Taste of home: DODDS teacher compiles her family’s Mexican recipes
May 1, 2013
It was after moving to Okinawa, where it was easier to find sea-snake soup than tamales, that Veronica Gonzalez-Smith reconnected with her Latin culinary roots.
In the ensuing 20 years, Gonzalez-Smith made the recipes she so cherished from her grandmother and mother, first for friends and later for her growing family: Tamales at Christmas Eve, coconut milk cake for the kids, brisket beef tacos on busy school nights.
She and her sister began sharing and posting recipes on a blog, an idea that ripened into a cookbook in the midst of another overseas move — to Germany, where Gonzalez-Smith teaches Spanish part-time at Ramstein Intermediate School and combs local food marts for hard-to-find Mexican ingredients.
Since “Muy Bueno” was published last fall, Gonzalez-Smith has juggled her teaching and family duties with book tours, interviews, cooking demonstrations and blog postings. A co-author of the cookbook with her mother and sister, Gonzalez-Smith will sign books and do a reading at the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center Bookmark on Sunday, which is also Cinco de Mayo.
“We never in our wildest dreams ever imagined that our little book would be so well received,” she said.
“Muy Bueno” is a collection of more than 100 recipes spanning three generations: Gonzalez-Smith and her sister, Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack, who lives in Denver; their mother, Evangelina “Vangie” Soza, of El Paso, Texas; and grandmother, Maria de Jesus Mendias.
“Grandma Jesusita” was the legendary family matriarch whose love and devotion to family and food served as the authors’ inspiration.
Woven among the book’s recipes are family stories tied to food, like that of Jesusita, who was raised on a cattle ranch in northern Mexico and learned to cook at a young age alongside her mother and eight sisters. In 1916, when Jesusita was 10, the family fled from Pancho Villa’s soldiers to Texas. Later on, in El Paso, Jesusita and her husband built a small grocery store and Jesusita tirelessly cooked for her big family, memorably making dozens of tamales every Christmas Eve, preparing the masa, or dough, by hand.
“Sientate a comer, esta muy bueno” was Jesusita’s signature invitation to family members and guests to “sit down and eat, it’s very good.”
The cookbook’s recipes include Jesusita’s “old world” northern Mexico specialties, such as enchiladas with red chile sauce, Mexican meatball soup and homemade corn tortillas; Soza’s “south of the border” comfort food dishes, like chile rellono burritos and Mexican macaroni and cheese; and Gonzalez-Smith’s and Marquez-Sharpnack’s “Latin fusion” innovations, from cilantro lime rice and black bean salad to coconut flan and mango upside-down cake.
“Our goal was to share our personal stories about the recipes we love and that we grew up with, with our kids,” Gonzalez-Smith said. The women also wanted to inspire others to appreciate the art of homemade Mexican food while providing detailed recipes that anyone could follow.
The need to write down those recipes became apparent to Gonzalez-Smith when she took her first overseas assignment teaching for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools on Okinawa, where the most common dish resembling anything Mexican is taco rice.
“That’s when I started missing a lot of Mom’s Mexican food,” she said.
As that was before the age of email, Gonzalez-Smith called and wrote home often, asking her mother to send recipes.
“I grew up with my grandmother and mom, who knew how to make all this stuff,” she said. “I was the sous-chef in the kitchen, where I got to chop everything, but never really make anything. The idea of putting it all together was now something that I wanted to take on.”
Gonzalez-Smith and her sister had initially cast off culinary pursuits after leaving home.
“My whole life I saw women in the kitchen and I thought it was a dreaded chore,” Gonzalez-Smith said. “I didn’t understand the pleasure that my grandmother received from feeding people.”
When she started making those same recipes and serving them to her friends and “saw how much joy and pleasure it gave them, I understood,” Gonzalez-Smith said.
About five years ago, Gonzalez-Smith began hosting tamale-making parties — tamaladas.
“Making tamales around Christmas time every year is what my grandmother did,” Gonzalez-Smith said.
“She would make several dozen. People would show up and get one or two dozen and take them home. That was her gift to everybody.”
This past December, Gonzalez-Smith held a tamalada to make 500 tamales, which were packed in ice and flown to military personnel in Afghanistan, who had them for breakfast Christmas morning. “I heard they were highly appreciated and flew right off the serving trays,” she said.
She used the tamale recipe in “Muy Bueno,” which explains over two pages how to prepare the tamale dough, “the most vital ingredient in making the perfect tamale,” according to the cookbook.
Producing the cookbook required months of busy collaboration and travel. Gonzalez-Smith and her mother flew to Marquez-Sharpnack’s home in Colorado, where they “would cook up a storm,” test dozens of recipes and arrange the dishes they liked for the professional photographer to shoot.
The hardest recipe to write was for the tamales, Gonzalez-Smith said.
“It’s very difficult to try to explain to someone how to actually fill the cornhusk” and other steps. “We must have had 35 edits on this between my sister, mom and me.”
The hard work has paid off in heartfelt emails from appreciative readers of the cookbook and blog, Gonzalez-Smith said.
“They’ve made the recipe and say, ‘this is exactly what it tasted like when my grandmother made it.’ ”
REFRIED BEANS AND GUACAMOLE TOSTADAS
Queso fresco or cheese of choice
8 flat tostada shells, or 8 corn tortillas
Vegetable oil for frying
Refried bean ingredients
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable shortening
1 ½ cups cooked Frijoles de la Olla, plus ½ cup liquid
Salt and pepper to taste
Refried bean directions:
Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beans and the liquid. Cook over medium heat, mashing the beans with a potato masher, stir until they form a thick paste, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
In heavy skillet, heat one-quarter inch oil. Fry tortillas, one at a time, in hot oil for 20 to 40 seconds on each side or until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels. Store-bought tostadas also can be used.
Top one tostada with guacamole and one with refried beans. Garnish each with lettuce (optional), tomato and cheese. Drizzle with your favorite homemade salsa to taste.
Yield: 4 servings. From “Muy Bueno” cookbook.
BEEF BRISKET TACOS
2-4 pounds beef brisket, fat trimmed
2 ounces per pound of liquid smoke (recommend Claude’s Brisket Marinade Sauce)
2 bay leaves
1 (12-ounce) beer
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Place all the ingredients into the slow cooker and marinate overnight.
Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours.
Remove the brisket and shred the meat.
Warm corn tortillas, add shredded brisket and garnish with your favorite toppings.
From “Muy Bueno” cookbook.