Food for Family – Part III

    Ever since Paula was young, she found herself gravitating to her mother’s kitchen. Outside, where the chickens pecked for bugs and flapped their wings, where birdsong came through clearly from the treetops, where an occasional thud sounded, signaling a falling fruit or two, that outside, that was where she was happiest. Her mother, pleased by her interest in the kitchen, showed her how to make lots of the meals that fed their large family. Starting with the basics, Paula learned to chop onions, even though she cried every time, and she learned to prepare eggs, and then beans. The first pot of beans she cooked came out thick and rich, completely useless for rice and beans, which they loved, but perfect for tortillas and avocados.

    fect for tortillas and avocados. By the time she was thirteen, Paula could prepare meals for her entire family, from fresh baked bread to roasting meats and even the very complicated bollos, tamales and tamalitos that were required for special occasions. Her mother’s pride and joy, Paula inherited her love for cooking and her sheer enjoyment was only compounded by her love for her little brothers. She was the only girl, and as her parents feared, a beautiful girl that any young man would snatch up for marriage. She was sensible, and though she waited until she was nearly seventeen, she chose wisely.

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    Now married, childless, but full of energy, she was the youngest wife in a large clan of Tzib’s. She was happy with her choice of husband, knowing that she was loved, and that her in-laws accepted her. She saw first hand from friends in the village how some mothers-in-law treated their son’s wives like slaves, ignored them, or talked bad about them, both behind their back and in their face. She saw a variety of marriages amongst her female friends, and she observed the Tzib clan, as they did everything together, and she saw happy children, smiling husbands. She saw her mother and father, working hard together, raising all their children, and always showing happiness. The simplest of days would be spent telling tall tales and laughing, eating the bounty of the earth, swinging on hammocks, and always, there was good food, from the simplest ingredients. She wanted that for herself, and with her husband Marcos, she was one step in a future of happiness.

    On Sunday, she woke up as the sunshine streamed through the slats in the window, hitting her face, bathing her in warmth. She stretched like a cat, leaning into her husband’s back for that pleasant morning moment between waking and getting up. As they held each other for those few moments, Paula debated what to prepare for the traditional Sunday lunch. She wondered if she would invite one of her sisters (they were all sisters from day one, even though it was through marriage) to have lunch with them. Then she remembered most of them were occupied dealing with Judith’s newborn baby. Kids were spread around the family for the day as the older sisters took care of Judith and her pretty little girl Lucia. Paula knew a couple of her nieces would come by to play with her, and she smiled at the thought of taking care of children. She had none, but she had faith that she would eventually. Marcos was not like some of the husbands she knew of. He didn’t make demands for children, and so she felt that when she did have his babies, it would be the right time.

    As if sensing her train of thought, he turned to face her, a sleepy smile on his face. It was early morning yet, so there was just no need to get up and go about working. They stayed in bed till nearly eight, with Paula having made her mind about lunch, among other things. Marcos got up with a list running through his mind to accomplish around the house, including catching and killing a chicken for his lovely wife, as well as peeling a few coconuts. Paula dressed for the day, already planning on cooking beans, to prepare for the rice and beans. The chicken would be delicious, browned and stewed with Eloisa’s excellent recado. There were a few blogos (a banana-plantain hybrid also known as Saba Bananas) from the last hand, so those were perfect for frying up. Her backyard garden would have peppers, so her chicken would be extra fragrant and delicious.

    She scrambled a few eggs for breakfast, heating up some leftover flour tortillas from the night before directly on the fire, and she and Marcos ate quickly. Marcos helped Paula heft the large pot of water on the fire to boil, and he went in search of the chicken in the coop. Paula rinsed some dried beans and put it in a pot of water to start cooking, and then she gathered her other ingredients. Salt, black pepper, fresh green peppers, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, garlic, a small chunk of recado, some sour oranges, and rice landed on her ‘counter’ to prepare for the feast she would make. She heard the squawk of a hen as Marcos made his selection and she winced, thinking of the poor chicken being sacrificed for this decadent meal. Nonetheless, she knew that the meal it would provide would satisfy them for at least two days.

    Quickly, Paula chopped an onion into chunks, then she diced a couple of fresh tomatoes, and a clove of garlic. She shredded the cilantro, inhaling deeply as it released its fresh scent. Adding to the freshness was the tart, citrus scent of the sour orange and the sharp tang of sweet peppers as they got sliced and diced. Lunch was definitely on its way to delicious and the pot wasn’t even on. Paula looked up smiling as she heard Carla’s daughters Iliana and Araceli come into the yard. Their cousin Elisa walked between them, beaming at her auntie Paula while she sniffed the air. Paula knew Elisa would be a handy kitchen helper when she grew older. The girls all lined up across from their aunt, watching as she swiftly prepared her ingredients for the chicken that was draining in the grass. Iliana, a pretty twelve year old, offered to help, and it was her job to soak the chicken in the hot water, after which she was to remove the feathers. Araceli offered to help, while Elisa looked on with morbid fascination.

    Paula added more water to the beans on the fire, stirring and checking it for softness. At the first hint of softness, she had to separate the beans for the rice, while the rest would continue breaking down to a thick broth which would be delicious with leftover chicken and hot tortillas or even rice. Marcos came by with some peeled coconut, having cracked the hard shell for his wife. Paula smiled, thinking she had the perfect job for Elisa. She rummaged in her small, spare kitchen and found her grater. Placing it in a bowl, she proceeded to show Elisa how to grate the coconut. Happy to have something important to do, the young girl slowly started grating the sweet white flesh of the coconut, being careful not to grate her knuckles in the process. The older girls giggled as they plucked feathers, and Paula watched on, hoping she would soon have a daughter or son to teach. Sighing, she put some water in a small pot and put it to boil so she could use it for making coconut milk.

    The girls told Paula that their moms were busy playing with the new baby, and feeding Aunt Judith lots of good food to make her strong. The baby was prettier every day, claimed Araceli, and Paula thought there was nothing sweeter. The girls plucked the last feather, and Paula proceeded to remove its entrails, rinsing the cavity with some of the sour orange, and then she cut the chicken into good pieces ready for stewing. The pieces went into a large bowl after its final rinse with the acidic orange, and she added salt and black pepper to the chicken cuts. She took a small nub of recado between her thumb and index finger, and very deftly she rubbed it all over the chicken, painting it a nice red. She rubbed until the nub was gone, and then she added a few chunks of onion and the cilantro. She covered the bowl with a cloth, letting the chicken soak in the spices as she cleared the table, and got rid of the feathers and guts. The older girls helped Elisa with the grating, as she had definitely given up on the suddenly large pile of coconut chunks she had to go through. Instead, she happily followed behind her very nice auntie, watching everything she did.

    Paula determined that the beans were cooked enough for the rice and beans, and so she removed it from the heat while she washed some rice. The girls hurried to finish the coconut grating, and pleased with the amount in the bowl, Paula poured hot water over it, letting it sit and go to work. She layered and secured a clean cloth over another bowl, pouring the hot coconut and water mixture through it like a sieve. Using a spoon, Iliana stirred the mixture, pressing down on it to release as much milk as possible from the coconut. When they lifted the cloth, there was warm coconut milk waiting to be added to the beans soup and rice. Paula decided she needed more, so she poured a little bit more water on the coconut, and again, they pressed and squeezed. To get the last drop of milk, Paula gathered the corners of the cloth and twisted and squeezed, wincing as the hot coconut milk ran through her fingers and into the bowl. Finally, there was enough.

    After putting a little bit of coconut oil to the pot where she would cook the rice, she heated it and sautéed a bit of onions and peppers that she had chopped earlier, and then added the rice. She stirred everything together, and the satisfying sizzle pleased her. Using her large spoon, she added some of the beans to the pot, mixing it through so that there were a lot of beans and soup for flavor. Lastly, she poured in the warm coconut milk, stirring gently. There was a perfect amount, and as she placed the lid on the pot, and left it to cook on a low flame in the corner of the fire hearth, the girls all clapped happily that they got the amount right.

    Another heavy bottomed pot went on the fire, and when it got super hot, she added a tiny amount of coconut oil, just enough to sauté the tomatoes, along with the remaining peppers and onions and the chopped garlic. When the tomatoes had broken down, Paula then dropped in the pieces of chicken, letting them sizzle and release their own fat, perfect for a great stew. The chicken browned and the rice simmered over its low flame. The three young girls cleared the table for their aunt, and using their hands, peeled a few blogos for her to slice up for frying. Paula knew it was naughty, but she went ahead any way and sliced the fruit then tossed it with a tiny sprinkle of salt. Elisa was tasked with checking under the avocado tree for any fallen ripe avocados, and she skipped off to find one or two. Paula stirred the chicken, turning the pieces so they would brown evenly. Eventually, they had browned well, and she placed the lid of the pot on and let the chicken steam and release its own juices.

    She checked on the rice, and seeing that all the liquid had been absorbed, she fluffed it slightly with a fork, noting that there was still a bit of a bite to the rice. More steaming was required, so she sealed the lid once more and let it do its magic. She took another small pinch of the recado and in the bowl where the chicken had been seasoned, she added some water, and slowly melted the paste, creating a bright red liquid that went into the pot of chicken. She stirred the meat some more, allowing it to absorb the liquid and turn a beautifully golden brown hue. While this happened, she fluffed the rice a bit more, and tasting it, closed her eyes and inhaled the coconut sweetness. She removed the pot from the fire and let it sit still within range of the warmth of the fire, but away from it so it wouldn’t scorch. Lunch was setting out to be delicious, and she had three smiling new faces to feed.

    Araceli took charge of cleaning up after her aunt, filling a large tub with soapy water while her older sister filled another with fresh water for rinsing. Dishes were washed, and when they were finished, they cleaned the table where all preparations had taken place. Paula went looking for Elisa under the avocado tree, happy that her nieces were taking care of things. She found Elisa struggling to put several avocados in her makeshift pouch (the upturned skirt of her dress). Laughing lightly, she helped the little girl, easing her burden by taking some in her own hands, and together they walked back to the kitchen, being careful not to drop any of the avocados. When they got back, the girls had already begun making juice. The remaining sour oranges had been squeezed into Paula’s purple plastic pitcher, and sugar was being dumped into it to sweeten the refreshing drink. With both drink and rice finished, Paula tasted the gravy of the chicken, added a little bit of salt to it and let it simmer some more, moving it from the direct heat so she could put her frying pan to heat up. Some coconut oil went in the pan and soon it was ready for the blogo.

    Paula made Elisa move away from the fire hearth so that oil wouldn’t splatter on her, and she proceeded to drop the sliced banana to fry. The salt had created a nice slick texture on the banana, and it crisped as it fried, making a super delicious sweet scent fill the air. She turned the slices over and let them brown on both sides before she took them out to drain on a plate. The last few slices went into the pan and fried as well, and lunch was soon ready. All four of them pulled up some chairs around the table, including one for Marcos, while Elisa chattered away a mile a minute about how much she loved to eat rice and beans with chicken and plantain. The simmering chicken was finally removed from the heat as well, and Paula sent Elisa to go fetch her uncle for lunch. The sun was nearly directly above them, and so lunchtime it was.

    Marcos swung his little niece on his shoulders and carried her back to the open kitchen, depositing her on a chair. After washing his hands, he sat down next to his beautiful nieces, rubbing his hands in anticipation. Paula dished out plates of fragrant rice and beans, adding lots of delicious browned gravy and pieces of chicken. Slices of the fried banana also went on the side, as did fresh and creamy avocado pieces. Marcos got up to get a fresh pepper to accompany his meal, and everyone ate. They talked and laughed while enjoying their lunch, planning on visiting Judith and the new baby after lunch. Iliana reminded everyone that there would be a party soon, to celebrate the birth of Lucia. Again, Paula and Marcos smiled at each other, hoping someday soon, they too would be celebrating as well.

Stewed Chicken:

Serves 8

1 3-4lb chicken, cut into serving pieces, washed and rinsed in lime juice
1 onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Seasoned salt
Black pepper
Recado (1-inch cube, plus ½ inch cube for rubbing on chicken)
Water (for gravy)
1 tbsp oil (vegetable, coconut, olive)


  • place chicken in a bowl and sprinkle with a liberal amount of seasoned salt, and add a bit of fresh cracked black pepper.
  • rub smaller cube of recado spice all over the chicken until it is all dissolved
  • heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed skillet
  • add diced onion and pepper, and sauté until softened and fragrant
  • add minced garlic, stirring often to avoid scorching it
  • place chicken pieces in hot pan in a single layer
  • let brown on one side, then turn pieces to brown evenly all over
  • after chicken has browned well, place lid on skillet and let steam for about fifteen minutes over medium heat, stirring often to prevent sticking or burning
  • in the bowl where you seasoned the chicken, add some water (about 2 cups) and dissolve remaining cube of recado
  • add recado liquid to chicken, and cover and simmer for another 30 minutes, adding salt if/as necessary
  • the gravy will thicken slightly, but if you like your chicken gravy on the thinner side, add more water, adjusting salt/flavoring to taste
  • stewed chicken can be served with rice and beans, white rice, corn or flour tortillas, or even crusty bread
  • enjoy!

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