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New cookbook has tips for creating your own Oaxacan-inspired cookout

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

If there's one barbecue you want to be invited to this summer, it's at Bricia Lopez's house. She's co-owner of Guelaguetza, a James Beard Award-winning Oaxacan restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles' Koreatown. And she has a new cookbook that's all about the juicy, smoky flavors of a backyard carne asada. Her cookbook is called "Asada: The Art Of Mexican-Style Grilling." It's a colorful guide to help spark your Oaxacan-inspired cookout.

BRICIA LOPEZ: The one thing I always say is get a drink in someone's hand ASAP and put great music on.

MARTÍNEZ: We meet Bricia at a park in Los Angeles at one of those black outdoor grills you see at every park in America. She says, in a city like Los Angeles, backyard asadas are as revered as church on Sundays. She's here today with a bag full of ingredients and charcoal for the grill.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

LOPEZ: I'm going to get the fire going.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAG TEARING)

MARTÍNEZ: She opens the bag of mesquite lump charcoal - her favorite for an asada. She says it's the most traditional and imparts the most flavor.

LOPEZ: Here we go. It's there. She got it. She's ready.

MARTÍNEZ: The coals heat up in a chimney starter that she's placed on the grill, and smoke pours across the park. As Bricia says in her cookbook, if you don't see smoke, it's not a true carne asada.

LOPEZ: I mean, I'm sure you smell right now, like, the fire's...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, definitely.

LOPEZ: ...Going.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

LOPEZ: And that smells like an asada to me. And that smells to me - it smells like Oaxaca, and it smells - it reminds me of my childhood. And I want my kid to think of me every time he smells burning charcoal (laughter)...

MARTÍNEZ: It's the signal that food is...

LOPEZ: ...Or fire...

MARTÍNEZ: ...On the way...

LOPEZ: ...Fire - yes.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Is what it is. Yeah.

LOPEZ: Yes. That's what it is.

MARTÍNEZ: Tell us about what having an asada meant for you growing up with your family.

LOPEZ: Yeah. So I grew up in LA. We didn't own a home with a backyard. We lived in apartments. So you'd go and you'd gather at the park, whether it be in the weekends or after school, or - you'd get your salsas out. You have chips. You hang out. It's just about the gathering of people and introducing other people to flavors they've never had before or, even better, reminding them of something they had as children and bring up memories.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, an asada can be as intimate or as big as you want, according to Bricia. Her asadas usually start off with a short guest list, then as people start to hear about it, it doubles in size. And people tend to arrive whenever they're hungry.

LOPEZ: It's not a dinner party. Dinner parties have a start time and an end time. That's not what an asada is. An asada is - there's no formal invitation. You'll get a text from a friend. You'll get a phone call. You'll get a DM. Hey, come through. We're going to have an asada. Oh, can I bring someone? Sure. And there's going to be dancing in the...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

LOPEZ: ...Living room, and the - you know, the music starts turning up. Things get louder.

MARTÍNEZ: 'Cause one of the things I notice in your book is in addition to all of the pictures you have of food...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...There are pictures of people all over.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Those are all my friends and my family. There's a beautiful photo there where you see my mom, my sister, my mother-in-law, my kids. And then the spread that you see is real spread. We have paper plates and dirty napkins, and it's what it's supposed to be. I didn't want it to come off as something that you couldn't do or replicate.

MARTÍNEZ: The mesquite charcoals are finally hot enough, and Bricia dumps the hot coals from the chimney starter into the grill. Now, one of the most important rituals in any asada - cleaning the grill with an onion.

LOPEZ: So...

MARTÍNEZ: So you just chopped an onion in half.

LOPEZ: Chopped an onion and a half. And this is the way you season the grate and you clean it.

MARTÍNEZ: She uses the half-onion like a sponge and wipes down the grate and then throws the onion away. Now, not only does it clean the grate, it also seasons the grill and creates a nonstick surface. So what's on the menu? Well, Bricia's cookbook is filled with las carnes - steak, pork, lamb, chicken, ribs - I mean, it looks incredible in the cookbook. But here's the thing - I don't eat meat. Thankfully, Bricia says vegetarians and even vegans should never feel unwelcome at an asada.

LOPEZ: So here I just brought you an array of veggies. I have asparagus, zucchini, squash.

MARTÍNEZ: There's broccolini and romaine lettuce, too. She's making grilled veggies with a pipian dip - one of the recipes in her cookbook.

LOPEZ: The vegetables have three things. They have oil, salt and smoke. That's the recipe.

MARTÍNEZ: How long do they stay on the grill, the vegetables?

LOPEZ: So these will probably just be about five to 10 minutes. I want to give them a really beautiful char, and I want that flavor of the fire, the smoke, the charcoal to penetrate them. OK. So here the asparagus will be done in about two minutes.

MARTÍNEZ: Ooh, those asparagus look really good.

LOPEZ: It looks just beautiful.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, wow.

LOPEZ: Great.

MARTÍNEZ: The veggies - perfectly charred and crispy off the grill. Bricia then opens a container with a bright-orange spicy dip that she made it home the night before.

So what kind of sauce did you make?

LOPEZ: This sauce has almonds, habanero, chile de agua, tomato, garlic, olive oil, grapeseed oil, salt and vinegar.

MARTÍNEZ: I can just grab away?

LOPEZ: Yeah - grab, dip.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Oh, my God. This is so tasty. The asparagus was sweet and smoky.

LOPEZ: Yep.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow.

LOPEZ: That's what you want. That's why I just want to encourage people to just cook over fire more and not be afraid.

MARTÍNEZ: You've been in LA for a long time. This book seems like more of a love letter to the city than any of the other...

LOPEZ: LA.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Things you've ever written.

LOPEZ: Yes. You know, my first book was "Oaxaca." It's a very American story - right? - of my father and my mother who came into this country, left everything and started a new life with their children and the struggle of owning a business as a immigrant family, but also the love for the culture of Oaxaca. But I think in the past, I would say three, four years, I had this revelation of understanding and knowing and accepting the fact that I am both American and I am both from Oaxaca. In all honesty, I had a really hard time coming to terms with that because the whole world told me I needed to be one thing. I couldn't be both things. And I think this book is really an expression of me knowing that I can be two things, that I can still be a Oaxacan girl with all my culture, but I can still be an LA girl. So for me, asada is a celebration of being Mexican and American and really expressing my Mexican Americanness in all its glory.

MARTÍNEZ: The book is called "Asada: The Art Of Mexican-Style Grilling." Bricia Lopez, thank you very much...

LOPEZ: Thank you, A.

MARTÍNEZ: ...For being out here in the park with us on a beautiful sunny day...

LOPEZ: Oh, my gosh.

MARTÍNEZ: ...in LA.

LOPEZ: Of course. And like all my paisanos say, you will always be invited to the asada.

MARTÍNEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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