Friday, June 24, 2011

Calabacitas de mi Casa

As a teenager, I had a plan: to graduate, leave home—and go to college to study art. It didn't exactly work out that way.  As John Lennon says in his song Beautiful Boy, Life is what happens when you're busy making plans. By the time I graduated from high school, my college fund had dried up; it had been used to tide us over after a family business reversal.

But, as the saying goes "No hay mal que por bien no venga."  It wasn't the end of the world.  In fact, there were advantages.  For one thing, I didn't pay a penny for my education at the local college where I ended up for two years, since I was on scholarship there.

Still, there were dramatic changes at home.  My mother, for the first time, went to work outside the home. It was traumatic for her as she had always been at home for  my father, two sisters and me. But dire necessity dictated this change.

Many problems arose from this sudden adjustment in the way we did things. The family, for example, was now in a terrific tizzy about who would prepare midday lunch for my father.  My sisters were still in school during the day and hiring a housekeeper to make his lunch was unthinkable.

My father awoke everyday at an ungodly hour to make his own fiery, chile-laden breakfast. Throat-burning chile vapors floated through the house at 6 am, waking the whole house. To our added alarm, he often left the frying pan on the fire as he left the house for work.  Certainly, my mother felt he could not be trusted to prepare his own lunch.  

Hence, the duty to uphold this family routine fell on me as the oldest but also because I finished my morning classes at the local college by 11 a.m. and had plenty of time to get home to prepare lunch for my father. By that time, I had learned at my mother's side how to prepare our typical family meals. One of these was calabacitas con pollo, which we always ate with corn tortillas hot off the griddle. My father liked his tortillas crackly and I liked mine soft.

I can imagine now so many years later that Papá, who must have felt in desperate straits at the time, was happy to arrive at noon and still find that some things hadn't changed. His eighteen-year-old daughter was home from classes with a meal waiting for him. We would sit down to a plate of calabacitas con pollo—with soft and crackly tortillas—and savor our new tradition.   After lunch he would lie down for a quick siesta before returning to work and I would rush off and still arrive on time for afternoon classes.

After two years at the local college, I finally left home  to continue my studies. As it turned out, I left art for my other love: language and linguistics. I married, had a child and the calabacitas dish soon become a part of our family tradition as one of the first solid foods (minus the chiles) I gave my baby, Alex. I used a food mill to give the zucchini and other vegetables a consistency a baby could handle.

What food traditions have you carried on to your children and grandchildren?  Are there any recipes that have special meaning for you?

Calabacitas con pollo

Recipe Type: Main

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 35 mins

Total time: 55 mins

Serves: 4


  • 1 lb of chicken pieces: wings, drumsticks, thighs etc.

  • 2 lbs zucchini chopped into cubes

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped

  • tsp comino powder (grind your own in a molcajete if you prefer)

  • tsp ground pepper

  • 2 serrano chiles

  • 4 tablespoons (approximately) of olive oil

  • Kernels cut from 2 fresh corn cobs

  • Salt to taste


  1. In a large heavy pan, brown the chicken pieces in the oil over medium to high flame for about 15 minutes.

  2. Add all the rest of the ingredients, lower the heat, cover and cook for about 20 minutes, until all the flavors have come together.

  3. Be careful not to pop the serrano chiles, unless you want a spicier version. If you leave these chilies intact, they will provide flavor without making it overly spicy.
Note: I often cook this with pork, instead of chicken. If you use pork, be sure to cut it in small cubes, and brown them well, so that this flavor blends with the other ingredients. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Quesadilla Commentary

I can't figure out why restaurants offer quesadillas on their menus so different from those found closer to the border and in Mexico proper.  I am not opposed to new twists on traditional foods or even so-called fusion foods (unlike La Madrina, who is much more of a traditionalist than I am), but why mess with a good thing?

Dear American Restauranteurs, a quesadilla is not baked in an oven like a pizza.  It is not cheddar and monterrey jack and mozzarella cheeses layered between two flour tortillas and grilled like a panini.  It is not even a prodigious serving of cheese, chicken and onions stuffed in a flour tortilla.  And it is most definitely not goopy, make-believe cheese (read: nacho cheese sauce) in a cripsy flour tortilla and deep-fried.

Quesadillas are quintessentially uncomplicated, which is why it seems almost absurd to include a recipe here.  Of course, in Mexico some variations are found, perhaps the addition of huitlacoche, a corn fungus and delicacy, for example.  The essence of the quesadilla remains the same, however: simple and savory.

As a parent, quesadillas, are my go-to food.  They are easy to prepare and children really do love them.  But I usually make them with corn, not flour, tortillas and just a sliver—not mounds—of cheese, either Mexican asadero or queso fresco when I can find it. This is the way my mother and grandmother made them, always with a spill of salsa or a heap of aguacate (avocado) on the side.  For my kids, I skip lo picante (the spice) but serve with avocado or fruit instead.

Mexican Quesadillas

Recipe Type: Appetizer, Snack

Author: Gilda Claudine

Prep time: 5 mins

Cook time: 5 mins

Total time: 10 mins

Serves: 1 - 2


  • Corn tortillas

  • 3 slices of cheese, preferably Mexican asadero or queso fresco.

  1. Heat the tortillas on a comal or in heavy skillet over a medium flame.

  2. Place a slice of cheese on one half of the tortilla.

  3. When the cheese begins to melt, fold the tortilla over.

  4. Flip the tortilla to the other side.

  5. The quesadilla is done when the cheese is melted.


There is no need to use oil in this recipe.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Más Aguas Naturales

Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus flower) is another favorite childhood drink. My earliest memory is drinking it at an elementary school fair with my friends.  More recently, I discovered Chia Fresca (at Casa Carmen in San Miguel de Allende), a thirst-quenching drink rich in omega-3 fatty acids.  Chia, from the nahuatl word chian (meaning oily), is an ancient seed and was a main staple in diets of the Aztecs and Mayans.

Aguas Naturales

Recipe Type: Beverage, Bebida

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Total time: 20 mins


  • Agua de Jamaica

  • 1 cup of hibiscus flowers

  • 1 gallon water

  • Sugar to taste

  • Chia Fresca

  • 1 cup chia seeds

  • 1 gallon water

  • 5 limes

  • Sugar to taste


Agua de Jamaica

  1. When water comes to a boil, turn it off, add the hibiscus flowers, and let them steep for about 15 minutes.

  2. Strain, squeeze the water out of the calyces (sepals) of the hibiscus.

  3. Add sugar to taste and serve chilled with ice.

Chia Fresca

  1. Soak chia seeds in water overnight.

  2. In the morning add squeezed limes and sugar to taste.

  3. Serve chilled.


Chia is a nahuatl word, chian, meaning oily.

Chia seeds are a source of Omega 3.

Got Tepache?

There are few things that can quench your thirst the way tepache does. I know. I grew up in a semi-arid place where temperatures could reach 100 degrees in early March. So, trust me, I know hot. A frosty glass of amber colored, tepache was one of my mother's favorite thirst quenchers. Soft drinks were not an option for us; she never bought them, and probably not because she found them unhealthy, but, rather, because we couldn't afford them.  So, I grew up addicted to a variety of aguas naturales and to this very particular summer cooler: tepache.

The word tepache apparently comes from the nahuatl, tepiatl, which means fermented corn. Fermented pineapple rind is definitely the child-friendly version, over the corn one. And, naturally, no beer was added to ours, unlike the Mexican version, although I'm certain everyone makes it slightly different. Until she passed away in February 2010, I took it for granted that I could get on the phone and ask my mother to remind me how she made something. Today I had to remember, on my own, how she made tepache. I think I got it right.


Recipe Type: Beverage, Bebida

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 20 mins

Total time: 20 mins

Serves: 6


  • 4 or 5 cones of piloncillo or dark brown sugar

  • 1 ½ gallons water

  • Rinds from 1 ripe pineapple

  • 1 cinnamon stick

  • 2 oranges cut in half

  • 3 cloves


  1. Place all the ingredients in the water.

  2. Cover and let sit for 2 to 3 days.

  3. When it begins to bubble, it is ready.

  4. Strain and adjust the taste if you like it sweeter.

  5. Serve chilled with ice.