Family Meal

I recently received a copy of Judith Jones’ wonderful memoir, and as I read through it (twice!), I spent a lot of time thinking about my own food memories and how I came to love cooking. It all goes back to my paternal grandmother, Marina. Some of my earliest memories involve walking into her big old house in southwest Detroit, the aromas and warmth that emanated from her small kitchen filling every room, or of the showers, First Communions and other parties held at the nearby Mexican-American hall, where Grandma and a small band of her comadres would head into the kitchen and deftly prepare enough delicious food to feed an army of guests. I loved hanging around and watching her in action, and once I reached an age where I began dabbling in the kitchen myself, I wanted to learn how to recreate her dishes.

Grandma cooks

Grandma’s a natural cook, rarely measuring seasonings, tasting and testing as she goes along, and turning out consistently delicious dishes. I’m sure some of that comes from 80-plus years of cooking, but I also feel that she has the gift of knowing instinctively what works, how much chile or garlic or liquid is just the right amount, and how much is too much. The days of watching her turn out dozens upon dozens of tamales for holiday dinners are behind us, but she still relishes cooking meals, big and small, and she loves watching cooking shows, reading recipes, talking about food, and answering questions about how she prepares the dishes we love. My dad makes his guacamole just like Grandma does, my mom has learned to turn out a nearly spot-on version of Grandma’s rice and has also mastered her chicken tacos, and my brother and his wife were delighted to get a lesson in making migas during their last visit to our hometown.

Dinner:  October 28, 2007

For my part, I’ve learned to make several of her dishes: borrachos, which are a favorite accompaniment to summer barbecue; guacamole and salsa, which I am often enlisted to make for office socials; and my favorite chicken soup, fragrant with onions and cumin – which incidentally, is the very first recipe I wrote up for a food blog. And of course, her chicken tacos and Mexican rice, which were part of so many family gatherings. I have yet to attempt her tamales, but you can bet that when I have a kitchen with a little more space, I’m going to round up Mike and some good friends for a tamale-making party.

As a bit of an aside, it’s interesting to me that I should be thinking so much about food memories and my grandma’s cooking this time of the year, because although I am of Mexican descent, I don’t recall my family ever celebrating Dia de los Muertos. It is without question a beautiful holiday, with rich traditions and plenty of good food, but I feel that for me to do a Day of the Dead-themed post would be a bit disingenuous – it just wasn’t something we celebrated when I was growing up, and I wouldn’t want to take away from those of you for whom the celebration holds real food memories.

Wedding Day

When I reflect on my heritage, my upbringing, and those who have most influenced me both in and out of the kitchen, I think first and foremost of my grandmother, who I love so very much, and who I am grateful to share the love of food and cooking with. We don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, but every time I step into the kitchen, she is right there with me in some way. So on this day, when Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are celebrating the lives and spirits of loved ones who have passed on, I celebrate my grandmother, who is full of life and who continues to inspire me.

My creation

Mexican Rice

I can recall very few meals at Grandma’s house at which this rice wasn’t served – it is as much a staple as warm tortillas and the little Sanka jar filled with homemade salsa.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, lard or bacon fat
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups long grain white rice
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup tomato puree
2 Knorr chicken flavored bouillon cubes, dissolved in 4 cups hot water (For some reason, if you use other bouillon or stock, it just doesn’t turn out right. So trust me on this one.)

Warm oil or fat over medium heat in a large skillet. Add onion, season with salt, and cook until softened. Add the rice, stirring to coat the grains with oil, and cook until toasted and beginning to turn translucent. Add the garlic powder and black pepper and stir well. Add tomato puree, bouillon and water, stirring well to incorporate. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Continue cooking until rice is tender and all liquid is absorbed, 20-30 minutes.

chicken tacos

Chicken Tacos

The proportions below will yield about a dozen tacos. I’ll warn you right now, they are addictive – Mike and I polished off the full batch in one sitting, and my family has been known to fight over any leftovers. If you have cats, don’t leave them unattended on the countertop – Tom the grey tabby, who belonged to my Aunt Romelia years ago, was on probation for a very long time after my aunt walked into the kitchen to find him happily munching away on the tacos she had brought home from Grandma’s one afternoon.

For the filling:
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thigh meat
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup tomato puree
2 cups water

Place all ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook until chicken is very tender. Break apart with a fork and continue to cook the shredded chicken, uncovered, until all of the liquid has cooked off (you want it still juicy but nearly dry so it doesn’t make the tortillas soggy).

For the tacos:
Corn tortillas
Oil, lard, or bacon fat for frying

Heat about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of fat in a small skillet. Fry tortillas one at a time until soft and pliable, gently turning once – each tortilla should only take a few seconds per side. Add additional fat as necessary.

As the tortillas finish cooking, set them on a baking sheet until cool enough to handle, then spoon a bit of the filling in the center and roll into small cigars, finishing with the seam side down. Repeat until you have used up all of the filling.

The tacos can be held in a warm oven for a few hours or served immediately with your favorite garnish – salsa, guacamole, grated Monterey Jack cheese, or sour cream are all good with these.

19 thoughts on “Family Meal

  1. even tho i don’t eat meat anymore, i used to! and that shredding of the chicken really makes all the difference. this all sounds really good, alas i’ll have to wait til science comes up with a reasonable soy-based chicken substitute. and i’d say this has been a very fitting tribute!

  2. Brian says:

    Isn’t “My Life in Food” great?! I just wanted to let you know that Judith Jones and Alex Prud’homme are going to be at Symphony Space in February in an evening called “Mastering the Art of Writing About Cooking” as part of the Thalia Book Club series. It sounds right up your alley!! More info is at Hope to see you there!

  3. I’m always looking for variations on Mexican-style rice recipes, and from the ingredients/preparation you mention, it looks like we have a winner. I’m for sure going to try it out next time I make Mexican food (once to twice per week in our household).


  4. What a lovely tribute to your grandmother. I always feel a little closer to my own when I get one of her dishes just right. Doesn’t happen often, of course, but I still try.

    We always observed All Saints’ Day today (no school, even — they were serious about this holiday). I remember going with my grandmother to tidy the graves of her parents, brothers, and sisters and kinda feel neglectful now that I live too far away to help out.

    Thanks for passing along these recipes. My mouth is watering over here.

    Are you taking part in NaBloPoMo this year?

  5. Jennifer Hess says:

    Chris – when I was a veggie in my teenage years, Grandma suggested that I could cut up some potatoes into little cubes, saute them with onions until soft, toss them with some shredded cheese and use that to fill the tacos. A variation to try, perhaps? Maybe even add some diced or roasted chiles for more flavor…

    Brian – Hi and thanks for that info – I’ll definitely put it on my calendar!

    Brett – Welcome! This is really nothing fancy, just good, solid, tasty food. I hope you try and enjoy it!

    Amy – Thank you! Um, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had to look up NaBloPoMo – and I’m probably not going to participate this year. Mike and I have got a little trip planned in a few weeks, and I’m actually looking forward to being offline for a bit. :)

  6. beautifully put forth. i really enjoyed that. the mexican food here in nashville is overall not very good so i always make my own. this was very helpful to me. thanks…

    i think it’s time to make a mexican dinner. soon…

  7. Jennifer Hess says:

    Thanks, claudia – I should make Mexican food more often than I do. The one thing my neighborhood has in abundance is good Mexican groceries, and I should take advantage of that more than I do.

  8. Figgy pudding says:

    This is why I love your blog! Great photos, mouth-watering recipes and really good writing.


    P.S. Did you know Meryl Streep is playing Julia Child in an upcoming movie?!

  9. Wow, this looks SO good right now. We’re so broke that we barely have anything for ingredients, but what I really need to do is made some slow-cooked chicken to shred apart like this for enchiladas or something.. sometime very, very soon. It looks TOO darn good, and I really, really want something like this.

    Or maybe even with pork – mmmm.

    Thanks for making me hungry at work! It’s not even lunch yet! :-D

  10. matty says:

    Interesting, I made almost the same thing the other night and just came across this today! Must be the weather.

    I sauted chopped onions, diced tomato and chopped jalepeno, threw the shredded chicken in and reduced with stock and tomato water (left over from my can). I seasoned with chili powder and salt.

    I put it on top of nachos and garnished with fresh cilantro, sour cream and a squeezed lime.

    Muy Bueno!

    Btw, I love your site.

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