sear until browned and just cooked through, about one minute per side. Transfer the cooked shrimp to a medium bowl and repeat with the remaining butter, oil and shrimp. Cook in two batches so the shrimp sear, and avoid steaming and overcooking them.

Heat a comal, griddle or large skillet, preferably nonstick or cast iron, over medium heat until hot. Add the remaining one tablespoon of oil and brush or spread on the surface.

One by one, spread two to three tablespoons of the sauce over the tortillas and lay as many as will fit on the greased comal or griddle without overlapping. Top each tortilla with two to three tablespoons of the shredded cheese. Cook until the cheese begins to melt and the bottoms of the tortillas begin to dry and brown, one to two minutes. Using a spatula, stack one tortilla on top of another, with both cheese sides facing up. (Do not worry if the tortilla that you scrape up to stack on top of the other one tears a little bit.) Spoon three or four seared shrimp on top of each stack, gently fold, and continue to cook until the cheese has completely melted and starts to ooze out and create a crust, an additional two minutes or so.

Remove from the heat and repeat with the remaining tortillas, sauce, cheese and shrimp. Serve hot, topped with sliced avocado.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on eight); with two tortillas per serving and asadero cheese: 515 calories, 30g protein, 36g carbohydrates, 28g fat, 11g saturated fat, 188mg cholesterol, 960mg sodium, 7g dietary fibre, 4g sugar