Sunday, May 22, 2011

Como Chiles en Nogada

Chiles en Nogada always remind me of Laura Esquivel's novel, Como Agua Para Chocolate. When I taught students at a private all-girls school in Bethesda, May was the much-awaited month in our Spanish Conversation and Composition class where we would begin to read from the novel and watch the movie. I had watched the movie for all the years I had taught at that girls' school, sitting on the edge of my chair, commiserating with Tita, the heroine.   Each year felt as if it were the first time I watched her transform the cold wind that blew through her heart into a magical ritual surrounding the daily preparation of the family's meals. The thing that struck me in different ways as I watched the movie each year was what the ceremony of shared and lovingly prepared meals means as a spiritual 'glue' in a family.

I chuckle to myself now whenever I remember the impact of the ending on the entire classroom of girls, (yes, including me!).  Our feminine hearts beyond consolation, we would all sob loudly and with complete abandon, aghast at the realization that the happiness we wanted for Tita was a transcendental one.  She and Pedro, the man she had loved for so long but who had been married to her sister, would ignite at the moment of their union and would perish in an explosion of flames, throwing us into further spasms of emotion. Years later, teaching in an all-male equivalent of the girls' school, I decided to show the movie to the adolescent boys in my Honors Spanish class. My notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus was confirmed! The boys broke out into hysterical laughter at the end of the movie.

In any case, besides the knowledge of Spanish gained from the study of the movie, I hope that my students, both genders, came to understand the role of food and its preparation in the life of a family. Undoubtedly, it is through food that many of the unwritten lessons of a culture are learned. Each year, I take a group of students to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for Spanish immersion. One of my favorite things is to introduce them to chiles en nogada.

Chiles en nogada is a dish originally from the colonial city of Puebla, but here in San Miguel, it is prepared in many restaurants.  Doña Beatriz' chiles at Casa Carmen are the best, in my opinion. Needless to say, there are a million ways to prepare stuffed chiles in Mexico.  Chiles en nogada is an elegant Mexican dish that is as beautiful to look at as it is delicious to eat. This version is adapted to make it slightly easier to prepare. The sauce is made without the walnuts, (no tedious peeling of walnut skins) they are simply added as a garnish. In fact, another variation is that the sauce has cilantro blended into it. It is, nevertheless, quite an elaborate affair, albeit all worth the trouble.

Chiles en Nogada

Recipe Type: Entree/Plato Fuerte

Author: Gilda V. Carbonaro

Serves: 6

Adapted from Doña Beatriz's recipe at Casa Carmen, San Miguel de Allende


  • 8 poblano peppers

  • 2 ½ cups crème fraiche or clotted cream and some amount of milk to water it down

  • cup parsley, chopped

  • 10 sprigs of cilantro with the bottom part of stems twisted off

  • 1 lb ground meat

  • 2 or three chopped onions

  • cups raisins

  • Olive oil for the ground meat and for the green sauce

  • Fresh pomegranate seeds (if they are available) for garnish

  • Walnuts for garnish



  1. Grill the peppers over an open flame and then put them either in a plastic or paper bag to sweat for about 15 minutes.

  2. Peel them, slit one side, clean out all the seeds, rinse them well and set them aside. The more thoroughly you clean them, the less chance you will get a really spicy one. You can do this a day ahead of time. To avoid a really 'hot' pepper, rinse them in a mixture of vinegar and water.


  1. Cook the ground meat in about ¼ cup of olive oil for about 15 minutes at medium to high heat, add salt to taste, and pepper.

  2. Lower heat and add the parsley, two of the chopped onions and continue cooking for another 15 minutes.

  3. Finally, add the raisins and cover, cooking for another 10 or so minutes. This picadillo (pronounced picadiyo) is the stuffing for your chiles.

  4. In a 1 quart saucepan cook the other chopped onion in about ¼ cup of olive oil until it is transparent.

  5. Then, add ½ cup of the cream and continue to cook for another five minutes.


  1. In a blender combine the cilantro, roughly chopped so it doesn't break your blender, two of the peeled chiles without their stems and the rest of the cream.

  2. Add salt and pepper to taste and blend this green mixture with the cream and onion mixture in your saucepan.

  3. Cook for about 10 minutes until it is well-combined.

  4. At this point, add the milk to make the sauce more liquid. This will be your sauce that you will pour on your stuffed chiles.

  5. Stuff the chiles with your picadillo, then place the chiles in a pan where you will warm them covered for a few minutes so all the flavors meld. They are often served room temperature.

  6. Variation: Add ½ chopped fennel bulb to the picadillo around the time you add the onions.


Chiles lose their fire when they are de-seeded and washed. This can be done a day ahead of time.

Also, for a thicker, greener sauce have extra peeled chiles on hand to add to the blender.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Eye-of-the-Storm Enfrijoladas

Beans.  They’ve been on my mind.  Specifically, pintos that, in a refried state, rank high on my list of comfort foods.  This is probably because my grandmother always had a pot on the stove.  Always.

She served them with everything: with fried eggs for breakfast, mounded next to enchiladas at lunch, slathered across a tostada for a snack and dolloped on a milanesa-dominated plate for dinner. But my favorite variation? My grandmother’s enfrijoladas, corn tortillas warmed on a comal, then dredged through mashed, refried beans and topped with a crumbling of queso fresco.

As I’ve mentioned before, I spent my summers and different periods of my life living in Laredo with my grandmother.  I wish I’d paid closer attention to the world then.  I didn't know until years after I'd left Laredo, for example, that my grandmother's house was located in the "El Cuatro" section of Laredo, west of downtown.  The battered barrio has historical significance and recently caught the attention of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

As a child growing up, I probably knew on some visceral level that most of the buildings on Lincoln Street were dilapidated.  But I was oblivious to the fact that the area was home to some of Laredo's poorest families, including my own.

A Spanish colonist founded Laredo in 1755.  Laredo remained a part of New Spain until the land port was ceded to the United States in 1848 at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.  Another historical tidbit that I learned on one of my visits to Laredo as an adult:  in the late 19th century, Fort Macintosh (now the site of the Laredo Community College and one of my childhood "playgrounds") was home to some of the first peace-time, African American U. S. Army units known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
El Cuatro was another early barrio which sprang up west of the centro. The name, El Cuatro, was derived from the city voting precinct in which the barrio was located - the "Fourth Ward." Many early residents were employed with the railroads, and their box-shaped board and batten houses are still present throughout the neighborhood. Due to its proximity to Fort McIntosh, the neighborhood attracted a small enclave of blacks. For a short time in 1865, the post was manned by a company of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry. Since that time a number of black units were stationed at the fort, including Company K of the Black Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry in 1906. The soldiers' families and their descendants made their homes in El Cuatro and the small barrio across the tracks called El Tonto. Saint James Tabernacle and the Grayson school remain as the only architectural relics of Laredo's black history. (

I don't recall learning about Laredo's rich history while I was in school there and I wonder now whether it was taught at all.

Also out of my intellectual reach at the time were the complexities of life.  My grandmother was the matriarch of a sprawling family and ran a household that was made for a high-ratings reality show.  There was always a stream of visitors, old friends from Mexico, cousins from California or my assorted aunts and uncles and their children, some of whom also lived with us.  There were borders at the house from time-to-time.  A man named Cecil who parked his car in front and stamped out social security cards from the back of his camper. The boy with liquid-green eyes who lived around the corner, one of my first childhood crushes who, years later, was stabbed in a bar fight.

Along with a bustling, busy household came the concomitant family crises and commotions, garden variety goings-on whose meanings I did not comprehend at the time.  Those were the long, hot summers of my innocence and I observed it all from the center of my grandmother's universe.  There was always so much activity that I now realize my grandmother was a quintessential multi-tasker.  She could negotiate a great deal on a used appliance while strategizing about its resale.   Listen empathetically to a neighbor whose son was in serious legal trouble while watering the lawn and tending to her plants.  Yield to the demands of her large family while shopping and cleaning and cooking for them—from scratch.

There were rare moments of quiet.  The old house was without air conditioning most of the time, the little window unit in the front room turned on only for special visitors, if it worked at all.  This meant that the windows and doors were always open.  The oscillation of stand-alone fans provided a relaxing rhythm for a summer borderland soundtrack: the cooing of pigeons, trains rumbling by, the thwack of a neighbor’s screendoor, cicadas in the trees and crickets in the grass, the clucking of chickens in a nearby yard.

And I am ten again, sitting at the oval, formica table top in my grandmother's kitchen.  I notice the way the sun spills into the window above the sink and how the light dances in the sudsy water.  I’m sorting tomorrow’s beans, separating the shriveled and broken ones and the bits of sediment from the rest.  Meanwhile, my grandmother stirs freshly-squeezed lime juice, water and a little sugar in a plastic glass because she knows a limonada is my favorite drink.  I take a sip and watch her at the stove, turning the dial and perfecting the gas flame.  I smell the oil warming in the pan and hear the spit of onions in the moment before they succumb to sizzling.  She ladles beans from yesterday’s batch into the pan and effortlessly squashes the macerated and formerly-speckled seeds into a brown pulp.

I’m done discriminating against imperfect pintos and my grandmother thanks me with a kiss, placing in front of me a plate of earthy and savory enfrijoladas.  A little something just for me in the eye of the storm.

Eye of the Storm Enfrijoladas

Recipe Type: Breakfast/Desayuno

Author: Gilda Claudine


  • 1 lb pinto beans

  • 1/2 small onion, finely chopped onions

  • 2 or 3 slices of bacon, cut in pieces or diced

  • Salt to taste

  • 1/2 cup of Canola oil

  • Corn tortillas

  • Queso fresco

  • 1/2 avocado (optional)


  1. Soak the beans in 4 cups of water overnight.

  2. In the morning, drain the beans.

  3. Over medium heat, warm the bacon until it yields some fat.

  4. Add half of the onion and simmer.

  5. When the onions and the bacon are almost cooked through, return the beans to the pot.

  6. Add another 3 or 4 cups of water.

  7. Add salt to taste and cover.

  8. Allow the beans to cook at a low temperature for several hours or until they reach the desired consistency.

  9. The beans should be soft and easy to mash.

Refried Beans

  1. In a skillet, heat the Canola oil.

  2. When the oil is hot, add the rest of the onion.

  3. Sweat the onion until it is completely translucent.

  4. Add three or four ladles of the beans in their liquid.

  5. Raise the temperature and when the liquid begins to bubble, mash the beans.

  6. Add water as needed to keep the beans from drying out.

  7. Once the beans are mashed to the desired consistency, turn down the heat.

  8. In a separate pan or on a comal, heat a corn tortilla. (Optional: warm the tortilla in a bit of oil here).

  9. Using tongs, place the hot tortilla in the pan with the refried beans.

  10. Dredge and/or coat both sides with the bean mash.

  11. Using a spatula, remove and place on a plate.

  12. Crumble the queso fresco on top and add avocado.

  13. Serve hot.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother Love

My son, Alex, and me

Mother's Day did not originate as a bonanza for florists and restaurants. It is a little known fact that it began as a Proclamation by the social activist Julia Ward Howe in 1870 after she lived through the atrocities of the Civil War as a wife and mother. She believed that mothers ultimately bring to bear a sense of responsibility regarding the destruction that war brings upon society:

Arise, then, women of this day!
 Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

Her words from across almost a century and a half ring with particular poignancy to me, as this Mother's Day will be the fifth year since I lost my son, Alex, to the war in Iraq. The pain that the war has brought me affects my life in ways that are difficult for those who have not experienced it to understand.

Alex on his wedding day

Arlington National Cemetery

This Mother's Day, then, is a day in which I gather my thoughts and think of the women who throughout my life influenced me and gave me the strength and clarity of purpose to rise each morning since that day.

I've had the good fortune of being surrounded by a multitude of resilient, resourceful women in my family, women who were unfazed by the incredible obstacles they faced growing up.  These women were products of families uprooted by the violence of the Mexican revolution, the ensuing diaspora, the Great Depression and the intense discrimination against Mexicans in Texas where their families settled. These women left an indelible impression on me.

Two of these women were my father's sisters, Tía Oralia and Tía Gloria. When my grandfather died unexpectedly of typhoid fever in the 1930s, my grandmother returned to Mexico with my tías and left the boys behind to be brought up by relatives. I can't imagine the pain shared by the family at having to make a decision like this in order to survive economically. Hence, my father was raised in Laredo by an uncle and aunt, and his brother, Fernando, in San Antonio by other relatives. The tías were raised by my grandmother in the little town of Villaldama, Nuevo León where the family originated.

Tía Gloria

The sisters, Oralia and Gloria, were brokenhearted at having left the country without their brothers, but from the stories that I heard growing up, the two brothers and two sisters were often reunited either in Laredo, San Antonio or during long summers in Villaldama. Later, as my sisters and I came into the world, these tías doted on us, showing up at our door loaded with tamales and other delicacies such as membrillo, pan de huevo from Sabinas, candied pumpkin and dulce de leche de cabra from Saltillo.

My mother's sisters, Tía Romanita (the tall, slender beauty shown in the photo above with my grandmother and great-grandmother) and Tía Lupita, were other ever-present women in my life who modeled hope, love, generosity and humor. Both of them, magicians with a needle and thread, could a create a dress out of a folded piece of cloth with an idea born in their imaginations rather than with a sewing pattern on paper.  To wear their creations was to be literally wrapped in their unconditional love.

My mother

But it is my mother to whom I owe so much of what I am today and to my ability to survive. It is from my mother that I learned to challenge, to question, to be brave, to demand justice, to seek clarity in a world of ambiguity. It is from my mother that I learned life goes on, in spite of unspeakable tragedies. And that it goes on only through an understanding of our shared humanity, in the giving and forgiving that is part of our existence.

This year, for the fifth year, the little flower shop in Bethesda that my son, Alex, used to call to order a delivery of Mother's Day roses will not receive a call from him. But today, I inhale deeply and am certain I smell the unmistakable scent of roses in every room of my house, our mother-son bond unbreakable across the cosmos. My aunts, my mother, and everything that made me are part of the embrace with which I reach out to my precious child. I will continue to attempt to live a life of grace as my mother and aunts did, as Alex would have wanted.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tacho's Ceviche

The summer of 1969 my best friend, Susan, and I decided to take a vacation to what was at that time a remote part of Mexico: Isla Mujeres, off the Yucatan peninsula. We had already experienced life away from home that year as college students in Houston. Working as waitresses to help defray our college expenses, we had heard about the island from other students who worked with us. So, on a shoestring budget, we embarked on our trip. Starting out in our hometown, Laredo, we set off on trains and buses, stopping in Monterrey, Mexico City and Merida.  We finally made it to Puerto Juarez where we took a ferry to Isla Mujeres. We were two 19-year-olds, mesmerized as we arrived by the sight of white, powdery sand, crystalline water and the smell of the sea. We played like children along the water's edge with a kaleidoscope of fish that surrounded us.

Walking along the beach one day, an old fisherman approached us.  I still remember his name: Tacho.  For a modest fee, Tacho offered to take us snorkeling. We accepted and found ourselves trying to dive for conch without much success because we couldn't hold our breath long enough. But the object of our desire lay tantalizingly clear below us, as we could see all the way to the bottom. For Tacho, age was not an obstacle.  He effortlessly dived and came up with conch. Then, he took us to another side of the island where he prepared a conch ceviche with the tomatoes, red onions, lime, serrano pepper and cilantro that he had brought along. Now, this was the first time either Susan or I had eaten real ceviche and it was nothing like the ceviche back in Laredo.  The ceviche back home consisted of tired, microscopic shrimp in a cocktail glass, doused with a little ketchup and lime juice. Nothing like the real thing I discovered on the beach that day...Funny how a song can resurrect such long-ago memories. Songs like Harry Nilsson's Everybody's Talkin' at Me remind me of the innocence of those years, of my youth and of that trip.

Nowadays, I wonder about that clear water, about the living coral. I wonder about the turtles and the fish that swam at our side.  I wonder whatever became of Tacho.

Anyway, this is how I've made ceviche for friends ever since then, although I always use tilapia or shrimp since conch is not widely available on the East Coast.

Tacho's Ceviche

Recipe Type: Appetizer

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro


  • 2 or 3 filets of tilapia

  • 1 quart of cherry tomatoes cut in half or 1 large, ripe tomato, chopped

  • 1 medium sized red onion, chopped

  • 1 serrano pepper

  • Sea salt

  • 10 limes

  • About 1 cup (or more) or cilantro, washed, dried, and chopped roughly


  1. Chop the tilapia into little pieces and put into a bowl where you will squeeze all the limes and add salt to taste.

  2. Let it sit for ½ hour.

  3. Add the chopped tomato, onion, finely minced pepper, and cilantro

  4. Toss and serve in small bowls.

  5. Taste for salt.