Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Pati’s Mexican Table host Pati Jinich talks about her first Thanksgiving in the U.S., putting her own twist on classic dishes, and her go-to leftover turkey sandwich recipe.
I moved to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago after I got married to my husband, who is also Mexican. I remember that very first year in the States. My English wasn’t very good and my cooking wasn’t great either. But I started spending more time in the kitchen experimenting.
I remember standing in line at the supermarket with my cart loaded with foods—some familiar, some not-so-familiar—and my eyes being drawn to the magazines in the checkout line. Gourmet Magazine, Cooking Light, Bon Appétit…We didn’t have these magazines in our markets in Mexico, with their glossy pages and beautifully prepared foods displayed on the covers. In Mexico, food is such a big part of our culture; every celebration is centered around food. So even though the foods on these magazine covers weren’t ones I grew up eating, I was drawn to them—especially the Thanksgiving covers. I’d never seen anything like the Thanksgiving meals in these magazines.
Thanksgiving is not a Mexican holiday. I had never even heard of it when I moved here. But in my first year in America, some friends invited my husband and me to their house to celebrate. The more I learned about Thanksgiving and the meaning behind it, the more I was charmed. I just loved the idea of everyone coming together around the table as an act of gratitude. And I loved that the foods on the table were all rich in tradition. Thanksgiving recipes are ones that are treasured and passed down through a family, which really spoke to me.
As the years passed, my husband and I—and then our three sons as the years continued to pass on—continued to be invited to friends’ homes for Thanksgiving. Then, one year, it was our turn to host the meal. By this point, I had become pretty good at cooking, so I was excited—especially for everyone to try my Mexican-style turkey. The turkey is made with tomatoes, red onions, banana leaves, and a marinade made with ground cumin, allspice, oregano, garlic, orange juice, and achiote paste.
Everyone loved the turkey and even when it’s not my family’s turn to host the holiday my friends ask if I’ll make it. But I actually love my friend Sean’s traditional turkey! So every year is a back-and-forth of which one we’ll have. To me, making the Mexican-style turkey for my friends was a rite of passage for life in America: I was holding onto my Mexican traditions and flavors, using them to put my own take on a classic American dish. It’s a way to honor my roots while also growing roots here in the States.
Like many others, this year I won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving with a big group of friends. It’s going to be very small for us this year: just me, my husband, and our boys. This means that there will be even more leftovers—including plenty of leftover Mexican turkey.
Leftovers are a big deal in Mexico, as much a part of preparing the meal itself. We like to cook in batches. If you’re having 10 people over for dinner, you’ll cook as if 20 people are coming over. And when we eat the leftovers, we don’t just reheat them—we transform them into something truly scrumptious.
My favorite meal to make with leftover Mexican turkey—or you can do this with any turkey you make—is a turkey, plantain, and avocado torta. You make it by combing the leftover turkey with refried beans, plantains, and avocado (whether in slices or as a fast guacamole), sandwiching it all on a baguette. The plantains are fried until they’re golden brown and caramelized. They’re crispy while the avocado or guac is smooth and buttery. It’s delicious and it’s also easy to make. I don’t know about other people, but I don’t exactly want to be spending much time in the kitchen the day after Thanksgiving.
However you are celebrating this year, I hope your holiday is full of plenty of love, plenty of food, and plenty of leftovers. Happy Thanksgiving, from my family to yours.
Pati Jinich’s leftover turkey, plantain, and avocado torta
6 cups of leftover Thanksgiving turkey
2 very ripe plantains, peeled and diagonally sliced
1 1/2 cups refried beans, homemade or store-bought
6 bolillos, teleras, individual baguettes, or large baguettes cut into 4-inch pieces and halved
2 large ripe Mexican avocados, halved, pitted, sliced or mashed into a fast guacamole with 1 Tbsp fresh lime juice and salt to taste
1. Slice your leftover turkey pieces into half-inch slices across the grain and set aside.
2. Heat about a half-inch oil in a large casserole or frying pan over medium to medium-high heat. Once it is hot, test with a plantain slice to see if there are active bubbles all around it (without foaming over). Fry the plantain slices, without crowding the pan (you may need to do it in batches), for about two to three minutes per side until they are golden brown, a bit caramelized and crisp. Remove and place on a paper towel covered plate.
3. Heat your refried beans.
4. If making the fast guacamole, smash and mix the avocados with the fresh lime juice and salt. Otherwise, slice your avocados.
5. To assemble the tortas: If the bread is fresh, just slice it in half, no need to toast. If it isn’t fresh, toast it for a few minutes.
6. Spread about two to three tablespoons of refried beans on the bottom half, top with four to five cooked plantain slices, then a cup of your leftover turkey slices, and then about three to four tablespoons of your simple guacamole or three to four slices of avocado. Place top half on bread on.
7. Cut in half and eat.
As told to Emily Laurence
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