Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Friday, April 16, 2010

My Grandmother's Cooking

My grandmother might be one of the best cooks around but I wouldn't know it. While my brother and I were raised by my grandparents on endless portions of vibrant and savory rice and beans, fresh tostones made from both plantains and pana, fork-tender meat I've never seen anyone be able to reproduce, and chicken that actually had flavor and depth, my grandmother didn't do much more than reheat it in the microwave and serve it to us. All my childhood food memories, and my current lunches on Tuesdays and Fridays, come from one of the best cooks I know: Carmen.

**Three recipes at the end of the post.

Some people seem to be stuck in time. They never age, their clothing choices remain uniform throughout their lives, and the things they cook vary only as far as the ingredients that are bought for them but never in their preparation. That, in a nutshell, is Carmen. While she's seen my brother and I from diapers to college, she seems immune to aging. Her face, weight, posture, and energy have been a constant for all the years I've known her. The only sign of aging you could notice on her is that she's become more talkative.

She has worked for my grandmother since before I was born. Every weekday morning of my childhood (except Fridays), she was dropped off by her family at my grandmother's house and spent the day cooking, cleaning, and chatting with my grandparents until she was picked up in the afternoon. Though I've known her all my life, I have no idea where she's from or where she lives yet she knows me and my family more intimately than most of our own relatives. As a child my little brother would start crying if he wasn't able to kiss her goodbye before she went home in the afternoon.

Carmen can't read or write or drive a car, but she can season steak like nobody else. She can braise meat in a couple of hours and have it be more motherwateringly tender than any restaurant. Her rice and beans are famous-- she has an uncanny ability to prepare rice that is perfectly seasoned, never clumpy or gummy, and somehow each grain seems to split apart-- and the butter-drenched, LP-sized pancakes she makes for my brother and his friends have ruined their own mother's pancakes forever. I can only imagine how the food she makes at home for her own family must taste because for them she makes her own sofrito, uses such delicacies as pig's feet, and is probably subject to the rigorous observations of the person that taught her to cook: her mother.

Getting a recipe from Carmen, though, is about as easy as pulling teeth. She isn't reluctant to share but she has a habit of referring to ingredients as "that" and some of this "stuff." Often she'll forget to mention an ingredient at all and I'll only know to ask her about it because I've just seen her use it. Its like getting piano lessons from someone who can't read music but has an incredible ear. She cooks by muscle memory, by taste and smell. And though she always measures everything by eye and works with the ingredients she has-- sometimes there's ham, sometimes there isn't, sometimes she uses potatoes, sometimes she uses squash-- the consistency of the flavors and the quality of the food is always voodoo witchdoctor good.

Below are three recipes I was able to wrench out of her, vegetarians need not apply (although I do offer some variations).



Cilantro (or cilantrillo as they call it in PR)
Green pepper
Ajíes dulces
Tomato Sauce

Use all or as many as you can find of the above ingredients (if you live in New York, the Lower East Side Market should have the ajíes and the recao, or culantro as its also know, if you live in PR, any supermarket will do). Roughly chop and toss into a food processor or blender in small batches, adjusting proportions and flavors as you go. Use as a cooking base, about one teaspoon per pound of food.

Carne Guisada  (Meat Stew)


1- 1 1/2 lbs of steak tips or stew meat, cut into small bites
1 chicken bouillon cube
2 small cans of tomato sauce
1 teaspoon Sofrito
3 potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

Wash the meat and place in a deep pot, cover with water until its an inch or so above the meat and toss in the chicken bouillon cube. Boil the meat with the lid on the pot until it becomes tender. Add sofrito, tomato sauce, bay leaves, and potatoes, season with salt and pepper (careful not oversalt since chicken bouilon is very salty). Simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes until broth thickens and the potatoes are fork-tender.

Habichuelas Guisadas (The Beans half of Rice and Beans)


1 can pink or small red beans, with liquid
1 small can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon Sofrito
1/2 lb of cooking ham, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes (optional if you're going to a vegetarian version)
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 green or red pepper, chopped
1 chicken bouillon cube (for a vegetarian version, replace with 1 packet of Sazón)
1/2 calabasa squash or 2 potatoes peeled, cubed
Salt and pepper
Cooking oil

In a saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat and add onions, pepper, and ham, cook until soft then add sofrito and allow to cook for another minute or so. Add the rest of the ingredients, including enough water to create a broth. Bring to a boil then cover and bring down to a simmer, keeping the lid slightly ajar. Its ready when the squash or potatoes are very tender, the broth is thickened, and it tastes awesome.


  1. My grandmother corrects: for the beans use 1/3 of the calabasa squash, not 1/2. In her words, "Six one inch pieces... depending on how much you use... I don't know the size."

  2. What a splendid description of Carmen, it couln`t have been better !!! I am one of the privileged persons that have eaten her food.


    Isabel Getty