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.

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