I LEARNED AT A VERY YOUNG AGE THAT HAPPILY EVER AFTERS ARE AS DELICATE AS A TEACUP. When it was clear that my mother and father would not hold their short, rocky marriage together, hearts were broken all around. Each of us with our own tender pain. But even as I nursed my childhood wound, I felt most sorry for my father. For years after the divorce I watched him live the lonely life of a bachelor. Then one day he announced that he’d like me to meet his neighbor, a quiet, dark-haired beautiful Mexican woman. It was some time later I discovered that my father had been courting his hesitant new lady-friend for a while, and had even dated other women over the years. But, for reasons I now admire, he kept all of it from me until he realized that Celina had taken his heart.
Those first few meetings between me and my future step-mother were full of the expected nervousness of two women sizing each other up. I was in my late teens and a bit surprised by the development, after so much time had passed, and so many visits where it was just me and my father, going to dinner or the movies. Now there was another woman. She, a widow, came from a devout Catholic family who didn’t really know divorce. And while she was growing fond of my dad, she was uneasy in this delicate situation with his daughter.
Celina’s first language was Spanish, but she did speak English, if not flowingly. I spoke public school required Spanish, not even close to flowing. But little by little, and really very soon, we formed a friendship. My heart would have been stingy and tight not to love Celina, though, because she was sweet and sensitive and she tried so hard. She was the kind of person who, if you told her she smelled nice, the perfume was yours. If you admired her jewelry, she would find a piece for you. She was an expert seamstress, too, and she was always digging something out of her trunk of sewn goods to give me.
Is it mere coincidence that God put so many wonderful cooks in my life? My mother was a great cook, and my father, even in his little apartment kitchen, always mixed together delicious meals for my weekend visits. Now, in a stoke of complete and divine good fortune, I had another maestro of food to bless me. Growing up in Los Angeles I was weaned on chips and salsa, and enchiladas and tacos. After Celina and my father married, though, I was eating and learning to cook from the knowing hands of a woman who didn’t know recipes as much as she knew, by heart and touch, the ingredients and flavors of home. There were the homemade flour tortillas that my father and I waited impatiently for as they came off the comal. There were the huevos rancheros, and the chili rellenos, and the never before imagined tamales. She made, of course, her own chorizo, and to tide me over between visits, would sometimes freeze a batch and ship it off to me. She taught me how to char the skins off chilies, how to peel and seed tomatoes, how to mix masa to cookie batter consistency for tamales.
On one visit she and my father made to Texas, Celina stepped in my kitchen to show me yet another dish—the singular flavor of pickling that is distinct to Mexico. I remember being served little bowls of escabeche whenever my mother and I would go out for Mexican food in LA. Sadly, that wonderful condiment was missing from the Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin. So I watched, that day, in excitement and gratitude, as Celina sliced the carrots and onions and peppers, peeled the garlic, then fried everything. She added bay and peppercorns and salt before dousing the mixture with vinegar and water, and I still remember the heady, biting steam that rose from the pan as she did.
Celina is still in her kitchen, although she no longer wields the knife and spoon as she used to. I watch her and my father together and see the small tendernesses that pass between them still. I see, perhaps more clearly in of the dimming light of their many years, that the most lasting gift she’s given me is her unwavering love of him.
These beets from my garden were calling to me that, even though they were born in Texas, they wanted to be Mexican! Here is my recipe for Beets Escabeche. The beets, of course, are not common in escabeche. However, many vegetables do well with this preparation. You can use cauliflower, green beans, celery. Keep your mind open!
2 cups of quartered raw beets (I used a mixture of Chioggia and Golden beets (red beets will color the whole mixture red, which I didn’t want)
2 carrots, cut in thick slices
About 8-10 chili jalapeño, and one chili serrano
one large onion, sliced in 1/2 in thickness
two heads of garlic, cloves separated and skinned
1 cup of white or cider vinegar
1 cup of water
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of course ground black pepper
4 bay leaves ( I used fresh)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano (you can use thyme also, fresh or dried) but use more if using fresh.
In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil and sauté the garlic until just golden brown. Remove from pan, then add the rest of the vegetables and cook until the onions are completely wilted. Add the water, vinegar, salt, pepper, browned garlic and herbs. Cook until vegetables are barely tender. It’s nice when they still have a little crunch to them. Remove from heat, cool and taste for salt. Store in non-corrosive container. Escabeche will last for several weeks in your refrigerator.