(by Rose Bianco)
Recently my 24-year-old daughter Phoebe texted me asking about the time of her birth (for a horoscope reading, maybe?). I said I didn’t know and suggested that she call her dad, who was at home and could look up the birth certificate.
"You don't remember?” she asked. ”Is that because I was your second baby?"
A pause. "Just kidding.”
During her teen years, Phoebe was (and still is) a hard-working rebel. She has a few tattoos; she's installing a nose ring now. Aargh. She's silly and funny but also a serious person. While in high school, she expressed such a keen interest in cooking that my husband and I took her to visit a university with a bona fide cooking school (the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State in Louisiana), although her artistic nature prevailed, and she got a degree in art at the University of Georgia. We look a lot alike, and we’re both creative, but she thinks she got her outgoing nature from me and her cynicism from her dad. We love each other beyond measure, and we bond over food.
My husband is of Polish descent; I'm Puerto Rican on my mom's side and Italian on my dad's side. When I make baked goods or certain American-style dishes, I follow recipes, but I never use recipes to cook the foods I learned from my Puerto Rican mother, the foods that I made as a teenager so that dinner would be ready when my mom got home from work. I taught Phoebe how to make some Puerto Rican dishes, favorites like rice, corn, and sausages, served with chicken. I think back on those cooking lessons, just the two of us engaged in something we both enjoyed, no snotty remarks on her part and no aggravated yelling from me. She’s always loved our little kitchen, probably with Spanish music playing in the background, or Prince.
Now Phoebe is grown up and living on her own in New York City. She’s learning to cook herself, but sometimes she calls me for pointers on how to make this or that. Not long ago, she called and asked me to explain how to make spaghetti because her boyfriend was coming over. It was a long call, a step-by-step lesson, reminding me a bit of our old times in the kitchen. I miss having her at home for a thousand reasons, not the least of which is her desserts made from scratch—she made a creme brûlée for my birthday one year that rivaled the best creme brûlée at any first class restaurant.
This year, for the first time in 30 years, I will not be making Thanksgiving dinner. It is a bittersweet thing. I will visit my sister, and it will be wonderful. But I am fearful about our traditions falling apart. My son will celebrate with his in-laws, and Phoebe is not coming home until Christmas. So I've decided we will have Thanksgiving at Christmas. Once again, Phoebe will make the pumpkin pies, and I will turn over the preparation of the turkey stuffing to her, to make sure that she will remember how to do it, for her future Thanksgivings with a family of her own.
Rice, Corn, and Sausages
This dish is dear to my heart. It used to be "make do" food, when we did not have meat, but I still love it, and so does my family.
1 small onion, chopped
5 or 6 garlic cloves
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
large handful of cilantro, stemmed removed
1/4 c. olive oil
2 T. corn oil
optional: 1 oz. salt pork, cut into cubes
2 - 3 T. sofrito
2 cans (4.6 oz. each) Vienna sausages, sliced
4 oz. canned tomato sauce
4 - 8 oz. canned corn
1/2 T. chopped olives
1/2 T. capers
1 t. salt
1/2 packet Sazon seasoning
2 c. short grain rice, washed and drained
2 t. corn oil
1 T. sofrito
4 oz. tomato sauce
1/2 t. salt, or to taste
1/2 T. chopped olives
1/2 T. capers
1 russet potato, peeled and cut into chunks
15 oz. can red kidney beans, not drained
optional: 1/4 t. cumin
optional: 1 bay leaf
optional: 1/4 green pepper, chopped
Place onion, garlic, pepper, cilantro, and olive oil in a blender, and blend until it’s a smooth, thick paste with a little texture.
(Sofrito can be refrigerated for several weeks.)
In a large cast iron pot, heat enough corn oil to film the bottom.
Add salt pork, if using, and sauté until browned.
Add 2 - 3 T. sofrito, plus the sausages with their liquid, tomato sauce, corn, olives, and capers.
Simmer for 5 - 10 minutes.
Add salt and Sazon.
Add the rice to the pot plus enough hot water to cover the rice by about 1/2 inch.
Simmer over medium heat until the liquid entirely evaporates. There will be little holes on the surface of the rice.
Stir the mixture, cover, and continue cooking over low heat for about 40 minutes. Don't mess with it too much or it will get mushy.
To prepare the beans, heat oil in a heavy pan over low heat.
Add sofrito, tomato sauce, salt, olives, and capers.
Simmer for 5 minutes, then add potato, kidney beans with their liquid, and about half a can of water.
Add cumin, bay leaf, and green pepper if using.
Simmer for 1/2 hour, adding water if necessary to prevent burning.