Duplicating Dad's recipes, thousands of miles away

A California girl with Mexican roots moves east and longs for the tacos and tamales of her youth.

My first care package - one in what would become a constant flow - quickly followed my arrival on the East Coast to attend college.

That box, sent by my father in California, was stuffed with some of our favorites: trail mix brimming with deep red cranberries; tubs of mini oatmeal cookies; corn chips; salsa; slices of dried mango; and the hexagonal yellow, red, and gold carton of Ibarra Mexican chocolate.

At the time, I didn't think much of the chocolate. I couldn't quite fathom a way to heat the milk needed to melt it, thick with cinnamon and sugar crystals, in my dorm room. Eventually, a squirrel clambered through the window and devoured the chocolate, cardboard box and all.

During the next four years, my father would continue sending me ready-to-eat snacks augmented by the occasional small box of Mexican chocolate, can of Las Palmas red sauce for making enchiladas or entomatadas (see recipe at right), or fideo, the coiled, vermicelli-like noodles used in one of my favorite Mexican dishes. But I never quite got around to making those in my dorm room, either.

After graduation, I moved into a tiny Manhattan apartment, with a kitchen just big enough for my first culinary adventures.

I grew up in a family of cooks. My father, aunts, uncles, and cousins all have a way with food, each with a distinct style influenced by my grandmother's traditional Mexican cuisine.

In the kitchen, my father is an artist. He is an incorrigible experimentalist with a limitless repertoire of recipes that he carries around in his head. He cooks by color, wandering the aisles of a grocery store, carefully choosing the foods that will contrast most on a plate.

I have spent hours in the kitchen with my family, tending to huevos à la mexicana (scrambled eggs with chiles, tomato, and onion); soaking jicama with oranges and cayenne pepper, and slicing avocado for a salad my cousin Laura stumbled upon in a cookbook; or helping her sister, Lisa, as she worked, elbow-deep in a paper bag full of "sweating" pasillo peppers, deliberately separating skin and seeds, pulling them into the rajas (strips) that would later be added to a quesadilla.

I know the basic ratio for making a pot of beans. I can prepare the recaudo of tomato, onion, and a clove of garlic, which forms the base for many dishes: rice, tortilla soup, fideo. But I have always assumed the role of sous-chef, with plenty of support and guidance.

When my father talks about learning Spanish, he makes the acquisition of a new language sound like a fluid and natural process. He talks of learning explosions and says to me, "Mija [daughter], you have a great vocabulary, and one day it will all just come together." He speaks of cooking in the same way, as though I will suddenly step into a kitchen, fluent in the language of food.

Gray tomatoes, wilted cilantro

One balmy summer evening, not long after I had moved into my apartment, I decided it was time to begin cooking.

I wandered to the supermarket down the street, a grocery store that nearly stretched across an entire city block. In many ways, it resembled those I had shopped at in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Los Angeles, except it was underground.

So imagine my surprise when I stepped off the escalator onto the cavernous floor and the only type of chiles I could find were jalapeños. When I asked for tortillas, I was directed to hard taco shells. Even the tomatoes looked a little gray.

I walked the few blocks back to a specialty grocer, determined to make a simple pico de gallo salsa of jalapeños, cilantro, tomato, onion, and lime. After about five minutes poking around the bowels of the market, an employee emerged and handed me a wilted bunch of cilantro.

I gave up and decided to go out for Mexican food, confident that I could find something simple and delicious.

Again, I was disappointed. There were perfectly adequate restaurants that turned out fresh-enough burritos - always very large - but they were never quite right. There were inexpensive storefronts - often the best choice at home - where, unfortunately, everything was soaked in lard and dripping with cheese.

The upscale eateries could be excellent - with offers of red snapper and Veracruz-style salsas. But the sides - and prices - were equally gourmet: black beans embellished with chayotes and rice dishes that resembled paella.

A welcome discovery

I craved the simple Mexican food that my family made, or that could be found in any neighborhood restaurant in California.

Then, this past winter, things looked up. At the whole-foods market near my apartment in Cambridge, Mass., I discovered a shelf stacked with small boxes of Ibarra. For weeks, I would steel myself against the winter cold with mug upon mug of hot chocolate.

In the produce section, I found baskets with peppers of every variety: long green anaheims; stocky orange habañeros; deep green poblanos; small, spicy serranos; and of course, jalapeños.

The cilantro was also out on display; it looked fresh, although not quite as pungent as I remember it being at home. And crammed into the refrigerated section were flour tortillas - a little frozen - with their corn relatives nearby, tucked beneath a few sandwiches.

The other day I arrived home to find a small box from my father, wrapped in white paper (so that it would blend in with the snow). Inside were bags of rice, fideo, cans of Las Palmas sauce, and Ibarra chocolate.

I think it may once again be time for me to pick up a comal. Maybe my father is right. Maybe cooking - and language - really can be learned through osmosis.

All-Green Guacamole

2 avocados, pitted and chopped
2 tomatillos, peeled and diced
2 scallions, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, mash avocados with a fork, leaving them slightly lumpy. Add tomatillos, scallions, and salt. Taste and add more salt if needed.

Makes about 2 cups.

Pico de Gallo Salsa

2 medium tomatoes, finely diced
1 small white onion, finely diced
10 cilantro leaves, chopped
2 to 3 jalapeño or serrano chilies, seeded and finely diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Juice from half a lime

In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Taste and add more salt or lime juice if needed.

Makes 2 cups.

Entomatadas

4 large ripe tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
12 corn tortillas
Monterey Jack cheese, grated
Sour cream, for garnish
Black olives, halved, for garnish
Cilantro leaves, for garnish

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring a pot of water to boil. Plunge tomatoes into boiling water for about 1 minute, just long enough to loosen skins. Peel tomatoes and put them whole into a blender with the salt and sugar. Purée until sauce is uniform. Thinly coat a sauté pan with about a teaspoon of oil. When hot, cook one tortilla in oil until soft and pliable. Dip tortilla into tomato mixture until thinly coated. Roll tortilla and place in a shallow 3-quart baking dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Pour sauce over top of tortillas. Place dish in preheated oven and cook for 5 minutes. Top tortillas with grated cheese. Garnish with sour cream, black olives, and cilantro. Serve with guacamole and salsa (recipes above).

Serves 4 to 6.

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