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My Mother, My Mentor

Chef Hugo Molina cooks Jocon just like mom's.



At Hugo Molina restaurant in Pasadena, you may be served a risotto with caramelized morels and crabmeat in brandy lobster reduction or grilled lamb chops with roasted garlic, goat cheese mashed potatoes and a wild berry Merlot sauce.

But at Molina's home in Alhambra, the food is very different--especially when his 85-year-old mother, Tirza Molina, comes over. Together, they produce Guatemalan food the likes of which are rarely found in restaurants here.

The vegetable sauce jocon, the roast beef with pulique and the mole-like sauce pipian were on the menu there one day recently. Tirza Molina, just back from Guatemala, wore a cherry red dress trimmed with black lace, made by a daughter living there. "She's my mentor," the chef said proudly of his mother. "She is the main lady for these recipes."

Molina, a chef's white apron tied about his waist, was ready to produce what seemed like very complicated food in very little time. His wife, Aricia Alvarado, who is pastry chef and manager of his restaurant, stayed on the sidelines.

Soon the kitchen was filled with wonderful aromas of meat in complex sauces. "Most of the typical sauces of Guatemala lean a little toward the Mexican mole," Molina said. One difference is that Guatemalan food relies less on peppers. Jocon contains none. Pulique and pipian require only two each, and the effect is not spicy.

These were the three dishes Molina was preparing. He also planned to grill a platterful of vegetables, including yellow and red bell peppers, green and yellow zucchini, thick slices of red onion and portabello mushrooms.

"A lot of roasting is done there [in Guatemala]," he said, describing modest eating places with no stoves and no modern amenities, where food is cooked over direct flame. One grows hungry hearing about marinated meats hung over a fire to dry and absorb smoky flavor before they are grilled, or the charcoal taste of vegetables roasted for sauces.

"On my family's side, almost everything was roasted--chiles, onions, tomatoes, tomatillos," Molina said.

Jocon is typically served with pork, wild boar and wild or domestic turkey. Tomatoes, tomatillos, green pepper, parsley, green onions and garlic are ground together and then added to the cooked pork and thickened with diluted corn masa.

Pipian is closer to a Mexican mole poblano because it contains chocolate, cinnamon, sesame seeds and dried chiles. But the classic mole poblano doesn't include achiote paste, toasted squash seeds and sweet vermouth. Perfect with chicken, the sauce is delicately sweet from the wine. "The European side of Guatemala uses wine in cooking," said Molina, whose father, Ernesto, is of Spanish descent.

Molina's parents, who now live in Elysian Park, farmed coffee, sugar cane, bananas and oranges on plantations in Guatemala. They also had a restaurant, candy shop, market and butcher shop where Molina first learned about meat cuts. When his father retired 15 years ago, they moved to Southern California to be with the rest of the family.

For pulique, Molina chooses a premium grade of beef filet, resulting in a juicy roast to slice and serve with the garlicky tomato sauce. If one is as organized as Molina, this dish can be prepared in only 15 minutes. He roasted the meat, seasoned with garlic and olive oil, at high heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, he pureed and simmered the sauce, which he added to the meat for a final five minutes in the oven.

In a surprisingly short time the dining room table was covered with big platters of food. Along with the three meat dishes and grilled vegetables, there were buttery mashed potatoes and rice and black beans, which Tirza Molina boiled, pureed in a blender, then worked into a paste in a skillet.

For rice, she prefers basmati or jasmine because the grains don't break up or stick together. Her method is ideal for anyone who wants to get food ready well before serving. She boils the rice, spreads it out to dry and stores it in the refrigerator, then reheats it with butter and slivers of green onion.

"Rice, beans, tortillas. They are the basics," Hugo Molina said. "And plantains. The beans are always black. Pinto beans are used very seldom."

Born in Huehuetenango, Molina has many more Guatemalan dishes in his repertoire. For reference he turns not only to his mother but to four sisters who live here. "When we decide to do all types of Guatemalan food, it's fun," he says. One of the sisters, Nelly Molina Vasquez, is daytime sous chef at Molina's restaurant.

The regular menu includes one Guatemalan-influenced dish: salmon roasted in a banana leaf and placed on a spoonful of red pipian sauce (pipian rojo). But the presentation is far from traditional: The accompanying black beans are set on a little tortilla and topped with cabbage, ranchero cheese and fresh crema.

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