FROM MEXICO WITH LOVE. A first lady of family cooking brings her native dishes to America

WHEN A'ida Gabilondo arrives at your door as a house guest, she will be carrying, among other things, her Mexican cooking kit in a neat three-compartment satchel -- rolling pin, griddle, even a blender and strainer. ``And my spice bag,'' she adds. ``I always travel with my spice bag.

``Cooking and the piano are my two loves. When I awake in the morning I either start cooking or I play the piano -- wherever I am.''

Along with her husband, Dick, Mrs. Gabilondo, who has just published a book on Mexican cooking ``Mexican Family Cooking,'' (Fawcett Columbine/Ballantine, $19.95), has traveled a good deal in recent years.

Mr. Gabilondo is in the agricultural management business. They have commuted from his ranch 200 miles north of Mexico City, to their homes in Mexico City, to the lovely resort town of Ixtapan de la Sal (where hummingbirds hover tirelessly among the clouds of fragrant flame-colored blossoms that cover the trees in late summer), to cities in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and California, as Mr. Gabilondo has helped launch various agriculture-related enterprises.

Evidently Mrs. Gabilondo's hosts love her cooking, too. As she cooked for them her native Mexican dishes, the requests for recipes and explanations accumulated to the point where she felt compelled to write down in summary what she has learned in a lifetime of cooking and tasting.

As is so often the case with gifted and energetic cooks, Mrs. Gabilondo's fascination with cooking began very early, when she was a little girl on her parents' ranch. After the cold, damp winter nights, the days would begin with firing up the old eight-burner pot-bellied stove. That kitchen became home to her own children, too.

``It was the most beautiful, heartwarming kitchen,'' Mrs. Gabilondo says.

All was not easy during those years on the ranch in the state of Sonora. ``For 28 years it was hard, hard, labor. The first years I'd pray at night for enough money for help to cook for my men -- eight cowboys. All I wanted was some help. I was so grateful a few years later, when I could afford it.''

There's no baked bread to be had on a ranch. No corner store. ``Still, it was a great life. Ranching was my father's pride and joy. He gave us our ranch when he was still alive. They were lined up in a row: my grandfather's, my father's, and my ranch -- I had 2,000 head of cattle, my father had 10,000.

``On July 26 each year, father would set up tents for guests. Music would be going night and day. We had a chapel on the ranch, and all the couples would be married on this one day. We would play horseshoes out under the tree. It was a day's drive for Dick and his first wife, eight or 10 hours, but they would come.''

Here Mrs. Gabilondo, with great affection, tells how she and Dick were married -- at the insistence of his five adult children and her four -- after their first partners passed on. The couples had long been best friends.

``We are party people in Mexico,'' Mrs. Gabilondo says of the big gatherings at the ranch. But with the good times was the memory of the effort: Making cheese, for instance, to pay the expenses of her first childbirths.

Cooking appears to be central to Mrs. Gabilondo's instincts for survival and caring for others. She is restless without culinary activity.

Mornings find her off to the market stalls in Ixtapan, Mr. Gabilondo waiting patiently in the car while she buys the freshest chiles, herbs, vegetables, and breads to serve through the day.

``My idea of heaven,'' she says, ``would be to have some flunky go to the market with me in the morning to carry things, and cook the rest of the day for the angels and the archangels. Forever.''

Mrs. Gabilondo's cookbook is written for the American kitchen, food market, and table, she says. It is dedicated to her own children, of course, but also to the hundreds of thousands of young Mexican-Americans who live north of the Rio Grande -- as far north as Chicago and Seattle -- and who are losing touch with the foods, literature, and songs of their Mexican heritage.

``The US is in now for a wave of intense Mexican food,'' Mrs. Gabilondo says. Young Mexican-American chefs, like her daughter, Zarela Martinez, who is executive chef of New York's Cafe Marimba, are capturing the attention of food writers and critics. Ms. Zarela and Mrs. Gabilondo cooked for President Reagan at the Williamsburg Economic Summit in 1983.

Mrs. Gabilondo recommends that Americans include one or two Mexican dishes in a menu, rather than try to duplicate a whole Mexican dinner. Mexican meals are based on a distinctly native pattern of eating and living.

``We do not eat fast foods in a Mexican home,'' Mrs. Gabilondo says. ``Tortillas, enchilladas, are not a staple. A meal for a Mexican family begins at two or three in the afternoon. It starts with soup, then a pasta or rice, then an entr'ee -- meat, chicken, or fish -- and always as a fourth dish, beans, normally refried beans with a nice crust on top. Then a dessert.

``In the evening we have something similar to an English high tea: hot or cold chocolate, tea or coffee, pastries -- turnovers wtih salmon or tuna or meat -- cold cuts and cheese, fruit. It can be a beautiful layout.

``Here, the custom was to send the maid out at 7:00 in the evening with a big basket to buy the last batch of baked bread. She would return at 8:00, carrying the bread in a traditional basket, having met her boyfriend outside the bakery door. On Sunday the Mexican family eats out, because the maid is not home.''

``We do not have very many old people's homes in Mexico,'' Mrs. Gabilondo says. ``We generally have three generations under one roof. So we have to cook for three age groups.''

In her book of some 260 recipes, Mrs. Gabilondo includes a large number of appetizers (including ceviche -- white fish or scallops marinated with lime juice, chile, and cilantro), roasts (pork loin baked in milk), Mexican sausage, fish dishes from Veracruz and Yucatan, stuffed chiles, casseroles (Mexican moussaka, and an Aztec pie made with corn tortillas, chicken, a mole sauce, and cheese), and desserts (custards, pound cake, and crepas -- crepes served with a thick caramel-like sauce).

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