Shop with a Chef: Brenda Cortes Castrejon, Doña Cata

Brenda Cortes Castrejon insists she’s not a classically trained chef-and it shows: her honest, simple food reflects training rooted in family recipes, years of practice and rural Mexico. Castrejon’s widowed grandmother, Doña Cata, opened a meat shop and tacqueria in Villa de Ayala, Mexico-birthplace of Emilio Zapata, the revolutionary-that she would operate with the family for 45 years. She passed on her butchering skills, love of cooking, and, eventually, her well-guarded recipes to Castrejon.

On September 2, 2006-the day after her late grandmother’s birthday-Castrejon opened Doña Cata in East Vancouver (5438 Victoria Dr., 604-436-2232). She buys epazote, a savoury herb, at Los Guerreros Latin Market (102-3317 Kingsway, 604-451-7850). She sautés it with mushrooms and jalapeño peppers, and serves it over corn tortillas with mozzarella cheese. On the Drive, Castrejon shops at El Sureno Market (1730 Commercial Dr., 604-253-5017) for poblano chilies-she removes the skins and stuffs the chilies with pork, almonds and raisins, swimming in red tomato cream salsa. Fresh tomatillos and jalapeños from Horizonte Imports (604-597-5089) are used in eight different varieties of salsa (her favourite combines green and red tomatoes, peanuts, chipotle and spicy chile de arbol). All are available for purchase at Doña Cata. Castrejon benches the overplayed Caesar salad for diced cactus leaves (also available at the restaurant) tossed with tomato, onion, cilantro, lemon, canola oil and feta cheese. And to drink: she suggests Horchata, made with cinnamon, sugar and water; or ground melon seeds, milk, cinnamon and sugar. Ole!