Don’t you just love rainy days? I do. I am not a fan of summer with the exception of luscious summer fruit. I’m the type of person that likes to curl up with a steamy mug of coffee, a hand-made afghan and my laptop. Occasionally, I replace the coffee with hot chocolate, tea, atole or cider and the laptop with a book or notebook to write in. Maybe it has something to do with me being born in December. I love waking up in the grey, chilly morning wrapped in my blankets with my little jalapeno-eating dog at my feet. I wake up brighter somehow in spite of the gloom of the day. If there is rain, thunder and lightening I am positively glowing. Those are the days I wake up singing, my head full of memories, recipes, words that beg to be written down and a poem in my soul. Those are the days I make hearty soups, caldos, stews and those are the days I bake bread.
One of my favorite soups for a chilly day is caldo de res. It’s a vegetable laden soup with rich, falling apart tender bits of beef in a positively nourishing beefy broth. It’s served in a big bowl with Mexican rice, steaming hot tortillas, bright yellow sliced lemons and a freshly made salsa sitting in a squat basalt molcajate.
Whenever I make it, it takes me back to that little kitchen on Goodwin Avenue where I spent most of my formative years. My grandmother is always present in those memories, her apron and those tiny, gentle hands that seemingly had magic in them. She was magical with spices, herbs, plants and cooking. Anything that came from her kitchen was redolent with aroma, absolutely delicious and the kind of food that begs for yet another bite even if you can’t eat another one.
My Grandma Lupe was a genius in the kitchen. We are alike in a lot of ways and oh so different in others. I rarely remember her measuring, unless it was a new recipe. She loved watching food TV shows, The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child with the same intensity that I watch Food Network.
I remember her pantry full of baking supplies, kitchen gadgets and cookbooks. You could find magic in that pantry: bright spices, cans of baking soda, big clear acrylic bins of flour, beans, rice. It was like Ali Baba’s cave of treasures in there to my younger self. A truly otherworldly and magical place. That tiny kitchen with it’s bright red little breakfast table, the old stove and creaky floors was heaven to me and my imagination and palate were fueled by it. It haunts me in a good way, the kind of haunting that makes me write stories about it, reconstruct recipes, share them and recreate smells and a place for my own grandchildren to weave their dreams in.
One of the things I remember most is her caldos. I loved those bright bowl full of celery, potatoes, carrots, meat, onion, corn on the cob, cabbage and zucchini. The herbs and garlic she put in were unseen because she’d pull them out before adding the veggies. My grandfather (Papa) hated biting into a piece of garlic and she made sure he didn’t.
The meaty broth was nourishing and perfect on those chilly days and it was fun food too for the child I was. Think about it. I got to scoop brightly colored rice into it, squeeze lemon and add a small bit of that yummy salsa. I got to dip my freshly made tortillas into it and eat my own creation. Everyone at the table made it their own, each adding either more salsa, no rice, less rice, more rice, rolled their tortilla and dipped it, made tacos out of it, etc, etc. Fun food and I never once thought it was healthy or icky with too many vegetables. It was just delicious and fun.
I miss those chilly afternoons around the small table, sitting across from my Papa, giggling at my Auntie Jessie and watching my Grandmother move around the kitchen as gracefully as a ballet dancer making sure everyone had warm tortillas, their glasses were full, the salsa was ok. I don’t ever remember her just sitting down and enjoying. She was the uber hostess, the caretaker, the matriarch and she waited on us lovingly. Even on big holidays when there was a table full of people she’d rarely sit. Everyone would try to get her to sit down but she was too focused on caring for us.
To me now, caldo de res equals comfort, happy memories and beyond that, it’s just plain delicioso. What are your best memories of food and family?