In most families with great cooks, there always seems to be talk of collecting all the old recipes into a family cookbook. The recipes go back and forth, hand-written on paper or index cards in the past, told over long-distance lines or cell phones, and these days, through email or Facebook.
But two sisters and their mother from El Paso actually took the desire to share and preserve their grandmother's recipes for chile con queso, pumpkin and apple empanadas, and salsa casera, and turned it into the Muy Bueno Cookbook blog and the just-released "Muy Bueno Cookbook: Three Generations of Authentic Mexican Flavor."
Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack and Veronica Gonzalez-Smith, along with their mother Evangelina "Vangie" Soza, collaborated to compile not only treasured family recipes, but also family lore and background on traditional dishes, as well as developing new Latino-inspired family favorites. The three reunite for the first time in El Paso on Saturday to launch the cookbook in their hometown. They started their book tour separately in Colorado and California.
"It's been a great effort with our family," said Yvette, a graphic designer who lives in Highland Ranch, Colo., outside of Denver.
She designed the attractive blog, which was named a 2011 Saveur Sites We Love. It launched in 2010 and has gotten buzz from other food blogs and had 41,000 unique monthly visitors just last month. Its popularity paved the way for what was initially a self-publishing project into a book deal with Hippocrene Books.
The blog and cookbook grew out of Vangie's visit to Colorado in 2010.
"My mom was visiting us for the summer and we were in the kitchen a lot. We were cooking the dishes my grandmother used to cook and talking about our memories," Marquez-Sharpnack said. "It was my daughter who gave me the idea for the cookbook. She asked me, 'Will you have all these recipes written down for when I go to college?' "
Since Yvette cooked most of the recipes from memory, she raised the idea of a cookbook with her mother, who told her that Veronica had asked her the same thing. That's when they decided to collaborate. They began posting pictures of food from their efforts on Facebook and a photographer friend of Yvette told her they should start a food blog.
"It was a good idea, because so many people wanted the recipes right now," she said. "No one wanted to wait for the book. So that's how the blog started."
Vangie Soza was raised in El Paso by Jose and Maria de Jesus "Jesusita" Soza, who fled from Chihuahua to Texas at age 10 because of the Mexican Revolution. In 1953, the Sozas moved to El Paso, where they bought a house and built a grocery store next to it. Before that, the Sozas had run the Restaurante de Jesusita in Shafter, Texas, where Jesusita had stone-ground corn for tortillas and cooked for local miners. When her husband died five years after they opened Soza's Grocery on Gonzalez Street, she was left to raise her children alone and run a business. That's how she passed along a lot of her recipes to Vangie.
"I now look back and understand how quickly she had to grow up, because I too had to take on more responsibility as a 10-year-old. I helped her with the cooking and worked in the grocery store," Vangie writes in the book.
Later, as a single parent herself, Vangie bought the family grocery store, which she ran for 17 years until 2003, when she closed it and retired. It had been in business for 50 years.
"Being independent women is something my mother really instilled in me and my sister," Yvette said.
Another thing she learned -- once she had left the house and had children of her own -- was how to cook many of the treasured family recipes and that being busy and having a career was no excuse not to cook.
"There are a lot of everyday traditional dishes that are very simple and easy to make and they don't have a lot of ingredients," Yvette said. "Some people think that traditional Mexican food takes a long time, but my mom and grandmother were very busy women and they made dinner every day."
Despite their respect and love for the tradition food of northern Mexico and the Borderland, Yvette and Veronica have staked out a more modern take in creating Latino-inspired dishes. Part is because they try to make some dishes healthier -- though Yvette denies that all Mexican food is deep-fried and unhealthful -- and also because they like cooking with the seasons and entertaining, which means more appetizers and cocktails.
Veronica, who moved with her husband to Germany last year (both are teachers with the Department of Defense), also has the added incentive of a refrigerator that does not include a freezer.
"The way I shop and the ingredients I shop for have to be used in less than 5 days," Veronica said via email. "This has really changed how I plan my weekly menu. I love the fresh meat markets, fresh bread, which is to die for, and the excellent German beer. I even used a German beer as my main ingredient while slow cooking some ribs."
With the weather turning colder, the women's thoughts have turned to warm, soul-filling food.
"(My mom) used to make us a lot of empanadas," Vangie said. "Also apples, because it's apple time."
There were many fruit trees in her backyard growing up -- apple, peach, apricot, quince and pomegranate.
"She was always putting stuff up," Vangie said.
For Yvette, the fall brings to mind caldo de pollo and her grandmother Jesusita's chile con queso, with its secret ingredient -- Licon Dairy's suero, the whey left over from making asadero cheese.
"Every time I think of this recipe, I think of Thanksgiving," Yvette said. "This was (my grandmother's) contribution every Thanksgiving."
In Germany, where Veronica says they've already gotten their first dusting of snow, "I am currently craving soups and all sorts of comfy food. But at this moment I'm really craving mole with a side of cilantro lime rice."
It was on the menu for a small Día de los Muertos celebration, Veronica says.
All these recipes are included in the "Muy Bueno Cookbook," which incorporates many posts from the blog. The book is beautifully photographed by Jeanine Thurston. It has a glossary of the chiles typically used in the book's recipes and separate introductions from all three women that tell family stories as well as the way they arrived in the kitchen. Silhouette symbols are included with the anecdotes and recipes to identify from whom who the story or recipe comes.
The stories are told with a lot of affection for each other and a respect for the traditional foods of El Paso and northern Mexico. The authors clearly want to share their own traditions and help others to create and maintain their own.
"We just had our first book signing in Denver," said Yvette. "And one of my friends from high school came up to my and told me 'All the abuelitas are gonna come after you for giving away their secrets.' All these recipes are the recipes we grew up with. A lot of people are not cooking anymore and we're trying to preserve these recipes and inspire people to continue the traditions."
Sylvia Ulloa may be reached at 546-6130; firstname.lastname@example.org
Roasted Green Chiles with Buttermilk and Cheese(Rajas con suero and queso asadero)
Mi mama always made this delicious staple to eat with frijoles de la olla. The suero (whey) made this recipe uniquely ours and gives the green chile a creamy tang and perfect saltiness. WE especially love this dish as part of our Thanksgiving menu. In fact, she made this dish for us for our last Thanksgiving celebration with her, two months before she passed away. I roasted the green chiles and she peeled off the skins. She sat in her wheelchair at the kitchen table, where she always loved to be, giving me instructions. I hope your family enjoys this chile dish as much as we do! -- Vangie.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 Spanish yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped, or 1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tomato, chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon flour
13 Anaheim chiles, roasted and peeled, thinly sliced
1 to 2 jalapeños, roasted and peeled, chopped (optional, for extra spice)
2 1/2 cups suero or buttermilk
2 cups shredded asadero cheese
Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a large skillet, add onions and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 2 minutes.
Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly so as not to burn the garlic. Add tomato if using and stir. Add flour and stir for another 2 minutes.
Add the roasted Anaheim chiles and jalapeños and let simmer for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to combine all the flavors together.
Add the suero and bring to a boil. Stir in the cheese. Cover and remove from heat. Allow the cheese to melt before serving. Add salt to taste.
12 to 14 servings
Empanadas de calabazas (Pumpkin turnovers)
At our house we welcome fall with sweet, tasty empanadas made with fresh pumpkin. The pumpkin simmering with piloncillo, cinnamon and cloves gives off a sweet, earthy scent, reminding us that fall has arrived. To this day, whenever I smell cinnamon, it evokes great memories of mi mama baking in the kitchen. During the fall she would request that I bring her a pumpkin so she could make her delicious homemade pies and empanadas. She preferred the striped green pumpkins or the dark green ones, saying they were meatier. But if she could not find those, the orange ones were acceptable. She always made things work - Vangie
Fresh pumpkin filling
4- to 5-pound pumpkin (orange or striped)
2 cups water
3 cinnamon sticks
5 whole cloves
16 ounces piloncillo or 2 cups packed dark brown sugar
3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
Canned evaporated milk or egg white
Cinnamon sugar mixture
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup sugar
Make pumpkin filling: Rinse the exterior of the pumpkin in cool or warm water, no soap. Using a serrated knife, cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the pumpkin seeds. Scrape out the stringy layer of pulp with a spoon. Discard seeds and pulp. Cut pumpkin into 3- to 4-inch slices, leaving the skin on. In a steamer of a large pot, steam the pumpkin in the 2 cups water, making sure to keep the lid on tight, for 20 to 40 minutes until the pumpkin is tender. The pumpkin is ready when your fork slides easily into the flesh.
Let the pumpkin cool. Once cooled, scoop the flesh off the skins and into a mixing bowl. Mash the steamed pumpkin with a potato masher. Strain the cooking liquid in a bowl. Reserve liquid and set the pumpkin puree aside.
In the same large pot, put the reserved liquid from the pumpkin, about 1/2 to 1/4 cup, and add cinnamon sticks and cloves. Bring the liquid to a boil and then remove from heat. Replace lid and let steep for 30 minutes.
Remove spices and add pumpkin puree to the liquid. Add the piloncillo and over medium-low heat; let it melt into the pumpkin puree, stirring occasionally so it will not burn or stick to the pot. The pumpkin puree will turn a dark color with the piloncillo, making it sweeter.
Once the piloncillo has melted, lower the heat to low and let simmer uncovered until all the water evaporates. Remove from heat and allow pumpkin puree to cool down before refrigerating, about 15 minutes.
To help puree set, place in refrigerator for three hours or overnight. If some liquid separates, remove it with a spoon before using so the filling is not watery. Make the empanada dough after your filling has chilled.
Make empanada dough: Mix the first dry ingredients. Cut in the shortening. It's best to use your hands. Add the eggs, milk, sugar and cinnamon (if using). Continue to work in with your hands until you have a soft dough. Split the dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Assemble and bake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Take out half the dough and split it into 12 equal balls of dough.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough balls into small round circles. Place a small dollop of pumpkin filling on one half of each of the dough circles. Wet the bottom edge of the circles with water to help seal the two halves. Fold over the dough to cover filling and seal off the edges with a fork by pressing along the edges. This also makes a pretty pattern when they're baked.
Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Brush each empanada with some canned evaporated milk or egg whites and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Puncture the top of each empanada with a fork to allow steam to escape while baking.
Spray a large cookie sheet with cooking spray, place the empanadas on the cookie sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes on the middle rack of the oven. If after 15 minutes you notice the bottom of the empanadas starting to brown, move the cookie sheet to the top rack and continue to bake for last 5 minutes, until golden brown.
Enjoy the empanadas warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate baked empanadas for a few days. Reheat in a toaster oven or bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes.
Makes 24 empanadas.
Homemade chicken soup (Caldo de Pollo)
This is one of mi mamá's favorite dishes on cold winter days, or when we had a cold or flu. It warms you to the core and soothes those annoying body aches that show up during cold season. She would also make this soup on wash days, so she would not have to spend too much time in the kitchen while she was busy washing clothes. Wash day for her meant a full day of washing clothes with a washboard, hanging them outside on the line to dry, folding them, and finally ironing a pile of clothes. I know a bowl of this restorative soup was the perfect mean after that hard day's work. - Vangie Soza
8 cups water
4 to 6 skinless chicken drumsticks or thighs
1 tablespoon salt
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup white long-grain rice
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 roma tomatoes, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
3 Yukon gold potatoes, quartered
1/3 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon whole safflower petals
In a large (at least 10-quart) pot, put the water, chicken, salt and garlic. Boil for 15 minutes. While the chicken is boiling, in a separate pan, heat the oil over medium heat, add the rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 2-3 minutes, being careful not to let it burn. Add the onion and continue cooking until onion is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add tomato and cook an additional 3 minutes. Add mixture to chicken pot.
Add carrots, celery and potatoes to soup and let come back to a boil; reduce heat. Let simmer until vegetables cook through, about 20-30 minutes. Add tomato sauce, cilantro and safflower petals during the last 5 minutes. Ladle soup, including a piece of chicken for each serving, into bowls and serve with lime wedges, warm corn tortillas and salsa casera.
4 to 6 servings.
Cilantro Lime Rice (Arroz Blanco con Cilantro Y Limon)
I've always loved cilantro lime rice but we never made it growing up. I love the tartness of the lime and the bold flavor of the cilantro. I though to myself I must learn to make this at home. So I went on a quest. I tried several recipes and still didn't quite get the flavor I was looking for. I eventually realized that basmati rice was the single ingredient that made all the difference. So after several trial-and-error sessions in my kitchen I finally got it right. My husband says this is his favorite rice now. The sugar softens the tartness of the lime juice and gives the overall recipe the balance I was looking for. - Veronica
1 tablespoon salted butter
1 cup uncooked long grain white basmati rice
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
Juice of 1 or 2 small limes, divided
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
In a saucepan over low-medium heat, melt the butter. Add the rice and sugar. Mix briefly to coat the rice with the butter and sugar. Add half the lime juice and stir for 1 minute. Add water and salt. Bring the rice to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and simmer until the rice is tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat and sprinkle rice with the cilantro, the rest of the lime juice, and more salt if needed. Fluff rice with a fork. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. Four servings.
Chicken Mole (Pollo con mole)
This mole is a thick, rich, chocolate tinged, spicy sauce. Preparing most moles can be very time consuming, labor intensive, and require many ingredients. Some mole recipes contain 10 different varieties of chile alone. This mole recipe is a fusion of Grandma's and Mom's recipes. More often than not, my Grandma used a jar of Doña Maria mole paste, fresh boiled chicken, a few spices and that was it. Mom on the other hand uses some additional fresh ingredients and only a few tablespoons of mole paste to enhance all the natural flavors and tame the sweetness of the chocolate. This simple flavorful mole gives you the soul of traditional mole without all the hard work. -Yvette.
4 1/2 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 small onion
1 to 2 pounds chicken breasts
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bolillo or small french roll, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and diced
2 California red chile pods, stemmed, seeded and diced
1 large or 2 small tomatillos, husks removed, rinsed and chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, plus more for garnish
3 3/4 cups chicken broth (reserved from boiling chicken), divided
2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1.5 ounces Mexican chocolate (recommended Nestle-Abuelita), coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
3 tablespoons mole paste (recommended, Doña Maria)
2 teaspoons salt
Prepare chicken: In a large pot, heat water, salt onions, chicken and bay leaf. Once it comes to a boil, lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate to cool off, and then shred. Discard bay leaf, reserve broth and onion.
To make mole sauce: Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, bolillo, chiles, tomatillos, tomato, and sesame seeds and saute for 10 minutes, until soft.
Pour half the broth and boiled onion into a blender and half the sauteed ingredients. Add the peanut butter, chocolate pieces, cocoa powder, mole paste, and salt and blend until very smooth. Transfer the sauce to a large skillet.
Pour the other half of the broth and sauteed ingredients into blender. Puree and add mixture in the large skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add 2 cups of the shredded chicken and stir until the chicken is covered with the sauce.
Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring continuously to keep it from sticking to the skillet. Plate some mole on a serving plate and toss a handful of sesame seeds on top for garnish.
7 to 8 servings.
Note: To save time, you can also use 2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken and canned low-sodium chicken broth.