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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Tonight is the third day of Passover and Easter is just around the corner. Coming up, we'll hear about one woman's decision to help plan an Easter program that led to a career in classical music.

But, first, the Easter and Passover holidays are a chance to connect with your faith, but they're also a time for lots of family and lots of food. Mexican cuisine may not be the thing that comes to mind when you think of Passover and Easter, but Pati Jinich has a few ideas to spice things up a little. She's the host of "Pati's Mexican Table" on PBS and author of a new cookbook by the same name. She's also the official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. and Pati Jinich joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

PATI JINICH: Thank you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: Well, you were born and raised in Mexico, but your family - at least half of your family - came from Europe.

JINICH: Yes.

HEADLEE: They were Jewish.

JINICH: Yes.

HEADLEE: And so you came into Mexico with really kind of a blend of different traditions. How well does the European-Jew cuisine mix with traditional Mexican cuisine?

JINICH: Let me tell you. It is a beautiful thing because most of the Eastern European Ashkenazi foods are pretty bland; so as they grew roots in Mexican soil, they became more exotic, more layered with flavors and colors, and it was just the warming up of those foods.

HEADLEE: You were raised Jewish.

JINICH: Yes.

HEADLEE: But you're obviously living in a country that's majority Catholic.

JINICH: Exactly.

HEADLEE: So you also went to mass sometimes. You saw...

JINICH: Yes.

HEADLEE: ...Easter celebrations around you and you call yourself a Catholic Jew?

JINICH: I joke about it, just because, in Mexico and I think most of the Mexican Jewish community feels that way. We breathe and live the Mexican traditions and holidays, and many go around Spanish Catholic Church calendar. So you get Christmas, you get Easter, you get Day of the Dead and all of those are also a combination with the native Mexican celebrations and they are eclectic and colorful and beautiful and festive and less somber than where they originated.

So, if you go to Mexico during Easter or, you know, Lent, the 40 days of Lent when people stop eating meat in order to be able to reflect better and have more introspection, you step outside of a church. It is a party. It's full of food stands with ala frescos of all different colors and tamales and (unintelligible) and music and you think about - well, everybody stopped eating meat. But let me tell you, the vegetarian dishes and the seafood dishes are extraordinary and generous and complex and really filling, so the stopping eating meat to reflect is really sort of sarcastic.

HEADLEE: All right. But how do you translate, then, Eastern European? Like, what do you - take a gefilte fish and add chili to it or what?

JINICH: So, I mean, there's different things. As far as the Jewish-Mexican cooking - yes - the Passover foods, for example, the gefilte fish, which in the Eastern European countries, is eaten straightforward. The gefilte fish...

HEADLEE: Bland?

JINICH: ...cold, bland.

HEADLEE: Plain. Yeah.

JINICH: In Mexico, you take that same gefilte fish, but it's made with red snapper, which is a fish found in Mexico, which is warmer, and kinder, and sweeter and moister, and then you take those patties and, instead of just boiling them in fish stock and serving them cold, which you really need an acquired taste for, in Mexico, we make them (Spanish spoken). So you take those patties and you cook them in a spiced up, thick tomato broth, that has olives and capers, thanks to the Spanish, you know, colonization, and pickled chilies. And so you serve to any guest this dish of gefilte fish with the sauce and everybody will welcome it. It's warm. It's...

HEADLEE: I would welcome it.

JINICH: You know, so - yeah - that's one example of the Jewish-Mexican. Also, like matzo ball soup. You make it with a base of cooked onion and chilies.

But, as far as Easter foods in Mexico, there are many traditional things that everybody eats, regardless of what religion they are just because they are the Holy Week Easter food Mexican foods of the time. So, for example, you get what you are seeing now.

HEADLEE: You've brought a bread pudding with us that you say is eaten around Easter. Is it also a Passover food?

JINICH: Yes. Well, it's eaten around Holy Week and Easter and...

HEADLEE: I'm going to take a bite here.

JINICH: ...everybody loves it. It's called (Spanish spoken). The difference between bread puddings in other places and Mexico is that the bread is toasted or fried before putting it in a casserole or a baking dish.

HEADLEE: It gives it a little crispness.

JINICH: Yeah. A crispness and sort of a nutty layer and then the syrup is made with dark brown sugar, or (Spanish spoken), which is the purest form of cane syrup and cinnamon. And then it has layers of fresh and dried fruit and pecans and then what's very unique is - I don't know if you noticed, but on top, it has salty cheese, which throws many people off, but I think that contrast is a beautiful thing.

HEADLEE: Oh, no. It is a beautiful thing. I'm going to take another bite here. If you're just joining us, I'm Celeste Headlee. I'm joined by Pati Jinich of "Pati's Mexican Table" on PBS.

The cookbook couldn't have to come to me at a better time because I find that, oftentimes, the food of American holidays is very bland.

JINICH: Right.

HEADLEE: So give me some advice on the traditional Easter menu and spice it up a little.

JINICH: So let me ask you. Here, in Easter, I know that a lot of people eat lamb.

HEADLEE: Yes.

JINICH: Right? OK. I have one recipe in there that will kill you.

HEADLEE: The lamb chops?

JINICH: Yes. Did you see that? OK. Those lamb chops are just cooked in the most rustic way. Just a little bit of salt and pepper, a little bit of rosemary and grilled or broiled, whichever one is easier for you. But then their sauce with that green (unintelligible) - you make a sauce with the pumpkin seeds and then it has tomatillos that are charred or broiled and jalapeƱos and onion and cilantro and then you just puree those ingredients together so you have the nutty and velvety of the pumpkin seeds, a little bit of a punch, a little bit of a kick from the chili and the very sort of mellow, tart tones of the tomatillo. It's an addicting sauce. You do that to the lamb. You'll like it and you'll repeat it next Easter.

HEADLEE: So you are celebrating Passover right now. What are you going to eat for your Passover feast?

JINICH: So gefilte fish (Spanish spoken), for sure. Matzo ball soup with jalapenos and onion and mushrooms and I like to make an orange and almond flan, which is just like a piece of almond infused with orange. But we also eat Easter foods, you know, like we will make croquettes. Those are very common things that you find in Easter. Cauliflower croquettes with tomato sauce on top, shrimp croquettes with tomato sauce on top. There's all these kinds of things that are made during this time that just connect me and take me back to this time.

HEADLEE: And what time should I be there?

JINICH: A half an hour.

HEADLEE: The new cookbook is called "Pati's Mexican Table." The author is Pati Jinich. She's also the host of a PBS show by the same name. Kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio and bring this incredible bread pudding.

Thank you so much. Happy Passover and Happy Easter, also.

JINICH: Thank you, Celeste.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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