family recipes

Experimenting with El Yucateco Habanero Sauces in Traditional Recipes


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Pasta e fagioli

In this house a lot of cooking happens. Sometimes it’s me making jam and the family recipes I love to create or experiment with and sometimes it is Gianfranco Minuz, a Michelin-starred chef that graces my kitchen with his beautiful cooking. We learn from each other. I delight in showing him the Mexican food that is obscure, different or just spicy like habanero and he loves showing me his Italian recipes from the Tre Venezia area he hails from.

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The sauce was easy to find

This time we were working in the kitchen together, yet apart. We had a couple of bottles of El Yucateco Habanero Sauce that we’d bought at Walmart and the challenge was to create or re-create a recipe utilizing the sauce.  I had the red, he had the green and we each decided to go with a very traditional and simple dish from our respective cultures. I made a very simple, yet delicious and typically sweet guacamole with green grapes and peaches, while he made pasta e fagioli or pasta with beans.

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Ewww Cactus!

Nopales con tortas de camaron

Ewwwwwwww cactus!

Is that what you are thinking?  It’s a reaction I get often when I speak longingly of cactus in salads, or in scrambled eggs, or in red mole sauce with pork or, one of my favorites; nopales con tortas de camaron.  Go ahead and think ewww, that leaves more delicious nopales (cactus) for me.

Growing up, nopales were an almost daily part of my meals as were beans and rice.  My grandfather, Papa was very proud of his towering nopale plants that stood in his back garden against the garage wall.  The sun hit strong there and the nopales grew and grew.  I loved going out back with him, both of us armed with pinsas (tongs), a long knife and a plastic bag.  Papa showed me how to slice carefully at an angle so a new cactus paddle would grow in place of the one I cut.  I’d pinch one end with the tongs and carefully slice then drop it gingerly into my bag.  Often, he’d let one or two fall to the floor and when I looked up at him, he’d say in that raspy voice of his “Para que crescen mas.”  So that more could grow.  That’s all it took, you’d drop a cactus paddle into the dry earth and before you knew it, a cactus plant was born and competing with its brothers for the sun against the pale, wooden garage wall.

Once we had our ration of nopales we’d take them to my grandma and then more fun would start.  She’d carefully lay out cut open paper bags on the old patio table outside and bring out her sharpest knives.  Papa would look at them critically, occasionally taking out his sharpening stone and working on them till they met his high standards.  Grandma would smile that special smile she kept just for him when he handed her the newly sharpened knife and get to work.  She’d hand me a small knife and a cactus paddle with the biggest thorns to remove (bigger is easier, those small ones will get you), so that I could learn the fine art of removing thorns from cactus.  It IS an art form.  Have you ever seen a Latina woman remove thorns from cactus?  It’s fast, intense and they never get stuck.  My grandmother could have a pile of those cleaned in no time, while I struggled with my one paddle.  Eventually, I learned and got good at it but nowhere near my grandmother’s artistry.

Once they were stripped of thorns, my grandmother washed the nopales and put them into a large pan of water with a whole quartered onion and brought them to a rolling boil till they were just tender and had changed color.  She’d let them cool, then drain and rinse with cold water.  For days afterwards we’d have them scrambled into eggs for breakfast, in salad if it were summertime and sometimes she’d make her delicious red chile sauce and serve them with crispy bits of pork.

Now, I cheat.  I buy them peeled and diced whenever I can, but on those rare days that I have time and am missing my grandmother, I take out my sharpest knife, lay out some paper bags and get to work.

Here’s my recipe for Nopales con Tortas de Camaron (Cactus with Shrimp Cakes)

About 2 cups of diced nopales, cooked

1 oz. Chile California

1 bay leaf

2 tbsp. Knorr Pollo

Water or chicken broth

3 tbsps. Flour (you can add more or less depending on how thick you like it)

1 oz. Shrimp powder

2 egg whites

2 egg yolks

Cooking oil

Drain the cooked nopales and set aside.

In a heavy frying pan or sauce pan, brown the flour, whisking to make sure it doesn’t burn.  Add the bay leaf and chile California when the flour is nicely browned.  Keep whisking adding in hot water or chicken broth till you have a nice gravy-like consistency.  Add Knorr pollo to taste and let simmer, whisking occasionally for about ten minutes.  If it gets too thick, add a little more broth or water.

Turn off the heat and set aside, covered.

In a large frying pan, add oil about half way up and heat on medium flame.

In a mixing bowl whisk two egg whites until stiff.  Think meringue.  When stiff peaks form, slowly whisk in the egg yolks one at a time.  Shake in the shrimp power while still whisking little by little. If you do it all at once, your batter will go flat.

With a spoon, scoop up tablespoon sized dollops of the batter and carefully slide into the hot oil.  They will puff up quickly so only do a few at a time.  Taking a spatula or slotted spoon, turn them over once and let brown.  Scoop out and drain on paper towels or brown paper bags.  They will flatten a bit so don’t freak if they do.

Once they are all done, stir the nopales into the chile sauce and heat for about 8 minutes.  One by one add the shrimp tortas into the nopale mixture then serve.  If you have a greedy son named Phillip, watch those tortas because they WILL disappear off the paper where they are draining long before you can get them into the chile.  This is where a good smack on the hand or a chancletaso comes in handy, although at twenty-nine he’d still rather get his hand smacked than miss an opportunity to filch tortas from the plate.

Serve with rice, beans and freshly made tortillas.

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Aiden’s Midnight Fig Jam

Frigidaire and Jennifer Garner are teaming up to inspire families everywhere to roll up their sleeves and get cooking together. Starting today, people can join in the Frigidaire Kids’ Cooking Academy ( to get great recipes, how-to videos and tips, all designed to help involve kids in the kitchen.

My kid-friendly recipe is one for a fig jam I made this summer with my grandchildren on a hot night when we couldn’t sleep for the heat.  It was tons of fun making it and I love the idea that every or every post submitted, Foodbuzz and Frigidaire will donate $50 to Save the Children.


It’s 12:45 a.m after one of the hottest days of summer.  It was 105 degrees!

The grandkids who are visiting for this week can’t sleep, house is too hot and my a/c wall unit is icing over.  What to do, what to do?  In the fridge was a massive bowl of the past two days harvest of figs from our tree just begging me to do something with but it’s been too darned hot.  I took an almost midnight shower and came out to two small children that were hot, grumpy, tired and in need of something, anything to do to get them to relax enough to sleep.  I went to the fridge, saw that big bowl of figs and remembered the jam I had been intending to make.  “Who wants to have a midnight jam session?” I asked the kids.  “We do!”

I had had an idea in mind on how to make my jam, an older recipe that called for cinnamon, lemon rind, fresh figs and sugar but whenever the kids help me cook, things change.  I really like letting them improvise and find their way around my kitchen.  We discuss flavors and ideas all the time.  They’ve been cooking with me since before I started Dona Lupe’s so I’ve learned to trust them the way they trust in me.

Insomniac grandkids

Aiden took charge of this jam session.  He just turned five on Friday the 20th and was in a very assertive mood.  He handed me a bottle of caraway seed and said, “Grammy use this, it almost smells like figs.”  Into the simmering cinnamon and water it went.  What the heck, how bad could it be?  I searched for lemons but we were out and being midnight by now, we were out of luck with a store.  David suggested the rice vinegar in the pantry for a little acidity and it made sense to me so I added it.  This was so not the jam I had planned on but as we all took turns chopping figs and adding them to the pot, the kitchen was starting to smell amazing.

Chop, chop, chop

Once the figs were all in the pot, Aiden handed me a jar.  Surprised, I looked down at a square box of chili powder from the Indian store I frequent in Los Feliz.  “Put some of that in Grammy” he said seriously.  I nodded and added about two tablespoons, stirred it in with crossed fingers and tasted.  Oh. My. God.  That was some amazing jam!  Things happen in midnight jam sessions, things you’d never expect but surprisingly sweet and good.


We’re going on 1:00 a.m. now and the kids are drifting off to sleep while Aiden’s Midnight Fig Jam is slowly simmering on the stove.  When he wakes tomorrow there will be toast smeared with his jam and the day, however hot it turns out to be will keep that spicy sweetness.

Aiden’s Midnight Fig Jam

5 lbs of fresh figs, washed, trimmed and chopped roughly
3 c. Sugar
1 cinnamon stick
3 c. of water
Pinch caraway seeds
4 tablespoons of rice vinegar
2 tablespoons of dark red chili powder

Set a large pot with the water and cinnamon stick to boil, then bring to a slow simmer.

Trim off the points and ends of the figs and rough chop them.  Add the caraway seeds to the simmering cinnamon water, the sugar and rice vinegar.  Stir until well blended.

Add the chopped figs, the chili powder and stir slowly.  Let simmer for two hours till well thickened, stirring frequently so the sugar doesn’t burn and stick to the bottom of your pot.

Remove the cinnamon stick, let cool and store in Mason jars using proper canning techniques.

Best cooked at midnight to the strains of Luciano Pavaroti (you know we had to listen to Figaro), Lauryn Hill and Trio Los Panchos.  Insomniac grandchildren optional.

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Pan de Muertos at Lincoln Park Ceremony

The people on my altar for day of the dead are all very special. They were loved, are loved still and are missed profoundly. With each one of them there is a recipe or dish I make on November 2nd in honor of their memory. In my home, we also read poetry, play music and tell stories about them so their memory stays alive.

For my grandmother Lupe, there are always oranges. She grew up in Piru, California around lots of orange orchards. They were her favorite fruit and I always remember how she trimmed long, unbroken curls of orange which fell into her lap. She used those later to make her rose petal sachets. I put oranges all around the altar and there is always a bowl full of chocolate-orange sticks, her favorite candy. Sometimes I make homemade orangette.

Building an altar

For my Papa Chava, there is chicharonnes cooked in green chile sauce and a huge plate of bunuelos with syrup I make from scratch. I always make sure to char a few flour tortillas and set them on the altar. He loved them slightly burnt, which we could never figure out.

For David, dear friend and mentor, I make my German chocolate cake that he loved so much. I play the CD that was given out at his memorial back in 2005, so he has the music he loved.

There are other little things on the altar, pictures, recuerdos, a ribbon, a feather from a fallen dancer’s headpiece, a little drum, a baby sock from my little half-niece Desiree who died so young. There are mangoes, cempaxochitl flowers (marigolds), pineapples, tunas (prickly pear) and squash. There are little sugar skulls and skeletons, a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a picture of Emiliano Zapata and old family photos of relatives no longer here. It takes about four hours to put our altar together and we usually do it at Parque de Mexico in Lincoln Heights during our Danza Azteca cermony. This year, due to illness it will be a scaled back version here at home. The spirit is the same though and for this special night, we commune with our antepasados (ancestors) in a family party.


We make pan de muertos and put copal in the copalero and light it so that the sweet smoke perfumes the air. Boleros with singers like Trio Los Panchos play all night long and I sit with my grandchildren and tell them about the people they never met. Jasmine and Aiden know my grandmother and grandfather well and my hope is that they will carry on this tradition and tell their own grandchildren the stories along with stories of their own.

The Aztec dancers in my dance group believe that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, that we stand strong and true and proud on our history, our culture and our family ties. I believe that will everything in me and I believe in fostering that belief and tradition – that culture that is ours in my grandchildren.

Happy dia de los muertos everyone.

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How Tía Lola Makes Rice the Dominican Way: A Guest Post by Julia Alvarez

how tia lola learned to teach cover

Doña Lupe’s Kitchen is again graced and honored with a lovely guest post by author Julia Alvarez. Thank you so much Julia for sharing your family recipes and stories!

You’d think that white rice would be the one of the easiest dishes to make. After all, there are only two ingredients: rice and water! You do also add oil and salt, but basically, simply, you are just playing with two ingredients. The rest is chemistry. However, as some of you who took chemistry in high school might painfully remember, and I certainly do, chemistry isn’t necessarily the easiest subject in the world.
Here’s an admission: neither Bill nor I have been able to make rice as good as Tía Lola’s rice, which is to say, as good as my aunts make it in the Dominican Republic. We’ve wondered if their consistently excellent rice has to do with the pots they use: old aluminum ollas purchased in el mercado. But we’ve bought those pots and brought them to Vermont, and although our rice tastes better, it’s doesn’t taste as good as Tía Lola’s or my tías’ rice in the Dominican Republic.

Bill and I haven’t given up. Every time we go visit la familia, we watch with eagle eyes how my tías cook their rice. Just as with sofrito, each one has her own individual touch for making arroz blanco. One tía swears that covering the rice at the end with wax paper as well as a lid is what gives the rice that perfect texture of single, separate, but moist grains. Another tía claims her secret is heating the oil in the pot before adding the water and salt. A third tía shakes her head and snorts, “That’s ridiculous! You put in the oil after all the water has disappeared and bubbles start to form.” The amazing thing is that despite their different methods, my tías rice all tastes consistently, deliciously the same. But when Bill and I try their recipes stateside, our rice doesn’t taste like theirs. Ours ends up too gooey, too sticky, too dry, too overdone. So, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that in addition to their ingredients and procedures, my tías also use a little santería, as voodoo mixed with Catholicism is known on the Dominican side of the island.

So, below is the basic recipe that Bill and I keep trying to perfect. After following the directions, you might want to recite your own little magical spell over the boiling rice, just in case.
One last thing. In the Dominican Republic, there’s a special side dish that results from cooking the rice: con-con. It’s what sticks to the bottom and sides of the pot that you scrape out. Crunchy and saturated with oil, it’s my favorite part.

Use equal parts water and washed white rice.
(Be sure to use long grain rice–shorter grain rice is more sticky and good for sushi. Arborio rice, also short grained, is good for creamy risottos.)

Heat a couple of tablespoons olive oil or canola oil in a pot. Then add the water with a teaspoon of salt or bouillon cube if you prefer

When the water is boiling, add the rice. Stir a few times. Let rice boil until all the water has disappeared and bubbles form. Cover and cook over low heat for 15-20 minutes more.

Say your magical spell, uncover, and serve.

Don’t forget to scrape the sides for con-con!

© 2010 by Julia Alvarez

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How Tía Lola Cooks Her Beans the Dominican Way: Guest Post by Author Julia Alvarez


Habichuelas from our farm in the Dominican Republic <>
Photographs courtesy of Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner

In How Tía Lola Learned to Teach, one of Tía Lola’s favorite sayings is “En todas partes cuecen habas“: Everywhere people cook beans. In other words, despite superficial differences, people are the same the whole world over.

But why beans? Miguel and Juanita would much rather Tía Lola make up a new saying like, “Everywhere people like ice cream,” or, “Everywhere people like to go to Disney World.” But actually beans have been around long before ice cream or Disney World. Not everyone in the world can afford to visit theme parks or purchase treats, but almost every culture has some variety of beans that form the staple of the diet. It might be lentils in India, or green peas in theEnglish-speaking Caribbean islands, or chick peas in the Middle East, or baked beans in the USA, but Tía Lola is right: beans are everywhere. It’s an important protein source, especially for people too poor to afford meat.

In the Spanish-speaking Americas, beans are very popular. In Mexico and Central America, they are called frijoles. But in the Dominican Republic, where Tía Lola is from, they are known as habichuelas, and they are often served over rice. That combination, rice and beans, is a complete protein, a good thing, as this duo is the staple of the poor man’s diet. But don’t get me wrong. This is no impoverished dish. If you cook beans Tía Lola’s way, you will have a rich, savory treat you can ladle over rice or serve as a side dish.

Before we get started on the beans, I have to explain what a sofrito is. It’s what you use to season the beans, and in fact, a sofrito is the seasoning base for many Dominican dishes. Stir-fry garlic and onions with tomatoes (or tomato paste), bell peppers (the garlic, onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes should be cut into small pieces), along with wine vinegar, oregano, cumin, coriander, red-pepper flakes, pepper and salt, and whatever else you’d like to add or omit. You are making your very own savory base, so you can be creative. Every cook has her own sofrito. Often, as Tía Lola can tell you, a good cook is known for her buen sazón, good seasoning. It’s like having a good bone structure if you want to be a model.

Tía Lola’s recipe comes to me via my husband Bill, who managed somehow to get the recipe from my tías. Bill, as you might guess, is the cook in the family. I actually wanted to learn to cook when I was growing up. But back then, in the Dominican Republic, there were so many tías in the kitchen, getting in each other’s way, offering their different opinions on what flavor was missing in a certain dish. (I told you every good cook has her very own sofrito.) The last thing Mami needed was a young girl, getting underfoot, asking questions. “Not now,” Mami would say, shooing me out of the kitchen. “Why don’t you go do something useful? Why don’t you go read a book?”

As a result I grew to adulthood without really knowing how to make my own sofrito or how to cook a flan or tostones or mangú con cebollitas. When Bill and I married, we continued visiting la familia in the Dominican Republic. Bill loved my tías cooking, which totally endeared him to them. Soon enough, he was being invited into their kitchens. Every trip, Bill would come back to Vermont with a new recipe and the ingredients in his suitcase. So, it was really Bill who taught me to make habichuelas the way my tías taught him how to make them.

Meanwhile, I seemed to have followed my mother’s orders after all. I not only read books, I also now write them. And Bill does most of the cooking in our household. Actually, Bill did write a book himself, a cookbook, based on all the recipes he learned from his mom growing up in Nebraska; from his travels in Latin America, India, the Middle East; and from my aunts in the Dominican Republic. The book is called The New Family Cookbook by Bill Eichner, published by Chelsea Green Publishing Company (sadly out of print***). The recipe for habichuelas below is taken from that book, and it is the one Bill learned from my aunts.

Serves: 9 to 12 (depending on whether this is used as a main dish or a side dish)
2 pounds dried pinto or Colorado beans
1 cup dried kidney beans
Bill recommends a mix of pinto or Colorado beans and kidney beans, because the habichuelas we buy in the Dominican Republic don’t really correspond to the kidney beans sold here.
1 cup cilantro or cilantrico, chopped
Cilantro is coriander, and cilantrico is the Dominican name for the fine fern-like growth of a cilantro plant just before it blossoms.

For your sofrito:
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil or canola oil
1 teaspoon crushed cumin seeds
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
8 to 10 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 or 2 red bell peppers, chopped
black pepper, to taste

Wash the beans and soak them overnight in enough water to cover. Next morning, discard the soak water, and refill to cover by at least 1 inch. Bring the beans to a boil, and remove any scum that comes to the top. Add sofrito (you already know how to make this, see above) and simmer until the beans are almost tender, about 40 minutes (depending on the freshness of the beans).

Near the end of the cooking period, add salt and chopped cilantro or cilantrico.

Of course, habichuelas are served with rice. Tune in to the next entry to learn how Tía Lola makes rice the Dominican way.

Meanwhile, enjoy these habichuelas, and as you do, just think: around the world people are also cooking and eating beans.

© 2010 by Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez’ new book How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is available for purchase at Powells Books andI found several copies of her husband Bill’s out of print book at Abebooks.

Ms. Alvarez’ blog tour continues and her schedule is as follows:




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I haven’t made gorditas in years and I’m not quite sure why.  I always loved them as a kid and their open faced counterpart, the sope or sopito.  Thick corn tortillas cooked on a griddle, then sliced open, deep fried and stuffed full of meat, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa and cheese was heaven on a plate.  Hearty and delicious fare that filled me up and made me sleepy afterwards.  I love all the textures and flavors of them, the crispy thickness of the dense corn tortilla, the chewiness of meat, the soft beans and the freshness of the cold vegetables.  My mouth is watering writing this and I’ve just finished one!  And yes, I am laughing at myself…

Gorditas can be filled with just about anything.  Beans, meat, chicharrones in green chile – the possibilities and variations are endless.  Today I am making them stuffed with ground pork, refried beans with cheese and the chopped tomato, onion and cilantro mix I love so much.  I made salsa de molcajete too and I know my son Phillip will add a dollop of crema and sprinkle his with a little queso cotija like he always does.  Any way you have them, they are so good.  Decadent good.
Some of that decadence comes from LARD.  Yes, that’s right I said LARD.  Look, you can add vegetable shortening or olive oil or whatever you like to try and make a healthier alternative and it will work, even be good but there is no substitute for the piggy taste of lard.  You don’t make gorditas every day, heck I haven’t made them in years so my philosophy is this: if you’re gonna do it – do it up right.  Use the lard!  It’s just a bit and sure, it will clog  your arteries a bit but add a bit more chile to burn it out.  Live a little and then put away the recipe for a year or two.

My grandmother made gorditas like no one else could.  Her swift hands made fast work of forming them while some of us used a tortilla press to get them perfectly round and of equal thickness.  Her hands worked gracefully, almost in musical rhythm and she never missed a beat.  Her gorditas were perfectly round, all uniform in size and all of the same thickness.  I still can’t do that, though I get the taste just right.  Watching her was like watching a magician and I would sit on my little red chair with my elbows on the table, chin in hands just admiring and daydreaming of the day I’d be standing at that stove making perfect bits of delicious roundness.

Well, I never could get them as perfect as hers anymore than I can get all the peel off an orange in one long curl like she did but they sure taste like hers and eating them again makes me all the more determined to get it right next time without using a tortilla press.  Some things never change though and when I see my grandchildren watching me at the stove, I know they are daydreaming of being the one at the stove making magic.


For the masa:
2 cups Maseca (corn flour)
1/4 cup white flour
2 tsps baking powder
1/3 tsp of salt
1 1/2 cup of warm water
1/4 cup of lard (or vegetable shortening)

Mix the maseca, the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl.  Add the lard or shortening and the warm water.  Mix until the dough is smooth and can be formed into a ball.  Divide into balls and keep covered with a damp cloth.

Either using a tortilla press or shaping with your hands, make the gorditas in about a 4 inch diameter about 1/4 inch thick.

Heat the gorditas on a hot griddle or comal until cooked on each side.

Slice each cooked gordita almost to the end but keeping it together, forming a kind of pocket.  Some people don’t make the cut until it’s fried, but I like the insides crispy too.

Deep fry the gorditas in oil  until golden brown and drain on paper towels.

Stuff the pockets with any filling you like.  Beans, shredded beef, carnitas, chicharonnes in green salsa,  queso fresco, scrambled eggs with nopales, etc.

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A Pumpkin, Some Figs & Some Apples Walk Into a Bar: A Day of Baking Empanadas


Well, they didn’t walk in and there was no bar, it was empanadas.  I had about 12 pounds of figs left from the last few days of fig harvest on our tree, bought some apples and a nice sized pumpkin the other day at the market.  As soon as I saw the pumpkins, I knew empanadas were happening.  I didn’t count on there being apple and fig ones too but the pumpkin ones were a no-brainer.  Grandkids were coming for the weekend and there was going to be an empanada bakeathon in my kitchen.

A couple of days ago when I bought the pumpkin it was cold.  In fact, I was wearing my Ugg boots and sweater on that market trip.  Even last night when I cooked down the pumpkin it was a bit chilly.  I couldn’t sleep so for some crazy reason, I hopped up at 1a.m threw the whole basket of figs into a pot with some cinnamon and sugar and turned it down to simmer then finally snuggled in with Jasmine, Aiden and Ozzy and eventually slept.  I woke bright and early and got the kids breakfast, took the dog out and surveyed my figs which had cooked down perfectly while I was in dreamland.  When I went to the fridge to get the butter for the masa, I saw the apples and they ended up on the chopping board.  I’m a little obsessed about baking.  Then it hit me that the sun was blazing and I had an oven pre-heating.  Fun.  Oh well – empanadas were happening.

We baked all day.  Empanada after empanada was rolled, filled, pinched, poked, egg washed and baked.  Jasmine turned out to be quite the expert at rolling and forming them.  I’m so proud of her.  Her little rounds fell off her rolling pin in perfect circles.  She is SUCH a baker!  Aiden on the other hand, hmmm.

Aiden decided to take a mixing bowl, fill it with Maseca (corn masa), cinnamon, sugar, salt, milk, warm water, some butter and some mace.  Then he mixed it all up, asking me every so often to taste; which I did reluctantly.  I deserve the Grandma of the Year Award for that one.  When he’d decided it was perfect, he dipped corn tortilla chips in it, pronounced it his gourmet dipping sauce and asked, “I’m a weely good chef, aren’t I Gwaaaamy?”  I said yes, choked down a few more of those chips with as little of the “dipping sauce” as possible and tried to foist the rest off on my son Phillip who wasn’t having any of it.  Wimp.

By the time Marissa got here to pick up her kids the house was filled with the smell of baking, she had two very exhausted kids (they’ll be asleep before they get home) and a basket full of empanadas to go.  I get the messy kitchen and a sad-eyed dog who’s just lost his litter mates (my grandkids).  Sorry Ozzy, it’s going to be a long, lonely week till they’re back again for Wepa Weekend with Grammy.

Empanada Dough

4 cups of flour
1 tsp of salt
1 tbsp of baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup of butter
Warm water
Egg wash

Mix the dry ingredients well, then cut in the butter.  Add the eggs and enough warm water to mix the dough into a smooth ball.  I add it about 1/4 cup at a time.  You don’t want to work the dough too much, just enough to get it smooth and elastic.  It seems to vary each time I make it depending on the weather or the flour’s absorbency.  My grandmother did the same, worked the water in bit by bit rather than a set amount.  Kinda like pie dough.

Once you have a nice smooth ball, cover it with a damp cloth.  I tend to prefer flour sack because it’s what my grandmother used and it works really well.  It keeps the dough from drying out and since I usually make tons of empanadas whenever I make them, the dough tends to sit for a long time.  Every time the towel dries I just sprinkle a little more water on it.

Form small balls of dough by pinching off a piece.  I say about the size for tortillas.  Keep those covered under the damp cloth as well.  Roll the each ball out to about a 4-inch diameter.  We like our empanadas big here but you can do them smaller.

Scoop a bit of filling into the center, then brush a little water on the edges of the dough.  Fold over.

Press down with your fingers all around the semi-circle then fold the dough over and pinch. Keep doing that all the way around.  It gives the empanadas a double seal and helps keep the filling in.

Take a fork and poke a few air holes into the center of the empanada, then brush with egg wash and place on a greased baking sheet.  Repeat until your baking sheet is full.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 10-15 minutes.  I go by smell so I never time them.  You want the empanadas golden brown.

Try to wait at least 20 minutes for them to cool or you’ll burn your tongue on the hot filling.

You can fill empanadas with pumpkin, cherries, pineapple, apples, pretty much anything.  Ours were filled with pumpkin, apples and a fig jam.  Some of them were a combination of fig jam and apple and some plain.

Buen provecho!

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Papa’s Papas: My Grandfather’s Potatoes

Papa's Papas

My grandfather (Papa Chava) was one of my favorite people and biggest influences in my young life. To me he was the strongest man in the world and the kindest. He was a sobador (traditional massage healer) and never took a dime for the help he gave people in the parish. He’d always say, “no cobramos por ayuda” we don’t charge to help. He and my grandmother were old school Latino – they gave to their community, the genuinely cared about everyone and thought it was their duty and their privilege to be able to do for the people in the family and neighborhood.

My grandfather was strong. Like superman strong from a lifetime of hard physical labor. This is a man who a month after 7 major surgeries was out breaking concrete with a sledgehammer no matter what we said to try to stop him. In the end, he was frail, so frail with skin like tissue paper and no appetite. I’d parade food on days I was there, trying to tempt his appetite and rarely succeeded. He’d nibble just to make me happy, but with my grandmother gone and the cancer that was now in his bones, he was drifting away. During that time, we’d talk about food. He loved cooking too, but a different style than my grandmother. He liked big, peasant style meals – odd things like store bought chicharrones soaked in chile verde so bad for you; but oh so good. If he talked about a recipe or told me a story about food, I’d rush to recreate it in the hopes that the strength of memory would urge him to take a bite or two.


He told me about Mexico and living there as a child and young boy. He’d left as a teenager during the Revolution and his life there had been a hard one. He told me stories about working out in the milpas with his father when he was only three years old. He would proudly tell me how he earned a few centavos, bought his mother an olla and gave her the other two centavos. His work ethic was ingrained from the beginning and he passed it on to me, the one who can’t stop even when I’m falling asleep.

Papa would talk about the mineros (miners) that worked in the silver mines. I don’t know if he worked in the mines or family did. I just know that he knew about them. He’d talk about big, manly style one-pot food that often got made by his mother. Pots were expensive, a poor family didn’t have too many. Maybe one or two so often things were made all in one pot. That’s why that olla he bought his mother was so important and made him so proud. They were dirt poor and it was a really hard time in Mexico in Guanajuato, the seat of much unrest. The city of Celaya in particular has some pretty bloody history.

He never talked about hard times much. If I asked, he’d just say that he didn’t like to talk about it, that bad times were better left in the past. It was enough to have me not speak of it again and enough to ignite curiosity and a passion for Mexican history, especially the history of the Revolution and the time just before it. I could see why the family didn’t want to talk to children about those times and why he preferred to talk about Cantinflas, La India Maria, Chucho el Roto and food.

He did talk about food a lot. Papas (potatoes) in chile verde, big pots of potatoes, onions, eggs and chiles all mixed together, the tortillas his dear mother made, enchiladas mineras (a specialty in Guanajuato) and of maguey worms and nopales. One day I tried to recreate one of his miner /peasant one-pot recipes and he loved it so much, I made it several times. I lost my grandfather not too long after but my boys loved the recipe so much that I made it often. Every time I make it, I get a little weepy but I smile too, remembering that most gentle and strong man who taught me some of the best life lessons that have sustained me all my life. We call the recipe Papa’s Papas, a name my youngest son Bobby came up with when he was just about four years old.

Que rico!

Papa’s Papas/Papa’s Potatoes

10 potatoes, chopped into bite-sized chunks with peel on
2 onions, halved and sliced into half rings
6 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Jalapenos en escabeche, sliced
1 lb of bacon, each sliced cut into four equal pieces

In a large dutch oven or skillet fry the bacon until crispy then add the potatoes right into the pan with the bacon and grease.

Add salt and pepper to taste and the onions. Fry on medium heat until the potatoes are nicely browned and the onions well caramelized.

Lower heat and cook until the potatoes are fork tender.

Crack the eggs right on top of the potatoes when they are done, in a circular pattern around the pot, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, add in about a cup of sliced jalapenos en escabeche (Herdez or La Costena brand is what I use) right in the center. Cover and turn off the heat. Let sit for about five minutes, letting the steam poach the eggs. The vinegary escabeche of the jalapenos will mix with the steam and infuse the whole dish.


Serve with crema Mexicana, refried beans and warm corn tortillas. It makes a super hearty breakfast.
Make sure each person gets a section with a whole egg in it. If you’re serving more than six people, add in another egg per person. The recipe is very flexible.

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Squash Blossom Quesadillas (Quesadillas de flor de calabaza)

The other day, I was out shopping at Superior with my roommate David who had disappeared down one of the aisles while I shopped for produce. I was after veggies for my caldo de res and was adding golden onions to a plastic bag when I spotted the delicate flash or orange. Ooh shiny!

I finished filling my bag of onions then wove my way through the crowded aisle to the object of my fascination, flor de calabaza or squash flower blossoms. Neatly tied in bunches the long orange flowers beckoned, whispering seductive words in my ear. Words like quesadillas, budin, stuffed and fried blossoms, soup, cake… omg. I had no defense against the beautiful orange and green flowers that could have been pumpkins had they been allowed to finish growing.

I couldn’t stay focused on the caldo. I just couldn’t. I HAD to have those blossoms. Had to. So I grabbed two bunches and surreptitiously snuck them into the shopping cart. We were budget shopping and I wasn’t supposed to stray. Still, they were squash flower blossoms. Well, actually these were pumpkin flowers. In the springtime when you find them they are from squash and at the end of summer, they are from pumpkin. Either way, they are delicious and bring back memories of a little back garden with my grandfather gently picking off some of the blossoms and of a kitchen that was redolent with aroma.

When I see certain foods, I see my beautiful Mexican grandmother in her apron at the stove. I can almost hear her voice and feel her incredibly soft little hands wrapping around mine as she shows me how to pinch a sope, roll out dough or some other wonder. Those delicate orange flowers are one of those evocative things that tug at my memory and my heart.

When we got home, I happily pulled my blossoms out of their bad and shooed David out of the kitchen while I set about to making the quesadillas I was longing for. I chopped tiny little squares of Mexican squash and thinly sliced onion then caramelized them in a little butter. Once they were fully caramelized, I removed the stamens from the blossoms and rough chopped the flowers, adding them to the onions and squash until just wilted. Then I started to assemble my quesadillas.

There are many different versions of the squash flower quesadilla. Sometimes I add diced poblano chile, garlic and omit the squash.
Usually, when I make them I take the time to make the corn tortillas by hand. They taste sooooo good when I do them that way, but this time I was so impromptu that I used fresh corn tortillas I had just bought from the tortillerilla. The quesadillas were still delicious and light but next time I won’t cheat.

Quesadillas de Flor de Calabaza/Squash Blossom Quesadillas

1 bunch of squash flower blossoms, cleaned and rough chopped
1 onion, halved then thinly sliced
1 Mexican squash (something like a zucchini) diced finely
Dash sea salt
1 tablespoon of butter
Queso fresco

Caramelize the squash and onions in the butter on a medium flame until well browned. Add the sea salt and squash flowers and cook for about two minutes, just till the flowers are wilted. Set aside.

In a heavy skillet or griddle, heat a corn tortilla then turn it over to the other side. Add thick slices of queso fresco and a scoopful of the squash mixture, top with another corn tortilla. Flip over and keep on heat until the cheese melts. Keep making them until you run out of filling.

Serve sliced in half with a little cream and salsa. Ricissimo!

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