The rain beats against my window with no rhythm, no rhyme. At times it is unrelenting, vicious in its determination to get inside. It batters the windows, rattles them; then frustrated, it takes a breath and prepares for the next assault. It’s been raining five days now in Los Angeles. There have been tornado warnings, 65 mph gale winds, hail and rain in buckets enough to generate a Twitter hashtag called #theendoftheworld. At times the rain is gentle, soothing; the kind of rain that makes one long for Sunday papers in bed, a good book, a cuddle with a loved one or the smell of bacon and coffee drifting upstairs to waken you.
I love that kind of rain, it always propels me to the kitchen, to bake or make soup – the vegetable rich, lemony caldo de pollo that my grandmother made so often. Brimming with color from corn on the cob, translucent green cabbage, dark green zucchini, bright orange carrots, the pale quarters of onions and the earthy dark of unskinned potatoes. She’d serve it in a deep bowl over a scoop of red Spanish rice with warm corn tortillas wrapped in a cloth to keep them warm and a half slice of lemon to squeeze over it. She always did hers a little different, a way I thought special. To hers, she’d slice up a regular banana, not a plaintain but a banana and add a sprig of mint. It gave an unusual sweetness to the soup that was distinctly Grandma Lupe. No one else ate it that way, it was Grandma’s soup. Sweet, distinct, unusual with a gentle touch, just like her.
Always on the table was the fresh salsa de molcajete she made and my grandfather, Papa Chava would pile it up on his bowl. It added a smoky, spicy flavor to the soup that I loved and still do now with the added flavor of memories. I make it often, roasting the tomatoes on the comal till their skins burst, wrapping the roasted chiles in a damp cloth so their skins can steam off and gently removing the cilantro leaves from their stems to add whole to the salsa. I am recreating my grandmother’s steps, I am keeping her memory alive in my kitchen.
My grandmother’s salsa had little cilantro flowers in it because my grandfather grew cilantro in a way to ensure she never ran out. He’d stagger the planting carefully so that there were soft earthy mounds with tiny stems poking their heads out, the next with the cilantro a little bigger, the next in full cutting mode and the back mounds were left to go to seed. He gathered those round seeds and dried them carefully, saving them in an old glass baby food jar that he kept in his garage/gardening shed.
When the cilantro flowered, my grandmother loved to put the tiny white blossoms in her salsa and in the tomato relish (I guess you can call it that) that she made for tacos and tostadas. The blossoms were surprisingly flavorful, that sharp green tang of the cilantro intensified. You’d never know such a tiny, wispy flower would pack such a punch. Store bought cilantro just isn’t the same. The leaves are so much bigger, the flavor not as intense and of course, there are no delicate, lacy white blossoms to beautify and flavor your dish.
The rain is calming now and I’m still making up my mind whether to go out, bake or make soup. For now, I’m content to snuggle in, pet my dog and remember a kitchen where love what the secret ingredient.