My sister and I were raised in "it takes a village" fashion. My mom was a single parent, so a lot of our after-school time was spent at my grandparents' house or at my godmother's house. My godmother -- who we called Nina -- was a cousin of grandma's.
While my mother was quite strict, we basically had the run of the house at Nina's. She indulged us in nearly every way, letting us stay up late, letting us watch whatever we wanted on television, and letting us eat whatever we wanted. By the time I was 10, I could have in-depth conversations with her about the characters on General Hospital and Young and the Restless.
For reasons that I can never explain, when we were in trouble, my sister Annie and I would be sent off to Nina's house which was the best "punishment" there was. She would ask us what happened, and then pretend nothing was wrong and we went about our day, working with her in the garden, cooking, playing bingo, taking the bus to Newberry's, or watching t.v. together.
In a testament to the innocence of the time (or my innocence), she would send me about a block away to the corner store to buy her cigarettes when I was about 11. She would send me with a note, and they would oblige. "Please allow Jennifer to buy cigarettes for me. Thank you, Armida." I usually had enough money leftover to buy grape flavored Now & Later candies, and then obediently walked back to bring her cigarettes.
While I spend a lot of time talking about my grandparents and their influence in my life and in the life of my family, I have no doubt that I am who I am today in part because of Nina's influence and her constant support. She was always on my side. And magically for two sisters who didn't always get along, she was also always on Annie's side. Nina died when I was 17 and beginning my senior year in high school. It was the first death that absolutely rocked my world.
Recently, mom gave me a copy of my application essay to Pepperdine. And the topic of the essay was going to Nina's after school and having her make caldo de queso for me. Caldo de queso is a very simple Mexican soup. Realizing now how easy it is to make, I find it interesting that it held such magic for me when I was young. It was the process of making it, and helping her chop the onions and cutting the potatoes and learning how to make it for myself. I guess that's the allure of family recipes -- they don't have to be complicated and involved. It can be the simplest dish, but the comfort that lies in the repetitiveness and the flavors that build a tapestry of memories.
Caldo de Queso
This simple soup features potatoes, green chilies, chicken broth and cheese. Other than those base ingredients, the recipe is very forgiving. Truth be told, Nina used to use canned Anaheim chilies, though I now use freshly roasted chilies. Roasting chilies is a very simple process once you get the hang of it. I do exactly as Elise teaches on her blog Simply Recipes -- it's the way I've always roasted them and Elise is a much better teacher than I. I use Yukon Gold potatoes for their ability to stand up in a soup. No need to worry about the heat of the poblano chilies -- they are usually quite sweet. If you live in the Bay Area, try the poblanos from Catalan Farm.
This recipe yields approximately 4 servings.
3 poblano chiles, roasted and cut into small strips.
2 T olive oil
1/2 white onion chopped
4 cups chicken broth
2 medium sized potatoes chopped into 6-8 piece each
sharp cheddar cheese, grated or cut into small cubes for easy melting
1 ear of fresh corn
1 handful cilantro, chopped
1. Heat olive oil in a medium soup pot over medium heat.
2. Add onion, and saute until translucent.
3. Add the chile strips and saute for about a minute.
4. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil.
5. Add potatoes, then return to a boil. Lower flame to bring the liquid to a simmer.
6. Cook until the potatoes are cooked through - approximately 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Ladle the soup into bowls, and add some cheese to each bowl. The goal here is not to create a French Onion soup amount of cheese, rather the goal is to add just enough cheese that it will melt into the broth and become an added dimension to the liquid. It turns the liquid creamy without yielding large, goopy mounds of cheese.
If you like cilantro, you may add some at the end. If you like tomato, add it about 5 minutes before the potatoes are done. Corn adds a summery sweetness to the soup and can be added about 2 minutes before the potatoes are done.
Top photo taken around 1977. From the left that's me, my cousin Julie, my cousin Yvonne, and Nina holding my sister Annie.