In the kitchen with Food Network star and Chula Vistan Marcela Valladolid


Marcela Valladolid’s life is fabulously frenetic. One week each month she lives in New York City, where she co-hosts “The Kitchen” on The Food Network. The other three weeks she spends at her historic home in Chula Vista, where she creates recipes, tapes TV segments and does interviews while raising her three young children with her fiancé, Philip Button.

Despite her electric smile and effervescent personality - she is a Food Network star, after all - Valladolid is a working mom. “When I’m in San Diego, it’s carpools and making dinner and getting the kids to bed. It’s real life.”

And her latest cookbook, “Casa Marcela,” is a reflection of that reality. Unlike her

first two cookbooks, “Fresh Mexico” and “Mexican Made Easy,” which focused on making traditional Mexican recipes accessible for home cooks, “Casa Marcela” invites readers into her home to see the celebrity chef/mom in action.

“It’s an incredibly personal book,” says Valladolid. During the two-week photo shoot that took place solely inside her house and her thriving 1,400-square-foot edible garden, she realized, “Having people come into my house, using my plates, literally taking over my house for two weeks, while I’m carpooling and making the kids’ lunches ... it puts you in a vulnerable place. It’s like, this is my life. This is how I entertain. ... I hope you like it.”

I certainly do.

I believe you will, too. Here’s why. Valladolid’s rules for entertaining, whether it’s a Memorial Day barbecue, a birthday celebration or a Sunday supper, are simple:

1. Have fun! The purpose of entertaining is to decompress from a harried work week.

2. Create a designated lounge area when guests first arrive for cocktails and snacks. Place food on an island or bar so guests can serve themselves. Include adults and children at the table during formal meals. (They can run around when you’re assembling dessert.)

3. Plan out a simple yet coherent menu: Cocktails and nonalcoholic libations, salad, protein, side vegetable, salsa and dessert. Opt for big-batch self-serve cocktails like a Mexican Mule that you can make ahead. Follow with a simple seasonal salad like Valladolid’s Watermelon, Queso Fresco and Mint Salad, an entree such as Coke-Braised Pork Tacos and a side such as Healthy Refried Beans. Add some salsas, guacamole (homemade or store bought), and tortillas, and you’re done. Wrap up the event with a make-ahead dessert like Valladolid’s three-ingredient Cinnamon Ice Cream. Even easier, ask your guests to bring dessert.

4. Before embarking on a lengthy or difficult culinary project, Valladolid says to ask yourself, at what cost? “If [making a difficult recipe] is taking you away from your guests and away from having a good time, then skip it,” she says bluntly. Don’t have time to make homemade tortillas? Buy them at the supermarket. (Valladolid does.) Don’t have time to make homemade salsa? Buy a bottle at your local Mexican market.

5. “OK, maybe not the salsa,” Valladolid cautions, after the words escape from her lips. “Buying salsa in this house is sacrilegious,” she says with a wry laugh. Rule No. 5: “Make the salsa.”

6. Set the mood before the guests arrive by turning on some good party music, anything from salsa to Michael Jackson to Elvis Presley (Valladolid’s latest obsession). Open and imbibe some good wine.

7. To Martha or not to Martha? Valladolid, who channels her muse, Martha Stewart, asks herself, “How can home cooks both entertain beautifully yet not get more stressed?” Here are a few of her tips: Pick a theme, which maintains focus. Shop your house first. Repurpose objects - use water pitchers for floral arrangements and Mason jars for glasses. Embrace the mix-and-match aesthetic: Mix vintage and modern plates, glassware and silverware, which, Valladolid insists, “takes the stress out of entertaining.”

In case you’re wondering, Valladolid practices what she preaches. Most weekends, she and Button, who frequently travels midweek, relish their at-home time with their family. Pop over on a Saturday or Sunday and you’ll likely find Button manning the grill, Valladolid making salads, salsas and sides in the kitchen, kids and dogs playing outdoors, and family and friends reconnecting.

“Philip and I live for the weekends,” says Valladolid. “Entertaining is much more than a reason to eat and drink; It’s a reason to bond with friends and families.”

Russo is a San Diego freelance food writer and cookbook author.

Mexican Mule

Marcela Valladolid created this tequila version of the Moscow Mule because she isn’t much of a vodka drinker but likes how the drink is served in copper mugs. If you have the copper mugs, use them; the metal keeps the cocktail cold for a very long time.

Serves 4

½ fresh serrano chili, stemmed

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup water

¼ cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, plus more for garnish

½ cup tequila blanco

¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1 (12-ounce) bottle ginger beer, chilled

Combine the serrano chili, sugar, water and mint in a small, heavy pot. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Once the simple syrup is cooled, discard the serrano. In a large pitcher, combine the tequila, lime juice and cooled simple syrup. Stir to combine. Fill four glasses with ice cubes. Divide the tequila mixture among them. Top with the ginger beer and garnish with mint leaves. Serve immediately.