Almuerzo con mi Apa

Once again I’ve been stirred by my niece, Cassi Maria to write about mi apa, her Tata. Claro que si!  She didn’t have to twist my arm, it’s always a comfort to me to share these memories. Reader, do you know the cancion que dice “Rosa Maria se fue a la playa”?  When Cassandra was a wee little girl I loved singing that to her, por su puesto que I changed it to Cassi Maria, she recently told me that she believed it was my own created melody, confession is good for the soul. 

Tata and Cassi

When Cassi visited her Tata and me, she always loved to watch me prepare breakfast for him.  She said that he got ‘special treatment’. Pero, I will clarify that at the time I didn’t believe it to be special, it was simply the way he liked to eat. He loved a nice hearty breakfast, which almost always included frijolitos bien fritos and tortillas. Sometimes I added meat, otras veces just blanquillos. The eggs would either be scrambled or fried, this did not impress Cassi. Pero, when I made a torta de huevo with all the fixings her eyes would light up as she appreciated my handiwork and she was happy for her grandpa.

I would scramble a couple of eggs and pour them over a hot skillet with oil. Luego, I’d cut up the egg patty, give it a quick and gentle stir fry with slices of onion and simmer it in a roasted tomato and dry chile sauce that mi ama taught me to make. Sometimes, if Cassi came in just as I was simmering la torta de huevo,  she’d inhale the spices from the sauce; el comino, the garlic and pepper and the chiles all made her hungry for Tata’s breakfast. 

As I’m writing this, I’m picturing my apa at the table, hands laced together, patiently waiting for his almuerzo. First his orange juice with Metamucil mixed in and his pastillas. He would always count them, and say, “Tantas pastillas?” In reality, he actually took minimal medication, compared to most 90 year old people. But still, he eyed me suspiciously. While I filled his plate with the beans and eggs and served his coffee, Cassi chatted with him and watched me, then chatted with me and turned to him.  My apa was always one to appreciate a pretty face, and his eyes always lit up when he saw Cassi, almost always saying to her “que guapa” and Cassi would blush and smile. At that stage in his life, dementia did confuse him. The conversations circled in the same questions. He wondered about Cassi’s connection to him, then he’d be surprised that “Chicha” (my youngest brother) was her dad. This might be a good place to explain that cultural habit we Mexicans have of using quirky nicknames. We create funny names and stick to them, maybe it’s just my family? Here’s one version of that conversation:

Cassi: Hola Tata como estas? (Hug and kiss)

Tata: Buenos dias! Que guapa! (my apas eyes always had a teasing twinkle in them) 

Cassi: Gracias Tata, si te acuerdas de mi? (remember this generation doesn’t know much about the proper use of “usted” so in Spanglish fashion she wanted to make sure he knew who she was.)

Tata: Parece que tu eres la Senora del Chicha? 

Cassi: No Tata! Yo soy la hija del Chicha (doing everything to restrain her indignation at being called her dads wife and not daughter ☺)

Tata: Su hija! A pose deveras que ando mal! (embarrassed that he made such a blunder, he’d blame his memory loss)

Cassi: It’s okay Tata (and Cassi would quickly forgive him)

When breakfast was served, my apa always waited til we were all seated so he could pray. I can still hear his wonderful prayer resounding in my ear like a sweet melody:

Gracias te damos Señor por estos alimentos que no nos hacen falta…”

En Conclusion:

Hijole! Now I see how right Cassi was, those breakfast days with my apa were muy especial

This Easter weekend, I am reminded of the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for without his sacrifice and gift of salvation I wouldn’t be able to see him again. 

Have a beautiful Easter y que Dios los Bendiga! 

How To Assemble A Tostada

One of the many things I love about my church family is how we love to celebrate each other’s blessings. Last week the ladies gathered together for a baby shower. The young mom we celebrated was very grateful, but also very anxious not to overload any of us. She did not want to be a burden. After we convinced her that it was truly our pleasure she asked that we keep it very simple. The party planner kept it simple and beautiful. We’ve got a solid group of women who work well together and cover all the aspects of an event for a beautiful presentation. My contribution is usually in the kitchen. That’s me, always in the kitchen. 

Ahora, when I heard that my assignment was to keep the meal simple, pues! No problem. Beans, rice, and tostadas are nice. I immediately secured help from my cuñada Sandra and another sis for shredded meat. Bien facil, pork, chicken and beef. I was not feeling any kind of burden, especially when the ladies reached out to offer help. I stayed on the real simple track.  I asked for help with the “assembly parts” of a tostada. You know, the tortilla shells, shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, shredded lettuce, diced onion, diced tomatoes,chopped cilantro and wedges of limón.  We would offer two options of salsa red or green.

Frijoles de la olla

I put my frijoles on early in the morning since it was a good size pot. I have had several ladies remind me of the convenience of the Instapot, but old ways are hard to break, it takes a miracle! Needless to say that I was a bit stressed because I was running late. All the “Instapotters” right here could wag their finger at me and say Ves! I told you so! Luego! I was beginning to wonder if two large pans of refried beans was enough? But I quickly chided myself beans were not the main event, no the preocupes, I told myself.

I walked into the hall and wanted to turn around with my very simple menu! Hijole, Julia, the party planner kept it simple alright. Her labor of love was displayed so beautifully, but my tostada and rice dinner was demasiado simple. Pues ni modo, this crowd was gracious. I felt better when someone said “I love the meal plan, Mexican food is my favorite” my shoulders lifted again. 

How To Properly Assemble A Tostada

I was in the kitchen while everyone was serving themselves so I didn’t immediately notice that tostadas were not being assembled properly. No need to panic, beans are never the main event. I went back to the kitchen. The first pan of beans was gone! Hijole!  How was that possible? Maybe I needed to give a quick class on how to assemble a tostada? By the time I decided to get out of the kitchen and join everyone and eat, the second pan was almost gone. Imaginate! Se acabaron los frijoles?! The disgrace I felt, what latina in the world had ever run out of food? Que vergüenza. The walk of shame back to the kitchen. One of the sisters comforted me with these words

Sister: Don’t worry Rosie, everyone got seconds

Me: But I know I made enough beans. I should have given a quick lesson on assembling a tostada. (anything to redeem myself) 

She laughed at the silly suggestion. Pero, I wonder If only I would have carefully instructed them to add just a small amount of beans spread nicely to cover the shell. Follow that with your choice of shredded meat and topped with any or all of the “assembly parts.” Then you carefully sprinkle on your choice of green or red salsa… Maybe then, this latina wouldn’t have this dark stain on her cooking reputation.   

En Conclusión

When I told Maria, my sister in law, she said “There’s your next post idea, “How to assemble a tostada” And I knew she was right, perhaps I could save another cook’s reputation. Then she added,

“But you know, I love bean tostadas, I prefer them over meat” Esperate! Just beans?!  I hadn’t considered that. Bottom line is that mi ama didn’t calculate her meals by how many people to expect, she always was ready to serve an army. A la otra, I’ll be ready too!

Getting Comfortable With My Cooking

Te Sirvo Mas?

I’m not sure my ama ‘loved’ to cook, but having a family of 10 and growing exponentially as the grandchildren arrived she spent a lot of time in the kitchen. It was here that she was very comfortable and, I believe, confident. When visitors came over they would eventually be sitting at the kitchen table eating some of her comida casera. “Te sirvo mas?” She delighted in serving a second helping. After meeting my flaco for the first time and seeing his need for “fattening up” She approved of his zeal for her good cooking as she put in front of him a second, then a third serving of her comida Mexicana. At the end of that visit mi ama concluded that maybe our mixed marriage would do well, after all she had taught me her ways in the kitchen. 

Finding My Way in the Kitchen:

Before I got married I was so intimidated by the beautiful pasta meals my roommate put together. Her stuffed shells were beautiful, she used ingredients I never heard of, like ‘ricotta cheese’ something the ricos used. Then she’d make a colorful green salad that accompanied the pasta, hijole, it was so ‘chef like’ that I hated messing it up by cutting into  her delicious presentation. Seeing her meals convinced me that I did not know how to cook, so I said that, until I got married. When I did marry my flaco, those words accused me “I don’t know how to cook”. Imagínate,  how relieved I was to receive for a wedding gift my little paperback Better Homes and Gardens “New Cook Book.”.

Ahora si, I felt equipped to cook for my gringo. I figured he needed his kind of food. I worked really hard at following the recipes…really, really hard… my greatest obstacle was sticking to the recipes. I’d hear my amas words Pruébalo, si necesita sal o chile, échale más” Did it need more salt or chile? Eventually I mastered some basic recipes. I discovered basic drop cookies, and learned that making cookies wasn’t too hard and much tastier than the store bought. I learned how to make white sauce, and the different variations, just like a pro. This Mexican American girl even made Quiche Lorraine, muy profesional! Asi es, every time it came out of the oven so nice and dark golden I was so proud of myself. Oh those unenlightened days before cell phone cameras, I couldn’t even show off! Ben’s lack of a reaction was always a mystery to me. 

Just Like my Ama

I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and eventually I’ve made my way back to my mothers way of cooking, testing and tasting. I took those recipes I learned and I shaped them into my own stilo: a tweaked recipe and my amas way. I work with what’s in the cupboard. I remake a leftover dish into a whole new meal. I stretch my food to feed my unexpected children and grandchildren and rarely do I make the “favorites” exactly the same. It keeps my daughter in law  on her toes. Just as she has mastered something she learned from me, I change it. 

She comes to visit and finds me in the kitchen, after a brief interruption of hugs and kisses from my little loves and Jeremiahs sweet greeting mixed with a kiss and a “Hi ‘Ma.” She sits at the counter to chat while I cook and sure enough she notices I’ve done something new to the Mexican rice I taught her to make or the mac n cheese that her girls absolutely love. They say, “our mom makes the best mac n cheese.” I can’t resist telling them that I taught her how to make it. Of course it doesn’t phase them, their mom is the best mac n cheese maker in the world! As it should be. A standard conversation Denise and I have which usually starts with my back to her as I’m adding an ingredient while she tries to peer over my shoulder from the counter.

Denise: Wait! What are you adding to the sauce? I don’t remember you telling me to add that?

Me: What? Oh, yea. 

Denise: Have you always added that? 

Me: I have before. I don’t know if I always do.

Denise: Man! I wish I had a hidden camera here to watch you cooking and get those secrets.

Me: I don’t have secrets, I just work with what I have.

If my son Thomas happens to be home, he would add his spice to the conversation.

Thomas: Yea, whenever anyone asks mom for her recipe, she is never never sure what she added this time! I love her experiments.

Back to the Directions:

Recently I’ve been thinking that I need to “learn to cook” with recipes again. It’s needed. It teaches discipline. Just as I’ve convinced myself to use my cookbooks again, my little 5 year old Rachel made one comment and my resolve has tumbled to the ground.

Rachel– “D’ma I wish you douldn’t have tollowed the directions so that the pancakes dould have been delithish” Her lisp always makes this strong Latina woman melt.

I was focused on making pancakes for my little overnight visitors. I was reading the directions from the Bisquick mix but of course I was tweaking it so that I would make just enough and waste food. I hate wasting food. 

Me: What? Don’t you like these pancakes?

She mumbled something, but I couldn’t understand her. I chuckled, my brain received her comment as a compliment.

En Conclusión

I like to think that I’m like my ama when it comes to cooking. I enjoy feeding others. I work hard to prepare good food and love it when others eat it up. Thomas has established an unspoken rule. After you’ve tasted the food and your tastebuds rejoice, you must tell the cook her food is good. It boosts her confidence and keeps her cooking. “Good cook Ma” 

Learning To Cook With Your Mexican Mama

Learning To Cook With Your Mexican Mama, Or With Your Mexican-American Mama

Since Christmas time is a wonderful time of different holiday dishes and traditions, I thought it would be a good time to tell you about my learning to cook “journey”. (Anyone outside of the Mexican-American circle would call it a roller coaster!)

I’ve been cooking since I was barely a teenager. (As a young roommate I never shared the ‘wealth’ of my knowledge with my roomies, since I believed knowing how to cook meant following recipes) I cannot say I love cooking, especially the way I was inducted into the kitchen, but my ego is strutting; bien culeca when someone says “Oooh are those Rosies enchi’s?”.

It all started when I was almost fourteen years old, the summer before high school, when my whole life would turn upside down. My older siblings were all going off to work with mom in the grapevines of Coachella Valley, but I was not old enough to get a work permit. However, I was old enough to cook all by myself in the hot kitchen and so began my culinary journey.

Cooking class in my Mexican mother’s home was very informal. (I just felt my daughter roll her eyes at the obvious truth) Chores done and laundry continual, Mom would pull out some meat and say, 

“When this defrosts, go ahead and cook it and serve it with frijoles de la olla today. No need to refry the beans today and don’t forget to make the tortillas first, they’ll stay warm” 

“What?! Ok, Wait, what do I do with the meat?” 

Without even looking back at me, she’d say,

 “Con cebollita picada y pimienta. Ah, y un poco de sal. No se te pase!”

“That’s it? Some diced onion, pepper and salt? How do I know if I have enough salt or too much in it?” 

She’d put down the laundry basket, look at me and say,

“You have to taste it Rosalba. If you need to add a little something, check the fridge, maybe some diced jalapeno, or garlic. There’s comino in the cupboard.” 

She’d go right back to the endless laundry.

“Dad’s gonna be here just after noon, so be ready to serve” 

That was the lesson. After staring at the meat, which was seeping blood, I wondered how I was going to create something delicious like Mom always did. I had no choice but to go for it and cook.

I cut the meat into small bites, I could not get all the fat out and that worried me. Still, I seasoned it with a dash of pepper, salt, and a sprinkle of cumin. Then, I just tossed it all into the pan with diced onions. That fat that I struggled to cut off, simmered and blended with the onion. As it continued to cook down it blended with the meat juices and created a gravy.  It looked tasty, hmmm. I added a dash more salt, and let it simmer.

Mom came by and stirred the simmering pan, tasted, and added a dash more pepper and cumin. She lifted the towel my warm flour tortillas rested in, (I forgot to mention that making dough for tortillas had perhaps been my first lesson in the kitchen, a constant practice, since in our home we had fresh flour tortillas everyday) she covered them again and keeping a straight face she walked toward the door where the laundry waited.

“You’ll definitely have to practice rolling out your tortillas, round is the shape we’re aiming for.” 

Dad came in, washed his hands and sat down to be served. I held my breath as I brought his plate to him. He uncovered the tortillas, lifted it up high and smirked.

“This looks like the seat of your bicycle” (rolling tortillas was not my constant practice a whole different struggle)

He rolled it and bit into it and took a fork full of meat and beans to his mouth. He ate everything on his plate, then took the last bicycle shaped tortilla and cleanup the gravy, and spoke.

“That was good. Thank you”

After that, I felt like I was a culinary graduate! (after all my apa had just approved me, every daughter’s dream) Now, I could conquer any belly, taste bud or picky person. Of course, I quickly realized that for basic training in my amas kitchen, the first lesson was that it was not as scary or difficult as it seemed, and it was nowhere near impossible. I would have to watch very carefully as she taught me to make the other Mexican essentials of her kitchen, the refried beans, the Mexican rice, the salsas, the sauces for the meats and on and on.

(My daughter in-law also says that she has to keep a really keen eye on my hands as I work in the kitchen because all of a sudden, “Le voy a echar un poquito de este” But I neglect to tell her what the “este” is beforehand or how much of it I added, making her learning experience much like mine)

Although cooking is not my favorite thing to do, I truly enjoy when others enjoy my cooking, then I see its value and love it.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on