Cookbook author Ericka Sanchez can still recall the excitement she felt as a kid waking up at 5 a.m. to help prepare paletas and aguas frescas to sell at her grandmother's shop in Torreón, Mexico. "My grandma was always up before the 'bread man' arrived!" she remembers with a laugh. Ericka, who grew up in Mexico and moved to El Paso at 8 years old, frequently visited her grandparents in Torreón during summer breaks. Every morning, she and her grandma would make bolis—little orange-size plastic bags filled with sweetened aguas frescas to freeze. "I was only a kid, but these food moments left an impression," says Ericka, who is the founder of the popular food blog Nibbles & Feasts (@nibblesnfeasts on Instagram). "I have my grandmother's same work ethic now."
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In fact, as a recipe developer, Ericka wakes up just like her grandmother at "the bread man's hour" to work on her cookbooks—not one, but two. The first, Aguas Frescas & Paletas: Refreshing Mexican Drinks and Frozen Treats, Traditional and Reimagined, is filled with page after page of colorful paletas and aguas frescas like the ones from her youth. The second cookbook, ¡Buen Provecho!: Traditional Mexican Flavors from My Cocina to Yours, is dedicated to her mother and grandmother and focuses on easy meals rooted in authentic Mexican flavors.
In between prepping recipes for her third cookbook, we sat down with Ericka to hear more about her inspiration and how she's changing the way people think about Mexican food, one recipe at a time.
ERICKA: Not really! I actually was in sports marketing for most of my career. But I've always had a love of food and the stories behind it. My maternal grandmother owned a little bodega-type store in Mexico, where she sold everything from rice and sugar to needles and thread. I have so many fond memories of visiting her during summer vacations from school, waking up early to help out at the store and then strolling the plaza with a lemon paleta in hand. So that always stuck with me. Then, after college, I went on to work for the Sun Bowl in El Paso and then the Los Angeles Dodgers. That led to work for a cheese company, where I worked on many a cheese-related photo shoot. But it really wasn't until after I had my son that I got into creating and adapting my family's recipes. I started a blog, and the rest is history!
"The time I spent in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother as a child is my number one inspiration. It motivates me to create the same happy food moments with my son and others too." —Ericka Sanchez
2. What was it about your son's birth that drew you to cooking?
ERICKA: Blogging really became my way of cataloging family recipes—I wanted to remember everything that I learned from my mom and grandmother and pass it on to my son, Joaquin. Now that Joaquin is 13, I try to teach him as much as I can, from technique to flavors. During the pandemic, he learned how to make tortillas. I got him to try different textures and spices. Even if he didn't like something, I'd say, "Just try it. You'll be surprised." Most of the time he agreed. But beyond expanding his palate, it's about the people behind a dish. When we're making tamales during Christmas, everyone has a job. Someone is soaking the husks. Someone else is prepping the meat. You've got all the smells going. Making food together is such a community event. I associate so many happy memories with the different flavors.
How My Family Celebrates Day of the Dead
"We celebrate Día de los Muertos with lots of food—we always make time to prepare tamales, calabaza en tacha, atole, pan de muerto and, of course, mole! Some of it is displayed on the altar, and the rest is served as a celebratory dinner on November 1st and 2nd." —Ericka Sanchez
ERICKA: I get so many messages on Instagram that will say, "That's exactly how my grandmother would make fideo!" or "That's not how my mom did it!" Everyone has their own memories. But the best is when someone says, "You made me remember my grandmother with that dish." Food is one of the great ways to keep culture alive and not let it get washed out. That's one reason I try to use original ingredients like my mom and grandmother used in Mexico. Sometimes, that means scouring the Latin supermarkets near me in California, searching aisles for herbs and spices. It takes time, but it's important to me that dishes are authentic. When people in the U.S. think about Mexican food, they often think about tacos, quesadillas, Taco Bell, you know? But there are so many other Mexican dishes that are actually easy to cook with pretty simple ingredients. And the ingredients are just so flavorful and fun, from hibiscus to nopales to prickly pears. So I try to share recipes that really open people's minds to Mexican cooking beyond what they're used to.
"Food is one of the great ways to keep culture alive and not let it get washed out." —Ericka Sanchez
4. Did the pandemic change the way you cook?
ERICKA: I jokingly call my cookbook Aguas Frescas & Paletas "my pandemic baby"! In March of 2020, I was on the last leg of recipe testing for it and right in the middle of working on my second cookbook, !Buen Provecho! Like so many people, I was afraid of the unknown. I struggled to find ingredients and had to ask for an extension from my publisher. But once I figured out where and how to obtain ingredients, the editing and writing process were easy.
Cooking is a creative outlet for me. During the pandemic, I tried my hardest to focus, focus, focus on my books. It gave me something positive to look forward to. When times get tough, I definitely lean on my culture and sharing my family's recipes. It always helps to have a purpose!
5. You've talked about how your biculturalism is your superpower. How so?
ERICKA: I grew up in a border town in Texas, and there were so many different groups of people and such a difference between Texan food and Mexican food. So, at a young age, I learned how to navigate all these different spaces. I was able to experience so much. I can make you sopapillas from Texas, but I can also make you buñelos from Mexico...and know the difference between the two!
"When people in the U.S. think about Mexican food, they often think about tacos, quesadillas, Taco Bell, you know? But there are so many other Mexican dishes that are actually easy to cook with pretty simple ingredients." —Ericka Sanchez
6. You have a whole cookbook dedicated to paletas and agua frescas. Any tips for perfecting these classics?
ERICKA: The biggest obstacle in these types of dishes is too much sugar or not enough sugar. So, my advice is to test as you go. When you freeze paletas, the sugar tends to mellow out, so you have to add more. That's why it's important to taste as you go and add as you need to. You can also use agave syrup or stevia if you want a sugar substitute.
When it comes to aguas frescas, the biggest thing is to remember that ice is optional. Aguas frescas are meant to be drank at a slightly cooler temperature than room temp. So ditch the extra ice!
Ericka Sanchez's Easy Paleta Recipe
"Vanilla yogurt + sugar + fruit is a quick no-fail recipe."
7. What advice do you have for people who are interested in cooking vegan Mexican food?
ERICKA: Focus on flavors and everything else will fall into place. The sauce is what makes something taste good. Just think of a traditional mole sauce—it takes 30 or more ingredients to make. You don't need to add chicken to it. The mole is flavorful enough. If it's the texture of chicken you're missing, just add jackfruit. Same for pork. Just add mushrooms to get the same texture. What I've found is that people are just used to textures in their food. But the sauce is what makes the dish what it is.
The Secret to Vegan Mexican Cooking...
"Stock your pantry with dried chilis—guajillo, pasilla and chile de árbol—and combine all of them. You'll have the best sauce for any vegan dish." —Ericka Sanchez
8. As a maker, how do you carve out time to be creative?
ERICKA: Just being quiet and typing away in the mornings really, really does the trick for me.
9. You're just like your grandma in that way!
ERICKA: That's right! I wake up now at the same time she used to. The hustle is definitely in my DNA. And what I've also learned as a creative is to figure out the best way that I work. I do better with a time crunch because it doesn't give me time to be a perfectionist or be picky about things. So working under pressure really fuels me.
10. Last question: What advice do you have for people interested in creating or adapting their own recipes?
ERICKA: Start with recipes you already know and modify or switch similar ingredients to create something totally new. Instead of using chicken for a tinga recipe, for example, replace it with mushrooms. Add strawberries to salads instead of tomatoes. Once you start familiarizing yourself with flavors that go well together, the creative process will become easier.
And, also, talk to people in your family; ask them about their favorite recipes. I always like to talk to people in my travels or within my extended family. They have the most beautiful stories to tell about the dish they are making. It will inspire you to cook and try your own thing.
The Maker's Corner
Ericka Sanchez answers a few quick questions...
If I was a food, I'd be... "Definitely nopales because they're prickly...I'm kidding! But cactus is one of my favorite ingredients."
Favorite cookbooks: "Ones I've inherited from my grandmother and also Treasures of the Mexican Table by Pati Jinich."
Cookbook I'd love to write: "A memoir/cookbook of my grandmother's life and recipes."
Food trend I hope sticks around: "I hope hibiscus stays forever because you can do so much with it: flavor water, make taco out of it, add it to your chili, you name it."
Top food predictions: "I am crossing my fingers for cactus to just explode in the world of food. It's their time. And of course...aguas frescas! I predict they will be replacing cocktails."
Most unusual thing in my fridge: "Nata cream."
Kitchen gadget of choice: "My Vitamix blender."
Go-to kitchen utensil: "A wooden spoon because I like the feel of the handle and also it doesn't scratch the pot."
Junk food of choice: "Trader Joe's Omega Trek Mix and Takis. Those are my go-tos."
Always in my pantry: "Dried chili, spices, jalapeños. They add so much to everything."
Ingredient I'm over: "I'm not a big fan of radishes or papaya!"
Crushed ice or cubed ice? "Crushed."
Cooking motto: "Taste as you go...you never know how much salt you've put into something until it's too late!"