Friday, May 6, 2016

In which I learn that cooking equals love // Part 2

I'm posting the second part of my column on cooking here on my personal blog this week. I need a good reason to get you here anyway! Find all my columns on The Holmes County Bargain Hunter. 

In which I learn that cooking equals love: Part 2
By: Melissa Herrera

I sat at the table in my first kitchen looking out over the vast expanse of valley outside my window. I’ll admit to not making coffee before I got married, as I didn’t learn to love it while living at home. But I could smell it, so I figured I was doing something right. I was twenty-one, and had years of Holmes County cooking under my belt, with a husband - who while loving my cooking - sometimes longed for the tastes he’d grown up with. When we left Mexico for home months before, got married, and moved into our own home – I was unwavering in the task set before me. I would learn to cook proper Mexican food even if it killed me.

In between tuna casseroles and chicken and rice meals, I experimented. I started off with the basics, but even that was hard as ingredients for authentic meals were difficult to procure back in 1990. Tortillas had grown in popularity and were readily available, but anything else was a search in vain. Most of what I made had a Tex-Mex bent to it, as that style was – and still is – very popular here. Having lived in San Antonio, Texas where I met George, I was introduced to those excellent and dreamy cooking styles. There ain’t nothing a big, cheesy enchilada with gravy won’t cure.

So I persisted, having set aside the disaster that was my chicken soup and his family. I sliced potatoes, carrots, and onions and boiled them in a soup – adding raw pieces of chicken to the pot. Salt, pepper, and thirty minutes from end cooking time I added a handful of rice. When all was cooked, I sliced up jalapenos, cilantro, and several limes to which I garnished the hot steaming bowl of soup. Setting it in front of George, he smiled and dug in. I knew I was on the right track. When he moved to this area he fell in love with the cream sticks and pan-fried chicken, so there was no love lost for our food. But when he took a bite and was transported to his mom’s table, I knew then that my kitchen would forever be a bilingual one. Thin, pounded round steaks fried with onions and smothered in a spicy tomato-based sauce became another meal I perfected. And rice, let me tell you about the rice in Mexico. There is no small secret to it except that it’s perfection. Huge vats are made at parties and family meals – every single grain cooked to non-mushy perfection. I could hear his mom’s voice in my ear as I prepared it, and my family suffered through many pots of soft rice, hard rice, and almost-right rice. Those long-grain bits of tiny whiteness were a burr under my skin and I had to get it right. I will tell you that my children, now, complain of the rice anywhere they eat it. “Mom, there is no good rice anywhere. Will you send me some?” I am still highly critical of my rice, but I’m the only one. It is gobbled down when I set a steaming pot next to a plate of bubbling enchiladas.

Like white sauce, I consider my success at Mexican rice the penultimate achievement. It’s a rite of passage that must be accomplished before you can move on. I’ve now moved on to tamales, moist and flavorful, tucked inside corn husks, as well as learning to make homemade sopes (thicker tortilla-like discs) that hold beans, cheese, and salsa. Special shout out to Tyler, my eldest daughter’s boyfriend, for buying us a tortilla maker for Christmas – he loves to sit at my table. My kitchen is now stocked with clear containers holding dried guajillo, ancho, and chile de arbol peppers – to which mouth-watering chile salsas (no tomatoes) are created and consumed. I have masa flour on hand and can whip up homemade tortillas on my comal, and cans of chipotle peppers to which I blend with ingredients to make Tinga – a singularly fantastic quick meal of shredded chicken in sauce piled on tostadas. Giant bowls of Posole, a spicy hominy and pork soup - which shredded lettuce, radishes, onions, and oregano are piled on top of – has been perfected and is eaten during the holidays. My tastes tingle when I think of the robust flavors of Mexico and the years it’s taken me to get it right.

If I cooked a meal for them in Mexico – now – how would they react? I still get a flutter in my stomach at that very thought. Do we ever reach the end of learning? If his mom, now in her seventies, could visit us I would make her a well-crafted meal that I believe would make her smile. She worried that this pale girl from America would keep her son fed, and to this I chuckle and think of tonight’s supper. Maybe I’ll make a delicious Cochinita Pibil, a roast shredded pork in a spicy sweet sauce, and raise a glass to cultures that teach us new ways.