Learning to Cook Mexican with Luisa

By BOB ZIMORINO

We talked a little bit about traditions and the fact that they often change over the years. That being said, traditions in cooking sometimes last for centuries because regardless of what new fangled techniques or gadgets enter the picture, the old way is still the best. Changes are in the subtleties.

My roommate worked for Hector, a Mexican guy, at a slate quarry. We were expected to be front and center at their home for Wednesday dinners. His wife Luisa, and her sister-in-law Anita, cooked Wednesday night dinner for their families, but Anita was pregnant with twins and couldn’t get around so well.

After eating one meal, I wanted more than just dinner. I wanted to learn about how it was prepared — I wanted to learn to cook Mexican. Anita was more than happy to give up the apron. I had been given an opportunity to learn something about a food and a culture first hand from a home style cook.  Luisa in many ways reminded me of how it was to cook with my mother while growing up, except I had no idea what she was saying most of the time.

Luisa was in her mid to late thirties, about five feet tall and sort of fire hydrant shaped — like her husband but with softer edges. She had a ready smile with a gap between her front teeth and eyes, that while they appeared almost black in color, became highly animated when she spoke. She was very good at acting out what she wanted me to do. Once Marco (Luisa’s oldest child) got home from school, he could translate and things got easier.

Luisa was very patient with me and a good teacher. When I didn’t understand something she would gesture. If I didn’t understand her gesture, Anita would sit on a stool by the kitchen door and repeat the same gestures as though that should really help me get it. In short order (pardon the pun), what she was showing me was cooking, and being familiar with cooking, I quickly got it. I was learning to cook Mexican with Luisa.

When I previously mentioned that the flavors were different, yet familiar in reference to Mexican food, I can explain what I meant. I learned about traditional seasonings in Mexican food and found that they were mostly used the same way as some of their Italian cousins. There was cilantro –  a pungent parsley, cumin –  a seed used both whole and ground, and cinnamon. They were a lot like Italian parsley, fennel seed, and nutmeg. Different flavors but still having a commonality in their usage.

There are things that are also common to both cuisines such as oregano. Mediterranean oregano is slightly sweeter than the Mexican variety but used the same. Onions, garlic, celery, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, beans and cornmeal are also common to both. Ah yes, and both cultures also used lard to fry things.

“Manteca” Luisa would point to the tub that she pulled from her refrigerator. Although lard (rendered pig fat) has fallen out of favor with many folks because of it being a saturated fat, most bakers believe it is the key to better baked products like flakier pie crusts and better bread dough. For cooks it has a higher smoking point and adds a unique flavor to anything fried in it.

There are some who used lard like butter but the thought of it scares me. Any food that allows you to hear your arteries clogging as you eat it should be a cause for concern. With so many non-carnivorous eaters and diets designed to be healthier with less saturated fat, most cooks have switched to vegetable based shortenings.

In reference to traditions, I believe, based on science and nutritional studies, that more of them have gone by the wayside in the last fifty years than in the last two thousand. However, while the push is on for healthier food alternatives in the last few years, there are certainly those that observe their heritage by maintaining the culinary traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation with a few subtle changes.

Luisa didn’t know about saturated fats, she knew flavor and texture. Like so many immigrants, including my parents, food and lots of it, equaled prosperity. I don’t know that she would have ever changed her ways toward a healthier diet because she was still rooted in the traditions that defined her culture and the flavors that were so richly ingrained into her very being.

Next up: The Art of the Tamale.

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Bio:  Bob Zimorino is a full-time real estate agent with Lambros/ERA Real Estate, a retired Certified Executive Chef, a Musician with the popular local band Hellgate Rodeo, a dad, and a grandpa. He shares the experiences from his life that helped shape his careers and hobbies. His weekly “Taste It” blog is his take on the evolution of food in hislifetime.