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 reunited in El Paso recently 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 Highlands Ranch, Colo.
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," 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 later 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 traditional food of northern Mexico and the Borderland, Yvette and Veronica have staked out a more modern take in creating Latino-inspired dishes. This is in part because they are trying to make some dishes healthier - though Yvette denies that all Mexican food is deep-fried and unhealthful - and also because they like cooking with seasonal ingredients.
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 who wrote the story or recipe.
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.
For more information, visit muybuenocookbook.com.
Cilantro Lime Rice
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 thought 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.
1 tablespoon salted butter
1 cup uncooked long grain white basmati rice
½ 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. Makes four servings.
- Recipe by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith, Muy Bueno Cookbook